And as the world tilts toward the dog days of summer, that’s how I see it too: tiny images of poetry seen through the prism of my childhood, remembering summers in the Longenecker back yard and inside Grandma’s house. Louis Macneice expresses these sentiments vividly in his poem, “Soap Suds”
Though Macneice reminds us there’s no going back to childhood after experiencing the realities of an adult, our younger selves can still exist in memory – as photographs preserved in sepia tone. And like the bubbles in soap suds, I recall a childhood that is ephemeral, fleeting:
I can see the nicked edge of the croquet mallet, as it strikes the striped ball with a “thwack” sending it on a scrolling roll . . .
. . . taste the root-beer float Mom made from Hires concentrate, laying the 2-quart Ball jars side by side on the cellar floor to “cure.” . . . hear the straw suck of the cool drink like the sound of sudsy sink water draining.
. . . feelthe cool water as I splashed in the tub on a hot summer day in August.
* * *
Only one piece of playground equipment was a fixture in our back yard, an iron swing painted glossy silver. Here Daddy, probably at Mother’s prompting, posed with me in his plain coat and black bow tie before or after church at Bossler Mennonite. He has a tentative hold on his firstborn daughter, perhaps still feeling awkward as a parent. The calendar must have shown April because I was 9 months old. No roses or peonies bloom yet in the garden behind us.
Credit: Globe and still life. The antique globe above comes from Norwood Elementary School where Cliff first taught school. He composed the still life painting next to it during his Master’s degree studies at Florida State University.
Did your family have a croquet set? Do you still use it?
What other pictures or stories of childhood summers did this post spark in your memory?
How as an adult, have you tried to retrieve child-like wonder and playfulness?
Coming next: School Daze – They Ain’t What They Used to Be
Every week, The New Yorker magazine features a Cartoon Caption Contest, inviting readers to submit a caption for consideration. After three finalists are chosen, readers vote for the winning caption.
Recently, in my cache of Kodak carousels I found a slide from the 1960s in dire need of a caption. Clearly, the season is autumn, and the family including Grandma Longenecker, my mother, brother Mark, and my dad are on a Sunday afternoon outing, judging by their dress. No one’s expression conveys a feeling of alarm over the possibility of Grandma’s imminent slide down the steep hill.
“What was going on here?” I ask. Everyone in the photograph registers a different band-width on the emotional scale, but most seem clueless about Grandma’s precarious position.
Help me solve the puzzle with a winning caption here.
Think free for all, not free fall!
* * *
If you would rather not submit a caption, you might speculate about what is going on here, who the photographer may have been, or offer a story about a memorable family outing you recall.
Pictures don’t lie, or do they?
Coming next: Signs & a Wonder in St. Mary’s, Georgia
Great Aunt Mary Grace would turn 117 this week on October 14 if she were still alive. When I was young, the Longenecker family visited Mary Grace Martin at her cottage at Mt. Gretna, PA. What I remember most about her appearance was her pleasant aura and a gap-toothed smile. To my childish eyes, her teeth looked like widely spaced ivory pegs.
Mary Grace Martin, the only child of a Church of the Brethren pastor, A. L. B. Martin, and my Great-Grandpa Sam Martin’s niece, traveled with her parents all around the country from Long Beach, California to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Baltimore, Maryland moving from one pastorate to another.
At a time when few women led a professional life and fewer still held advanced degrees, Mary Grace was in the vanguard:
A graduate of Goucher College (1921), she taught high school boys, who “thought they knew more than their teacher.” The stint lasted just one year.
Mary Grace returned to Goucher College and taught physics to college students – pay $ 75.00/month.
Then she earned a master of arts in education degree from Boston University in 1928. A master’s of religious education followed in 1935 from Hartford Seminary Foundation with postgraduate work at Johns Hopkins University.
Later she became national children’s editor for the Church of the Brethren in Elgin, Illinois.
And finally she wrote two books: “Teaching Primary Children” In 1937 and an inter-denominational guide “We Worship Together” in 1948.
Mary Grace vividly remembers the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the end of World War I in 1918. In the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal article, she mentioned that her dad taught her to drive, but chuckled as she remarked she’d rather have a chauffeur. She also preferred cruise ships to air travel.
Years ago, when our family visited Mary Grace in Mt. Gretna, PA, I loved tramping around the fairyland–like ferns and mosses leading up to the steps of her cottage in the dell. Inside, amid plain plank floors and piney furnishings was a gorgeous pump organ that enjoyed pride of place in her tiny living room. That old instrument was the first thing I looked for when I stepped through the screen door. It was an ornate wooden instrument that looked much like this:
From top to bottom, her wheezy pump organ required energy to operate. As I slid onto the swirly seat, I would put my feet on the two pedals each carpeted with a faded, fraying floral design, my knees touching wooden paddles that would make the volume swell or fade, and finally my fingers pulling out or pushing in stops to adjust the tone. It was thrilling to experiment with more than a dozen timbres engraved in Old English Script on the ceramic tags identifying each wooden stop: “Vox Humana,” “Bass Koppler” and “Celeste” which to me sounded like a pretty girl’s name. My favorite pull stop was the fancy word “Diapason” which emitted a majestic, thunderous roll as my knees fanned out to amplify a few bars of “Here Comes the Bride.”
