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, December 31, 2011

The Apartment on Academy Way

I am not the only one who remembers the house on Academy Way and the apartment over the garage.  My cousin Sunny (Madeline), Uncle Frank's oldest daughter, lived in that apartment with her mom and her little brother, Joe, during WWII while their dad was overseas.  Even though she was very little, she has vivid memories from that time and wrote them up at my request.

The Apartment on Academy Way 

 I remember the apartment that was next to Grandma and Grandpa Willems on Academy Way in Dinuba.                                    

I remember the ice box on the front porch and the splintery wooden flight of stairs that seemed to go on forever. 

I remember the wire fence between us and the Willems grandparents.  I can still hear Grandpa whistling as he puttered in his garden.

Joe and I were very small, and we forgot from one day to the next that we were not allowed on the other side of the fence.  Grandpa’s yard was so much more interesting than the driveway at the apartment.  Inevitably, even knowing the punishment to follow we would turn on the tap in his garden.  I remember trying to wash my doll’s dirty face at the tap when grandpa crept up behind us.  He boxed Joe’s ears so hard Joe went flying.  I could see that retreat would be the best idea and ran for the gate.  I tried to look behind me to see if he was gaining on me and tripped, hitting my head on a wooden post at the gate.  That occasion was the first I remembered seeing the inside of a hospital.  I had to wear a bandage around my head for the longest time.  I believe I was 3 ½ and Joe was 2. 

We never figured out if Grandpa didn’t like the two of us, or children in general.  Joe has always had problems in school with partial hearing loss, and there is no doubt in my mind that this was caused by the numerous ear boxing he received until we moved from there.   I can’t remember ever talking to Grandpa after that occasion.  He never acknowledged me even to say hello.

When we discovered the house across the way was owned by a Chinese family, Joe and I would try to get a look at the children.  The father was a dentist and the house, as I remember was quite nice.  One time Joe and I were standing on a log spying on the house when the boys, a bit older than us, came out at a run and pushed us off the log.  As usual I ran, leaving Joe to his fate. Joe came screaming home with his nose bloodied.  When I was about 12, my mom took me to that dentist to have a tooth pulled, and I remember him charging $2.00 for this.

I remember Liz and my mom sitting on the stairs to the apartment.  Their skirts were pulled up to get some sun, and they were comparing the size of their thighs. They had been talking about their weight and compared their thighs to see who had the worst problem in that regard.  I remember I tore a hole in my overalls.  Mom teased me about being able to see my butt.  I was embarrassed and sat with them instead of playing.


We experienced the first Christmas I can remember at that apartment.  Joe got a tricycle which he promptly rode out the door and down the stairs.  I still remember the commotion, the blood and the tears.  It’s strange to me that we (Joe and I) do not remember the preparations for Christmas, or even the Christmas tree in the living room until Christmas morning.  We were up before Mom and Dad as usual and walked into the living room.  We took one look at all those toys and ran back to bed.  We gathered our courage and went to Mom and Dad to tell them about this phenomenon.  One of my gifts, a doll, terrified me.  Something about that doll scared me so bad that when we were invited to Grandma’s house I took it with me and hid it so I would never have to see it again.  Somebody found it and kindly returned it.  After that I just made sure the doll was face down and out of sight.  I had nightmares about that doll’s face for years.

I remember watching my lovely aunts coming out of Grandma’s house, always dressed beautifully.  They were always kind to us.

I remember mom hanging the wet laundry on the clothesline, singing as she worked.  Mom was always singing as she her daily chores.  One song in particular was the song she and dad had chosen as their own, “Red Sails In The Sunset.”[1]  One day I took advantage of this to climb on top of the counter and get the sugar bowl.  I was eating sugar as fast as I could and dropped the sugar bowl on the floor.  I was caught red-handed and earned a swat for my effort.

I remember when my mom received a letter from the war department, informing her that our dad was missing in action.  For some reason the allotment we were living on stopped, and left us quite destitute until this matter was cleared up.  I still have the letter.  Thankfully our dad was located, having been injured by shrapnel in his back. 

I left a permanent remembrance of myself in that apartment.  I knocked the ironing board over and the flat iron burned quite a dark impression in the linoleum.

Grandma’s front porch was like an oasis.  As long as I was a child it was one of my favorite places to be.  Mom and Grandma often stood and talked, both of them wearing aprons, while we were euphoric at the freedom to be at Grandma’s house on the front porch.

I recently saw the apartment on Academy Way and was struck by how small and shabby it is, and that the stairway is not as long as I remember it.  Grandma’s house had deteriorated to a great extent and brought to mind how neat and clean everything once was.  I always have fond memories of living there, because Joe and I had our mother to ourselves.  She was dear and loving and she was ours.  

Sunny Christensen,
Marion, Kansas, April 19, 2011        

[1] Red Sails in the Sunset” was written by Hugh Williams (1935).