Mennonite Cobbler: Balancing Faith and Tradition in a Turbulent World

Mennonite Cobbler: Balancing Faith and Tradition in a Turbulent World

by Kenneth David Brubacher


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504953900
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 12/23/2015
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.57(d)

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Mennonite Cobbler

Balancing Faith and Tradition in a Turbulent World

By Kenneth David Brubacher


Copyright © 2016 Kenneth David Brubacher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5049-5390-0



One of my earliest memories is of my brother Freddie and me playing in the sandbox hard by the driveway of the old house on the top of the hill east of Elmira. I was four and he was six. It was a nice summer's day and Mother was hanging out the wash nearby when, for no apparent reason, Freddie – he of the golden hair, brilliant blue eyes, and cherubic countenance – took it upon himself to fling a shovelful of sand at Mother and to cheerfully inform her that she was a bastard.

When the yowling had pretty much subsided, it was determined that Freddie had been put up to this by the heathen Lutheran boys who lived across the road. They had apparently taught Brother Freddie that antics of this nature were signs of endearment that would put him right solid in the affections of his mother.

Everyone knew that these heathen boys' property backed onto the chemical plant, and every day or two, black slag was dumped onto the property adjoining the house of these boys. Rumor also had it that there was a very high degree of probability their property had a poisoned well, and so it was no wonder that these boys behaved in the manner described.

So what did we learn from this? What to take home? Well, for one thing, it was clearly evident that the teachings of the heathen boys across the road were not to be trusted. Also, it was not a good idea to fling shovelfuls of aggregate at one's mother. And, last but not least, it was a seriously bad idea to call into open question the legality of the nuptials of one's maternal grandparents.


Mother's Pet Thistle

Soon after the episode of the flying aggregate, we moved down into the town proper, about a block from the far west side of Elmira. Dad had taken the polio and didn't walk anymore, so he caused to be built a house that was friendlier to a wheelchair.

Looking back on it, ours was a peaceful and quiet neighborhood, and one with many gardens. Every house had at least two, one for vegetables, and at least one more for flowers, with few exceptions.

My mother planted a variety of flowers on the east and south sides of the house. The west side was guarded by large maple trees, so that this and the north side got little direct sunlight. There was, however, a swath of annuals located beyond the shaded grass on the north side of the property separating the lawn from the vegetable garden, featuring mostly marigolds, gladiolas, and evening scented stalk. On certain still nights, it was a delight to inhale the fragrance of those particular flowers.

Most of rest of that substantial back yard was reserved for the vegetable garden. In the Mennonite traditions, in which I was raised, it was pretty much sacrilege to buy something in the store that you could plant or create yourself. This not only applied to food-stuffs, like veggies and such, but also to clothes. Mother was always sewing something for us to wear.

I grew up in the middle of the "war-time houses" – originally subsidized housing for returning veterans of WWII. These were small two-story frame slate-clad homes without basements set on fairly large lots. Ours, on the other hand, was a new house which father caused to be built on a large vacant lot in 1956, on account of him now being in the wheel-chair from the polio. It had wide doors, hard floors, and everything he needed on the ground floor. Needless to say, he did no gardening. That would have been mother's domain in any case, polio or no.

Gardening was serious business. The loudest matter of the year occurred when, each spring, Mr. Sauder appeared with his rotor-tiller to churn the garden into fine soil. He pulled the starter cord on the tiller, which then farted into smoking noisy life to do the honors. When he was done, rows were laid out with stakes and the ball of butcher cord from the drawer in the kitchen. Packages of seed appeared. The lettuce and onions and other salad greens went in first, followed by carrots, squash and the rest. Last was corn – never before May 24 – and even then, one of us boys was dispatched to sit with a bare butt on the soil. If that went ok, the corn was planted. If there was miscellaneous cold-assed yowling and yelping, mother waited for a warmer day.

