Sunday, February 19, 2017

Why I'm Grateful to Mrs. Olson

Someone posted a picture on Facebook the other day that made a memory erupt from the past.

It was my sixth-grade teacher and her husband.  Mr. and Mrs. Olson.  I'm sure they have first names, but you know how it is with teachers--they're always and forever Mr. or Miss or Mrs. 

I am forever grateful to Mrs. Olson.

At that stage of my life there were many things that were wrong.  I have a daughter and a few friends who adamantly want me to write about my childhood with all its strangeness and chaos and paradoxes, but I haven't felt ready to do that. Yet.  Except to say that in my little world, I had no clue how to define a problem and find a solution.  And making a fuss was absolutely not ok.

I was a little Beachy-Amish girl in Minnesota at Grove City School, on the top floor of the old elementary school with its brick walls and high ceilings.  I wore a large white cap and simple dresses among dozens of Lutherans in jeans. [We were known in the community as Mennonites, for some reason, but in truth were much closer to Amish.]

 I was also an avid reader, plowing through shelves of books in the classroom library, from Freddie the Pig to Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Most of the time, I got along fine with everyone, and they were kind.  But I always felt Different.

We would file down the long flights of stairs to the cafeteria for lunch, at which time Mrs. Larson and Mrs Knutson [most Minnesota names end in -son] would take over, watching over the lunchroom and the play time afterwards.  Usually we walked a block or two to the playground, but in really terrible weather by Minnesota standards we played in the "small gym." Usually several games were going at once, circle games or shooting baskets or jumping rope.

One day one of the girls in my grade decided to tease me by grabbing the hem of my dress and yanking it up.  It took me by surprise.  She laughed and laughed.

The other girls started doing the same thing.  There I'd be, waiting on my turn to shoot, and suddenly, WHOOSH, and the more they saw the more they laughed.

Day after day.

Why was it that I didn't have the skills to make them stop, to tell Mrs. Larson, to stand up to them?  Why did I feel like somehow I deserved this treatment just because I existed and was Different? Or that I would ruin any chance of acceptance and friendship if I made a fuss?

I would giggle nervously and try to tuck my skirt between my knees.  I'd go sit on the bleachers between turns, embarrassed and confused.  If I tried to hold my skirt down at the sides, they jerked it up at the back or front.

Nothing worked very well or very long. Yank, laughter, boys turning and looking.

It was awful.

Maybe I could get out of the noon play time somehow.  One day I offered to come back to the classroom after lunch and clean the chalkboard erasers.  Mrs. Olson said yes.  Wonderful.

The next day I came up with another excuse.  I think it was something like coming back to work on my math.

Ummm, ok.

It was about the third time I stayed in the classroom that Mrs. Olson said, just straight out, "Why don't you want to go play over lunch?"

"Uh, well, I don't know..."

She was not ok with that.  What a beautiful thing it was to have someone in my life recognize a problem and ask me about it in straight-out concise words and to insist on an honest answer.

So I told her about the girls pulling up my dress, feeling relieved but also terrible for tattling.

She said, "Who did this?"

I didn't want to tell her.

She got out a pen and paper.  "Tell me the names of everyone who did this to you."

She meant it.

I started listing.  She wrote down name after name.

"Anyone else? Did Vickie?"

"Well, only once I think."

She wrote "Vickie" in a determined hand.

She didn't say much more, but I could tell she was a woman on a mission.

Pretty soon everyone came back up the stairs, grabbed a quick drink at the fountain, and came back in the classroom laughing and wiping their mouths.

I sat waiting, knowing that the earth was about to shift on its axis, or at least that something in my strange little world was changing in ways I had never experienced before. 

Mrs. Olson stood at the front of the classroom.  She held up the paper and said, "Debbie, Vickie, Deanna,. . ." She read off the entire list.  "All of you go to the principal's office.  I want to talk to you."

They got up and left.  Dear God, what had I done?

They came back a few minutes later, grinning a bit sheepishly.

I thought, "I am going to Get It."

None of them looked at me.  Nor did they glance at each other and Look at me.

The next day we went to play in the gym and no one pulled up my dress. No one ever did that again. And no one ever said a word to me about what had happened. 

I still felt different, but mostly people were kind.

At the end of the year, we voted on all kinds of categories, and then Mrs. Olson gave us awards.  I got the Smartest Girl award.  And then to my utter astonishment, Mrs. Olson said I had tied with Tammy Ellingson for "Prettiest Clothes" but she gave Tammy the award since I already had an award and she didn't.

