Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Cousin Escapades--The Most Amazing Evening--Chapter 4

I wrote this story months ago, but in the strange way that life works, the ending has an incident involving a car accident that, although it's minor in the story, weirdly echoes a recent tragedy in this area.

Local people might find it painful to read.

People unconnected to this area won't.

I considered not posting it at all, but I thought that was unfair to everyone who had followed the story up to this point.

So I've posted the final chapter on a less public page.

If you're from around here, please wait a while before you read it.

The rest of you can find it over here.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Ask Aunt Dorcas--Singleness and The Forbidden Words

Aunt Dorcas likes to talk about things she knows.

I've been surprised at how many questions I get about dating and marriage. That suits me fine, as I have plenty of things to say on these subjects, based on up-close observations. Readers' conclusions may differ, but let's agree that we all need to think about what life is like for singles in the Christian/Mennonite world.

--Aunt Dorcas

+++

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

Why is online dating looked on as so dangerous? If a lady meets a guy at a singles retreat and they start dating, it’s acceptable. If they meet at church, work, or social gatherings, it’s okay. No one raises eyebrows or labels her as desperate. But as soon as she "met him online on Menno Meet or Christian Mingle," the eyebrows go up, and how terrible that is....and she’s whispered about in low tones.

How is meeting someone online any different from the other scenarios I suggested? Please enlighten me. Thank you!

--A Believer

Dear Believer,

Every time and culture has its rules about What Must Not Be Spoken. When my sisters and I would freely discuss at the supper table which ladies in church were pregnant, our parents would tell us how such things were never spoken out loud in their Amish youth. I think they were glad we were a bit more liberated, but they always found it hard to actually form words about Such Things. Mom forced herself to tell us about our changing bodies when the time came, but she used awkward terms and was obviously embarrassed.

Today’s under-30s discuss periods and bras with a casual frankness that makes me cringe.

In 1994, we moved into an old house that was being vacated by a lovely old couple named Bud and Mary who had lived there for 48 years. Mary used to call me up for long conversations. She told how a relative had died of cancer. “Well, back then no one said ‘cancer.’ You didn’t say that out loud. People would say it in other ways, like they ‘had a growth.’”

I thought, surely you’re not serious.

We consider ourselves so liberated from those outdated rules, but we modern folks have our own rules about What Must Not Be Spoken.

You can’t admit that you long for marriage and children. You don’t dare say out loud that you’re available and looking. You’ll be mocked if you ask for help getting matched up.

This results in awkward conversations, weird pretending, contorted decision-making, and lots of silent grieving.

People go to Bible school to “make friends” and “draw closer to God.” They go to widows & widowers retreats at Penn Valley for “encouragement” and “spiritual input.” They attend lots of weddings because oh, well, they just like to travel and it’s important to be there for your friends.

If anyone suspects that their motives aren’t quite what they say, and they might be going to meet potential spouses in addition to the spoken reasons, the long-married folks at church nudge and chuckle. “Well, Joe is off on another missionary journey. Heh heh heh. Poor guy.”

Signing in on a dating app means you can’t couch your motives in vague high-sounding terms. You can’t pretend. You want a boyfriend/girlfriend and hopefully a husband/wife.

Gasp. God forbid. The very act of getting on MennoMeet is Saying The Unspoken Out Loud.

I will grant that back in the early days of the Internet you never heard anything good come out of meeting an online character in person. It was the Wild West, and we were all suspicious of it.

However, those days are long gone. Most of us have learned what and who and which are legitimate. We meet strangers to buy or sell canning jars. My daughter tutors physics students online and would meet them in person if Covid allowed. I’ve connected at book signings with women I had only known online.

I think the stigma against meeting someone on Christian Mingle or Menno Meet is not because it’s online. It’s because you didn’t use a ruse, like Bible school or Penn Valley, to make it happen.

Let me contrast that with a story my daughter Amy told. When she lived in Thailand, she often attended a Thai church. A 30-something gentleman would always request prayer for himself, that he could find a wife.

Now imagine the giggles among both grandmas and teenagers if someone did that in your local prayer meeting.

But no one giggled at the Thai church. It was treated like any other need you might pray for, like a job or a new apartment.

God eventually answered his and their prayers with a sweet little wife.

From Isaac to Joseph to Moses to Ruth and on and on, the Bible is full of people who found a spouse in the most practical ways, from the resources at hand, usually facilitated by family members, without any snickering or pretending.

How about we all work to change the culture in this regard? Marriage is a legitimate desire. We all ought to be able to say that out loud and use the available resources to make it happen.

Maybe our children will tell their grandchildren about all the codes and contortions we used about finding a spouse, and the kids will think, surely you're not serious.

--Aunt Dorcas

+++

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

In our culture, widows typically get considerable support. They are affirmed in their sorrow. And it is a deep sorrow. If they have young children that is an added burden. If they have children, however, they have hope of someone taking care of them when they are old. People visit them.... much more so than never-married singles. Even Scripture teaches that we should visit the widows. So widows are affirmed in their sorrow for what was, should singles be affirmed in their wistfulness about what could have been? 

And when a couple sets up housekeeping, they generally get gifts from a bridal shower, a wedding, and a grocery shower. And I'm not saying that we should change that. But when singles set up housekeeping someone might do a housewarming for them.

Is it fair?

How should never-married singles feel about this?

--Lisa

Dear Lisa,

Never-married singles should feel exactly how they feel. If they’re happy and content, great. If they are grieving, the grief is legitimate. If they feel they are treated unfairly, they're allowed to feel exactly that.

Your question very much ties in with the previous one. The things our culture doesn’t allow us to say out loud means that singles are seldom, as you put it, affirmed in their sorrow.

When a nephew and his wife lost a baby at birth, the grief was intense. However, one woman had the insight to say to me, “We don’t think about the sorrow of those who can’t have babies, like “Alice” who is infertile or your daughters who are single.”

It meant the world to me to have that unspoken sorrow affirmed.

