Part 6: “If You Promise You Won’t Tell: A Memoir”

Chapter 3. Mem Buys a Baby and a House

[O]ne is born from the mother…so that the image of the woman is the image of the world. —Joseph Campbell

One night, just weeks after I turned five, Mem sat in the living room, sewing a bonnet as the sun was setting. She stopped every few minutes and closed her eyes and groaned. I knew something was wrong. She wanted to finish sewing the bonnet, so she moved over to the window for more light. She said, “If I faint tonight, someone bring me a glass of water.” I looked at the pail on the water stand, and then back at Mem and thought, “Shouldn’t someone bring Mem water right now, so she doesn’t faint?” I knew what fainting was, because Joey had cut his finger when he was cutting carrots once, and he had fallen backwards onto the floor. I didn’t want that to happen to Mem.

Mem held her middle and said to Datt, as if in secret code, “I think it’s time.”

Datt immediately jumped to his feet and went quickly next door to the Sakuras. Mr. Sakura drove their red car in our lane, even though they lived right across their lane from our house. Mem leaned on Datt’s arm to walk to the car. She stopped every once in a while and bent over. When she finally got in the car, Mr. Sakura drove Mem and Datt up Hale Road. Mrs. Sakura came to stay with us children. I wiped the dishes as Joey washed them, and he told me that he thought Mem was going to the hospital to buy a baby.

The next morning when I woke up, Aunt Katie was there. I sat at the corner of the couch and sucked my thumb on my left hand and fingered my navel with my right, which is what I did whenever I was afraid. Aunt Katie demanded in her bossy voice that I should take my thumb out of my mouth, “Nem dei damma aus dei Maal.” I did. She ordered Lizzie to set the table. Lizzie did.

For the next several days, everyone in the household did what Aunt Katie told them to do — even Datt obeyed the orders of his youngest sister.

I missed Mem so much. I wanted her to come home and have everything be the way it used to be. When she finally came home three days later, she brought home a baby, all wrapped in a blanket. Joey was right — that she had gone to the hospital to buy a baby. I wondered why — she already had five children without this baby.

Mem sat down on the rocking chair and held the baby. Joey, Lizzie, and Sylvia crowded around to see him. I saw a hand waving out of the blanket, and I wondered if Mem could still take him back to the hospital. Mem looked up and said, “Lomie, do you want to see the new baby? His name is Simon.”

I couldn’t tell anyone what I was feeling. I stepped up to the rocking chair and cautiously peeked into the blanket. I noticed that the baby had what looked like two earlobes. I pointed and said, “What’s that?”
Mem explained that the baby had extra skin on his ear. The doctor had tied a string around it. In a few days, it would fall off, Mem said. I looked in her face and wondered why she wasn’t concerned. That’s when I noticed how very tired Mem looked.

I said to Mem, “But we already have a baby.”

“We’ll need to start calling her Sadie,” Mem explained. That is when I first realized that she and Datt called each of us “Baby” until the next one came along.

Pretty soon Mem went to bed and took the baby with her. I couldn’t understand why she was home and yet Aunt Katie was still in charge.

Mem and Baby Simon were only at home for a few days when Simon had to go back into the hospital to have blood transfusions. I know now that it was because of complications with the RH factor. There was discussion about taking Simon back to the hospital, and Mem didn’t want to let him go with Datt — she wanted to be there, too. In the end, Mem stayed home. She went back to bed, and I remember hearing her cry. As usual the sound of her crying gave me that sinking feeling in my belly.

I said to Lizzie, “I think it’s because of the thing on Baby’s ear.”

“No, that already fell off yesterday.”

“You mean his ear fell off?”

“No, the little thing on his ear! You know the part that had the little black thread around it?”

“Then why does he have to go back to the hospital?” I asked.

“He has the wrong kind of blood or something.”

“The wrong kind of blood? What can they do about that?”

“They are going to take it out and put new blood in.”

“They are going to take his blood out? That’s worse than his ear falling off! How can they do that?”

“I don’t know, Lomie. That’s just what I heard.”

