Twelve old friends got together for lunch last week, and they couldn’t stop talking. Esther Braun giggled with Verna Froese. Adina Sukkau whispered into Eleonore Esau’s ear. Martha Neufeld, Frieda Peters and Vanita Schmidt regaled one another with stories. In the corner, the husbands looked out onto the golf course, where one man was working to chip his way out of the rough and onto the green.

Twelve old friends got together for lunch last week, and they couldn’t stop talking. Esther Braun giggled with Verna Froese. Adina Sukkau whispered into Eleonore Esau’s ear. Martha Neufeld, Frieda Peters and Vanita Schmidt regaled one another with stories. In the corner, the husbands looked out onto the golf course, where one man was working to chip his way out of the rough and onto the green.

Henry Esau, meanwhile, was standing near the table, wearing a cravat and trying with every ounce of vocal power he had to get his party at Larters at St. Andrews seated before the bread arrived.

Club ’56 — a group of couples married in the year 1956 — gathered at Larters at St. Andrew’s Golf and Country Club during the last Club ’56 meet-up.</p>

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Club ’56 — a group of couples married in the year 1956 — gathered at Larters at St. Andrew’s Golf and Country Club during the last Club ’56 meet-up.

There was much to talk about: not just what happened last week, last month or last year, but everything that happened since 1956, when each person in the room was married and — without knowing it — became lifetime members of an exclusive order: Club ‘56.

Club ‘56 Anniversaries

Click to Expand

1. Ted and Hilda Wiens, Feb. 25, 1956
2. Henry and Hilda Heinrichs, April 7, 1956
3. Ernie and Martha Neufeld, April 21, 1956
4. John and Esther Braun, June 9, 1956
5. John and Frieda Peters, June 16, 1956
6. George and Sylvia Martens, July 14, 1956
7. Vic and Vanita Schmidt, July 21, 1956
8. Bill and Anna Penner, July 28, 1956
9. John and Janice Schellenberg, Aug. 17, 1956
10. Ed and Elvi Janzen, Aug. 25, 1956
11. Henry and Eleonore Esau, Sept. 9, 1956
12. John and Adina Sukkau, Sept. 22, 1956
13. George and Verna Froese, Oct. 6, 1956
14. Jake and Irene Enns, Oct. 9, 1956

Fourteen couples tied the knot, many at the South End Mennonite Brethren Church at the corner of William Avenue and Juno Street. They shared more than a matrimonial starting point: they had the same values, and many had rural upbringings wherein family and God were held in the highest esteem.

The club started in Vic and Vanita Schmidt’s — married July 21 — living room, where, over coffee, Ted and Hilda Wiens — united on Feb. 25 — discussed an annual celebration of the still-growing number of acquaintances who were wed in 1956, the same year Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III.

An invitation summoned 11 couples — the Wienses, Heinrichses, Neufelds, Peterses, Martenses, Schmidts, Penners, Schellenbergs, Janzens, Ennses and Sukkaus — to the Homestead restaurant on Broadway on the third Saturday in November for the first annual banquet.

Every year since, and with three couples joining as late additions, the club has gathered, with a new couple chosen to plan each event, descending by anniversary date like a batting order: the Heinrichses (April 7) chose the Homestead again in 1957, the Neufelds (April 21) hosted at their Wolseley home in 1958, the Peterses (June 16) invited the club to Brereton Lake in 1959.

Henry Esau, centre, makes a speech at Larters at St. Andrew’s Golf and Country Club.</p></p>

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Henry Esau, centre, makes a speech at Larters at St. Andrew’s Golf and Country Club.

In the pandemic summer of 2020, they gathered in Martha Neufeld’s backyard, and the responsibility for planning the next celebration fell to the Esaus, who met as children in Elm Creek, and saw themselves differently before looking at one another in a different light.

"I shouldn’t say this, but he was a real rascal and I didn’t like him," Eleonore said. "He would shoot paper pellets at me." Henry added, "I always say I knew she was the girl I wanted to marry, ever since Grade 6." They were married Sept. 9, 1956.

Sixty-five years later, the Esaus had to make the celebration good.

"The thinking is that this will be our last," Henry said earlier this summer.

Eleonore Esau, left centre, and Adita Sukkau, right centre, laugh at a joke.</p></p>

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Eleonore Esau, left centre, and Adita Sukkau, right centre, laugh at a joke.

Age brings with it challenges to gathering: some members live out of the province, others have difficulty getting around, some, sadly, have finished their lives on earth. It’s all natural, and the club is at peace, but, Esau said, it did not make the proposition of finality any easier to accept.

"I did get a lump in my throat when I heard this would be the last time," said Esther Braun, before Esau tried to get everyone seated.

With a loud clap, John Sukkau got the job done. He and his wife Adina sat at the table’s head, as their anniversary was that day, Sept. 22.

Esau and Adina Sukkau gave speeches, espousing the power of faith in keeping their group, and its components, together.

Martha Neufeld and John Sukkau look at photos of past get-togethers.</p></p>

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Martha Neufeld and John Sukkau look at photos of past get-togethers.

Martha Neufeld rose to give a prayer. "This will be spontaneous," she said, thanking God for making it possible, with her friends bowing their heads, eyes closed.

The bread and salad arrived, and Vanita Schmidt took out her cellphone, trying to connect with Jake and Irene Enns in Edmonton. The Enns missed the call, but Schmidt’s phone soon buzzed.

"Hi Jake, hi Irene!" Vanita shouted. "I like your hair, Jake!" Esther Braun leaned over. "Jake! I’m here too!" Vanita struggled to flip the screen. "I don’t know how to zoom on FaceTime."

"Who had chicken, who had salmon?" asked server Lily McCarvill, 22, alive for roughly one-third of the club’s married years.

The chatter quieted as forks and knives clanged. Then came the cheesecake.

Vanita Schmidt holds her phone as Jake and Irene share video calls from Edmonton.</p></p>

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Vanita Schmidt holds her phone as Jake and Irene share video calls from Edmonton.

"If anyone is not interested in their slice, John Sukkau is taking offers," Esau announced. "He’s got a big mouth," Sukkau retorted with a smile. What changes in 65 years? Everything and nothing at all.

The cake quieted the room once more, before Esau initiated a round of applause for McCarvill, who said the group’s longevity was an inspiration.

Then Esau read a letter from Irene Enns. "To all our dear Club ‘56 friends," he started. "Back in 1956 we, all 28 of us, were so very young and imagined we could go on forever. Well, here we are now, 65 years later, and know that ‘forever’ is coming to an end much sooner than we thought.

"Where have the years gone?"

Past photos of Club 56.</p></p>

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Past photos of Club 56.

The letter stirred the room. Some members looked at the ceiling, some at each other. Under the table, hands clasped.

After the letter was read and the bill paid, Esau opened his laptop to play a song, the Booth Brothers’ version of If We Never Meet Again. Martha Neufeld, whose husband Ernie died in 2019, stood at the back of the room, clutching a sheet of lyrics.

"Soon we’ll come to the end of life’s journey, and perhaps we’ll never meet any more," the Booth Brothers sang. "‘Till we gather in heaven’s bright city, far away on that beautiful shore… If we never meet again, this side of heaven, I will meet you on that beautiful shore."

"That’s a good song, huh?" Esau asked, wiping his eyes.

"I can play it again. This time, let’s all sing along."

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

 

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
Reporter

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.