Jacob and Agnes

I had just left the ranch that Stanley and I had leased. I am thinking it was 80 acres of a vineyard. I sold it back to the owner. My brother Henry had just died, so I went to San Francisco to meet Stanley. He was singing taverns for a living, so I joined him. Making a living that way was hard, so we decided to take the Delta Queen to go to Stockton to try it there. I felt like going to church, and hearing that there was a Mennonite church there I decided to checkit out.

Arriving on time, and the girls in a group, I went to join them. I was alerted that one girl was very quiet and shy, so I said, “My name is Jack Willems. What’s yours?”

All the girls gave their names. Agnes was too shy. So I tucked her under the chin and said,

“What’s yours?” and “I want to sit in church with you today.”

Surprisingly, she said “Ok.” --Jacob J. Willems, October 26, 2000

My father, Jacob Willems, was 86 when he wrote this story about how he met and married my mom. His hands were crippled, some of his fingers partially amputated. He used his computer with a combination of one-finger typing and a voice-activated word processing program. Strokes had impaired his speech so he used as few words as possible, stripping the story down to an almost bare skeleton—but the words are very definitely Dad’s words. When I read them I hear his voice.

Dad is dead now. He died just seven months after he wrote this story at my request and e-mailed it to me. I wanted to preserve Dad’s story for the family, share it with as many people as possible. Seeing it in print, however, I realized that no one else would ever hear it the way that I do. Even my younger sisters do not bring to his words the images and memories that I bring to them.

I was the oldest child, the one born closest to the events described. I grew up in Stockton, California, and attended the church where my mom and dad met. I moved through the landscape in which the events of their story took place. When Dad says, “I had just left the ranch that Stan and I had leased,” I know that the ranch is near the town of Dinuba in the southeastern part of California’s Central Valley. I can see the town and the vineyards and orchards around it; I can see the foothills on the eastern horizon. I know that Stan is one of Dad’s older brothers, can see Stan’s thin mustache and small smile. When Dad says that his brother Henry had just died, I know that Henry had a wife name Inez and little girl named Betty Lou who was not quite two years old when he died. I know that Henry died of “dropsy,” that when Dad went to see him at the University of California hospital in San Francisco, Henry asked, “You want to see my heart?” He laughed as he pulled back his pajama top and a dressing on his chest to reveal a surgically opened hole in the flesh of his rib cage that exposed a beating heart. I remember, too, that Dad said Henry joked about the hole and being in the hospital. I can almost see a laughing young man, a handsome man with long, slender hands who died before I was born, a man who looks very like my Uncle Stan in the dim photograph that recently came into my possession, the only picture of Henry I have ever seen.

And when my dad says that he and Stan took the Delta Queen to Stockton, I can see the land the boat passed through. I can see San Francisco Bay and the brown, oak-studded hills that line the Carquinez Straits where the boat would have entered the great river that results from the coming together of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, the Sacramento coming down from Mt. Shasta at the north end of the Central Valley, the San Joaquin coming north from the mountains above Fresno to Stockton where the river heads west into the vast delta lying between Stockton and San Francisco Bay. I can see the boat winding its way through the Delta between tree-lined levees surrounding islands of fertile peat, reverse islands sunk down below the river instead of rising above as islands are supposed to do. I know those islands are incredibly rich, know that asparagus grows on many of them, have seen the sky over Stockton turn black from peat caught up by the prevailing westerly wind blowing over newly plowed fields. I can remember, too, my dad telling me about fires on the islands that had burned for years, smoldering peat that often burned invisibly under the surface until a tractor broke through into burning soil.

