Junge Frau: A Story about Growing up Female

There was no warning when she came to live with us. I came down the dark brown carpeted steps one morning and stopped short – a young woman in sleeveless floral pajamas was ironing a blouse, her soft brown hair about her shoulders. I whispered to my sisters, “Who is that?” Mama looked at me and said, “This is Rosie. She’s from Germany. She’s going to stay with us.”

I had a vague memory of talk of a visitor last week, but clearly it had not stuck, for I was quite startled to see this stranger drying her hair and ironing clothes in the dining room. Uncharacteristically, I stood back, lingering behind my sisters.

After breakfast, Papa took the girls to school in his unmarked white box truck, and Mama and I drove with Rosie in our wood-paneled minivan all the way to Rosedale. Mama told me that Rosie was going to attend Rosedale Bible Institute. German words dropped here and there as Mama asked about Rosie’s parents back in Berlin. See, Mama and Papa had lived in Berlin in the 80s. They worked at the Hafen. Papa “worked with the guys from the streets,” and Mama did housework. Rosie’s parents had been Papa and Mama’s house parents. The Hafen, of course, was in West Berlin; the Berlin wall surrounded the city, at the time, separating it from communist East Germany.

Rosie asked, “And the girls? They have school?”

“Yes, Lester drove them this morning.”

“And Esther?”

I sat up a little straighter and tried to look important.

“Esther is in Kindergarten, and she only goes three days a week. She does not have school today.”

I remember thinking that it was in fact nice to have a day off with these ladies.

Kindergarten was a German word that I knew – it meant “child garden.” Papa also sometimes called us “Kinder!” to beckon us inside. I knew other German words, like all the words to Gott Ist Die Liebe. (Papa made me sing it for Walter Beachy every Sunday that he preached, when he carried me out through the receiving line.) Vorsichtig is what Papa says to you when you need to pay attention to what you’re doing. Mama and Papa say “Tschuss!” to each other every morning and kiss each other on the lips. I used to think tschuss means “kiss,” but I think it means goodbye. At the table, you said bitte and danke and it was usually all right to get the butter then.

Culottes, Cut Flowers, & Me, 1996

Rosie spent a few days at our house before moving into the dorms at Rosedale, and she came to our house occasionally after that. How much did we learn about being a woman!

There were Victoria magazines, skirts with buttons down the front, fashionable European shoes with chunky heels (Mom called them “clodhoppers”), German coffees, and tea parties. Rosie took one look at our hair brush and said, “No, no!” She promptly bought us a brand-new brush (the right kind!), and introduced us to Herbal Essences shampoo. She’d weave our long hair into intricate braids – French, inside-out, and fish braids – and choose a French twist for herself, or even better, she’d style her hair with a red velvety accessory called a “turd.” (How we laughed at the name!)

We visited her dorm room at Rosedale, and we met her roommate Carol. They gushed, professing undying love for each other: “We even have nicknames for each other – sometimes I call her Honey Bee, and she calls me Sweetie Pie!” Carol had the most beautiful mane of thick black curls (she looked like Diana Barry), and in my 5-year-old mind, Carol and Rose were the most elegant women on earth. They’d come to our house for Sunday dinner sometimes and occasionally bring friends.

Rosie loved fresh flowers, and she wore silver rings on her fingers. She also liked “laying out,” and we’d lie on the lawn on a blanket beside her lawn chair while she tanned. Laying out took forever. One Sunday we were “laying out,” and Rosie started giggling.

“Why are you laughing?” my sister asked.

“Ettie can’t sit still. She runs inside to get a pillow. She runs inside to get a drink. She runs back in to get a book.”

After that, I tried very hard to lie still and Not Move. But it was just very rather boring to lie in the grass!

One time we asked what Germany is like and she said it’s a place where rats come up the toilet and bite you on the bum. I immediately listed Germany among countries not worth visiting.

Some time later Mama and Rosie were reminiscing about Germany days. “We’ll have to take the girls sometime!” Mama said.

I piped up, very serious, “I do not want to go to Germany!”

“What?” Rosie asked, “Why not?”

“There are RATS in the pots!” I wailed.

Mama and Rosie erupted into laughter.

“I was only joking,” Rosie said, “They don’t bite you on the bum in the bathroom.”

Still. It seemed like a place not to go.

