Somewhere I still have a sketch I did at age six on the back of a church bulletin. Frances Cupp sat in the front row, her head bowed from osteoporosis. In blue pen I traced her thin neck where two lengths of thin black ribbon hung down from the corners of a rounded mesh head covering. Covering strings, we called them. The old women at my church whose head coverings had strings were more old-fashioned, more conservative than my mother’s generation of Mennonite women. When I showed it to my parents they immediately guessed correctly whose likeness it was.
A tiny, spry woman, Frances Cupp dressed in black leather high-tops and dark plain dresses straight out of the late 1800’s. The oldest member of Erisman Mennonite Church (named for the family who owned the land before the church was built on it). Mrs. Cupp lived in an old stone farmhouse one mile southwest of the churchwhere she and her late husband, Leroy, had made their home together. They did not have children to inherit the farm, so after Leroy died, Frances rented out the land. She unflinchingly picked off nuisance possums with Leroy’s old shotgun, and kept goats in her barn. When I went along with my parents to visit her, Mrs. Cupp showed me the goats and invited us into her kitchen for a visit. She kept most of her nineteenth century farmhouse cold to save money on heating oil. An old woodstove warmed the kitchen and heavy drapes hung across the doorway of the dining room to keep in the heat. Her dining room table was stacked high with newspapers. She saved everything.
In the late seventies, the years of my earliest childhood memories, the old women of our congregation wore caped dresses, dark stockings and prayer coverings over their long, pinned-up hair. The covering was inspired by the letters of Apostle Paul to the first-century church at Corinth: “Any woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonors her head, as if it were shaven.” By the early 1980’s, the younger women at Erisman had begun to cut their hair and some no longer wore the traditional prayer covering. Although my parents were somewhat saddened as Twila and Donna, their oldest daughters, stopped wearing the covering, they did not force the issue.
The Mennonite women of Frances Cupp’s generation each had their own particular way of being, but they held in common a practical knowledge of the changing seasons, a familiar touch for the rough shell of a ripened black walnut, the plucked feather of a pheasant, the velvety neck of a cow. They knew when to tear up their gardens and in what order to plant vegetables.They knew seven ways to preserve fresh produce between each frost and new harvest. They habitually saved meat bones for soup stock and strained off animal fats to use as lard when making lye soap or frying doughnuts or potato chips.
They wasted little, and recycled colorful wool scraps and plastic bread bags which they cut into long strips for making braided rugs like the one on my living room floor. Theirs was a rolled-up-sleeves work ethic that rose early and wore sensible shoes. They dedicated time to manual work and to studying and memorizing Scripture. They had the seemingly natural ability to join in on a given hymn– soprano, alto, or high tenor, whatever was needed to balance the room.
My grandmothers, both of them named Nora, were among these women.
Opening her closet door, my father’s mother, Grandma Nora (Groff)Miller, would choose from among row of home-made cape dresses, all cut from the same pattern and hemmed to mid-calf and with three quarter-length sleeves. Made from matching fabric, the cape was a sleeveless, loose-fitting bodice added for modesty. It fit over her head and fastened at the waistband. A resourceful woman, my grandmother also used the space between these layers to store things like cough drops and tissues. Reaching for the tortoise shell hairbrush on her dresser, Grandma Miller would carefully undo her sleep-tousled white braid, and with arthritic hands, exact a straight part down the center of her pink scalp. As she had done her entire adult life, my grandma would wrap a band around the thin shock of hair, and turn the ponytail three times before twining it around her finger and readying it to be fastened to her head with sturdy hairpins. Picking up her everyday covering from the dressing table, Grandma would set it carefully on her head. She positioned it inches back from her widow’s peak, covering her head from crown to nape.
The youngest daughter of five children, young Nora Groff tended the family market stand every Friday, talking with regular customers as she filled their bowls with cheese. To prepare for market, Nora helped her family to make three kinds of cheese: Cup cheese, a soft, spreadable cheese; smearcase, a white cheese made of strained and seasoned skim milk curds; and ball cheese, balls of cottage cheese left to stand until the outside was pale yellow and the inside white. Throughout the week, preparations for Saturday’s market sales included dressing chickens and squabs (little pigeons), harvesting in-season vegetables, gathering eggs, baking sugar cakes, and making walnut and vanilla kisses.
