Part 3, If You Promise You Won’t Tell: A Memoir

Chapter 1: Early Remembrances, continued

There are several incidents that happened when I was very young in which Mem’s telling of them fuses with my own memories. One night when I was perhaps three years old, I sat on the woodbox next to the stove in the living room, surrounded by my family. I had a secret. I had a marble in my mouth. Mem had warned me many times about putting marbles in my mouth, but I could not resist the silky-smooth roundness as I turned it around and around with my tongue. Then without warning, that marble slipped down my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t panic until I found myself being dangled upside down by one ankle and pounded on my back, hard. Mem had grabbed me, swung me upside-down, and smacked my back. The marble popped out.

I was not yet old enough to realize that Mem had just saved my life. I thought she was punishing me for disobeying her. I have an ever-so-dim memory of Mem gathering every marble she could find and getting rid of them. There was no need as far as I was concerned. That feeling of dangling upside-down in mid-air and getting hit like that was enough to prevent me from putting marbles in my mouth ever again.

Another story Mem told me melds with my own memory. This one happened on a wintery Sunday morning, when I was three. Mem bustled about getting us children ready for church. There were five of us at the time. She discovered that my “overshoes” (boots that slipped on over shoes) were too small for me to wear. She remembered that there was a pair of boots in the box of used items an English family had brought us as charity. There was one problem — they were red, a color we were forbidden to wear. But she had to keep my feet warm somehow, so she slipped them on over my shoes. Mem warned me that we needed to put them in the corner of the washhouse of the home where church was being held, so no one would notice.

I sat up a little straighter on the way to church that day. I couldn’t easily look at my boots because they were under the buggy blanket that covered our laps to keep us warm, but I still tried.

When we arrived at the service, Mem carried Baby Sadie into the washhouse, with Lizzie, Sylvia, and me walking by her side, bundled up in our black coats, capes, and bonnets. As I walked in, I looked around and spotted Clara Yoder, who was Mem’s friend. I walked up to her and said, “Look, I have new boots!” I held one boot up for her to see.

Mem’s face flushed with shame as the washhouse became completely still. After a long moment, she urged me into the corner of the washhouse and pulled my boots off so fast, my shoes came off with them.
As the women lined up to go into the service, Clara said quietly to Mem, “It’s okay, don’t be ashamed.” Mem’s grip on my hand relaxed a bit. Like many others in the community, she worried about what other people thought of her. I imagine her shame was lessened just a bit by Clara’s reassurance.

I wore those red boots home that day, and I never saw them again.

* * *

In my early years, my parents created an environment that allowed us children to develop normal and happy memories. In all of Mem’s recollections of my young childhood, none of them involved my father, so I have to rely on my own memories of him. When we were babies and toddlers, Mem used to place us on Datt’s lap after she changed our diapers and fed us. I remember rocking with Datt for hours on end, sometimes with toys in my hands.

Once when Datt was rocking me, I had just drunk a lot of liquid. I could hear and feel it sloshing in my tummy. I started giggling as Datt rocked back and forth and I heard the “doink, doink,” that went with the motion. Datt realized what was happening, so he rocked back and forth, then stopped abruptly and the sloshing inside tickled. I giggled and giggled. Datt had a wide, toothless grin as he played this game with me. It was the first time I remember the feeling of laughing so hard that the giggles tickled on their way up.

When I was a toddler, Datt sometimes placed my feet on top of his shoes, held onto my hands, and walked me around the house. I remember the feeling of being transported around on top of Datt’s feet. Later, I saw him walking my younger siblings in the same way.

I also remember playing a hand-stacking game with Datt, often after supper while we were still sitting at the table. He placed one of his hands on the table. I put one of my hands on his. He put his other hand down, and my other hand became the top of the stack. Then he took his bottom hand out and dropped it on top of the stack, and I followed his lead. If I forgot, he gently squeezed my bottom hand to remind me. We’d go faster and faster until our hands became like a threshing machine and we’d laugh.

Sometimes Datt played the hand-stacking game with two of us at a time.

These are the memories I know are my own because the ones Mem told to me didn’t include Datt. I also remember some experiences that involved Mem that I don’t recall her telling me about.

Mem had a “Viewmaster” that I loved to hold up to the light and look into, to view the magic picture of places with mountains and fields of flowers, a huge dam, a waterfall, and images of what I now know to be the Grand Canyon. (I vaguely knew that Mem had been to some of those places. Later I understood that Mem took a cross-country trip before she was married). There were also pictures of storybook characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, and many others. It seemed to me that I should be able to reach out and touch what was in those three-dimensional pictures. I used to feel like this was such a privilege because Mem didn’t let us play with it often, which made it all the more special.

