Part 13: “If You Promise You Won’t Tell: A Memoir”

Chapter 5: Smiling into My Future, continued

The summer after my first grade, Datt was looking for a paying job. I don’t know whether he had the motivation himself to go and look for work, or if Mem or his mother talked him into it. He had been forlorn for so long it seemed no one could have gotten him motivated to get up off the rocking chair. Nevertheless, he left home and hitchhiked to wherever he was going every day. Sometimes he walked down the back road to the railroad track and hopped on a freight train and rode it down to Middlefield. One day he came home and said with a big grin that he had accepted a ride on a motorcycle. He may have wished he hadn’t told anyone because people criticized him for it.

One Sunday afternoon, we were visiting Uncle Sam and his family. He was Datt’s youngest brother, and the son Grandmother favored most. He and his wife had a growing family, and they were making plans to move to Wisconsin to a new stricter Amish settlement.

I was in the living room with the grown-ups at Uncle Sam’s house when the topic of Datt’s motorcycle ride came up, and Uncle Sam looked at Datt and said, “I’d like to know how you think it’s all right to ride on a motorcycle?”

Datt was rocking on a bent hickory rocker. He stopped rocking and looked at Uncle Sam without saying anything for a moment. Then he said, “Well, at least I’m not moving my family out of state.” His crossed feet, pushed off in his rocking chair, and rocked back and forth as Uncle Sam listed all the reasons why he was making such a decision — concern for his children, better farmland, moving away from the bad influences among the young people in our community — and then he ended with a challenge, “And I want to know when you are going to do the same.”

Datt stopped rocking and became silent. Uncle Sam looked at his oldest brother like he knew he’d shamed Datt. I wondered why — in most families the oldest in the family reigned supreme over his or her siblings. I could feel Datt’s shame in his downturned face. It seemed like he wished he could crawl into a hole. I knew what that was like.

My cousin Sarah came and asked me to go outside to play with her. Leaving the living room was like leaving in the middle of a story that was still unfolding.

I wonder whether Datt had to make a public confession in church for his escapade on the motorcycle. As far as I know, there was no rule in the Ordnung against riding a motorcycle. But then again, it was unheard of for an Amish person to do so.

Datt looked for work for a long time. Then one afternoon when we were going about our housework, we heard him joyfully chanting at the top of his lungs, “Ich happ en cho-op! Ich happ en cho-op! — I have a jo-ob, I have a jo-ob!” We looked out, and he was hopping, skipping, jumping, and swinging his hands above his head as he chanted. It seemed like it took only ten leaps to get from the end of the lane to the front door. Mem looked out the window and said, “Well what’s gotten into him?” I knew she wasn’t really angry because I noticed she was trying to hold back her smile.

Datt had a toothless grin from ear to ear. I had never seen him so jubilant in my whole life. He told us he would be working at an orchard. In the spring he would trim trees, and in the fall he would pick fruit.

That job was literally the best thing that ever happened in Datt’s life — at least in the time I knew him. He had a way with trees that was uncanny, considering he had so many other deficits. For years he thrived there, working at the orchard through each spring and each fall. He still spent time on his rocker, sometimes with that forlorn look in his dark eyes, but snapping his eyes and whispering to someone not in the room tapered off and became a thing of the past. He was more functional most of the time.

Then Datt began having fits of rage in which he would give a sound whipping to one of us, usually Joey. Sometimes Mem asked him to punish one of us, as she did the time Joey lied about bringing water to the cow. Other times Datt gave whippings on his own, as he did one summer day after we had attended church. As we were leaving the home where the church service was held, I could tell Datt was upset in the way he said, “Giddapp!” and slapped the horse’s backside. As soon as we were out of hearing distance of others, Datt said, “Joey went swimming on a Sunday!” Mem asked Datt how he knew. Datt reached over and pulled Joey’s hat off, revealing a wet rim around the ends of his hair. Mem didn’t have much of a reaction, but she agreed that Joey deserved to be punished. And sure enough, as soon as Datt had unhitched and unharnessed the horse, he unleashed a whipping in the barn that had Joey howling in pain. From the house I could hear both the loud smacking sounds of the leather strap across Joey’s backside and his reaction to the whipping.

I could not understand why Datt was so upset about swimming on a Sunday. I knew we kept Sunday as our Sabbath, and that swimming was one of the things forbidden on our day of rest, but there was probably more to it for Datt. The boys would not have had swimming trunks with them, so they must have shed their clothes. Public nakedness was considered immoral. Whatever Datt’s “reason” for the whipping, it seemed out of proportion to the perceived wrongdoing.

I knew Datt’s moods mattered, so I watched him closely. I avoided him whenever I saw that dark look in his face because his temper could erupt with little or no warning.

Chapter 5 to be continued…

12 thoughts on “Part 13: “If You Promise You Won’t Tell: A Memoir””

  1. What a hard thing it is to live by someone else’s moods. It can put fear in our hearts or joy. Growing up Nazarene we also had strict rules about Sunday’s, well at least in our house. We children were to play quietly, or read. We were not to be running around being boisterous. We most definitely were not to play with the neighbouring children. It was so frustrating for me. I simply could not understand why God would find it offensive for us to run and play with other children. Though my mum had her moods and her dark days they were nothing compared to what you had to endure. My heart goes out to the little girl you were those many years ago.