Our next door neighbor was one Oscar Ritter. He was an older gentleman who doubtless yearned for quiet enjoyment but had to deal with three rambunctious boys. Sort of like a Mister Wilson with three (count 'em, three) Dennis the Menaces next door. He was rather portly, in the manner of retired farmers of the time, and wore farmer's bib overalls, a white shirt, and shabby six-inch work boots made by the Hydro City Shoe Company in Kitchener that he bought from father in our shoe store.

He was a bit shrill by expression and strenuously objected to small boys who, he was certain, went out of their way to make his life miserable. They (we) ran around, laughed, shouted, and played games at all hours until dark. On warm summer's days he sat in his badly screened front porch, fuming, and swatting flies, which were doubtless seen vicariously as small boys in disguise sent by the Lord of the Gardens for his smiting and revenge because, horror on horror, we small boys played games with balls, which inevitably found their way into his garden.

Mr. Ritter's garden was a prize winner. Pretty much the only time he ever ventured from his house or porch was to tend his yard or garden. This he did with fervor only comparable to the single-minded dedication seen today in religious fanatics. Indeed, for Mr. Ritter, gardening was not a hobby or food-stuff necessity at all. It was religion.

Mr. Ritter's garden started every spring same as all gardens. Somebody came with a tiller and chewed the soil into tiny baby bite-sized bits. Then out came the stakes and string to mark the rows. Every seed was personally pressed into the ground with precision only a machinist with micrometer in hand could fully appreciate. Each seed in exactly the depth and spacing required – each seed potato section lovingly placed so the eyes were closest to the sunshine. All rows were staked out with a surveyor's eye. Thus Generalissimo Ritter executed his garden war campaign, with seedling troops to the ready, row upon row positioned in silence, awaiting the command of the sun and the gentle rains of an Elmira Spring to blossom forth, to do the bidding of the Master, He who called life to the dormant, and arrayed all forces of the earth to His good pleasure.

The season waxed, and, under his TLC, Mr. Ritter's garden always prospered. Today, the term for this is "micro-management". Nary a weed escaped excision. Hills of earth surrounding his corn and potatoes manicured just so. The weakest siblings were culled to allow the strongest to flourish. Tomato plants were tied lovingly to carefully selected sticks skewered adjacent to their roots to support the heavy crop to come. All was in order – everything in place and subject to the command of his almighty green-thumb-man-ship.

Throughout the neighborhood, the crops were harvested in their season. Our salad greens were plucked and washed to receive the homemade creamy dressing made from milk delivered daily by Mr. Holling from the Purity Dairy. It was delivered in a covered wagon pulled by an old sway-backed nag that knew the whole route. It stopped at every house as needed (but took several weeks to learn a new stop if one occurred). The milk was meant for our cups at table, but the bottles first passed through mother's hands for the removal of the cream on top, thence to dressings and other creamy delights.

In corn season, mother would put the large pot to the boil, and then several of us children would trail her out into the garden. She peeled aside the husks to determine the ripeness, and, once plucked from the stalk, the corn was shucked on the spot and run back into the kitchen. Then it was put into the pot for corn on the cob, about fifteen minutes from stalk to mouth. With butter, salt, and pepper, that was supper, and it was all we needed or wanted.

Corn was the herald of squash, and squash foretold snows to come. The gardens were by this time pretty much bereft of crop, their spoor strewn about the violated soil awaiting winter. When all the crops were off, a farmer would appear with a spreader loaded with cow manure, which was mechanically distributed over mother's whole garden. The next day a small tractor came to plow it all under, to await the winter blast; sleep, sleep, and awake again the next time the sun sent the icy crusts away, warming Mother Earth, and commencing the cycle once again.

But that's not exactly how it all went at Mr. Ritter's place next door. Indeed, the crops were plucked and put away – nobody really knew where. He lived with his wife, Mrs. Ritter, a grey anonymity of no word or opinion on any matter that anybody had ever heard. We boys were pretty sure she didn't even have a first name. The garden appeared to produce much more food than the two of them could ever consume by themselves. Rarely were any family observed to call, and seldom a visitor. Just the two of them in that old grey slate house with the Insulbrick clad garage, wherein resided the sand-colored car they seldom used. Each Saturday, Mr. Ritter backed it out onto his gravel driveway, washed it with no soap, and then shut it back up into that garage again. Maybe they fed the car potatoes as well. We didn't know.

