Seniors & Aging

Doing justice to a Mennonite family’s history

Loretta Willems of Bellingham has been researching and writing about her family’s Mennonite history. She does most of her work in her office, where she has a variety of books, journals and historical photographs.
Loretta Willems of Bellingham has been researching and writing about her family’s Mennonite history. She does most of her work in her office, where she has a variety of books, journals and historical photographs. For the Bellingham Herald

At 78, Loretta Willems might not think of herself as a builder, but building is exactly what she has done in her effort to weave together a narrative of her father’s Mennonite family history.

The endeavor has spanned decades of sleuth work, with Willems digging up old archives and state records, interviewing family members on tape, following picture trails, and piecing together the stories of her family and ancestors into “The Gift of Laughter,” a memoir she plans to publish in March.

Born in California, Willems taught high school English in Monroe, Wash., for many years before moving to California to earn a master’s degree in philosophical theology and a doctorate in theology and the arts from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. It was there that she met her husband, Bill Haney.

After Berkeley, they lived in Columbia, Mo., for many years, followed by a short stint in Arizona. In 2012, they decided to call Bellingham home.

Willems grew up enamored of her father’s 14 siblings.

“It was like going to a movie, except it was better because they were all related to me,” she says.

Originally from Saskatchewan, Canada, her father’s family relocated in 1919 to a Mennonite community near Fresno, Calif.

Willems wasn’t always familiar with the Mennonite faith, a Christian group known for its undertaking of social justice and peace issues. Her immediate family had drifted away from the church when she was just 3, only to return to it when she was 13. As a young person, that posed an interesting conflict between her school life and her Mennonite life. Suddenly, she wasn’t allowed to dance, and was forbidden to go to movies.

Willems wanted to come to terms with her religious background, and with her relatives growing older, the memoir took on new importance. In 1994, she began recording interviews with her father and his siblings. She also spent time in the archives at Fresno Pacific University, founded by the Pacific District Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches and known for its exhaustive genealogical database.

To embark upon a 20-year writing project is no small feat, but Willems’ drive to complete her project didn’t diminish.

“I’m not patient,” she says, “just stubborn.”

She works regularly with an editor who helps her to cull down her research and integrate it into her book. On the first day of each month, Willems releases a new chapter on her blog, http://lorettawillems.wordpress.com.

Jan. 1 was to be the last entry she posted online. The remaining chapters will be available in the printed version, but her blog will remain active and she will continue to post photographs and graphics.

Willems says the undertaking has impressed upon her the importance of preserving family stories, as well as the larger fabric of which they are all a part.

“It has made me grow, and given me a purpose and a focus to my life,” she says.

After “The Gift of Laughter” is done, Willems and her husband plan to enjoy some much-needed downtime before she begins her next writing task — her personal memoir. That might sound like another huge undertaking, but for Willems “It’s just plain fun.”

Loretta Willems’ advice for memoir writers

Start with your own memories, then build from there.

Record conversations with relatives, using photographs as a conversation starter.

Start culling public records after you have exhausted your personal network for information. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helps people conduct family research. Ancestry.com, city and state public records, and public libraries are also good resources.

Make a timeline and start writing. Keep at it, even if you don’t think it’s great.

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