Aunt Ruthie Longenecker: Her Life in Pictures

Yesterday, Tuesday, October 4, my Aunt Ruthie celebrated her 98th birthday. Born in 1918, she is a towering figure in my life and, and along with Mother and Grandma Longenecker, my strongest mentor. And she has been mother/teacher to many.

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See the determination in that little girl’s face!

Her mother, my grandma Fannie Longenecker, replying to my sister Janice’s questions for a sociology-class interview assignment, mentioned that “Ruthie was industrious, a busy-body, a tomboy who would take risks.”


Education

The blurb in her Elizabethtown High School yearbook photo acknowledged her brilliant mind. (She skipped two elementary grades.) The description below also foretold her teaching career and hinted at the math skills she used in her long career as tax collector for West Donegal (PA) Township. She was so young when she began college at age 16, she required a chaperone.

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Ruthie attended business school near Elizabethtown and earned a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She earned a master’s degree in education from Temple University in Philadelphia.

Teaching Career

Country children in rural Lancaster County usually did not attend kindergarten. Aunt Ruthie created kindergarten for me as a 5-year-old at Cherry Hill School, close to Milton Grove, PA. I remember bouncing up and down over hills and dales riding in the back seat of her brown Hudson on the way to Cherry Hill. Two or three days a week I learned the alphabet and numbers sitting along side first graders. In the one-room classroom with eight grades, I loved singing: “Good morning merry sunshine, how did you wake so soon? You scared away the little stars and shined away the moon.”

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Hundreds of students remember Miss Longenecker at the age pictured below at Rheems Elementary School where she taught sixth grade and served as principal. Earlier in her career there, the school board (probably all male) refused to acknowledge her true function as principal and condescendingly referred to her as “head teacher.”

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It galls me even now to disclose this awful truth, and so I ask:

What title goes to the person (man or woman) who approves the curriculum, supervises textbook orders and presides over faculty meetings, responding to parental complains. It’s the PRINCIPAL I tell you!

 


Host to Refugees and Immigrants

This 1979 photo below shows Grandma Longenecker, Aunt Ruthie and Phuong Le, a refugee from Vietnam, a young girl they welcomed into their home as a daughter. Phuong was the first among dozens who sought shelter from war-torn countries. She made the most of Aunt Ruthie’s mentoring from 1976-1982, later succeeding in a career as a computer programmer and raising a fine family.

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Lutheran Social Services acknowledged Ruthie’s magnanimous contribution to refugees and immigrants with The Salt of the Earth Award, a plaque which recognized “her exceptional commitment and warmhearted compassion in welcoming the stranger. ‘Ye are the salt of the earth’ Matthew 5:13” (script from plaque)

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Love of Family

“You are always welcome here,” were Aunt Ruthie’s words after my sisters and I married and moved away from home. She labored in the kitchen when her nieces from Florida and Michigan nested in her home during vacations.

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In a small way, we returned the favor and relished her enjoying the citrus we bought from our orange and grapefruit trees in Florida.

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Appreciation for Music

A music lover, Ruthie played the piano vigorously. If the apron is any indication, she is relaxing here after over-seeing meal making, her grand-niece Crista in the background.

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Into her early 90s, she played dinner music for the elderly ( ! ) at Rheems Nursing Home. “They don’t have anybody doing much for them,” she said.

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Playing the dulcimer – wholeheartedly!

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Animal Friends

Through the years, her Schnauzers, Fritzie I, II, III, and IV have been her ever-present companions, protecting her by day and warming her feet at night in bed.

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The last Fritzie, # IV, has found a dog’s paradise, adopted by teen-age Jason and his family.

Love for Learning

Books, magazines, and the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal/New Era have kept her curious mind informed.

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During most of her stay at Landis Homes, she has whizzed through Word Finds puzzle books.

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Hands in the Soil

A life-long gardener, Aunt Ruthie has always had her hands in rich Pennsylvania soil. She was my hoeing companion in the 4 1/2 -acre tomato “patch” in Bainbridge, PA in the 1950s.

Aunt Ruthie with scarf and I hoeing in tomato field
Aunt Ruthie with scarf and I hoeing in tomato field

At home, she kept a large garden, the envy of passersby on old route # 230 that borders her property.

All summer long until Aunt Ruthie was almost 90, she mowed nearly an acre of grass on her land near Rheems, preferring outdoor work to household duties.

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For decades, she kept a strawberry patch and a vegetable garden, bordered by flowers. Now the flowers come to her.

Niece Jean brings knockout roses for Aunt Ruthie now living at Landis Homes.
Niece Jean brings knockout roses for Aunt Ruthie now living at Landis Homes.

 


She has had a goodly heritage

The Martin-Horst-Longenecker Freindschaft, circa 1938 Both in back row: My dad Ray Longenecker with zippered sweater and Aunt Ruthie on right with cape dress and white covering strings
The Martin-Horst-Longenecker Freindschaft, circa 1938
Both in back row: My dad Ray Longenecker with zippered sweater and Aunt Ruthie on right with V-necked cape dress and white covering strings

 

Gutes Leben, her high school yearbook blurb concluded.

