Category Archive: Family History

What’s your Family History?

In researching Mennonite history for a novel I’m writing, I found the story of a whole village that escaped Russia through Siberia and over the Amur River to China, from where they went to Canada, the United States, and South America.

This was 1929, when the anti-God Communist government was imposing collectivization. They took property from individuals, leaving them barely able to provide for their families. They arrested and executed or sent to labor camps those who owned a horse or cow, machinery—or taught Sunday school or wrote letters to family in North America or Europe.

My grandfather was a minister/farmer; his family, including my father, was in the last group to receive exit visas from Moscow in 1929.

My grandfather, 3rd from left, back row, before he was married. Photo taken about 1900 in the Ukraine.

Others were desperate enough to escape illegally. One such route was over the Amur River in Siberia into China, and from there to the Americas.

Border guards were constantly on the lookout as the Amur was only about a mile wide at the point they planned to cross to China. Escape attempts were fraught with tension. Leaders tried to time their escapes in mid-day when they thought no sane person would cross the river; later in the afternoon when the guards were less well staffed; in the brilliance of the setting sun which they hoped would blind the guards temporarily; or at shift change between 11 and 12 pm.

The entire village of Shumanovsk (Siberia) planned to leave together–a very risky business with 60 sleighs and 217 people. They had to cross the Amur when it was frozen over. Villagers had been hiding sleighs and goods in their barns in preparation. The leaders knew there were several in the village they couldn’t trust to keep the plans to themselves. So they waited until late one night, then went door to door, knocking softly. “We leave in one hour.”

They approached the two homes of those they didn’t fully trust. “We leave in one hour. You come with us, or not, but we are going.” No time to warn the border guards.

There were some tragedies on the journey–several sleighs broke down and had to be repaired or their occupants shifted to other sleighs while crossing the river; and at least one baby was smothered as his mother tried to keep him from crying out. But the group reached China, across the river, as a whole.

In stories from two sources I read that the group learned later that the two border guards who were supposed to be watching for nighttime crossings were arrested. They were asked why they didn’t stop the group or call for help.

The men’s response was that they saw a large group of armed men around the group and supposed they could not overpower them, so they left them alone. The refugees thanked God for the guardian angels protecting them.

I think in these days we need to hear stories like this. I need them! While many have suffered and still do suffer for their faith, we need to be reminded of stories of God’s deliverance as well. And we need to remember that whatever comes, He will be with us–whether that’s by guardian angels surrounding us or by taking us Home to heaven.

Our pastor reminded us this morning that GOD IS GOOD. His character is good, and He does not change. So whether it’s Coronavirus, divisive politics, or anything else stressing us, we can rely on His goodness, knowing He uses even bad things for His own purposes.

For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Psalm 100:5

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

2019 has been a year of contrasts, from the horrific fires and losses in California to the joy of seeing massive, snow-bathed peaks of the Canadian Rockies. From turmoil within our government, from persecution of people of faith around the world, to the joy of family love and care.

We’ve experienced the joys of first birthdays of a great grandson and a grandnephew, graduations, visits with family and friends.

We’ve experienced loss and concern for loved ones. My ninety-year old aunt fell and is in hospital in Canada–how I wish I could visit her! And I just got a message that my sister-in-law passed away.

We’ve visited family and friends across the country and traveled through the Canadian Rockies, built part of a school in Mexico, worked with third grade children in Kids’ Club, and enjoyed relaxation at the beach. I delighted in a girlfriends’ weekend as well as a meaningful reunion with women I hadn’t seen in 38 years.

Beautiful Botanical Gardens in Virginia
Columbia Ice Fields, British Columbia, Canada

We’ve had the privilege of having Mom with us for another Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, despite her significant loss of hearing and reduced mobility.

Mom with my brother Arnold

I’ve struggled with weight, losing, then regaining some (not all, thankfully!). My Don has remained strong and healthy although he tires more easily than before.

Through it all, God has been faithful to His promise never to leave nor forsake us; and to give us the hope of heaven, as well as a future while we are still on this earth.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Jeremiah 29:11

He has promised to finish the good work He began in us (Philippians 1:6) and so, even when I stumble or fall, I am grateful for this assurance. I am His, now and for eternity.

I’m grateful for you who read and encourage me in my musings, for the privilege of writing, for the research that makes me more and more thankful for God’s faithfulness to my family through several generations as my grandfather took his family, including my father, out of the Ukraine at the end of the Bolshevik Revolution. It was 1929, and about 15,000 Mennonites (conscientious objectors and people of faith, both anathema to the Communist machine) waited in Moscow, praying for exit visas to leave the country and retain their freedom of conscience. Of those, about 5,000, including Dad’s family, were granted visas. The rest? Sent back to their villages, executed, sent to labor camps in Siberia, families broken and separated, never to hear from or see each other again in this life.

So my wish for you is a healthy, meaningful, productive year in 2020, one in which you enjoy and rely on the promises of God; and that you and I will both deepen our walk with Him.

“… being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” 

Philippians 1:6

Happy New Year! God bless us, every one!

Thanks Giving

My third-grade kids were seated around a table in the school gym. I asked questions about keeping promises. Several related incidents in which someone had kept a promise.

Then Erica spoke up. “I promised to be Tracy’s best friend forever, but now she’s not my friend any more.” Erica had confronted Tracy about some behavior and Tracy told her she’s no longer her friend. Matthew, who can be disruptive at times and has a very short attention span, turned to her. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

I was amazed and thankful for his sensitivity and kindness.

I found a poem on the back cover of a book about my heritage: Jacob’s Journey, edited by Barbara and Timothy Dyck. The poem’s author is not named so I assume it is unknown. But it touched me as we think of all who have gone before and prepared the way for the lives, freedoms, and the hope with which we live. I am copying it here.