The conservative Anabaptist culture values marriage and children, as we should. But sometimes we don’t know what to do with never-married singles, so we pretend they will be fine if we just ignore them. So they struggle financially, and no one comes to repair their sagging eavestroughs. We assume they are ok emotionally because it’s too awkward to have a conversation about it.

We need to acknowledge the needs and realities of singles, in addition to taking care of widows and orphans. It’s not either-or.

Widows are allowed to post their grief on Facebook, and we all reply with hug emojis and comforting Bible-verse memes.

Of course the losses of the never-married are different, but what if they were allowed to post what they felt in honest words, and we all replied with affirmation?

I suggest we change the rules about What Must Not Be Spoken, and we have the awkward but necessary conversations with single people about what they feel and need.

If Mom could overcome her past enough to tell her daughters about "menstruation," we liberated people can ask the singles at church the hard questions.

That's what I think.

--Aunt Dorcas

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Cousin Escapades--The Most Amazing Evening--Chapter 3

 

 Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Ellie had turned into a block of ice. Her brain was numb and her mouth frozen into a little O, so she couldn’t say a word of protest.  She could hardly even breathe.

Nancy paused only a second longer before whirling around. “Ok, the rest of you pair off and let’s get started. Ice and water from the table over there. Remember, this is for the prison ministry. You’re doing this for Jesus, so be friendly and look happy. Guys, carry. Girls, serve.”

More than a dozen couples found each other, checked Nancy’s clipboard for the tables they were to serve, and shyly moved toward the table full of pitchers. Janet, who had teamed up with Sam, caught Ellie’s eye and telegraphed her shock and sympathy. Beth and Bev in their beautiful shimmery dresses glided toward the table with their partners.

Josiah’s treachery meant that Kaylene Mullet was fifth in line, so she and Bryant were going to serve together, just like in her dream. Unbelievable.

Josiah rose above her, too close, grinning. Ellie refused to look at him, turning an ice-cold shoulder before setting a pitcher of water on the tray. This beautiful evening was destroyed. She recalled a passage from Zephaniah. “. . . a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin…”

If I look miserable, he wins. The thought thawed her face enough that she was able to stretch her mouth into a half smile as she poured water into glasses.

“Water for you, Frieda?”

“What a pretty dress, Pauline. Is it new?”

All the while, Josiah was at her elbow, much too close, disturbing, grinning, arrogant.

Gospel music radiated from the stage, and smiling Anabaptists of every type and description filled the gym and found their seats. While the servers waited near the kitchen, the director of the prison ministry took the stage to welcome everyone and pray a blessing on the food.

A buzz of conversation rose after the Amen. One by one, the guests left their tables to file along the food tables and fill their plates with barbecued chicken, mashed potatoes, and all the sides—buttered green beans, homemade dinner rolls, fruity jello, and Caesar salad.

Back at the tables, they devoured their dinners and projected their voices above the loud music.

“I heard he bought out the James Miller warehouse and hired his nephew to run it.”

“We just moved to that little house on Pickers Road where Martin and June used to live.”

“My sister Dawn is the one over there in the blue dress, with the baby.”

“We need to refill waters,” Ellie said, trying not to look at Josiah or start crying. Slowly, they eased around their tables, squeezing through the narrow spaces between folding chairs and the robust farmers who filled them. When they rounded the table where Ellie’s parents sat, her mother’s eyes signaled a hundred questions, but all she whispered was, “Ellie, listen, if you get a chance, can you see if they’ve used the pies I sent? I really want to take them to the potluck tomorrow if they don’t get eaten up tonight.”

Ellie nodded. “I’ll check. Oh! And Bryant’s mom in the kitchen said to say hello.” She turned to pick up another pitcher so her mother wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes at the mention of Bryant.

At last they finished serving water. Ellie mentally reviewed the remaining tasks. Pie. Coffee. Refills. You can do this, she told herself. Josiah followed as she stepped to the drink table for a glass of water for herself and glanced around. To her left, Anita, Nancy’s sister, nudged two small plates with slices of cherry pie onto a long table already crowded with what looked like hundreds of similar plates. Anita glanced up, saw Ellie watching, and smiled. “This is way more pies than we’ll need, but I like everyone to have lots of kinds to choose from.”

Ellie took a long drink. Over in the corner, Sam, Janet, and the twins and their partners laughed together. Sam was telling a story, it looked like. Sierra was at the food table, scraping out one huge bowl of Caesar salad that her mom held upright into another one still on the table. Ellie kept looking around, wanting and not wanting to see what she saw next: Bryant and Kaylene off by themselves, sipping coffee and deep in conversation. She choked on the water and coughed hard.

If she didn’t find something to do, she would break into pieces. Maybe this was a good time to see if her mom’s pies were in the refrigerator.

“Hey, wanna take dessert around?” Josiah spoke too close to her ear.

Ellie jerked away. “Give me a minute, ok? I need to check on something for my mom.” She turned toward the kitchen, desperate for a bit of time alone.

Josiah followed close behind.

Ellie slipped past the dishwasher hissing steam, and Nancy spraying the last bits of jello out of a large glass bowl. Turning left, she found the big refrigerators.

One shelf of pies remained inside—a few anonymous pies with whipped cream heaped on top, one shoo-fly, and yes, there was her mother berry pie, clear in the back.  Impulsively, she opened the next cooler. The apple pie sat there among bottles of salad dressing. Bryant must have put it in the wrong fridge. Weird. Well, maybe the first one was already full.

Why not do Mom a favor? She closed the refrigerator door and moved down the row of coolers. Inside the last door, the shelves held random bottles of ketchup and half-used Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce, along with boxes of butter and jam packets. And plenty of extra room.

She turned and nearly crashed into Josiah. “You need help?” he said.

“No.”

“Whatcha doing? We need to go give ‘em dessert.” He blocked her path.

“Do you mind?” She waved him aside.