Each autumn about the time the last of the squash were plucked from their moorings and transported to new digs, a large pile of very rancid pig manure appeared on Mr. Ritter's garden, which was placed on the very edge of his side of the border between us. This location also happened to be almost exactly under mother's wash line.

Mr. Ritter did not get somebody in to spread the manure and plow his garden, he dug his garden each fall by his own hand and put the manure in with a shovel. He did it all himself. Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of this rancid crud was dug from the pile and taken to the digging portion of the garden, allowing the fragrance to flow freely. Not a perfume you could readily peddle downtown. This always took weeks.

In those days the only way mother had of drying clothes was to hang them on a wash line, mostly outside, though there were a few strings rigged up in the cellar. For example, in winter father's white shirts were hung out to basically "freeze-dry" on a sunny day and then were subjected to a repeat performance in the cellar until ready. There were no electric or otherwise driers in the house. Pretty much all laundry was hung outside on that line bordering the two properties.

It shall be further understood that the pig manure Oscar Ritter acquired was not fresh. In point of fact it had been sitting in somebody's manure yard for probably most of the summer and so had become "ripe", to term the matter with great charity. So, when the pile appeared under Mother's wash line, it was not a source of massive rejoicing in the Brubacher household. Only a reader who has donned supposedly fresh clothing that seems to have been washed in pig manure will completely appreciate the matter.

Mother was not by nature a vindictive person, insofar as I could, from a lifetime of observation, determine. Nevertheless, I also learned that if you repeatedly pissed her off, you did so at your peril. It's not that she went out and bought a gun or yelled and screamed or manifested her displeasure in any immediately obvious manner, but eventually she would put the matter in order.

One year when I was enjoying my eighth or ninth summer, I noticed that about a foot inside the property line between ours and Mr. Ritter's gardens, a Scotch thistle started to grow. Normally mother would have commended us boys for its removal to the Thistle Happy Hunting Grounds, but this time was different. She told us in no uncertain terms that this thistle was to be left alone. No plucking, walking over, running over, bumping against, squashing down upon, bouncing of balls thereon, or in any way shape or form were we to disturb the equilibrium and progress of this "Thrice-Blessed Thistle". This was a matter of no small puzzlement to us, but when mother spoke, she Spoke. And beware the wrath of mother when she Spoke.

The summer grew, and the thistle with it. It was a beauty. By mid-June it was 3-foot tall, by July, 4-foot and change. It just grew and grew and came out with wonderful flowers and then pods with crowning glories of purple to make a Scotsman reach for another jar to celebrate the wonder of that solo plant. We also noted that mother actually watered it!

Mr. Ritter was not amused. He admonished mother that, as our place was generally windward of his, if the pods exploded, spoor of that plant would cover his garden, his prize-winning pride and joy. His weeding exertions would treble, if not more, for years to come. It was unthinkable.

All that summer, when Mother was out tending her own garden, Mr. Ritter berated her with all manner of dire tales of thistle infestations and the dangers attached. Could she not please cut down that blasted plant and be done with it?

Mother held her peace for a long while, but then, one time only, so far as I know, she responded. Now Mr. Ritter, just look at that plant. That is one of God's creatures too. It doesn't have to have fur or feathers or fins to be a wonderful creation. Just look at it! Healthy! Strong! Beautiful! And observe all those purple-crowned pods! I'll bet you that the amethysts in the crowns of the Apostles sitting at the feet of Jesus and praising the Lord are not more gorgeous than the purple in those pods!

And besides, Mother calmly let him know that she had heard that the fragrance and aura from the Scotch thistle was a powerful antidote to the odor of pig manure. Every year her wash had a problem with the smell from Mr. Ritter's pig manure, and while she didn't want to be un-neighborly, or interfere with his business, she had to look after the daily needs of her family. So, if she could counteract the problem of the manure in such a simple way, everybody should be in perfect accord in the matter, and wouldn't Mr. Ritter agree? And besides, she said it would appear that pig manure is excellent food for Scotch thistles — simply look at that plant! Well, Mr. Ritter could do nothing but fume and rail against the evils of the inevitable explosions of the pods, and the dispersal of the Thistle Demons throughout his whole garden.

