Chapter 5. Smiling into My Future
Only by joy and sorrow does a person know anything about themselves and their destiny. —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
When I entered first grade, I was still the only Amish child in my class. There were times when I had to stay on the sidelines. During exercises in the gym there were certain things I could not do because I was not allowed to wear gym clothes. I could not go to birthday parties, even when I was invited. And hardest of all was seeing all the pretty dresses the other girls in my class could wear, while I had to wear my drab ones with my black shoes and stockings. I wished I could wear my hair down my back, or pulled into a ponytail like other girls. But I had to wear a kapp over my braided hair every day.
The teacher was the age of my grandmothers. She divided the class into three reading groups — A, B, and C. It was clear that the A group was the “best” one. I was in the B group, and I strived to read well, so that I could earn my way into the A group. But then I noticed partway through the year that no child had been moved. I wondered how Mrs. Molzen knew who belonged in which group on the first day of school.
Mrs. Molzen had a red paddle that she used on children. She claimed the paddle had two sides — a soft side and a hard side. The “hard side” was used to punish. She would bend a child over her lap and spank him or her in front of the whole class. The soft side was used when a child had a birthday. Then she would bend him or her over her lap and “pretend” spank seven times, and “one to grow on.”
In late afternoon, not long before it was time to go home, the janitors brought glass bottles of milk in crates to our classroom for snack time. One afternoon, they came up short. Mrs. Molzen was fussing over this. I wasn’t paying much attention until I looked up and saw three bottles sitting on the shelf inside the door. I jumped up out of my desk, pointed at the three bottles, and said, “There are some! They are right there!”
Mrs. Molzen grabbed me by my arm with her fingernails biting into my skin, guided me roughly back to my seat and said, “I did not ask you to get out of your desk, now you go back and sit down! We have already counted those!” I could feel my face become red with shame as the other children simply looked at me. I had often been shamed before, but not usually around so many others.
As Christmas approached, I wanted to be included in the play that my class was preparing for. I prepared for the part of one of four children who were “all snug in their beds.” We held a blanket up to our chins, closed our eyes, and took “sleeping breaths,” as the narrator recited, “The children were nestled all snug in their beds… while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads….” The hardest part was keeping my eyes closed when there were so many people to look at.
A huge Christmas tree was put up in the gym. Maybe it was because we couldn’t have one at home that I loved it so much. I used to stand under that Christmas tree and look up at the lights and the colorful decorations with such awe.
I was thrilled to be part of the play, but there was one problem. I wasn’t sure I would be allowed to go to it. Whenever I asked Mem, she would say, “We’ll see.” I kept explaining to Mem that the people who were planning the play wanted to know. But still she did not give me a definite answer.
When the Sakuras across the lane put up their tree, I stood inside our dining room window and looked across the yard at the lights sparkling inside their window. I asked Mem, “Why can’t we have a Christmas tree?”
“Because the Amish don’t allow them,” Mem said with a sigh.
“Why not?” I persisted.
“It’s just the way it is.”
I hated when Mem said that. She had been saying that for as long as I could remember. It was not an answer at all. And yet there was nothing left to say after that because it sounded like there was nothing I could do to change it, so I may as well get used to it.
The night of the play came, and Mem still was not sure we’d go to the play, but she said that I should be helpful, “and then we’ll see.” The Sakuras had offered they would take us, so getting there was not a problem. I chipped in and helped make supper, set the table, and filled the water glasses. I also helped carry wood for the stove in the living room. We had our family supper as usual. In eager anticipation, I helped do the dishes, and then I ran upstairs to my room and put on my best dress — a light blue one. I called down to Mem, “We’re going, aren’t we?”
There was a long silence. Mem said, “I don’t think so. Datt doesn’t think we should.”
I felt anger rising up inside me. Here Mem had been building up my hopes by getting me to think it had to do with how well I helped with the chores. I had done them all willingly, anticipating that I could go. Now she was saying Datt didn’t think we should, which had nothing to do with the chores I did. Somehow I knew if she really wanted to go, she would find a way. So I begged.
“Please, Mem! The teachers are expecting me to play my part! And I’m already dressed and ready to go… can I please go?”
“No, I think we better not…”
“Can I go with the Sakuras without you then?” my voice was rising with the realization that Mem was not going to let me go.
“No, you should just stay home with us,” Mem said with a sigh.
As my eager anticipation dissolved into bitter disappointment, I threw a fit, stomping my feet and screaming and roaring out my rage at the injustice of it all. I yelled, “But you said….!” I was gearing up for a full-fledged temper tantrum, but Mem said in that solid voice of hers, “Lomie, if you know what’s good for you…!” I could hear the threat of a whipping if I didn’t obey.