Stockton, where my dad and uncle Stan got off the Delta Queen, is an old town as far as Central Valley towns go. I learned in fourth grade that Stockton was the river port closest to the gold fields and that miners in the late 1840s and 1850s would take boats from San Francisco to Stockton, get out and make their way up into the foothills of the Sierras, on foot, horse back, stage coach. I knew even before the fourth grade that the Port of Stockton was important. Dad hauled lumber out of the Sierras into the truck yards at the Port, and I often went with my mother to take him to his truck or pick him up after he had completed a run. I saw the loading docks and the big, ocean going ships. Even before I started school in 1944, I knew that there was a shipyard in Stockton where ships were being built for the navy, knew that when someone said, “Ship’s in,” there would be crowds of sailors in town, handsome sailors in summer whites or winter blues.

The old port area where the Delta Queen docked has been redeveloped and gentrified in recent years, but when I lived in Stockton that area was still a working port, a no-nonsense place of thick rough boards, truck yards, loading machinery and the kind of taverns that truckers and dock workers could walk into and feel at home. It was in one of those taverns where Dad and Uncle Stan found work tending bar when they arrived from San Francisco in 1935.

I went into a couple of the taverns in the port area when I was a girl. Dad occasionally took me with him when he visited the bars that were part of his social life. Usually those were the plush, up-scale places frequented by Stockton’s prosperous businessmen, but once or twice the place we went to was in one of the old, dingy brick buildings down by the docks. This had been the town’s main shopping area back in the 1800s, but the department stores and dress shops moved away from the river long before I was born. It was the low-rent area when I saw it, the old store buildings used for light-industry and storage, the display windows dirty, filled with dusty boxes and pieces of machinery. The taverns in the neighborhood had also once been stores, narrow establishments extending deep into the block of buildings, their old display windows partially covered with faded curtains gathered on tarnished brass rods that went across the lower third of the glass. Behind those windows were cavernous, very plain rooms with oiled wood floors, a bar running down one side, old tables encircled by equally old wood chairs against the opposite wall.

Entering one of them, Dad and I would go up to the bar where I would use the brass foot rail as a step for climbing onto a high stool. Dad usually didn’t sit down. He would just rest his foot on the rail, lean up against the bar and order a grenadine-and-soda for me, a whiskey for himself. Dad usually knew the bartender and would introduce me to him, then look around to see who else was in the bar. He would nod hello, visit a bit with whoever was there, whether strangers or old acquaintances.

Dad quit working in bars before I was born, but I can easily see him behind the bar, wearing a white apron, serving up drinks, keeping the customers in a good mood. He knew how to make all the popular drinks, was neat and efficient in his movements. But I also know why he quit. Dad preferred being in front of the bar, “shooting bull”, telling stories, visiting and laughing—singing if any of his brothers were around, my dad singing lead, baritone or tenor as needed, depending on which of his brothers were there. If it was Stan, who sang tenor, then Dad would sing lead while Stan played guitar and harmonized above him, both of them having fun with the song and catching up the people around them into their laughter and banter. Entertainers, with the entertainer’s love of the spotlight.

In his story, after mentioning the decision to go to Stockton, Dad says he felt like going to church, and that hearing there was a Mennonite church there decided to check it out. That statement sounds very simple, but the facts were not. My father’s feelings towards the Mennonite church were very ambiguous. He was a baptized member of the Mennonite Brethren church, but though he basically believed in its understanding of Christian faith, he resented its discipline and refused to live within it. The Mennonite Brethren were not Plain People like the Mennonites of Pennsylvania. They had no distinctive dress or any reservations about the use of technology—tended, in fact, to love their cars and tractors. They did, however, believe very strongly in what they termed “being separate from the world.” They were not supposed to look “worldly”—lipstick and other cosmetics were frowned on, clothes were supposed to be modest—and they were not supposed to act “worldly”—no movies, no dancing, no card playing, no visiting taverns or pool halls or bowling alleys. Church members who flouted those prohibitions were subject to church discipline, ranging from an initial indication of concern all the way up to excommunication for stubborn refusal to live within the communal discipline. My dad did almost all those forbidden things. He went to movies; he loved to dance, and he loved the life he found in the bars. Bowling and pool didn’t hold much attraction for him, nor did card playing, but he would have done them if he felt like it. So why did he decide to “check out” the Mennonite church when he was in Stockton?

