The auctioneer nodded as I held up my bid card. The quilt was mine.
A sunburst of three-inch multi-colored vintage-fabric parallelograms, I owned a new quilt, hand-pieced by the women of the Julesburg Mennonite Church. My elation over my winning bid was shared by my sister Susan as we sat on the aluminum bleachers in a fair barn at the Hamilton County Fairgrounds in Aurora, Nebraska. We had met at this Mennonite Central Committee auction on an April Saturday to share our love of quilts and to do some homework. Susan had agreed to help me think about what to write about our mother.
“People want to know that she was as great a mother as she is a great woman in her public life,” Susan said.
I didn’t immediately respond, as I paused to witness an especially fine king-sized quilt raise almost $5,000 for the Mennonite Central Committee.
“Hmmm,” I said, hunting for a pen to take notes on the back of my bid card. “Of course she was a great mother. Just look at her children!”
Susan listened patiently while I mused on the excellence of Katie’s children. James is a technological innovator and businessman. Christine, who died in 2000, was a nurse and writer. Susan is a physician practicing General Internal Medicine. I am a writer and software designer. We have nurtured seven children, and so far, two grandchildren. We have followed our mother’s example of ethical behavior, and positive, energetic involvement in our families and the world.
“By measure of her children, I’ll agree she was a great mother,” Susan said, breaking into my monologue. “But she did not nurture us in a way that was typical of a Mennonite mother of the 1950s and 60s.”
The main thing that was different was that she wrote. I first became aware of this unusual behavior in the mid-1950s, when we were living in the white frame parsonage in Hepburn, Saskatchewan. Slipped in among all the other things Mommy did in a week, sometimes she put pieces of soft yellow foolscap paper into a typewriter, and rapidly tapped her fingers on the black keys. At other times, she tailored clothes for her three girls and herself (I will always be thankful for that beautiful blue dress with the black velvet trim and sparkly buttons). She ironed our clothes, including our father’s starched shirts (he almost always dressed up). She gardened and canned. She baked light, delicious bread in a wood- and coal-fired stove. Visiting church dignitaries and missionaries would roll up their sleeves and tuck their ties into their white shirt-fronts before giving themselves to her chicken soup, sucking every bit of meat off the bones, slurping the homemade noodles. My mother helped me struggle through my math homework and engineered wild Easter egg hunts. She tuned into Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on CBC radio, while we slid around on old woolen socks to polish the hardwood floors. We were proud to hear how she had once won a prize for her handwriting, a medal for being smart, a scholarship to study physics. For a treat, Mother would open her cedar chest and let us look at a watercolor she had painted, her wedding dress, photos of herself as a confident, beautiful young woman. She played the piano. She sang popular songs like “The Happy Wanderer,” and recited Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and other romantic poets: “I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills. When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils…” Oh, I loved my mother. And she loved us. She was always available for questions and confidences. Except—when she was typing at her small desk under the stairs, by a window looking north over the prairie. When she was writing.
My entire memory of my father, Walter William Wiebe, is of a man intensely focused on educating himself to take a role as a religious journalist in the church. I had a feeling that our family was special because our father was preparing to step into this greatness. There was a dark side to this focus on his education. I experienced a chronic and growing family tension around money. I was desolated by his absences when he attended summer school, conferences and church meetings. But I was excited when he said that we were going to move to a place with lots of books, because by the fifth grade, I had read every book in the Hepburn, Saskatchewan public school library, and could finish in one day the two books doled out by the traveling bookmobile.
So we left the parsonage and moved to Virgil, Ontario.
Our family expanded to include a friendly little brother, James.
My father was very ill for a time. The six of us then moved to Kitchener, Ontario. After studying at Waterloo University and finishing his bachelor’s degree, our father moved to Syracuse University in New York state to pursue a master’s degree in religious journalism. The rest of the family stayed behind in our little rented brick house on Bournemouth Street. Mother continued to write articles and joined the Christian Writers Club. Additionally, she worked in temporary secretarial jobs. Because she was gone from home more now, she began teaching us the formulas for making basic foods. Under her direction, we continued to keep ourselves and our home clean and attractive. However, she did not teach us that any of the domestic arts were an end in themselves. For example, we did not quilt, or even consider quilting. Free time was for reading and writing. My sisters and I took the bus downtown to the public library and came home with stacks of exciting, delighting books. There were never any restrictions on what we could read. While my father was dubious whether I would gain anything from reading Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, he let me plow through it. I took a touch-typing course.
