Fancy Dress Finds Plain Girl

Marian_Orchestra Letter E_Rev7x8_170

It’s spring concert time and I’m making my fingers fly fast over the strings of my violin pizzicato style, trying to keep up with the syncopated rhythms of The Typewriter Song.


Noah Klauss, the director of our Elizabethtown High School Orchestra, is a fan of Leroy Anderson pieces. Last year we played The Syncopated Clock, the sound of a swinging pendulum tick-tocking in our heads as we played the melody.

I am learning the music all right, but in the back of my mind I worry, “What am I going to wear to the concert?” The outfits I have are mostly home-made. A collar or buttons is the most exciting accessory on my blouses or dresses – no lace or plunging necklines for this Mennonite girl, the only plain girl in the orchestra. Obviously, unlike my friends, I don’t have a fancy gown hanging in my closet.

To the rescue: Aunt Ruthie, who out of the blue, gives me a call. Down over the hill I go to our second home, where she and Grandma Longenecker live. As I walk toward the dining room table, Ruthie pulls out part of a bolt of shimmery fabric flocked with swirling designs. I blink at the elegance. Woah!

Flocked fabric similar to actual material
Flocked fabric similar to actual material

She’s already cut out the pattern and I’m to help her stitch the pieces together. Call me Cinderella! I’m going to the ball with a tea-length gown, a fluffy confection beyond my wildest dreams. Even the pin-pricks at my fitting can’t puncture the feelings of fantasy enveloping me now. Thank God, I won’t stick out like a plain Jane after all.

Take away the buttons and lengthen the skirt, and you have my Spring Concert dress.
Snip off the buttons and lengthen the skirt – Voila! my Spring Concert dress.

Do my class-mates in the orchestra comment about my transformation? I don’t remember what anyone else said, if anything. But I do remember the crinkly sound of my gathered skirt as I sit down, violin in lap. And the brand new, starchy-sweet scent of my luscious frock as I pull the bow over the strings.

I'm the plain girl between two fluffy skirts on the left.
I’m the girl with glasses between two fluffy skirts on the left.

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Yodeling and Duets with Daddy

“Keep your hand upon the throttle and your eye upon the rail,” my Dad sings in his top-of–the-lungs baritone, the volume of his voice amplified by the force of his hands on the keyboard. Every Saturday night Daddy sits down at our mahogany Marshall and Wendell upright piano in the living room and reviews songs in his repertoire. Fresh air is blowing through the open windows. Probably the whole neighborhood can hear.


Now he’s moved on to other tunes: “Turn Your Radio On” and “On the Jericho Road, on the Jericho Road, there’s for just two—no more and no less, no more and no less, just Jesus and you, just Jesus and yooooo. . . .”

TurnRadioOnI’m in the dining room studying my ninth-grade Pennsylvania history. “Marian come in here and sing a little,” he begs.

“Oh maybe after a while,” I half-promise and flee to the kitchen where my mother is standing over the stove, making salmon casserole to put in the oven while we are at church tomorrow. Even washing gooey dishes looks more appealing to me than competing with my dad’s loud volume and heavy-handedness. He attacks the piano keys like he’s hammering a bent piece of metal at his shop.


Now Janice is walking in the door, and Dad pleads, “Come on, just sing the second verse.” He wants her to join him on the long piano bench that holds piles of family photos bulging from the compartment under its lid. She sits down with him for a little bit, and I hear a soprano with a lot of tremolo join in with Daddy’s lower notes on another song: “Under His wings, under His wings, Who from His love can se-ver? Under His wings my soul shall abide, Safely abide for-e-ver.”

There’s still another sister, and when Janice moves off the bench, Jean keeps the bench warm and Daddy happily singing “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.”

Now Daddy has moved away from the piano, gotten out his shiny Gibson guitar and starts yodeling. My sisters and I think he is acting goofy: “Yodel-ay-ee-oo, yodel-ay-ee-ooo,” he bellows out joyfully as he strikes the strings of his guitar.

flag  Click for yodeling audio

In spite of his noisy outbursts, I like the silky red cord attached to the instrument with its sunburst design veneer and the variety of colorful picks he’s accumulated. They remind me of funny-shaped tiddly-winks. Dad sure does like music. I don’t think he’d object to a piano at our church, which deems “it improper to employ instrumental music in worship and church activities.” (Article III, Section 2, Public Worship)

Last year at the beginning of eighth grade, Daddy came home and out of a clear blue sky presented me with a violin case. Looking as pleased as punch, he put the faux-leather textured black case on the dining room table, gesturing for me to open it.

“It’s for me?” I look puzzled but start to fiddle with the metal clasps on the case.

“What do you mean, is it for you? Of course, it’s for you. Why do ya think I put it here in front of you. I paid only $ 70.00 for it. Noah Klaus, up at the music store wanted more, but I told him that was my best offer. I wasn’t gonna let him horns-waggle me.”

Slowly I open the lid and see a gorgeous violin inside, a caramel-colored wooden instrument, its curvy shape tapering to a fancy scroll. I peer inside the S-shaped openings and see a paper tag with the label: Copy of Antonius Stradivarius / Handarbeit / Garmisch bei Mittenwald – Made in Germany.

“Now I want you to take lessons, so you can be in the orchestra at school. You play the piano pretty good. I don’t imagine a violin would be a whole lot harder.”

“Well, . . I don’t know about that,” I hear my voice trailing off.

I wonder why Daddy kept these plans and dreams for me to himself. I would have liked to go with him to the music store and have seen the other choices. Why does he always leave me out of decisions like this? He makes choices for me just like he plays the piano, loud and heavy-handed. Yet he seems so pleased with his purchase; I’m sure he imagines that I’m just as thrilled. Anyway, I start taking lessons from Mrs. Santeusanio.


True to his inclination, mechanical themes ran through much of my Dad’s repertoire, songs of railroads, highways, and ships (Let the Lower Lights Be Burning). Why even the radio he sang about is a mechanism.

My musical preferences are more eclectic and include classical, pop and contemporary. Yet, I see that however clumsy his efforts, Daddy was transmitting to me his love for music. Often a melody or song floats through my head as easily as my Dad’s music did out our living room window. You might say the sound of music has masked some of my Dad’s missteps as a parent. For that I am thankful.

Statement of Christian Doctrine and Rules and Discipline of the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church, 1968.

What interests or hobbies did a parent or close relative instill in your life? Was your experience a positive or negative one? Tell us about it.