For one, my dad did basically believe in what he had been taught. There was a definite pull there, an acknowledgement deep down of the church’s moral and religious authority. The Mennonite church was also home in the way that his family was home. It was where his ideas and values had taken shape. It was part of him even in his argument with it. To go to a Mennonite church was to be with people who, even when they disagreed, shared the same mental baseline, worked with the same concepts and basic understandings. My dad also really liked the people in the Mennonite churches, loved to visit and talk, explore family connections. Other Mennonites were not just family in the figurative sense. A good many of them were actually related “by blood,” or through marriage, if family trees were explored far enough. —But there was another reason my father decided to go to church that November Sunday in 1935. My dad wanted to meet girls, and as he told me on the phone, the Mennonite church was a good place to do just that.


The Mennonite church my dad visited was in Lodi, a farming town about 11 miles north and a bit east of the old part of Stockton where he was tending bar. Dad didn’t have a car. To get to the church he would have hitched a ride out to Highway 99 on the east edge of Stockton, then caught a car or truck that would take him the rest of the way to Lodi where he would have found a small sign that said “Mennonite Brethren Church, one block” with an arrow pointing east up Pine Street. Asking the driver to stop, thanking him for the ride, my father would have walked the long block up to the church.

The church was in an older residential area, a pleasant one with mature walnut and sycamore trees in the strip between curb and sidewalk as well as in the yards of the modest houses—white painted shiplap-sided rectangles set narrow side to the street with deep, covered porches stretching the entire front of the house, mature camellias, hydrangeas, calla lilies, softening the foundations. In summer, it was a street of deep shade with splotches of sun. In November, when my dad first walked up that street, the tree canopy would have been thinner, some of the leaves lying dry on the sidewalk, crunching under my father’s feet.

As my father came to the end of the block he would have seen the church hugging the sidewalks on the northeast corner of the intersection where Pine crossed Garfield. The church was another white shiplap-sided wood rectangle like the houses that surrounded it, but much larger, set high off the ground on a concrete foundation pierced with basement style windows, a large, gabled porch on the front facing Pine with a half-flight of concrete steps leading down each side of the porch to tree shaded paved areas that filled in the space between steps and city sidewalk. Like most Mennonite churches, it was very plain, built to be serviceable. There was no steeple, no cross, no stained glass windows. But the windows were tall pointed arches lighting an interior that was obviously two stories high. One had no doubt it was a church even without reading the name “Mennonite Brethren Church” above a black-backed glass case with moveable white letters inside that gave the time of services and the sermon title for the current Sunday.

The Lodi church had about 300 members in the 1930s. The sidewalks around the church would have been filled, children running around burning off energy after being released from Sunday School, adults gathered in groups talking and visiting before the service began, teen-agers gathered in gender-separate groups, covertly eying each other.

Dad probably spotted the group of girls standing in front of the church even before he crossed the street. I can see him, a younger version of the father I knew as a child, making a bee-line for them, smiling in anticipation of the excitement his entry into the group would create. According to my dad, he made quite an impression on those girls, said they were all competing for his attention. I tend to smile at my dad’s unselfconscious “crowing,” but I’ve no doubt those girls pulled up their shoulders, tucked in their stomachs, quickly exchanged excited glances. Dad wasn’t strikingly handsome. His eyes were pale blue, his hair light brown, fine and never thick even when he was young. He was only 5’7’’ inches tall. But he had a nice straight nose, good skin that would have been tanned from the summer’s work in the vineyards. He had well muscled shoulders and arms, an excellent posture that made him look taller than he actually was. He moved with grace and confidence, wore his clothes with style. And at twenty-one years old, he was glamorously “older.”