Occasionally, Rosie invited her many friends to our house. She once hosted an entire dinner party – all gentlemen. The table was immaculately set with all the place settings. There can be no doubt that strong coffee and German kuchen (like Erdbeer-Sahne-Torte or Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) were for dessert. Our phone with a cord rang at the last minute.

“All right! A girl’s coming!” Rosie cried, as she hung up the phone. “Gotta change the plates!”

She had set the entire table in Mama’s plain cream dishes, with all the matching place settings. With the presence of just one other woman at the table, it was worth it to change the place settings to Mama’s best china. We quickly reset the entire table.

Once Mama and Papa went to ministers and elders meeting, and we had a babysitter. The babysitter was also attending Rosedale Bible Institute at the time, and she called beforehand asking if she could take us to the talent show. I didn’t know what a talent show was, but it was like church, except like when the youth group did it, at night. People sang songs and did skits, and it was all right to laugh. Afterward, our babysitter greeted all of her friends. We saw Rosie, and she poked each of us in the stomach and squeezed our cheeks so hard that we almost cried, were it not for all the smiling.

Rosie had male friends who occasioned our house – one in particular was Bill. He came quite frequently, he and his long blonde hair. He was what I think Mama calls “ruggedly handsome.” From the very beginning, I did not like Bill. He took up a lot of my new friend’s time – I developed an aversion to him. He tried to speak to me while I emptied the dishwasher.

“Do you know my name?”

“Yes,” I said without looking at him, “It’s Billy Goat’s Butt.”

Bill didn’t say anything and went back out to the patio. At some point that evening, Mama found me.

“Esther, I want you to be nice to Bill. You are being very RUDE.”

“I only called him Billy Goat’s Butt,” I fumed.

“That is rude. You do not call anyone by that name.”

Weeks later, Bill came through the door for the cream-colored-dish-turned-fine-china dinner party.

“Hi, Esther,” Bill winked. “Do you know my name?”

“Yes,” I said quietly. “It’s Bill.” 

“Aren’t you going to call me Billy Goat’s Butt?”

“No,” I said, and went out and sat on the porch swing by myself.

Rosie knew how to sew, and once she made a sailor-style shirt for Bill. It featured corded lacing in the front. Mama raised her eyebrows: “I guess that will show some chest.”

Rosie folded the shirt, “Probably.”

Rosie surprised us in other ways, like her penchant for thunderstorms. She would even SIT on the PORCH… during the storms!

“You’re crazy!” Mom hollered, as cracks of lightning flitted across the pitch-black fields, followed by cacophonous booms.

“Thunderstorms are the best!” she’d say, and disappear onto the porch with a letter to write.

For her first car, Rosie bought a tiny blue Ford Escort, and one sunny day, she washed it outside on the concrete slab while singing along to songs on the radio we’d never heard before.

“How do you know all these songs?” we asked, incredulous.

“It’s called pop! They played it on the radio every day in Germany when I rode the bus to school!” she said, before belting out another tune. We helped spray down her hubcaps before retreating to play with a ball we found. When she practiced for her driver’s test in our driveway, we rode in the back seat and listened to more “pop” while she maneuvered a stick shift in our short lane.

Her brothers came to visit her once, and our house was filled with laughter as Papa and Mama retold countless stories of life at the Hafen when Rose and her brothers were young. I finally met the infamous young man Angie, who in Papa’s slides was a boy who would sleepily say each morning, “Honig, bitte.”

We went to house fellowship on Sunday evening, and Rose and her brothers stayed home. When we drove home under a full moon, we were not prepared for the scene we found. They were lying in the middle of the road.

Mom was in hysterics in the van, and Papa turned into our lane. “They’re crazy,” he muttered. Papa parked the van, and we all ran out to the road.

“What in the world are you doing?” Mama shrieked.

They laughed. “We’re sitting on the road! What does it look like we’re going?”

“Do you have any idea how fast people drive on this road?!” Mom was referring to the extremely flat, extremely straight country road, bordered on both sides by corn fields and bean fields and the occasional Midwestern house.

“We’re learning!” Angie grinned.

“What do you do if a car comes?” I gasped.

“We roll to the other side of the road. Like this!” They rolled over. “And if a car comes on the other side, we roll like this!” They rolled back.

One time, after being away for some time, Rosie returned to visit us, and she showed us a painting she had done of some cherries. I stared at it, wide-eyed.