As a little girl, Grandma wore large satin bows in her long brown hair and her clothing was no different from non-Mennonite peers. It wasn’t until her baptism at age fifteen that she took to the caped dresses, head coverings, and heavy black bonnets of the plain Mennonite women of that era.
While in her early twenties, Grandma would go with her younger brother Elias to attend Sunday evening worship meetings at Mennonite churches throughout Lancaster County. One April Sunday in 1927, when she was twenty-one, Andrew Miller asked Elias to introduce him to her. Elias did, and Andrew asked Nora if he could drive her home. She said yes, and soon they were seeing each other every Sunday. My grandmother once told me, “I used to pray about meeting a man, someone humble. If God wanted me to be a home builder, I wanted someone humble.” My grandfather was that man. Everyone I’ve heard talk about Andrew Nissley Miller says the same thing, “I have never heard that man say a critical word about anyone.”
My grandmother took joy in flowers, and cut fresh arrangements for her parent’s parlor table before each of Andrew’s visits. She made cakes and lemonade for their dates, and when the summer heat arrived, they worked together to make homemade ice cream. Not only because it was the 1920’s, but also because they were Mennonites, their courtship did not include eating out at restaurants (a very rare practice for frugal Mennonites of that era, and certainly not one for Sundays), hours on the telephone, or trips to the movies. Instead, they would fill each other in on the events of their week, look at photographs, go to church or visit friends. Evenings with friends usually included singing together around the piano.
When Andrew Miller asked Nora Groff to share life with him, they agreed to pray about it, and began reading scripture, a chapter Sunday evening at Nora’s home and then on their own throughout the week. From the time of their engagement until their marriage, they read through the New Testament from Matthew to Jude.
In September of 1929, one month before the stock market crashed, Andrew bought an eighty-five acre farm in Manheim, north central Lancaster County (where I would grow up some fifty years later). He paid just under $20,000. Nora and Andrew married in November, and typical of Amish and Mennonite farming couples of that time, lived with their parents after their honeymoon before moving onto the farm in spring. To start them out, Nora’s parents provided twenty-five chickens, a cow, and a hog. Nora’s mother canned vegetables and prepared beef roasts for them. She baked the roasts and packed them in large lard-sealed crocks to preserve them. There were no freezers, so they stored the canned beef in the cold cellar. Andrew’s mother also gave them a hog. His father had died from a fall while hanging tobacco, when Andrew was seventeen. Their first winter, they heated the living quarters of the twelve-room farmhouse with a pipeless stove.
About the Great Depression, Grandma Miller said that a lot of rich people lost their money and although she and my grandpa “did not have anything to lose,” “neither could we make.” Milk dropped from 56 cents per pound to 85 cents for 100 pounds. Heavy steers dropped to four cents a pound and heavy hogs to three cents. During the first years, cash crops were hay and tobacco. They had one tractor and kept four work-mules, because Grandpa liked working with them. During haymaking, the mules would pull each wagonload up the barn hill and Grandpa would hook the mules to a pulley that controlled the hay hook, and their strength would raise the loaded hook up to the hay mow, where another person waited to unload the sweet sun-dried hay from the hook and pile it into the mow.
They ate well, getting meat from their hogs, steers, and chickens. They had ten dairy cows, several pigs, and five hundred laying hens. They raised corn and hay-fed steers and sold them for beef or butchered them to supply their own table. Grandma taught each of the children how to pluck and dress chickens. My father, a retired dairy farmer and pastor, can clean a chicken with the best of them. His mother used to say that before a girl gets married, she should know how to dress a chicken. They harvested vegetables from their large summer garden of squash, asparagus, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, beans, peas, and potatoes. They picked white cherries from the tree on their farm, until a heavy rainstorm broke the trunk in half. When they gathered mulberries from the bush in their yard, Grandpa would shake the mulberry bush while Grandma and the children stood underneath it, holding a muslin sheet to catch the berries.
I knew my Grandma Miller as a practical woman. For cheap clothing material, she saved and dyed cloth feed and flour sacks. Even in her daily diary entries, the year she and Grandpa were courting, she didn’t write about her inner thoughts and feelings, but rather kept a log of work accomplished.
Friday. This morning we boiled red beets, baked raisin pies, and cleaned mother’s room and the bathroom. Mowed the yard this evening.
Saturday. Papa and I on market, eggs sold at 27 and 30 cents a dozen.