He shuffled out of the way, and Ellie pulled the berry pie out of the first refrigerator and, carefully, with one hand, the apple pie out of the second. She opened the last refrigerator with one finger and set the two pies inside, way in the back, placing a box of Smucker’s grape jelly packets in front of them.

“Whadja do that for?”

“Who wants to know?”

“You can’t just go hidin’ pies. I’m gonna tell Nancy.”

Ellie rolled her eyes. “I’m saving them for my mom, ok? She needs them for the potluck tomorrow, and Anita said they’ve already got enough pies for tonight. Let’s go.”

With Josiah hovering as always, Ellie approached the table where Anita held a slice of banana cream pie as though a space on the table would magically open up for it. Anita smiled. “Are you ready to serve dessert? Here.” She set the banana cream plate on the tray and handed it to Josiah. “You can get enough plates on here for one table.”

Ellie pushed herself through the motions. Smile at the guest, ask what kind they wanted, choose the piece of pie, set it in front of them. Refill the tray. Do it all again. Would this torturous evening ever end? Finally, the last table was served and Ellie handed the tray back to Anita.

“Time for coffee,” she snapped over her shoulder.

The music team sang “I was in sin’s prison” from the stage, so loudly it was hard to hear anything else. Josiah cranked the dispenser handle on the percolator and sloshed coffee into three insulated pitchers like he was filling a water trough for his calves. He slapped the lids on top without screwing them down and set the carafes on his tray, then crammed the extra spaces with coffee mugs and looked at Ellie. “You ready?”

“I guess.”

“Let’s get this done. I’m gettin’ hungry.”

Ellie took a deep breath.

“Coffee, James? Decaf or regular?”

 “You’re welcome.”

Josiah held the tray chest-high, an inconvenient height for Ellie, who had to reach up for the mugs and even higher for the carafe handles. He didn’t seem to notice or care.

“Bertha?”

“Coffee, Jonathan?”

“No, sorry, we don’t have tea.”

“Dad, I know you want coffee. Here you go.”

“Ellie, you look like you know what you’re doing!”

“Thanks, Dad!”

She tightened the lid on the decaf carafe and poured a cupful. She set it in from of her mom and whispered, “Your pies are still there. I kind of hid them!”

They snickered together.

Josiah sighed loudly. “Hurry up,” he said, his voice sounding loud as the music abruptly stopped. “I wanna go eat.” Josiah lifted the tray right over Jonathan Gingerich’s head as he squeezed between him and Wilbur Headings in the chair behind him. Ellie reached for the last full carafe on the tray just as Josiah turned impatiently to avoid bumping Jonathan’s wife, Betsy, and hit his elbow on Ellie’s dad instead. Ellie grabbed frantically for the handle but couldn’t reach it in time, and Josiah instinctively shoved the tray up and away from himself, trying to regain his balance. The carafe tilted forward, the lid fell off, and hot coffee splashed down the front of Ellie’s white sweater and dress and onto the floor as the two empty carafes and four mugs fell off the sides of the tray and crashed to the floor.

Gasping, Ellie grabbed the fabric at her waist and pulled the hot wetness away from her skin. Chairs scooted back and clanked into others, someone put their arm around her, and her dad knocked heads with Jonathan as they reached across the table to snatch up everyone’s napkins. “Here, Ellie, step back! Are you ok? Watch it there, Josiah! Ellie, are you sure you’re not burned?”

Everyone was watching. Even the musicians onstage seemed to have delayed their next song to see what was going on.

Terrible. Just terrible. A day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom. This beautiful evening had turned out to be the worst of her whole life.

“You finish serving coffee. It’s only that table and the next one,” Ellie hissed at Josiah, pointing to her parents’ table and one more, nearer to the stage. She longed to sprint to the restroom and burst into tears. Instead, she stepped carefully between the crowded tables, then walked briskly around the perimeter of the gym, head held high, the wet dress flapping on her legs, until she reached the exit. In the restroom, she could see proper black shoes and black nylons in two of the stalls, so she forced back the tears and grabbed a handful of paper towels. She was still squeezing the coffee out of her dress when Frieda Yoder came out of the first stall, displaying her scary minister’s wife smile, with lots of sharp teeth. “Oh hel-LO, Ellie! How is your evening going?”

“Fine.” She lifted her hem to squeeze out the brown drips among the white roses.

Frieda turned on the hot water. “Did I see you serving with one of the Weiler boys?”

Ellie threw the paper towel in the trash and fled.

As Ellie slipped into the gym, all four hundred contented Mennonites had turned their backs to her and their attention to the stage. Mark Gerig, head of the Northwest Prison Ministry Team, introduced Dean Rea, a short, wiry ex-convict who, Mark explained, had gone through the ministry’s Bible study courses while at the state penitentiary in Salem.

No one was serving coffee, which meant it was probably time for the servers to eat. Ellie saw Josiah set three carafes and the tray on the coffee table and jog toward the kitchen. Janet and Bryant stood at the pie table, filling trays with plates of pie for the servers to enjoy. Bryant nodded at Ellie without really looking at her. “How’s it goin’?” He turned back to Janet. “Have you read the Chronicles of Narnia? If you haven’t, you should.”

Janet nodded toward the kitchen and gave Ellie a look that said, “We’ll talk in there.” Ellie held the kitchen door open for Bryant and Janet, and all the servers gathered in a tight group inside the kitchen.

Of course, Nancy had to give them a little speech about what an amazing job they had done and how pleased Jesus and all the guests had to be, but no one more so than Nancy. They were just so efficient, she couldn’t believe it. “And hungry, no doubt,” she added. “Help yourself to the food on the counter, and take your plates into the room next door.”

At last, Ellie and Janet were together, huddled at a table away from everyone else, their plates of food ignored.

“Ellie! Are you okay?? Josiah…! I could not believe what he did. It was so awful!”

At last the ice inside melted. Ellie’s head filled with hot tears that leaked out of her eyes. She dabbed her nose with a napkin.

