Honeymoon–Free Short Fiction

After posting my last blog regarding my father and uncles singing four part harmony, I thought more family stories would be in order.  I wrote Honeymoon in college for a fiction writing class. The thing about Honeymoon is it’s a true story—about my paternal grandmother growing up, and how she married my grandfather.  The story is a fictionalized account of actual events. Some came to me as diary entries from Henry and Minnie.  Other parts through family tales told again and again.Unlike almost everything I write, this is not speculative fiction. And yet it is. Years after I wrote it, a friend read this and said, “It’s Cinderella.”  Being so familiar with the story, it hadn’t occurred to me.  However, when I went back and read it to see, she was right.  The story of Henry and Minnie is the story of Cinderella acted out on the great plains of Kansas.

Another aspect here is the Mennonite culture that existed then in Saskatchewan, in Jansen, Nebraska, and in Garden City, Kansas. This culture is gone now, victim of freedom (i.e. a lack of persecution, like forcing these pacifists to join the army), of technology, economics, and time.  So hearken back to what it was like—both Isaac Schmidt and Anna Unruh emigrated to the U.S. from Russia as children in the late 1800s—with their pacifism, work ethic, and the concept of “plain.”  Wear simple clothes and live a simple life, so the physical does not detract from the spiritual.

I still find it amazing that I wrote this so many years ago, and yet, as a more mature author, I re-read this and I think, “Oh, I should change that.”  Then I read it again and think, “No, I shouldn’t.”  All I did here was clean up some commas and the like.  The rest is unchanged.

And so, without further ado, Honeymoon.


Honeymoon

1970

Having been married for fifty years, it seems good that I should write an account of the early years of my life together with Minnie.  Our wedding was different from how such things are done today.  Perhaps you will find the story interesting.

1919

I was twenty-seven years old and had a thousand dollars in the bank.  I felt the Lord was leading me to settle down.  It was around this time that a friend of ours, Jacob Wiebe, mentioned that his sister down in Kansas was married to a man who had a very nice daughter, named Wilhelmina.  He said she was seventeen and unspoken for.

I prayed about her for some time before I finally got out the address Jacob had given me and wrote her a letter.

“Dear Minnie,” I said, “My name is Henry, and I live in Jansen, Nebraska.  I got your name from your uncle, Jacob Wiebe . . .”

She wrote back, and we corresponded for some time.  Minnie and I both prayed about whether the Lord would have us marry, and we even both chose the same verse, separately, to claim as a promise from God.

Then, one time, she didn’t write back.  I wrote to ask her why, but she didn’t answer that letter either.  As I found out later, both of us were very unhappy during that period.  When I finally did get a letter from her she said that she hadn’t been allowed to write.  She said her stepmother had even taken her letters out of the mailbox, so she’d finally snuck out and waited for the mailman.

We decided shortly thereafter that we wouldn’t make any plans to be married until we could see each other.  As soon as I could, I took the train to Garden City, Kansas.  I didn’t really want to leave Nebraska.

1903

It was a warm July day.  The sun shone down on the little farm near the Saskatoon River in Northern Saskatchewan.  Anna Unruh, being with child, was cooking dinner and watching her five children.  Lizzie, who was thirteen and the oldest, helped her mother.  Anna’s husband, Isaac Schmidt, was out tending the fields.  Two-year-old Minnie sat on the kitchen’s bare wood floor, playing with the blocks Isaac had made for her.

Anna smiled at her and then told six-year-old Joel to keep quiet.  The flour tin was empty, so she went to get more.  Brushing back a loose strand of hair left a white spot on her temple.

Without looking, or even thinking, she walked into the storeroom.  For one moment Anna teetered on the edge and then fell.  The cellar door had been left open.  She didn’t even scream.

Lizzie ran to see what had happened.  Her mother lay on the cellar floor, not moving.  Confused and frightened, the girl ran to find her father.

After she woke up, Anna was all right for a few days.  Then the baby started giving her problems so they had to get the doctor again.

The bearded Isaac Schmidt rubbed his hands on his overalls.  The children sat quietly, watching.  It was hot in the house.

The doctor came out of the bedroom wearing his dark suit and shook his head.  “We have lost the baby, Isaac.”  He put a hand on the stricken man’s shoulder. “Anna is not good.  She is bleeding a lot.  We will do what we can.”

“Thank you, John.  We will pray.” Isaac said.

The minutes ticked by in the long night.  In the morning Anna died.  She was buried, along with her unborn child, in the cemetery by the church, across the road from the farm.  Her grandmother, who had survived the Turkestan Trek, was buried there next to her and, later, her parents were buried there too.

1920

I arrived in Garden City on a windy day.  A man named T.H. Wiebe picked me up at the train station and drove me out to the Mennonite settlement, twenty-one miles northeast of town.  All I could see, from horizon to horizon, was short brown grass.  The only trees there at all were near where people lived.

I came on a Tuesday and looked for work and a place to stay, which took the rest of the week.  I didn’t see Minnie until Sunday.  We met at church and shook hands.  She was young and pretty and very shy.

In the weeks that followed I worked as a carpenter and saw Minnie whenever I could, which was usually Sunday afternoon and Wednesday night at church.  I would go over to her house, unasked, because she didn’t dare invite me.  I sat with her in the parlor.

We were rarely alone there for more than a few minutes.  Her stepmother did not want us to get married.  She would come in and have Minnie go do some chore or other so that she wouldn’t be with me.  I would just sit there until she came back.

I found, as we got to know each other, that she was terrified of her stepmother, Justina Wiebe.  The woman wanted Minnie to stay at home until she was thirty to take care of Justina and Isaac.  Justina’s own daughter, however, was expected to marry young.