Dad says in his story that “he was alerted that one girl was very quiet and shy.” I have never thought of my mother as shy. “Quiet,” yes. Mom was very quiet, that quietness central to who she was. But I would not have used the word ‘shy’ with the word ‘quiet.’ The mother I knew was quiet and calm. There was a quiet confidence that created calm and peace around her, attracted people to her. But when Dad met her, ‘shy’ might have been the right word. Mom was only fourteen, in the first semester of her freshman year at Lodi High School. And I know she had no confidence in how she looked at that age, had no sense of being pretty or attractive. The mother I knew as a child was beautiful, with shiny brown hair that looked like melted chocolate when she brushed and combed it each afternoon before my dad came home from work. She had an oval face, smooth fine-textured skin, lovely blue-green eyes with nicely arched brows and clear fair skin, a neat, well-proportioned figure—36-26-36 she told me proudly. In pictures taken in the 1940s, when Mom was in her mid-twenties, she sits and stands straight and proud. Her hair is beautifully done; her clothes fit her perfectly. She is gorgeous and looks as if she knows it.

But my mother did not look like that at fourteen. In the photo taken of her class when she graduated from the eighth grade—a picture taken only six months before she met my dad—she looks very different from pictures taken in her mid-twenties. In the graduation photo she sits slumped, her shoulders rounded. Her dark blond hair is short and straight, slicked back from her face leaving her roman nose vulnerable and prominent. Mom kept that graduation photo in the family album that sat on our coffee table, but she really did not like how she looked in it. She didn’t like her posture, her hair or the anklets and brown oxfords under her flower-sprigged white dress. Looking at this photo with me when I was a girl, she said once that it took her a long time to learn how to dress and do her hair. Silently I agreed with her.

My mother looks so young in her graduation photo—just a girl, a young, young teen, barely out of childhood, just at the beginning of blossoming into a woman. Did she still look that young when my dad met her the following November? Girls do change rapidly at that age. She had started high school, seen how the older girls there dressed and did their hair. Had she begun to experiment with her own hair? Had she begun to secretly wear lipstick at school?

Curiously, it was only after I read Dad’s story about meeting my mom that I thought to ask him what my mother looked like on the morning he first saw her. He said simply, “She was beautiful.” When I pressed for specific details, all he could add was, “Well, she always had a beautiful figure.” He could add no more. The years had erased the details, left just the impression of loveliness. I smiled, remembering my mother’s dissatisfaction when she looked at the graduation photo. I was touched that my dad saw beauty in that awkward, unstylish girl. He had seen loveliness, and I decided to look at the photo again, this time looking for what he might have seen. I saw that my mother’s face really was pretty. There are those lovely eyes, that smooth skin—a sweet, fresh look to her face, the lovely line of her slender bare arms. And yes, there is a slender figure, a nice figure, hidden by those slouched, rounded shoulders. Even her dress looks pretty, not shapeless as I had remembered it.

“I guess it was love at first sight,” Dad said on the phone when I pressed for more details about the scene in front of the church. I do not believe in love at first sight. I am not the romantic my father was. I do know, however,that whatever it was Dad felt that morning did become love—a love that was often irritable,cranky, demanding—but one that lasted the rest of his life.

Reno Wedding

As I said, we were married in January of ’36. I called Agnes and said, “Let’s go to Reno to get married.” So her brother Johnny and his wife, Tessie, (a big woman), in his Olds started for Reno [where we] got married.

On the way back, with Johnny sitting on Tessie’s lap. I was driving, and up the hill came a tanker truck, with a woman … trying to pass the truck. She couldn’t make it. The best I could do was slam the two vehicles together. This was at Apple Tree at five in the morning. So we were afoot. We hitched a ride to Sacramento and then to Stockton.

The next morning I was put in jail in Stockton for child stealing. I was there for two weeks, and then I was let out until my federal hearing with Judge Young. He called me into chamber and said,

“This calls for seven years. If you agree I will let you out. Here is the agreement. It is that you will leave San Joaquin county for seven years.”

