If I swallow a water-melon seed, my stomach might swell up.
If I touch freckle-faced Ricky with the dirty fingernails, I might grow a baby. Oh no!
Those were my childhood fears. With a limited sex education, I tried never to swallow watermelon seeds or touch grimy Ricky. But my parents also had fears, largely unfounded. What my Daddy dreaded most as the father of three adolescent girls is that one of us might turn up pregnant some day and bring shame and disgrace upon the family. “We don’t ever want to hear of that happening in our family,” he exhorted. In my Bible he wrote this not-so-veiled admonition from Ecclesiastes:
Why he worried about my falling into mortal sin was beyond my comprehension: I always had my nose in a book and rarely dated Mennonite farm boys, or any other boys for that matter.
My experience with the lusts of men were of the non-Mennonite variety in my early teens. Summers I worked behind the meat counter for the Kleinfelters at Middletown Merchandise Mart. No worries with Mr. Kleinfelter, though he was often a bit tipsy, but some of his suppliers were another matter. Oily-haired Mr. Zapcic would creep up to the counter and invite me to “help” him in his produce business in Lancaster. “I need somebody to work behind the counter. You would be perfect!”
“That’s pretty far from Elizabethtown,” I mentioned innocently. Lancaster was almost 20 miles away.
Without my asking, Mr. Z. offered: “Oh, I’d see that you got there. You could ride with me.” It finally dawned on me what he was after and afterwards tried to ignore him. Yet he continued to harass me. Like Pamela in Samuel RIchardson’s novel, I rebuffed the man’s advances. Finally, I had to solicit some Kleinfelter help to get him to let me alone.
* * * * *
During the summer of 1964 my Aunt Ruthie and I attended Temple University, she to complete her Master in Education degree and me to begin it. From the hamlet of Rheems at 4:30 in the morning, we drove to Lancaster, took a train from Lancaster to Philadelphia, then rode the subway into north Philadelphia and walked eleven blocks to the campus of Temple University with classrooms filled with students who chain-smoked. I still wore a prayer veiling with a crown of dark brown braids fastened with hairpins underneath, ever the epitome of moral innocence. Ruthie’s classes lasted longer than mine, so I waited for her on a circular, wooden bench on the grassy campus outside the classroom.
A suave older man approaches me and raves about my hair. It could be a scene right out of Bird Life in Wington, Gertie the Goose meets Willie the Wolf.
I notice at once his pearly white, even teeth and brushed back hair. Is he a college student? He for sure doesn’t look like one. Other students are milling around, I notice, so what could be the harm in talking to this stranger?
Willie: “Sprechen ze deutsche?” Not waiting for an answer, he spouts, “You have gorgeous hair. It’s so thick and glossy.”
Gertie: Oh,uh [Insert Pennsylvania Dutch lilt] . . . why thank you.
Willie: I own a hair salon in the suburbs of Philly. I’d take you there and give you a different hair-do. It would frame your face really nice.
Willie: Of course, I wouldn’t charge you anything.
Gertie: Well, thank you.
The dialogue continues for another minute or two, and then two things happen: I feel an electrical zap down my spine and a visitation from the Holy Spirit, who urgently whispers — “NO!” in my ear: “Run for your life. This guy is up to no good.”
Scales fall from my eyes as I swiftly dismiss his cunning ideas–and find an excuse to leave the bench and search desperately for Aunt Ruthie. Her class must be over. Soon, I hope. God, I hope soon!
It’s your turn. Any narrow escapes from unsavory characters in your early years? Other threats to your moral virtue?
Your story is welcome here, and I will always reply.
I love your Gertie Goose and Willie. My Willie in Growing Up Plain was no wolf. Just a heartbreaker.
I had one or two of those as well–heartbreakers. I guess what matters is how you end up. You are up early on a Saturday, the first to comment, Shirley! Thank, always.
This story is delightful, Marian. Just the right combination of reflection, humor, rootedness and openness.
I think a whole book could be written about the experiences of religious women \”under the veil.\” One long chapter would have to be about how the veil both sexualizes and neuters women, depending on the nature of the gaze-r.
I don\’t ever recall having run away from older men, but I do remember the gaze.
Stauffer\’s of Kissel Hill probably had a less predatory clientele. Do you think?
Interesting observation: \”how the veil both sexualizes and neuters women.\” You and other Mennonite and Amish women could contribute to that chapter along with Catholic women of that era, who were literally draped in impenetrability. Karen Leahy, who writes as an ex-nun, knows plenty about the gaze too, which she describes in her memoir, The Summer of Yes.
BTW, I love the scribbles in your bible. And those verses about remembering the Creator and about train up a child? I think they were universally applied to youth.
Until I photographed the page, I didn\’t remember the scribbles. I\’ll have to blame them on my younger sisters–or brother Mark.
Apparently that verse is etched in your memory too, Shirley. Your comments always go beyond the obvious: thank you!
