Songs for My Mother - Miriam L. Weaver, a Woman who Lived Beyond Boundaries

Sometimes boundaries need to be understood in a transgressive way, when persons thought of as insiders have actually had to live outside the generally accepted borders containing cultural clout, control, comfort, convention, and community norms. Due to life events, chosen and unchosen, my staunchly Mennonite mother Miriam L. Weaver, 1922-1997, had to live outside many boundaries guarding preferred lifestyle, leadership, opportunity, and pay equity. These areas affected dress, marital status, education, work and leadership. This essay deals not only with factors within my mother's life, but also with manners and stylistic idioms with which I, as a composer, have crafted songs to express these moments in her life, using entries from her Lost Creek Journal[1] as text for the songs.

While it is an inordinate challenge for any composer to set journal-entry words to music, a task I have frequently embraced,[2] requiring longer narrative text to be paired down to basic verse, it is an even larger challenge to deal with words written and spoken by one's own mother. The possibility of resultant music becoming maudlin, sophomoric, overly personal, or myopic is of course daunting. However, I have trusted that this exercise could allow for universal meanings to emerge, and for stories to travel beyond the life of my mother, thus relating to other listeners and readers. The medium of the songs – vocals and piano – captures the sounds I grew up hearing – my mother playing hymns on the piano while singing alto. It is with this confidence that I not only composed the music, Songs for My Mother, but that I attempt to contexturalize both the stories and the resultant music I created. Analysis of one's own music is at times required in order to explain life events from which music itself is created.

Born August 28, 1922 in Park View, Harrisonburg, Virginia, on what is now the campus of Eastern Mennonite University, to Chester K. (for whom the current EMU chapel is named) and Myra K. Lehman, my mother had excellent opportunities to succeed within her community – a professor/writer/musician/pastor father, an intellectual life-learner/voracious reader/engaging personality for a mother. One of the first items of 'difference' or "outsider-syndrome" had to do with required Mennonite women's distinctive dress, which, from early girlhood through adulthood, kept them visibly outside mainstream North American attire of the day – a price paid much more specifically by Mennonite women, than men. Not unlike the handmaids depicted in the 2017 TV drama of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale,[3] Mennonite women's heads were securely covered by coverings at home and church (one may need to pray at any moment, and, as explained to me as a child, God may not hear a prayer if coming from an uncovered woman's head), and bonnets in public. Already, my mother, along with all the other female Mennonites of her day, knew her 'place' as a 'marked person'. At times during the Second World War, Mennonites were jeered in Harrisonburg, Virginia due to their pacifist status. But ironically, distinctively dressed Mennonite women were marked long after this war ended.

Yet another area of having to live "outside" came from musical instrument restrictions. My mother was very musical, played piano by ear, and craved each moment on this magical musical landscape. But instrumental music was neither allowed in churches, nor in homes of either Virginia Mennonite ministers or EMC (Eastern Mennonite College) faculty members during the 1930s, and my Grandfather was both. So the piano had to go. As a young girl my mother did as many workarounds as possible, playing at other people's pianos, singing everywhere, but living outside the norm of the kind of musical expression and training she so desired.

However, there were times my mother intentionally chose to live outside the boundaries of typical 40s American modern lifestyle. After high school, several years at EMC, and a short stint teaching in rural Virginia, my mother married Melvin Weaver, a fellow EMC student who grew up on a farm in Kalona, Iowa, was studying to be a teacher and pastor, and possessed considerable mechanical and practical skills. Together, they decided to move to a highly challenging area in Appalachian Kentucky to work under the Virginia Mennonite Conference, teaching, establishing a church, and doing 'community development,' long before the term existed. From these years of chosen lifestyle deprivations, yet possibly the happiest years of her life, my mother, a born writer/journaler/secretary, articulately chronicled her pioneer life – rugged house without electricity, modern conveniences, or close neighbours; needing to use primitive equipment such as the flat iron, ride horses rather than drive cars, and pump water from a well; learning how to live among and communicate with their Hard Shell (primitive) Baptists neighbours in this remote, mountainous region of Kentucky. The sheer joy of living outside a 'modern' lifestyle, and defying the challenges of this primitive existence speaks for itself. My mother's journal becomes a valuable document of certain unique components of American pioneer living, where 'more' has to be made out of 'less.'

