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, January 21, 2012

How we got to Russia

“Mrs. Lena Zimmerman Willems was born in South Russia in the Firstenland in Syejowka on February 6, 1893, to Rev. and Mrs. H. H. Zimmerman, and departed this life at the age of 70 years, 5 months and 24 days in a Tulare, California hospital.
She came to Winkler, Manitoba, Canada, with her parents in 1903.  In 1906, she moved with her parents to Waldheim, Saskatchewan.  There she was joined in holy wedlock to Jacob C. Willems on February 6, 1909.  This union was blessed with 7 sons and 8 daughters, of which 1 son and 1 daughter preceded her in death.  In 1919, she, together with her family moved to Reedley, California, and has since resided in this community.”                                           (Obituary, 1963)                                                                             
            Grandma Willems was born in Russia and spent the first ten years of her life there.  I learned that when I was a little girl.  Yet even though I loved hearing stories about “the olden days,” I never thought to ask about her childhood or the long trip that took her and her family to Canada, nor did I ever wonder about her having a heavy German accent and German maiden name when her place of birth was Russia.  She was my grandma.  These were simply facts about her.  When I was around her I simply enjoyed her concrete presence.  She lived in her adult world, and I lived in my child-world, a mental barrier we both respected.

Grown-ups moved around a lot, and people took their native languages as well as their children with them.  My mom and dad had both been born in Canada, yet their first language was German, not English.  So it didn’t really seem strange that there should be German people living in Russia who continued to speak German while living there.  I did wonder, though, about whether our family was German or Dutch.  When I was a little girl during WWII, Dad said we were Dutch.  I liked that idea, imagined myself as a little Dutch girl wearing wooden shoes, a long full skirt with a tight bodice and a white cap with wings on the side.  That didn’t square, however, with the fact that Grandma and Grandpa spoke German, not Dutch.  When I asked my mom about this, she said that we were really German and that the reason my dad said the Willems family was Dutch was because of the war.  The Germans were Nazis, the enemy.  Dad did not want to be identified with them.  It must have been well after the war when Mom told me this, probably after Dad began to refer to himself as German during the 1950’s when Germany began to be rehabilitated in the public image.  I reluctantly gave up my Dutch-girl fantasies and began to see myself as German. 

This sense of being “German” stayed with me into my early 20’s when I happened to read a book of Mennonite history.  My husband Ben and I were attending a General Conference Mennonite church in Monroe, Washington, where we then living.  We had become good friends with the pastor, and one evening after dinner at his home we went into the library where I noticed a multi-volume set of books titled Mennonite Encyclopedia.   I was amazed.  I never knew there was such a thing.  I looked through it, read some of the entries, then looked under the name “Willems.”   Yes, there it was.  My family name was in the encyclopedia!  I wanted to know more, and Reverend Kopper, seeing my interest, offered to loan me a one-volume book on Mennonite history that was also in his library. 


That book was The Story of the Mennonites by C. Henry Smith*.   Reading it, I found, to my surprise, that the Mennonite people reached all the way back to the earliest years of the Protestant Reformation in Europe—to Switzerland in the early 1520’s and the reformers called “Anabaptists” because of their rejection of infant baptism. Smith describes these people as the “radical wing” of the Reformation, radical because they insisted upon things we now take for granted as obviously right—individual freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state.  This radical position came from their reading of the Bible.  What they saw in the New Testament was not a state church, but a church that was voluntary, a “free, independent religious organization” composed of adults baptized after a deliberate decision to take on the difficult demands of Christian discipleship, a radical discipleship that took literally the command to love one’s enemies, to refuse to return evil for evil.  That command prevented them from “taking up the sword.”   They refused to take up the sword in the service of the state, they even refused to defend their own lives, or the lives of those they loved—beliefs that were swiftly put to the test.