Oh my, what memories this evokes, one told in my book Departure, about my jr. year abroad in Spain. My parents came to visit for Christmas and we traveled to Rome, where a bus tour guide on a day trip to Naples, begins talking to me (my parents one seat away). But he talks in Spanish so they don\’t understand, and invites me to celebrate New Year\’s Eve with him, after I take my parents back to the hotel. Well, no! But the thought was at once fleetingly inviting, flattering and preposterous.
At least you knew Spanish and had an edge in this exchange. Your comment reminds me of a similar instance in Jamaica when my sisters and I, all married women, were enticed with the words \”Foxy lady, come here!\” Inviting? No! But, flattering and preposterous–certainly!
Marian – I thoroughly enjoyed the storybook fashion you shared your experience and the supporting photographs!
To refrain from tarnishing a particular \”brand\” of church, I\’ll refrain from stating the denomination, but I was accosted by a deacon at a mens prayer breakfast while several of us junior-high-aged Sunday School girls were cleaning up — I was in the kitchen alone, washing dishes. I shared with my parents what happened. They met with our pastor. I was assured that it was \”taken care of.\”
I\’m sure every girl has some recollection of being accosted in \”that\” way. Pity that yours happened in a church setting.
What a wonderful story! You don\’t need to be Mennonite to have a fretting father. I wasn\’t allowed to go to the movies with my friends even for a Saturday matinee. When I asked why, all he would say is, \”Bad things happen in the dark.\”
I\’m glad this particular story speaks to the universal. Your father\’s comment, I\’m sure, was typical of many dads of that era. I wonder about now: Sexting? Oh, my. . . .
What a wonderful story. I also had a fretfull father. I wasn\’t allowed to go to the movies with friends even for a Saturday matinee. When I asked him why he said,\”Bad things happen in the dark.\”
Movies were forbidden for me because \”Nothing good comes out of Hollywood.\” Besides it was verboten by the church rules. An entire chapter out of pop culture is missing in my life because of it. I guess we both have caught up with that era via digital means. Thanks for the anecdote, Joan.
My experiences overseas were far more horrifying than my childhood. When the entire male gender of a country sees white women as loose and wild, there\’s no end to the harassment. I actually had to sucker punch one guy in an open market.
You have some many un-revealed chapters in your life. The hard part would be what theme to pick for your (next?) memoir. Did you wear your lovely hair loose or bound up overseas?
Knowing your gentle nature, I\’m still rebounding from your \”sucker punch\” comeback. You\’re tough though, I know.
I wore my hair back frequently to cut back on some of the attention, but it wasn\’t as long then either. And in all fairness, he hit me first 😀
But of course!
Great story! Your comment above about Jamaica reminded me of an incident with an unsavory character. My husband and I were on our honeymoon there. We were on our motel balcony when the man in the room next door starts telling us about nude beaches and showing us Polaroids–now, of course, it would be his iPhone. 🙂 So we\’re trying to be polite, while getting away from him. Then we heard a knock at our door. It was one of the maids warning us about the man! I think we just told the guy we had to go, and thankfully, we did not run into him again.
Fortunately, you had your husband for protection. I have to say the maid\’s timing was impeccable! Thanks for adding your anecdote. I always look forward to your comments, Merril.
Thanks, Marian. I always enjoy your posts!
No one worried about my moral virtue after my dad died when I was 14. My mom trusted I wouldn\’t get pregnant and gave me plenty of birth control instruction and freedom. I experimented, but was always cautious and self-protective even as a 60s hippie.. I had ambition and no interest in getting stuck with a baby. How long was your hair unbraided?
Thanks for stopping by, Elaine, and for the comment and question. My hair was at least half-way to my waistline, maybe even longer. I show the hank of hair cut off on one of my posts: Wedding on the Cheap @
Oh my goodness, from about aged 14 onward I\’d be hard pressed to name a year when there wasn\’t some incident featuring a sleazy older man. I worked part-time from a young age and as a young person in the workplace, you are very vulnerable to sexual harassment. It\’s probably why, as an adult, I believe very strongly in protecting women\’s rights in the workplace, particularly when it comes to unwanted sexual comments, however they are dressed up. I had a nasty episode a couple of years ago when a male co-worker complained about ME, because I took serious issue with his sleazy comments and friendly hugs, particularly toward younger members of staff.
Loved this post Marion.
There is never a good excuse for sexual harassment, not even being so very attractive, like you. How devious to have the guy twist your words. Thanks for reading–and commenting, Kirstin.
He got his come-uppance, as once he\’d complained about me I then had to defend myself and detailed every single incident involving me, younger female staff and the students (it was when I saw him coercing a cuddle from an 11-year-old pupil that I let rip). What annoyed me was that once I\’d spoken out, other male members of staff, senior to me, also informed on him. Just wish they had spoken up sooner.
Good for you! Without your having the guts to speak out, his behavior would have continued . . . and escalated into something even worse!