Amanda — a Daughter of the Mennonites/1
The scorching heat of a midsummer day beat mercilessly upon the earth. Travelers on the dusty roads, toilers in the fields, and others exposed to the rays of the sun, thought yearningly of cooling winds and running streams. They would have looked with envy upon the scene being enacted in one of the small streams of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. There a little red-haired girl, barefooted, her short gingham skirt tucked up unevenly here and there, was wading in the cool, shallow waters of a creek that was tree-bordered and willow-arched. Her clear, rippling laughter of sheer joy broke through the Sabbatical calm of that quiet spot and echoed up and down the meadow as she splashed about in the brook.
“Ach,” she said aloud, “this here’s the best fun! Abody wouldn’t hardly know it’s so powerful hot out to-day. All these trees round the crick makes it cool. I like wadin’ and pickin’ up the pebbles, some of ’em washed round and smooth like little white soup beans--ach, I got to watch me,” she exclaimed, laughing, as she made a quick movement to retain her equilibrium. “The big stones are slippery from bein’ in the water. Next I know I’ll sit right down in the crick. Then wouldn’t Phil be ready to laugh at me! It wonders me now where he is. I wish he’d come once and we’d have some fun.”
As if in answer to her wish a boyish whistle rang out, followed by a long-drawn “Oo-oh, Manda, where are you?”
“Here. Wadin’ in the crick,” she called. “Come on in.”
She splashed gleefully about as her brother came into sight and walked with mock dignity through the meadow to the stream. He held his red-crowned head high and sang teasingly, “Manda, Manda, red-headed Manda; tee-legged, toe-legged, bow-legged Manda!”
“Philip Reist,” she shouted crossly, “I am not! My legs are straighter’n yours! You dare, you just dare once, to come in the crick and say that and see what you get!”
Although two years her junior he accepted the challenge and repeated the doggerel as he planted his bare feet in the water. She splashed him and he retaliated, but the boy, though smaller, was agile, and in an unguarded moment he caught the girl by the wrists and pushed her so she sat squarely in the shallow waters of the brook.
“Hey, smarty,” he exulted impishly as he held her there, “you will get fresh with me, you will, huh?”
“Phil, let me up, leave me go, I’m all wet.”
“Now, how did that happen, I wonder. My goodness, what will Mamma say?” he teased.
“Phil,” the girl half coaxed, but he read a desire for revenge in her face.
“Jiminy Christmas, don’t cry.” He puckered up his lips in imitation of a whimpering girl. “Got enough?”
“Phil,” the word rang crossly, “you let me be now.”
“All right, cry baby.” He loosened his hold on her wrists. “But because you’re such a fraid cat I’ll not give you what I brought for you.”
“What is it?” The girl scrambled to her feet, curiosity helping her to forget momentarily the boy’s tricks. “What did you bring me?”
“Something that’s little and almost round and blue and I got it in a tree. Now if you’re not a blockhead mebbe you can guess what it is.” He moved his hand about in his pocket.
“Phil, let me see.” The words were plain coaxing then.
“Here.” And he drew from his pocket a robin’s egg.
“Philip Reist! Where did you get that?” The girl’s voice was stern and loud.
“Ach, I found the dandiest nest out on one of the cherry trees and I know you like dinky birds and thought I’d get you an egg. There’s three more in the nest; I guess that’s enough for any robin. Anyhow, they had young ones in that nest early in the summer.”
“You bad boy! How dare you rob a bird’s nest? God will punish you for that!” Her eyes blazed with wrath at the thoughtless deed of the lad.
“Ach,” he answered boldly, “what’s the use fussin’ ’bout a dinky bird’s egg? You make me sick, Manda. Cry about it now! Oh, the poor little birdie lost its egg,” he whined in falsetto voice.
“You--you--I guess I won’t wait for God to punish you, Philip Reist.” With the words she grabbed and sat him in the water. “You need something right now to make you remember not to take eggs from nests. And here it is! When you want to do it after this just think of the day I sat you down in the crick. I’m goin’ to tell Mom on you, too, that’s what I am.”
“Yea, tattle-tale, girls are all tattle-tales!”