The first adult rebaptism took place in 1525.  In 1529, an imperial edict ordered “all Anabaptists, men and women, in all the states of the empire be destroyed with fire and sword.”  The Anabaptists were “broken on the rack, thrown into rivers and lakes, burned at the stake, beheaded and buried alive” by Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist governing authorities.  Fifteen hundred of these terrible deaths eventually found their way into The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs’ Mirror, the Mennonite martyrology** compiled in 1660 by Thieleman J. van Braght.  That number is now considered very conservative. Persecution effectively eliminated the Anabaptist movement in much of Europe. Those who survived lived as fugitives seeking refuge wherever they could find it—in relatively tolerant cities like Strasbourg and the estates of nobles who wanted the skills and labor of these hard working, frugal people.  Taking advantage of every toe-hold they could find, these people of radical faith managed to maintain an embattled presence in areas of Switzerland and the lands along the Rhine, in particular, Alsace, the Palatine and the Netherlands.  

 It was in the Netherlands that the scattered movement found Menno Simons, a Dutch priest who became convinced that the Anabaptist position was right and left the Catholic Church in 1536 to begin a work of gathering and giving leadership to the scattered and struggling Anabaptists of Holland and northern Germany.  An effective debater, diligent traveler and voluminous writer, his name quickly became identified with peaceful Anabaptists everywhere.
            The Willems family descends from Dutch Mennonites who found refuge in the Vistula River delta in what is now Poland.  Artisans and farmers, these Netherlanders knew how to turn swampland into productive farms, skills that made them valuable to those who owned and ruled those lands.  Granted protection because of their economic worth, they were allowed to maintain their distinctive beliefs, but were forbidden to take converts or marry into the local population.  Here in the delta, after initial severe hardship in which it is estimated that up to 80% of the first generation of settlers died of swamp fever, they prospered and increased, developing their own distinctive Plautdietsch dialect, carrying into the twentieth century the same family names they brought with them from the Netherlands.  For two hundred years, Dutch was the language of Vistula Mennonite literacy and worship.  Dutch was gradually replaced by German in the eighteenth century when the people of the Vistula delta came under Prussian rule.  Plautdietsch, however, remained the language of home and daily life.

Prosperity and increased population also brought problems.  The presence of large settlements of people who were exempt from military service, yet remained separate and different from those around them, bred resentment among the local population.  Pressure was put on governing authorities, and laws were enacted forbidding Mennonites to acquire more land.  Families could no longer provide farms for all their children, and a landless class developed within the Mennonite community.

Then in 1786, an agent of Catherine the Great of Russia, seeking German settlers for land just north of the Black Sea that had recently been taken from Turkey, approached the Mennonites with enticing offers of free land, exemption from military service, the privilege of self-regulation and financial help in the resettlement process.  In the following half-century about half the Vistula Mennonite population migrated to the steppes of what is now Ukraine.  Here again, in this new land, which the Russian authorities referred to as “New Russia,” after initial severe hardship, they again prospered and increased, building a veritable Mennonite “kingdom” of people originating in Holland, with Dutch names, who had become part of German language culture at the end of the 200-year sojourn in the Vistula delta.  Plautdietsch, however, remained the beloved language of home and daily life.

The Mennonites charter of privileges not only granted them religious tolerance and exemption from military service, it also allowed them to be a separate, largely self-governing people with their own distinctive culture.  Then in the 1850s the reigning czar, Alexander II, began a program of “Russification.”  Pressure was put on Mennonites and other minority groups to assimilate with the Russian population.  New laws seemed to threaten their military exemption as well as control of their schools and communities.  The Mennonites of south Russia began to look for a new land.  They found it in the prairies of North America.  A new migration began.  In the period between 1873 and 1884, 18,000 Mennonites, about half the population of the Russian colonies, left for the virgin prairies of the United States and Canada, taking their Turkey Red wheat and knowledge of dry land farming with them.  There they again, after initial hardship, prospered and increased.  Grandpa Willems’ family was part of that migration, arriving on the ship Nederland from Antwerp at the port in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on the 25th of  July, 1875***.  The Zimmermanns, Grandma’s family, would not take that long journey until 1903.

