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.


The Name Game

One day at Elizabethtown High School, a lovely girl from Mississippi with long, red locks strolled into our class a month or two into the term. We were mesmerized by her Southern drawl and relaxed manner. Her name was Jeannine Loux, a last name which she stretched out into two syllables: Looow-ux. We all made up excuses to talk to her just to hear her strange but melodic speech. Obviously, when the roll was called her name stood out among the the German-Swiss names we were used to hearing.

That was the 1950s. Since then, the culture in Pennsylvania Dutch country has become more diverse. Like in Jacksonville, Florida, there are family names like Chen, Patel or Lychenko in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, phone book. Still, names in either phone directory, an ever-shrinking publication, can give clues to family origin.2Phonephoto Play The Name Game. Which group from Elizabethtown? Which from Jacksonville? You get extra points for saying the names aloud.

Group A

  1. Adams
  2. Anderson
  3. Bailey
  4. Jones
  5. McCall
  6. Higgenbotham
  7. Smith
  8. Taylor
  9. Thigpen
  10. Thistlethwaite

Group B

  1. Diffenderfer
  2. Herr
  3. Hollinger
  4. Kleinfelter
  5. Kauffman
  6. Oberholtzer
  7. Raffensburger
  8. Reifsnyder
  9. Shellenburger
  10. Zimmerman

Any strange-sounding names from your ancestry to share? From another family?

A Walk in the Woods: Innocence and Disgrace


Wayne is good in math. He with the crew-cut and quiet, methodical ways can easily navigate math’s maze of numbers. We are both fourth graders at Rheems Elementary School. Unlike me, Wayne is a mathematical whiz; in a split second he makes sense of long division and fractions. But he likes to explore nature too. The village of Rheems is his home and mine is farther out, closer to real country.                                             RheemRedCircle Wayne is behind me in photo circa 1954

Wayne and I sometimes walk into Grandma’s Woods to explore nature and make up stories. One day we walk together to the woods, the three or four acres my sister Janice and Jean and I have already dubbed Sherwood Forest. The woods is actually a thicket of trees encircling a small quarry, now overgrown with moss and grass. The best route to the woods goes up the sledding hill, through a cluster of weather-worn Revolutionary War era tombstones growing cockeyed out of the grasses and overhung by raspberry bushes arching their fruit-laden spikes on the edge of the woods, not far from the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks.

Mark in Woods  Entering the deep, dark woods

Minutes become an hour or more as Wayne and I fancy Robin Hood and his merry men traipsing through. Another day we might imagine Hansel and Gretel wearily trying to find their way back home. The Eagle’s Nest is a special stop-off in the woods: there is no eagle, not even a nest. It is just a spoon of sod and rock perched on the edge of a bluff overhanging Grandma’s sweet cornfield. Before going back down the hill, Wayne and I sit now in its concave shelter and relish our snack of fresh-from-the-garden mint tea, pilfered from Grandma’s Frigidaire and fresh-baked molasses cookies.

Wayne asks, “Did you know New York City is built on solid limestone rock, just like the quarry over there?” He points in the direction of the Heisey Quarry, on the other side of the railroad tracks. Wayne is always making scientific pronouncements like this, adding to my store of knowledge.

But at the moment I’m more interested in plants growing in the humus right beside me. “Did you know there’s medicine all around us? My Grandma comes up here to find the leaves for Stinkin’ Tom, an ointment that smells like skunk, and Pig’s Ears plants to make salve for cuts and bruises and rashes.” Grandma harvests the herbal mixture from the plants in the woods and fries it in lard to concoct an ointment for healing. (See recipe “My Grandma’s Kitchen” post.)

“No kidding?” Wayne seems shocked that I know something he doesn’t already know.

“Yes, yesterday when I skinned my knee on the gravel, she got out her little round tin box, stuck her finger in the greenish goo and slathered the magic potion all over the cut. It smelled like licorice and onions  . . and skunk!”

“See,” I exclaim, proffering my bandaged knee, “it’s working already.”

Soon we scale down the twenty-foot bluff to flat land, barefoot toes pointing downhill, gathering momentum by the second. We run a short distance as the ground levels off. “Ouch!” we wince in unison; the gravel on the path to the house hurts our tender feet, not yet made calloused by long summer days outside.

Grandma is out on the back porch to greet us. Greet us? Heavens! She looks mad. And she has a yardstick in her hand too. Wayne flees as I get the one licking of my life from my Grandma, my warm, cozy-sweet Grandma.

Why did you do a thing like that?” Over and over she yells, “Why did you do a thing like that?”

I can’t imagine why she is giving me such a hard spanking just for playing in the woods with Wayne. What did I do wrong? Wayne was Robin Hood and I was Maid Marian, just like always. Aghast and confused, I wonder, “What is so bad about what we did that Grandma would get mad enough to spank me so hard?” I thought we just went for a walk in the woods.


The Back Story: My Victorian Grandma

Grandma is Fannie Horst Martin Longenecker, a handsome woman from Middletown, Pennsylvania, who was fancy before she married her plain Mennonite husband, Henry Risser Longenecker.


As a girl, Grandma loved music and always walked to get back and forth from her piano lessons. Riding home from her lesson one afternoon, she was accosted and violated by a “man with a swarthy complexion,” according to the newspaper article about the incident.  From that point on, her father, Samuel Brinser Martin, allowed her to ride a horse to and from her lessons.

My Grandma Fannie never told anyone about the incident until her sister Sue shared the story with Grandma’s daughter, my Aunt Ruthie. Years later, I learned of the story and understood only then why she had whacked my bottom so mercilessly.


