An interview with Darla Weaver,
Author of Gathering of Sisters
Once a week Darla Weaver hitches up her spirited mare, bundles her children into the buggy, and drives six miles to the farm where she grew up. There she gathers with her four sisters and their children for a day with their mother. In Gathering of Sisters: A Year with My Old Order Mennonite Family (Herald Press), Weaver writes about her horse-and-buggy Mennonite family and the weekly women’s gatherings that keep them connected. On warm days, the children play and fish and build houses of hay in the barn. In the winter, everyone stays close to the woodstove, with puzzles and games and crocheting. No matter the weather, the Tuesday get-togethers of this Old Order Mennonite family keep them grounded and centered in their love for God and for each other, even when raising an occasional loving but knowing eyebrow at each other.
The rest of the week is full of laundry, and errands, and work that never ends. But Tuesday is about being sisters, daughters, and mothers.
Q: Gathering of Sisters tells about getting together weekly with your mother and sisters. Tell us a little bit about your family.
There were five of us sisters, growing up together with our four little brothers in the white farmhouse our parents built. The nine of us kept this five-bedroom house brimming with life, and crowded with both happiness and some inevitable sadness. We did a lot of living and a lot of learning in that house.
And then we all grew up.
I was the first to leave. On a warm and sunshiny day in September 2000, after the leaves on the lofty silver maples had faded from summer-green and before they wore brightly flaming autumn shades, I was married to Laverne Weaver. It was the first wedding in that mellowing white house we all called home. Four more were to follow in the next several years. Except for my youngest brother, we’ve all left home. Most of us live close, but one brother lives in Alaska.
Q: Why did you decide to make an effort to get together once a week?
Our Tuesdays happened more by accident than by conscious planning. We never sat down and planned for Tuesdays. But after I moved six miles away to my own home, I gradually acquired the habit of going back to the old home place and spending a day each week with my family. On Monday I always had laundry to do, and scores of other jobs to tackle after the weekend. And before we had children, I worked part time in a bakery at the end of the week.
That left Tuesdays. Tuesday really was the perfect in-between sort of day to spend with Mom and my sisters. On Tuesday the five us sisters still come home. We pack up the children—all eighteen of them during summer vacation—and head to the farm.
We go early. I drive my spirited little mare, Charlotte, and she trots briskly along the six miles of winding country roads. Regina and Ida Mae live much closer. They married brothers, and their homes are directly across the fields from Dad and Mom’s farm. They usually bike, with children’s noses pressed against the bright mesh of the carts they tow behind their bicycles. Or they walk, pushing strollers over the back fields and up the lane. And Emily and Amanda, who also married brothers and live in neighboring houses about five miles away, come together with everyone crammed into one carriage.
Q: Do all the kids enjoy Tuesdays as well?
The children love Tuesdays. On warm days they play on the slide and the swings in the cool shade of the silver maples, jump on the trampoline, run through their grandpa’s three greenhouses, ride along on the wagon going to the fields where produce by the bushels and bins is hauled to the packing shed. They build hay houses in the barn and explore the creek. The boys take poles and hooks and bait and spend hours fishing and playing in the small creek that flows beneath the lane and through the thickets beside the pasture fence. They catch dozens of tiny blue gills and northern creek chubbs, most of which they release back into the water hole, a deep pool that yawns at the mouth of a large culvert, to be caught again next week. They work too, at mowing lawn, raking, lugging flower pots around, or anything else that Grandma needs them to do, but most often Tuesdays on Grandpa’s farm are play days.
Q: What do you do when you are all gathered together?
We don’t exactly play, yet Tuesdays for us are also about relaxing. Of course, there is always work to do—just making dinner for such a group is a big job—but the day is more about relaxing, reconnecting, visiting, and sharing. We talk a lot, we laugh a lot, sometimes we cry. Tuesdays is about being sisters, daughters, moms. It’s about learning what is happening in each other’s lives.