I begged for my own room, which Mother created by partitioning a corner of the basement with blankets. Here, a narrow beam of sunlight illuminated a thirteen-year-old girl perched before a small desk, like her mother’s, with a typewriter and a stack of soft yellow paper. I wrote long stories about First Nations’ princesses and lost children; poems featuring dead birds and bare trees. Late at night, when I was supposed to be sleeping, I read most of Dickens under the blankets with a flashlight.
I am looking at a photo of our family, taken in late 1961 in our Kitchener living room. Although we are living on next to nothing, we’re impeccably dressed and coiffed. Mommy holds the baby. Daddy is home from Syracuse for Christmas. We face the photographer solemnly. We are about to change our lives, yet again. For our father is almost done with his education and is about to take the important church position our whole lives have been about, for as long as I can remember.
One year later, in mid-November, 1962, we are living in a drafty rented house in Hillsboro, Kansas. Our father is gone. Months after having achieved his life’s dream, he finally died of that mysterious thing that was growing inside him for many years. Mrs. Walter Wiebe is now a single parent of four children: I am fourteen, Susan is eleven, Christine is seven, and James is three, just days away from his fourth birthday.
We all missed—unspeakably—the vibrant presence of Walter William Wiebe. We didn’t feel like a family any more. But in our bereavement and isolation, our family could not turn to counselors, psychotherapists, or school psychologists, for there weren’t any. We heard Christian platitudes about death. We hid our bewilderment and pain from Hillsboro, our church, and often, even from each other. I cried alone. But we had our Mother.
The week after my father’s funeral, mommy sat down at her typewriter to write dozens of well-composed letters to caregivers, community members, friends, and family. She vividly told the story of our father’s illness and death, carefully explained our circumstances, warmly thanked people for their cards and letters, their gifts and visits. Even in such a time, she had the presence of mind to make carbon copies of her letters, which, years later, she shared with us. The letters reveal a person struggling with great challenges, extremely short of money, yet gracious, determined and scarcely revealing the immense feeling of being overwhelmed. In the letters, as she enters a period of mighty grief for the loss of her beloved husband, she nonetheless appears to be organized, thinking logically, communicating expressively, and in touch with some inner vision of how our lives could be re-ordered to become more efficient and sensible. These are some of the talents Katie used—at last—to create a settled, coherent home for her family. I was greatly relieved when she said our moving-around days were over and that we would stay in Kansas. She went to work full-time. Within two years, we were living in our own modern ranch-style home with a yard, a garage, and large trees. I graduated from Hillsboro High School, and studied two years at Tabor College while living at home. During those five years, I also was participant, support system, and witness of my mother’s approach to single parenting. I had not previously known a single parent, so I had no expectations. I took it for granted that she was only doing what any mother would do if left with four children. Now I see how exceptional she was.
One of her challenges was that as a fatherless family of three girls and a toddler boy, few knew how to relate to us. Our mother felt like “an incomplete social unit.” I saw that we were not invited to visit at my friends’ homes, the homes that had both a mother and a father.
Being urban Canadians, we did not fit into the local culture. The Low German Mennonite Brethren town of Hillsboro, Kansas was all at once more lowbrow, more rural, and worldlier than the Russian-German Mennonite culture we had known in Kitchener, although these Kansas Mennonites had come to America several generations earlier. I walked into school wearing dresses which had been sewn by Mother, with love and skill. But these girls in Hillsboro wore store-bought skirts and sweaters, nylon stockings and high heels, jewelry and makeup. They teased their hair into bouffant beehives. I’d never had a date. Some of the girls here made out with boys; a few were going steady. Our family didn’t even have a television set and never listened to popular radio. But some of my new classmates got up
early to do farm chores before coming to school, singing along to Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline on KFDI, and the Beach Boys, the Crystals, the Shirelles, and the Chiffons on KEYN. They talked about what they had seen last night on The Beverly Hillbillies, Candid Camera, and The Ed Sullivan Show. Nobody had heard of any of the poets Mother had brought into my life. In the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, I had been part of the Mennonite World Conference and a Billy Graham revival, as well as in the audience for the Vienna Boys Choir from Austria. Here in Hillsboro, I was invited to football games, pajama parties, and hay rides.
Because we were different, our family became emotionally interdependent. We turned to our mother for our support, encouragement, affirmation, and friendship, and Mommy leaned on us too; to the point where we became very sensitive to one another’s moods. Mommy sometimes felt despondent and said she was afraid she couldn’t do a good job with us as a single parent. She said to us, “You have no father but our Father in Heaven.” We read an article by Billy Graham which seemed to suggest that it is very harmful for children to grow up with only one parent. Some in the community suggested strongly that Mother should remarry as soon as possible. I coldly told her, “I don’t mind at all if you would ever want to get married again, but the day you did, I would leave home.” Then I felt bad for what I had said and tried hard to make her happy, to behave well, to obey her. I memorized jokes to tell at the dinner table.