“And dumping coffee on your dress! What a jerk!”

Ellie turned her head to hide her face from the rest of the group as more tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Oh, Janet, it was horrible.” Ellie shivered, both from the memory and from the dress, cold and wet against her legs.

Sierra and one of her Mayfield friends appeared beside Janet, holding heaping plates. “May we join you?” Without waiting for an answer, they pulled out folding chairs and sat down. Sierra put her hand on Ellie’s shoulder. “I saw what happened to you. I am so sorry. Are you all right?”

Ellie nodded with a dawning awareness that the two coolest Mayfield girls were leaning toward her, radiating warmth and sympathy. Not only that, but a chic little Beachy girl and two German Baptists had crowded around their table as well, with Bethany and Beverly’s concerned faces behind them. They were all worried about her. Her! Ellie! The conservative girl in the old-ladyish dress!

Ellie squeezed out a few more tears and the blonde Beachy girl handed her a tissue. Janet gave her a sympathetic side hug. Ellie took a sip of water and, in low tones so the guys across the room couldn’t hear, told her rapt audience the whole story—not the part about planning to serve with Bryant, of course, but all the rest—from the unfortunate dress to Josiah’s treachery to the spilled coffee.

“Oh, but I love your dress!” Bethany said, and Beverly nodded. “It looks amazing on you.”

“Oh my word. What a creep! Telling everybody you’re serving together! I can’t believe him! So annoying!” Sierra spoke for them all, and all the girls looked across the room and glared at Josiah, who was having a loud conversation about football with the guys at his table. "Nah, the Beavers are gonna wipe the floor with them!"

“Are you sure you didn’t get burned from the coffee?” Janet patted her arm. “I can’t believe you didn’t start crying. I would have just lost it right there. You are so brave!”

Ellie smiled.

Gradually, the conversation moved on to other things. Ellie, suddenly hungry, dug into her barbecued chicken and mashed potatoes. How could her horrible evening have so quickly turned into this cozy scene of half a dozen of the most popular Mennonite girls in the valley clustered around her, wanting to hear her story?

Maybe it was the best night of her life after all.

A loud laugh caught her attention. She caught the word “pie” and something that sounded like “party.” Josiah and his friends leaned back and guffawed. Then they all turned and looked at Ellie.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

How to Visit the Sick

Caring for Paul since his fall has been an intense education, and in a short time I've become an expert at subjects I barely knew existed before.

Of course I knew about visiting the sick, but in three months I've gone from a 10th grade level to a Ph.D.

Some of us know we should visit the unfortunate, but we're never quite sure how to go about it.  So I'm going to share a few how-to's. Let's remember, though, that it's like making a pan of brownies. The important thing is to do it. Just show up. Even if you mess up an ingredient or two, it will still taste really good.

1. Remember that you are dealing with fragile people. Tread a bit softly, go gently, speak carefully. The sick person is hurting, the caregivers are stretched to their limits, and the family members are dealing with lives turned upside down and loved ones not being quite who they used to be.

2. Phone ahead. Caregiving takes a lot of time. Hospitals have specific expectations. Call first. No one wants a visitor in the middle of transferring to the restroom with their hospital gown flapping in the breeze.

3. Ask about restrictions. Should you wear a mask? Is it ok to hug? What are the best times to visit? How many visitors can come at one time?

4. Keep it brief. Showing up is what matters, not the length of the visit.

5. Having said that, read the cues and listen well. Patients sometimes love to recount every detail of the injury or sickness. Listening to all the gory details is a great way to serve and love, even if it takes an hour. Some of you heard more details of Paul's accident than you ever asked for. It was healing for him to talk about it. Bless you for listening.

6. Make it about them. Ask questions, listen, nod. This isn't the time to spout about the election or how the car repair guy tried to talk you into a new alternator. People who are barely surviving a crisis have forgotten that elections even exist, and they couldn't care less about alternators. Remember, they are emotionally fragile and physically exhausted. You are the strong person in this story. Handle them with care. They don't have the strength to take care of you, or to dredge up sympathy about car repairs.

7. Don't delay a visit just because you don't have food or flowers to bring. Your presence is enough. Food and flowers are awfully nice, though, if you want to bring them, even if it's a bag of oranges you pick up at the grocery store on your way over, or handpicked wildflowers in a coffee mug. In fact, anything you give will be deep with meaning. CD's to listen to. A card from a child. Books. A snuggly blanket. Anything. Most of all, though, your presence, showing up. The caregiver will cry. It will mean that much.

8. Mentioning your own medical experience is a bit of a gamble. Sometimes it's encouraging, such as when my friend Hope told us how she survived a broken neck and, for the first time, we compared stories with someone who truly understood. However, if you're talking with someone who just broke 15 bones and is trussed up in casts and braces from head to hips, you might not want to elaborate on the time you hit your head on the swing and needed five stitches. Just saying.

9. Leave your answers at home. You might "know" all about what God is trying to teach them or how he's going to redeem this situation. You have a deep sense that this is God's discipline to keep them from a bad decision. You had a prophetic sense that this would happen. Keep this information to yourself for now. The Holy Spirit is good at doling out information in the right doses at the right time.  The sick person needs you to show up, listen, nod, and read the 23rd Psalm.

What if you have the answers on which supplements the patient should be taking? Whether it's Vitamin D, oregano oil, or Plexus, you're convinced it would help them heal. The best option is to give them your specific potion as a gift. A patient or caregiver in crisis mode can't make good decisions about purchasing supplements and is probably worried about finances. Suggesting they buy your product at this time is in poor taste. If you really believe it would help, give them a bottle and instructions, and let them decide if they want to take it or not. If it works wonders, they'll be back for more, and they'll be willing to pay.

10. Believe that your presence matters. You might think you're not a relative or pastor but only a mom stopping by for a minute while the kids wait in the car, or a farmer parking a seed truck beside the road and coming in for a visit. Those brief visits mean more than you'll ever know. What you have to offer is valuable and meaningful. Just show up.