Here two young men enjoy the charms of a vintage pump organ:
“I didn’t expect to live into my 90s, “ Miss Martin said. “Mom lived to be 93 1/2 , but I didn’t think I would repeat that. But God planned otherwise. I’ve had a rich life with travels and many friends. I don’t know what I’d do without them.”
Mary Grace Martin lived a full life enriched with books, music, and friends. I remember her gentle spirit. Of course, through the years her example has been reflected in my own life, though I certainly didn’t recognize this until now.
Your story fits here: memories of a special relative, maybe an old pump organ, something else this post has sparked in your memory.
This is the family I grew up in: my parents Ray and Ruth with my two sisters and one brother. But after I left home and eventually married, my parents had more children. No, my mother was not a modern-day Sarah. She didn’t have babies in old age. But in their early sixties, Mother and Daddy “adopted” another set of children, about a dozen daughters in all, through an agency called New Life for Girls.
Because they entered my parents’ lives after I left home, I never felt jealous of them. They were simply unknown to me, mysterious. Oh, I did meet two of them, Gloria and Julie. They came to see my mother when she visited her first two grandsons born in Chicago in 2003. By then these girls both had grown children of their own.
Gloria grew up in inner city Chicago with an alcoholic father who beat her mother and more than once tried to choke her with a dog chain. Her mother, single now with 8 children to feed, had to go to work. Alone in the world, Gloria turned to drugs and men, looking for love. She set her sights on rich men, men she hoped would take care of her. But the rich men were users, drug dealers or worse. Not surprisingly, Gloria became pregnant at age 14.
One day an evangelist named Brother Raymond, came into Gloria’s neighborhood. She responded to this kind man’s message of salvation and made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Though her heart had changed, Gloria’s life didn’t get any easier. Several times she slid back into her old ways and had more babies out of wed-lock. The hard times made her harder. She became tough as nails, always looking for a fight.
Finally, Brother Raymond suggested a way out. “There is an agency called New Life for Girls in Pennsylvania that might help you get your life on track. To enter their program though you would have to agree to their rules and stick by them. Also, your children would be staying in a separate facility.”
Gloria: “Oh no, I can’t be separated from my children!”
Brother Raymond: “Well, then we’ll try to find a host family for you, so that on weekends you can visit with them in a nice Christian home in the country.”
And that’s how my parents’ lives intersected with Gloria’s.
Weekends with the Longeneckers
Gloria was looking for an anchor and she found one in her weekend visits to the Longenecker family on Anchor Road near Elizabethtown. Pennsylvania. Most importantly, she could be with her children. Mother and Daddy would pick Gloria up at the train station with her four children who played with toys including the same marble-roller I played with as a child.
And she could enjoy Lancaster County abundance. “This is how life should be,” Gloria exclaims as she recalls some of her favorite things:
Going to Root’s Sale where fresh farm produce abounds.
Helping Mom make applesauce with her metal sieve and wooden mallet.
Turning the crank on the ice cream churn, always vanilla with Hershey’s chocolate syrup and peanut sprinkles.
Helping with quilting at Bossler’s Mennonite Church Sewing Circle.
Eating fresh corn on the cob – and fresh tomatoes out of the garden, both dripping juice.
Making tangy home-made root beer from Hires Root Beer Extract, the two-quart jars cooling on their sides in the cellar.
Having devotions with my parents on Sunday morning after which my dad would march over to the piano and bang out the melody to “Fill My Cup, Lord,” singing at the top of his lungs.
Following the Longenecker rules. And to the letter.
My brother Mark still lived at home when Gloria and her children visited, so she got some first-hand tips on getting children to obey. When Mark questioned Mother about why he had to get up and go to church Sunday morning, Mom would reply, “Because you’re in my house and that is the rule.”
But Gloria recalls Mother’s softer side when she tearfully called her at one point to break the news about yet another unplanned pregnancy: “She never criticized me; she stood by me, and said “’You just have to trust that God is still in control.’”
Over the years, Gloria has told her own children and grand-children this same bold statement when they question her authority: “Because you’re in my house and that is the rule.” And she teaches her clients how to use firm discipline with their children in her role as a social worker at The First Baptist Church of Wheaton, Illinois, where she has recently been appointed deaconess.
“Now I work with many Cuban refugees, help them get into an apartment, find jobs and medical aid—set them on the right track. It feels so good to see lives changed,” she says.