Beyond the diary, the extent of her writing was recipes, sermon notes, and the lists she kept. She had a list of the 100 guests who attended their wedding in her parents’ home, what they ate for the wedding dinner–meat loaf, sweet potatoes, and jumbo fried oysters–and their gifts–seventeen tablecloths, silverware, pretty dinner dishes, six quilts and five comforters. When company dropped by to visit, she made a note of it in the guestbook she kept on the coffee table in the living room.
I admire the physical work of my grandmothers’ generation. My professional work involves a lot of time staring at the computer and has become something I do with my mind and my typing fingers. As I shuffle to the waiting coffee pot, it occurs to me that neither of my grandmothers woke up this way. Grandma Miller used to quote her mother, Susan Herr, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” She perhaps forgot to mention it was Benjamin Franklin who originally said it. After she was married, Grandma Miller’s day began at five o’clock in the morning when they brought in corncobs to kindle a fire in the wood burning stove. By the time Grandpa and the hired man came in for breakfast at 6:30, Grandma had prepared oatmeal and eggs for them. On canning days, she would cold pack fruit or vegetables into the jars and set them inside of the large iron kettle to boil them. For laundry, she used the same kettle to heat water, a ringer washer, and her soap made of lard and lye. When the weather was too bad to hang laundry outdoors, she would move the drying rack in front of the stove.
Until the oldest sons were able to help, Grandpa had a hired man, and Grandma helped with the milking. While she was out milking, she would tie the kitchen chairs to the table legs so the children couldn’t use them to climb up to the cupboards and get into things.
If Grandpa and the boys were out picking tomatoes or husking corn, someone would tug on the rope that rang the bell on the roof. If the noisy tractor engine was running, Grandma or one of the younger children would stand by the field’s edge and wave a handkerchief. They would wave back and finish their last morning round, coming soon through the kitchen door to wash up and sit down to a large noon meal. Afternoons allowed for a brief rest before the small herd of cows was full of milk and hungry again at four o’clock, before gathering the eggs.
When confronted with bookstore shelves lined with theories of early childhood development and how to raise children, I think of my grandmothers and my mother. What they knew about raising children came from watching their own mothers and talking with other women in their community.
They allowed their small children to work beside them, but also made lots of room for imaginary play. My father’s parents didn’t have store-bought toys for their children, but a family friend made them a wooden train set, a dog pull-toy, a marble roller, and little chairs. Andrew covered a low table with linoleum where the children could play with home-made modeling clay Nora would make from flour and salt. When a one-room schoolhouse shut its doors, Grandpa bought their old blackboard and installed it in the children’s playroom wall. Decades later, his grandchildren and their children would use it to play school. Washing that black board and clapping the erasers became one of my Saturday morning chores. When my father, Andrew Jr, played church with his siblings, he would preach “very emphatically” one of his favorite sermons, “I am the Vine and Ye are the branches.” They would all sit on the stair steps for a traditional indoor service, or throw blankets over the wash line to mimic the tent revival meetings of their day, taking turns as song leader.
Singing together was part of both of my parents’ families.
My mother’s mother, Nora (Pfautz) Siegrist, said she would often hear her children singing long after she had put them to bed, their little voices blending in the hymns they knew. When Mary Ann, the youngest, ran out of words, she would call out from her crib to her brother, “Raymond, help me!” Grandma Siegrist’s eyes would twinkle to tell it.
Nora Pfautz spent her childhood on a farm in northern Lancaster County, and was in her teens when she moved with her parents and four siblings to a townhouse in nearby Ephrata. Her mother, Mary Ann, died when Nora was fifteen, and her father Jacob two years later. The oldest of Grandma’s two sisters, Anna, worked as a seamstress in a local dress factory and Grandma and her other sister Barbara made cakes and lard-fried potato chips to sell. Grandma Siegrist couldn’t talk about those chips without craving them. “Oh, do I get a taste for those chips still,” she would say. The Pfautz sisters drove an old truck over the old peddling route their parents had begun with horse and wagon. Grandma hated peddling. “Knocking on doors made me feel like a beggar,” she once told me.
At her father’s urging, Nora had finished continued high school even after her mother’s death. She learned typing and shorthand, loved reading, but disliked math. When she started dating John Henry Siegrist, she was working in the office at Meylin’s, a local Dairy. One Saturday date night, with Henry outside waiting for her, a late-returning milk truck driver checked in with a sack full of pennies he’d gotten from the bank just to tease her. A tall, dark-haired beauty, Nora was not amused by his antics. “Well, I didn’t get all of those pennies counted. I just put the whole thing in the safe and told my boss about it!” She told the story with a look of dismissive annoyance.
