A Scrapbook: Bonnets, Bandannas, and Sex Ed


“Tie your head shut!” – An oft-heard admonition from my mother, my Aunt Ruthie, and Grandma Longenecker. Translation: If you tie your head shut, you won’t get sick with colds, sinus trouble, what not. And so our heads are tied shut with bonnets and bandannas and then adorned with the Mennonite prayer veiling. In other words, there is usually something besides my hair on top of my head or around my ears from babyhood on up.

My photo at 10 months old features a machine-sewn miniature version of a bonnet that I remember my Grandma wearing in the garden.

Marian_Dad_10 mos_150

On billboards we see the little blond girl advertising a fake way to get sun-tanned. “Don’t be a paleface,” she says.  But we don’t need to buy Coppertone lotion to make our skins dark. We get our tans the honest way. Our skin turns brown naturally in the summer playing outside or working in the garden or tomato patch. To tell the truth, we depend on the sun-bonnet or the grace of God to not scorch our tough Swiss skins.

Bundled up in snowsuit
Bundled up in snowsuit
Another hat - on tricycle
Another hat – on tricycle

More Bonnets & Bandannas @ Work

Like Mildred Armstrong Kalish in her must-read memoir Little Heathens depicting rural life in Iowa during the Depression, we in Pennsylvania Dutch land are not offended or shocked by four-letter words that are part of our daily life either: cook, bake, wash, iron, dust, pick tomatoes, sweet corn, beans, or sweet potatoes.

Sisters and I throwing wood for furnace
Sisters and I throwing wood for furnace
Cousin Janet and I say, "Rabbit for dinner!"
Cousin Janet and I say, “Rabbit for dinner!”
Aunt Ruthie with scarf and I hoeing in tomato field
Aunt Ruthie with scarf and I hoeing in tomato field

WIth skirts and scarves we plant, hoe, and pick tomatoes in Bainbridge, PA. For details, see Tomato Girl, parts I and II.

Proudly advertising DeKalb corn, no bonnet or bandanna
Proudly advertising DeKalb corn, no bonnet or bandanna

School and Sex Ed

Surrounded by girls with curls visiting the Elizabethtown Library, I’m the one to the left with a floral bandanna, keeping my head tied shut, just like Mother expected.

My class at Elizabethtown Library
My class at Elizabethtown Library

With all its books, this library is an impressive step up from the small bookcase at Rheems Elementary School. Yes, there is a library at Bossler Mennonite Church too, which is where I begin to get my sex education. In a blue and white book with a glossy, stiff cover, I discover that when a mommy and daddy “got very close” a baby was created. “Now what does “get very close” mean?” I wonder. Later I un-earth a book entitled Sane Sex Life with a red, black and white dust cover in my parents’ bedroom. Hidden in their wardrobe among sweaters, long-johns, and mothballs, this book adds a new dimension to my literary diet of Lippincott textbooks, church catechism, and storybooks. Whenever I think my mother won’t hear the sound of the wardrobe door open, I sneak a look at its realistic drawings (gasp!) and mind-boggling explanations, astonished that such a books exists.

Yes, I keep these strange revelations under my hat, bandanna, prayer veiling–whatever I am wearing on my head.

And Play

Picnicking with plain friends
Picnicking with plain friends

Prayer coverings take no vacations. Because a woman is apt to pray any time or any place, the Church (Lancaster Mennonite Conference) ordains that we stay veiled morning, noon, and night.

What special outfits do you remember from your childhood or teen-age years?

Did they make you feel attractive? Out of place?


Stinky Joe

“Get out! Get out!” For heaven’s sake, that is my mom’s voice yelling at someone at the door. Why would she scream at a neighbor? But it wasn’t a neighbor. It was Stinky Joe. On a cold winter’s day, he had opened the door to the wash-house and was starting to come into our home to warm up.

There were tramps, there were hobos, and then there was Stinky Joe. One vivid image from my childhood was a man in brownish tatters sitting on our grey porch bench eating from my mother’s table on a china dinner plate: meat, potatoes, a green vegetable and coffee; he always asked for coffee. But he was never allowed into the house no matter what.

Stinky Joe_final_8x8_180

One day my sister Janice was sitting at the dining room table doing homework when Stinky Joe peered into the window scaring her out of her wits. She didn’t know where Mom was and too scared to scream she hatched an escape plan: run upstairs, climb out a window to the porch roof and slide down the maple tree out front. The maple tree is now gone but the memory is fresh.


We named him Stinky Joe for a reason. In the absence of an insulated vest, Stinky stuffed cow manure into his shirt for warmth: you’ll have to do the calculation on how this works, but I’m sure it involves nitrogen and body temperature.

Summer or winter, with or without cow manure, if Stinky came to our house, we put Vicks VaporRub up our nostrils to stanch the odor. Menthol vs. cow paddy—which scent would you choose? Other smells are not as vivid, but for certain Clorox was involved in the clean-up after he left.

Yes, Stinky Joe filled us with fear and disgust. Remember, this was the 1950s. Maybe now such a man would knock on the door of the rescue mission, clean himself up enough to sleep under the roof of the Salvation Army. I am sure he is long since dead and gone, but I see him differently now. Yes, he was a misfit, an outcast but once he must have been his parents’ hope. One of God’s creation.

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