In a little green autograph book sitting on one of Mother’s living room end tables are listed all the names of the girls from New Life my parents have hosted. This April in her recent visit, Gloria noticed that her name was the first one to be signed in 1978, along with her sister Julie’s. After the signatures of 11-12 other girls, she signed the book again. “It’s only suitable that I sign the last page,” she says.
Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature:
the old things are passed away; behold, all things become new.
Looking at indistinct footage from 16 millimeter home movies of the 1950s has invited me to examine from a distance the much younger, and in many ways different, version of myself. Not surprisingly, I appear in the “mothering” mode in many of the shots. I have always assumed such behavior was because I was the first-born child.
But where does the mothering instinct come from? Is it inborn? Learned from one’s own mother? Are some born without it? Who knows. The jury is still out on the answers to some of these questions.
My mother was not the firstborn in her family but she was the oldest girl, so when her own mother died when she was nine, there were high expectations for her including milking two cows in the morning before she went to school. All too soon, she became a little mother alongside the house-keeper, nurturing her two younger siblings.
In the sit-com Everybody Loves Raymond, “Mother-ish” is the word Mama Marie Barone has used to describe her modus operandi. Although I cringe to compare myself at any age to meddling mama Barone, it did seem natural for me to take on such a mothering role in my family. After all, I was the first-born, always ready to “tend” the younger ones.
Even looking straight ahead, I was aware of wiggly little sister, who would spoil the photo if she crawled away in this video clip:
* * * * *
Several years later, with a prayer covering almost as big as my mother’s and with motherly aplomb, I held my baby brother Mark.
Alfred Adler was one of the first theorists to suggest that birth order has a profound effect on personality. However, his ideas about birth order have been repeatedly challenged by other researchers, like Cliff Isaacson, who argue that birth order is not a fixed state but subject to other influencing factors. Other studies (Scientific American) claim that family size, rather than birth order, is a better predictor of personality than birth order. Yet the concept of the take-charge, bossy (did I say “mother-ish?”) first-born persists in popular psychology.
I wonder where you are in your family’s birth order: first, middle, last, or an only child?
Do you think this has influenced your personality at all?
Thanks for replying. You will always hear from me and probably learn from other commenters too. The stories continue!
The wild, permissive Rentzels with a red porch light live next door to our family, the Mennonite Longeneckers, one of several plain families that live on Anchor Road.
In their parlor, the Rentzel’s old Emerson black & white TV has introduced me to the wonders of The Howdy Doody Show with Buffalo Bob. As often as I can, I escape at 4 o’clock every day, running next door to ask Mammy Rentzel whether I may watch the show. Of course, she says Yes. I become part of the Peanut Gallery, mesmerized by Howdry Doody himself, a freckle-faced boy marionette with 48 freckles, one for each state of the Union in the 1950s.
My favorite parts are seeing Quaker Oats shot from guns, cannon-style and laughing along with the speechless Clarabell the Clown, who talks with a honking horn or squirts seltzer water. The shades are always pulled in the Rentzel’s tiny living room that smells like pipe smoke and mothballs, adding to the secretiveness of my television viewing. We’re not allowed to have a TV at home. Our church forbids it, but there is no rule to keep me from watching shows on somebody else’s TV! (Statement of Christian Doctrine and Rules and Discipline of the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church,1968, Article V, Section 7):
Television programs are often destructive to the spiritual life and undermine the principles of separation from the world, the precepts of Christian morality, the proper respect for human life, and the sanctity of marriage and the Christian home.
Yet, Phineas T. Bluster, Clarabell the Clown, and Howdy Doody himself, continue to cast their spell upon me. Before I knew the word, I observed that Buffalo Bob Smith was a ventriloquist, himself voicing words that appear to come from the mouth of Howdy Doody.
The word ventriloquist derives from two Latin words: “venter” referring to the belly and “loqui,” to speak. Isn’t that what writers do? Speak on paper or computer screen from a place deep inside themselves where language mixes with thought and feeling.
Critic Brian Boyd says of writer Vladimir Nabokov, “In his novels Nabokov can not only ventriloquize his voice into the jitter and twitch of [his characters], but he can also” invent incidents . . . names, relationships.” Like a ventriloquist, Nabokov in his autobiography entitled Speak, Memory translates his life experiences into words.
Yes, memoir writers do just that: Give life to their memories by putting them into words. If your life is recorded as jottings in a journal or collected as photos in albums, you are “writing” memoir, perhaps starting out as amusement for yourself, but just so bequeathing a legacy to the next generation.
I’ll bet you may already have recorded your history, ventriloquizing your voice into something tangible: letters to family members in college, love letters, scrapbooks, family photo albums (physical or online) even recipes.
How are you ventriloquizing your experience: art, journals, recipes, a memoir?
Inquiring minds want to know. The conversation starts (or continues) with you. As you know, I will always reply.