Hats, Fire and Ice

The dusty, brown Pennsylvania Railroad train clatters along the tracks behind the woods as we approach Grandma’s house. Mame Goss, Grandma’s cousin, sits close to the bay window with a bag of hats. I notice her merry eyes and smile lines, but Mother comments on her wrinkled skin, skin made so by too much makeup.  Mame’ll let my sisters and me see inside the bag, but not before she chats with Grandma over a cup of garden mint tea. Mame Goss clerks in Laverty’s Millinery Shop, a store I’ve never seen but which shimmers with forbidden delights in my mind, nonetheless.

TeacupHorizontalJanice, Jean, and I think our older girl neighbors are allowed to express themselves properly. When I go down to see “Howdy Doody” on the Rentzels’ TV (Mennonites didn’t have TVs back then), I notice that Sissy Rentzel has a parade of nail polish bottles lined up on the windowsill of her bedroom: bright red, baby pink, orangey red with Tangee lipstick to match, darker red, hot pink, and a bottle of clear polish like Karo syrup. I’d love to experiment with what’s inside, but I don’t now. I feel uncomfortable asking Sissy Rentzel to try some.


Anna Martha Groff, Sis Groff to us, is another story. And she is so grown-up, we think. I see her palette of lipsticks on her vanity table, one of them Revlon’s Fire and Ice. She’ll probably let me try some on. I could become a siren in red or an ice princess. So I experiment and cavort around in her bedroom with the painted lips of a hussy. Soon I’ll have to rub off the evidence with tissue before I go home and hope nobody, especially Mom, notices. My sisters and I are crazy for color. Out by the rose bushes in summer, we paste bright, velvety petals to our lips. Banned from the world of bright lipstick and matching nail polish, we improvise with natural blooms. We act silly.


We’re back in Grandma’s kitchen again. Mame is one step closer to revealing the treasures in her bag now. Soon we lay eyes on the partly smashed trousseau of hats, left over from the spring season. We fight over who gets what, of course.

“Here’s a straw hat with a polka dot bow, “ I say but cast it aside. Janice and Jean don’t pick it up either. They are eying the red satin bows and lavender netting attached to other headgear.

“Hey, I want this one,” Janice and Jean tussle over a swoopy hat with pink flowers. Jean finally picks up a white thing that looks like an upside-down, flat-bottomed boat with a wad of blue tulle tied in a fluffy bow in the back. Janice’s is flat and round and dark, not my taste, with black-eyed Susan circling the straw hat. I get the best hat, I believe. It is flat and round too, but navy, and studded with azalea pink silk flowers around the edges. Best of all, I can pull a dark blue net over my face. Instantly, I become a woman of mystery and allure.

We take our new-found treasures up to Grandma’s bedroom and indulge in more fantasy. The space between her marble-topped vanity and tall headboard becomes our runway. We take turns prancing in front of her vanity mirror with wavy glass, cocking our heads just so and smiling at our reflections.

GrandmaVanity      GrandmaHeadboard_mod_180

Later back at our house, Mom takes a picture of us in front of the garden of peonies and zinnias in the back yard. She holds the black square Kodak camera firmly with fingers plump as the butter she loves. I stare at her blue and white checked feed-bag apron over a matching home-made dress, so I don’t blink. In an instant, the shutter freezes our fashionable images at ages 3, 5, and 8. There’s plenty of time later to coax our long braids into the Mennonite style, pinned tightly to our heads with black wire hairpins.


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Ruthie the Cheater, Part II

I’ve told my students if they ever see me in a bank behind the teller’s window—RUN! Math has never been my strong suit, but I can spell well.

In fourth grade, I always win the spelling bees on Friday. In fact, my winning is so predictable that my friend Wayne tells me he’s going to find a word in the dictionary that I can’t spell. “Somebody else deserves to win sometimes,” he whines.

1975 Ruthie-Schoolphoto 3a_small           Marian_Fourth grade_1-5x2_150

Ruthie the Cheater                                   Cheater-in-Training, 4th Grade

And so he searches for just the right word, finds it, and whispers it into Miss Longenecker’s right ear. I see him form the word with his lips, but I can’t decipher what he is saying. That evening, Grandma invites the five of us—Mom, Daddy, Janice, Jean and me—down over the hill to Grandma’s house for chicken pot pie.

As always, before Dad parks our blue Studebaker, three-legged Skippy rushes out on the porch to greet us. Soon I’m standing on a chair beside the stove watching Grandma cut out little pieces of dough for me to place one by one carefully in the boiling liquid to cook. I love to find a little space of bubbling broth in the kettle and seal it over with a dough-y square. Chicken pot pie with fresh cabbage slaw . . . wunderbar.  


Aunt Ruthie comes in the back door from school with a yellow pencil over her ear. After she puts down her papers and books, she quizzes me, “How do you spell reconciliation?” Without hesitating, I enunciate: r-e-c-k-o-n-s-i-l-l-y-a-t-i-o-n!

“That’s close, but not quite right,” she encourages, as she pulls down the dictionary from the left bottom door of the red cherry cupboard over by the kitchen table.