From the opening sections of Lost Creek Journal, p. 1, 3, my mother describes their house, which became their home. From these words below, I crafted lyrics for the first song in the group, "Feedsack Curtains," heard online here.[4]

The roads between our little house on Lost Creek and Paintsville were hard to travel even in the best weather; we had no telephone and no neighbors near enough to call by voice; the house had no running water or even a good well and no electricity. The floors and walls of the house were rough and splintery, but it was our own home for the present. . . Eventually I made some feedsack curtains for the kitchen and dining room windows, we got some pictures up on the walls.

The song contains a patternistic, motor-like texture in the piano, in counterpart to the vocalist's syllabic, story-telling, narrative singing, describing the location, physical aspects of their house, and the distance from neighbours, while portraying a sense of starting life from scratch.

"Flat Iron" further describes routine household tasks involving, what was for my mother, a retro piece of equipment, as described in Lost Creek Journal, p. 3:

I had brought along from home some old flat irons that had been in the basement there for as long as I could remember. There was a wooden handle that attached to each iron when it was hot and ready to use. I learned to iron very fast to get as much mileage as possible from the hot iron and then took another one from the stove top and kept on with the job. Of course that meant working not too far from the stove even on very hot days.

For this song, patternistic textures again emerge in the piano, while the sense of repetition and physical labour become driving forces, resulting in dramatic flourish at the end of the piece.

Most intriguing were my mother's accounts of worship services of the local hard-core Southern Baptists referred to as Hard Shell Baptists.[5] These fiercely independent Baptists, sometimes referred to as "Primitive Baptists," had separated from more mainstream Baptists as early as 1832, following meetings in Black Rock, Maryland. These Calvinistic Hard Shells, at the time, practiced unison singing often resembling wailing, and were firmly opposed to Sunday Schools, theological education, mission projects, and use of musical instruments, while strongly believing in predestination, baptism by immersion, foot-washing, and the basic theology of humans being fully depraved without repentance and dependency on God. True to various Southern Baptist styles, services featured multiple preachers, whose voices started with normal speech but soon travelled into pitched, heightened chant, with ritualistic gasping for air. And, according to my mother's verbal accounts, when the congregation tired of one preacher, they could "sing down" or "pray down" the preacher, with multiple people praying at the same time. With keen eye and ear as sharp as any trained ethnomusicologist's, my mother described their musical worship practices with an accuracy and punch that drives home their fierce beliefs and unique customs.

My song "Hard Shell Baptists," containing energetic, declamatory riffs, with musical imagery describing speech/song patterns of the preachers, and the inordinate length of the services, is derived from my mother's stories of their services, and is based on text about a specific funeral service described in Lost Creek Journal, p. 3, 5, 6. The song is heard online.[6]

. . . our neighbors were Hard Shell Baptists and they had their own strongly held practices. While there were no churches within miles of our place, there were seasonal religious gatherings held outdoors or in schoolhouses. In the midafternoon the funeral was held outside. The Baptist people had charge of the service. First of all they sang. One man started and the rest came in one by one all in unison. It was loud, shrill singing with a melancholy sound to it very much in keeping with the occasion. Then the preacher began. He started in a natural voice but soon changed and in a short time was talking very loudly in a high-pitched voice with a a regular "ah" in still a higher pitch after every few words. It resembled a shrill cry of pain, and I could hardly understand what he was saying. There was much weeping and groaning of the family which was pitiful to hear, and altogether it was very sad. When the first preacher was finished, the second one preached and then they prayed, both speaking at the same time part of the time. There was more singing at the end. The songs were long and it took a long time with all the slurring.