Henry and Nora married in November, 1937, at Nora’s home. Moments before my grandmother walked down the steps in her white dress, she leaned against the bathroom sink for one final check in the mirror and got a big water spot on her dress. When Grandma Siegrist told me this story, her sister Barbara chimed in sagely, “Nobody was interested in a spot on your dress. They were interested in who was coming down the steps!” Like my dad’s parents, Henry and Nora also married in November and did not move onto their farm until spring. Their farm was on Pleasant View Road in the PennRynn hills of Manheim.
Grandma once told me about the time the previous owner ushered them in to tour their future home, a litter of puppies tottered out from behind the wood stove. A very particular housekeeper who believed that animals belonged outside, Grandma did not approve. As they walked throughout the house, they noted its disrepair, peeling wallpaper, and chipping paint– ironic, considering that the owner was a painter and paperhanger by trade.But they decided to buy the place anyway, and with help from Henry’s parents and their sisters, “fixed it up, inch by inch”.
Nora and Henry’s firstborn child was my mother, Naomi. During my mother’s afternoon naps, Grandma worked ground out in the field, something she enjoyed very much. Before she put my mother to bed, she showed her the field where she would be. My mother would wake from her afternoon nap to find a glass of milk and a snack on the bottom step. She would emerge from the house calling for her mother who was out on the tractor, and would wave or holler back.
Clutching her dolly in a chubby embrace, my mother would sit on the rickety porch and wait. In a 1942 photograph on my dresser Grandma and Grandpa Siegrist are sitting on that porch, their two little girls between them. Round-faced Naomi is about three, suntanned and pudgy, next to her pale baby sister Lois. Grandpais wearing work boots and bib-overalls and Grandma one of her calico pinafore aprons, her dark hair pinned up under an organdy prayer covering.
From the time she was baptized at age of twelve to the end of her life, Grandma Siegrist put away her childhood hair bows and began to dress plain. She daily put on her covering. In turn, she took her three daughters shopping for their own prayer coverings. At twelve, my mother was the first of Nora Siegrist’s daughters to be baptized into the Mennonite Church. My mom remembers her first covering-shopping excursion with her mother to Hagar’s Department Store in downtown Lancaster. This was the 1950’s, when the main department store in downtown Lancaster still had a plain clothing section for its Mennonite customers. In the Bible that my father gave to her, my mother has highlighted in red pencil the verse from I Corinthians that says, “Long hair is a woman’s glory and is given to her as a covering.” The Mennonite head covering was meant to be part of an overall practice of modesty, including a covering for their hair.
As a child, I would watch my mother pulling her long dark hair back into an inverted black barrette at the nape of her neck, expertly flipping it up before securing it with a second barrette and pinning it flat. Hairpins pressed between her lips while she worked.
This was all normal to me. I did not grow up thinking, “My mother wears a little white hat.” I simply knew that if my mother got into the car without her covering, it was worth the effort to tell her before we drove away, or she’d have to turn the car around. Growing up, the sight of a prayer covering, or, as some outsiders called them, “little white hats,” “cheese strainers,” “helmets,” or “coffee filters,” was as familiar a sight to me as any.
The women who wore them were not spectacle. They were my grandmothers, mother, school teachers. Many were our church friends and neighbors. My kindergarten teacher, Janet Wren, wore her straight brown hair parted down the middle and pulled back in a barrette. I remember her covering being round and resting closer to her head than my mother’s. My first grade teacher, Susan Meyers, my first grade teacher, wore what we called a veil made of soft white cotton that covered her red honey brown hair and fluttered against her neck as she erased the chalkboard. By the type of covering Miss Meyers wore, I knew that she belonged to the River Brethren, a different Anabaptist group. My family was Lancaster Conference Mennonite.
In 1976, the year I was born, the Lancaster Mennonite high school stopped requiring female students to wear coverings at school. Many girls had only worn them during the school day, stashing them into their lockers at the last bell. It was my freshman year of high school, fourteen years later, that they finally changed the dress code to allow pants for girls. My older sisters remember being told (by the school and by our parents) they could not wear pants unless they wore skirts over them. This rule was a source of great protestations in our home. But by the time I was old enough to really even care, the no-pants rule was retired.
