Heinrich & Elisabeth:
The Zimmermann-Willems Marriage
“The father of Sister Willems, a minister of the Gospel, made quite an impression on me. He was not a very able speaker, but when he would get up and say something, I sensed that it had been saturated in prayer.”
Rev. G. B. Huebert, minister of the Reedley M.B. Church 1934-1937
My sister Jacque recently sent me a box of family pictures and papers from my father’s files she thought I might want. Included were some old tapes, one of which my dad made in at Grandma and Grandpa’s Golden Wedding celebration in February 1959. The fidelity isn’t great—I can’t recognize who is speaking unless their name is mentioned, but it is fun to hear the singing and rather awesome to relive an experience that took place fifty years ago last February. Fifty years. That is how long Grandma and Grandpa had been married when the tape was made. Listening, it suddenly hit me that Grandma and Grandpa’s wedding took place 100 years ago this year! Amazing.
One of the things that I was particularly delighted to find on the tape was a talk by Reverend G.B. Huebert, minister of the Reedley MB Church from 1934-1947. In it, he makes the comment above about Grandma’s father, our Great-Grandfather Zimmermann. What is particularly important about this find is that it presents a view of our great-grandfather that comes from someone outside the family, a “someone” who was not just “anyone.” Reverend Huebert was one of the leading MB preachers of his time, the first paid minister of the largest Mennonite Brethren Church in North America. And what he has to say is that though Heinrich Zimmermann was “not a very able speaker,” he yet left a lasting impression on him because he sensed that HHZ’s words were “saturated in prayer.”
Memory: Mary & Rosie
Aunt Mary was seventeen when Heinrich died in 1934; Rosie was seven. They have vivid memories of their grandparents, and their memories provide a view of Heinrich and Elisabeth that is very different from that of official records and adult observers:
“We always heard them coming. Grandma would sit in back and he’d sit in front—He had a new Chevrolet and he’d drive it in second gear. It made such a racket! We’d ask, ‘Why do you drive it in second gear?’ And he said, ‘Well, it goes too fast!”
Aunt Mary (1996)
Do you have any memories of your Grandpa and Grandma Zimmerman?
Mary: “Well, Grandpa was such a neat housekeeper…—and he would keep house. Oh, Yes.”
Rosie: “They were adorable, little bitty, bitty people.”
Mary: “He was shorter, a little taller than Grandma. But he had one bad eye.”
Rosie: “He had a beard.”
Mary: “Not long, but just stubble all over.
Did your Grandpa Zimmermann have a temperament like your mom?”
Rosie: “Real easy going.”
Mary: “He loved to tickle the kids.”
Rose: “What did he have in his pockets when he came over all the time? I can’t remember, was it candy? Or was it cheese? It was something.”
Mary: “I don’t remember that.”
Rosie: “Oh, we just looked forward so much because he would always give us something.”
What was your grandma like?”
Mary: “Very quiet. Very quiet, and very sober.”
Rosie: “ Not very pleasant.”
Mary: “Not much laughing around her. And she’d scold us at times—we’d laugh too much. I think that’s where Clara got the idea that laughing was a sin. --When she was little she’d be so sober-faced, and she’d say, ‘Laughing is a sin!’”
Rosie: “Wasn’t it Helen one time —oh this is kind of pitiful ‘cause Grandma Zimmerman was kind of senile already,--and Helen said that this was one of the commandments that Jesus laughed. And Grandma’d say, ‘No!’ And Helen said, ‘Yep. It’s in there.’”
Mary: “After Grandpa Zimmerman died, Grandma split all her money between all her kids. She was going to live two months at each home, but slowly they all started to back out. Finally they had a meeting and decided that they should all pay me a bit so I could afford to stay home and look after her. Uncle Jack paid the first ten dollars, and I never saw any money after that. Mom was stuck with her.”
In the year 1934 it pleased the Lord to also take [Elisabeth’s] second husband from her side into the home above. Again she stood alone. Since the home-going of Father Zimmerman, our dear mother has lived alternately with her children. She died in the house of her oldest son C. Willems, northeast of Reedley. Her high age was the cause of her home-going; she was bedfast the last two months, and unconscious five days. Her departure was a gentle sleep. She reached the age of 84 years, 11 months and 24 days. She remained faithful till her death.”
Zionsbote Obituary for Elisabeth Willems Zimmerman (5 Jan 1943), [full text at end of document]
Mary: “I remember she was sitting under the clock at the house on Milsap. She was knitting, and she said, in German,
--‘Can’t think. Can’t knit any more. My knitting days are over!’