We used to play “horse” by crawling around on all fours. Mem gave us her old zinc jar lids for “horseshoes” for our two front horse “legs.” To me, it sounded just like a horse’s shoes clopping along a paved road when the “horses” walked around on the pine floor. The railing above the stairs to the second story had spokes that were spread wide enough apart for us to put our heads through to pretend they were stalls. We’d look down the stairs and neigh.

A rope swing hung from a tall branch of an oak tree out next to the sandbox. I loved swinging high on it. Lizzie pushed me to get started, and then I pumped my legs until I was flying high above the woodshed roof. The wind swooshed past my ears, and butterflies fluttered inside my belly and made me giggle.

We played on the buggy that was in the shed attached to the barn. In our minds, we’d go places. I could even hear the horse clopping along the pavement, as we clicked our tongues. We held the reins, which were made of braided twine, and once in a while called out, giddyapp!” if we wanted the horse to go faster.

Behind the buggy was a pile of straw for bedding down the horses and cows. When the pile was high enough, we climbed into the haymow and took a flying leap into the pile of straw. Mem didn’t like us doing that, but whenever there was a new pile of straw, it was too tempting not to.

I loved jumping rope. We had homemade jumpropes that were made of three strands of baling twine braided together. I counted the jumps as I twirled the rope over and over and over. Before I learned to count to one hundred, I’d count to twenty, then jumble numbers and then yell, “One hundred!” when I was ready to stop. It was the highest number I knew about, and yet I couldn’t comprehend it any more than I can comprehend infinity as an adult.

I loved when Mem bathed my sisters and me on Saturday nights. I particularly remember bath nights in the winter. First Datt carried buckets of water in from the hand pump out by the barn and filled the copper boiler on the cookstove. While the water was heating, Mem brought up the tub from the basement and set it on a hand-crocheted rug next to the woodstove. She collected our clean clothes from the drawers in the upstairs bedroom, and hung clean towels out to warm by the stove. When the water in the boiler was hot, she dipped it out into a bucket, then poured it into the tub, mixed it with cold water, and tested the temperature with her elbow. Then she helped my sisters and me strip off our clothes and get into the tub. She’d use a clean washcloth to wipe our faces, and then she bathed the youngest one first, dried her off, dressed her in warm, clean clothes, and started with the next one. I used to love the feeling of her washcloth bathing me down, first my face, then my neck, in and behind my ears, shoulders, arms, armpits, all the way down to my toes. Then she would dunk her washcloth into the warm water and rinse off my body before lifting me out and taking me into her ample lap. I can still feel what it was like to be enveloped in Mem’s love. She wrapped me in that warm, dry towel, dried me off, all the way down to my feet and in between my toes. Then she dressed me in the clean, fresh-smelling clothes she had laid out for me. I felt so clean and so well cared for on those Saturday nights.

After bathing us, Mem braided our hair. First she undid the braids from the week before, brushed out our hair, and sectioned it into four parts — two front sections, and two back. She dunked her hands into a bowl of water so they slid over my hair. Down at the end of the braids, where my hair was thin, I could feel her wet fingers vibrating over my hair. She braided a front section, then braided that section into the back one. Towards the end she braided a string into my hair. Once both sides were done, she looped the back braids through the front braids several times, and tied them up with the strings she’d braided into the hair. She had a gentle touch, and yet my hair felt tightly braided afterwards.

* * *

One morning, I watched out the window as Joey and Lizzie laughed and talked with the neighbor children, Susan and Brian Sakura. They were about to get on the school bus. I wished I could go to school, too.
Susan and Brian wore store-bought clothes because they were not Amish. Susan’s dark brown hair hung shiny down her back.

When all four of them had climbed the bus steps and were sitting in seats, they waved to me. Autumn leaves blew in swirls behind the bright yellow school bus as it pulled away and disappeared up the road.

Mem put the breadboard on the kitchen table. I asked, “ Can I help?”

“Sure, bring the bankly — little bench — over,” Mem said. She gave me a little of the dough to knead alongside hers. Mem kneaded her bread: Turn, bend, push. Turn, bend, push. The table creaked with each push.
I asked. “Mem, can you tell me the elephant story?”

“But you already know that story.”

“Will you tell it again?”

So Mem began. “It was a Sunday, and my aunt was taking care of us children. I was out in the front yard, playing in the sandbox. I heard a noise, and I looked up, and there was a big elephant walking in the yard. He was dragging a chain, and that is what was making the noise. The elephant had gotten loose from the circus, and it was coming right up our lane.”

“Were you scared?”

“I would have been, except I had seen a picture of one in a book just a few days before. I asked my Mem if this was an animal to be afraid of, and she said no.”

I looked into Mem’s blue eyes and said, “Then what happened?”