He struggled to escape but the hold of his sister was vise-like.
“Will you leave nests alone?” she demanded.
“Ah, who wants to steal eggs? I just brought you one ’cause I thought you’d like it.”
“Well, I don’t. So let the eggs where they belong,” she said as she relaxed her clasp and he rose.
“Now look at us,” he began, then the funny spectacle of wet clothes sent each laughing.
“Gee,” he said, “won’t we get Sam Hill from Mom?”
“What’s Sam Hill?” she asked. “And where do you learn such awful slang? Abody can hardly understand you half the time. Mom says you should stop it.”
“Yea, that reminds me, Manda, what I come for. Mom said you’re to come in and get your dresses tried on. And mebbe you’d like to know that Aunt Rebecca’s here again. She just come and is helpin’ to sew and if she sees our clothes wet--oh, yea!”
“Oh yea,” echoed Amanda with the innocent candor of a twelve-year-old. “Aunt Rebecca--is she here again? Ach, if she wasn’t so cranky I’d be glad still when she comes, but you know how she acts all the time.”
“Um-uh. Uncle Amos says still she’s prickly like a chestnut burr. Jiminy crickets, she’s worse’n any burr I ever seen!”
“Well,” the girl said thoughtfully, “but chestnut burrs are like velvet inside. Mebbe she’d be nice inside if only abody had the dare to find out.”
“Ach, come on,” urged the boy, impatient at the girl’s philosophy. “Mom wants you to fit. Come on, get pins stuck in you and then I’ll laugh. Gee, I’m glad I’m not a girl! Fittin’ dresses on a day like this--whew! "
“Well,” she tossed her red head proudly, “I’m glad I’m one!” A sudden thought came to her--"Come in, Phil, while I fit and then we’ll set in the kitchen and count how often Aunt Rebecca says, My goodness.”
“Um-uh,” he agreed readily, “come on, Manda. That’ll be peachy.”
The children laughed in anticipation of a good time as they ran through the hot sun of the pasture lot, up the narrow path along the cornfield fence and into the back yard of their home.
The Reist farm with its fine orchards and great fields of grain was manifestly the home of prosperous, industrious farmers. From its big gardens were gathered choice vegetables to be sold in the famous markets of Lancaster, five miles distant. The farmhouse, a big square brick building of old-fashioned design, was located upon a slight elevation and commanded from its wide front porch a panoramic view of a large section of the beautiful Garden Spot of America.
The household consisted of Mrs. Reist, a widow, her two children, her brother Amos Rohrer, who was responsible for the success of the farm, and a hired girl, Millie Hess, who had served the household so long and faithfully that she seemed an integral part of the family.
Mrs. Reist was a sweet-faced, frail little woman, a member of the Mennonite Church. She wore the plain garb adopted by the women of that sect--the tight-fitting waist covered by a pointed shoulder cape, the full skirt and the white cap upon smoothly combed, parted hair. Her red-haired children were so like their father had been, that at times her heart contracted at sight of them. His had been a strong, buoyant spirit and when her hands, like Moses’ of old, had required steadying, he had never failed her. At first his death left her helpless and discouraged as she faced the task of rearing without his help the two young children, children about whom they had dreamed great dreams and for whom they had planned wonderful things. But gradually the widowed mother developed new courage, and though frail in body grew brave in spirit and faced cheerfully the rearing of Amanda and Philip.
The children had inherited the father’s strength, his happy cheerfulness, his quick-to-anger and quicker-to-repent propensity, but the mother’s gentleness also dwelt in them. Laughing, merry, they sang their way through the days, protesting vehemently when things went contrary to their desires, but laughing the next moment in the irresponsible manner of youth the world over. That August day the promise of fun at Aunt Rebecca’s expense quite compensated for the unpleasantness of her visit.
Aunt Rebecca Miller was an elder sister to Mrs. Reist, so said the inscription in the big family Bible. But it was difficult to understand how the two women could have been mothered by one person.