My awful little Amish dresses had tied for Prettiest Clothes!

So that was a nice ending to sixth grade.  But the best thing about sixth grade was the new and glorious experience of having someone notice that I had a problem, insist that I speak it out loud, and advocate for me when I needed it most.

I will always be grateful to Mrs. Olson.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Newly-Repurposed Book And Other News

I took the long, scenic, and rocky route to publishing my books.  "Ordinary Days" was self-published way back in 2003 when print on demand was a new thing.  Then it was picked up and re-published by Good Books, who went on to also publish Upstairs the Peasants are Revolting and Downstairs the Queen is Knitting.

Good Books decided not to pick up the fourth book, so I self-published the next two.

Then Goods went bankrupt and fell off the face of the Earth for a year before they were bought out by Skyhorse Publishing in New York City.

Recently Skyhorse decided to re-publish my first three titles under one cover.  I think that is an awful lot of Mrs. Smucker's Attempts At Squeezing Profound Meaning From Daily Life to read and digest at one go, but it isn't my decision to make.

And who am I to fuss if they want to get more mileage out of those titles?

So Sunlight Through Dusty Windows should be out this fall. Special thanks to my sister Rebecca who came up with the name.

If you have one or two of the first three titles and want to complete your set, I am in possession of the only remaining copies of them, and when they're gone, they're gone.

You can email me at for particulars.

I'm also hoping to publish a sixth collection of newspaper columns this year and have many ideas for other new books but no promises or commitments.

Yesterday when I spoke to the Women In Touch at the First Baptist Church in Eugene, one woman told me I really should write a cookbook featuring all the food I write about.  That made me laugh, because me writing a cookbook is kind of like me writing a book on parenting, which I never thought I would do until recently when my young friend Esta suggested it and also about 5 people in a month's time asked me for parenting advice, which always made me want to whirl around to see if they were actually talking to someone behind me.

If those ideas get off the ground, they could both be titled The Cheap Easy Way to Cook/Parent When You Have No Clue What You're Doing And All The Other Cooks/Parents Intimidate You To Death So You Pretend A Lot.

I also keep dropping ideas in my Novel Notes file, but this novel is yet to be written because I am stuck in a Fixed Mindset.  Over on Jenny's blog you can read about that concept.  But I hope to have a Growth Mindset on the novel-writing subject someday, especially since I keep running into these amazing tidbits, like my friend SC who, it turns out, once had a date with an Amish guy and went to the singing in his buggy which involved details that I won't disclose here (watch for them in my novel of course!). And then on our sisters' WhatsApp discussion today there was mention of a squished piece of bread falling out of someone's Bible after communion, which carried Lots of Deeper Implications.

So as you can see there is no lack for morsels to include in that novel when I finally overcome my terror and just write it.

Which brings us to the Sparrow Nest, my writing cabin, which is slowly taking shape but didn't make much progress during the coldest part of the winter because Paul kept finding warmer things to do, and which seems like it will have just the right magic to make a novel come to pass.

So on we march, with giant scoops of gratitude for everyone who has encouraged me and actually read my writings over the last 16 years.

Quote of the Day:
I'll quote myself this time, because I felt so clever.
One night Jenny had fried fish and cooked macaroni & cheese for supper, and being of various schedules, we ate as we showed up in the kitchen.
Paul showed up last, looked around, and said, "Is there anybody left to eat besides me?"
I said, "I didn't realize we were under siege."

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Visiting Uncle Johnny

I used to read The Story About Ping to the children.  Ping was a duck who had "two sisters and three brothers and eleven aunts and seven uncles and forty-two cousins."

I had two sisters and three brothers and nine aunts and nine uncles (if you count spouses too) and I think fifty-two cousins.

It's odd.  When you’re little, aunts and uncles are just part of the landscape of your life, drifting in and out of importance, fun to imitate and discuss, and enjoyable to visit, but you only visit them when Mom and Dad take--or drag--you along.  Or they come to visit you, and you observe that your mom and dad are subtly different people when they are with their siblings.

Then you start a family and live far away, and aunts and uncles get old and die, but you are busy with your life so it's sad but you move on.

Suddenly you wake up and realize that you have lots of questions about family history, the past, and who your parents used to be, and the only people with access to this repository of information and stories are your aunts and uncles, and almost all of them are gone.

