Being Resilient

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Written Summer of 2014

I looked in awe as I watched my mother and my aunt turn and walk to the door at Souderton Mennonite Homes, compassionately leaning on each other, yet also steadying each other. My mother has struggled with congestive heart failure in recent months and my aunt has been receiving chemotherapy for cancer, but off they went, finding the support and encouragement they needed together.

We all need to feel needed. I’ve recently realized this as I have been searching for a new job that uses my 50 year old gifts and helps me cope with an empty nest. I realize it’s not an easy place to be…plenty of educational degrees and spunk to last a lifetime, but nevertheless…over 50. How do I continue to feel like a vital part of life when my daughter, my last child, travels 1000 miles away to study architecture at Iowa State University? That distance alone has my heart reeling. What if she needs me? What if she gets sick? What if she feels alone and desperate and yet is so far away? I could use a stimulating job to distract me.

So what keeps people like my mother and my aunt going when they’ve experienced health issues and have lost husbands and other loved ones? Resiliency seems to be what keeps the newly ousted New York Times executive editor, Jill Abramson, moving forward. She touted in a speech to Wake Forest University, “It meant more to our father to see us deal with a setback and try to bounce back than to watch how we handled our successes. Show what you are made of…” In a recent article from the Boston Globe, Deborah Kotz suggests tips on developing resiliency:
1. Have a sense of realistic optimism. Stay positive in the face of adversity.
2. Rely on a social support system. You need friends and loved ones to buoy you in times of distress.
3. Work from your strengths, not your weaknesses. Write down the five things that are best about you and let those things lead you, rather than listing deficiencies that need to be overcome.
4. Set goals. Research indicates that people who establish goals are more resilient.
5. Be mindful. Acknowledge that opportunities abound. Part of being mindful also involves being authentic in how you handle the situation. Knowing that you are staying true to yourself throughout can make you more resilient.
6. Embrace the small rough patches. See minor challenges — like dealing with a new boss or a flood in your basement — as a way to build your resiliency over time.
7. Adopt an attitude toward gratitude. Rather than dwelling on all the things you don’t have or used to have, think of what you do have that you can be grateful for.

These are things my mother and my aunt must have learned a long time ago…because at ages 96 and 91, they certainly are resilient.

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My Childhood by Sara Benner

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Written ~2003

When I was a child, I lived on a farm on Snyder Road, near Lansdale, Pennsylvania. I remember we had two horses named “Prince” and “Tops” and about 30 cows and many chickens. In the summer when we weren’t in school, my sister and I had to mind the cows, so they wouldn’t get into the corn fields nearby. They were supposed to graze on the grass in the meadow. We also had to clean buckets of eggs and put them in crates. Our father would then take them to an auction to be sold. But we also had time to play with our dolls and I especially liked to play “storekeeper.” I would wrap up blocks and pretend I was selling them.

I remember, too, how I liked to watch the barn swallows that made nests under the overshoot of our barn. There was a colony of ants that made their home in an old apple tree in our yard and I spent a lot of time watching them going in and out of their holes in the side of the tree. They were always so busy and I wondered why.

I enjoyed going to church and Sunday school because I enjoyed singing the hymns we sang. Our first car was an Overland. It was an open car and when it got cold, my Dad would fasten some isinglass curtains around the sides and we could hardly see out.

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When we had a lot of snow in the winter, Dad would get out the big sleigh and hitch the horses to it and take the cans of milk to the Dairy and then take us to school. He sometimes put a string of bells around the horse’s neck and it sounded Christmassy going to school. We didn’t have days off back then for snow. We often walked home from school in deep snow. We had a lot of fun doing it, and enjoyed the sleigh rides especially.

Happy Birthday, Daddy!

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Written Fall of 2013

On this Nov 7th, I celebrate you, Daddy. Had you lived, you would be 95 today. I wish I could go back in time and enjoy being your daughter again. I loved your sense of humor. When you felt good, we all felt good. Whether it was a game of Dictionary or meeting an old friend, your smile lit up the room and your laughter was full-fledged, no holding back. Now, often you poked fun at others, like telling friends at the end of a visit that I looked like your aunt Lizzie when she was in her 70’s, but your off-handed humor always brought ripples of laughter. (I wish I had known your aunt Lizzie because I’m sure I really look like her now that I’m in my 50’s.)

But more than your laughter, I miss your travel lust and your sense of adventure. When you put on those 1950’s style sunglasses with an Hawaiian shirt, we knew we were in for the time of our lives. We would have followed you anywhere as exciting as you made it sound and as talkative as you were on the way there.

I also miss your sense of style. I see it when you were younger in your tie pins and your Fedora hats. Where did you ever get that flair for the unpredictable and the unknown in your protected Mennonite world?

Where are you, Daddy? I miss you.

“Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every,every minute?” Emily Webb, Our Town

Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday

Left to right, front row: Kermit Styer holding son James, Edna Benner Styer, Irene Benner, Ruth Wismer, Elizabeth Souder, Doris Souder, Lois Ruth, Ruth Kolb (later Essick), Becky Yoder (later Weaver), Dorothy Benner (sister to Edna and Irene). Back row: Charles Yoder, Arlene Kolb (later Yoder), David Hostetler, Anna Pearl Longacre (later Hostetler), Ruth Hendricks, Gerald Souder, John Ruth, Enos Weaver, Ernest Hange.

Musings of an Old Picture

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Written Spring of 2013

I never really knew my grandparents. My parents were nearing their mid-40s when I was born, so my grandfather Benner had already passed away. Through my life, I have often wondered what he was like. Was he really as stern as my dad and siblings tell me? Some say he never laughed. Well, recently when my uncle passed away, a picture resurfaced that I’d never seen before.