“How did you do that?” I breathed, incredulous. For it had the look of actual cherries. Real cherries! If you looked closely, she had used colors not associated with cherries to get the actual look of cherries. One of the colors she used was peach.

“You like to draw, don’t you, Esther?” she asked.

I said, dumbfounded, “I will never be able to paint like that.”

“You will,” she said, and meant it. “You will paint like that someday.” I hardly believed her. How could a person learn to paint so that it looked real?

At some point she transferred to a college, I suppose, for soon we were traveling to Wilmore, Kentucky to attend her college graduation. It was an incredible thing to be invited to a real campus. We stayed in a bed & breakfast with very thin walls and a bathroom in the hallway.

Part of the festivities in the almost Southern town was a final chorale program in which Rosie sang in a choir. The concert was in a large white church, with tall white ceilings and dark wood railings at the front. We had very good seats. An African American woman sang a solo, after which many people clapped, and during one piece I was shocked for the director to seat himself and for a woman to direct the choir for a performance. She was a student director, he said, and I never knew in my life that a woman could direct music. I cannot for the life of me remember if she was African American too, and it seems like it matters to remember if she was or not, but all I remember is that she was a woman.

When we left the concert, my sisters and I immediately began whispering about the soloist.

“Her voice was so weird!” we said. We tried to imitate her voice using shrill-like trills. Mama overheard us.

“Oh no,” Mama said matter-of-factly, “She was an excellent soprano with an incredible vibrato. I’m sure her director loves the fact that she can sing that high. She was an excellent soloist!”

I sat back, again surprised. I clearly had much to learn about singing soprano. How could anybody enjoy that kind of singing? But Mama knew. She was one of the best sopranos in church. In fact, she herself had sung in the Rosedale Chorale for many years.

During the graduation visit, we took an evening walk through campus, past tall white columns and under Southern trees to a church where sometimes Rosie and her friends played for worship. They walked to the front of the church, past the dark railings for kneeling, and in the near dark played and sang songs for our little entourage. After the first piece, someone clapped.

“Oh, no, don’t clap,” one of the them said haltingly. “We always play in the context of worship, so there isn’t clapping.”

Again, I was surprised. So we just sat quietly in the dimly-lit sanctuary, listening to their music.

The next day was graduation. We hiked to the balcony of a grand old auditorium for the baccalaureate service and giggled and giggled as the procession began – for the outfits! The outfits! Oh they must be prof – prof – professors! Look at their heads! Their heads! My mother laughed out loud at the colorful regalia.

“Did you like their outfits?” Rosie asked me later. I giggled.

We craned our necks from the balcony as the graduates processed in, in long lines of black caps and gowns. Far below, and halfway up the aisle, Rosie turned around, looked up, and winked at us. This, too, surprised me.      

 * 

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Easters I Remember

There are two Easters I remember well.

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In the first, Papa is a carpenter. I grew up around sawdust and power tools, screw drivers and lumber. Daddy wore jeans and tan work shirts to work every day, with a pencil stuck behind his ear. Sometimes as little girls, we tagged along to job sites, sweeping up sawdust Here, and learning to put Those Boards over There. We were handed nearly empty jars of putty and dull carpenter’s knives to fill holes in woodwork. We’d hold the ends of giant pipes, while Papa carefully painted their rims with green and purple substances. We supervise him soldering copper with a blowtorch, cringing in fear when tiny bits of melted metal dropped to his skin. He’d bark, “Don’t open the tape measure all the way!” But we always did anyway, holding contests to see how long we could unroll it into the air without it cracking to the floor. We stood next to him as dutiful carpenter nurses, handing him various instruments: “Square.” “Sawzall.” “Screw.” “Tape.”

Many times, we were called upon to clean up his work site. We’d arrive to find sawdust spit into every corner, the little bag for catching sawdust completely fallen off the miter saw. Wooden clamps lay twisted on the floor, every which way. Power drills and cords lay haphazardly. “After you fill this, you can play,” he said, handing us impossibly large black trash bags.

Papa had this way of convincing you that you were the greatest at tasks you’d never done before. One day I helped him spackle some drywall. He handed me a stainless-steel trough of freshly-mixed spackle, along with a trowel, demonstrating the motion. He left, then returned to check my work. He’d shake his head.