A few years ago, I resolved that even though I lived in Oregon and had a busy life, I was going to visit my remaining aunt and uncle, Mom's sister Vina in Iowa and Dad's brother Johnny in Kansas.

Two years ago, I spoke at a ladies' retreat in Illinois. Afterwards, Paul and I drove to Iowa and spent a few days with Aunt Vina.  She told stories while I took notes the best I could while laughing til I cried.

I asked her deep and hard questions as well, and left with a new understanding of my mom.

But I still needed to visit Uncle Johnny in Kansas, a difficult assignment when you live in Oregon.

“You’ll probably come see me when I’m in a box,” he told me during one of our phone conversations. Johnny can be a bit melancholy.

And yes, he talks on the phone despite being Amish.  He also zips around during the week on a tractor.  I think he’s New Order, but I’m not sure.  The Amish church in Hutchinson, Kansas, has always played by its own rules.

When we planned this trip, we had events on two consecutive weekends—the INSPIRE ladies’ retreat in Indiana and the BMA Ministers’ Weekend in Delaware.  But what should we do in between?

“Let’s visit Uncle Johnny.”

So we did.

“Now when you come in the driveway, you’ll be coming around the west side of the house,” he told me on the phone.  “There’s a yard light on the north side.  You can park there, right on the grass, it’s ok.  Come in the north garage door and then go in the west door and there’s a door to the basement.  Your room is west of the kitchen.  Ich hap da fridge aw kschtekt fa eich. [I lit the fridge for you.]”

Got it.

The sign on the door said, “Johnny’s Econo Lodge.” He hosts a lot of guests.

I grew up in Minnesota, so I was used to farmers who orient themselves around the four points of the compass rather than right and left.  “Go north on Highway 4 out of Grove City, then west on 3, and north again on 532nd Avenue.” That sort of thing.

But Kansas was even more of a perfect grid than Minnesota, with no lakes to mess up the graph-paper lines, and Johnny was probably the most direction-oriented guy I’ve ever seen.

“The east one!” he said, when I wasn’t sure which of two switches was for the living room light.  “There’s room for that on the west side,” when I was putting the milk in the fridge.

Johnny’s granddaughter Kimmy said it’s not just him—this is how Kansans are.

At 93, Johnny is still Dad’s little brother and his only living sibling.  The two send long letters back and forth, and when they’re together, like at Dad’s 100th birthday party, they can’t hear each other but still communicate just fine.

They both remember names, dates, and events with unbelievable accuracy and detail.  Johnny is more a natural storyteller than Dad, but both of their tales come bubbling from a deep well of memory, spinning off into lists of facts about who moved to Indiana in 1957 and who went to Garnett, Kansas; who was ordained bishop, and when, births and baptisms and marriages and deaths, interspersed with unexpected details. Lydia was a widow who married Levi Knepp. Their daughter Sarah married a Schweitzer named Manual Zehr, and their daughter Lydiann married Joe Helmuth.

Schweitzer??  Is that a “Swiss Amish”? I’m not sure and didn’t have a chance to ask.

Johnny and Dad both have clear memories of their school days in Oklahoma and the odd mixture of cultures—Amish, white American, and Native American—a Cheyenne/Arapaho mix.  “The Dutchman, the White Man, and the True American, we called ourselves,” Johnny told me.  “The Amish and Indian girls were alike because they always wore dresses and wore their hair in long braids.”

When they exchanged names for Christmas, the Amish kids liked it when the Indian kids got their names because they would actually have money to buy gifts, thanks to the government stipends they got. When Johnny was 7 or 8 years old, Richard Tallbull Bearhead had his name and gave him a little cast-iron car.  He still has it.

Cousin Freeman's daughter Kayla modeled the shawl.
Johnny also brought out an embroidered, tasseled shawl he got from an Indian man.  “Maybe he’ll do the Indian dance,” said Kimmy.  “He still knows how.”

To my disappointment, he didn’t indulge us.

Bertha has been gone for a couple of years now, and you can tell that Johnny still grieves deeply for her. He was 18 when he asked Bertha for a date.  She turned him down.

Her dad said,  “What’d you do that for? You’re 16 now!”

Her mom said, “Oh, if he really wants you, he’ll be back.”

He did, and he was.

My dad was away in CPS during that time.  Johnny had gotten the farm deferment, and he and his dad, John A, Senior, worked like horses, doing the work of three or four men.

