Part 5 “If You Promise You Won’t Tell: A Memoir”

Continued from Chapter Two: In the Shadows

Out of nowhere, Datt got a job. He helped with chores morning and night on the Hale farm up the road by hauling pails of milk from the barn to the milkhouse. He came home tired, which meant that Mem and Joey had to do our own farm chores.

When Datt returned home one night, he told Mem at the supper table about an argument he’d had with a man who wasn’t Amish. He was one of our egg customers and we called him “The Yankee.” On this night, the Yankee had gone to the Hale farm to buy milk, and he’d parked his car in the way of Datt hauling the heavy pails of milk. Datt had asked him to move the car, and the Yankee refused. Datt was agitated and upset.

Later that night we’d all gone to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. I was hot under the covers, and my nightie was sticking to me in the heat and humidity of late summer. I was looking at the chimney on the wall at the foot end of our bed when I saw it light up. A car had just come in our lane. The lights went off and a car door slammed. Someone yelled out in a raspy, harsh voice, “Simon!”

It was The Yankee.

Datt stayed still. He said in a whisper so we could all hear him, “Stay quiet and he might leave.”

The Yankee didn’t leave. He kept yelling louder, “Simon! Siii-monnn!” He knocked on the outside door and yelled my father’s name. Mem and Datt were having a whispered argument. Mem was telling Datt he needed to go find out what the Yankee wanted, but Datt wouldn’t move. We heard the Yankee walking up the stairs to the kitchen and walking through the door. I held my breath. He rattled the handle on the water pail, and he kept yelling my father’s name. Still Datt didn’t answer. So the Yankee walked to the bottom of the stairs that led to our bedrooms. He opened the door and yelled upstairs. Still Datt didn’t stir. My fear was too big to swallow. I wondered what would happen now. Mem got up out of bed and walked to the top of the stairs.

She said, “You’re waking the children! What do you want?”

“I want some eggs!”

“Come back tomorrow and I will give you the eggs.”

“But I’m hungry, and I need some eggs!” he demanded.

Mem stepped down into the darkness of the stairs and said, “I will give you some eggs, and then you need to leave! I could hear the fear in Mem’s voice. She went all the way down to the basement in her bare feet. A few minutes later, she came quickly up the stairs, her feet slapping against the wooden stairs. Out loud she told Datt, “I gave him some eggs, now if he doesn’t leave, you will have to deal with him. He smells like alcohol.”

I thought Mem meant that he smelled like rubbing alcohol, like what she used to clean our cuts or scrapes. I couldn’t understand why the Yankee would smell like rubbing alcohol. I didn’t know that people can consume alcohol and become drunk.

The next day, Datt put up two brackets on the inside of the door frame at the bottom of the kitchen stairs. At bedtime he dropped a two-by-four over the brackets to bar anyone from coming in. At first I felt safer, knowing the Yankee could no longer come into our home in the middle of the night. But then I realized I couldn’t reach the bar. It made me feel trapped. Danger lurked in the shadows of our home, and it didn’t always come in from the outside.

* * *

One morning Joey and Lizzie had gotten on the school bus and Mem was just pouring hot water into the dishpans in the sink for me to wash the dishes when her friend Grace Bradley drove in our lane. Mem quickly finished preparing the dishwater, as Grace walked slowly to our door. Mem welcomed her in, and then Grace’s face lit up when she saw me. She oohed and aahed about how much I’d grown. I knew she was talking about that when she motioned with her hands that I had been “this tall” last time she saw me.

I loved Grace Bradley. She had kindness written into every wrinkle of her face, and she paid attention to us children when she visited. I was sorry when Mem and Grace went through the door into the living room. Mem turned around and said, “Lomie, do the dishes now.”

Datt got off his rocking chair and headed outside. He didn’t like when other people saw he was sitting inside in the middle of the day.

The water was too hot for me to put my hands into, so I played with the soap bubbles and tried to listen to Mem and Grace Bradley. I didn’t understand English, so I could only catch a word here and there.
During a pause in their conversation, Mem said to me, “Lomie, ich heah dich ken cha vesha. — Saloma, I don’t hear you washing any dishes.”

I picked up a cup and put it into the water. I swished the dishcloth around inside the cup, then dunked the cup into the rinse water and set it into the drainer.