I slowly awoke from the fog of my grief to realize with horror that I was now living in a dull town of 2400 persons stuck out in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. As I finished high school, I often felt alone and angry, and almost always unchallenged by my schoolwork. I invented an imaginary friend and became obsessed with boys. I did my chores sluggishly, carelessly. I thought about killing myself. I blamed myself for my father’s death and fantasized about bringing him back to life. I ate too much. I experienced stress-induced coronary artery spasms and chest pains. I began to butt heads with Mother over abstract topics such as existentialism and pantheism, and wrestled with her over the power issues that emerged because I would take care of the children until five-thirty, when she arrived home from work to take back the reins of authority. Once I complained that Jamie was getting spoiled because she wouldn’t discipline him, and I didn’t know how, and she cried. She told me she longed to spend more time with him. Sometimes, Mother and I would clash against each other so hard that we would both wind up in tears. Memories of these times are now still painful to us, especially James, who was so young when he witnessed them.
The other children were more even-keeled. However, Mother had other kinds of challenges with them. For example, Susan had two operations for a ruptured appendix, and Christine became ill with what was initially diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, then systemic lupus erythematosus.
Where should Mother turn for support? What could she offer her children as a way to work with their emotions? What would strengthen our family? Hillsboro offered us narrow resources. The Parkview Mennonite Brethren Church was an emotionally inhibited environment, although some of the members loved us well, particularly John B. and Susie Jost, and P.B. and Hannah Willems. Mother received the gift of their friendship, which gave us all a happy, safe haven where we could relax and be ourselves. However, despite the generous warmth of some of its members, the church in general was not a place to for emotional healing. It also was not a place to wonder out loud about existentialism and pantheism.
To nurture us emotionally and spiritually, Mother re-invigorated our practice of family worship. Every evening after supper, we prayed together and read Bible verses and sections from books like Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest: “Never reserve anything. Pour out the best you have, and always be poor. Never be diplomatic and careful about the treasure that God gives. This is poverty triumphant!” Mother also encouraged us to write and journal, practices Christine and I adopted. By example, she taught us how to see the stories in our lives, and tell them. She thought carefully about the new cultural influences we were encountering, and used her discrimination to make choices about where we would engage and where we would hold firm to our family’s values. She filled in the low-cut bodice of my party dress with frothy chiffon trim. She bought a television set and we watched Star Trek. We attended football games, and afterwards, talked about how silly we felt when we joined the others in cheering out loud.
Mother was often not at home, and when she was, she kept office hours. This was because she was gaining her bachelor’s, and then master’s degrees, while working full time. James remembers how special he felt when she put aside the papers she was grading to give him time and attention. He remembers that his Mom was very protective of her youngest child. “She had a very good mommy radar—she knew where the dragons lay,” he told me recently.
After working for awhile at the same publishing company that had enlisted my father to move to Kansas, Mother became a professor of English at Tabor College. And she continued to write. In the 1950s, her first published articles had been bylined, “Mrs. Walter Wiebe.” Now her work was under her own name: Katie Wiebe. She discussed with us children whether she should include her maiden name in her byline, too. So we witnessed her evolution into the writer, “Katie Funk Wiebe.”
Recently, I found an instructive photo on the website of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. This photo depicts a group of women attending a session of the 1966 Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. The women sit apart from the men in the back rows of the Eden Christian College gymnasium. The year that photo was taken, women around the world were taking a front seat. Indira Gandhi was elected India’s third prime minister. Betty Friedan founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), Roberta Bignay became the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon, Janis Joplin gave her first live concert, and Billie Jean King won her first Wimbeldon singles title. And in Kansas, Katie Funk Wiebe was saying, “women can no longer look for safe, easy roles away from the social and intellectual ferment of our age.” In May of 1966, she attended the Maranatha Christian Writers Conference at Winona Lake, Indiana and returned ready to do something with her writing.
Our family dinners became excited explorations of Big Ideas. Daring questions were asked. For months, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique took the place of honor on top of our bookshelf in the dining room! Mother wrote many articles relating to the liberation of women, inviting understanding by being open about her own experience as a widow on the fringes of Hillsboro, Kansas society. At the same time that she advocated for changing roles for women in the church, she valued the Mennonite Brethren church and looked for ways to broaden her role there. This created both an inner and outer tension, which played out in our family dynamics.
