Chapter 1: Early Remembrances
I believe… that our memories are part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself. ~ William Butler Yeats
My mother loved me when I was little. I know this from her recollections of my life before I formed memories of my own and from my earliest memories. In the way she told me stories of the time I was a baby and a toddler, I felt secure in her love. I also felt unique because Mem stressed what a different child I was, even before I became self-aware.
I was born the day after my parents’ fourth wedding anniversary. Mem once told me it was the only anniversary she ever celebrated. But from what else she has told me, it sounds more like a family crisis because a family member was leaving the world as I was entering. My father’s stepdad died two days before I was born. He had been in a car and buggy accident the day before he died. My grandmother believed the accident was the cause of his sudden death.
My father — Datt — was torn between being there for his bereaved mother and being there for his wife about to give birth. I know he was at Mem’s bedside when she arrived at the Amish midwife’s home because the midwife had him administer the ether to Mem. Apparently he gave her too much too soon. She turned her head and ether got in one of her eyes. When she awoke, she wanted to know why her eye felt so strange, and the midwife told her what happened. The way Mem told the story, Datt was the one to blame. But I wonder why the midwife had my father administer the ether instead of doing it herself?
After my birth, the Amish midwife, Mrs. Yoder, put me in a tiny basket, all wrapped in blankets, next to Mem’s bed. Mem said I was a beautiful baby, with the thickest head full of dark hair she’d ever seen on a newborn.
Some of Mem’s recollections about my childhood came to me in the form of letters when I was a young mother myself. She once wrote:
The day that I was to come home was the funeral of dad’s stepfather and [he] didn’t come to pick me up until late and [I] remember how impatient Mrs. Yoder got. She said to me, “Must be he thinks more of his mother than he does of you.” Which pretty well upset me for awhile.
Mem returned home to her other two children, three-year-old Joey and one-year-old Lizzie, with a heavy heart. As was typical for Amish mothers in my community, Mem cared for me pretty exclusively for the first two weeks while a young woman in the community came and took care of Joey and Lizzie and the household chores, so that Mem could get some rest.
Mem wrote about my babyhood:
You were a contented baby. I could sit you on the high chair, tied on, so you couldn’t fall off, put the tray down and give you things to play with and you’d play for a long time. Sometimes by the east window and sometimes by me wherever I was working.
I can just imagine this. Even in the years I can recall, I often stared out the window when I was daydreaming, with Mem bustling about the kitchen. I loved looking out over the field to the east where the sky met the tree line. It was the only horizon visible from any window in our home because we were otherwise surrounded by woods.
Mem breast-fed all of us children, even though it was common for mothers to bottle-feed their babies at that time. Mem once wrote this to me when my older son was a few weeks old:
Well, how is that little baby doing by now? Are you nursing him? What is more enjoyable? I can just feel the contentment sitting on my rocker and nursing my little ones. And wondering about their future. Now that is all over but I can still dream about it.
Mem stopped nursing me abruptly when I was seven months old because she became deathly ill with yellow jaundice. Believing that the illness could be passed on to me, she stopped nursing. I put her in a fix when I refused to take a bottle. Her mother-in-law came in and took control of the situation. “Humph! Never heard of a baby that wouldn’t take a bottle!” she said. Mem told her she was welcome to try. And try she did. She stuck the bottle in my mouth and I spit out that nipple. She stuck it in. I spit it out. She had my other grandmother hold me down, and she tried forcing me to take it. I still spit it out. Mem said it was really hard for Grandmother to admit that she had to give up. Mem always told this story with a little satisfaction as if I had defied my grandmother in a way she herself didn’t dare to.
The only way to give me nourishment was milk and water from a cup or baby cereal mixed with warm milk and other soft foods from a bowl. As Mem’s health improved, she coaxed me to eat mashed potatoes, eggs, applesauce, and whatever else I’d eat. I showed signs of what today would be considered “failure to thrive.” In Mem’s words:
I remember I was worried because you wouldn’t stand on your legs for so long. So I’d rub them every time I’d change your diaper. Momme, once when she was here saved the potato water, when we cooked potatoes for dinner. She then rubbed that on your legs and I guess I did too after that sometimes but I had more faith in just rubbing them, for therapy.
At the age most children get up and walk, I was learning to crawl, but in my own way. I sat on my bottom and scooted around, using my legs to propel me — first one leg, then the other. I became very fast at it. Mem described how hard it was to keep my diapers clean as they mopped her pine floorboards. In those days, she was still using a washboard to wash clothes. She boiled the diapers with lye soap in the water, added cold water, and scrubbed those stained diapers on the washboard until her knuckles bled.
Mem’s fourth child, Sylvia, was born when I was eighteen months old. Mem not only had two in diapers, but she also had two babes-in-arms. Whenever Mem entered the place where women were gathering for a church service with a child on each arm, someone would come to help her. When they reached for me, I screamed and cried until I was back in Mem’s arms. They soon learned to take Sylvia instead.
I began talking in sentences by the time I was two years old, but still I didn’t walk. I gained the nickname “chatter box.” One of the mothers in church related the story many years later of something that happened before I started walking. It took place during Communion service, which was held twice a year. Breaking and sharing the bread for communion was a somber ritual in which all those who have been baptized eat bread and drink wine. Children were excluded from partaking in communion bread because they were not yet baptized as members of the church. On this particular Sunday, Mem was holding me in her arms, awaiting her turn to eat the bread the Bishop would hand to her. At that point in the service, it is so quiet that people can hear themselves breathe. When Mem received her bread, I said out loud in the middle of the solemn service, “Ich will oh brot — I want some bread too!”
I often try to imagine how Mem dealt with this situation. For her to give me even a little bit of bread was considered sacrilegious. To leave with me was also inappropriate. Perhaps she found a way to distract me so I wouldn’t persist in embarrassing her further.
Sylvia took her first steps only months after I did, when she was eleven months old, just three months after I’d turned two years old. Mem suddenly had her arms free — at least for a spell. When Sylvia was fifteen months old, and I was almost three, Sadie was born.
To be continued…