Late in that summer, when those pods looked like they may well explode any day, or maybe even any minute, mother said, Kenny, fetch a six-quart basket and come along out to the garden. There was mother at the thistle, armed with leather gloves and a set of wicked-looking pruning clippers. Then, one by one, and way slower than she would have needed to do it, all the pods of that thistle were clipped and put into the basket while Mr. Ritter did his hoeing at the far side of his garden, pretending not to notice. Then mother carefully placed that osier cage, now full of pods, at the base of the plant, and left the stalk standing.

That autumn Mr. Ritter's manure came from cows – fresh. Not only that, but the pile was placed as far away from mother's wash line as possible.

For Christmas that year, dad bought mother an electric clothes dryer.


Horsing Around

Contrary to popular belief, Mennonites are not saints in black hats: they are humans too. And, being human, there is a smattering of rather human behaviour that wanders by once in a while, especially among the young people. It is understood amongst the Mennonite adults and the Powers That Be that, while young, people need to let off steam. However, the minute they get married they have to toe the line.

Walking along the river one fine Sunday afternoon in summer not so long ago, I chanced upon a group of young Mennonites having a party. The party place was a clearing pretty close to the side road where they had tied up their horses and then dragged their stuff down to the water's edge. They sat on bales of straw and blankets on the ground, partaking of all manner of food from baskets and imbibing fluids that were far away from mother's milk. Except for the horses and the garb, I might just as well have stumbled onto an Italian wedding. There was a boom-box hammering out country and western music to which they were dancing, and several of them were swimming in the nearby swirling pool. This was the first time I ever saw Mennonite co-ed skinny-dipping – quite a sight. When I greeted them in their own tongue, one of the boys replied in English, Buddy, have a beer! It was one of those times when you pretty much shoot yourself for not packing a camera.

Also most every Sunday evening after the chores are done there is an aggregation of teenaged Mennonites in somebody's barn. A clearing is made on the threshing floor and a perimeter of bales of hay or straw are set up. Out comes a fiddle and/or a mouth organ and there is music and sometimes square dancing. Almost always a bottle appears. The festivities can go quite late and nothing is said about the matter so long as the individuals involved are up and about their chores and responsibilities at the appropriate time early the next morning.


Excerpted from Mennonite Cobbler by Kenneth David Brubacher. Copyright © 2016 Kenneth David Brubacher. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Bastard, 1,
2. Mother's Pet Thistle, 2,
3. Horsing Around, 10,
4. Boots and Such, 14,
5. Mennonite Origins, 20,
6. At Johnson's, 27,
7. Barn Raising, 32,
8. Brubacher Origins, 37,
9. Father O'Brien, 41,
10. Black Shoes, 45,
11. Speeding, 49,
12. At Hoffman's, 55,
13. Skunks and Such, 62,
14. Mea Culpa, 69,
15. Books, 78,
16. Uncle Abram, 85,
17. Vampire, 92,
18. MennoTech, 98,
19. Crocs, 103,
20. Trucks, 108,
21. Devotions, 121,
22. DR, 128,
23. Trikes and Bikes, 142,
24. Grampa Bowman, 146,
25. Order of Service, 150,
26. Grampa Brubacher, 155,
27. Money, 160,
28. Cousins, 165,
29. Booze, 170,
30. The Stick, 174,
31. LLD, 178,
32. Stockholm, 184,
33. Magic, 189,
34. Music, 193,
35. Mal de Mer+, 199,
36. Sandwiches, 205,
37. Our Piano Man, 216,
38. Schiteolla Birds, 221,
39. Barn Music, 224,
40. In Fine, 231,
I Introduction, 237,
II Menno Recipes, 238,
III Credo, 241,
IV Geneology, 254,
V Author, 256,

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