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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.

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