After only five years of married live, my mother lost her husband in a plane accident in 1950. This tragedy became well known within the Mennonite world of Eastern USA, and has recently been chronicled by Geraldine W. Rush in Shenandoah Mennonite Historian.[7] My mother then had to live outside the accepted norm of marriage, raising a family and earning a living as a single parent. Not only were Mennonite widowed women afforded a certain amount of pity and lack of agency within church decision-making processes, but according to Mennonite historian Marlene Epp, who describes North American Mennonite culture during this era, "[Mennonite] families headed by widows were often viewed as incomplete."[8] As well, within the Mennonite community at this time, remarriage was seemingly more acceptable for men than women. In fact, while it would take another 50 years for Marlene Epp to be among the first historians to account for Mennonite women's loss of husbands within Mennonite migration history during/following the Second World War,[9] the complete story of "women without men" has never fully been written. My mother embraced single parenthood in an era when basic leadership within the Mennonite world was granted to men, not women, as handily explained by Frances Hiebert in her essay, "Gender in the Church."[10] In fact, it may seem that little had changed in terms of gender politics since the First Century, as New Testament scholar Dorothy Jean Weaver accounts for women in the book of Matthew, accordingly:

But beneath all the apparent normalcy and routine of this women's world lies a profound vulnerability pervading the lives of these women and shaping their life experiences in crucial, challenging, and sometimes brutal ways. Much of this vulnerability relates to women's status within a male-dominated society and patriarchal family structures.[11]

My mother was one of the few Mennonite mothers in her time to earn a graduate degree and teach full time, first at EMHS (Eastern Mennonite High School) in the 1960s, then at Eastern Mennonite University (formerly EMC) in the 1970s, until EMC closed down its two-year secretarial program. She became the first person in Rockingham County, Virginia to take and pass the rigorous, six-part National Secretaries Association exam, which she did according to colleague, Dorothy Logan, in order to "raise the awareness and reverse the demeaning image that secretaries had."[12] My mother also served on the Board of Mennonite Mutual Aid in the 80s, frequently travelling to Elkhart, Indiana for meetings. She had spent summers working on her Masters in Business Education, at VPI (now Virginia Tech in Blacksburg), while we girls stayed with our grandparents. On her deathbed she asked me if it had hurt us to have her away those summers. I told her unequivocally, "Mother, that's the best thing you could have ever done, being a role model to me, placing your own life and career first, and knowing all would be well!" In that regard she taught me invaluable lessons of going outside the norm, of trusting my own life, and following what I had to, was called to do in life – an rare gift to receive from a Mennonite mother of her day!

My mother found triumphant ways to experience joy. She sang in many choirs and played hymns on the piano; was an avid reader, always in book clubs, zealously tackling Rudy Wiebe (and other challenging writers); remained a keen birder; was an enthusiastic traveller to China, Europe, Africa, and Canada. She enjoyed humour vividly, often laughing till she cried. She immensely enjoyed food, and later on, wine.

Though living outside the bonds of marriage, my mother found many other ways to relate in close and meaningful connections with friends, family members, students, colleagues and church family throughout her life. No one mattered more to my mother than her three daughters and her three grandchildren, one of whom she addressed in her poem, "Lately Sprung" (for my daughter Myra). In this piece she uncannily understands the miracle of birth, and the inevitable pains and joys of life. Selected text from this poem became the basis for my song of the same title, a gentle "lullaby," which also addresses pains and losses in life.

So lately spring/my little one
In the dark you journeyed the dark tunnel
further joys and sorrows still to come
in care of newly named guardian angel/to watch you day and night
kept by love of God/of Father/of Mother

All was to change dramatically when, in 1997, at age 74, my mother was diagnosed with acute leukemia, and given several weeks to finish her full-some, vibrant life. To her, death was not a reward for a good life lived. It represented the sudden termination of a very in-progress life, where there was yet French to learn, Mennonite/s Writing conferences to attend, three grandchildren to follow, many books yet to read, and most of all, a vibrant, pulsing natural world to leave behind. At the end, her requested songs were of power and strength: "I Sing the Mighty Power of God", "Lift Your Glad Voices." At her deathbed, she developed a close friendship with a recently widowed man. Life could have brought her a second marriage, but she was destined to 'cross over' before realizing this sacrament. Moments before she was to die on Sept. 4, 1997, she gave a few, spare utterances about passage and crossing over, about death and life – poetry at its most basic – no extra words: "death is the hardest thing that I ever had to face; nothing can take away the sense of sadness at giving up life very precious to me." With confidence that she would not die alone, she expressed joy and hope, saying, "I want to experience life right to the very end. There must be a sense of joy moving to the end." From these sparse words, I created the two final songs, "Crossing Over" and "To the End." As a composer, it was essential for me to find the space between words, the silences between sounds, and to allow the musical statements to reflect my mother's firm belief in life up to, and beyond, the very end. "To the End" contains a lilting, stylized dance-like setting to the words, "there must be a sense of joy moving to the end," followed by an echo-like voice, as if coming from "beyond." This song can be heard online.[13]