When my sisters were baptized, Hagar’s Store had long ago stopped selling coverings. Like other girls from our church, Twila went with Mom to Marian and Ruth’s Dress Shop in Mount Joy to pick out her first prayer covering. The Musser sisters, Ruth and Marian, sewed custom-made dresses, mostly for women who wore the plain dress patterns of the more conservative Anabaptist groups.
When my family watches old slides together, there is one slide that always draws a comment from my oldest sister. Squinty-eyed, pink infant me is held in Twila’s arms. She is twelve, the year after her baptism. Her long brown hair drapes over her shoulder, and a large covering perches awkwardly on her head. Twila tells us every time that this covering was not hers but one of Mom’s, borrowed for the photo. She had just washed her hair and hadn’t bothered to run upstairs for her own covering. Twila and her church friends were part of the generation that began expanding clothing mores. They wore skirts that came above the knee, for example, and before ultimately forfeiting the head covering practice in favor of adapting to the world of the peers around them, they sometimes referred jokingly to their coverings as their “lid”. Their coverings were small and round, like the one worn by my kindergarten teacher.
The covering store I remember was in a farmhouse basement, a scaled-back reshuffling of the original Marian and Ruth’s. One of the sisters had died, and the other moved the business onto her brother’s farm, two miles up the road from us. I went there once or twice with my mom, whose own covering choices had continued to shrink. Next to a greenhouse, in a long room with fluorescent lights, there were dresser drawers full of zippers, buttons, and trim lace. In the back, displayed in stacks on laminated tabletops, I examined white organdy Amish bonnets, conservative Mennonite bonnets with strings, slightly smaller Mennonite head coverings without strings, and even smaller, coverings like the one my mother wore at the time. They sold flat coverings, too, mantias, we called them. Nicknamed “doilies,” Mennonite mantias are the last remnants of the head coverings worn by the least conservative among those still practicing the head covering. Eventually, my mother would exchange her round white covering for a flat circle of lace. First white, then black, it became less and less noticeable.
I never wore one. When I was eleven and preparing for my own baptism, the Snyders, a married couple in their late forties, visited my Sunday school class to talk to us about the Biblical origins of the head covering. I remember the sincerity with which Mrs. Snyder spoke. She read to us from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. I studied her wavy red hair, pinned close beneath her covering. She was concerned about Mennonites giving up this conviction and practice. We were very possibly the end of the line for the covering among Erisman women. Taking a quick survey of the room, I recognized that of the eight in my Sunday school class, I was one of only three whose mothers still wore any kind of prayer covering, and my mother was the only one who still wore her hair long and pinned up. Later that year, three of my girlfriends and I were the first group of Erisman Church girls to be baptized and never wear the head covering. If you got technical, you could count Shelby’s white mantia, worn just for the baptismal ceremony. I never saw her wear it again.
My baptism came on the heels of the time when my older sisters and their friends at church had tucked their coverings away in the backs of dresser drawers.
Our mothers had questions of their own. How much should they encourage their daughters to wear the covering? Some of them began to question their own practice. If it really was still out of conviction that they were acting out of obedience to scripture, then why would they accept their daughters’ decision without much protest? Or, was it more out of reluctance to break with tradition and risk loss of such a key identity marker? Or did they wear it because they didn’t want to offend other more conservative Mennonites living around them? Were any one of those reasons reason enough?
When it was my week to dust the upstairs furniture, I would remove everything from my parents’ dresser top and line it across their bed: Dad’s Old Spice aftershave, Mom’s Avon powder, a hair net, hairpins, a mirror, a comb and brush set, a wooden keepsakes box, and her three prayer coverings, with straight pins jabbed through them. On long car trips, my mother used to prepare to put her head back for a nap by taking off her covering and pinning it to the interior ceiling of the car. Standing before my parents’ dresser mirror, I would practice putting up my hair with my mother’s hairpins and hair net before trying on one of her coverings, pinning it on securely with straight pins like I’d seen my mother do countless times. I would hold the pins between my pinched lips the way she did (and told us not to do).
