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The Plain German subset of the Pennsylvania Dutch . . .. wore distinctive, plain clothes and adhered to a rural life-style guided by their interpretation of the Bible, which stressed nonviolence in human affairs and simplicity in material things. Diane Turner
In seventh grade I was assigned to algebra class at Spring Grove Junior High school. Math was not my favorite subject, but I seemed to be good at it. In those days we sat at individual wooden desks, the surfaces often scarred with carved initials, ink stains, and gouges from pencils. I had been warned about the algebra teacher, Mr. Martin, by friends in the grades above me. “Pay attention,” they said. “Don’t look him directly in the eye but don’t look away. Pretend that you are thinking.”
Mr. Martin dressed differently from the other male teachers, all of whom wore suits with white shirts and sedate neckties. Mr. Martin was also a minister in a strict Brethren congregation nearby. They prohibited men from wearing neckties and lapels on their shirts, so he wore white shirts with a sort of mandarin collar with his dress slacks and sharply polished black shoes. Mr. Martin was a wanderer, never content to stay at his desk or the podium in front of the classroom. Instead, he strolled through the aisles and around the perimeter of the room, always carrying a yardstick in his hand. He only smiled when making humiliating remarks to some hapless student who had not observed the caution to appear interested.
The first few weeks were okay, although I was aware of a hazy sense of relief at the end of each algebra class. I was getting good grades, answering correctly when called on, keeping my face in neutral at other times. But one day the air in his classroom seemed to shudder as we entered, Mr. Martin’s face a stormy façade. As he traversed the room with his ever-present yardstick, Tommy in the second row seemed to slump in his seat. Suddenly we heard a crack like a backfire from a faulty muffler. Mr. Martin had hit the end of his yardstick on that recalcitrant boy’s desk, and we all flinched. At the front of the room, Mr. Martin drew three tiny circles on the chalkboard, just high enough so that Tommy could reach them only on tiptoe. For the remainder of the class, Tommy stood with his nose in the middle circle and the tips of his pointer fingers in the other two. We couldn’t see the tears streaming down his face, but we could see them dripping onto his shoes and could hear the snot collecting in his throat.
Years later I heard Mr. Martin was fired for using corporal punishment on a student after it had finally been outlawed in Pennsylvania. I felt a fleeting sense of vindication and release. What I still don’t understand is why algebra was my favorite math class.
Girls are educated by their mothers in the arts of the housewife: making and mending clothes, doing housework, gardening, and cooking.
Growing up, I told people I had a nice grandma and a mean grandma. Grandma Mazie, my mother’s mother was the mean one who lived by herself in a half-house up a hill in Glen Rock. Always scowling in photos, Mazie wore rubber galoshes over her shoes whenever there was the slightest dew on the grass and a kerchief on her head to protect her ears from any stray breeze that might pop up. After all, the weather was the enemy as were her four daughters who all lived in the same county. Often, I heard my mother and aunts say that “Grandma is on the warpath again” to explain her foul mood and their sense that nothing they did for her was ever enough. No trip to the grocery store with the sons-in-law carrying in the bags. No visit on a beautiful Sunday afternoon when we’d all rather be outside playing. No gift of chocolates at Christmas, boxes which she never opened and shared with others.
When we went to visit her, she often was watching a religious show like Billy Graham. Copies of Guidepost magazine occupied the end table along with her weathered Bible. Her small living room was overheated by the wood stove in the adjoining kitchen. The only houseplants were tall, spiny succulents with variegated leaves and feathery ferns. Not a flower in sight except for those on the well-worn slipcovers. She offered us saltines and glasses of room-temperature water as a snack.
After my sister and her husband married in another state, we held a little party for them
before their honeymoon to Norway. Relatives and friends brought gifts for their apartment. Grandma Mazie gave them an unwrapped roll of paper towels. As she handed them to Peggy, she said, “I hope your plane doesn’t crash into the Atlantic.”
A few years before her death, two of my grandmother’s daughters were severely injured in a terrible car crash in which one of their husbands was killed. For weeks my aunts remained in the hospital and then in rehab centers before they could return to their respective homes. One
aunt spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair with a colostomy bag. My other aunt had lost not only her husband but the use of one eye. As my aunts recuperated, my grandmother called my mother constantly with vague complaints of ill health. Grandma eventually moved in with my parents, and after that, to a nursing home. Frantic over the many losses in our family and frustrated with Grandma Mazie, my mother theorized, “It’s as if she can’t stand that someone else is getting all the attention.”