In addition, John A. had been ordained bishop, which meant he had to travel to other churches to hold communion services.  One weekend he was gone to eastern Oklahoma.  “Meet me at the bus stop in Weatherford at 2:00 Monday morning,” he said.

Johnny and Bertha went on a date which must have gone late, because Johnny didn’t bother going to bed.  He took the horse and buggy to town and tied them up behind the grocery store, then waited out front.  Bill Evans, the policeman, was parked in front of the store.  He was leaned back in his seat, with his hat over his eyes, looking sound asleep.

The bus came and it was full of army boys.  “But no Dad.”

He waited some more.  After a while another bus came.  This one was also full of army boys. And no Dad.

What now?  He asked around.  No, they weren’t expecting a third bus.

So Johnny untied the horse, headed for home, and went to bed.

The next morning he got up at 5:00 to do chores. 

[I can’t see how he could have gotten more than an hour of sleep.]

He came downstairs and there was John A at the kitchen table.  “Where were you?” Johnny said.  “Where were YOU?” said his dad.

A third bus had arrived after Johnny left.  His dad was on it.

Bill Evans, who was somehow aware of everything that had transpired despite seemingly snoozing in his car all night, told John A. that his son had been there, parked behind the store, but he left after the second bus came.

Bill said, “Hop in.  I’ll drive you home.”

Three miles from home, Bill looked at his gas gauge. “I can’t take you any further.  I have just enough gas to get back to town.”

John A said he could give him some gas from the tank at the farm, but Bill refused. “I’m not supposed to do that.”

So Bill went back to town and the tired bishop who had just spend the weekend away at the thankless task of helping a church with communion, and who faced another week of endless physical labor on the farm, gathered his things and walked the three miles home.

“He was all about peace and love,” Johnny says.  Other bishops would lay down the law, but John would give people a chance.  A man in the church who was good at leading singing “had a problem with tobacco. Other people said, ‘He shouldn’t have any responsibilities in church.’ But Dad went and talked to him. ‘We’ll keep you on as song leader, and you see if you can’t do something about that habit in the next year.’ And Dad let ‘em go if they wanted to leave the Amish and go to the Mennonite church.”

Not all bishops are that gracious when people want to leave the church.

Then it was time for a joke.  “I never quit smoking,” Johnny told us, looking serious.

We thought, “WHAT?!”

“I never started either,” he said, and laughed and laughed.

Believing in peace and love carried a higher price then than now.  Mose Yoder—was he Johnny and Dad’s cousin or was he Bertha’s uncle? I can’t remember—was drafted in World War I.  Years later, he would sit at “Bendick Dawdy’s” and tell stories.  Since there were no provisions for conscientious objectors, he was in the camps with the “army boys.”  It was really tough.  Johnny didn’t give details, but I know there were Anabaptist CO’s who died in similar situations.   But then the army boys started getting sick, one after the other, and pretty soon almost all of them were down, but Mose never got sick.  He would go around and take care of the others, bring them water, clean up after them, and even clean up their puke.  And thus he won their respect. Things went much better after that, and he was put in charge of the CO boys.

This is why it’s good to visit elderly aunts and uncles.  You get a glimpse of the “great cloud of witnesses” in your past.  And you start to understand that posting a Peace and Love meme on Facebook is a very different thing than cleaning up your enemies’ vomit.

Like Dad, Johnny is fascinated with how life cycles around and comes full circle. After World War II, Dad worked with MCC, Mennonite Central Committee, helping to settle Mennonite refugees in Paraguay.  Among their many other projects, MCC has a portable meat canner staffed by volunteers who take it around to different farming communities and process meat to be sent to places like tuberculosis hospitals in North Korea.  The canner came to Kansas last year, and the young men in charge of it stayed at Johnny’s Econo Lodge.  Two of the young men were from Paraguay, grandchildren of the Mennonites my dad had helped out in 1947.

How cool is that?

No wonder I’m fascinated with stories, connections, and history.
Uncle Johnny's horses, the Kansas sun and wind, Paul's shadow, and me.
Quote of the Day:
“I look at Kim Jong Un and I think, he’s like five years older than me and he’s dictator of a country! What am I doing with my life?!”
--Johnny’s zippy granddaughter Kimmy Yoder

Kimmy talks with her hands. Like I do. So
it must be a Yoder thing.