Like me, my plain cousins made a public confession of faith around age twelve or thirteen and were baptized as members of their church. As the girls stopped wearing their uncut hair in long braids and piled it up under large prayer coverings, I cut mine and curled my bangs. As they were beginning to look like their mothers and sewed their own dresses as their grandmothers had done, I was spending each morning before school rummaging for an outfit that wouldn’t make me feel fat. Although I didn’t want to live their lives, I was aware that my cousins were passing through their teens with an air of grace and acceptable femininity that I simply lacked. They seemed to have a composure about them and I quite simply did not feel like at home in my own skin. By the time I was tromping through junior high with crispy bangs held up by Rave #3 hair spray, all but one of my school teachers at the private Christian school I attended with Anabaptist roots, had stopped wearing any kind of head covering. My mother remained one of the very few among the mothers of my peers, who still wore hers up in a covering, the traditional way. This sometimes made me feel self conscious.
As I moved along through high school, studying advanced biology, Spanish, geometry, and Shakespeare, my cousins completed the tenth grade and stopped. As my teachers had masters degrees, while my cousins were taught by men and women from their own sect with no higher education. My cousins married and began raising children while I studied at a liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia and developed intense interest in history, intercultural studies, comparative religions, anthropology, community development, sociology, and women’s studies.
When visiting with my plain relatives, topics like college courses, books I’d read, movies I’d seen, were all off-limits. Without question, my involvement in theater all throughout high school and college remained a detail I kept quiet. I certainly didn’t feel free to invite my cousins to any of my plays.
Once, during my junior year of college, I invited my mother to spend the day with me at Eastern. She took the train from Lancaster and accompanied me to each class. I gave her some of my course texts to read, and introduced her to professors and friends.
We spent the evening in my dorm room sitting on my bed and talking. We sang some favorite hymns out of a hymnal I kept in my dorm room, switching parts between alto and soprano. It was good having her there, and it wasn’t until after she had caught the train back home to Lancaster, that I began to rehearse a moment that had taken place in the stairwell of the main classroom building. I kept returning to it in my mind, seeing my mother stooped down to clean some distracted student’s coffee spill off the landing. I had noticed the spill too, and the male student who had kept on walking without seeming to notice it. I chose to ignore it. But my mother, next to me, had in a matter of seconds, located a crumpled tissue in her purse and leaned down to soak up the spill. I had started to say something like, “You don’t have to do that.” But I stopped myself and remained silent.
Watching my mother bend down to clean some careless stranger’s mess, I felt guilty and wished I had done it instead. But I had been distracted by symbolism. Freshly awash in the history of the abjection of women, I felt a lot of anger about the ways the world makes its women responsible for messes not our own, and felt determined to set boundaries that affirmed my dignity. Refreshingly unencumbered by the overthinking that plagued my analytical soul throughout college, my mother had simply acted from common sense. “Why? If this mess doesn’t get wiped up now, someone track it up the stairs, making it harder for the cleaning staff to manage.” Of course she didn’t stop to ask whose responsibility it was. She just did it, same as my grandmothers would have done.
Every time I look back on the moment in the stairwell I am increasingly proud of my mother. She had not reacted out of some misplaced sense of guilt. She had just done what was needed at the time. It reminded me of the time when, standing in line at a grocery store that employs mostly plain Mennonites, a child in front of me dropped a soda can and it exploded all over the floor. Within ten seconds, two young women,all in head coverings and dresses, descended with rags. Soon a third woman brought a bucket. With deft speed they got onto their knees to wipe the floor with rags. That is exactly the kind of proactive, quick to respond, practical servant attitude I associate with the Mennonite women and men who surrounded me throughout my youth.
I grew up watching my mother nurture people and plants. She doubles and triples recipes so there will be leftovers to share. When her children visit, she loads us up with bags of food. She stubbornly refuses payment. “It was on sale,” she’ll say.
When my parents first visited my husband and me in Philadelphia, we took a walk around the neighborhood. Stopping by our steps, my mother saw weeds growing up through the cracks in the cement and began pulling them. “These pull out so easy after the rain!” She said jubilantly, yanking them up emphatically by the roots. While she worked, she described how when she and my father had first moved onto the farm, her mother-in-law would do the same thing. “It will ruin the cement,” Grandma Miller would say, making her feel inadequate. Watching my mother attack the weeds I had ignored, I felt no sense of personal failure. This moment, like the one in the stairwell, added to my affection for my mother, my gratitude to her for being so much the person she is. She then proceeded to water my hanging plants.
Recently, I took chicken green bean casserole to a friend who had just had her third child. I got the recipe from a cookbook that the women of Erisman had put together. As I prepared the food, I realized Esther Wenger had provided the recipe. According to my mother’s diary, Esther Wenger brought a casserole to my family a few days after I was born, as my mother did for many families, over the years. This connection comforts me.
