Chapter One"Der G'hort Mein!" "He's mine!"
New Rosedale Hutterite Colony, Western Canada November 1952
My mother, Mary Maendel, rose early Sunday morning and gently pushed back the feather quilt on her side of the bed, careful not to wake her niece, Sarah, who lay motionless beside her. No one stirred in the alcove just a few feet away, where her other nieces, Lena, Katie, Susie, and Judy, were still enveloped in sleep. She collected her clothing from a nearby chair and slipped on her cropped white shirt, or Pfaht; her vest, or Mieder; an ankle-length, gathered skirt, or Kittel; and a pleated apron called a Fittig. Then she quietly proceeded downstairs.
Yesterday was cleaning day on the colony, and the floors and furniture had been thoroughly washed down and wiped. But in a culture where cleanliness and godliness were revered virtues, Mary was determined that today, one of the most important days of her life, the house would be spotless. A bar of homemade lard soap called Specksaften, resembling a square of butter, slowly melted into her pail of hot water, filling it with sudsy bubbles. Down on her hands and knees, she began washing the floors, her deft, young hands moving easily around the Schlofbank, or sleeping benches, filled with children deep in slumber. The soundless movement of her washrag kept time with their breathing, and the house soon responded with the sharp scent of wet wood and wax.
By 7:00 a.m. she had finished her chores. Outside, the wind was tossing the lifeless branches of the old oak trees that separated the colony's neat semicircle of homes from the barns and machine shop.
Through the front window she could see lines of adults and children scurrying over to the community kitchen for breakfast. Bearded men wearing black, homespun jackets and trousers, and women in ankle-length patterned skirts and vests, some still knotting identical polka-dot kerchiefs under their chins, strode purposefully and in single file toward a large central building that drew them together three times a day for sustenance. Young girls in Mutzen (bonnets) and long, flowered dresses, and boisterous boys looking like miniature versions of their parents trailed after them, drawn, it appeared, by some invisible string. To Mary, the scene was as familiar as the sunrise, but to an outsider the setting and period costumes, adopted from sixteenth-century peasants, would have seemed staged, as if the players were on a film set where a centuries-old story was about to unfold.
Peering through the window, Mary could have been taken for an actor waiting for her cue, but this was not a movie. This was life on the New Rosedale Hutterite Colony in southern Manitoba, and the one hundred men, women, and children who lived there were the cast of characters whose lives echoed those of their European ancestors of nearly five hundred years ago.
"Mein Himmel, eilt's! Good heavens, hurry up!" shouted Mary's brother-in-law, Paul Hofer, who was hastening his brood of children scattered throughout the house. Mary's sister, Sana, was the head cook, and she had been up since dawn over in the community kitchen, boiling choice cuts of beef for today's special noon meal and supervising the breakfast of boiled eggs, hot buttered toast, and plates of Schmuggi-soft, homemade cheese sprinkled with caraway seeds.
The thirteen Hofer children brushed past Mary to join the procession, and she shivered as a gust of crisp November air blew through the open front door. On an ordinary day she should have gone with them, but today was an exception. Today was her wedding day. After the morning Lehr church service, she would be making her formal vows of marriage, elevating her status from Diene, a young woman, to Weib, a wife, and increasing her worth and workload in the community.
The twenty-one-year-old started up the narrow wooden staircase to her bedroom, grateful for the seven years of shelter her sister had provided but eager to leave the overburdened household for a place of her own.
Until age thirteen, Mary had lived at the Old Rosedale Hutterite Colony sixty miles to the northeast, where her father, the well-respected Joseph Maendel, was the manager of the largest and most successful colony in Manitoba. It was to him that many other colonies had come for financial assistance. Old Rosedale's prosperity was rooted in its diversity and in its management.
Joseph Maendel had been a shrewd administrator, ensuring that the colony made an enviable profit from its field crops and livestock. In 1931, a devastating drought year for most prairie farmers, Old Rosedale's income was a princely $60,000 from grain and other enterprises. These included 900 hogs, 250 geese, several hundred cattle and sheep, and an apiary that produced 40,000 pounds of honey a year.
His devoted wife, Katrina, was the head gardener and special cook for the sick, but when she died suddenly of a gallstone attack at age forty-five, she left a husband and colony in shock, and sixteen children, including one-year-old Mary, without a mother.
A devastated Joseph Maendel poured out his grief in a letter to his sister-in-law at the James Valley Colony.
