Looking For My Grandmother in “Adventures of a Mennonite”

What happens when you’re desperate for stories but running out of sources? Well, if you’re a Mennonite, you can search for books written by folks you’re related to.

This is definitely reaching. No doubt about it.

I remembered when this book was first published, in 1996. Daniel Heinrichs was my grandma’s older brother. He arrived on the farm to visit her, and the next day this book was everywhere. I was 18 and not that interested in what great-uncle Danny had to say.

Fast forward to my 40’s, and I’m sitting here reading it. Ha!

My motivation was not to learn about uncle Danny. I was thinking that surely he’d include stories about my grandma and great-grandparents, right?

Well… sort of.

Mostly this is about him. Because obviously. I was initially amused by this book because it seemed to me that he may have thought he was the first Mennonite to visit Paris, as he took pains to explain to the Mennonites back home how Paris was in the 1970’s. But maybe I’m wrong. He was just amazed, confused, and delighted by all he encountered, and wanted to write about it. (He called baguettes “famous French stick bread”, which I thought was pretty cute.)

If you read the back, you’ll be under the impression that this book is about Alzheimer’s Disease, as his second wife Nora lived with this affliction and perhaps this writing is his way of trying to make amends for not always being the best support, not always understanding the disease very well. He also talks about teaching in Bloodvein and Oxford House, working for Canada Post, and living in Bobcaygeon.

I found the passage about World War ll and conscription quite interesting. Uncle Danny was fairly pointed in his assessment of Conscientious Objectors: “I could not associate myself with a group that were blatantly lying to save their skins but were not following Christ personally,” he says. I think he’s referring to the question the judges asked: “If your mother is attacked in front of you, will you not defend her?” Apparently an authentic Christ-follower will answer “no”. Whoa. (Ultimately, Uncle Danny simply failed the medical exam because his eyesight was not very good.)

The chapter entitled “High School in Steinbach” was pretty interesting, documenting his time at the Kornelson School. He says that coming from Spencer, 20 miles away (I checked this with my map, it was actually about 15 miles) he was viewed as a country hick. “It was a cruel time,” he shares. But then he delves into the various pranks the boys pulled in school, so it sounds like in the end he had a great time.

Finally, on page 236, I encountered the name I’d been waiting to see: Anna.

He begins: “The spirit of adventure is innate in our family.” It was during the war that grandma began hauling potatoes with great-grandma. I loved reading the words “my sister” and knowing it was my grandma he was talking about. One beautiful story shares this: “What does a young girl do with a large truck in a crisis like this? Mother made a show of heroism and said she was going to pull the truck… with three cords of wood on it.” From what I’ve heard about my great-grandmother, this was typical. I loved reading this story about grandma and great-grandma overcoming a problem.

He writes: “This is the extent of my knowledge of the trucking adventures of these two women, but a full account from them would make interesting reading.”

GAH! Why did I wait until now to read this book? I could have read it when I was living on the same farm site as my grandma and could have easily asked her! Brutal.

One more thing. These pages contain afascinating story about my great-grandma Heinrichs. Entitled “Premonitions”, I had read this just before bed, and got chills. He shares that great-grandmother awoke quite agitated one morning; “She had seen a vision in a dream, it was very real to her. It signified that someone had died.” That afternoon, a telegram arrived. Her sister Gertrude had passed away suddenly while working in a lumber camp in Saskatchewan.

Andrew scoffed when I told him about this, but… I can see it vividly.

I’m grateful for the book that Uncle Danny has left behind. It doesn’t say much about our family, but it’s something and it’s precious. I wish more people would write more books.