My mother learned from her mother how to garden and to can. She went to 4-H and learned to sew. I am remedial, at best, in all three departments. These things are not passed down as naturally as it might seem. She offered to teach me how to sew, but I easily became impatient. I was also that ungrateful child who hated to stand still while my mother hemmed the skirt she was making for me. I had such little patience as she held up pinned-together bodices to my chin, and draped sleeve patterns over my arms. It didn’t help that I had a round tummy and felt fat in every skirt or dress I wore. I took this out on my mother, too. When she asked me to turn while she marked the hem with straight pins, I grew restless from the uncomfortable feel of the thin pattern paper and cold metal hemming ruler against the backs of my legs. I was always happy to bolt when she sighed and said, “Okay fine. I guess that’s good enough.”
Last fall as I prepared to can just a few jars of salsa in my Philadelphia apartment, using some of the peppers and tomatoes I’d planted in the small raised garden bed in the burned out lot across the street, I telephoned my mother in Manheim for a refresher course on canning techniques. Her voice coming through the phone, “If you are hot-packing, you’ll want to warm the jars beforehand. I put them in the oven first at about 200 degrees. Be sure to wipe the rim with a damp cloth.” As I listened, I was keenly aware of her mortality, and my own.
Paging through my Grandma Miller’s tattered copy of the Mennonite Community Cookbook, I find recipes for walnut kisses and sugar cookies, along with handwritten recipes that she has taped inside on lined note paper. In her shaky, arthritic hand, I read:Chicken Stoltzfus, doughnuts, peppernuts, and baked apples. Other recipes, copied in her earlier, smoother hand, are scrawled in the margins of the index: Date and nut pudding, old-fashioned molasses cookies, Lillie Mae molasses cookies, and molasses crinkles.
The thought of Grandma Miller’s molasses cookies takes me back to Halloween night in the early 1980’s when I would ride my bike or walk out the lane to visit Grandma and Grandpa. That night, our parents, who do not celebrate Halloween, made an exception to let my sisters and I dress up in funny curly grey wigs and housecoats just to go to see them. Opening the door, Grandma burst into a laugh, “Oh my, oh!” She said, turning to call to Grandpa over her shoulder, “Papa, come and see this!” Moving back from the door, she motioned us in with her broad arm and went to the ceramic apple-shaped cookie jar. Removing the ceramic stem, she produced four of her large molasses cookies.
Sometimes I would keep Grandma company while Grandpa was working over at Malmbergs greenhouse, a florist business owned by a horticulturalist who was a first-generation Swedish immigrant. I would dust the furniture, make trips up and down the basement stairs so that she would not have to, and help, as I could. She kept a drying rack for making apple schnitz and would let me place the apples on the sheets as she sliced them. For work clothes, she still used a ringer washer, which she kept in the garage.
In the evenings, when Grandpa was there, I would ask to bring out the games from the shelf in their hallway and we would all three sit together at the table to play a game of Take-One with Anagrams tiles. Sweet meadow tea sweating at my elbow, I would swing my feet toward the center leg of their kitchen table, the metal chilling my bare toes. We moved the red plastic letter tiles across the cool Formica laminate tabletop, pink and silver squiggles against a white background. Above the kitchen cabinets I could read the calligraphy that Erma Wenger, an artist friend from Erisman had painted, “In everything give thanks.” On the other side of the sink Erma had painted “I owe the Lord a morning song…” The complete line from that hymn says, “I owe the Lord a morning song / of gratitude and praise / for the kind mercies He has shown / in lengthening out my days.” The writer of that hymn, Amos Herr, was an ancestor of Susan Herr, Grandma Miller’s mother.
Before I was old enough to begin school, Grandma Miller took me with her to Wednesday morning sewing circle at Erisman. Carrying my plastic teddy bears’ picnic basket filled with graham and marshmallow fluff sandwiches prepared by my mother and dried apple schnitz from Grandma, I would follow her into the church basement, her broad hand with its soft palm felt warm, and reminded me of my Dad’s hands. The old women who showed up faithfully to make patchwork quilts and comforters “for the needy” always welcomed me affectionately. They didn’t mind as I would crawl underneath the quilt, stretched taut in its rectangular frame. The tips of the quilting needles would appear, guided by the thimbled thumbs waiting underneath to grab the needle and push it up through the fabric again. From the four sides of the quilt frame, a chorus of black orthopedic shoes pointed in toward me as I sat cross-legged on the floor, eating Grandma’s apple schnitz.
