Community Perspective: Family stories unfiltered during the pandemic

A contributed perspectives piece by Mary Ann Zehr

The author, left, with her mother, Pearl Zehr. Photo by Joy Versluis.

I’m spending several weeks during the pandemic living with my mother. We may never again have such an extended time to be together when neither of us have people to see or anything much to do—and while my mother’s memory is sharp.

I’m 58 and my mother, Pearl Bauman Zehr, is 88. We usually live alone in separate states. But now, before my obligations as an adjunct writing instructor start up again on January 18, we’re sharing a household in Harrisonburg. We eat simple meals—oatmeal, broccoli-cheese soup, roasted carrots, homemade applesauce—drink a lot of tea, work on a jigsaw puzzle, go for walks, watch the occasional movie (such as the 1971 film, Fiddler on a Roof), read, and tell family stories.

I collected stories from my mother several years ago and shared them with family. However, my mother tells stories differently now, with more realistic details than she ever has. As some people enter their autumn years, it seems they want to set the record straight about the past.

This was true of my great aunt Phyllis Lodwick, who as an old woman told my mother something she had never heard before: my mother’s great grandfather (my great-great grandfather), John Ludwick, was divorced. The family surname of Ludwig in Germany was changed in the United States to Ludwick and then Lodwick. For some reason, Great Aunt Phyllis was compelled to convey this fact about a family divorce near the end of her life. Just this week Mom and I found information on genealogy web sites that confirm the story. I’m a descendent of the marriage between my great-great grandfather and his second wife, Leah Flickinger Ludwick, whose graves I’ve visited in the cemetery of the Mt. Olivet United Church of Christ in North Lima, Ohio.

I’m divorced and before I heard this story, I hadn’t imagined that divorce had occurred in my family before my generation. Such a story didn’t fit the picture family members had created of the small-town folks who were my Ohio ancestors. Knowing that my great-great grandfather struggled with his marriage humanizes him for me.

I want to know how my ancestors were people like me who sometimes have painful life experiences or make mistakes.

Pearl Zehr at the grave of her great uncle in Ontario, Canada. Photo by Bonnie Zehr.

During the pandemic, Mom and I have been talking a lot about Jacob Eby Groff (1878-1960), my mother’s great uncle and my great-great uncle. Mom recently told Jacob’s story to her cousins in a family “circle letter,” which makes its way from one family member to another by snail mail. She told me, with an earnest tone of voice, “I just thought they should know.”

For decades, no family members spoke about Jacob Groff to my mother’s knowledge. My mother learned about him about two decades ago. Jacob Groff was a Canadian Mennonite farm boy who was admitted in his mid-20s to what people then called an “insane asylum,” in Hamilton, Ontario. When he died in 1960, two years before I was born, my mother’s parents didn’t speak of his death. My mother and I conjecture that many family members denied the man’s existence because of the social stigma about mental illness. One of my mom’s cousins, a dedicated family historian, learned about Jacob Groff as an adult and asked both his father and his aunt if they could pay a visit to Jacob in a state institution. “He wouldn’t know us,” they said, and declined to facilitate a visit, according to my mother.

This particular cousin and my mother have done some research on Jacob Groff. Therefore, in April 2016, Mom, two of my siblings, and I visited his grave at an Old Order Mennonite cemetery in St. Jacobs, Ontario. My eldest brother said a prayer lamenting how Jacob’s family acted as if he didn’t exist during his lifetime. My brother asked God to help us to have compassion for and support people with mental health issues in our own times.

Jacob Eby Groff’s 1891 school notebook. Photo by Mary Ann Zehr.

My mother recently acquired a school notebook and diaries of Jacob Groff from the cousin who serves as family historian, and I’ve read them. In elegant cursive writing, as a student, Jacob listed the Canadian provinces and their capitals. By the age of 11, Jacob had been orphaned. In his diary, Jacob recorded statistics about crop production from the farm of his sister and brother-and-law, where he worked as a youth. Public documents say that when he entered the asylum, he had been experiencing melancholia for eight years after the death of a brother and was “restless” and “irritable” and that he “ignores friends” and “will not change clothing.”

Viewing this description through a modern lens, I feel heartbroken that these seemingly treatable symptoms were the cause for him to be institutionalized for most of his life.

After nearly three decades in the asylum, Jacob was transferred to the Waterloo County House of Industry and Refuge, a poor house. In 1957, that institution ceased operation. We aren’t sure where Jacob Groff stayed for the last years of his life.

Among the Mennonite great aunts and uncles I knew as a child who lived in Waterloo, Ontario, were a carpenter, an urban mission worker, and a high school French teacher who then became a school principal. How was it that they seemed to care about some people so much but not their own uncle, Jacob Groff? Why did my grandfather, who had moved to Ohio in his mid-20s, never talk with my mother about this uncle? My mother says that her parents visited one of her mother’s cousins in a hospital for the mentally ill in Ohio and had no qualms about it. Why did they then not acknowledge Jacob Groff?

But rather than pose questions toward family members who are dead, it seems more constructive to question myself. Like family members who came before me, how have I succumbed to the social biases and unjust systems of my own times? How have I failed to pay adequate attention to vulnerable people or people less privileged than I am in and outside my family?

My mother’s unfiltered storytelling challenges me during these uncertain times when we become more alert to the realities around us.

Mary Ann Zehr is a writer who moved from the D.C. area to Harrisonburg in 2018 because she wanted to live near mountains and extended family members.

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