January 24, 2010


The Mennonite Historical Society asked me to write a small blurb about what it was like growing up as both a Doukhobor and a Mennonite. That's right, you heard me. I was born half the former and inherited the latter via upbringing in the church. Your guess is as good as mine what this makes me--especially considering I have virtually zero connection to either community these days. But the request piqued my interest.

These two cultures are similar to the point of absurdity at times, but their theologies are such that there is very little shared ground. Whereas Mennonites (Anabaptist) have a heavy emphasis on the "risen Lord", Doukhobors deny this tenet and suggest a working God within all humanity; each person being a reasonable incarnation. So, being asked to somehow identify with both is not an easy thing to rationalize. Well, if I'm focusing on theology at least.

The piece I wrote, a 1300 or so word synopsis, emphasizes the manufactured quality of how one typically views their family heritage--and by heritage I refer to things we inherit from our ancestors (physical attributes, recipes, a propensity for rye etc). A person will arrange their understanding of this heritage in a way that suits them and present it to others as a living mythology--something that explains their inherent traits. But the importance is whatever they want it to be. The weight added solely by their opinion and the historical back-tracking merely a malleable context.

One can say the historical violence of their people has hardened them against compassion. Another with the same story may find themselves overwhelmed with it. The uniformity being in word alone, though each conclusion appears to be valid.

In the Mennonite circle, there is the oft-played game of trying to find a common relative (much like 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon) when you meet someone--family being an essential part of Menno identity. If you understand their history and the shit they had to go through, it makes sense--though it can annoy the hell out of you when they make that the hinge point for their existence. Oddly enough, the Doukhobor community carries many of the very same historical traits. And they play the name game too.

When I was growing up, I remember being stopped by complete strangers who had stories about my father--a volunteer fireman who walked into a burning hotel to rescue someone and never came back out. In their stories would be these minute connections: so-and-so's 2nd cousin, how I looked just like my father, how he came from good people, sang in the USCC choir etc. It was alarming then, as I knew nothing of him and had almost no contact with his side of the family, but now I think I get why they wanted to stop me.

Heritage is linear in its chronology. It is a means for those of us in the immediate to retain something of potential from the past. In doing so we add to our own sense of identity. And some of this requires speaking it aloud. But I think what is also important, and sadly lacking from my own perspective, is that one has to remain immersed or connected to this possible past. They have to live their immediate lives with the gravity of those who lived before them. But I don't really do that.

It is of no use for me to say "I am Doukhobor" and demand these words to attach me to the history of these people. Do you know how much Russian I speak? Da, nyet, spaceba, semechki, zhopa. That's it. I love borscht--could it eat every day for the rest of my life. I believe in treating the earth as a living entity, not a commodity. I have short-ass legs and broad shoulders. Doukhobor traits, to be sure, but is that enough to say I am?

If anything, the side of my family I pridefully champion the most is being Dutch. And that's directly because of my Oma and mom, and the exposure I had to their experiences. So maybe that's it then? Exposure. One is connected by the exposure they have to their possible past?

I don't have an answer.

What I do know is that in writing the piece I found myself curious about the aspects of cultural history I didn't know, and somewhat flippant about the stuff I did. I don't look back on my church upbringing with animosity, but I don't exactly aspire to retain any of it. Yet when confronted with the stories of people separated from their loved ones for decades, their children placed in orphanages for "correction", their lives scattered and held together by a singular flame of faith--I am moved to tears.

Maybe that's the heritage yes? That we are sentient and emotionally aware of others stories, and their weight implores us to make sure others hear them too.


Sam said...

That was a terrific piece of writing, Harry, very touching and informative. Can you send me a copy of the piece?

Harry Tournemille said...

Thanks, Sam. Check yer email.