I told Minnie we would find a way for her to leave.  She would have done most anything to escape.  Her stepmother would have done most anything to keep her.  Soon after that we decided we should be married.

1903

A few weeks after Anna died; Isaac hitched up the buggy and drove over to see his neighbor, Jake Gliege.

“Jake,” Isaac said, once they were seated in the living room. “I don’t know what to do.  I have five children at home and no wife.  I cannot care for them.  I need a wife.  Would you, perhaps, give me your daughter Emma to marry?  She is of a suitable age and unspoken for.”

Jake was somewhat surprised at this.  “Well, Isaac,” he said, “She is unspoken for, but I will have to ask her.  If she agrees I will give my consent.”

Unknown to either of them, the girl had been sitting on the steps, listening to their conversation.  At that point she ran quietly up the stairs and into her room so her father wouldn’t know she’d heard them.

Her father entered soon after. “Isaac Schmidt has asked for your hand in marriage.”

“No, Father.” she said, “He has asked you for my hand in marriage.  I don’t think I want to marry him.”

“He is a good man, Emma.”

“I know.  But I don’t want to marry him.  If he wanted to marry me he should have asked me.”

The girl watched Isaac from the upstairs window as he walked away.

1920

To keep the peace, I asked Isaac’s permission to marry his daughter.  At first he didn’t like the idea, but finally he said it would be all right if we agreed to stay in Garden City and take care of him and his wife in their old age.

Neither Minnie nor I wanted a marriage with strings attached so we decided to wait awhile.  Finally, we told Isaac and Justina that we wanted to be married and that we would think about staying in Garden City.  It was a hard choice for us to make.

We decided to hold the wedding in Harmony School, the settlement’s one room school house, because the church was just a basement.  They had built the church hoping to finish the upper floors later, but they had never had enough money.

Our first problem came up when Minnie had finished making her dress, which was white.  It turned out that she had only one pair of shoes, which were old and brown.  She asked Justina for a new pair of shoes and her stepmother told her that the ones she had were good enough.  Minnie was horrified at the thought of appearing at her own wedding in old brown shoes.

By then I knew more than to say anything to Justina.  I needed to go to town anyway to get our marriage license, so I went down and bought her a nice pair of shoes too.  “Henry, you shouldn’t have!” Minnie said, but she was smiling.

1907

Isaac and his new wife, Justina Wiebe, decided that it was finally time to build a barn on their little Canadian farm.  Isaac had left the children at home for five days without telling them where he was going.  When he returned, he introduced Justina, saying, “This is your new mother.”

After digging out a hole for the barn’s foundation, they, along with their neighbors, set up the forms and poured the concrete.

Justina decided that the concrete was too expensive and that they were using far too much of it, so she went around putting large rocks into the forms.  Isaac knew this would weaken the concrete, but he didn’t want to make waves.  So, waiting until his wife couldn’t see him, he followed her around and took the rocks back out.

1920

A few days before we got married, Isaac and Justina took me to a public sale just down the road.  Minnie had to stay home to get ready for the wedding.  I kept quiet on the way over to avoid trouble.

When we got there Isaac started buying all kinds of harnesses and equipment that he thought we would need to farm with.  Thinking it was some kind of wedding present I didn’t object.  But when it came time to pay for the things, they expected me to do it.  They knew how much money I had.  By then there wasn’t much I could do, so I paid for the equipment.

1917

Young Minnie had been horrified when she’d found out that the family was moving to Kansas.  Her two older sisters, already married, were staying in Waldheim, as were her two brothers.  The trip down from Canada was a long one for her.  She was lonely.

One day, not many weeks after they’d arrived, Minnie came to the dinner table with a large ugly bruise on her arm.

“Where did you get that?” her father asked.

“Mamma pinched me again.” Minnie said.

“Again?  Again!”  For once, Isaac was outraged, “Justina, you will never touch my daughter again!”  And such was his anger that Justina never physically abused Minnie again.

1920

My brother, John Friesen, was the only person from Jansen who came down for the wedding.  Minnie and I were married May 20, 1920.  We got almost no presents whatsoever.  Some bedding and about twelve dollars was all.

We spent the first couple of days after the wedding at Isaac and Justina’s house.  They offered to buy us the quarter section of land across the road from them for us to live on.  Neither Minnie nor I wanted to be that close to them.  We told them we would stay in Garden City if we could rent the place two miles down the road.  It had a well, a windmill, a cattle barn and a small chicken house.  Her parents finally agreed.

On May 24, we got up early in the morning and hitched our best team to the double boxed lumber wagon we’d borrowed the day before.  Then, together, we rode to town, high up off the ground, on that wagon.  The five-hour trip was the longest time we’d had alone together since we’d met.  It was the only honeymoon we ever had.

“Thank you, Henry.” she said.

“You’re welcome, Minnie.”

She was worried about how we would live, so I told her about the thousand dollars I’d saved.  She was very relieved.  But she had been willing to marry me, without ever knowing whether we had any money at all, or how we would live.

We decided that we would spend three hundred dollars that day on the things we needed.  We bought some food and used furniture.  We also bought some clothes for Minnie.  She didn’t have but one or two dresses.

The next day we went over and scrubbed the ship lap floor in the chicken barn.  Then we washed the walls and windows.  After we were finished we moved in what furniture we had.

That night we lay in bed and talked, looking up at the stars through the cracks in the ceiling.  We talked late into the night, telling each other all about our lives up until that day.  We lived in that chicken barn for five years, until I finished building our house.

And now, having been with Minnie for fifty years, I have never once regretted marrying her.