Sunday, January 14, 2018

Letter from Hburg--Raising a Family Between Cultures

33 years on, the family stands tall

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
JAN. 14, 2018

 Feeling like ants in a cornfield, we meandered down the wide, needle-carpeted trails between the gigantic­ redwood trees at Jedidiah Smith State Park. Our six children, all adults now, scattered out ahead of us. One stopped to count rings on a log, another climbed up the roots of an enormous redwood to peek in a mysterious hole in the side, another marched far ahead and returned at a brisk pace, trying to tally as many steps as possible for the day.

“Would you ever have imagined this, 33-and-a-half years ago?” my husband, Paul, asked me quietly as we lagged behind. We were taking a family post-Christmas vacation in the same area of the southern Oregon Coast where we had honeymooned, back in 1984, which caused much reminiscing, even for Paul, who looks forward more than back.

“No,” I said, “I didn’t see this coming.” I couldn’t have imagined how challenging it would be to raise a family on that fragile boundary between religious tradition and modern life, how hard it would be to let adult children choose for themselves and what a blessing it would be when those choices were wise and healthy.

Maybe every generation goes through this — barely finding stability in adulthood before becoming overwhelmed at all the ways the world is changing. Just when you feel like life is safe and sane, and can’t we just park here for a while, please? — then there goes your teenage daughter, happily texting and Snapchatting her friends as she heads out the door to her next class.

I often think of my mom, who mostly kept quiet and prayed while her six navigated our generation’s changes.

She must have asked the same questions I do: Is this strange new thing good or bad? Should I freak out? Can I trust them to make good decisions? Should I say something? Can I let go?

I grew up first Old Order Amish and later “Beachy” Amish, a denomination that allowed a few amenities such as cars and zippers and electric lights. Amish young people enter adulthood knowing all about planting a garden, obscure Bible passages, sewing dresses and family history but knowing little of movies, college, popular music, TV shows, politics and most careers.

My sister and I were exposed to more of that world because we went to a public high school, and Rebecca was the first in the family, in multiple generations, to graduate. I followed a year later.

Mom could butcher 50 chickens in a day and piece a quilt, but she couldn’t understand the subjects we studied and was alarmed at the books we had to read. She knew nothing of the expected protocol for a graduation — what the ceremony would be like, what to wear, whether and how to celebrate, or how an open house was hosted.

So Rebecca and I took charge, taking cues from our classmates. We ordered announcements, arranged for portraits and made food for the guests.

Now, I feel for Mom, so heavily invested in our lives and yet so inept and confused when we chose such completely new paths.

After high school, I taught at church schools and then met and married Paul, squeezing in two years of college before we had a family.

We raised our six children in the Mennonite church and traditions. Even though the rules were more relaxed than in my childhood, we still didn’t have a TV, and we monitored the children’s media use, listening or watching together and discussing the themes and lyrics. While they had friends and influences outside the culture, they still grew up immersed in the safe, rural and somewhat isolated traditions of a dozen generations before them.

While we were at the front door keeping TVs shallow entertainment at bay, the Internet came creeping in the back door, potentially exposing the children to far worse. That was when we learned whether we had taught them to choose carefully what they watched and listened to, or if they could only follow specific rules.

Paul and I encouraged the kids to follow their gifts and interests, but we never pushed them to go to college. When most of their friends married and started families in their early 20s, we figured ours would too.

Instead, they are all single and are all in, or just out of, college, gathering one degree after another like my mom picked green beans with capable hands on a summer morning.

Again, I feel strangely between cultures and times. My Mennonite peers are planning their children’s weddings and welcoming grandbabies, while my more secular friends report that their grown children, like ours, are slow to marry and the parents wait, sometimes into old age, for a grandchild or two to appear.

Soon, I will be the least educated member of the family. Long ago, I was the expert at everything, and they came to me wondering what acorns are for and how do I double a recipe and is there a Bible verse that says your sister should stay out of your room?

Today, I put Sunday dinners on the table and listen in wonder and confusion as the conversation jerks from dystopian authors to fuel-to-air ratios to implicit biases to Bitcoin.

However, I also smile quietly, because in a strange turn of events, these unpredictable young people become, in some ways, even more traditional as they pursue a secular education. They ignore most of the social-media hashtag bandwagons and are not political, partly because no one represents their values and partly because they don’t see the political process leading to worthwhile change. They all want a traditional family, eventually, with plenty of children, and they value domesticity and homemaking. They like the personal dignity of dressing conservatively, but they don’t expect the rest of the world to follow their example. And they have a strong faith.

Really, they almost could be Amish.

On Christmas Eve, Ben the combustion-science grad student fed the chickens for me and then slipped and fell as he left the shed, pitching eggs in all directions and gashing his hand. Steven the paramedic student and volunteer EMT capably cleaned and bandaged it.

Amy the elementary-­ed­ major was in charge of Christmas dinner, helped by Emily of the communication degree and Jenny the future math teacher. Matt, the Navy engineer who will soon have a master’s in aerospace engineering, helped clean up.

We all got along remarkably well during the entire four days at the coast. Amy planned all the meals, and Ben planned the hikes and activities. Paul and I were probably too happy to give up these tasks. Yet, we both felt included and needed, pulled into games and conversations, and asked for our opinions and insights.

The redwood trees reminded me that growth cannot be rushed, and you might not see the results of your decisions until 10 or 20 years later. There’s seldom a clear light on that thin path between tradition and change, the safe values of the past and the scary possibilities of the new and different. You can’t control storms and disasters, but if you pray a lot and provide a sheltering canopy above, your kids just might grow into tall and strong young trees, full of new ideas yet blending into an ancient and beautiful forest.


  1. Dorcas, I somehow missed this post. I don't know if I like that I'm confessing this or not but I wish we had raised our children Conservative Mennonite with ephasis on "conservative". We are friends with several conservative Mennonites and have attended their churches. I really love how Mennonites follow the teachings of Jesus and do not conform to the world.
    I had hoped my husband would have liked the idea of living a more conservative lifestyle but we couldn't completely agree. So I'm the Mennonite wannabe in my home and church. But that's fine but I do wish churches wouldn't conform to the world's ideas just because they don't want to appear to be living in the "dark ages".