My father once called me “the rebel.” At the time, I was well into adulthood, probably at least in my 30s. He was comparing me to my brothers. He said something about my older brother being more traditional or status quo in his approach to life, and I can’t remember what he said about my younger brother. But I clearly remember him calling me a rebel. It’s one of those descriptions of me by other people that I’ve thought about a lot and tried to understand. I suppose one reason my dad considered me a rebel goes way back to my little three-year-old self refusing to speak to him for nine months. But really, what had I done since I was three years old to continue to deserve the label?
It occurs to me that if you consider the definition of “rebel” as “someone who goes against tradition,” then my dad was something of a rebel himself. When I put myself in his shoes and imagine what life must have been like for him as a child, adolescent and young adult, I think he was a very courageous man. Recently, I received new insight into this period of his life when I somewhat accidentally found an addendum to his book, Missionary Reminiscences, in the Brethren in Christ Archives. I have multiple copies of the book, but I had never read the addendum, which is a simple typewritten manuscript tucked inside the pages of the archives’ copy of the book.
In the original book, my father writes about his spiritual struggles as a young person at home in Wainfleet, a very small town about 30 miles from Fort Erie in southern Ontario, Canada. Then he says, “When I was eighteen [in the summer of 1930], I left home to work for my uncle Abram Lehman on his farm in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.” In 1932, he started school at what was then Messiah Academy, graduating in 1936. Then, with a clear call to mission work but knowing he needed help with a speech impediment, he left Pennsylvania and went to California. In California, he received help for his speech impediment, went to college, met my mother, married, and pursued his calling to the mission field.
But there’s a lot left out of that summary. What made him leave home in the first place when he was only 18? In a short addendum to the addendum, Dad briefly mentions again that after his mother died during a flu epidemic in 1920 (when he was eight years old), his father remarried about a year later. Then he says, “This was not a very happy situation for me as I found myself in conflict with the situation. I am sure that this contributed to my desire to leave home when I was 18, although other economic factors were the dominant ones at the time. The situation with [my stepmother] was somewhat strained at times when I visited again at home…. If my own mother had lived, no one knows how my life might have developed.” In later years, when Dad would talk in general terms about his childhood, I always got the impression that life was difficult at home and education was not highly valued. When he left home at age 18, he had only finished eighth grade. He knew he needed more education to become a missionary – a calling he sensed as early as age 16.
Dad’s speech impediment manifested itself as a severe stutter. Who knows the physiological causes of it, but it’s not hard to imagine that the trauma of losing his mother at age eight and feeling very conflicted about his stepmother contributed to the problem. He writes in the addendum, however, that even after he left home, the speech impediment got worse. While he was still in high school at Messiah Academy, he researched possibilities for getting help and decided that the president of our denominational college in California was the person to give it to him, so after he graduated he set out for California. He writes, “[It] was a slow process. Mr. B, as he was affectionately called, found my case very difficult. The progress was slow, but we kept at it until I was able to do some public speaking.” Mr. B. also helped him get a ministerial license.
Dad’s stutter never completely went away, but it was vastly improved and he was able to preach regularly during his missionary years. As a child and adolescent, I was embarrassed sometimes when he would get up to speak in a public meeting and stammer a while before he got going with what he wanted to say. Now, although I clearly remember my embarrassment and discomfort when he stuttered, I think about the courage it took for him to go against tradition and his father’s preference that he stay home to work on the farm, and launch out on his own despite a debilitating speech problem. Since he didn’t really have the support of his father and stepmother, and they were unable to assist him financially, he had to figure things out for himself. At age 18, he left home and traveled to the United States, and found a place to live. He worked his way through high school, researched options for speech therapy, arranged travel to California, and worked his way through college there while successfully being treated for his speech problem. He went home to Ontario to visit, but he never returned there to live. When he left home in 1930, he left for good.
So, getting back to Dad’s description of me as “the rebel” among his three children…. While I don’t really think of myself as a rebel, I will admit that I don’t always adhere to the party line. I have a strong streak of skepticism mixed with a strong sense of justice, which have led me to question lots of things, including my faith, and to tend to side with people who are oppressed in one way or another. That strong sense of justice also meant that as I developed my niche as a writer and editor (after abandoning the more traditional female career of teacher), I have often used it as a platform for writing about controversial subjects like nonviolence and conscientious objection to war, politics, immigration, gender, poverty, etc. (not because I want to write about controversial issues, but because of my passion for peace and justice). I also ended up in leadership positions that Dad probably considered nontraditional for me as a woman – as a church board member in my local congregation, the director of a denominational board, and chair of the board of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. And there’s more which I won’t go into now. Bottom line: I think Dad often didn’t quite know what to do with me, so calling me a rebel was his way of making sense of something about me he didn’t fully understand.
The roots of my “rebellion,” if you want to call it that, and my independent streak can be found in both of my parents. My mother followed her desire to finish college where no one knew her and my father left home for good at a young age to pursue his own dreams against the wishes of his father. They were both courageous in a way I don’t think I could have been, given their circumstances, and whether they intended to or not, they instilled in me the ability to forge my own way as well, even if it has been against the grain sometimes.