    1. Pamela, I would not say your dark days were nothing compared to mine. For a child to have to watch the moods of their parents is intense, no matter what. Minimizing your pain by comparing it to that of someone else’s is not being true to it. Your childhood sounds difficult no matter how difficult mine was. Being held back from being the playful little girl you wanted to be sounds unnessarily oppressive, and my heart goes out to that little girl with the Raggedy Ann doll. Thank you for sharing your stories, Pamela. May you know that someone cares about what you endured, even after all these years.

    2. Dear Saloma,,

      I recently read both of your books and your blog from beginning to present. I grew up near the Big Valley Amish (not Amish but near them). I share Anabaptist roots with Church of the Brethren lineage. I also share a love of Vermont; my son lives in Waitsfield, and I’ve visited many of the places you mention. I’ve been deeply moved by your strength to tell your story, your bravery to move to Vermont, your desire for deeper education, and your good fortune to meet David and build a life with him. As I read your posts,I found myself wondering about your siblings. I understand your don’t interact with your Amish brothers. Have you been able to reconcile with your sisters as you continued to tell the story of your mother? Maybe that’s too painful to talk about, and you don’t need to answer. As we age, familial relationships are important, and I’m sorry if you don’t have that experience.

  2. Awe, thank you Saloma. Your kind words are like a healing salve for my soul. i hope some day these beautifully written chapters can be in the form of a published book.

    1. I’m glad, Pamela, and you are welcome.

      Thank you for encouraging me to get my book published. I’m thinking about that more and more, and I’m ready to get moving on it. In the meantime, I’m glad you’re enjoying the chapters.

  3. How difficult it must have been to grow up under the unpredictability of a mentally ill parent! I have read that schizophrenia, for example, tends to get better as the person ages. Did your Datt’s mind ever improve?

    My parents’ marriage wasn’t good for a number of years but that wasn’t a real problem in us kids’ life. In my own childhood, mealtime was what I dreaded; probably because it was the only time of the day when our whole family was reliably present my dad used that time for public shaming and criticizing. I remember well how tears sliding down one’s throat feel while commanded to “EAT”. I promised myself that I would NEVER do that to my kids. And I didn’t. Of course, it helped that I only had one child. Ha.

    Thanks for these excerpts, Saloma. I hope youngsters will someday read them also, if only to make their promises to themselves.

    1. Elva, thank you for your comments. Yes, my father’s mind did improve, but only after he began taking medication for it. This was prompted by my leaving the first time. Several folks in the community stepped in and ensured that Datt would get the counseling he needed. The counselors soon figured out he needed medication. He ceased being violent after the medication, which greatly improved the mental health in the family.

      Oh how sad that you father belittled you and your siblings. Why do Amish parents tend to shame their children as they do? It does not humble a child… it breaks the child’s heart.

      I don’t remember Datt shaming us, but I do remember being shamed by Mem and Joe. It could be devastating.

      Good for you for making that vow to yourself, and for keeping it. Not everyone can keep these vows, which is why it is so hard to break family patterns.

      Thank you for sharing of your story, Elva. It is always enlightening.

  4. Dear Saloma,

    I recently read both of your books and read your blog from beginning to present. I grew up near the Big Valley Amish (not in the Amish but near), and I have shared Anabaptist roots through the Church of the Brethren. I also love Vermont; my son lives in Waitsfield, and I have visited many of the places you mentioned. I appreciate your strength to share your story, your bravery to move to Vermont, your desire to find more education, and your good fortune to meet David and create a wonderful life with him. As I read your life story, I found myself wondering about your siblings. I know you have no contact with your Amish brothers. But, have you been able to reconcile with your sisters as you’ve continued to tell the story of your mother? Maybe that is too painful to answer, and that’s okay. As we age, familial relationships are important, and I hope you have that benefit.

    1. Donna, I missed this comment from back in January… so sorry. Thank you for reading my books and blog. It sounds like we have a lot in common. My son doesn’t live far from Waitsfield… he’s in Berlin.

      Unfortunately, reconciliation with my sisters has not happened, and I don’t know if it ever will. It is precisely my stories of Mem that keep us apart. We all have our own coping mechanisms… and it seems I went in one direction, and they went into a completely opposite one. Their view of Mem is very different from mine. One sister said she cannot hear anything negative about Mem. She finds it unacceptable that I tell my stories. This is the same difference I had with Mem… she wanted me to “bury it forever” and I have always had the need to tell about my experiences. I tried coaxing Mem’s stories from her, but she took them with her to her grave. Neither of us got from the other what we wanted: she wanted silence, and I was never able to stay silent. I wanted stories from her, and would not relinquish them. That pattern has continued into our generation. There is some hope for the next generation in the family. But there is deep sadness in not having a relationship with my siblings.

    1. Thank you, Aleta. I was just thinking about you the other day, and remembering the visit from a few years ago. I hope you are doing well… or as well as can be expected during the pandemic. Thank you for dropping by.

  5. Michele Larson

    Thank you Saloma, I love how easy it is to get into your writing like I am there with you. Do you ever miss Vermont? I do! Now that I am a widow and I am not comfortable driving between here (York PA) and Bingamton NY I am not sure if I will ever drive up there again. Since we have lived here Bob did all the driving to VT. My son and family live in Georgia VT and I would like to go visit them but I would also love to go to Barre again.

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