Part 4: “If You Promise You Won’t Tell: A Memoir”

Chapter 2: In the Shadows

There is no despair so absolute as that which comes with the first moments of our first great sorrow… — George Eliot

Interspersed with the “normal” memories of my young childhood are dark memories in which I experienced fear and sometimes terror.

The first betrayal of the bond Mem created with me as a small child happened when I was perhaps three or four years old. Usually when Mem was going somewhere, she’d pick which of us children could go with her. On this day, we all got to go. Mem was taking her children to the dentist’s office. At least that is what I thought was going to happen.

We all piled in our next door neighbor’s car and headed up Hale Road, and then took a right on Burton-Windsor Road towards Burton. But then instead of going to Burton, Mrs. Sakura pulled in the lane of the Weaver Family’s home. Mem got out of the car and talked to the mom of the Weaver children. I don’t remember getting out of the car, but I do remember standing on a sidewalk that led to their house and realizing Mem wasn’t next to me any longer. I looked around in panic, and then I saw that little red car with Mem and my siblings in it, heading up the hill and away. I thought the reason they left me behind is because they forgot me. I screamed out my panic, and cried so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. I must have blacked out because I fell backwards. I saw stars as the back of my head hit the sidewalk.

The next thing I knew, Ada was sending one of her children to fetch a little red wagon to give me a ride. But the longing to be with Mem and my family was too great for me to care about a wagon or anything else. When Ada said that Mem would come back, I realized that Mem had not forgotten me, but rather she had purposely left me there. In my child’s mind, I couldn’t understand why the others all got to go to the dentist office while I was left behind. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know where Mem was, nor did I know if she would ever come back.

What seemed like an eternity passed before Mem and the others came back. By then I had no more tears left. I sucked in my breath and walked past Mem as if I didn’t know her.

* * *

I gradually became aware that it isn’t normal for someone to spend as much time sitting in the house as Datt did. He sometimes spent whole days on his hickory rocker, rocking slowly back and forth. Mem often tried coaxing him to do something else, but it seemed like it took more energy than he had to lift himself out of the rocker. He left it for meals, and sometimes when Mem demanded he needed to do something for her.

What was more disturbing than Datt’s inertia were his conversations with people who were not in the room. In the middle of his rocking, he’d stop, look up into the corner of the room, snap his dark eyes, and move his mouth as if he were talking to someone in an animated way. Then he pinched his lips together and slowly started rocking again, back and forth over the hand-woven rug.

I’d look up into the corner of the living room, trying to comprehend who he was talking to. I knew something wasn’t right, but I was too young to understand what was wrong.

Some nights Mem tried to urge Datt off his rocking chair to go do the farm chores, and it started an argument between them. Mem’s voice became sharp, trying to command, cajole, or shame him into going out and doing the chores. Some nights Datt got up, put on his winter coat and hat, and stumped down the stairs and out the door. Other nights he wouldn’t budge from his rocking chair.

One night I was playing on the floor with my sisters when Mem and Datt began arguing. Mem had been chastising Datt for what seemed like a long time. He stopped his rocking as Mem said, “I have enough to do without doing your chores too! It’s time for you to do your share!”

“Yeah, well I do my share,” Datt said.

“You do your share from your rocking chair, huh, while I do all the cooking, cleaning, washing, taking care of the children, and this isn’t enough? Now I’m supposed to go out and milk the cow, feed the horses, the pigs, and the chickens, and then come in and make supper too? Why should I?”

“You wanted to have children… well now you have them!” Datt retorted.

With this, Mem walked with angry footsteps towards the coats in the corner of the kitchen. I could feel her anger in the vibration of the floorboards. She wiggled her barn coat over her dress, pulled a scarf over her head and tied it under her chin, grabbed the only gas lantern we had, and headed out the door. Her last words before the door shut behind her were, “Huck uff deah huckel stuhl und less mich oll die ouvet du don! — Sit on your rocking chair and let me do all your work then!”

After the kitchen door closed behind Mem with a bang, we were left in the dim and flickering light of the oil lamp. Tension and anger crouched in all the shadows, like a beast ready to pounce. I was paralyzed by  terror.