Don't ever let the fear of doing it wrong keep you from visiting the sick. These are only suggestions to make a good experience even better. I'm sure that Paul's many visitors will never know how much their presence meant to all of us, and especially to him.

Matthew 25:34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Quote of the Day:

"We pray for the aged, the sick and the afflicted, all those who need thy prayers."

--Alvin H., a minister in my childhood. We got annoyed at the lack of logic in "those who need thy prayers," but we did learn to think of the aged, sick, and afflicted.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Cousin Escapades--The Most Amazing Evening--Chapter 2

 Ellie’s 17-year-old brother Sam, crisp and handsome in his black slacks and white button-down shirt, appeared in the kitchen at 4:30. Ellie followed. Despite the garish white roses, she felt slim and elegant in the new dress, the fitted white sweater, and the messy bun, low on the back of her head, with two wisps of hair deliberately dangling around her face. She had decided not to wear a scarf—it might be too much for her minimalist look.

“You both look so nice!” Mom looked them up and down. “Ellie, that dress fits you perfectly. But are you sure your covering is going to be ok? It looks like it’s hanging on for dear life. I don’t know, with you walking around serving tonight. Can’t you put your bun up a little higher? Or add a pin on top?”

“I don’t have time. It’ll be fine, Mom. I’ve played volleyball like this.”

“Well, ok then. Here, don’t forget the pies.” Mom placed an apple pie in Sam’s hands and a berry pie in Ellie’s, their flavors designated by delicate fruit shapes cut out and artfully re-arranged on the perfectly browned top crusts. “Oh, wait!” She grabbed a Sharpie and scribbled her name on the bottoms of the pie tins as Sam and Ellie held them high in the air.

“Ok, have fun! See you tonight!”

Half an hour later, Sam pulled into the vast parking lot at Mayfield Mennonite. He got out, slammed his door, walked around the car, and opened the door behind Ellie while she patted her hair and repinned her covering. Sam picked up the berry pie out of the back seat. “See ya,” he said, and headed for the gym. Ellie hooked her purse over her shoulder, checked her teeth in the mirror on the visor, then eased out of the car. She reached into the back door that Sam had left open, picked up the apple pie, shut the door with her foot, and followed Sam, careful not to scuff her pumps on the gravel.

She didn’t see Bryant, but other young people were walking toward the doors. The laughing girls with flowing dresses and coverings tied under their chins—those had to be German Baptists. Imagine not only having strings but tying them tight! Ellie shuddered. The girls with tiny lace doilies for coverings who wore black skirts that barely reached their knees—they had to be Mayfield girls. One, Ellie recalled from attending previous Gospel Tidings banquets with her parents, was Sierra, daughter of Nancy who was always in charge of the kitchen. 

Sierra held the door open for her friends, then waited for Ellie as well. “Hi! You must be serving too! Oh what a cute pie!” She grinned, displaying a beautiful smile and dimpled cheeks.

“Yes. Apple. Thanks! Hi!” Ellie managed breathlessly. Oh what a stupid thing to say. “I mean, Hi. Yes I’m serving. And the pie is. . .” But Sierra was already running past her to catch up with her friends, the flounce on her knit skirt fluttering.

Holding the pie with two hands, Ellie walked along the wide hallway until she reached the huge gymnasium. Under a large banner that welcomed everyone to the annual Gospel Tidings Prison Ministry banquet, two women in crisp sage-green dresses set up a registration table. They smiled at Ellie as she walked by.  She smiled back. Are they Beachy Amish? Oh, maybe from the new church in Roseburg that Dad was talking about. So plain and proper. Aproned moms carrying boxes of greenery glided among the round tables that filled the room, the music team tuned guitars on the stage, and oniony smells drifted from the kitchen on the north end of the gym.

Where was Sam, where was Janet, and what was to be done with this pie? Ellie sidled to the kitchen door and was nearly knocked over by a large woman carrying a coffee percolator. “Sorry!” they both said, and the woman rushed on. 

Should she enter the kitchen? She peeked inside. It looked like every counter was covered with large bowls of salad and enamel roasters. She didn’t belong there.

“Um. Ellie?” She turned. The young man was tall and gangly, all elbows and acne, with spiky black hair and dark eyes. One of the Weiler boys, Ellie decided, who lived south of Halsey and always drove around in old Ford pickup trucks with dirt bikes or goats in the back. 

“Hi?” she managed.

The young man extended a large hand with grime in all the creases. “I’m Josiah Weiler. I was at Bible Memory Camp with you a couple times.” He grinned. “Remember?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Ellie maneuvered the pie to her left hand and cautiously shook his hand, recalling at least three Weiler boys at camp who all looked the same and thought it was funny to slap roasted marshmallows in each other’s hair. They had attended Mayfield Mennonite back then, but didn’t they start their own house church later? Something like that. She couldn’t recall.

Josiah cleared his throat and shoved his hands in his pockets. “I was wondering if you’d like to serve with me tonight. I don’t know too many of the girls and I thought it might be, you know, fun.”

Was he out of his mind? 

Ellie stared at the silver snap at her eye level on his white Western shirt and mumbled, “Actually, that’s not going to work. I have. . . I mean. . . yeah, thanks, but no.” She forced herself to look at him and smile.

“All right.” Josiah looked surprisingly cheerful as he walked away.

Wait till she told Janet about this. Eww! Creepy! The nerve of him!

“Hey! What’s up?”

Ellie nearly dropped the pie. Bryant! Handsome as a movie star in his white shirt and black jeans, hair a bit longer and curlier than last May at Conrad and Rhonda’s wedding, eyes as blue as ever.

Of all the moments for her to be standing there holding a pie like a complete idiot. Would he save the day and ask her to serve with him? Please please please?