My mother had became a kind of unintended pioneer, modeling new ways of being outside, while finding new sources of joy inside a life which was her very own, which carried her beyond any previous borders to the places she most wanted to be, thus inspiring many. As such, Songs for My Mother becomes a testimony to and musical chronicle of the life of an unassuming Mennonite woman whose story lives on.

[1] Lost Creek Journal is an unpublished collection of writings by Miriam L. Weaver, from August 1945 to August 1949, when she and my father lived in Lost Creek, Kentucky.

[2] My Paraguay Primeval, 2012, similarly based on journal entries, is derived from Schönbrunn Chronicles, translated by Henry Regehr (Waterloo: Sweetwater, 2009) recounting stories from the Schönbrunn Village in the Chaco colonies of Paraguay.

[3] The Bravo TV series of Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood's chilling The Handmaid's Tale directed by Reed Morano (http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a56327/reed-morano-handmaids-tale-emmy-nominations/ accessed August 4, 2017), styles the handmaids' mandatory head coverings similarly to required headgear worn by Amish and/or conservative Mennonite women mid 20th C. When seen in this context, these head coverings appear disturbingly oppressive and restraining rather than quaintly wholesome and pious.

[4] "Feedsack Curtains" from June 24, 2017, premiere at Eastern Mennonite University with Marge Maust, vocals/CAWeaver, piano: https://soundcloud.com/caweaver/feedsack-curtains-from-songs-for-my-mother-2017,accessedAug. 7, 2017

[5] HardShell Baptists, also referred to as Primitive Baptists, are further explained here:https://www.gotquestions.org/Primitive-Baptists.html,accessed Aug. 4, 2017.

[6] "Hard Shell Baptists" from June 24, 2017premiere at Eastern Mennonite University, Marge Maust, vocals/CAWeaver, piano: https://soundcloud.com/caweaver/songs-for-mother-3-hard-shell-baptists,accessedAug. 4, 2017

[7] Geraldine W. Rush, "The Tragic Loss of Jacob A. Shenk and Melvin Weaver," Shenandoah Mennonite Historian, Vol. 25, No 2, Spring (2017): 1-8.

[8] Marlene Epp, Mennonite Women in Canada: A History (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2008: 110).

[9] Marlene Epp, Women without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000).

[10] Frances Hiebert, "Gender in the Church," Women and Men: Gender in the Church, Carol Penner, ed. (Waterloo, Scottdale: Herald Press, 1998: 140-150.)

[11] Dorothy Jean Weaver, The Irony of Power: The Politics of God within Matthew's Narrative (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2017: 251)

[12] spoken by Dorothy Logan at Songs for My Mother session, Crossing the Line, June 24, 2017.

[13] "To the End" from June 24, 2017, premiere at Eastern Mennonite University with Marge Maust, vocals/CAWeaver, piano: https://soundcloud.com/caweaver/to-the-end-from-songs-for-my-mother-2017,accessedAug. 7, 2017

About the Author

Carol Ann Weaver

Carol Ann Weaver's genre-bending music is heard throughout North America, Europe, Africa, Korea and Paraguay, and on nine CDs. Her choral music is published by Cypress Press, and her writings in various journals. As Professor Emerita of Conrad Grebel/UWaterloo, Vice Chair of Canadian Association for Sound Ecology, and recent Chair of Association of Canadian Women Composers. Her Sound in the Land Festival/Conferences at University of Waterloo, focusing on Mennonite music, have brought together international musicians, scholars, ecologists and listeners. A celebrator of Mennonite writers, she has attended each Mennonite/s/ Writing conferences from 1990 on, and composed music on texts of many Mennonite writers including Julia Kasdorf, Rudy Wiebe, Ann Hostetler, Di Brandt, Jeff Gundy, Dora Dueck, Sheri Wagner, Connie Braun, and others.