Over half the population, however, stayed in Russia.  The czarist government, alarmed by the mass exodus of valuable farmers decided to allow the Mennonites to substitute forestry service and hospital work for active military service.  Although, the government insisted that Russian was to be the language of instruction in Mennonite schools, for the most part the Mennonites were allowed to continue governing the internal affairs of their colonies.  The colonies prospered.  New secondary schools and hospitals were established.  Mennonite entrepreneurs built large wheat mills and farm implement factories.
 That veritable Golden Age of Mennonite culture ended abruptly, drastically in 1914 when Russia entered WWI.  All of Russia suffered terribly in the years that following.  War with Germany was followed by civil war that brought anarchy and violence, disease and famine.  In the Ukraine, the Red and White armies fought back and forth across the land.  Soldiers confiscated food and livestock.  Outlaws roamed the countryside attacking farms and villages, raping, torturing, maiming, killing.  Resented for their wealth, suspect because of their German language and separatist culture, Mennonites became special targets, easy targets in the prevailing lawlessness, a situation that intensified with the victory of the Bolsheviks.
In the summer of 1920, Mennonites in North America and the Netherlands concerned about the situation in Russia sent a commission to investigate.  What they found was massive hunger and a land devastated by disease.  Drought had struck the war-ravaged lands, and Russia was in the grip of massive famine, one in which millions of Russians would starve to death before it ended in 1924.  Mennonites around the world organized to get food into the Ukraine, organized soup kitchens, distributed food and clothing, shipped in tractors to replace horses slaughtered for food, provided seed for replanting once the drought ended.
The end of the famine eased the Mennonites’ plight.  They were no longer starving, but it did not end their troubles.  Seen as “kulaks” by the Soviets, their farms were confiscated, the churches and schools were seized, the preachers and teachers arrested.  Mennonite life in Russia was doomed.  All who could escaped—escaped with the help Mennonites all over the world.  Mennonite leaders negotiated with the Soviets to allow people to leave Russia.  They negotiated with government leaders in North and South America to accept the refugees.  Churches raised money to pay for trains and ships to carry the desperate people thousands of miles to the places that were to become their new homes. 
Canada accepted 21,000 refugees, Paraguay 3,000.  The majority of Mennonites in Russia, however, were not able to escape before the Soviets clamped down and refused any further emigration.  The Mennonites who remained in Russia effectively disappeared behind the Soviet wall until the end of WWII when about 35,000 Mennonites followed the German army out of the Ukraine.  Most of them did not make it to safety.  Many died along the way.  Others were captured and sent back.  Approximately 12,000 did make it to Germany and the refugee camps set up by Dutch and North American Mennonite.  Half of the refugees were resettled in the Chaco of Paraguay and Uruguay, the other half in Canada.
       Helena Zimmermann, my Grandma Willems, was born in 1893.  If her parents had not decided to emigrate to North America in 1903, she would have been 21 when Russia entered WWI in 1914.  She would have experienced the famine and terror that descended on the Mennonite colonies.  I and all my Willems aunts, uncles and cousins, sisters and children exist because Grandma’s parents made that fateful decision and acted on it. 

*C. Henry Smith.  The Story of the Mennonites, 4th ed., revised and enlarged by Cornelius Krahn.  Newton, KS: Mennonite Publication Office, 1957 (original copyright 1941).  Direct quotes from pages 45, 13, 163.

            **One of the most famous of the early Dutch martyrs was Dirk Willems.  To learn his story and see a copy of the original woodblock engraving that illustrates it click on the following web address:

            ***Passenger list given in Brothers in Deed to Brothers in Need: A Scrapbook about Mennonite Immigrants from Russia 1870-1885, compiled and edited by Clarence Hiebert..  Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1974 (private printing), p. 246.

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Copyright: Loretta Willems, 2012

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Grandma & Grandpa

                There is a photograph of Grandma and Grandpa Willems in a small album of family photos that I put together back when I was in my early twenties.    The picture was shot by my dad in the kitchen of the house on Academy Way.  Grandma stands at the sink peeling a potato, her face turned towards the camera.  She wears glasses; her silver white hair is combed back from her high forehead.  A dark green apron is tied over her dress, which is black with three-quarter length sleeves and black and white-checked cuffs.  Grandpa stands a bit behind her.  He wears a long-sleeved plaid shirt and khaki pants held up by both a belt and suspenders.  He stands with shoulders held high, arms hanging straight down.  His lips curve in a slight smile, but his eyes avoid the camera, look off to the right.  He looks as if my father has just told him, “Dad, stand behind Mom so I can get picture of both of you.”  