Every day is different, yet every Tuesday follows a predictable pattern that varies with the seasons. Winter finds us inside, close to the warmth humming from the woodstove, absorbed in wintertime pursuits which include card-making, crocheting, sewing, puzzles—jigsaw, crossword, sudoku—and reading books and magazines. But as soon as spring colors the buds of the maples with a reddish tinge, we spend more time outside. The greenhouses are loaded with plants, the flowerbeds full of unfurling perennials, and the grass is greening in the yard again.
In summer, while the garden and fields burst with produce, the breezy shade of the front porch calls. It wraps around two sides of the house and is full of Mom’s potted plants and porch furniture. We sit there to shell peas, husk corn, or just sip a cold drink and cool off after a warm stroll through the flowers.
Then autumn echoes through the country, the leaves flame and fall, and we rake them up—millions of leaves. Where we rake one Tuesday is covered again by the next, until at last the towering maples stand disrobed of leaves, their amazing seventy-foot branches a wavering fretwork against a sky that is sullen with winter once more.
Q: How did your sisters react to the news about you writing this book?
The initial reactions varied.
“I suppose you would change all our names,” Mom said after a while.
That was a new thought for me, and one I didn’t want to consider. “Oh, no, that would be much too hard. We would just use everyone’s real name.” Merely the thought of renaming eighteen children exhausted me.
“Maybe you’ll have to Sunday-us-up a bit,” Emily suggested with a laugh. “Make sure we all use our best manners when you write about us.”
“Oh, yes, I won’t write anything you wouldn’t like,” I promised.
“She will still have to claim us as sisters,” Regina points out, as usual finding a positive angle to the topic. “She won’t make us sound too odd or ornery or anything.”
I promised not to.
Regina’s oldest daughter, Jerelyn, who at fourteen has graduated from eighth grade and is again spending Tuesdays with us, considered staying home for the entire next year to keep her name out of the book. But on a whole, no one really objected. Like Laverne and our children, Mom and my sisters are almost used to my compulsive scribbling. Almost.
Now on to some frequently asked questions about life in Mennonite communities.
Q: What does daily life look like for a Mennonite?
In some ways being a Mennonite is not so different from being anyone else. We have one life to live, we work to make a living, take care of our families, make time for the things we enjoy, eat, sleep, pay our bills and taxes. Some days are better than others as for anyone else.
In other ways it’s vastly different from the culture around us. Partly in the conservative way we live; perhaps even more in the way we look at life.
The most important goals for most of us are: Faith in God and in his Son who died on the cross for sinners; growing into a closer walk with him; learning to love, serve, and obey his commandments. These beliefs help shape our lives as we grow older.
Old Order Mennonite life is family-oriented. It centers around our church, our families, our schools and neighborhoods. It has been said, “Destroy the home and you destroy the nation,” which has been proved true in various eras of history. God’s plan for one husband and one wife, working together to care for their children, is a most important foundation for our lifestyle.
But, of course, we are far from perfect. Although the majority of us strive to live lives that demonstrate a faith and love and steadfastness rooted deep in God and his word—the Bible—we make plenty of mistakes too. Stumbling and falling and getting up to try again, praying that God will help us do better tomorrow, is a part of life, too.
Q: Do Old Order Mennonites believe in the new birth?
Of course. We believe the Bible truth: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
It is when one believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God that God’s Spirit comes into one’s heart. It is by repenting of and turning away from our sins that they can be forgiven. It is by faith in God’s power, and asking in prayer, help us break away from sin’s strongholds. And it is because of that new birth that we desire to live a life that God can bless and sanctify.
But those who grow up in Christian homes may not always be able to pinpoint a certain day or year when their new birth occurred. To say, “When were you born again?” is a little like asking, “When did you grow up?” Sometimes there is a specific date to remember. Just as often there isn’t, because we grew so gradually into the awareness of our need for a personal Savior.