Millie, the hired girl, expressed her opinion freely to Amanda one day after a particularly trying time with the old woman. “How that Rebecca Miller can be your mom’s sister now beats me. She’s more like a wasp than anything I ever seen without wings. It’s sting, sting all the time with her; nothin’ anybody does or says is just right. She’s faultfindin’ every time she comes. It wonders me sometimes if she’ll like heaven when she gets up there, or if she’ll see some things she’d change if she had her way. And mostly all the plain people are so nice that abody’s got to like ’em, but she’s not like the others, I guess. Most every time she comes she makes me mad. She’s too bossy. Why, to-day when I was fryin’ doughnuts she bothered me so that I just wished the fat would spritz her good once and she’d go and leave me be.”
It will be seen that Millie felt free to voice her opinions at all times in the Reist family. She was a plain-faced, stout little woman of thirty-five, a product of the Pennsylvania Dutch country. Orphaned at an early age she had been buffeted about sorely until the happy day she entered the Reist household. Their kindness to her won her heart and she repaid them by a staunch devotion. The Reist joys, sorrows, perplexities and anxieties were shared by her and she naturally came in for a portion of Aunt Rebecca’s faultfinding.
Cross-grained and trying, Rebecca Miller was unlike the majority of the plain, unpretentious people of that rural community. In all her years she had failed to appreciate the futility of fuss, the sin of useless worry, and had never learned the invaluable lesson of minding her own business. “She means well,” Mrs. Reist said in conciliatory tones when Uncle Amos or the children resented the interference of the dictatorial relative, but secretly she wondered how Rebecca could be so--so--she never finished the sentence.
“Well, my goodness, here she comes once!” Amanda heard her aunt’s rasping voice as they entered the house.
Stifling an “Oh yea” the girl walked into the sitting-room.
“Hello, Aunt Rebecca,” she said dutifully, then turned to her mother-- “You want me?”
“My goodness, your dress is all wet in the back!” Aunt Rebecca said shrilly. “What in the world did you do?”
Before she could reply Philip turned about so his wet clothes were on view. “And you too!” cried the visitor. “My goodness, what was you two up to? Such wet blotches like you got!” “We were wadin’ in the crick,” Amanda said demurely, as her mother smoothed the tousled red hair back from the flushed forehead.
“My goodness! Wadin’ in the crick in dog days!” exploded Aunt Rebecca.
“Now for that she’ll turn into a doggie, ain’t, Mom?” said the boy roguishly.
Aunt Rebecca looked over her steel-rimmed spectacles at the two children who were bubbling over with laughter. “I think,” she said sternly, “people don’t learn children no manners no more.”
“Ach,” the mother said soothingly, “you mustn’t mind them. They get so full of laughin’ even when we don’t see what’s to laugh at.”
“Yes,” put in Amanda, “the Bible says it’s good to have a merry heart and me and Phil’s got one. You like us that way, don’t you, Mom?”
“Yes,” the mother agreed. “Now you go put on dry things, then I want to fit your dresses. And, Philip, are you wet through?”
“Naw. These thick pants don’t get wet through if I rutch in water an hour. Jiminy pats, Mom, girls are delicate, can’t stand a little wettin’.”
“You just wait, Phil,” Amanda called to him as she ran up-stairs, “you’re gettin’ some good wettin’ yet. I ain’t done with you.”
“Cracky, who’s afraid?” he called.
A little later the girl appeared in dry clothes.
“Ach,” she said, “I forgot to wash my hands. I better go out to the pump and clean ’em so I don’t get my new dresses dirty right aways.”
She ran to the pump on the side porch and jerked the handle up and down, while her brother followed and watched her, defiance in his eyes.
“Well,” she said suddenly, “if you want it I’ll give it to you now.” With that she caught him and soused his head in the tin basin that stood in the trough. “One for duckin’ me in the crick, and another for stealin’ that bird’s egg, and a third to learn you some sense.” Before he could get his breath she had run into the house and stood before her mother ready for the fitting. “I like this goods, Mom,” she told the mother as the new dress was slipped over her head. “I think the brown goes good with my red hair, and the blue gingham is pretty, too. Only don’t never buy me no pink nor red.”
“I won’t. Not unless your hair turns brown.”