Oh dear sister-in-law, it was very, very sad for us to be hit like this. We stared in disbelief as our desperately needed and precious mother lay dead in front of our eyes. Her sister Rebecca cried out loud, "Oh Almighty God, how can you take a mother like that out of this house!" But nothing helped. Our dear mother was in eternity with God. I told our daughters and all the children, "Let's diligently pray to God so that no other calamity should befall us." How sad it would be if I, their father, couldn't be with them anymore either. We hope and beg and pray that the Almighty God will have mercy on all widows and widowers and their orphans.
A year after his wife's death, Joseph Maendel began to write to mature, eligible women and widows from other colonies to secure a mother for his younger children. After a handful of rejections, Rachel Gross, a widow with six children from the Maxwell Hutterite Colony, agreed to marry him, enlarging his family to twenty-two. Despite her best efforts, mild-mannered Rachel simply wasn't able to adequately nurture so many children, and Mary, left in the care of her older sisters, clung to her father, who gave what parental love and grounding he could.
Two years later the blended family was dealt a dreaded blow when fifty-year-old Joseph was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and underwent major surgery in Winnipeg. He was a steadying influence during times of turbulence at Old Rosedale, and his illness threatened the political stability he had worked so tirelessly to forge within the community. As the ravages of the disease drained his energies, Marilein, or "Little Mary," was often turned away from his bedside. One warm afternoon in September, as she was out playing in the bluffs of trees that surrounded the colony, she felt a sudden compulsion to go home and found the adults in an upheaval. "Where have you been?" they cried. "We've been looking everywhere for you!" Her father had wanted to say goodbye to her, but she had come too late. Overcome, the young girl buried her hands in her face and cried.
At age five, Mary was essentially an orphan. In succession, her three adult sisters-Sana, Anna, and Katrina-married, and each time was like losing her mother all over again as she was shuffled off to the care of the next sister. She escaped from her loss during the day when she could run and play in the vast open areas of the colony, and in the late afternoons when she would take a little stick and join the other children in rounding up the community's geese from the riverbank. Each of the ten families at Old Rosedale was in charge of seven geese, and Mary loved to shoo the Maendel geese home so they could lay their eggs in the wooden nests her father had built around their house. She knew each of them by name and could tell exactly which ones belonged to her family.
During the day she was always occupied, but at night, alone in her bed, she couldn't suppress the ache of loneliness that lingered in the pit of her stomach. She longed for her mother and tried to envision her face, to remember the smell of her skin and the safety of her arms. Under her covers, she practiced saying Muetter, or "Mother," out loud to the darkness. But then the tears would start, and every time she cried like that, she'd see a vision of her mother, Katrina, at the end of the bed, holding a lighted candle. Every night Katrina would come to her daughter this way, but the small child became so frightened she couldn't fall asleep. It was only after she willed herself to stop yearning for her mother that the haunting visitations ended.
After Joseph Maendel's untimely death, a change in leadership ignited years of smoldering conflicts within the community. His oldest sons had hoped one of them would replace their father as colony manager, but when they were outvoted by the Waldner and Hofer families, the bitterness escalated until the two factions could no longer live together. In the summer of 1944, Mary's brothers decided to leave Old Rosedale to establish a new colony in southern Manitoba. They named it New Rosedale and took most of their extended families and supporters with them. Thirteen-year-old Mary and her two teenage brothers, Darius and Eddie, became part of their sister Sana's household.
It was from the relative safety of Sana's house that Mary first laid eyes on Ronald Dornn. "Der g'hort mein! He's mine!" she wisecracked to her teenage nieces as they peered out of an upstairs window. She was eighteen years old and had a quick wit and a devilish sense of humor. "We'll tell him you said that!" the girls teased, but she knew they lacked the courage to follow through on their threat. Down below, the wiry frame of a handsome stranger emerged from the colony vehicle onto the sandy soil of the Assiniboine River valley. It was obvious from his square, black hat, lovingly referred to as the "washtub," that he was from the Lehrerleut in Alberta, one of three distinct sects of Hutterites in North America.
The cultural and religious differences between the three groups were minor, confined more to dress code than religious principles. To an outsider the discrepancies would hardly be discernible, but to the Hutterites they were so significant that intermarriage between the groups was rare. The Dariusleut in Saskatchewan were committed to simple buttons on their shirts and jackets, but the Schmiedeleut in Manitoba, which included New Rosedale, considered buttons too flashy, and opted for invisible hooks, eyes, and snaps. The Lehrerleut were the most conservative, insisting the zipper of a man's pants be at the side rather than the front, in case some unmindful man forgot to zip up. All three groups did agree on one thing: pockets on the back of a man's pants were far too worldly. Store-bought pants with "ass pockets" were strictly off-limits.
