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 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.