At the center with a big smile is my Grammy Benner, the woman that I supposedly resemble in appearance and demeanor. She looks very happy in this 1950’s picture. She looks like I remembered her…a small, rather tiny woman with a long narrow face. I was six when she died, but I remember her tight squeezes that took my breath away and the Blockhead game and cheese pretzels I enjoyed in her dining room. If I think hard, I can even faintly see this room where my relatives are gathered that is bedecked with round ivy on the window sill. It’s the dining room which is close to the adjoining kitchen. In this picture, my grammy appears to be reading a letter. I like to think it was a letter from Irene who attended Eastern Mennonite School /College to get a teaching degree. Whatever it is she is reading, she is laughing about it or about someone’s comments.

But there is Grandpop Benner, the man I never met, in the side lines, close to Grammy with a big smile on his face. Okay it might be more like a grin, but he looks noticeably amused. Everyone on the picture is amused by the action. I love the expression on Uncle Kermit’s face. The thing that sparked his humor must have been good. Behind him are my cousin Beatrice, my Aunt Margaret and I presume my Uncle Marvin. It’s kind of an odd assortment of people because they represent 3 different families, but they are all related to Benners. And at the moment, enjoying it.

This picture is now on my computer desktop and I can’t stop staring at it and enjoying it throughout the day. It’s like a glimpse of time that is long gone but shows so much more than a row of lined up people facing the camera. It shows fun and laughter. It shows my Grammy in very plain Mennonite attire, complete with black covering strings and white apron. Compared to her simple gray dress, my Grandpop is dressed impeccably and quite fashionably in his metal armbands and white dress shirt. His sense of style comes through even if sublimated in white and black. Yet there he is, resembling my dad in his well-manicured appearance and his ruddy skin. There he is in the flesh. And he’s laughing…what they said he never did.

Chestnut Street Memories by Dick Benner

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Written May 7, 2013 by my cousin, Dick Benner, on the passing of our Uncle Willard

Memorial services for my Uncle Willard Benner at Vincent Mennonite Church, Spring City, Pa., marks the end of an era—the last of a generation of Benner brothers—all five of them, including my father, Paul.  It also conjures up lots of good memories of the large Dutch gable patriarchal house on 240 Chestnut St., Souderton.

These are the “men” of my childhood, in order, Paul, my father the eldest, followed by uncles Edwin, Marvin, Merrill and Willard—all good-looking, slender types, all hard-working blue collar, all a little resentful of the lifestyle and demands of their bourgeois bosses, the Fenstermakers of Granite Hosiery Mill where they all, except Edwin, labored, in not a badly paid craft.  Oh my, the grumble sessions at Sunday gatherings; you would have thought they were all indentured serfs living under the merciless demands of the landed gentry.

The griping was offset, though, with the good and often loud humor of Uncle Merrill, who insisted we had “Indian blood” in our veins, making all of the men “hunters” and the women the “gatherers.”  My father would roll his eyes and grin; Uncle Marvin would always laugh it off and Uncle Willard, the youngest, was enamoured with the dramatic connection, even though it was more legend than genealogy.  Uncle Eddie, a little mentally challenged, thought it a silly joke, but joined the laughter to keep the peace.

But I was young, happy and far removed from the din of the workplace, so what stands out for me were the happy times—the joys of hunting season, complete with the baying of the beagles as they rounded up the rabbits in the fields, the large garden and grapevines of the big yard leading out to the garage, the swing set under the cherry tree.  And oh, those ground cherry pies.  And rabbit pie.  Yum!

Grandmom Benner was always cheery and happy to see us; Grandpop, a lot more stern, but with a slap-happy pat on the shoulder, would always fish for a quarter on our birthdays and both would chime the same words every time:  “My, my, how big you are getting.” 

If you could escape from the stories of drudgery in the living room, where the uncles gathered, you could always go to the parlor in the front of the house where the ornate piano with pedals would accompany the familiar hymns as we gathered round in wonderful four-part harmony.

I enjoyed the family stories my Dad would tell about how, in leaner times, the food had to be carefully divided so that each in this large family would get enough.  The boys would count the thumb indentures of the pie crust so that each one got exactly the same; Uncle Eddie would hide his piece under the table till everyone had consumed theirs, then bring it up to his plate and deliciously and loudly smack his lips while the others looked hungrily on—hugely annoyed with his antics.

Uncle Willard was only a year older than my brother, Ernest, who, had he lived beyond his 14 years, would now be 79, as Beatie has noted.  I never really thought of Willard as an uncle, but more as an older brother.  He was quiet, but really, really smart, having perhaps the most scientific brain of the bunch, capable of some type of engineering had he the opportunity and self-confidence to pursue such a career.

While I don’t know the details of his romance, he must have made an important connection with our family living in Spring City because he found the love of his life in Marjorie Bechtel, from one of the reputable and accomplished families of our church community.  And when he served his 1-W service in Brattleboro, Vermont, I thought he was the “coolest” uncle on earth.

His handwriting, always a standout in the family “circle letter,” was signature Benner calligraphy; his eye for beauty and the inspiration of nature captivating you from his camera lens.  His was more than amateur photography; it was a work of art.  In fact, he was gardener, artist, photographer, part engineer and scientist all wrapped up in one.

But you would never know it because he would never draw attention to himself.  An introvert, of course, he always deferred to those considered better and more talented than himself, but he was way too modest.  He seemed to suffer, far too much, from a poor self-image when he could have asserted himself as a multi-talented person—beyond his more aggressive peers.

May he rest in peace and in the arms of a loving Creator who gave him 80 good years of faith and family.  And may his passing mark the end of an era of the good and productive lives of the five sons of Charles and Leanna Benner.
Amen.