Since my mother’s death, my father speaks fondly of Grandma Mazie. If anyone says negative things about her, he vehemently defends her, saying he “never had any trouble with her.” He cites her harsh childhood in which her father died a violent death when she was a toddler and her divorce from the philandering alcoholic man she married as reasons why she could be difficult. He talks of the understanding they seemed to have between then. I am so glad my mother is not here to witness his remarks.
The father is the central figure in the family, making important decisions concerning the finances and education.
What is funny about being 95? These days when I speak to my father on the phone, he often laughs as he tells a story, even if the story is about someone dying or his aches and pains or a patch of stormy weather. On Father’s Day I make the obligatory phone call. Twice he tells me he won the award for the oldest father in church. Fifteen dollars. He plans to use it to buy Hershey’s ice cream for his wife, the one he married a year after my mother died, my sister and I still dull with grief.
After I moved across the country as a young adult, I went to visit my parents once a year in the house where I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, near the Maryland border. I tried to go in
summertime when the fields were tall with corn; the pink and blue hydrangeas towered over the
entrance to the front porch where I sat every day on one of the wicker rocking chairs. As I rocked, I pored over my parents’ photo albums, especially the ones from the days before their marriage. What a handsome couple: my mother beautiful with jet black hair and red, red lipstick; my father’s pompadour and colorful, short-sleeved shirts. I searched the expressions on their faces for proof they had once been in love. How else could I explain why she waited for him to come back from the Pacific, the years they lived with my Grandma Mazie, the four years of marriage before my sister was born, the crying I sometimes heard behind her closed bedroom door.
When I still lived at home, I could see that friends and relatives thought of my father as a good-natured guy, affable, slow to show anger. Of course, they did not live in our house, so they did not see the way he kept my sister, Peggy, under his thumb as she became a teenager, the way she made sure to never give him any excuse to call her out – no drinking or skimpy outfits or hair teased too high, no trashy makeup. No boys who picked her up in loud cars or rolled cigarette packs into their shirtsleeves. And from my father to her, no tender words, no playful jokes or gentle touches.
They did not see how my mother learned to voice her opinions to my sister and me only when he was at work. Our house became so quiet when he was around. He worked so hard; he deserved peace and the only air conditioner in the house, which cooled their bedroom when he worked the night shift and slept during the day. The rest of us sweltered in the humid air that never moved; my mother hung damp sheets on the line in the yard where no breeze blew them dry. He said she did not need a clothes dryer when air was free.
Our house was his castle, we, his subjects. All the rooms belonged to him. None had locks, not even the bathroom. We rushed through our toileting as children and rushed while primping as teenagers. He never knocked on the door, just barged in. The tub had no shower rod despite our mother’s frequent request for one. Always worried that the well would go dry, his rule was that tub baths saved water.
Every third week he worked the day shift at the paper mill. He expected dinner on the table at 4:30 sharp, even though my sister, Peggy, and I were in the middle of homework. Mealtime was for eating, not talking. After Peggy left for college, I was the only one left at the table. That year my mother started serving salad with every meal, pieces of lettuce, carrots, and celery diced so small I could barely lift them with my fork. The raw chunks stuck in my throat, making me nauseous.
What is funny about being 95? About no longer sending even a card to his daughters and grandchildren on their birthdays. About the promises to honor my mother’s wishes for their estate, then broken with the marriage to the new wife. The way he could remarry but we could never have another mother.
I am not laughing.
Quotes about the Pennsylvania Dutch taken from Turner, Dianne. Pennsylvania Dutch Crafts and Culture, Social Studies and the Young Leaner, Silver Spring, MD: National Council for the Social Studies, 2008.
Kathy Miller is an educator/counselor who lives with her husband and two black cats in upstate New York. Kathy started writing poetry as a teenager and returned to creative writing with retirement in 2018. Since then, she has focused primarily on creative nonfiction, although she dabbles in poetry and fiction. Kathy’s work has appeared in the online version of The New York Times’ Tiny Love Stories, Writer’s Club, The Ponder Review, Jewish Women of Words, Planet Scum, Stone Canoe, and Pulse: Voices from the Heart of Medicine. In 2022 Kathy was a recipient of a Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts residency.