I had one of the worst nightmares of my life that night. I dreamed that both of Baby Simon’s ears had fallen off, and we were looking all over for them. We finally found them up on the hill under a peach tree in the Sakuras’ orchard. And then I awoke.

Datt was still at the hospital with the baby. I needed comfort, but I was afraid that if I cried, Aunt Katie would hear me. I got out of bed and tiptoed to Mem’s bed. I told her I had a bad dream, and she said in a soft whisper that I could lie down with her, letting me know that I still mattered, even though her little baby was in the hospital. I felt safe there, in the warm bed with Mem. In this little cocoon, I felt like I had before Simon was born and everything went topsy-turvy.

When Datt came home the next morning, he placed Baby Simon in Mem’s arms, and then he went to bed and slept for most of the day.

* * *

When bath night came, Mem sat up on the rocking chair, nursing Baby. Aunt Katie was getting ready to give us baths, banging around in her schusslich manner. She slammed the tub on the floor and the handles banged against the tub. I wished Mem would put Baby down and give us baths like usual on Saturday nights. Aunt Katie walked back and forth from the boiler to the tub, with her hard, fast footsteps, pouring hot water into the tub. She wasn’t anything like Mem. She wasn’t as big and soft; she moved faster; and she talked in a voice that sounded angry all the time. She snapped, “Joey, you will need to go do the chores, so the girls can take a bath.” Even though Joey was only eight years old, he was expected to take on responsibilities. Aunt Katie was strict about making children work hard.

Then I had to take my clothes off and let Aunt Katie give me a bath. When she took me out of the water, she stood me on a crocheted rug to dry me off. Her movements were rough, as though she was scrubbing a cupboard. I had no choice but to let her finish. I so much wanted Mem to put Baby down and hold me in her soft lap, enveloped in a warm towel and her love.

When Aunt Katie started to undo my braids and comb out my hair, I tried not to cry out. When she began braiding it, she pulled my hair away from my eyebrows so tightly that it felt as though she was trying to raise them. When I finally stepped down from the high stool, I hoped Aunt Katie would never braid my hair again.

And when Aunt Katie finally went home, I wished she would not come to our house for a very long time — maybe never.

[Chapter 3 to be continued]

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11 thoughts on “Part 6: “If You Promise You Won’t Tell: A Memoir””

  1. Your last sentence reminds me of what my nephew once said. His family was visiting in Indiana and were taking his grandma somewhere. It was the first time four year old Richard had met her and in the car he couldn’t get a word in edgewise because she kept talking. He finally bent close to his mom’s ear and whispered: I wish we didn’t find her.

  2. Thank you for your writing! I used to look at a poster in the large daycare room of the Grantham Church, in Grantham, Pa. It had a young girl with a look of concentration on her face and with her hands slightly twisting together. She was trying to speak. And there was a woman there who seemed wholly, completely, and gently attentive to the child. The caption read, so simply, “Listen to Children.” Even yet, it still seems to me all of child and educational psychology distilled into a few words. And, ever since I was very little, I wondered so much at adults who didn’t do that. Oh, just right now, it strikes me that they probably didn’t and don’t even listen to themselves. It made me quite determined to grow up, not like a foolish adult–I saw so many–but free of foolishness. Wonderfully, I knew some very, very good adults, and right in my family, too. No child chooses the soil they are planted in. I still thank God for the wonderful people in my family and in my life.

    1. Thank you, David, for your insights. Yes, that poster did sum up a lot in a few words and an image.

      I’m glad for you that you grew up with sensible and sensitive adults around you. I had a few of those, though not in my own family. I honestly think it was their believing in me that allowed me to survive my childhood, and eventually to thrive as an adult.

      Thank you again for your thoughts.

  3. It’s amazing how much you remember from such a young age, which shows how much these events affected you. I was ten when my Mum went to the hospital to have my brother and though the neighbor lady came and stayed with us kids I really don’t remember much from her stay. So I’m guessing she was nice to us. Either that or she didn’t pay much attention to us to the point that I just don’t have anything that stood out. Question, is pregnancy ever explained to children within the Amish culture? I don’t mean how you get pregnant, but explained why the mothers stomach has enlarged and how the babies are born? I’m guessing they would see how animals were born.