It was a big day for the family when our Mother!!! was invited to speak in the “Big” Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren church (although not from the pulpit). In the church, we four sat near the front, eagerly watching her. She looked poised and beautiful in her dark blue dress, and spoke fluently, with many interesting stories, making complete sense, in words that anyone could understand. I was proud to be her daughter. Then we went home to eat Sunday dinner, a pot roast with potatoes, carrots and onions, which had been slowly mellowing into tender wonderfulness in the oven as she had been speaking. We were all elated. Mother had preached!
“No, children, it wasn’t preaching,” she said, “I didn’t speak from the pulpit, and that’s an important difference.”
“I don’t see any difference,” I said.
She smiled, ruefully.
The phone rang.
We all stopped chewing to listen. She answered buoyantly, but in a minute, her voice lost its confident ring, slowed.
She came back to the table, looking uncomfortable and tense.
She said that the caller—a man in the church—had criticized her sharply for wearing a dress with such a short skirt, just below the knees. She was being provocative, he had said. “It isn’t a thing for a Christian woman to do, sister,” he had chided her. “Bad enough that you stand in front of the church and speak. But in such a dress….”
I wanted so much to comfort Mother, help her feel better.
“He’s weird,” I said, using the nastiest word I could think of. “What difference does it make what you wear?”
Susan spoke up. “You made a very good sermon,” she said. “I could understand every word. That’s the main thing. That guy is crazy.”
“That’s not kind,” said Mother.
“He was not kind to you,” said Christine, softly, and got up from her chair to hug her mommy. Jamie joined them as Susan and I sat stiffly in our dining room chairs, not knowing what to say, angrily looking out the window at the road. I closed my eyes and pretended I was little again, on holiday in northern Saskatchewan, Daddy driving our brown Chevy through piney, rocky landscapes painted by a glowing sunset.
“It’s alright, children,” said Mother. “Let’s not let that man make us bitter. Let’s eat dinner. Then after dinner, Joanna, will you watch Jamie so I can finish grading those papers? Christine, can you work with Susan on your science homework? Then at ten to three, we’ll leave for the play at Tabor College.”
Now the quilt auction was almost over. The late afternoon sky was turning yellow-grey; a storm was brewing. I knew I should get on the highway if I was going to beat the weather. Susan admired a quilt purchased by her friend’s mother, then turned back to me with a summary of our discussion.
“That’s how Mother was,” Susan said. “She gave us the knowledge that we can do hard work. She was telling us: ‘I can do things that are unpleasant, difficult, and tedious. I can do things atypical for my social group, even when I am criticized or misunderstood. I can handle the internal conflict between my need for acceptance and my need to be true to my self and what I am called to do. And I can do those hard things for years.’”
In 1967, at the age of 19, I explored the borders of a wider world as I interned at Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois. In the fall, I enrolled at the University of Kansas. I had been helping with the younger children for so long that I now felt conflicted about abandoning the family and striking out on my own. James coveted my affection and seeing me when I came home from college was very important to him. Christine clung to me emotionally, and was distressed at some of my new behaviors. She was afraid that I wasn’t a Christian any more. She prayed for me and worried about me. Mother drove three hours north to visit me at university, bringing the children, and picnics. She began the practice of writing me a weekly letter, with detailed news, encouragement, support, jokes, and family updates. But despite all that she did, I was temporarily lost to the family and myself. After a year and a half, I dropped out of school and stayed for a few months at the Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers in Wichita, until my son Matthew William was born. Just stating those bare facts does not begin to describe the experience.
In 1970, I launched a commune with my boyfriend, on St. Francis Street in Wichita, blocks away from our friends at the Mennonite Voluntary Service house. Christine worried about letting slip any information about my living arrangements to Mother’s friends in Hillsboro. “I wouldn’t care if my friends knew,” Chris wrote. “But if some of the people in the Parkview church knew there would be a big stink. What kind of a church is that? We put on a front as if everything is just fine. We never really communicate about what bothers us most deeply with the people in the church. We never get past the surface.”
Mother struggled to understand my actions, an unsteady mixture of individuation, rebellion, and stepping in her feminist footsteps. She had written about how men and women in the church “need each other’s support, but not at the expense of one another.” I was not patient enough to work through that struggle in the Mennonite Brethren Church, or in any church, for that matter.
In 1971, at the age of 19, Susan moved to Omaha to go to nursing school; she married a year later. Christine’s illness was diagnosed as lupus and she spent a summer at the National Institutes of Health, then moved into a Tabor College dormitory in September of 1972.