                The date stamped on the photo is July 1, 1957.  Grandma was 64 then, Grandpa, a month away from his 74th birthday.  I was nineteen then, married and living in Greenville, South Carolina, with my airman husband, Ben, and my baby girl, Renee. I only saw Grandma and Grandpa few times after my parents moved our family to Phoenix in April of 1954, yet this photo captures exactly how I remember them.  When I think of Grandpa, I see him in that plaid shirt and those khaki pants held up by both a belt and suspenders.  When I think of Grandma I see white hair and high forehead.  And almost always I think of them in that kitchen with the ox-blood linoleum counters and a sink with the black cast-iron showing through the worn enamel.


My first memory of Grandma, however, is from a time long before 1957.  The family was living on Milsap at the time, so it must have been around 1943-1944. I do not actually “see” what she looks like in that memory. There is just a sense of her talking to my mom and smiling.  We are in the dining room, a big, light-filled room with lots of people standing around and talking.  The dining room table is pushed to the side, covered with cups of coffee and tea on saucers.  I loved tea and had asked my mom if I could have some.  She said, yes.  I took a cup, put sugar in it, tried to drink it.  It tasted funny so I put in more sugar.  It still tasted funny, so I put in some more sugar.  It still tasted funny so I put in some more sugar.  After a bit, my mom came over and said that Grandma told her I’d taken a cup of coffee, not tea.  I’ve remembered this scene all my life, but why, I have no idea.  There is no memory of feeling at all embarrassed or humiliated by making a mistake and finding out that the adults found it amusing.  What dominates is simply a sense of Grandma as a smiling presence who looked at me and found what she saw both amusing and likeable.  That feeling about Grandma continued all my life.  It is the sense of her, of who she was, that I still carry with me.

                The next memory of Grandma is in the kitchen of the house on Academy Way, the house where she and Grandpa spent the rest of their lives. Grandma is sitting at her sewing machine in front of the kitchen windows next to the back door sewing silk blouses cut from the fabric in a discarded parachute.[1]  This must have been around 1944 because WWII was still going on, and silk had disappeared from the shelves, replaced by rayon.  Real silk, delicious silk, was the stuff of dreams.  I remember my aunts’ excitement as Grandma sewed, remember how pretty the blouses were when they were finished and my pretty young aunts put them on.  Grandma smiles in this memory, too, smiles at her daughters and their delight in how they looked in the almost-sheer new blouses.

                Almost all my early memories of Grandma are of her surrounded by family, memories of her sitting in her rocking chair in the kitchen talking and laughing with the crowd of people in the room; of her sitting on a chair in the middle of the kitchen while one of the girls combs her hair.  I remember how thin and fine her hair was, the pink of her scalp visible through the silver-white curls.  

  My earliest memory of being alone with Grandma is of watching her make noodles, watching her roll out the dough into a thin sheet on the flour-covered table, then with her fingers, roll the sheet into a round log that she sliced into thin circles of coiled dough.  She let me help shake out the coils into long strands of noodles. They would go into the golden chicken soup she was cooking.  I loved that soup, particularly the noodles with the little curl at the tip, the end that had been at the center of the roll of dough when it was sliced.  Even now, remembering that soup I want to go make a batch, eat a big bow of it, eat as many noodles as I want.

                Layers of memories from that kitchen, layers like a stack of transparencies, early images still visible through later, sharper pictures,—layers of images in which the crowd of people in the house gradually thins as ‘the girls’ marry and move into homes of their own. 