Yes, Aunt Ruthie, has enjoyed a good life.

 

Happy Birthday, Aunt Ruthie!

Ruthie after enjoying a birthday lunch at Oregon Dairy near Lititz, PA a few years ago
Ruthie after enjoying a birthday lunch at Oregon Dairy near Lititz, PA a few years ago

 

 

Coming next: Heart on Fire, Guess Who’s Voted for President!

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Rhubarb in Grandma’s Garden

Hot-house rhubarb spotted in shop window, Brunswick, GA  January 2015
Rhubarb plant spotted in front of shop window, Brunswick, GA
January 2015

Grandma and I in the Rhubarb Patch

It’s me, pigtails flapping in the May breezes, skipping beside Grandma toward the rhubarb patch. Behind Grandma’s house toward the woods a thick nest of rhubarb stalks stands sentinel over a ridge facing the twelve sweet cornfield rows. In her garden, the pinkish-red rhubarb spears get back-row status but I think they are pretty enough for her flower garden out front.

“You said you are stopped up – didn’t have any luck when you went to the bathroom.” Grandma with her sunbonnet and apron pulls off the biggest pinkish-red stalks, the green heart-shaped, crinkly leaves falling to the ground with one swath of her knife. “A dose of this will fix that.” She’s looking intently at the rhubarb but I know she’s talking to me.

I have eaten Grandma’s rhubarb sauce before, but I never thought of it as a laxative. “It has roughage in it. It’ll really clean you out.” She runs her rough hands along the spine of the stalk to show me the fibers.

“I see,” I say but right now I wonder if it tastes as good as it looks, so I bite into a stalk and find out too late that it has plenty of pucker power. “Eeee-ow. It tastes sour,” spitting the mouthful out on the ground.

“Goodness gracious, you have to boil it first in sugar water to make it taste good, don’t ya know!” She giggles at my ignorance and finishes pulling off more rhubarb stems with a twist of her wrist like separating a stalk of celery from the bunch. Then we head back toward her kitchen.

Making Rhubarb Sauce

The round, dented aluminum pot is simmering on the stove. With every passing minute the mixture of sugar water and rhubarb cut into 1/2-inch chunks is becoming more ruby red. At the last minute Grandma says, “ Just two shakes,” and I flick my wrist to shake the little can of cinnamon twice as swirls of steam half-scald my hand and wrist.

When it cools, it will taste both tart and sweet. That I know!

Rhubarb Pie from The Mennonite Community Cookbook, 2015

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(Adding Strawberries to the rhubarb adds another layer of flavor.)

My Mother's Garden, an embroidered poem
My Mother’s Garden, an embroidered poem in Grandma’s bedroom

What You Might Not Know About Rhubarb

Yes, rhubarb has good cathartic (laxative!) powers, but according to Marion Owen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul, rhubarb is out to save the planet too:

Rhubarb not only saves our plants from aphids, it may also save the planet. In the mid-1980’s, when a hole was discovered in the ozone layer, researchers found that CFC’s were one of the primary reasons for the ozone’s decline.

One of the most common forms of CFC’s is freon, which is used as a refrigerator coolant. Conventional methods for breaking down CFC’s were costly and dangerous. But in 1995, two Yale scientists discovered that oxalic acid, found in rhubarb, helped neutralize CFC’s. Rhubarb to the rescue!

Marion Owen from Kodiak, Alaska, also publishes a newsletter titled The UpBeet Gardener.

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Beets, rhubarb, memories of springtime in the garden – all are on the table for today’s conversation!

Coming next: Mennonite Girls Can Cook

Moments of Discovery # 4: A Flash Bulb and a Doll

A snapshot of a baby boy dressed as a girl and an old flash bulb. Those are some of the items we find clearing out Mother’s house. Last October my sisters and I began the arduous task of sorting, saving, or recycling the accumulated store of her possessions having lived in the same house for over 73 years. You can read about it here.

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Today’s post features snapshots, both photos and artifacts, from both Mother and Daddy with a surprising find at the end.

MOTHER: Some of what I found from Mother could be filed into 3 categories of nurturing:

Feed

Our metal lunch pails carried many a bologna sandwich, usually Baum’s Bologna from their shop north of E-town. After Mother pulled back the burlap, she sliced thick rounds for sandwiches on buttered bread – always butter . . .

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Read

Every picture, every story seems familiar in this Bible Story Book with pages, crackly brown with age. Sniffing into the spine, I roll back in time to the little girl on her lap. I loved the art work then. Now I love its charm even more. Did Daddy read these stories to me too? Maybe so, but I can’t remember.