“The elephant walked right past the sandbox and into the silage chute. My aunt let us look in through the window. The elephant was picking up silage with its trunk, and then he had to wiggle around to get the silage into his mouth. Pretty soon two men came along, and they had a hard time getting him turned around and out of there because he kept stomping on the chain around his leg. But they finally did. Then they gave the elephant some water from the trough that our horses used to drink from. He stuck his trunk into the trough, and then swung it up into his mouth. Then the two men led him back out to the road, and off to the circus.”

Mem was greasing her bowl and turning the bread dough into it. She sprinkled flour on my fingers and rubbed them so the dough came off in little rolls. “Go get the little stainless steel bowl,” she said. I found it quickly and copied Mem. She covered the dough with a clean towel and set it near the stove to rise.

When I kneaded bread with Mem, I didn’t know the difference between work and play because she had a clever way of combining the two. She also used to allow me to splash in the water to “help” her or my older sister Lizzie wash dishes. I had to stand on the bankly because I was too little to reach the kitchen sink.

I became a babysitter not long after being out of diapers myself when Mem instructed me to play with “the little ones.” I was nearly three when Sadie was born. By the time she could sit up, I was playing with her and Sylvia. I stacked block towers and let Sylvia and Sadie knock them down.

I started making cookies and cakes before I could read the recipes. I brought Mem the recipe when she was sewing in the living room and she told me what to put in the batter next. She had shown me how to use measuring cups and “big spoons” and “little spoons” and so I mixed all the ingredients together. She helped me to pour the batter into the pan if it was a cake, and if I was making cookies, she stirred the last of the flour into the batter. Then I spooned the cookie dough onto a cookie sheet. She was getting me ready to take on the responsibilities that I would shoulder later. But in the beginning it was all fun.

End of chapter one.

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9 thoughts on “Part 3, If You Promise You Won’t Tell: A Memoir”

  1. Hello Saloma, My father also had an elephant story. He said he was working in a field and he saw an elephant coming down the road. It had gotten away from a circus that had come to town. I adapted this story and entertained my grandsons with the elephant story. I would love to illustrate the story sometime.
    greetings, marye.

    1. Marye, where did your father’s story take place? And when was that? I think Mem’s story took place between 1923 and 1925, and it was in northeastern Ohio. Wouldn’t that be something if it was the same elephant?

      That would be fabulous for you to write and illustrate that story!

      So good to hear from you again.

      1. Greetings, I am going to try and find out when a circus went thru Huron County, Mi. That is where my father lived. It could possibly be in the same time line. Wouldn that be quite a story.

  2. I liked reading those memories, Saloma. It takes me back to when the world ‘out there’ was such an unknown place.

  3. How good it is to have some fond memories of childhood. I would like to think most of us do. Reading this has brought to mind the one time I remember my mum doing something nice for us children. It was summer time and Mum went up into our woods and started dragging down dead sturdy branches. Ones that were straight like poles and she tied them together with an old piece of rope and put old sheets around them and laid blankets inside. We children slept in that makeshift tepee all night and played in it during the day. I have memories of bath time Saturday nights. Only ours were in the wash tubs in the basement (we didn’t have an inside bathroom yet) My twin brother in one and I in the other. My oldest sister I remember was none too happy to have to help. The difference in my story is that it is not a fond memory, my Mum was all business!! She was never affectionate not even when we were sick. She did as duty called and nothing more. Reading about the red boots, I recalled a moment in time when I remember seeing my Mum crying. My dad was on strike and so there was no money coming in. They had just got back from the grocery store and my Mum had to use food stamps. I of course didn’t understand the whole thing but I realized in later years how ashamed and embarrassed my mother was. I thought about what you asked in your last blog about my Aunts. I had four on my dads side (my Mum was adopted and the only child) They were careful in answering my questions. Perhaps so not to offend my mother. I did get some things out of the one Aunt after my mother had died, but for the most part my mothers actions remain a mystery to me. I enjoy reading your memories because they bring back some for me. Perhaps there is not love and affection attached to them but they are fond to me in their own way.

    1. Pamela, I’m so glad that the stories here evoked fond memories of your own. What a wonderful exchange to read your stories in return. I’m glad you have at least one memory of your mum doing something nice by creating the teepee. It’s a gift for children to spend time out in nature like that.

      Was your dad a coal miner? It is always hard for children to know that their parents are struggling to put food on the table for their children.

      It is a gift to hear from you, Pamela. Thank you.

      1. No, my father did not work in the coal mine though they were prevalent in our area. My father use to say when he was in the outhouse early in the morning he could here voices of the men in the mines deep under ground. Not sure if this is true or just a story he liked to tell us. My grandfather on my Mums side was a cool miner. He traveled up and down the east coast working in coal mines where ever they were hiring. He died from black lung the year I was pregnant with my first. My father worked for the borough in which we lived. He worked the backhoe when needed in the summer and salted roads in the winter. They were unionised which was why they would go on strike.

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