My grandparents, Jacob & Lena (Zimmerman) Willems, were step-brother and step-sister in a marriage my family says was arranged by the Mennonite Brethren Church. Grandma's father, Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934), was a widower with 5 children, whose wife, Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905), died soon after the family arrived in Canada (1903) from a Mennonite colony in what is now Ukraine. Grandpa's mother, Elisabeth Bolt Willems (1858-1943), was a widow with 9 children whose husband, Cornelius Willems (1885-1902), died two years after the family arrived in Saskatchewan in 1900 from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the place where the family settled after emigrating from a Mennonite settlement in Crimea in 1875. Jacob & Lena were married in 1909. They moved to Reedley, California in 1919.

There is an even earlier couple important to this history, Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875), Cornelius' parents. Their story reaches back to the early years of Mennonite sesttlement in the land they knew as South Russia, a story of migration from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from Eastern Europe to North America.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Chapter 8: Dinuba, The House on Milsap

                 “Souvenir War Album”: Special Extra Edition of the Dinuba Sentinel” (Nov. 11, 1943):
“Edwin Jacob Willems, son of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob C. Willems, 147 Milsap Ave., Dinuba, entered the navy February 13, 1942, and was sent to San Diego for indoctrination before being transferred to Jacksonville, Fla.  He was assigned to aircraft mechanic of the naval air unit, and is rated as Aviation Machinist Mate second class.  In October 1943, he was stationed at Pensacola, Florida.”
“Frank J. Willems, son of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob C. Willems, of 147 Milsap Ave., Dinuba, entered the army in November 1942.  He first went to Pittsburg, Calif.  From there he was transferred to the Hawaiian Islands where he has been stationed with an anti-tank company as a private first class.”                                                          
When I was very little Grandma and Grandpa Willems lived in a house on Milsap Avenue on the eastern edge of Dinuba.  The house was on the west side of the street facing vineyards that stretched out to the foothills at the base of the high Sierras.  I wasn’t aware of the mountains then, but I do remember the vineyards and citrus trees along the east side of the road.  The houses on that street seemed far apart with fields and orchards separating them.  I have only a dim sense of those other houses though, because when we drove down Milsap I was busy looking for Grandma and Grandpa’s house, one of the white shiplap-sided bungalows set narrow end to the street that one found on farms and in older neighborhoods throughout the Central Valley.   
A long dirt driveway went down the south side of the house all the way to the back yard, and when my dad turned into it, he drove all the way past the house to the back yard where he parked beside the unpainted wood garage.  The car finally at rest after the long drive down from Stockton, we would climb out, gather our things and walk across the packed, bare dirt of the yard, passing by a big chinaberry tree—big that is for a chinaberry, trees whose branches were cut back to the trunk each year or two.  My folks considered chinaberries junk trees because of the stinky, messy beige berries they produced—and they definitely were not my idea of a real tree.  But to me, not only was any tree better than no tree, that chinaberry tree spoke “Dinuba.”  It was homely, but it was green.  It cast welcome shade in the hot summer—plus those stinky berries were fun to squish under toes when I rolled them with my bare feet.
 A screened porch extended across the whole back of the house, a porch with splintery steps and a rusted screened door that squeaked when we opened it.  The porch was deep, full of things that I cannot see when I try to look into its recesses.  I know, though, that somewhere in there, off to the left as we head for the kitchen, is a toy electric stove that got hot enough to actually cook something and a toy electric iron that got hot enough to actually iron something.  These were “pre-War” toys.  War-time toys were cheap things.  The play stoves and irons would only get warm, not hot—not just because of war scarcity, but because of child-safety concerns, for which I had nothing but contempt.  I desperately wanted that stove and iron, which had belonged to my dad’s youngest sisters, Anna Jane and Clara, who were only seven and nine years older than me, but I never did get them.  I think they were eventually given to my cousin Joanne, but am not sure about that.   I do know that was what I was afraid of, that they would be given to Joanne and not me.
The kitchen, the first room we entered when we walked into the house, was a dim room that left no imprint on my memory except for a green electric mixer sitting on a counter top, a shade of green that I immediately think “1930’s” when I see it on pottery and old kitchen utensils.  It may have been a fairly small room, a place not conducive to gathering because we always seemed to go straight through to the dining room, a big room with double windows facing south making it the brightest room in the house.  A large dining room table was placed close to the wall opposite the windows.  Grandma’s big pendulum wall clock hung on the wall opposite the kitchen door, between the French doors that opened into the living room and the wall with the windows.  Underneath the clock was a rocking chair where Great-Grandma Zimmerman sat, a tiny old woman dressed all in black.
I have no memory of the bedrooms or bathroom in that house, just an impression of a door in the back wall of the dining room opening into darkness.  The only other room I can see as I look back is the living room.  This room did not seem as big or as bright as the dining room, but it was still an inviting room, the setting of two long-lasting memories:
In one memory the living room is full of people and laughter.  My folks have brought a lug box of Bing cherries with us from Stockton, and my dad’s sisters are throwing cherries up in the air, trying to catch them in their mouths.  They seem to be having so much fun.  I wish that I were big enough to catch cherries in my mouth. 
The other memory is from a Christmas visit.  It is dark outside.  The only lights in the room are Christmas lights, colored lights shining on the ornaments hanging on the Christmas tree.  One of the ornaments is a funny Santa made of cloth, a skinny Santa with a long coat who hangs from the tree by a string at the end of his pointed hat.  A Christmas tableau is on a table by the front windows—a glittery pasteboard village with lights that shine through colored cellophane windows in the little houses and church.  It is a snow scene, the buildings and little evergreen trees set on cotton wool.  Enchanted, I kneel down, try to enter into that little world with my eyes, pretending that I am tiny enough to live in the village, enter those houses, that steeple topped church.  I tell myself that when I grow up I will have my own little Christmas village.

Grandma, Grandpa and all seven of my dad’s sisters moved into the house on Milsap sometime in the late spring or early summer of 1941.  Helen and Mary were both working, and the younger girls were all in school—Elizabeth, Martha and Rosie were in high school, Clara and Anna Jane in elementary.  A total of ten people lived in that three bedroom house during the three or four years the family lived on Milsap Avenue—all seven of my aunts plus Grandma and Grandpa, as well as Grandpa’s mother, Elisabeth Boldt Willems Zimmermann.  I have a faint memory of my great-grandmother, an old lady dressed in black, sitting in a rocking chair by the windows in the dining room. 
There is no distinct memory of any particular aunt.  My dad’s sisters were simply “the girls”—a hazy collective.  The only time I “see” any individuals is in the back yard.  I am looking down the driveway toward a black car stopped beside the house.  Several of my aunts are standing around it, and one of them has her foot on the passenger side running board.  She is bending over to look into the window and talk to whoever is inside.  As little as I am, I can tell she is flirting, so are all the other girls standing.  There were boys inside that car.
  The girl with her foot on the running board may have been Liz.  She met Marlan Kliewer at an ice cream parlor where she worked during her senior year at Dinuba High School.  She graduated in June of 1942, and they were married the following November.  She says that they rented a little place out in the country, “It was just a shack, but we had such fun!”  She said that their friends would come over on Saturday nights and they would visit and party.  A couple of times those friends put Liz and Marlan’s outhouse up onto the back porch.  The next morning Marlan had to get someone to help him put it back where it belonged.

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copyright: Loretta Willems