“I can’t believe it!” he’d say. “You’re better than the guys I hire in Columbus!”

“Lookin’ good, sister! I tell you what. I’d like to hire you!” he’d say, while re-spackling most of the spots I’d done with a “second coat.”

“Just smooth it out, there. See.”

One time, Papa worked for a German woman named Heike in Columbus. She was a professor in the Department of Design at The Ohio State University. I don’t know how Papa met her, but he had a knack for finding German-speaking people and for going out of his way to practice his German on them.

Heike had a remodeling job for Papa to do, and one day Mama drove us in our green wood-paneled Plymouth Grand Caravan to see Heike’s house.

“Esther, you have to see her house. You’ll really think it’s neat.”

Heike had short hair like a boy. Her house was unlike most houses I had seen, in shape, in the amount of rooms, and the furniture. She had a whole table made of glass. (A whole table! Think of it!) Mama instructed us not to touch it. When Mama and Heike were not looking, I touched it.

I remember rattan chairs, and strange art, perhaps from Africa. The best thing of all was her garden and lattices to the side of the house. Papa hadn’t finished the steps down into the little alcove, so he had set up a piece of 2×8 as a ramp that he padded across, and we girls thought that was the neatest thing. But it was raining that day, and as we trotted back and forth on the ramp, Rachel promptly fell off, sprained her ankle, and there was maybe a little blood. The carpenter’s blubbering, crying daughter caused quite the alarm for Heike, who wanted Rachel to be taken to the emergency room. (“That’s because she’s Professional,” Mom said.) Instead, Mom asked for a rag, loaded my two sisters in the minivan and drove home.

I was left with Papa at the work site. I wanted nothing more than to march up and down the ramp some more. But Heike said no.

She asked me if I liked to draw. I said I did, and she invited me into the house. I suddenly felt shy as she walked me toward a sunken room that had little natural light. Only a small window was near the ceiling. She offered me a pencil with which to draw, and gave me the largest collection of colored pencils I had ever seen. I turned my nose up at them (for they were not Crayola), but I was in shock to discover that they were the smoothest set of colors I had ever used. There were no primary colors, and I remember being disappointed to have to improvise using obscure shades. The colored pencils were magical, the lead buttery soft. (I now know that Heike leads the Interior Design department at Ohio State, and I can only imagine what writing instruments she put into the hands of a grimy 7-year-old.)

“Heike is probably not a Christian,” I reasoned, so I decided to draw her a picture of Jesus so that she might be saved. Perhaps it was nearing Easter, for I decided to draw Mary at the tomb. I colored Mary’s robe with a non-descript mauve color for there was no pencil labeled “blue.” Heike returned to the inner room.

“Show me what you’ve drawn.”

“It’s Jesus’ resurrection,” I explained. “This is the angel,” I pointed to a white character. “He’s telling Mary that Jesus isn’t here. He’s risen from the dead. And that’s the tomb.” A large gray circle filled the middle of the page.

“I see,” she said.

“It’s for you,” I explained.

“Oh!” She set it aside.

I was a little surprised she didn’t become a Christian after I gave her my picture. I squirmed out of my seat to go find Papa. I didn’t want to draw with Heike anymore.

***

I am not sure why that memory is so vivid in my mind. I remember her soaking-wet, green gardens, the overcast gray clouds, and the curious angles of her home. I remember her very short hair. I remember the delight of scampering over a simple ramp made by Papa, and the momentary uncertainty of being with a stranger.

***

Easter as a child was memorable for a lot of reasons. Grandma sent us brand-new matching Easter dresses (from J.C. Penney) in a box in the mail every year. We got to wear white shoes to church, or even better, white sandals. There was always an Easter play at church on Good Friday. Grown men would roughhouse Jesus (where the podium used to be), and soldiers (really, all the carpenters in church) would “nail” Jesus to the cross, pounding real nails with hammers that echoed throughout the sanctuary. Jesus would writhe in agony, then be raised on the cross, wearing a T-shirt splattered with red food coloring. Easter morning was a sunrise service, and families would argue whether the church window blinds should be opened or closed.

“The sun causes a glare on some people’s glasses,” some said. Others remarked haughtily, “It’s a sunrise service! What’s the point of a sunrise service if we don’t see the sun?!”