Datt had stopped rocking as Mem slammed the door, but then he started rocking slowly back and forth. I moved into the small, yellow circle of light of the oil lamp next to Datt’s rocking chair to get out of the scary dark shadows. I was holding onto the arm of the rocking chair when I got too close and Datt rocked over my big toe. I heard the “crunch” just before the overwhelming pain slammed into my toe. I didn’t know anything could hurt so bad — I wondered if my toe had been cut off. I screamed and sobbed so hard I couldn’t catch my breath.

I barely heard Datt say, “Lomie, if you stop crying, I will give you a penny.”

I couldn’t stop crying. The pain in my toe was too big, and so was the fear when it dawned on me that Datt could not take care of me, no matter what happened. I wanted Mem to come in from outside and make everything okay.

Datt took his little metal cylinder matchbox out of his pocket. I used to love to watch him unscrew the top and see the blue tips of the matches, but not this time. I could not have stopped crying for anything.
Datt turned away from me and picked up Sylvia and put her on his lap.

I sat on the floor in the living room, still sniffling from my sobs, when Mem finally came in from doing chores. I’d completely exhausted myself from crying. The searing pain had changed into a throbbing one.
When Lizzie told Mem what happened, Mem took my shoe and sock off. I saw with relief that my toe was still in one piece. There was blood oozing out from under my big toenail and the whole toe had turned purple. Mem set about getting cold water in a wash basin to soak it, scolding Datt, “You could have gotten her water to soak her toe! Can’t I even leave you with the children anymore?”

Datt sat there stock still on his rocking chair and said nothing. Mem continued to scold as she prepared supper and put it on the table.

After we had gathered around the table to eat, we bowed our heads in silence. Then Mem dipped vegetable soup into each of our bowls. Datt sat there, holding out his bowl, waiting to be served. Finally, when all of us children had been served, Mem served Datt his soup, and then her own. That’s when quiet set in, the kind that made me wonder what would happen next. But I was too hungry to think about anything other than eating my soup.

That night, Mem and Datt’s argument followed me into my dreams. Datt sat on his rocking chair with his arms folded over his chest as Mem’s scolding voice continued on. This time instead of sitting there, Datt jumped up from his rocking chair, and with shuffled hurried steps, he stomped out to the kitchen sink. He bent over and knocked his head into the sink, hard, several times. To my horror, the top of his head broke off and rocked back and forth, like a jagged piece of eggshell in the white sink. He stood there without the top of his head and said, “Now are you happy?”

I screamed myself awake. I was hot under the covers, in the bed I shared with Lizzie and Sylvia. Mem got out of her bed and asked, “Lomie, vas iss letz?”

I was crying so hard, I couldn’t catch my breath. Finally between hiccups, I managed to tell Mem about my dream.

She tucked the covers around me, and said, “But it was only a dream. Go back to sleep.” I couldn’t tell Mem that it was like real life, and so maybe it could happen.

Long after Mem had gone back to bed, I crouched in my bed, too afraid to go back to sleep because I didn’t want to go back into the dream. Mercifully, I eventually fell into a dreamless sleep.

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11 thoughts on “Part 4: “If You Promise You Won’t Tell: A Memoir””

  1. This is such a sad story. It does affect the little children who hear it. Each child hears it in a different way. Each has to put this away in a place in their lives. The damage caused is not easy to work out. One of the ministers in my church where I grew up told me one time that he felt so inadequate to even be able to help some of the families with what all happened in their homes. The families would sit in church like a model family but really they were hurting. This minister did take courses eventually to get the tools to be a better help to those who needed it. Those days there was no way this kind of problem would be talked about to anybody. You grinned and bore it and quite often it was the woman who carried the biggest burden. I bet your mother was at the end of her rope more than once. Thanks for sharing this so sad story. Gr. marye maarsen

    1. Marye, thank you for the comments. I can imagine it would be a challenge to try to help the families in which it isn’t all right what happens to the children. I’m glad your minister was able to find a way forward with that. I do believe it was the adult witnesses who let me know they cared who helped me through my childhood. Alice Miller describes the importance of witnesses and advocates in the life of a child who is enduring abuses and other strife.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  2. So sad. I imagine that there is many a trauma caused by parents oblivious to the harm they are causing, even when there is no actual mental illness involved.