“May I? I think the desserts go in the cooler.” Bryant whisked the pie out of her hands and strode into that noisy, steaming kitchen like he belonged there. Ellie followed. He walked up behind a woman chopping a head of lettuce with a huge knife and nudged her in the back with his elbow. “Mom? Pies go in the refrigerator, right?” 

The woman turned and smiled. “Yes. Right hand door of the first cooler, wherever you can find room.” She gestured with the knife and Bryant took a step back. 

“Watch it, Mom!”

They both laughed.

Ellie thought, Oh my word. Oh my worrrrrd. He is amazing. He has such a nice mom. Too too cool. I can’t stand it.

“Are you a Troyer?” Bryant’s mom asked.

Ellie nodded.

“You look so much like your mom. Will she be here tonight?”

“Yeah, she and Dad are coming.”

“Well, tell her I said to stop in the kitchen and say hi.” She turned back to chopping lettuce. “I love your dress, by the way. Such a pretty floral.”

Bryant’s mom liked her dress! Maybe everything was going to be ok.

Bryant rejoined her and led the way toward a group of about thirty young people, all dressed in black and white, clustered near the stage. Ellie desperately wanted to say something impressive, charming, and sweet. In the whirl of Josiah’s unwelcome invitation and Bryant showing up beside her, in the flesh, not a word came to mind.

Ellie caught a glimpse of Sam over by the wall and Janet in a group of girls, laughing. The Pine Grove and Mayfield girls all wore black skirts and white blouses, of course. Thank goodness there were also a few Beachy Amish in cape dresses. In fact, they had the look Ellie had hoped for—solid black dresses and white sweaters. Instead, here she was in this old-ladyish flower print. At least Bryant’s mom had liked it, plus she didn’t have to have strings on her covering. Ellie straightened her back, took a deep breath, and followed Bryant around the tables and across the gym to join the others.

Janet gave her a quick hug and whispered, “Ellie! What is going on?” She flicked her eyes toward Bryant and raised her eyebrows.

“I’ll tell you later,” Ellie whispered back. “And oh my word, did you see what Josiah Weiler did?”

“No. What happened?”

Ellie glanced around and saw a woman with her hair in a puffy gray bun on top of her head march out of the kitchen with a notebook in one hand. “I’ll tell you later.”

The woman stood beside Sam and Bryant and yanked a pencil out from under the black lace doily that covered her bun. “Hello everyone. I’m Nancy. How many of you have served here before?”

Three quarters of the group raised their hands.

“All right. I’ll explain for you first-timers. We team you up in twos, a guy and girl on each team. Each table has a number. I’ll tell you which tables are yours, and you’ll go around pouring ice water first while people are getting seated. Guys carry trays and girls pour. Then all the guests leave their tables and go through the food line, and after everyone gets their food, you’ll go around with refills of water.”

Ellie nodded. 

“When that’s all done, the first people will need dessert. You fill trays with pieces of pie from that table over there, where Anita is setting up”—she gestured her pencil toward the northwest—"and offer it to everyone. Once again, guys carry trays and girls talk to people and set the plates of pie on the table.”

So much to remember! Ellie glanced at Bryant to see if he was listening. He was, unlike Josiah who was elbowing his brother Haggai and laughing. What a jerk.

The singing group onstage burst out in the first verse of I’ll Fly Away. Nancy raised her voice. “After that, you go around with coffee. You fill the carafes at the table over there.” She gestured to a table with two huge black percolators against the west wall. “Guys carry; girls serve. You ask if they want regular or decaf and make sure there’s cream and sugar on the table. Got it?”

That didn’t sound so hard. She and Bryant would make an amazing team, smooth and efficient. People would murmur to each other how nice they looked together. It was going to be the most amazing evening of her life.

The noise in the gym had increased as Anabaptists from all over the Willamette Valley and beyond drifted in and found their seats. It was getting hard to hear what Nancy was saying.

Nancy raised the pencil high and pointed toward the stage. “This is how we pair up. Guys line up here; girls line up over here. Then the first guy is with the first girl, and so on down the line.”

The group shuffled and rearranged themselves like sheep, rounded up and about to be loaded on a truck, then formed two uncertain lines. Ellie shot a knowing look at Janet, who lifted her hand like she was saying hi and wiggled her fingers. Five. Ellie counted quickly and stepped between Sierra and Kaylene Mullet.

She was fifth in line! Her heart pounded as she sneaked a peek at the guys’ row. Was God smiling on her for real? Oh my goodness. Bryant was fifth as well.

She exhaled. Yessss! Janet winked at her from down the row of girls.

Nancy stood between the two rows, inserted the pencil back into her bun, and snapped her fingers. “I forgot! Before we pair off, I need to know: Did any of you arrange ahead of time to serve together?”

Tim and Robin, who were dating and practically engaged, raised their hands. So did Randy and Shelley, slowly, and everyone snickered. So the rumors were true.

Josiah Weiler raised his hand.

Nancy’s eyebrows went up.

Ellie thought, My goodness. Who did he pick on after he talked to me?

“Josiah! You have a partner already?” Nancy looked around. “Is she here?”

Josiah grinned. “It’s Ellie.” He pointed a bony finger right at her, and twenty-nine servers turned and stared in astonishment.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Ask Aunt Dorcas: Obligations, Conversation Openers, and Children's Purity

 

Aunt Dorcas borrowed her son's medical scissors to take 31 stitches
out of her husband's head.
Today she snips your questions apart.

We have three questions today. The first one came as a comment on a recent blog post:

 Dear Aunt Dorcas,

 I have a hard time discerning which obligation I take on for my sake and which are obligatory. I have a bad habit of viewing everything as necessary, and it's hard to break. Any tips for gaining clarity?

 --Lucinda

 Dear Lucinda,

I don't have a lot of advice, because, as I stated in my post, it took a bad accident to really clarify what I wanted to do and what I didn’t. However, before that I had started seeing that I took on duties because people had placed them on me without ever asking my permission. There were things I did because others thought that my role as pastor’s wife, mom, writer, family member, or whatever, required it. Once I saw the unfairness of that, it was easier to start saying No.

