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Cliff

Whenever I leaf through my Bible, I often spot a special verse, Genesis 12:1, and note the date in the margin, July 1966: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show you.”

This is the catalyst for change I refer to constantly as I plan the journey alone from PA Dutch country to Charlotte, NC, where I begin a new and culturally shocking part of my life. Since graduating from Eastern Mennonite College in Virginia, I have spent the last year and a half as Sister Longenecker, teacher of English to seniors at Lancaster Mennonite School. I watch my p’s and q’s inside and outside of the classroom, especially outside of the classroom, making sure the fabrics I buy at Musser’s Fabric Shop to make my long, caped dresses are not too bright (maroon, not cherry red) and that I’m shod with pedestrian-looking shoes, brown or black—and not shiny patent leather, which I crave. In other words, I am to be a role model for my students. My colleagues, Verna, June, and I share experiences and expenses in a smallish trailer nestled in a grove of oaks on the edge of the campus. We risk renting a TV for major events (Kennedy’s assassination, for example), and get caught once by an inquisitive student who knocks on our door, spies the blue glow of the TV, and reports us to the dean, who gently chides us to get our news by less worldly means, like the newspaper. Life is calm and predictable like the repetitive blip on a heart monitor or the gentle swing of a clock pendulum. Too calm, in fact. I am ripe for change.

My next door neighbor, Paul, is dating a Guatemalan beauty, Betty, whom he met at Bob Jones University, considered the most square university in the world, I read in the October 1965 issue of Atlantic Monthly.  Paul shows me Cliff’s photo in his yearbook, and the image I see grins back at me like a clown; Paul tells me Cliff is from the west coast and doesn’t want to spend ten days of his Christmas holiday in a car (actually a commodious, ancient hearse, I discover later) with eight other Westerners just to be home for Christmas. “Will you be Cliff’s date for the holidays?” Paul proposes.

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Tonight, a few days before Christmas, I’m meeting the mystery man. Thick, dark brown braids circle the back of my head like a slipped halo, held in place by black wire hairpins. The white net prayer veiling usually covering my head is missing this evening; I am beginning to chafe under the traditions set by my culture. Later this evening. Paul, Betty, Cliff from the West, and I are all going out for a snack at Plain and Fancy. The doorbell rings at the home of the Longenecker’s. I wonder what Cliff looks like in person. And so I meet him for the first time, he at the bottom and I at the top of the stairs leading down to the dining room and the entryway of our front door.

A tall, blond fellow with deep-set eyes looks up at me after Mom opens the door:

“Nice to see you again,” Cliff says. Oh, he’s witty, I think.

“Nice to see you again too,” I say, not skipping a beat.

As the evening progresses, I find out that Cliff is an artist, and when he and I come back from the restaurant, I pose in the living room for my first live portrait. Several times I try to peek but to no avail.

“No,” he insists, “it’s not finished yet.”

After thirty minutes of fierce sketching, he announces that the masterpiece is finished.

“Are you ready?” Cliff smiles, handing me my likeness. Shocked, I stare with open mouth and then blink in disbelief as he hands me a cartoon elephant with a blue ribbon around its tail.

“I can’t imagine why you spent all this time on . . . just an elephant, Why didn’t you draw a real picture of me?” Now, he laughs, a real guffaw.

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Tonight I have met a blond, blue-eyed Christian clown who seems clever, likes art, and thinks (though he doesn’t tell me then, of course) that I am the most unusual-looking person he’s ever met. There is mutual fascination: a young man from Washington state who wears a class ring the size of the Pope’s and a quaint-looking, plain girl from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

One evening a few days later the four of us, Paul, Betty, Cliff and I, pack ourselves into Paul’s ancient, black Mercedes to go decorate the former Schwanger’s Carpet Barn for Christmas, before it became a mission of Rheems Grace Brethren Church. I say pack ourselves because Cliff and I are sharing the back seat with Paul’s huge accordion case. Cliff, I notice, is wearing a thick coat with a furry collar and a black Cossack hat; he looks bear-ish, for sure. Patches of recent snow dot the cold, hard ground creating a winter-scape that matches my sombre mood. Just today the mail brought me a Dear John letter from a beau actually named John, a quasi-romantic carryover from college days. “I don’t think we should continue our relationship,” he says, Just like that! I have mixed feelings about this; I didn’t actually like John all that much, but it was nice to have someone.”