Then I stopped. I thought I heard Grace and Mem disagreeing. I had never heard that before. I listened, but I could not tell what they were saying, only that Mem’s voice sounded hurt and defensive. I thought she might even be crying. Things got quiet in the living room, but it was not a comfortable quiet. Then Grace got up and came through the kitchen door. I could tell she was leaving. Mem followed her to the door, but she didn’t say, “Come again!” as she usually did. She watched Grace departing with sadness in her face.

Vass iss letz — what’s wrong?”


“Are you and Grace mad at each other?”

“She thinks I shouldn’t make you work so hard. But without Datt’s help…” Mem’s voice faded into tears and she went through the door back into the living room.

Seeing and hearing Mem cry made my tummy feel like it had a tight knot in it. I felt sorry for her. To show her I wasn’t working too hard, I set about washing the dishes with a will. I didn’t dare think about the feeling down deep — being glad that Grace Bradley cared about me and had stuck up for me.

[End of chapter 2]

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8 thoughts on “Part 5 “If You Promise You Won’t Tell: A Memoir””

  1. WOW,how scary it must have been not only for your mother but for all you children to have a drunk man actually come into your house in the middle of the night and demand something. Why do you think your father did not get up and confront the man but let your mother deal with it?? Being the head of the house wouldn’t that have been his place? Both stories are so well written Saloma, very powerful. I could feel your fear in the first one and your mixed feeling’s in the other. I’m really enjoying reading this.

    1. Datt was too scared, and he relied on Mem to be the strong one in the family — the fixer. Mem later signed the “fixer” role to me, but when I was that young, there was no one but her.

      Thank you for your compliments about the writing. Always gratifying to hear.

  2. Found your blog yesterday evening. Coincidentally, by sheer chance, I drove by your old house yesterday morning when I had business in Sunderland. I was reading the older entries last night and boom! there was the house I had admired as I drove through town earlier in the day. What a small world. There are many lovely old homes on either side of the street in that section of town.

    Your history/story is surely a difficult and somewhat familiar one. I grew up on a subsistance farm in New England and have only just given up farming myself two years ago when I was in my late 50s, right after my mama died. There are so many good and not-so-good memories from one’s childhood. I’m first generation German American, and my father’s family were farmers outside of Berlin but fled between the world wars. As a result, I was raised in a very German farming culture way, and there are some parallels to what you experienced. l was the first one to speak up about the abuse, but it wasn’t until I was in my 30s, and no one speaks to me now as a result. I did manage to keep my younger sister from being harmed, but at a very high cost to myself. The pain dulls, but it never really goes away.

    I am a writer and book designer and started a small, independent publishing house three years ago in partnership with another author. I worked for fifteen years for other houses, so I had a very good idea of how to start and operate a publishing house. For someone without such experience, I think it would be quite daunting to self publish. I wish you all the luck.

    Best wishes to you and yours from Franklin County. No snow here yet this season! But perhaps tonight we will get some.

    1. What a small world indeed, Diane! I miss our old house so much! There are mornings I awake in our little house in the suburbs and remember what it was like to awake in our bedroom in that house. We faced the sun through our bay window, and we were up there with the birds in the birch tree outside. Loved it!

      I am sorry to hear of your childhood experiences, and of the cost of speaking out. Staying with our truth and authenticiy can be costly, which means we are hurt long after we remove ourselves from the abusive situation. Your description of the pain not ever going away is so true.

      It is daunting to publish my own book. But finding the right agent or publisher was even more daunting.

      No snow this season… Really???!!! And here we are seeing bare ground for the first time since early January. What strange weather patterns!

      So glad you found me. Sorry I missed approving your comment until now. From now on your comments will come through automatically.

      1. As it turns out, one of my dirt farmer friends bought the house from you! I ran into her in February, and she mentioned that she’d moved to Sunderland and which house it was. Super tiny world! She and her family love the house. It’s a sweet little river valley town.

        Not much snow this past winter. Far more rain. Basement sump pumps have been working overtime. Sugaring season is just wrapping up, and the timberdoodles have arrived and are courting and nesting in the wetland on my farm.

        1. My goodness, Diane, are you the queen of coincidences? That is amazing!

          I’m so glad the young family who bought the house is enjoying the house. That puts a smile on my face. There were such good VIBES in that house, with the views of the bridge across the Connecticut River, Sugarloaf and all that.

          Please give them my best!

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