    Saloma, did your Datt’s illness develop over time? Have you ever heard stories from people who knew him when he was young and was he different then?

    I have a beloved friend in Virginia who had a schizophrenic brother; the elders blamed the illness on his incessant reading of the Bible. The main problem I had with Amishness is that I felt that not only were they ignorant (Not stupid- that’s a totally different thing) but they were kind of proud of it, protected it, fended off any efforts to address it. In early years I remember my dad speaking disparagingly of the “experts” and the college education of the ‘know-it-alls’. After I was grown, I told Dad that education is meant to make things easier, meant to make use of better and quicker ways to address a problem. To my surprise, he agreed with me. But of course, this was many years after those earlier days.

    1. I know that Datt was diagnoses with schozophrenia when he finally saw counselors. I also strongly believe he had bipolar, though I never heard whether he was actually diagnosed with it. The test for bipolar is quite subjective, but he had all the classic signs of that. I don’t believe Datt was different when he was young. In fact, he was always looked down on by others in the community, even as a school boy. I don’t know if you ever experienced this, but those who were mentally challenged or different in any way, were horribly picked on by those who should have known better.

      Oh yes, I know what you mean by the willful ignorance. That still abounds, especially around issues of science. Unfortunately, many who leave choose not to pursue education, even though it is now open to them. The stubbornness remains. There is only one segment of the population more recalcitrant than the Amish about not taking care of one another by wearing masks and accepting vaccinations to prevent the spread of Covid. That group is the former Amish who become rigid in their hard right political beliefs. They take the willful ignorance with them and wear it like a badge.

      Back when I heard remarks about someone “getting too big for his boots” or being a “know-it-all,” I used to tell myself I wouldn’t ever become one of “those” people. Now if I heard it, I would only wonder why the speaker of such utterances is so insecure that he or she has to put others down for wanting to learn more about oneself, others, and the world in which we live.

      At least your father did finally see things differently, even though it was years later. Most of the Amish folks I know would never agree with such sentiments.

      Thanks for your perspective, Elva. Always good to hear from you.

      1. Salome, I fully agree with your reply to Elva. The Dutch also have an expression that will keep a person in their place. They will say ¨Act normally, you are already crazy enough¨. However when willful ignorance takes over because of not wanting to admit to needing help is what is causing a lot of grief. I also have some family members who will not vaccinate and are not very open to listening to reasons why vaccinations do help.

  3. I just came upon your blog tonight after seeing you in the American Experience documentary (a fateful click on Amazon!) and hoping to find out more about your own experience. You and I are certainly very different in many ways, but your story and your words are so relatable.

    I have worked for many years in various settings where the well-being of children is a central focus, and one of the many difficulties is reaching and ensuring the safety of those children who are not often in the public eye. This was a prime concern during the beginning of the recent pandemic when almost all children were isolated completely from the outside world. As a vulnerable person, if the people inside your little bubble cannot or will not protect you, who will? Who can? It must be a terrifying feeling.

    I am grieved to hear that you suffered as a child, and grieved further still to know that so many others have similarly suffered. It is a testament to your strength that you have continued to seek the truth, and that you have not only written it down but shared it with others.

    Anyway, all of this is just my long winded way of saying that I am touched by your story, and I thank you for sharing it.

    1. Rachel, welcome to my blog. I’m so glad you found me, and I’m gratified to know that you are touched by my story.

      Good for you for being an advocate for the most vulnerable. I know what you mean about abusive families during the pandemic. I often thought about how I may not have left when I was at my wits end when I was twenty, had the pandemic been an issue at the time. It makes me wonder how many others are not reaching out for help when they need it because of the situation. It is committed individuals like yourself who can make all the difference in the world in a child’s life.

      I often think that I may not have been able to face the pain of my childhood, had it not been for several individuals who played a key role of being what Alice Miller calls “helping witnesses.” Even when an adult cannot actually intervene, they can still give the child a sense of being loved and cherished. Without these individuals in my life, I may not have been able to recover my sense of self. I may also have passed the abuse down to the next generation.