Most vivid are the images on top of the stack, memories laid down when I was old enough to stay on in Dinuba by myself.  It was so quiet in the house then.  I would sit at the table in the kitchen, and all I could hear was the ticking of the wall clock in the dining room and the chatter of sparrows in the trees outside the kitchen window.  When I put Grandma into that memory she is sitting in her rocker, humming softly as she crochets, one foot lifted slightly off the floor, the other making the chair move up and down.  We talked very little on those visits, and I liked that.  I liked the quiet of the house.  I liked the peace and freedom of that quietness.  I could sit and listen to the birds, daydream, or go and explore the house on the pretext of helping Grandma clean.


Grandpa is entirely absent from my early memories.  I do not see him in the house on Milsap; I do not see him in the crowd of people in the kitchen in the early memories from the house on Academy Way.  It was Grandma the family came to see, the one they sought out to talk and laugh with.  Grandpa was just a silent presence somewhere on the family’s periphery. 

I do see, however, some things related to him:

--His dog, Theodore (pronounced “Tador”), a sturdy, medium sized dog with a short, gold colored coat and a broad, friendly head, a smiling face.  Grandpa was very proud of that dog and how smart he was.  I remember the family talking about how Theodore would go across the street to the school yard when the kids were out for recess.  He would take turns with them on the slide, climb up the ladder then slide down and go back and get in line again. 

--The old 1930s vintage car, a big black box of a car that was parked in the back yard. Grandpa drove Grandma and me to the Dinuba MB Church in it one Sunday when I was eight or nine.  I remember going out to the car where it sat parked under the weeping mulberry and walking into the big, beige-upholstered back seat area.   I was embarrassed to have to drive to church in that old car, eager to get out when we got to church so I could disassociate myself from it.

Grandpa seemed to spend most of his time outside the house, tending his flowers and citrus trees, or off somewhere in a life I knew nothing about.  The only time I saw him in the house when I stayed overnight was in the morning.  Grandpa slept in a small travel trailer[2] in the back yard.  Grandpa was an early riser; Grandma had trouble sleeping and got up much later than he did.  Before Grandma came into the kitchen, he would come in the kitchen door from outside, whistling softly.  Seeing me sitting at the table, he would give a nod and small smile, then get a glass out of the cupboard, fill it at the sink and take it over the counter by the stove where he kept his container of “Serutan”[3] in the upper cupboard.  He would spoon some into the glass, stir it, then drink it quickly.  He would then carry the glass to the sink and go into the dining room, and wind the big wall clock, the chains that held the brass weights a clicking whir as he pulled them up. 

I seldom saw Grandma and Grandpa in the same room at the same time.  Grandma was usually in the kitchen.  Grandpa was usually somewhere out of the house.  The times when Grandpa did come into the house when Grandma was in the kitchen, he was usually just passing through to the front of the house, probably to the bathroom.  They might say a few words to each other in Low German.  Sometimes those words sounded sharp, but the encounter was always very brief.  They seemed to live very separate lives.  Grandma had the family and the interior of the house; Grandpa had the yard and a private life somewhere else.  I didn’t ponder that separateness then, but I did take it in.  It registered.  There was something going on here.  A drama of some kind was being lived out in that kitchen.  There was a story here.  I could sense it.


[1] Aunt Mary was a Supply Clerk at Sequoia Field .  She handled material that was no longer usable.  When I mentioned the parachute to her in 1994, however, she had no memory of it.
[2] Aunt Rosie says that Grandpa “was probably in the dog house” at the time.  They normally shared a bedroom.  She added that her dad wasn’t always faithful to her mom.
[3] “Serutan”—“Nature’s spelled backward”--a popular food supplement at the time.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Girls

“We had a ball.  I remember when all of us girls worked. I worked at Safeway, Liz at Purity.  Clara worked at Justison’s.  All three of us worked in grocery stores in just one block, and Rosie worked for an insurance company, all in this one block.  This was when all the boys were gone.  We would sit around the table in the evening, and each one would tell something that happened during the day and laugh and cut up, and then—this is where we made a mistake—instead of going in and washing dishes before everything dried on, we’d go in the living room and Martha would play the piano and we would sing—almost every night.  Oh, that was just a lot of fun, and then,—you remember that big school, that big brick school across the street?  They had swings out, and we would go out and swing and talk   We had such a lot of fun.  In fact, I didn’t care whether I ever got married.”                                           Aunt Mary (1994)