My rage was so big I thought I could not keep it inside me. But then I remembered the whipping Mem gave me over the Do-Bee chart, and knew I did not want that. I dropped onto my bed and cried my angry tears into my pillow.
Chapter 5 to be continued…
8 thoughts on “Part 11: “If You Promise You Won’t Tell: A Memoir””
Salome, once again you have shared your childhood memories. You are able to write about some of the things you experienced. I haven´t been able to do this but reading what you have written has been a great help to me. I have carried a feeling of sadness of what I couldn´t do all my life. I couldn´t seem to just let it go. Now I realize that it was really true and that is just how it was not only for me but more children. My mother didn´t allow me to do somethings because she had been taught a certain way. To disobey her teaching was not possible. I can put it to rest now. My childhood was so much different than from my brother who is 9 yrs younger. He lived in another world. throughout the years my mother became so much less rigid and was able to look at the world in a completely different way.. M.
Marye, thank you for your comments. I’m so glad my stories are helping you to understand your own past better. I know that feeling of wanting to write, and yet not being able to. It was only after I’d gone through years of intensive therapy that I was able to start writing about my experiences without feeling the trauma all over again.
I am glad your mother lightened up later, but I’m so sorry you had to bear the worst of it when you were young. It was so hard to understand what was happening and why back then, wasn’t it?
Thank you for reading… and for your comments.
Saloma, that brings back a lot of memories! All children have traumatic moments but Amish kids have some strange ones added to them. In 7th grade, after being awarded the prize for the best grades in my class: FIFTEEN SILVER DOLLARS!- I was allowed to go to the assembly event IF I caught a ride with our neighbors.
One of the hardest things I’ve ever done but I went down the road and asked the neighbor, and of course, they said yes.
No one of my family or any Amish people attended, but my mom made me a new dress.
Lots of mixed messages in those days.
Elva, this is a great story. I’m so glad you had the courage to ask your neighbor for a ride.
Wow, you were one of those genius Amish kids in school. There is a strain of genius that runs through some Amish families, and I always look back at the ones I knew and imagine what they could have done with more formal education. I’m glad you are one of those that got away!
Yes, in a way there were mixed messages in the story you wrote. But I think the message from your mom was pretty clearly “You go girl!” She could probably put herself in your shoes and wished it could be her. She was probably living through you in that experience. Not that this is healthy, but it beats competing with her own daughter and denying you what had been denied her.
Thanks for your comments and stories.
Oh Saloma, how hard it must have been for you to have one foot in each world. Do you think it would have been easier for you had gone to an Amish school? Not that it would have changed who you are. Your personality, your inquisitive nature was clearly not meant for the Amish life but perhaps as a child it would have been a bit easier. My heart breaks for that little girl. I remember the pain of the child I was who was denied the joy of parties and invites to go skating and such. I know the frustration and pain all too well. But unlike you I lived in one world only and was able to enjoy some of it, like trees and pretty lights and Christmas music and being in Christmas programs for the parents. As always your descriptive writing brings your childhood to life.
Interesting question. It was not any easier when I started going to Amish school… in fact it was harder in many ways.
Isn’t it so true that children feel exclusion so keenly, no matter the circumstances around it? I’m sure your situation was no easier than mine.
Thank you for the compliment. It is readers like you who keep me going!
Here is a reply about living in 2 worlds. I was able to go to a public school the first 5 grades. I couldn´t take part in some things because of what my mother decided could or not could be done but it was other wise OK. For me the hardest time was when our conservative mennonite church decided to start a Christian day school where only the children of our church attended. I am sure the worst of everyone came out at that school. The teachers were related to almost 3/4 of the students. There were favorites and there was a definate pecking order. If you happened to be at the wrong end of the pecking order it was not a very pleasant place to be. This kind of thing just wasn´t seen or caught. I had to go to that school until I was in the 10th grade and I consider it worthless as far as getting a decent education. Many yrs later I had the chance to work with young mennonite people. Those who had gone to a special Mennonite school shared some really sad stories and I have come to the conclusion that there did seem to be a lack of understanding as to how nasty some of the children could be in the so called Christian Day School run by a local Mennonite church.
Marye, your experience is right alongside mine. There is more to come on this subject in the coming chapters. I have often wondered why children in Plain schools are so vicious with one another. I think that is something that happens in Amish schools across the spectrum from Old Order to Beachey Amish and Mennonite. Such rivalries and pettiness. It’s sad.