“Here, take a look at this.” And I see how the dictionary says to spell it. Now I put the right letters in my memory bank for tomorrow’s spelling bee. When Teacher asks the class, “Does anyone have a word to stump Marian?” this might be the word, I surmise.

It’s Friday, and once again I’m the surviving speller. Wayne jumps to the mound to strike me out, but I deliver fourteen correct letters in rapid succession: reconciliation!” Wayne is dumbstruck for a few seconds and then mutters, “Holy Cow, Holy Cow,” as he reconciles himself to the fact that it’s useless to try to stump Marian.

Once again, Aunt Ruthie is a cheater, but so am I. We’re in cahoots!

Can you admit to a time when you got some unsolicited help? Some help that came with wobbly ethics? Tell us your story!

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Ruthie the Cheater, Part I

Yes, my Aunt Ruthie is a cheater. I’ll admit that she also has an honorable resume that includes a principalship of Rheems Elementary School, Tax Collector of West Donegal Township, mother to refugees and immigrants. But, you heard right, she also has a rap sheet. Let me explain.

                     1975 Ruthie-Schoolphoto 3a_small Aunt Ruthie – Miss Longenecker

The scent of ply-board takes me back to the patterns that we cut out in her classroom on a jig-saw machine . . . a scent that has an oaky-piney fragrance that compares to the fragrance of a wine with some nutty notes: But what does a Mennonite know about wine, anyway!

Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.

 –Vladimir Nabokov

Whatever the aroma, the scent bypasses the brain and takes me straight back to third grade at Rheems Elementary School. While Miss Longenecker reads us stories after lunch, we color pictures of fairy tales or fables outlined in purple (always purple) ink cranked out by the hectograph machine that imprints images from a jelly surface onto paper.

hectograph machine

Hectograph machine – gelatin duplicator with hand crank, 1940s

Our teacher loves art and she has a very “hands on” teaching style. Sometimes we finger paint with thick, gooey pigments, or paste pieces of colored construction paper into loops with white paste from a gallon jar. Some kids even eat the paste when the teacher’s not looking.

Today Miss Longenecker has brought in a jigsaw and some fresh plywood. We inhale its pungent fragrance, just as we have smelled the paste or the paints or the glue. We’ll take turns each cutting out an animal as the tooth of the electric saw bites into plywood, following a pattern, guided by our teacher’s hands, hers on top of ours.

When it’s my turn, I trace the outline of a dog and a cat with the sawblade. Back then, we hadn’t heard about OSHA laws of course!  Later I paint the dog blue and the cat pink with black dots for eyes, a few whiskers, and wobbly lines for ears and front paws. To me, they look wonderful, if I don’t say so myself. My Teacher/Aunt is taking me home after school today, so I can play outside until she’s ready to go home.

My Dog and Cat Plywood Pets
My Dog and Cat Plywood Pets

I come inside for a drink from the fountain after a while and find Aunt Ruthie, paintbrush in hand, adding some eyebrow lines here, a few more whiskers there, a touch of red for the mouth, and more defined forepaws to my jigsaw creations. “I think these are good enough to enter into the art contest in Elizabethtown this year. Maybe you’ll win first prize,” she remarks, wiping black paint from her brush. “But you’re helping me too much,” I think.

Actually, I don’t care much about winning a prize for my art. I just want to add hooks to the back and hang my new plywood pets on my bedroom wall. Nevertheless, Blue Dog and Pink Cat enter the contest in the third-grade category, and my aunt and I are awarded a Blue Ribbon for our pains.

Guided by her hand, though, I learn to sew and knit, play the piano, take trips to the zoo, the symphony, make fasnacht dough. . . .

A cheater? Let’s just say I’ve destroyed her rap sheet long ago.

Aunt Ruthie and Fasnacht Doughnuts

A throw-back to celebrations in the Old Country, Fasnacht Day had its origins in Switzerland, southern Germany, Alsace, and western Austria. In Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Fasnacht Day is celebrated on the eve before Lent. Think “Mardi Gras” but less bawdy! Aunt Ruthie, a main character in the play that was my childhood, made fasnachts religiously for the family each year and enough to share with her students at Rheems Elementary School.

Ruthie_Baking&Making Tapioca_12x4_300

Fasnacht comes from the German word “fas” (fast) + “nacht” (night). On the Tuesday before the beginning of Lent, many German/Swiss cooks would rid their pantries of lard, sugar, butter, and fat by making fasnachts, as we called them.

If my Aunt Ruthie followed a recipe, she had it in her head and never wrote it down, so here is my adaptation based on the ingredients she told me:

Old Fashioned Fasnachts

8 cups flour

3 cups warm water into which some milk is added

1 pkg. yeast

3/4 (more or less) cup sugar

1/2 cup melted lard (oil) + 10x sugar for dusting the doughnuts

Mix yeast, sugar, salt, lard (or oil), warm water. Add flour, a cup at a time. Knead; let rise; knead again. Cut into squares. Cover and let rise again. Then deep fry at 360 degrees for 1 1/2 minutes on each side. Drain on rack — let rest — then dust with 10x sugar and you’re ready to celebrate!

Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches – You have to start somewhere!   Curtis in NaNa’s kitchen

Curtis_making pb and jelly_6x4_300

What recipes do you remember making as a child–with your mom, dad, grandmother, someone else?