This meant that I couldn’t see Agnes for seven years. What to do?

So I rented 40 acres on the other side of Smith Mountain, of bare land, and put in cotton. Three months later, I went to a lawyer, and he said,

“Can you support a wife? If so we will get a judge in the Superior Court to marry you.”

--And that is how we got started on our fifty years of married life. She was a very good helpmeet. Jacob Willems, October 26, 2000

My parents had only known each other for about six weeks when my dad convinced Mom to run away to Reno with him and get married. She was in the middle of her freshman year in high school and would not turn fifteen until the end of May 1936. My dad was not that ridiculously young, twenty-one when they married, but he had even less education—quitting school just before the end of the eighth grade, running away from home at sixteen to live and work with his brothers on farms in the area south of Fresno. When Dad asked Mom to marry him he was working as a short order cook at the 99 Café in Lodi where his brother Stan was tending bar. My father’s proposal took place during the middle of the Great Depression, and my mother’s Yes meant that she would join my dad in the floating life he had been leading—moving from place to place whenever he got restless, looking for adventure and opportunity, picking up whatever work he could find—pruning vines, cutting and drying grapes, packing peaches, cooking in cafes—and living in whatever was cheap or free—run down cabins, rooms in friends or relatives’ houses, even tents at times.

My mom seems such an unlikely candidate for either eloping at fourteen or living this kind of precarious life. She was a quiet girl, a good student who loved school, loved to read—a sensible girl, responsible, dependable, a girl who thought she might like to be a school teacher or nurse. Mom’s teachers and the people at her church must have been nearly as shocked and surprised as her parents when it was learned that young Agnes had run away with Jacob Willems, the likeable, foot-loose young man who had no money, no car and no job that any responsible adult could see as promising.

It wasn’t as if my mom had a terrible home situation that drove her to seek any means of escape. Her parents were kind people, and there was a lot of freedom in the home—too much freedom, perhaps, with ten children—too many to really keeps tabs on—and an indulgent mother who would usually say, “Kids have to be kids,” when one of them got into trouble. Nor was the family poverty-stricken. They were not rich, but they had a prosperous farm with a large, roomy house, ample food and enough money that my grandpa could afford to send my mom’s younger sister, Sylvia, away to Tabor College, a Mennonite Brethren school in Kansas—an irony really, since Sylvia was no student and did not get beyond the first year, perhaps did not even complete it. No, though my grandpa was a man who seems to have valued education, served many years as Sunday School Superintendent of the Lodi Mennonite Brethren Church, Mom was the only one of his children who was anything like him. Most of the kids took after their mother, my Grandma Young—sturdy, active, practical with no intellectual inclination.

So why did my mother elope with my dad? Even though my mother’s furious parents had my dad arrested when he and my mom returned from Reno—taking him to court for prosecution and official nullification of the marriage license—there was no question about her willingness to marry him. She was not kidnapped, not coerced. It was simply that my mom was only fourteen, my dad twenty-one. She was too young to legally consent to marriage, and he was already a legal adult who should have known that my mother’s lying about her age on the marriage certificate made that document invalid. But my dad was not that wise. Even though he was 21, legally adult, he was still really a kid, unsophisticated in the ways of the law. He probably saw taking marriage vows and signing a marriage certificate as truly sacramental, something verging on magical, acts that could not be undone once accomplished. To both my parents that Reno wedding was real. When they said, “I do” they saw themselves as truly becoming husband and wife. January 16, 1936 was the date they celebrated each year, the day they marked as their wedding anniversary—not the day in the following March when they went before the judge to be legally declared husband and wife.