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Remember

Cameras freeze time, preserving memories. Mother didn’t write in a journal, but she consistently recorded our family’s story over time. The old box camera is long gone, but here is a “flash” of memory possibly from her last camera . . .

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DADDY  Some of what I found representing my father was surprising:

Although I have several photos of Daddy holding me as a baby, my father was a man’s man: a tractor-driving, motor-fixing, field-plowing, deer-hunting guy. He even hammered on the piano keys. His work clothes were of black moleskin cloth, matching the grease he was in close contact with at the shop. I am certain he never wore pink. Yet here he is posed for the camera in a dress, flanked by his parents, Henry and Fannie Longenecker, my Victorian grandma not yet attired in Mennonite garb that would characterize the rest of her life. Daddy’s dress is not a christening outfit. There was no christening among Mennonites. I suspect that babies of both genders wore dresses to make diaper changing easier.

Henry and Fannie Longenecker with son Ray
Henry and Fannie Longenecker with son Ray

Needlework

Our scavenging took us to the attic chest filled with treasured quilts. My sister Jean and Mother tagged each one a few years ago, so there would be no doubt as to their provenance. Apparently, Daddy drew his needle through a white quilt, stitching animals in red. I see a camel, sheep, chicken, pig, duck, an elephant. Even an ostrich.

Here is just a teaser. (Look for Daddy’s full quilt on a later post!)

Quilt with animal stitching by my father, Ray M. Longenecker
Quilt with animal stitching by my father, Ray M. Longenecker

Nickname

Daddy’s nickname for me was Pocahontas, not so much because I looked native American, but probably because of my thick, dark braids and big eyes. When I found this doll, I decided it shouldn’t be given away, sold, or recycled. It now sits on the dresser in our bedroom with “strubbly” hair, not braided!

Pocahontas

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Final Note: A Curious Find   On our first visit to Mother’s house in October after the funeral, we saw a wicker basket on top of a hallway chest with a poem entitled “Safely Home,” something we had never noticed before. Were we blind to it earlier? Having a premonition of what was to come, did Mother put it there for us?

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I am home in heaven, dear ones; / Oh, so happy and so bright. / There is perfect joy and beauty / In this everlasting light . . . .

 (Anonymous, Osterhus Publishing House)  . . . a mute but eloquent affirmation


Your turn: Are you holding on to something you treasure from a loved one? A photograph? A small gift? 

Moments of Discovery # 3: Two Butter Stories and an Autograph Book

In June Mother Longenecker and her daughters Marian and Janice created butter-shaking memories in a two-quart jar, making butter using three easy steps:

  1. Pour cream into 2-quart jar.
  2. Shake until you rattle and roll.
  3. Remove the congealed mass from the jar. Add a pinch of salt.

In July, my Southern friend Carolyn honored my birthday in a “Shake-Rattle-and-Roll Butter-Shake” party. Today you can open up an old-time textbook with me and behold first-graders learning about butter making in a reader published by Lyons and Carnahan with the copyright dates spanning the years 1927-1936.

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Interestingly, the Child’s Story Reader also lists three simple steps for butter making expressed in first-grader language:

We got the cream from a cow.

We put the cream in a jar.

We shook the jar.

Jack and Jane even added a pinch of salt to the mixture, and afterwards they had a party of butter on bread!

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Another page shows a recipe for butter milk made with a churn with Aunt Ellen assisting.

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More Moments of Discovery

Henry and Fannie Longenecker, Grandparents
Henry and Fannie Longenecker, Mennonite Grandparents

Henry Risser Longenecker, referred to by friends and family as H. R. or “Hen,” was my grandfather on Dad’s side of the family. He died when I was five, but I have a distinct memory of him killing a snake in the grass with a long stick. Like my father, he was a doctor of motors interested in steam engines, Model A Fords, and farm equipment. Until I unearthed his autograph book, I had no idea he had artistic leanings as revealed in his autograph book. Autograph books, common in classrooms in the 1800s, contained signatures, artwork, and bits of poetry. According to Folklore: An Encylopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art, Vol. 1 (edited by Thomas A. Green) autograph books, existed as early as the fifteenth century and were seen as “a mark of gentility until the beginning of the twentieth century.”

The cover of Henry Longenecker’s autograph book reveals artistic flair with a faint inscription of a great virtue taught to every school child, the word Truth visible if you squint carefully at five faint letters appearing close to the embossed yellow flower.

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The dedication appears in flowing cursive penmanship with a dove’s beak clasping Cupid’s arrows

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Painted artwork, still-brilliant, graced most pages like this one, complete with signature and date.

Signature: Joseph T.  Garber     Complete date: February 3,1885
Signature: Joseph T. Garber           Complete date: February 3,1885

 Autograph books tell us several things about students in the late 1800s:

1. Penmanship was taught and valued as an artistic skill.

2. Friendship and learning were intertwined. Both were expressed as an art form.

3. Students took great pride in their work.

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What else can these books teach us?

Coming next: What color makes you sing?