The new visitor from the Lehrerleut created significant excitement in the community, and people looking out of their large picture windows wanted to know which colony in Alberta he was from, how long he was staying, and why he was here. To the great surprise of no one, Mary's sister had had a hand in orchestrating his visit. Sana Hofer was known to everyone as Sana "Basel," or "Aunt" Sana, and her congenial nature was legendary. No one would think it out of the ordinary to find some new lodger sleeping on a cot in her living room or safely tucked beneath the kitchen table, out of the way of perpetual foot traffic.
Fate had introduced Sana Basel and Ronald in the summer of 1949 at the Rockport Hutterite Colony in Alberta. Her clout as head cook had earned her a once-in-a-lifetime trip to pay a social call to some of the Lehrerleut colonies in the province, including Rockport. Ronald, on the other hand, had spent his youth at the Rockport Colony and had just returned for the first time in seven years to discuss his family's future with the colony minister.
When Ronald confided to Sana that in a few days he would be taking the train back east to an uncertain future, she didn't waste any time rearranging his schedule. "Come for a visit to New Rosedale Colony in Manitoba," she insisted in her charming way. "Give us a call from the train station in Portage la Prairie, and we'll come to get you." Gostfrei Sana Basel was beguiling and had a heart for those whose lives were troubled with ambiguities and indecision. Ronald found himself drawn to the open face and loving manner of this forty-year-old woman who embodied the warmth and caring of a mother and comfort of an old friend. She made him feel cherished, and he hadn't felt that way in a long time. Her compelling invitation was hard to resist.
Once home in New Rosedale, Sana Basel soon received word that her visitor had arrived at the station and quickly dispatched her husband, Paul "Vetter," or "Uncle" Paul, and son Paul Jr. to fetch him. They returned in time for Lunschen, three o'clock lunch, the only time families ate together in their own homes. When Ronald entered the house, Sana Basel's face lit up and she greeted him enthusiastically, pulling out a chair for him and taking his hat from his hand.
"Reinhold, sog wos! Ronald, say something!" Sana said eagerly as she handed the hat to one of her daughters. He was suspected of having heard or seen particular things of interest since he had just traveled across several provinces, and she expected to be entertained. Sana Basel's raised eyebrows were poised for a juicy tidbit of almost any sort, but her visitor proved a disappointment in the gossip department. Ronald preferred to listen rather than be heard and didn't seem to appreciate the fine Hutterite tradition of Tschelli draufschmieren, "adding jam" to an unexceptional story. Some would have called him Maulvoll or "mouth lazy"-too sparing with his words to be considered entertaining-but in the secluded Hutterite world, his mere presence invited curiosity.
The Hofer boys drifted in from their farm chores, and a handful of regulars stopped by to fraternize and to inspect the strange man in the "English" leather jacket and the black lamb's-wool hat. Mary piled gingersnaps and oatmeal cookies on two Dura-Ware plates and placed them in front of the visitor with the steel-blue eyes and thick, auburn hair, neatly parted down the middle. Back behind the safety of the steaming kettle, she noted that he could use a new pair of pants. She watched Ronald dip the tip of his tablespoon into the jar of honey, tasting it before stirring the rest into his hot cup of chamomile tea. She observed the methodical way he tidied the cookie crumbs on the heavily varnished wooden table, cupping them into his left hand and placing them on his plate. Mary secretly wished she could have served him something better. The fresh lemon pies piled high with meringue and Queen Elizabeth cakes portioned out on Thursday, the colony's baking day, hadn't lasted the weekend at the Hofer house. With seven beautiful daughters who attracted their fair share of interest from eligible Buben (young men), Sana Basel's house was always a gathering place, filled with young people who would convene every evening to socialize and sing.
Ronald came for a week and stayed for good. Sana Basel's crowded quarters became his retreat and she a surrogate mother who sympathized with his inner struggles. He lived in a room upstairs with the Hofer boys while Mary lived across the hall, in the girls' room with her nieces. Mary cleaned his room and made his bed every day, but there was never a hint of romance. The only evidence to suggest any concern for his welfare was that she had repaired his tattered pants and left them neatly folded on his bed.
Ronald was consumed with the plight of his father and siblings back in Ontario. His Russian-immigrant parents had joined the Rockport Hutterite Colony in Alberta when he was nine years old, and the family lived there for almost a decade. But when Ronald was seventeen, Christian Dornn had cut his ties with the Hutterite Church, gathered his eight children, and joined a Hutterite-wannabe community in eastern Canada. The mission and the move were disastrous, as the leader turned out to be a dictator who treated the people in his commune abusively and harshly. When Ronald met Sana Basel, he was on a mission to bring his beleaguered family back to the Rockport Colony, but his hopes were dashed when the colony minister bluntly informed him that he and his siblings were welcome, but their father was not.