As change erodes tradition, there are some casualties that evoke more of a sense of loss in me than others. It does not bother me that the physical head covering is disappearing. What does bother me is the disappearing humility of memory, and the forgetfulness of a way of being in the world that seeks to imitate the way of Jesus the humble servant.
Frances Cupp died at home, in the house where she lived out most of her years. The next generation of Erisman women, whom I never thought of as old, who surrounded my life growing up, are dying. Frieda Yoder, with her joyful smile, Ruth White, who I’d chat with at her flower stand in Lancaster’s Central Market, Mildred Bucher, in a wheelchair for the last years of her life, who, when my family visited her over Christmas, took time to show my niece old photographs. We’ve lost Thelma Longenecker, with her kind face and gentle southern lilt that she picked up in Georgia from her years of voluntary service through the Mennonite Church. Single all her life, Thelma carried a radiance about her. She would send carefully typed notes of encouragement and birthday cards to people. She had a wonderful laugh, and took an interest in young people, mentoring my older sister Julia, and offering to host youth group Bible Studies in her home. I remember her home, dusting and cleaning for her, and mowing her lawn, jobs for which she paid me with a type-written check. Above Thelma’s kitchen cupboards Erma Wenger had painted in calligraphy, “In Everything Give Thanks.” Just as it had been in Grandma Miller’s kitchen.
Both my grandmothers have gone from this world. I wonder what part of them has become part of me. The head coverings they set on their dressers each night are now packed away in boxes in an attic somewhere. These bits of fabric are tangible reminders of the prayers these women prayed over us, their daughters and sons, their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren, each night and each new day. I was fourteen when Grandma Miller died. A widow for five years, she died in the Mennonite Home, a nursing home just north of Lancaster city, across from an enormous shopping mall built over farmland. Grandma Siegrist died fourteen years later.
On my kitchen shelf there is a can of Grandma Siegrist’s stuffed peppers. I know she would not have been pleased to know that they have gone uneaten all this time. But I haven’t brought myself to open it– her work, there on the shelf, preserved in vinegar.
The spring before Grandma Siegrist died, I visited her in the hospital, and she let me rub lotion on her feet. I remember the weight of her feet and the feel of her flesh against my fingertips, how tangible she was then, alive. I could feel her wanting to go, to be let go, something she had wanted ever since Grandpa died.
Home from the hospital that last time, Grandma Siegrist moved into the Grossma house, a small apartment that her son Raymond and his wife Ginny had built adjacent to the home farm they had moved onto when were married in the early 1970’s. Part of the conservative Eastern Mennonite conference, Uncle Raymond and Aunt Ginny and their children dress plain.
With help from the family, Raymond and Ginny made it possible for Grandma to live her last days in the home where she and Grandpa had lived for over thirty years, where they had laughed together and teased each other, brought up seven children, and grieved the death of their eighth child, Twila, who didn’t make it past four days old. They were partners, working together in planting and in harvest. After Grandma died, we found a poem she had written for Grandpa after his unexpected death twelve years earlier.
In the spring,
In greenhouse planting.
I can sense you
There beside me
Even though I cannot see you…
The last time I sat with Grandma Siegrist, she drifted in and out of sleep. I read aloud to her from the Psalms of David, trying awkwardly to hold the straw to her lips for the juice that Aunt Ginny had set on the nightstand. Most of the time, I just held her hand, my own thick fingers entwined with her papery, near-translucent, skin. I heard visitors from Grandma’s church entering the house through the kitchen, and felt it was time for me to go. Leaning close to my grandmother’s face, even though her eyes were half-closed in rest, I said, “Grandma, I’m leaving now. I love you.” Her blue eyes fluttered open, and her pupils shrank as she focused on my face. Her voice low and husky, each syllable accented by the effort it took for her to speak, she said, before letting her eyelids fall shut again, “I. Love. You. Too.”
I fled the house through the back screen door.Without saying good-bye to Aunt Ginny or Uncle Raymond, I crossed the side yard to the barn where I had parked under a weeping willow tree. As I pulled out onto the quiet road, the sun was setting over the pond where Grandma used to skate with my mother, her strong farmer’s hand gripping the chubby hand of her dark-eyed little girl.
from my series of 3 essays about place, home, and family: Gone from Here ©2008