Was there ever a time I didn’t know and believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came to die for my sins? If so, I can’t remember it. I did have to come to the place where I was willing to accept that for myself, acknowledge all the sin in my life, and turn to God for help and forgiveness. That day came, gradually. When I asked Christ into my heart to be Ruler there, it led to more years of growing up, and into what it means to be one of his disciples.
When I was born physically I still had much to learn. When I was born again spiritually I had just as much to learn about living a Christ-centered life. I’m still learning about it. I imagine I’ll be learning more for as long as I live.
Q: What could a visitor expect at one of your church services?
Church services last around 2 to 2 ½ hours and are in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, although the Bible reading is done in German. They begin with everyone singing together. One of the ministers then has a short sermon, which is followed by silent prayer. Then a second minister explains a chapter from the New Testament, or part of a chapter that he had selected and studied previously. Services are closed with an audible prayer, more singing, and the benediction.
It’s a special time of singing, praying, and worshiping God together with our congregation, and is full of encouragement and inspiration.
Q: Throughout most of the country, we would find most businesses open at least part of the day on Sunday. Would we find any businesses in your community open on Sunday?
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt though labour and do all thy work” (Exodus 20:8-9).
When Sunday comes around, those of us who own businesses do close them, and most of our work is put aside. Sunday is kept as a day to go to church to worship God, then spend it socializing with family and friends. It is a day to get together for meals, visit families who have a new baby, or just relax at home.
Sometimes when it’s warm we go fishing or hiking at nearby state parks or in our own woods. Sometimes we go on picnics or visit the neighbors. In the evening, the youth group gathers at one of their homes to play volleyball, sing and eat.
Sunday is set aside for worship, rest, and family time. It’s refreshing, both spiritually and physically, to have one day each week reserved for that. Work almost always waits. Worshiping God is first priority, then being with family.
Q: What kind of activities are your youth groups involved in?
Most of the young people are part of a structured youth group that gathers each Sunday evening in one of their homes. If it’s warm they play volleyball before singing hymns. A snack is served, unless everyone is invited for supper, then an entire meal is served. This can be quite an undertaking for the hostess, depending on the size of the group.
While Sunday evening gatherings are a regular thing, there are sometimes “work bees” during the week, when they get together to help someone who needs it. They might go to sing at a nursing home, go skating in winter, fishing in summer, or other upbuilding activities.
The majority of the young people are a part of this group and are dedicated to serving God. However, the upper teen years can be hard whether you’re Mennonite or not, and there are always some who drift away and choose not to live as part of our culture.
Q: Can you tell us about your private schools?
Parochial schools are a vital part of our neighborhoods. Three men serve as the school board for each one, and they are in charge of hiring teachers, handling the financial part of running a school, upkeep of the building, and any other need that comes up. They serve in three-year terms and are up for one re-election at the regular yearly community meeting where all directors and trustees for various things are selected.
Most schoolhouses have two classrooms and two teachers. The number of children attending each one varies greatly. Parents pay a yearly tuition which covers the teachers’ pay, books and supplies, and building repairs.
Most children start first grade in September after their sixth birthday. They graduate after completing eighth grade.
Each school day starts with a Bible story, reciting the Lord’s prayer together and singing. Lessons include, but are not limited to, reading, writing, math, spelling, English, vocabulary, history, geography, some science and nature study. Curriculum varies a little from school to school and from one area to the next, but these are the basics.
Religion is not taught as a subject. Rather, faith in God, and Christian living as based on the Bible, is woven into almost every textbook and lesson. It’s a way of life for us and can’t be separated into a single subject.
About the Author
Darla Weaver is a homemaker, gardener, writer and Old Order Mennonite living in the hills of southern Ohio. She is the author of Water My Soul, Many Lighted Windows, and Gathering of Sisters. Weaver has written for Family Life, Ladies Journal, Young Companion, and other magazines for Amish and Old Order Mennonite groups. Before her three children were born she also taught school. Her hobbies are gardening and writing.
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