The season seems to call for a little reflection. Instead of the past year it seemed like a good time to look at a few more – therefore reflecting on 50 years of an exciting life with a wonderful partner. If you prefer geopolitics – wait for the next post. In the meantime we wish both you and the world a year of Peace………
Reflecting on 50 years
Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 is known for the passage
“There is a time for everything……And a season for every activity under the heavens”.
Somehow the writer did not include “a time to give thanks” and that is what this essay is about.
Leona and I celebrated our marriage of 50 years on June 25, 2014. We celebrated our Creator, our family, our health and most important each other. The theme of the event was “Going for Gold” to stress the opportunity for more to come rather than the idea of “Golden Years” which implies decline and disappearing into the sunset. We believed 50 years was an accomplishment worthy of celebration!
The years have encompassed exhilaration, joy, stress, disappointment, family, discovery, travel, challenges and much more. We often end an evening looking into each other’s eyes and marveling that God and life have been so good to us – and at the love and friendship that has survived the years and hills and valleys.
The celebration with 250 guests took place in the historic Fort Garry Hotel. We used the entire 7th floor with two ballrooms and an imposing lobby. After the reception and welcome there was a program featuring music, our children and grandchildren plus a dramatized version of our life together using actors and media. This was followed by dinner with four cuisines to represent aspects of our life – Mennonite, Thai, India and Mexico. The evening ended with a jazz café and dessert.
The event was in stark contrast to the relatively simple and traditional Mennonite church wedding of 1965. The service was in my home church followed by a cold supper in the church basement – with much of the food prepared by family. The evening ended with a party for friends in our home. Leona was limited to two bridesmaids and the row of trumpeters in the balcony was a bit too much for my mother!
The guest list in 2015 included many friends from our beginnings but had expanded to include representation from the many different aspects of our life.
Like two ships in the night we met in 1963 at a Christian University Retreat – we attended different Universities and outside of this event it was unlikely that we would have met. Art had just returned from a summer on a motorbike exploring Europe and Leona from two years of Bible School. Art was raised in the City – albeit at the messy fringe while Leona was raised on the farm quite literally at the edge of civilization. We shared similar Christian traditions, the German language and an Eastern Europe Immigrant heritage.
Leona was an accomplished musician and brought her talent and love of the arts into the relationship. Art was already exploring issues and places beyond the horizon. These themes plus faith and family became the canvas for our life together.
Boston and Harvard
Our honeymoon involved a few days in the pristine northern Canadian woods at Minaki – and then we moved to Boston in our $55 Plymouth. Those two years established interests, patterns and friendships that have survived this half-century. For Art it was the exhilaration of being exposed to people and ideas at an institution that represented the apex of educational opportunity and challenges – and the discovery that he could compete successfully. Leona moved from the music experience of a small town and local church to the world of music and Arts at its best. Ballet meant the recently defected Soviet superstar Nureyev, opera the New York Met, participation in the Boston Philharmonic as singer, a professional singing role at Harvard and performing in concert with Duke Ellington. Leona thrived in this new world of culture. As a couple it allowed us to see ourselves on a larger stage of ideas and experiences and gave us the courage to accept challenges beyond the boundaries or our origins. We also became a genuine couple rather than separate extensions of our traditions, family and history.
Business and Return to Winnipeg
The return to Winnipeg was deliberate. Art wanted to hone his business skills where business offered freedom and personal opportunity but not the limitations of climbing the proverbial corporate ladder. Business has provided the financial freedom we desired but also management skills that were transferable to other spheres of life. Most important the business career resulted in access to global networks that have been critical in the other half of our lives.
Leona took the leadership with home and family. She was supportive of the family enterprise as Board member and interest in Employee issues. Leona created her own space in music, writing, support of the Arts and entertaining with a purpose. Both Art and Leona shared charitable interests such as LCC International University.
The Other Career – International, Refugees, Development……
In 1972 Art was invited to become Director of the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) program in Bangladesh. The new nation had just emerged from a devastating civil war with 3,000,000 casualties – plus we were assigned the region that had been hit hardest by the devastating tsunami a year earlier.
Art provided the leadership for an agricultural program focused on crop diversification to use the full 12 month cycle. The program was successful, won awards and contributed to a significant shift in the patterns of agriculture and survived in various forms for decades.
Leona was profoundly challenged by the misery of the refugee camps. She joined international colleagues and the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa) in establishing a center to rescue the most vulnerable infants and young children in a nearby camp. Leona brought her musical talents and became the piano player of reference for the local Dacca church.
Art became engaged in the larger political and management issues of the one million refugees inside Bangladesh and this became the foundation for understanding, relationships and experience which informed the many later refugee engagements.
From the perspective or our marriage these years resulted in a greater commonality of purpose and experience that has allowed us to share many aspects of the international challenge and lifestyle as a couple.
The 5 Year Plan
This Bangladesh assignment was compatible with our personal objectives as a couple. When we finished Harvard we decided to live our life in 5 year segments – with the idea that if we stayed too long in one place or career the ”ruts get too deep” and it becomes difficult to accept change. Our stated goal was to find an international assignment for the second 5 years. Art departed for Bangladesh 5 years and one week after graduation….Our movement through very different parts of the world and experiences has approximated the initial 5 year idea – but more important it provided a continuing framework for considering opportunity and change.