Christine was intrigued by my experiment in communal living. While she was at Tabor she took a trip to explore Christian intentional communities. Mother told Christine that communal living held no appeal for her because she cherished her privacy and independence. Nonetheless, with James as the only child still at home, Mother often told Christine that she was lonely. She also told Christine that she was feeling the pull to write more, but that she was “not willing to stake her financial security on her writing talent.” Christine commented, “I would like her to do what she wants to do.” By April of 1976, Katie Funk Wiebe was writing a book about her experiences as a widow.
At the MCC quilt auction, the grey-haired quilt bidders in the paid chairs at the front of the room were getting to their feet, showing off their purchases, finding their families, debating whether to go back to the food building to get one more paper bag of warm, sugar-dusted, raisin-studded portzelky. The sky was darkening and a stiff wind was rattling the metal roofs of the fairground buildings.
However, I had one more topic to bring up with Susan before we parted.
“When you were young, did Mother ask you if you would take Jesus into your heart?”
“Yes,” she said, “I was around five.”
Christine also told me about how Mother had introduced her to Jesus, not just as an idea, but “as a living Person who is interested deeply in me.”
“For me,” I said, “when I was about six years old, Mother asked me if I would like Jesus to come into my heart. I said yes, not knowing what I was choosing. I remember that she prayed with me, the Saskatchewan prairie wind tossing our hair as we stood in the back yard with our eyes closed and hands folded.
As I grew up, I read the Bible and went to Sunday School, but most importantly, I watched her live, to see how a follower of Jesus did things.”
Mother eventually became my guru, modeling the way, as I strained to live with the difficult consequences of my earlier choices. For example, for many years, my every day was tinged with despair that the Kansas legal system would forever keep me from my son, who had been adopted. Then one day, as a new mother of my second son, David Miguel, and living a hard life in a new city, working ten to twelve hours a day, I realized that I had a key to making things work for me. I decided that when in difficult circumstances, I would ask myself, “What would Mother do?” Mothering my sons David and Zachary, working in the corporate world, writing and expressing myself, and at last, after twenty-seven years, meeting and learning to know my son, Bill, this was my mantra: What would Mother do?
Upon asking this question, I would feel the tears dry on my face, my spine straighten, my brain swing into high gear, my confidence strengthen. Solutions would begin to appear. I would build relationships. Make friends. Think logically. Be gracious. Organize my calendar. Make lists and prioritize. Write letters. Reach out for help. Have faith in positive outcomes. Pray. Persevere. Create a better world. Some of these gifts came more naturally than others. Along the way, I developed my own strengths, and integrated them with these gifts from Mother.
And she’s still ahead of me on the path, my mother. I have gained wisdom by watching how she has managed her aging process. As I approach retirement, I reflect on the style in which she downsized her career, home, and possessions when she still had lots of energy to do it. I learn how to manage loss and change as I see how she responds as one after another dear friend or family member weakens, dies. I see that she grieves and then makes new friends, deepens other connections.
On July 5, 1964, when we were all struggling to learn how to live without Walter William Wiebe, I wrote this prayer for my mother:
Eternal Father of us all, I come unto thee in prayer
for my Mother.
For the rich gifts of life that she has freely bestowed
upon me, I give thee now these words of thanks.
For the measureless gift of physical life itself –
For patience through long nights of illness –
For an understanding heart when my feet stumbled
in finding the true path –
For guidance against shipwreck and for freedom in
which to grow –
For these gifts of a wise Mother I give my thanks to
thee and to her.
Grant me patience and understanding when her
thoughts are not the same as my thoughts.
Lead me slowly though it be, into the larger
wisdom that she has gained from life.
Make me a steady support for her,
in these years of maturing hopes.
In the name of Him who said to his earthly parents,
‘Did ye not know that I must be about my Father’s business?’”
At the age of sixteen, when I wrote this prayer, I had a Mother who was diligent, concerned, questing, wise, organized, gracious, perseverant, driven to express herself in written and spoken word. She still has these qualities, but they don’t define her now as they did then. The Mother I have now is also relaxed and celebratory, with a twinkle in her eye and a ready hug. Katie is now well-known in certain circles, admired, studied. She made a measurable impact on the role of women in the church. Through teaching, writing, and speaking publicly, she has helped people learn how to tell their stories, how to age more gracefully, how to grow spiritually. But these achievements happened out in the world. At home, she is Mother.
This is Chapter 3 of the book, The Voice of a Writer: Honoring the Life of Katie Funk Wiebe, recently published by the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission. The chapter also included several poems by my late sister Christine Ruth Wiebe, which I will post separately to this blog. The book was edited by Doug Heidebrecht and Valerie G. Rempel. The Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor hosted an event May 24 to unveil the book and present it to my mom. The book is available on Amazon.