Elisabeth was just a few days shy of her 85th birthday when she died on December 5, 1943. Now that more and more people live into the their 90s and 100s, reaching the age of 85 is no longer a big deal. But in the 1940s, that was not the case. Average life expectancy was just 39 years for women born in the 1850s, the decade of Elisabeth’s birth. Elisabeth lived 46 years beyond that average life span. And when you consider that she had borne nine children in the harsh conditions of what was then the frontier, her almost-85 years looks remarkable indeed. She must have had a strong body, a tough constitution. However, those last nine years of her life were definitely a task, for her and for her family.
Elisabeth’s decision to sell all her property, divide the proceeds among her children, and spend the rest of her life in their homes put a real burden on her family, a burden that seems to have primarily fallen on our grandma’s shoulders. Did Elisabeth realize that her children did not really want her living with them? Did she feel herself unwanted? Or did she just place herself in her children’s care, trusting that they would do their duty and take care of her whether they liked it or not, confident that they would work things out? We don’t really know.
We do know, however, that she was deeply religious. She had been schooled in the attitude of trust, trust that God would provide her needs in this life as well as trust that there was something far better awaiting her. That hope may have helped her find patience with her failing body, the loss of active life, and the necessary dependence on her children. Her faith taught that death was release, the door to a new, perfect life. Her task was to wait, to endure that which was necessary to finish up this life. And she seems to have done just that. Her long, slow decline did not allow her to actively testify to her faith in the hours before her death in the way that her husband Heinrich did, but the family member who wrote her obituary witnessed for her, declared: “She remained faithful to her death.”
Zionsbote (5 January, 1944)
Sister Elisabeth Willems Zimmerman, maiden name Boldt, was born December 8th in the year 1858 in the village of Pastwa, Molotschna, Russia. In the year 1875 she emigrated with her parents the Jakob Boldts to America. Protected by God’s sheltering hand, they arrived on August 18th the same year in Mountain Lake, Minnesota. It was quite difficult to adjust to the new land and to the new situation. Despite the severe struggles, she stood faithfully at the side of her parents, and was helpful in making a home in the midst of poverty.
In the year 1879 she was received into the church through the baptism of sprinkling by Preacher Aron Wall. This did not satisfy her heart, however. Through diligent searching of the Word of God, she found the Lord Jesus had been baptized in the River Jordan. After serious anxiety and prayer, she found forgiveness in the blood of the Lamb and was with her first husband C. Willems baptized on 5 May 1880 by Elder Heinrich Voth and received as a member in the Mennonite Brethren Church at Mountain Lake.
In the year 1900 they settled in Saskatchewan, Canada, where they made their home at Bruderfeld, in the hopes of making their life work on the farm easier. Man thinks, but God arranges. God’s ways were appointed differently. In the year 1902 her husband, our father, became ill and was taken from her side through death on August 8th. Alone with nine children, of whom 8 children were born in Mountain Lake and one in Canada, she looked into a dark future, and in looking to the Lord, who is the Lord over widows and orphans, she overcame this pain. This first marriage with our father C. Willems was [contracted] on 24 March 1881. This marriage was blessed with nine children, who are all still living. Happy was the marriage, difficult was the pain of parting.
On 18 March 1906 she joined hands in marriage with Brother Heinrich Zimmerman, preacher of the Mennonite Brethren church. They lived in Bruderfeld, Saskatchewan for fourteen years, and in the year 1920 they settled for the first time in California and in the year 1926 for the second time; since that time our parents have lived in the vicinity of Dinuba and Reedley. In the year 1934 it pleased the lard to also take her second husband from her side into the home above. Again she stood alone. Since the homegoing of Father Zimmerman, our dear mother has lived alternately with her children. She died in the house of her oldest son C. Willems, northeast of Reedley. Her high age was the cause of her homegoing; she was bedfast the last two months, and unconscious five days. Her departure was a gentle sleep. She reached the age of 84 years, 11 months and 24 days. She remained faithful till her death. She leaves four sons, five daughters, five stepchildren, four daughters-in-law, five sons-in-law, fifty-two grandchildren, all living, and eight grandchildren preceded her in death. [She also leaves] four brothers and two sisters and a number of relatives and many friends. Her hour of deliverance struck Thursday, December 2nd, at 8 o’clock in the evening. We rejoice in blessed hope of a reunion.
* [Translated 4 June 2006 by Peggy Goertzen on behalf of Loretta Willems, transcribed 4/29/08 by LW]
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