A good place to begin is to monitor your reaction. If you do it but feel resentful, trace that back as far as you can. Resentment means you're saying Yes because you don't feel that No is an option. Why do you feel you can’t say No? The best Yes is one that’s freely given.

 I'm still learning.

--Aunt Dorcas

***

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

I'm not good at small talk when meeting new people. What conversation starters do you suggest other than weather and other cliche topics?

--Mrs. Pepper

Dear Mrs. Pepper,

I shared this question with my daughters. Jenny passionately advocated that the weather is a perfectly fine topic of conversation. It’s a connection and a shared experience! It’s something you have in common with everyone around you! Don’t denigrate the weather!

All right then.

I told them about the time I was in Minnesota in January of 2013. My brother and I went out for breakfast at a local truck stop to talk about Mom and Dad. It was about 20 below zero outside, and snowy. As we ate, these big hairy Minnesota guys in Sorel boots and parkas would come in the front door of the cafĂ©, puffing clouds of mist with every breath, and stomp the snow off their boots with a relish and delight that’s unique to Minnesota people in severe cold. Then they’d walk past our booth with their parka and insulated gloves making swishing sounds, and they’d nod at us and murmur, “Cold out dere.”

Weather is definitely connection, especially if you live in Minnesota.

But let’s say you live in milder climes and there’s not much to say.

Everyone has a story to tell. I find that if you look like you want to hear it, people will probably tell it to you, in great detail and at times for far longer than you might wish. All you have to do is keep nodding and saying “Uh-huh.”

Except you can get in trouble doing this, because every so often I’m nodding and repeating Uh-huh, meaning “I hear you. Yes, I hear that too. I am tracking your narrative,” and suddenly they’re saying, “And I learned through my chakra from Swami Nanda that we are all One with the earth’s energy and we become Light and Being with the unique vibration of our celestial identity.”

I don’t always put the brakes on my nod in time. Or I nod, meaning, Ok, I am listening to you, and my daughters say I come across like I actually agree. 

I think Jesus understands.

Amy said, “Sometimes you already know something about the person you're talking to. You should ask about that. Maybe something you saw on social media. It means a lot when people remember specifics, like maybe your car broke down or you took a trip to Idaho.”

“Some people say, ‘How is your dad doing?’ and I don’t know how to answer, because I don’t know what they already know. But others will say, ‘Is your dad still in a neck brace?’ or ‘Has he tried driving again?’ and that’s easier to answer.”

When I’m sitting beside someone on a plane, I like to say, “Are you heading home?” I understand TCK’s don’t like this question, but most other people do. Either they’re happy to say, yes, they’re going home, or they’ll tell you that no, they’re going to visit the grandkids or attend a conference. Then you have lots of opportunity for further conversation about grandkids and work, assuming that you are reading the vibes correctly that they actually feel like talking.

People like to talk about their injuries, hobbies, children, grandchildren, gardens, dogs, memories, bargains, and travels.

Several years ago, Jenny had some of her physics-class friends here to study, and one of them, a young man I had pre-judged because he had a topknot, asked me what I’ve been reading lately. He immediately became my friend for life. What a wonderful question to ask someone, especially your friend’s old-fashioned mom. He can topknot all he wants.

My sister Margaret Koehn is the world’s leading expert at conversation starters, so I asked her how she’d answer Mrs. Pepper's question.

She says:
It is my firm belief that we can do so much better than we do when it comes to small talk. It all comes down to how unselfish do I want to be? How much do I even want to enter into the other person's life and go deeper and truly feel for them and look them in the eyes and CARE? It’s easy to do the fast, easy version...Hey, how yew doin, hows yo mama 'n em? (Thats the southern version.) Inside you are saying either let me get out of here, let me go on to a cooler group, or a more fun person. But if God is asking you to take time for someone, enter into their life and listen well.

Hey, Rachel. I loved what you said in Sunday school.

How is Shanna coping with a new teacher?

How is your neck since last week when I worked on it? Did you get it checked out?

I need new ideas. What have you been making for supper?

Or the visitors at church:

Hi, welcome here! 

So good to have you. Where do you live?

DO NOT ASK WHO THEIR PARENTS ARE UNLESS YOU KNOW THEY ARE FELLOW MENNONITES. Many ppl have sweetly asked and basicly shut off comments when I explained who I am and they soon realized that I had no pedigree. Always left me feeling funny.

But people are doing much better! I have often heard questions like “What is your story?" or younger people will ask,"What is your passion?" What a wonderful springboard to more questions!

“So, do you think you will ever buy a pottery wheel? I will pray for you that it will work out for you! And the classes sound so fascinating!"

Then there are the mothers. How do we ask them good questions? I loved it so much when an older mom was interested. "Oh honey, I felt for you tonight listening to Emma. Hang in there! You are a good mama!" What is your baby doing that's new? Sometimes just a quiet, caring "How's it going, really?" In the back of the nursery was enough to bring tears down my face.

We have one youth girl, Ashlyn, who is so good at great conversation and doesn't chafe and itch WISHING she was talking to somebody younger and cooler. I love to visit with her...Hey Ash,what kind of project are you doing lately? A few weeks ago it was mixing stuff in an old blender and making paper. Which led to Thai women walking behind the elephants, picking up dung, washing it in the river and making these cool paper book markers. And her delight over this. Engaged, delighted, interested.

I like to ask older women questions like, so what changes to you see in your children because of tech? What would you like to do /accomplish in the next 10 years? What is your project this winter?

Little kids? Oh my!

Who is your best friend?

Where did you travel to last?

Oh why do you have a bandaid? What happened?

Tell me about your scars.

Tell me about your pet.

Tell me about your baby.

I think you are really smart.( nobody tells this to kids,and it shows).

 These are a few of my thoughts. I am passionate about good dialogue and that we need to cultivate it. 

--Aunt Dorcas and Aunt Margaret

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

Is it possible to put too high of a premium on our children’s purity?