In my dad’s story that March wedding before a judge was entirely the result of his own initiative. He does not mention that my mother’s parents’ had to give permission, that the judge would not have performed the marriage without talking to my grandparents. It was Mom who told me why her parents finally agreed. There were two main reasons, she said. The first was that she, my mother, had “pined” so much for my dad that her parents slowly gave in. The second reason was that my Grandma and Grandpa Young had heard Dad’s mother and two of his sisters sing at the Lodi MB Church when the trio stopped there on a tour of West Coast Churches that extended up through California, Oregon, Washington State and into British Columbia. My Grandma and Grandpa Young knew that Grandma Willems and her daughters sang regularly on a Christian radio station, knew that she was a deeply respected member of the Reedley MB Church. I also have a memory of Mom telling me that my Grandma Willems came up to Lodi from Dinuba to talk to her parents about the young couple. She said it was that conference that made her parents willing to go to the judge and give their permission for the remarriage.

My father may actually have initiated the events that led to the official March marriage. He was a person of high initiative, had a lot of audacity. But I also understand why he omits any mention of anyone else playing an active role in this event. For one, my dad was firmly and strongly the central actor in the story of his life. All others, including my mother, played supporting roles. Also, Dad deeply resented that Grandma and Grandpa Young had sworn out a warrant for his arrest and had him prosecuted for child stealing. He wanted to shut them out of the story as much as possible.

That arrest and time in jail must have come as a terrible shock to my dad. He was not a criminal. His intent had been honorable. When he promised to love, honor and defend my mother for the rest of his life he really meant it. He must have felt outraged and humiliated. And even deeper than the anger, I think, he felt deeply hurt that my Grandma and Grandpa Young could not see his worth, his real value. He had given himself to my mother when he said his vows, and my grandparents had rejected that offered life, rejected the promise and value he felt in himself, treated him as if he were worthless, something to be ejected from their daughter’s life as quickly as possible.

I understand the anger my dad carried to the end of his life. I feel his hurt. But at this stage of my life I side with my Grandma and Grandpa Young. I am now the mother of grown daughters, and I know that I would have been as furious as they were if a twenty-one year old man had talked one of them into eloping with him. Actually, in their shoes, I would never have agreed to the remarriage.

But that is my adult view. When I was a child I saw the story of my parent’s marriage only through my parent’s eyes, my father’s telling. I saw their story as a great romance, like Romeo and Juliet or Cinderella and Prince Charming. My parents had been fated for each other—that seemed a given, an incontrovertible fact. My mother’s parents simply hadn’t understood that. But that lack of understanding seemed fated as well. My grandparents’ role in this great romantic drama was that of antagonists—a role as necessary as that of hero or heroine, necessary to test the determination of the lovers, necessary for there to be any drama at all. I saw my parents’ marriage as their destiny. That marriage had eventually produced me. How could events have been otherwise?

My parents were romantically in love with each other till the end of their lives. I could feel that romance even though the marriage was far from perfect. My father was not an easy man to live with, and I often felt my mother’s inarticulate frustration, the anger she never learned how to express. Yet I also sensed that deep down Mom continued to see my dad as a handsome, dashing prince who had entered her quiet life, picked her up and placed her behind him on his charger to ride off into a future of romance and adventure. Like Cinderella, she had been singled out from a bevy of well-dressed, flirtatious contenders by a glamorous, virile young man, a man who could see her value and beauty in spite of her drab clothes, her quiet ways.

In saying Yes to my father Mom chose romance, adventure and being the chosen one, the central person in the life of a forceful, romantic young man who promised to always take care of her. She went from being simply part of a pack of ten children to being the only one, the beloved.

About the Author

Loretta Willems

Loretta Willems is a former high school English teacher who began the formal study of theology in mid-life, eventually completing the M.A. in Philosophical Theology and the Ph.D. in Theology & the Arts from the Graduated Theological Union in Berkeley, California. The first public draft of her book about her Mennonite Brethren family is posted on-line at http://www.lwillemsmennostory.blogspot.com . Loretta currently lives in Green Valley, Arizona. 'Mennonite' is still a firm part of her identity even though she has not been able to actively participate in a Mennonite congregation since leaving the San Francisco Bay area.