    1. Pamela, I believe we remember that which was central in our development. I remember my younger brother’s birth, yet I have no memory of my youngest sister being born two years later when I was almost seven. I only remember that she was part of my life, but I have tried, and yet I cannot recall anything around her birth. I cannot explain that.

      No, pregancy was never explained to us. If some Amish parents do explain that to their children, it would be highly unusual. Or should I say it was when I was still in the community. In fact, we were sometimes told to stay out of the barn for a period of time when a calf was being born. We were never told why. I doubt I would have made the connection between barn animals being born and how human babies are born, even if I had seen it happening.

      Thanks, Pamela, for your remarks and question.

  4. As I read your entries, I am made more aware of how much children really notice and remember much more than adults believe they do! Yes, your thoughts at the time were of a 3/5/6 year old, but you do remember them. I wonder if your dad could have had the benefit of mental health services and medication? What is/was the Amish position on mental illness? Your mother was certainly affected, and probably felt that she had to be more perfect so that people wouldn’t look down on her? Your aunt Katie sounds like an aunt of mine. She was married to one of my mom’s brothers and not the most pleasant person. Always complaining. I guess there is one in every family

    1. Denise, it’s great to see you here.

      As I mentioned in my response to Pamela above, I believe we remember the experiences that helped to shape us. But also, I started writing down my memories when I was still young. Revisiting these memories now is different from when they were still so fresh. Now they don’t seem so immediate, but because I had written these memories down while they were, I can evoke those feelings and write about them with immediacy.

      About my father getting help for his mental illness. After I left the first time, an uncle and some of the church leaders stepped in to help my father get the counseling he so sorely needed. Once he was on the right medication, he ceased being violent. I found out from a counselor I had when I went back to the community for three years, that it was because I left that Datt got the help he needed. And it was the success of his treatment that encouraged other Amish to seek counseling. It was gratifying to know that these changes had occurred. Back then, I thought my community was incapable of changing. The old addage of a pebble in a pond comes to mind.

      Yes, Mem was very much affected by Datt’s mental illness. Which is why it puzzled me years later when she wrote to me that she often wonders what Datt would have been like if he had never seen counselors. This was in the context of saying she doesn’t agree with counselors that it is better to bring up traumatic things of the past. It seemed she was wishing for my dad to go back to the way he was.

      Thanks for dropping by, Denise. Always good to see you.

  5. Thank you so much for your openness in sharing these memories! Like other readers, I’m amazed by the details you recall from your early years, and I’m fascinated by the insights they offer into daily life in an Amish community. This may seem like a trivial question, but I’m wondering when your hair was washed? You mentioned that your braids were undone after your bath, not before, so it sounds as though your hair was not washed as part of your bath? And it sounds as though your hair was left in its braids for several days (or even a week) at a time, rather than being combed and re-braided daily? I can see how, with a large family, it wouldn’t be possible to braid each little girl’s hair every day.

    1. Wendy, that is a good question. We had our hair washed every four to six weeks. When we were little, we’d lie on the counter by the sink, letting our hair dangle into a basin of water. Mom would shampoo our hair, and use a hairbrush to clean our scalp, then she’d rinse our hair by slowly pouring a pitcher of water over our hair. Then came the painful process of Mem combing the snarls out of our hair before braiding it.

      You’re right… we normally had our hair braided once a week. We would comb the “struvvla” back under our coverings every morning.

      It is a wonder we never had head lice in our family. With practices like ours, they would have been impossible to get rid of.

      Glad you’re enjoying the stories.

      1. Thank you very much for your reply. I realize that, with the conveniences in typical American homes today, we bathe and wash our hair much more often than our forebears did — and probably more than we need to do (I have dry skin, and if I shower every day, it makes the problem worse). I’m guessing the tight braids you wore may have made your heads less hospitable for lice.

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