When Getting There was Half the Fun

by Marie Zettler

The Germania Club of Pembroke played an important part in my formative years, and continues to do so. I’m a fourth-generation Canadian of German descent. We were proud Canadians and loyal British subjects, singing “God Save the Queen” (or King, whichever was the case at the time) and “The Maple Leaf Forever” with the best of them. However, my parents, especially my father, were adamant that we should honour and preserve our German heritage to the best of our ability. This was sometimes a challenge in the post-war Canadian climate, although made easier because we lived on the west side of Highway 41 at Rankin, in an area populated at that time almost entirely by people who shared our heritage. Furthermore, our British-heritage neighbours were too level-headed and fair-minded to let something that was happening half a world away destroy relationships that had spanned generations. My ancestors were part of a wave of immigration from Germany which started in the late 1850s, when Renfrew County asked the Canadian government for more immigrants. As a result, about 12,000 German immigrants came to the Upper Ottawa Valley within the next 30 years. Today about 20 per cent of Renfrew County’s people are descendants of these settlers, with smaller concentrations in other communities on both sides of the Ottawa River. Until the ’40s, German was spoken in most of the homes of these people, and worship services in German communities were conducted mainly in the German language. However, by about 1950 this was starting to wane. Post-war sentiments in the country rubbed off, especially on the younger folks, who sensed that it was no longer “cool” to be German. My parents were never into “cool,” and told us repeatedly that a language was a very light burden to carry and you never know when you would need it. Admittedly, while our German vocabulary was still pretty good, our grammar had taken a serious beating over four generations. However, we were still very well able to interact and communicate with the next big wave of German immigration: that which began about 1951. Our parents’ interest in the culture prompted them to seek out new arrivals and lend whatever support they could: in terms of rides to church for people who didn’t yet own cars, invitations to Sunday and Christmas dinners and even whole weekends for folks who didn’t have extended families; job search assistance, and in general lots of little things that today would fall under the heading, “networking.” It was natural that, when the word got around that a German club had been formed in Pembroke, our family would join. My parents, William and Olga Reiche, were not charter members; nor were they ever in the executive, as were some of the other Canadians of German descent. Robert Eggert, with his wife, Anna, and Werner Schutt, with his wife, Dora, come to mind. Other “old” Canadians involved in the club in the early days were the Bob Verch, John Gould, and Emil Scheuneman families, to name just a few. We missed few club events, including the dances that were held every second Saturday. For my father, the club provided an affirmation for so much of what he was about, something that he to his sorrow was  missing among so many of his Canadian friends and neighbours. I was 12 when the club was formed, and the connections we formed through it broadened my horizons immensely. Fast forward to 1958. One of our new friends told us a friend of his would like to come to Canada, but he needed a job and a place to stay until he got established. We really didn’t need a hired hand on our farm, but characteristically my father said “yes,” and in May of that year a young fellow named Bernhard Zettler showed up at our place. Shortly afterward, Papa enthusiastically connected him with the Pembroke Germania Club. However, in his willingness to help, Papa hadn’t factored in Cupid. Fifteen-year-old girls weren’t supposed to be thinking along those lines, at least not HIS daughters. My folks were quite relieved when Bernhard moved to Pembroke and got a job on construction. However, Cupid did not go away, and Bernhard would come to visit every Saturday evening. On dance nights, we would all go there. In the first place, my parents wanted to go, and in the second place, you couldn’t let a now 16-year-old girl out unchaperoned, could you? Like the good fellow he was, Bernhard offered to supply the transportation. His first vehicle was a Volkswagen pickup truck. What it economized in length with its flat nose it expended in width. The cab must have been designed for a very large driver. When Bernhard, who at 5 foot 8 weighed about 140 pounds wringing wet, sat behind the wheel, there was still about a foot of the long bench seat vacant on his left. So, while my parents sat on his right, where passengers were supposed to sit, I sat between him and the driver door. The fact that I had to operate the headlight dimmer switch in the floor, which was too far away for Bernhard to reach when I was sitting there, and even the clutch when he had to shift gears, was a small price to pay. We very much wanted to be together alone, but since this wasn’t possible, together with my parents on the other end of the bench seat was a good second-best. Had seatbelts been law then, we would have been sunk. For that matter, if there hadn’t been a Germania dance, Bernhard and I would have played a lot of chess at the kitchen table on Saturday nights. We were married in 1963, and the rest is history. We have kept up our club membership over the years, although we were less involved here during the years we were raising our own children. But in 1997, when the beautiful new hall was begging for creative ways to use it, I was part of a group of members kicking around the idea of a Christkindlmarkt, or German Christmas market. I volunteered for the committee for the first one, held in 1998, and have been on the committee for each one that has been held the last weekend of November since then. It has become a true celebration — not only of Christmas, but of team spirit and of the German heritage. I am also in my second year on the club’s executive. As I carry out various volunteer duties, I not only feel a tremendous sense of fulfillment on my own behalf, but think of how happy my father would be to see how the club has evolved with our Oktoberfests and Christkindlmarkts, our German classes, and our occasional singing group. And so, Papa, one of the toasts I drink as we celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary will be for you, and for all the others who began this work which I am now privileged to carry on. Ein Prosit!