If you have been abused, I am sorry that this probably sounds naive and terribly irresponsible. But I feel like I have to ask someone because I feel clueless about training my children about molestation or Too Friendly of Family Members.

My parents and particularly my mom were excessive in protecting their children, especially their daughters, and yet my mom struggled terribly to communicate about sex. And no, there was no sexual abuse in my mom’s home either, just thick Victorian curtains and cobwebs. I grew up thinking of sex as nasty and embarrassing and sexual abuse just waiting to pounce on me from any passing male. My mom relaxed visibly with every daughter that married.

How can I train my children to be aware and yet confident that they will be protected by their parents and not wallowing under clouds of confusion and fear of What Could Happen Even Though I Am Bumfuzzled As To What IT Is?

--Confused Catherine

Dear Catherine,

Bumfuzzled is a wonderful word.

I’m not going to address your original question right away because I think maybe that’s not actually your question.

Yes, sexual abuse is horrible, and you don’t want it to happen. But let’s talk about giving children dire warnings about vague threats.

Some of us have ancestors who were impressively skilled at talking to each other in undertones, maybe about that young couple that had to get married, mmm mmm MMMM! or that young man that went wild, and then giving you that certain look and saying, “Now you be careful, ok? Behave yourself!”

If you asked for specifics, they’d shake their heads just a bit, then glance at each other. You learned not to ask, but you sure wondered.

This approach leaves a child with these messages:

  • 1.      There’s a terrible threat out there, waiting to pounce on me.
  • 2.      I have no idea what it is, exactly.
  • 3.      I am not allowed to ask for specifics. It must not be spoken of.
  • 4.      It is up to me to protect myself, even though I don’t know how.
  • 5.      If the threat gets me, it will be my fault.
  • 6.      If it gets me, I will be shamed and ruined for life, spoken of in undertones by other people’s aunts. Again, it will be my fault and my burden.

Vague warnings instill fear but give a child nothing concrete to work with.

Let’s talk about Bad Things that happen to children.

If you are a normal person living on this planet, bad things will probably happen to you. Disease, car crashes, terrible storms. Bullying, verbal abuse, injustice. Sexual abuse, physical abuse, exposure to evil. Loss of loved ones. Hunger, neglect, abandonment. Misunderstanding, false accusation, undeserved punishment. Not all these things, God forbid, but a few, or many.

Parents and other adults are supposed to protect children as much as possible, but things still happen. Sometimes children heal from their wounds, move on, overcome, develop courage, and grow strong. Other times, they don’t. They go through life wounded, shamed, fearful, frightened, triggered, resentful, beaten down, and defeated.

While parents need to protect their children, they also need to let them learn and explore. Hovering endlessly might do as much damage as neglect. How can they possibly find a good balance?

This is where parents need to be honest about danger. Not vague, hushed words full of insinuation, but plain speech. Having armed their kids with information, they need to let them take appropriate risks. Yes, you can walk to Keith's house. Don't get in cars with strangers. 

Even the best parents can’t foresee and prevent every possible awful thing. So parents need to ask not only, “How can I protect my children?” but also, “How do I teach my child to handle danger?” and “How do I teach my child to heal and move forward if something bad happens?”

Trauma responses are subjective and unpredictable. Two children can have the same experience and have vastly different reactions. A child getting separated from you at the store or getting bit by a dog might have panic attacks for life, or they might not. You can’t assume either.

If the following statements are true for a child, it will make a huge difference in if/how they recover from pain and trauma.

[I am not a professional, and this isn’t an exhaustive list. It’s gathered from my own experiences.]

1.      I am loved and cared for.

2.      I am listened to and heard. I have a voice. I am safe and free to Tell.

3.      I am allowed to feel what I feel.

4.      My pain is acknowledged with compassion.

5.      What happened was not my fault. I am not the bad person.

6.      Adults will take steps so this doesn’t happen again.

7.      Adults will speak truth to me.

8.      Adults will bring justice on my behalf.

9.      Adults will tell me about danger that I have the power to avoid.

10.  I am able to sense danger if I have the right information.

11.  I can trust myself to make good choices.

12.  I can say No. Not every adult must be obeyed.

13.  If hard things happen, I will recover and learn from them.

14.  Even if bad things happen, good things will also happen to me, eventually.

The event is significant, but the context in which it happens is even more so. Does the child feel loved and heard? Is he or she free to ask questions or discuss concerns? Do they know they can “tell” without being shamed or silenced?

Ironically, a child who knows they will be supported and believed if something happens is actually at lower risk of sexual abuse. Perpetrators look for victims who are emotionally lost and abandoned.

I noticed you used the words “our children’s purity.” Part of this whole equation is that when a culture places a higher value on a girl’s purity than it was ever meant to carry, an awful lot of things go awry. Also, my daughter Emily points out, things get weird when we think of purity as a valuable commodity that can be snatched from us in a moment, over which we have no volition. 

In conservative Muslim cultures, the honor of the family rests on the purity of the females. As a result, girls face huge restrictions in dress, associations, and opportunities. Blame for sexual indiscretions is minimal for men and maximal for women. Often, neither are taught what healthy sexual boundaries look like or how to draw them.

Of course we condemn that. But there’s a streak of the same spirit in the conservative Christian world, where aunts talk in hushed tones over the applesauce strainer about the girl that was out of her place, the way she pranced around in front of her married employer, and well, we know what happened to her. She won’t ever get a good man.

Talk to both boys and girls in basic but sufficiently specific terms about what’s healthy and what’s not with bodies, touching, and private parts. Emphasize dignity and respect. Discuss what’s ok and what isn’t at slumber parties. Tell them to trust their instincts about everyone, even fun Uncle Alvin. If they tell you something that happened to them, try to keep your voice calm and your eyebrows level. (Afterwards, you can go in the bedroom and fall apart.)

That’s what I think, having raised children who survived bad experiences.

Aunt Dorcas