Academy Way was a house of women during the War.  Six of the sisters moved into the house when the family moved from Milsap Avenue.  Aunt Velma joined them, moving into the apartment over the garage with Madeline and Joe, her little ones.  Then, when Marlan was drafted into the Army, Liz moved into the garage apartment as well.  There were now twelve people living on the property, ten of them female.  The only males in residence were Grandpa and little Joe.  Twelve people—four people in the one bedroom apartment over the garage and eight people in the three bedroom house.  No wonder my early memories of Academy Way are of a house filled with people!

  The house didn’t feel crowded, though.  It just felt like a big party.  People laughed, kidded each other, told jokes and funny stories.  They would sit around the kitchen table and lean against the doorway into the back bedroom.  Grandma would sit in her rocking chair, smiling and watching everyone.  Someone new would walk into the kitchen from the back door, be greeted and hugged.  When the kitchen got too full, some of the people would move into the living room taking their laughter with them.

                And there was singing.  Everyone in that family sang, I think.  My aunts sang close harmony like the Andrew Sisters.  They would gather around the piano, sing popular wartime songs like “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Drinking Rum and Coca-Cola.”  Dad sang with Ed and Frank—Frank singing a deep, rich bass, Ed and Dad singing tenor and lead.  Their songs were funny ones like “Bill Grogan’s Goat” and “The bullfrog on the bank, little Moses in the pool.” Grandma sang, too—but hymns, not secular music.  She had a high, very distinctive voice and sang in a trio with Mary and Helen in churches and on a Visalia radio station.
All the sisters have said how much fun they had when they lived together in the house on Academy Way.  Rosie, like Mary, talked about how they would gather around the piano after dinner and sing and cut up, adding that the neighbors used to sit out on their porch and listen to them.  And Liz, when she told me about sharing the apartment with Velma, exclaimed, “We had so much fun!”   The sisters were young and vibrant, full of life.  They had pretty clothes and dressed with flair, their small waists, full bust, slim hips and beautiful legs perfectly fitting the tight bodices and short skirts that defined war-time fashion.  To me my young aunts were as glamorous as movie stars. 
Six sisters sharing two bedrooms, however, meant a definite lack of privacy.   The two oldest sisters, Helen and Mary, shared a double bed in the front bedroom.  The rest of the sisters all slept in the knotty-pine paneled bedroom at the back of the house.  In the years before marriage began to thin their ranks, that meant four sisters in one room—Martha, Rosie, Clara and Anna Jane.  Talking with Rosie recently about how many beds were in that room, she could no longer remember.  She just remembered wishing that they’d all get married and move out so she could have a bedroom to herself.

Rosie, Velma, Martha, Clara, Anna, Helen, Elizabeth

The Post-War Marriage Boom
   On the second day of September 1945, Japanese officials formally surrendered to the United States officials aboard the USS Missouri.  The Second World War was over.  The men started coming home, and when they did, the crowd of women at 135 Academy Way started to thin.  Uncle Frank and Marlan, Liz’s husband, were discharged as soon as the war ended.  Before long, Liz and Velma moved out of the apartment over the garage. On January 1, 1946, Aunt Mary married Les Davis, a widower, and suddenly becoming the mother of his two little children—seven year old Leslie and four year old Marilyn. 
Clara was next.  She married Alan Weaver sometime during 1946.  The next to leave the house was Martha.   On 10 January 1947, she married Lowell Long, Uncle Ed’s best buddy.  That was three marriages in slightly more than a year.  There were now only three sisters at home, Helen in the front bedroom, Rosie and Anna Jane in the back one. 
Then, sometime around 1950, Anna Jane married Jack Pattison.  Rosie finally had a bedroom to herself.  She and Helen were the only sisters left at home.  That situation ended on the third of July 1953, when Rosie married Russ Noble.  Around that same time, Helen married Arnold Thiessen.  All the girls were now gone.  Grandma and Grandpa had the house on Academy Way all to themselves.