False Pregnancy

If I swallow a water-melon seed, my stomach might swell up.

If I touch freckle-faced Ricky with the dirty fingernails, I might grow a baby. Oh no!

Those were my childhood fears. With a limited sex education, I tried never to swallow watermelon seeds or touch grimy Ricky. But my parents also had fears, largely unfounded. What my Daddy dreaded most as the father of three adolescent girls is that one of us might turn up pregnant some day and bring shame and disgrace upon the family. “We don’t ever want to hear of that happening in our family,” he exhorted. In my Bible he wrote this not-so-veiled admonition from Ecclesiastes:

Daddy's inscription of Ecclesiastes 12:1 in the flyleaf of my Bible
Daddy’s inscription of Ecclesiastes 12:1 in the flyleaf of my Bible

Why he worried about my falling into mortal sin was beyond my comprehension: I always had my nose in a book and rarely dated Mennonite farm boys, or any other boys for that matter.

My experience with the lusts of men were of the non-Mennonite variety in my early teens. Summers I worked behind the meat counter for the Kleinfelters at Middletown Merchandise Mart. No worries with Mr. Kleinfelter, though he was often a bit tipsy, but some of his suppliers were another matter. Oily-haired Mr. Zapcic would creep up to the counter and invite me to “help” him in his produce business in Lancaster. “I need somebody to work behind the counter. You would be perfect!”

“That’s pretty far from Elizabethtown,” I mentioned innocently. Lancaster was almost 20 miles away.

Without my asking, Mr. Z. offered: “Oh, I’d see that you got there. You could ride with me.” It finally dawned on me what he was after and afterwards tried to ignore him. Yet he continued to harass me. Like Pamela in Samuel RIchardson’s novel, I rebuffed the man’s advances. Finally, I had to solicit some Kleinfelter help to get him to let me alone.

*  *  *  *  *

Senior Photo: Eastern Mennonite College
Senior Photo: Eastern Mennonite College

During the summer of 1964 my Aunt Ruthie and I attended Temple University, she to complete her Master in Education degree and me to begin it. From the hamlet of Rheems at 4:30 in the morning, we drove to Lancaster, took a train from Lancaster to Philadelphia, then rode the subway into north Philadelphia and walked eleven blocks to the campus of Temple University with classrooms filled with students who chain-smoked. I still wore a prayer veiling with a crown of dark brown braids fastened with hairpins underneath, ever the epitome of moral innocence. Ruthie’s classes lasted longer than mine, so I waited for her on a circular, wooden bench on the grassy campus outside the classroom.

A suave older man approaches me and raves about my hair. It could be a scene right out of Bird Life in Wington, Gertie the Goose meets Willie the Wolf.

I notice at once his pearly white, even teeth and brushed back hair. Is he a college student? He for sure doesn’t look like one. Other students are milling around, I notice, so what could be the harm in talking to this stranger?

Willie: “Sprechen ze deutsche?” Not waiting for an answer, he spouts, “You have gorgeous hair. It’s so thick and glossy.”

Gertie: Oh,uh [Insert Pennsylvania Dutch lilt] . . . why thank you.

Willie: I own a hair salon in the suburbs of Philly. I’d take you there and give you a different hair-do. It would frame your face really nice.

Gertie: Really?

Willie: Of course, I wouldn’t charge you anything.

Gertie: Well, thank you.

The dialogue continues for another minute or two, and then two things happen: I feel an electrical zap down my spine and a visitation from the Holy Spirit, who urgently whispers — “NO!” in my ear: “Run for your life. This guy is up to no good.”

Scales fall from my eyes as I swiftly dismiss his cunning ideas–and find an excuse to leave the bench and search desperately for Aunt Ruthie. Her class must be over. Soon, I hope. God, I hope soon!

Willie the Wolf in roadster tries to seduce Gertie Goose
Willie the Wolf in roadster tries to seduce Gertie the Goose in Calvin Reid’s cautionary tales

It’s your turn. Any narrow escapes from unsavory characters in your early years? Other threats to your moral virtue?

Your story is welcome here, and I will always reply.

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Up in the Garret

MAtticReading

Books, books, books!

I had found the secret of a garret-room

Piled high with cases in my father’s name,

Piled high, packed large,—where, creeping in

and out

Among the giant fossils of my past,

Like some small nimble mouse between

the ribs

Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there

At this or that box, pulling through the gap,

In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,

The first book first. And how I felt it beat

Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,

An hour before the sun would let me read!

My books!

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

Anna Quindlen in her splendid 84-page book How Reading Changed My Life describes reading as her “perfect island.” She doesn’t say where the island exists, so it can be anywhere the reader imagines it to be.

My perfect island as a girl was the attic under the sloping roof, unless it was summer steamy hot, or winter frosty cold. Then my nest was on my bed, or flopped on the davenport, across a chair, anywhere . . . .

My books were not like Quindlen’s list of “10 Books for a Girl Who Is Full of Beans.” I didn’t read her noble suggestions like Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Madeline, or even A Wrinkle in Time as a young girl, but I did become addicted to the Cherry Ames series, books in the mold of Nancy Drew: Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, Army Nurse, Flight Nurse. If you have read them, you may know Cherry, short for “Charity,” is the heroine in a series of 27 mystery novels with hospital settings between 1943 and 1968.

I slurped up Lucy Winchester by Mennonite author Christmas Carol Kauffman, the story of Lucy’s spiritual quest to find peace “set against the backdrop of two difficult marriages and many sorrows, broken promises, sickness, infant deaths, alcoholism, and poverty.”

LucyWInchester

In a trip up to the attic again as an adult, my sisters and I rummaged through the stash of antique books (they’re over 50!) and divvied them up among ourselves.

Yes, I read books, books, lots of them, but these are what remain from girlhood days:

ChildStorybooks

The book whose spine is taped up is entitled Bird Life in Wington (1948) a book of parables by Rev. J. Calvin Reid, pastor of  Mt. Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh,

Willie the Wolf in roadster tries to seduce Gertie Goose
Willie the Wolf with fangs in roadster ready to pounce on naive Gertie Goose

who invented the First Birderian Church of Wington to deliver sermonettes to parishioners named Professor Magpie, Baldy Eagle, Mr. Heron, a fisherman–you get the idea.

More Friends and Neighbors (Scott-Foresman & Company, 1941)
More Friends and Neighbors (Scott-Foresman & Company, 1941)

The images in this Valentine story are imprinted on my mind with cookie cutter precision, the secret to the surprise valentines that replace the snow-damaged paper cards by the window. This reader also contained the story of the “The Woman Who Used Her Head” by chopping a hole in her roof to accommodate the lofty altitude of her Christmas tree. 

I always loved to turn the page and find an etching in the Elson Junior Literature Book One
I always loved to turn the page and find an etching in the Elson Junior Literature Book One

Finally, a “real” literature book with Hawthorne’s The Great Stone Face, Emerson’s poem The Snowstorm, announced by “all the trumpets of the sky,” Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Joan of Arc, the heroic maid who saved France from conquest. A vision, voices, an ancient prophecy–what could be more romantic for a plain Mennonite girl who dreamed of castles, and princes, and fulfillment, oh my!

Did this post jog your memory of textbooks, gift books, library books from your own past?

Please tell us about them.

Another invitation to vote for my story in The Gutsy Story Contest:

To Vote: http://soniamarsh.com/2014/01/vote-for-your-favorite-december-2013-my-gutsy-story.html

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To Read the Story:  http://soniamarsh.com/2013/12/rising-above-the-pettiness-to-focus-on-the-positive-by-marian-beaman.html

Huge Thanks to those who have already voted!