We had planned on family but when nature did not provide Bangladesh became an easier, unique and ultimately very successful path to children. Shanti and Tara became an integral part of our family – and along the way introduced two wonderful sons-in-law into the group and later grandchildren Leo, Sachin, Mila and Colette. Given the challenges of adoption in Canada and elsewhere our assignment in Bangladesh had the bonus of allowing us much greater personal freedom in finding and choosing children. The fact that both children were of international origin complemented and enhanced our chosen lifestyle. The addition of children and the consequences of their choices has contributed immeasurably to our marriage.
Our Winnipeg Home
In 1973 we purchased a 10 acre market garden in Winnipeg along the banks of the Red River. In 1977 we completed the home in which we still live. Art planted hundreds of trees to create our personal park while Leona applied her design sensibilities to shape a home with beauty but also warm and comfortable. The home has been a wonderful retreat where we could raise our family, entertain our friends and express our personality and interests whether in the arts or entertaining. Peter and Tara are now building their dream home on part of the property. The presence of a granddaughter just across a stretch of lawn will be a huge attraction to stay there a few years more!
Our home would be considered modern design in terms of its origins in the 1970’s but we always have difficulty with design purity. We both like to include collections from our travels and experiences and they rarely fit into one type of look or design statement but do reflect our life.
Art has developed his study with books and Windows to contemplate the world while Leona’s focus is on music, writing, friends, family and entertaining. To the credit of Leona visitors repeatedly describe the home as “warm and comfortable” and that is a description with which we are pleased.
The Pattern Continued
The Bangladesh experience opened the door to many opportunities. In 1976 a Vietnamese woman with four small children quite literally knocked on our door with a slip of paper that said – if you get to go to Canada look up Art DeFehr. She did, we became friends, Leona an expert on hosting refugees and this led to an assignment for Art with the boat people problem.
That developed into a significant engagement at the Cambodia border in 1980 and the family relocated to Bangkok. A short time later the family joined Art in Mogadishu where Art was Director of UNHCR for the refugee work in Somalia. Leona and the girls learned to adjust and thrive wherever they were – making it easy for Art to accept assignments in places like Ethiopia and Sudan.
We then settled down in Canada for a number of years until the Soviet Union called.
USSR – Returning to Our Roots
1989 saw the beginning of an engagement with the part of the world where both sets of our parents originated. We made many visits and friends and out of these events evolved what is today LCC International University – a respected and thriving University in Lithuania catering to students from the region. Both Leona and Art could find their place in this chaotic situation and had some dramatic experiences together – like spending the last night of the 1991 coup inside the barricades in Moscow.
Equally important our daughter Tara found her partner in the middle of a revolution. Since they met in Lithuania they later decided to celebrate the wedding there – not the first choice of a mother of the bride – but successful and dramatic nevertheless!
The Family Leaves the Nest
Both Shanti and Tara chose to attend University in the United States. Shanti later made her parents proud by earning her MA from the London School of Economics. Shanti met her match named Dan while in College and they were married in Winnipeg in 1995. Since Art preferred a wedding on the yard we were blessed with a tremendous downpour to make the event memorable. They have blessed us with grandchildren Leo, Sachin and Colette. Tara chose to be married in Lithuania providing a few geographic challenges. Tara and Peter have blessed us with Mila who lives nearby and next year will be living physically on our property.
Music, Family, Friends, Entertaining
Those words encompass much of Leona’s life these past several decades. She loves to play her piano but even more to create opportunities for both young and experienced musicians. We love to share our home and our friends.
Ideas and Projects
Art loves to create something new. Along the way this has resulted in the establishment of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, LCC International University plus a role in the Manitoba Immigration Program and the founding of Canadian Mennonite University.
This summary of our 50 years would be incomplete without a reference to travel. Art will visit country/territory number 136 this January and Leona has shared the great majority of these experiences. Travel is mostly for a purpose – but sometimes the purpose is simply the fact that the place exists and is somehow on the way.
Church and Community
Art and Leona continue as members at River East Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg . Art was one of the founding members over 50 years ago and the services and friends continue to meet our need for a spiritual home and community. We also value the role that our Mennonite Community and heritage have played in allowing programs and ideas to emerge because there was a committed and generous community available.
Art has switched from active management to encouragement, mentor and as few meetings as possible. Leona needs to relate to family at a much greater distance but family and friends remain at the center of her reality. Time, international experiences, changing family roles and the weather have encouraged us to build our lives a bit more around climate. We enjoy Lake of the Woods in the summer and our new home in San Miguel de Allende in the winter. Planes fly from or to anywhere and the internet remains a companion anywhere on the planet.
We are grateful to our Creator and acknowledge that life has given us more joy and opportunity than we deserve when we consider the world in which we live. Our June 25 celebration was designed to say “Thank You” to as many people as possible – our children and grandchildren, our friends and other family, our Church, the Community, the people with whom we work and live as neighbors, the country that gives us freedom.
Finally speaking as Leona and Art – we are thankful to each other and for each other.
God is Good!