The song leader would apologize “to our morning voices” before leading “Up from the Grave He Arose.” He would try to pitch it down, to the chagrin of sopranos like my mother. Then we had a magical hour of breakfast at church, with tulips on the table for three hundred forty-seven people, and plenty of old ladies to “ooo” at my new dress.

After church, there was ham.

***

But once we were not home for Easter. We traveled to Illinois to visit mom’s friends. I was delighted to realize that mom’s friend had a daughter my age, and we would be playing together all weekend long. Not only that, we would be playing on a farm. Her father was not just a farmer; he was a shepherd. And it was lambing season!

The frigid chilly mornings were full of sunshine and romps through the greening pasture, down to the stream that ran under a road culvert. We spent hours playing by the stream, accompanied by their border collie. I caught a tiny fish by plunging my bare hands into the ice-cold water. We sprinted the long distance toward the farmhouse, skidding to a stop to gingerly crawl under the electric fence, before galloping the last few yards, hollering for an ice cream bucket to keep our new pet in. We turned on the laundry sink at full blast. “Don’t you want pond water?” Katie’s mama said. We stared each other, hollered and sprinted out the back door, stopping to carefully slip inside the pasture again, and whooped and hollered all the way to the stream to fill our 2 qt. cottage cheese container with a more hospitable environment. Her little brother Grant followed us, though we had averted him all morning.

Papa and the older girls picked up branches in the yard and loaded them in wheelbarrows (strong winds were common there). Katie’s father started a fire to burn the brush. In the afternoons, we washed dishes and listened to Adventures in Odyssey.

There was so much laughter when we visited. Papa teased the older girls, and their dad had blue eyes that sparkled when he threw his head back and laughed. The whole family laughed.

The night before Easter, and a lamb was to be born. We had to walk through the pitch-black to get to the barn. Only the oldest daughter was allowed inside the stall. The ewe was in distress, and my friend’s dad informed us the sheep was having twins, and one of them was breech.

In the straw lay a huge bottle of dish soap. He started slathering his hands with soap and explained to each girl in attendance, “This will help me pull out the lamb very quickly. When a lamb is being born, it’s first instinct is to…’hah!’” he motioned taking a big breath. “If it breathes too soon, the baby lamb will breathe in the birthing fluid and drown.”

The ewe became increasingly restless, and my friend’s father sternly rebuked it. His loud voice and firm grip scared me, for he was a kind and gentle man, and I had not seen him be gruff with anyone, especially his children. Adding one last bit of soap to his hands, he slipped his hands in the birthing canal after the sheep had settled, and pulled the first lamb to safety, immediately wiping the amniotic fluid from its mouth. The second twin was ready to be born, and with his hand inside the ewe, his blue eyes widened incredulously, “This one’s born breech too!” Soon two tiny lambs lay next to each other in the straw, one a lot smaller than the other. The oldest daughter poked some straw just inside the lambs’ nostrils, to help them breathe.

On Easter Sunday, the sun was replaced by freezing gray clouds, and a chill wind blew over the unplowed corn fields. I did not wear a new dress from Grandma; she had died the year before. Instead I wore a floral skirt and a lavender T-shirt from Kmart. I had packed large brown sandals, and Mom handed me some nylons to wear. I found Katie downstairs sitting on a sheep’s wool rug, putting on her nicest Sunday shoes. She was wearing a velvet mauve dress and white tights. She looked like she was going to the orchestra. I felt like… that I did not look like I was going to the orchestra.

Katie’s dad was a preacher, and there are few sermons I remember from childhood, but I remember that one.

For his text, he did a word study on the word “Easter,” explaining that the term is nothing more than the name of a pre-Christian goddess. Early Christians in England began celebrating Christ’s resurrection during “Eastermonth,” a season named for the goddess, and a season in which early pagans celebrated the vernal equinox. The preacher carefully highlighted the events of Holy Week, along with the resurrection, resting on the meaning of Easter for Christians who serve a risen God, before arriving at his conclusion: why do we choose such a strange name for our Christian holiday?

Easter Sunday? Pagan god Sunday?” he asked gravely.  “No,” he shook his head, before breaking into a smile, “Resurrection Sunday!”

There was a certain triumph when we sang “Up from the Grave He Arose.” For one thing, it was noon, and every soprano could hit the high note.

On our drive home, they called us to tell us that the smallest little twin lamb had died.