      Thank you for your kind words and sentiments.

  4. Oh Saloma, How awful!!!!! What memories to have and what scary ones. Your telling of this story gives me chills, it is so visual. I can feel your fear and see it all like a movie in my head. I’m so sorry you had to endure such things. But I also feel bad for your dad who obviously had mental illness that I’m guessing he did not get help for and for your mother to had to endure it. But mostly my sympathy goes to you and your siblings who had to live in the mist of something you didn’t totally understand.

    1. Thank you, Pamela. Fortunately, enough years and tears have been spent on recovering from these situations in my childhood so that the telling of them does not cause more trauma. They happened so long ago, that it almost feels like another lifetime. It is always the children who are the most vulnerable, but you’re right that both my parents were also trapped in their place in the family and society.

      Great to hear from you, Pamela.

  5. Hi Saloma hope you are doing good. I read both of your books ( which have your signature on it :)). I have one opinion- From your books I could visualize the Amish family issues you have faced and how you where treated after your marriage, How Mem treated you.
    But here when following “”If You Promise You Won’t Tell: A Memoir” like on chapter 4 now I really feel bad for your mom. She almost single handed handled you all siblings. She did cooking to cleaning to feeding farm animals and taking care of you all. So I guess small small things which she missed to take care should be ignored – like keeping you at friends house. I understand how a kid feels like at that moment. But there is a possibility that she may have booked appointment only for few of you( could be many reasons).But see when you woke up suddenly at the night she only tucked you :) when you got hurt on your toenail she only put your leg on water :) …I believe she tried her best but sometimes missed to manage all at the same time. As a mom I believe home is not a hotel service where we will get everything perfect – towel to food , bed to room service. I guess at least on this Chapter 4 I really cant see anything on which your mom should be pointed as a Betrayal :) she could have handled it differently but think how much duties she used to do to run a family of multiple kids. So though I totally agree with you from a kid’s point of view how it feels when suddenly mom leave – but when we grow up and understand how tough and different situation our parents handled we should keep those memory not as betrayal at least .
    When a father of a big family just rocks on a chair its “abnormal” that there will be no argument- I cant see your mom did wrong by arguing with him( just because kids got scared).If kids would have seen that though their father is “just ” sitting and mom is doing all with fake smile- that would be more wrong . they would start to believe that “it is normal- dad will rock and mom will do all chores”…. So I guess she was a super woman ( obviously being human she took wrong decisions sometimes, got into arguments in-front of kids.etc) . We should remember MOON has lots of craters but still we love moon light :)

    Stay blessed.. My Apologies if any of my word is inappropriate. Actually I love your writing as I can visualize the scenes.

    1. Dear Sonia Roy. Thank you for stopping by and for your leaving the comments. You are not the first person to voice that perspective about my writing of Mem. There is no doubt that Mem did have a rough time of parenting us children, and that she was resourceful in the ways she managed that. If she had written a book about her life, she would likely have written her story from that perspective, including what a willful child she had in me. However, the only person whose inner life I can ever know is my own, and therefore it is the only perspective I can take. To stay true to my own memories, I described this traumatic event without making excuses for Mem, and hopefully without judging her too harshly. I’m not saying she set out to break the bond she had created with me… I’m merely saying that is how I experienced it.

      A thoughtful parent would have explained to her young child that she will be left at the Weaver Family’s house to play with their children while she took the others to the dentist. If that caused undue anxiety, the alternative would have been to take the child along and let her play in the waiting room.

      I’m not blaming Mem alone for the arguments that took place between her and Datt. It takes two… I am merely describing what I experienced as a child.

      I agree that Mem didn’t have the time and luxury for thoughtful parenting. If she had, I am not sure she would have had the wisdom or the insight for it. I believe she was herself a victim of harsh parenting, and so she was repeating these family patterns. I cannot ever know this for sure because she would not relinquish her history or pain from her own childhood.

      Thank you for your compliment about being able to visualize the scenes in my writing. One of the reasons this is the case is because I stay in the perspective of what I experienced at that time. If I were to leave that perspective to do “Mem splaining” it would change this aspect of my writing.

      Happy Christmas to you and your family.

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