“Lord, we keep forgetting all those who lived before us,

We keep forgetting those who lived and worked in our communities.

We keep forgetting those who prayed and sang hymns in our churches before we were born.

We keep forgetting what our parents have done for us.

We commit the sin, Lord, of assuming that everything begins with us.

We drink from wells we did not find,

We eat food from farmland we did not develop.

We enjoy freedoms which we have not earned.

We worship in churches which we did not build.

We live in communities we did not establish.

This day, make us grateful for our heritage. Amen.”

SONY DSC

So, as we enter a week when we focus on giving thanks, I am grateful for third graders who have a tender heart toward others, for the children with whom I have the privilege of sharing God’s love and mine.

I am grateful for my forbears, who fought for freedom, who left a country where they could not worship as they chose to establish roots in a place where they could, and I can, worship the God of our fathers.

I am grateful for my husband and family, whose love has challenged, encouraged and sustained me through the years.

I am thankful for you, my readers, who respond and give feedback to my ramblings.

I am eternally grateful for the love of Jesus Christ, which gives me hope, forgiveness, salvation, peace, love, joy … and who will continue his good work in me until he returns or takes me Home.

” …being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 1:6 NIV

For what are you most thankful?

FAMILY GRACE

 

Homemade Noodle Soup, the original comfort food!

Don, Mom and I stepped out of our rental car and looked around to see my cousins, Edith and Brian, hurrying toward us. After big hugs, they helped us unload our luggage and go to Aunt Mary’s place for a wonderful comfort meal of homemade noodle soup, zwiebach (traditional double buns), and berry pie.

Sister Mary, Brother Irvin, and Mom

Several times over the past few months, Mom said, “I wish I could see Mary and Irvin again.” We didn’t know if it would be wise or safe for Mom, at 95, to make the trip from California to Manitoba to visit her sister and brother. But one day I asked Don, “What would you think if we took Mom to Winnipeg this summer?” He responded without blinking: “I think we should do it.” And Mom’s response when I asked what she thought of the idea? “I’d LOVE it!”

So we checked schedules and made plans and packed and flew.

We saw many extended family members. Cousins of Mom, Mary and Irvin’s. Some of my cousins on both Mom’s and Dad’s sides of the family. Each visit was meaningful as we caught up on the seven years since our last visit.

Mom with some of my Froese cousins – delightful meal and visit hosted by Dave and Doreen

Mom sparkled as she responded to questions from her nieces and nephews about what it felt like to move 3000 miles from our Canadian home as a young mother. She enjoyed talking with her cousins, and I reveled in our family’s history and the grace of God. At one breakfast, six of the 21 family members present were ages 91 to 100–all still thinking pretty clearly, albeit a bit slower than in their younger years.

In a rented van, eight of us drove to Winkler, the small town in which I was born. (I don’t remember the event myself!) Finding the home and farm on which Mom, Mary and Irvin grew up led to lots of reflection and reminiscing. Irvin was just five years old when he sang “Please don’t take my sister far away” at Mom and Dad’s wedding. Mary and Herm got married early thanks to me–wanting Mom, who was pregnant with me, to be in their wedding, they moved the date up to avoid a conflict with my entry into this world.

Grosspa Froese’s old home, which looked larger before these two trees grew!

And we drove past some of the homes my family, and our grandparents, lived in, for memory’s sake.

Most meaningful to me was watching as we were together with different groups – 24 at one breakfast, 6 at Tea, 4 or 6 at dinner, 11 at lunch, and 21 at another breakfast – and recognizing the legacy of faith with which my ancestors have blessed me. No, we’re not all of the same conviction, nor are we all at the same place in our faith journeys, but there is a thread of faith and service running throughout the family.

Together were:

  •      Former missionaries

    Breakfast with the Hieberts, Mom’s Mother’s clan

  •      Business and agricultural leaders
  •      Farmers
  •      Teachers
  •      Writers
  •      Financial consultants
  •      Sales persons
  •      Engineers
  •      Christian broadcasters
  •      Caregivers
  •      Philanthropists, and
  •      Folks who volunteer in differing areas of need, from driving cancer patients to appointments to hospital visitations to other kinds of services.

Corporately, we’ve been through the death of loved ones, family breakups, health and personal challenges, and some differences in worldview, but we love and care for and appreciate each other.

Our time together was filled with laughter, sharing, food, exploring, and more food. And when the week was almost up, Mom, Don and I were ready to come home. Having been filled with meaningful times of sharing, worship, and renewed–as well as fresh–memories, it was time to come home to our own responsibilities, local family and friends, and to less rich foods! (Mennonites grew up on delicious carbs like cottage cheese dumplings and homemade noodles with creamed tomato gravy and special double rolls called zwiebach, along with sausage and ham and filling soups …).

And I think of how God led both Mom’s and Dad’s families, along with many others, out of the Ukraine when regime changes threatened not only their way of life, but their very lives: a move that has resulted in what I’ve expressed above along with much more.

I’ve been graced with a relatively intact family, for which I am deeply grateful. But God isn’t limited to one kind of family in His plans for us.

Psalm 68:4-6a tells us to:

Sing praises to God and to his name!
    Sing loud praises to him who rides the clouds.
His name is the Lord
    rejoice in his presence!

Father to the fatherless, defender of widows—
    this is God, whose dwelling is holy.
God places the lonely in families;
    he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy. (NLT)

Your grace may look different than mine. It may be informed by wise choices through the generations; it may be despite choices along the way. But how have you experienced God’s grace through your family history?