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Grandma, please tell me a story

Women Walking Together in Faith

Waltrude Gortzen
Nov 01, 2017 | Volume 21 Issue 21

Waltrude Gortzen, pictured with some of her precious family photo albums, represents the B.C. women’s ministry on the Mennonite Women Canada board. (Photo courtesy of Waltrude Gortzen)

Do you remember any of the stories your grandma told you when you were little? I’m not referring to Bible stories, fairytales or super-hero stories, but stories about her life or the lives of other family members? Stories of memories about days gone by.

I had the privilege of having both my grandmas in my life until my mid-30s, and had lots of time to ask many questions. But the stories I remember most vividly are the ones my maternal grandma told me in 1967, when I was a young girl, and she lived in my parental home in Brazil for six months while working on her documentation to emigrate from Paraguay to Canada.

During this time we shared a bedroom. Each evening before falling asleep she would reminisce about the “good old days,” sharing childhood memories with me, such as her father’s very polished boots or the sound of music coming from the grand piano in their formal room.

Today, I wish I’d written them all down and had paid much closer attention. But back then, they were just lovely bedtime stories. However, the seeds of history were planted by my grandma, and for that I am grateful.

Thinking back now, I don’t recall that she ever told me stories about the horrific experiences she and her family endured while living in communist Russia. Or the horrors of the Second World War, fleeing for their lives, becoming refugees and starting from scratch in Paraguay. I’m thinking she didn’t want to scare me. Bless her heart!

Years later, as an older teenager, I had the opportunity to ask my paternal grandma some questions and discovered that both grandmas shared many similar experiences.  But my paternal grandma’s memories carried much more pain, and she preferred not to talk about them.

Currently, still having my sweet mom nearby, I continuously encourage her to write down her memories. She just smiles and says, “Why? Who would want to read them?” More encouragement is obviously needed.

But the questions from the next generations will persist, and answers will be expected. Questions like, “What was it like when you grew up, Oma?” Or, “What did you play with when you were a little boy, Opa?”

So be pro-active! Go! Dig out those old picture albums that we all have stashed away somewhere. They’re fabulous conversation starters and always lead to much laughter and storytelling. Those old albums are treasure troves, inspiring the questions that will make the stories flow.

Why have I become so passionate about telling our stories? The answer is simple. I’m a volunteer at the Mennonite Historical Society of B.C., where I help guests find or reconnect with their heritage.

Knowing and preserving our stories and recognizing God’s guidance in them, gives us a sense of rootedness and belonging. And, most importantly, it encourages us to be grateful for the sacrifices our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents endured as they, by faith, set off on perilous journeys so that we could live in the abundance and freedoms of this country we call home.

Today, I, too, am a grandma. Sometimes I look at my grandchildren and wonder, do I have stories that I should be telling them? I’ve never experienced war, hunger or being a refugee. What do I have to tell? Then I see all my many picture albums and the possible stories within them, including some from my Brazilian childhood, and I think that, yes, I should start practising what I preach!

A young Waltrude (Nickel) Gortzen, right, is pictured with Maria (Enns)Janzen, her maternal oma, while visiting her grandparents in Fernheim, Chaco, Paraguay in July 1966. (Photo courtesy of Waltrude Gortzen)

Mennonite Women Canada


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