Here’s my warm, cozy-sweet Grandma but years older than she appears in the story.

What innocent act do you remember from your childhood that was misinterpreted by an adult? Were the  consequences similar to mine? Tell us your story.

Plain and Fancy @ Bossler Mennonite Church

When I was about 6 weeks old, my parents took me to church–Bossler Mennonite Church close to Elizabethtown, PA. I was born in July–9 months, almost to the day, from my parents’ honeymoon night the previous October. When I got older and could figure out such things, my mother simply said, “Nothing happened before we were married.” She said it, so it must be true. In those days, abstinence was the professed norm for engaged couples, and a white dress almost certainly meant the bride was a virgin. A couple whose first child arrived too soon after the wedding date had to appear in front of the congregation and confess their sin of fornication.

Ray and Ruth Longenecker_5x7_150            Marian_as baby_5x5_72 19-05-17

The Christian Mingle of the 50s and 60s happened after the Sunday night service with girls and guys in separate groups lingering, a girl hoping for a guy to break out of his circle and ask her for a date. Weddings were frequently held in the fall, not in summer, after crops were harvested and the family and relatives had more time for big social events.

RuthL.bride Here is Dad’s first cousin, Ruth Longenecker, all decked out in her caped, white wedding dress and black shoes gazing at her tall, blond groom who wears a plain suit and no necktie. She carries a lacy handkerchief, something fancy, inserted into a white Bible (flowers were forbidden then) as she walked down the aisle.

Bossler Church, which celebrated its bicentennial in 2011, was not at all fancy: white building with no steeple and a separate door for the women to enter at the left of the main entrance.


The interior too was spare with a middle aisle separating two rows of benches, the one on the right for the men. The other on the left for women. When Mr. Christian Clown Daring Do visited with me one Sunday, he plopped down on the women’s side, mortifying everyone including me.

Bossler Interior_mod_

The separate sections, however, made for a wonderful blend of voices when we sang a capella in four-part harmony. No piano or organ in sight.

hymnbooks  Screen shot 2013-03-23 at 8.46.30 AM

Of course, no fancy garb for members or minister: plain coat and sometimes a beard for the men, and a caped dress with a prayer veiling for women. Usually the older women had black ribbon attached to the veiling while the younger ones had white ones.

PastorFred plainCoupleBlack plaingirl

Next to the church was Washington School grades 1 – 8 with our church deacon once serving as schoolmaster: fancy bell tower, plain interior embellished only with replicas of

SchoolBell     Gilbert Stuart’s painting of Washington and Lincoln, an American flag, and little cards for each letter of the alphabet, printed lower and upper case set above the blackboard.

schoolexterior   schooldesks  original desks                                                                                                                       on display

For Mennonites, the church was the hub of social life. When Howard Longenecker’s barn burned down, twice, men were on hand for the barn raising. Women gathered regularly in an anteroom at the church, or, later, at the school for sewing circle where they made comforters, baby blankets, and quilts.


Plain or fancy? Which do I choose?  I choose both–as long as they are beautiful. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”      John Keats, Endymion

To some, my story seems quaint and odd. To others, it resonates because you share a similar heritage. What experiences in your childhood or teens do you think curious readers would like to know about?

A Hornet’s Nest: The Bishop and My Shoes

They were gathered in a circle when I walked in. Call it naivete or being preoccupied with my classes, I was totally unprepared for the conclave of bishops, school administrators and other assorted male authorities that greeted me on entering the conference room at Lancaster Mennonite School where I was part of the English faculty. Yes, I had walked into a hornet’s nest indeed:

Bishop: Hello, Sister Longenecker

S. L.  (weakly) Hello

Bishop: We have called this meeting with you to discuss some matters that relate to the standards of this school and your manner of dress.

What! . . . This is an ambush.

S. L. Oh . . .

Bishop: Yes, you are familiar with the contract you signed last year when you were hired for this position.

S. L. Well, yes . . . .

Bishop: In it you agreed to uphold the “Rules and Discipline” of the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church.

Christian Doctrine_cover_150_med

S. L. Yes, I recall. . . .

Bishop: You remember also there is a statement about the wearing of the plain cape dress.

S. L.  No comment . . . listening intently

Bishop: We have noticed that you are embellishing your dress with a collar and fancy button, which seems entirely unnecessary and certainly not a good example to our students.


Bishop: Also, you have been wearing another dress made of red material as well.

S. L. Now completely aghast . . . I want to disappear. Well, I do have a dress like that but the fabric has very dark shades of red, not very bright at all.

Bishop: And your shoes — the rules state that “ . . . dark footwear is the best expression of modesty and nonconformity for all our sisters,” and we hope that you will comply.

S. L. Looking down at my shoes, I see a black, patent leather shoe with a tiny bow and kitten heels. Dear Lord, this is getting very bad—I’m not a nun, but even I know that black patent leather shoes don’t really reflect up!

The Principal: To me, they look like dancing shoes.

S. L. Dancing shoes–gulp!–I don’t know even one dance step! Dancing is forbidden. It says so in the rule book.

Somehow the meeting concludes with no doubt some meek promise of compliance from me.

Fade to black . . . .

My Life in Shoes

Marian_Shoe Drawing_5x4_300med          blackshoes

Shoe drawing, circa age 10         Bane of the Bishop  1962

brownshoes           redshoes

Break-out Shoes   1965               My style now – red and shiny

What emotional connections, positive or negative, do you have with a item of clothing in your past? Tell us your story.