What is the taste of amniotic fluid?

1926, Saskatchewan, Canada: my grandmother Anna is on the right; her mother-in-law Susanna is in the middle

My red-haired grandmother Anna Janzen Funk was born March 15, 1895, in Friedensfeld, Sagradowka, southern Ukraine, one of twelve children in a Mennonite Brethren family. The Mennonites were about 18 percent of a German minority of some two million in Russia.  She and my grandfather emigrated to Canada in 1923, and the picture above was taken three years later.

When Anna had just turned 22, in early spring of 1918, she was working as a baker’s helper at Bethania Mental Hospital, near the Dnieper River. The Russian government had collapsed and now the Bolshevist regime was in power, attempting to transform revolutionary theory into soviet reality. Their army (the Reds) had taken over the area, seizing livestock, food, and household goods, killing and razing estates. The White army battled the Reds back and forth across the Ukraine. Also at this time, Russian peasants were vengefully confiscating the Mennonite farms, and, led by Nestor Makhno, participating in massacres against the Mennonites.

Anna’s family had disappeared.

Just a month ago, about 30 Red soldiers had stolen all the extra clothing from the male Bethania Mental Hospital patients. Now it was a Sunday morning, and the revolutionaries were back, warmly dressed, slurping soup in the dining room. As fast as she could slice bread, the soldiers grabbed it. Anna rushed into the spacious, bright kitchen with its tiled floor and huge stainless steel kettles to get a new batch of bread which the kitchen girls had just pulled out, and to ask them to punch down the rising dough and form it into more loaves to be baked.

She heard a sharp knock on the back door of the kitchen.

When she opened the door, she was startled to see two dozen soldiers from the White army, who had been able to cross to Bethania on the frozen Dnieper River.

“Let’s have lunch!” they demanded. What was she to do?

The Reds were having their soup in the dining room at that very moment!

As she stood on the doorstep, the bright sun lighting up her coppery hair, she squinted at the hungry White soldiers, many of them her own age or younger, and rubbed a floury hand over her forehead. She could see that their uniforms and boots were muddy from their scramble up the thawing banks of the Dnieper River.

There’s Anna on the back step at Bethania, the flour dusting her forehead, breath condensing into clouds, facing those hungry, rough young men. Perhaps one of them reminded her of one of her lost brothers. Whatever sparked it, in that moment, she took courage. She used what she had—her bright hair, her confident smile, and her memories of her disappeared family —and spoke.

Grinning, she scolded the White soldiers as if they were her brothers: “Boys, do you think I will let you in the house with those boots! Scrape the mud off completely! Knock again when those boots are clean, and I will give you a nice meal.”

Disarmed, they smiled and cleaned their boots. Anna quickly brought the trays of fresh bread into the Red group, eagerly encouraging them to fill their pockets for later, opened the front door for them and shooed them out. As she saw the last Red soldier’s back going through the front door, she motioned silently to the kitchen girl to let the Whites in for their meal.

I have read that children in the womb can taste what their mother is eating. The food flavors the amniotic fluid. I imagine those days in 1924 when Anna carried my mother, she would have been eating borscht with sour cream, and many other delicious Russian recipes she brought with her to Canada.  But there was another flavor that Anna passed on to my mother — a taste for courage and creativity.

Take courage

Many of the letters written by Anna Janzen Funk to her daughter Katie, my mother,  contained the phrase, “Take courage.”

I have thought of that short phrase often: Take courage. What does that mean? Faced with a blank page, I will take courage and fill it with words.

OK, let’s get serious. What if I make a mistake? I’ve gathered materials about grandma’s life for years; yet I often struggle with getting the facts right!   Can I trust this process of writing?

My red-haired great-grandmother, Anna Janzen Funk, was born March 15, 1895, in Friedensfeld, Sagradowka, southern Ukraine, one of 12 children of Franz J. Janzen (who also had red hair) and Katharina Boldt Janzen. Growing up in a well-developed Mennonite culture, Anna matured into a strong-willed, spiritual, intelligent person. She developed a hatred of crocheting, much preferring to read.  She did not have much time to read, however, as she began working seven days a week when she was 15. When she was 20, on a dark, rainy Sunday, she took the train about 90 miles to her second job. She was going to be a baker’s helper at Bethania Mental Hospital, near the Dnieper River. While she was at Bethania, in February 1917, the Russian government collapsed and the socialistic Bolshevist regime took power. Their army (the Reds) took over the area, taking livestock, food, and household goods, killing and razing estates. Anna’s family disappeared. The opposing White army battled the Reds back and forth across the Ukraine.

So, after that long setup, here’s the story about the importance of creativity, and how critical courage is in expressing creativity. One winter day, about 30 Red soldiers had stolen all the extra clothing from the male hospital patients. Now the revolutionaries were warmly dressed, slurping their soup in the dining room. As fast as she could slice bread, the soldiers grabbed it. Anna rushed into the spacious, bright kitchen with its tiled floor and huge stainless steel kettles to get a new batch of bread which the kitchen girls had just pulled out, and to ask them to punch down the rising dough and form it into more loaves to be baked. She heard a sharp knock on the back door of the kitchen. When she opened the door, she was startled to see a couple of dozen soldiers from the White army, who had been able to cross to Bethania on the frozen Dnieper River. “Let’s have lunch!” they demanded. What was she to do?  The Reds were having their soup in the dining room!  As she stood on the doorstep, the bright sun lighting up her coppery hair, she squinted at the hungry White soldiers, many of them her own age or younger, and rubbed a floury hand over her forehead. She could see that the Whites had added a lot of mud from the thawing banks to their uniforms and boots. Of course!  She grinned as she scolded them, “Please, boys, do you think I will let you in the house with those boots! Scrape the mud off completely! Knock again when those boots are clean, and I will give you a nice meal.”  Truly disarmed, they smiled back at the saucy young woman and began working on their boots. Anna brought the trays of bread into the Red group, encouraged them to fill their pockets for later, and opened the front door for them. As she saw the last Red soldier’s back going through the front door, she motioned silently to the kitchen girl to let the Whites in for their meal.

Now that I’ve written the words, I know quite well that this is not exactly the way it happened. I have left things out—big things, like the Makhnovist bandits. I have made things up, like the dialog. But—I have steadfastly shuffled phrases and sentences like jigsaw puzzle pieces to achieve that moment when I am not only seeing a picture that feels true, I myself am standing beside Anna on the back step at Bethania, close enough to see the flour dusting her forehead, to hear her steady breathing as we stand in the sunlight, facing those hungry, rough young men. I watch with my entire self, to witness her in the very moment of taking courage. She uses what she has—her bright hair, her confident smile, and her memories of her lost brothers—and speaks. The ugliness of war transforms into a homely backyard scenario: big sister telling the boys to clean their boots before coming inside. Anna’s courageous creativity has brought life to the day.

Opportunities for life-giving creativity occur daily. Filling a page with words is good practice.

Joanna Wiebe, May 1, 2007