Cliff, Paul, and Betty are in high spirits now as we tumble out of the car, loaded with boxes of holiday festoon: rolls of garland and tree decorations; I soon get carried along with their bright mood. We unfurl the green and red garland around the windows and trim the tree, activities I relish for the first time. Mennonite families of the sixties frowned upon the glitter and glitz of Christmas.  When the church looks festive enough, Cliff gets out Paul’s accordion and bellows, “Joo-eey to the Worr-ld, the Lor-rd is Come!” and we all join in. After a while, Paul and Betty practice the ever more joyous, “Ring the Bells,” Betty’s solo soprano accompanied by Paul who loves to embellish her lyrical voice with lots of runs and trills.

Meanwhile, Cliff in the rear, is sketching on the chalkboard a Santa Claus, a snowman, and finally a manger scene.  “He is really talented,” I observe, but then wonder, “Why is he a theology student if he’s so good in art?”

We’re all getting hungry and Paul suggests,” “Hey, let’s go back home and make popcorn and listen to records. Paul has a huge stash of LP’s: Mantovani and the Reader’s Digest mood music: “Candlelight and Wine,” “Heavenly Voices,” “Hawaiian Paradise,” and “Songs at Twilight.” The Christmas tree lights at his house are all the illumination we’ll need to fall into a sentimental mood.

And so we pack up and climb back in the Mercedes with Cliff and me in the back seat again. The accordion case seems even more gigantic now, and there simply isn’t room for all the arms and legs. “Excuse me, but I’m going to have to put my arm on the seat around you,” he says.

“Oh, he doesn’t want me to think that he’s too forward,” I suppose.

The car moves deftly over the icy spots, thoughts of the “Dear John” letter fly into my head again, and I tell Cliff my sad news. My new-found friend seems to care genuinely. Tears fall and etch a crease down my face, he leans over to plant an empathetic kiss on my cheek, but he misses the mark as I drop my head and gentle as a butterfly touches my right eye with his lips  instead.

“How odd,’ I think. “A first kiss. . . and on my eye . . . how strange!”

Many nights Cliff and I indulge ourselves in the bounty of Paul’s kitchen pantry. This upstairs kitchen was purposely stocked by his mom, Edna, who also happens to own the Clearview Diner on Route 230. On the nights we eat at the Clearview, we enjoy good Old Pennsylvania Dutch meals—chipped beef and creamed gravy slathered over toast, loads of meat loaf, potato salad, carrot and raisin salad, and heavenly desserts like banana pudding, Dutch apple pie, mince pie, all savored as we share bits and pieces from each other’s lives.

And every night, it seems that we end of up again in Paul’s tiny upstairs living room cramped by a large sofa. The lights from the tree which sits snugly in one corner seem to shimmer along with the strains of “Winter Wonderland.” As we talk, the evening hours too soon fade into early morning. During these hours of popcorn, hot mulled cider, music and talk, our new bond of friendship grows quickly. We exchange stories about ourselves and our families, our hopes and ideals, and dreams of the future. One evening I notice a button missing from Cliff’s black “bear” coat and offer to sew it on. He digs around in his pocket and comes up with the button. Up and down, up and down, I sew and finally the button is snugly fastened to the wool jacket. I tie a knot on the under side and Cliff offers:

“Here, let me cut the knot,” as I hold the threads taut.

“Okay,” I say, assured that he’ll know what to do next. And then he snips the thread under the knot, totally severing it from the button.

“My stars,” I scream incredulously, “What did you do that for? Now the button won’t stay on because the knot is cut off!” I can’t imagine how anyone wouldn’t know where to snip the thread.

“Well, I didn’t think I was actually cutting the knot off; I guess I just happened to cut too low,” Cliff adds lamely.

But no excuse, logical or not, will suffice for what is in my books such an irresponsible mistake. The discussion escalates to a one-sided argument, and only a kiss temporarily diffuses the dismay I feel. My anger spent, Cliff then leans over, kissed me on the mouth this time. “I think I’m falling in like.” he whispers in my ear.

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I told you my love story. Now tell me yours.

Do you agree with Tennyson, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all”?   from In Memoriam A. H. H.

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