“My goodness, but you spoil her,” came the unsolicited opinion of Aunt Rebecca. “When I was little I wore what my mom bought me, and so did you. We would never thought of sayin’, ‘Don’t get me this or that.’”
“But with red hair it’s different. And as long as blue and brown and colors Amanda likes don’t cost more than those she don’t want I can’t see why she shouldn’t have what she wants.”
“Well, abody wonders what kind o’ children plain people expect to raise nowadays with such caterin’ to their vanity.”
Mrs. Reist bit her lips and refrained from answering. The expression of joy on the face of Amanda as she looked down at her new dress took away the sting of the older woman’s words. “I want,” the mother said softly, “I want my children to have a happy childhood. It belongs to them. And I want them to remember me for a kind mom.”
“Ach, Mom, you are a good mom.” Amanda leaned over the mother, who was pinning the hem in the new dress, and pressed a kiss on the top of the white-capped head. “When I grow up I want to be like you. And when I’m big and you’re old, won’t you be the nicest granny!”
Aunt Rebecca suddenly looked sad and meek. Perhaps a partial appreciation of what she missed by being childless came to her. What thrills she might have known if happy children ran to her with shouts of “Granny!” But she did not carry the thread of thought far enough to analyze her own actions and discover that, though childless, she could attract the love of other people’s children if she chose. The tender moment was fleet. She looked at Amanda and Philip and saw in them only two children prone to evil, requiring stern disciplining.
“Now don’t go far from the house,” said Mrs. Reist later, “for your other dress is soon ready to fit. As soon as Aunt Rebecca gets the pleats basted in the skirt.”
“I’ll soon get them in. But it’s foolishness to go to all that bother when gathers would do just as good and go faster.”
Amanda turned away and a moment later she and Phil were seated on the long wooden settee in the kitchen. The boy had silently agreed to a temporary truce so that the game of counting might be played. He would pay back his sister some other time. Gee, it was easy to get her goat-- just a little thing like a caterpillar dropped down her neck would make her holler!
“Gee, Manda, I thought of a bully thing!” the boy whispered. “If that old crosspatch Rebecca says ‘My goodness’ thirty times till four o’clock I’ll fetch a tobacco worm and put it in her bonnet. If she don’t say it that often you got to put one in. Huh? Manda, ain’t that a peachy game to play?”
“All right,” agreed the girl. “I’ll get paper and pencil to keep count.” She slipped into the other room and in a few minutes the two settled themselves on the settee, their ears straining to hear every word spoken by the women in the next room.
“My goodness, this thread breaks easy! They don’t make nothin’ no more like they used to,” came through the open door.
“That’s one,” said Phil; “make a stroke on the paper. Jiminy Christmas, that’s easy! Bet you we get that paper full of strokes!”
“My goodness, that girl’s shootin’ up! It wouldn’t wonder me if you got to leave these dresses down till time for school. Now if I was you I’d make them plenty big and let her grow into ’em. Our mom always done that.”
And so the conversation went on until there were twenty lines on the paper. The game was growing exciting and, under the stress of it, the counting on the old settee rose above the discreet whisper it was originally meant to be. “Twenty-one!” cried Amanda. Aunt Rebecca walked to the door.
“What’s you two up to?” she asked. “Oh, you got the hymn-book. My goodness, what for you writin’ on the hymn-book?” She turned to her sister. “Ain’t you goin’ to make ’em stop that? A hymn-book ain’t to be wrote on!”
“Twenty-two,” cried Phil, secure in the knowledge that his mother would not object to their use of the book and safely confident that the aunt could not dream what they were doing.
“What is twenty-two? Look once, Amanda,” said the woman, taking the mention of the number to refer to a hymn.
The girl opened the book. “Beulah Land,” she read, a sudden compunction seizing her.
“Ach, yes, Beulah Land--I sang that when I was a girl still. My goodness, abody gets old quick.” She sighed and returned to her sewing.
“Twenty-three, countin’ the last one,” prompted Phil. “Mark it down. Gee, it’s a cinch.”
But Amanda looked sober. “Phil, mebbe it ain’t right to make fun of her so and count after how often she says the same thing. She looked kinda teary when she said that about gettin’ old quick.”
“Ach, go on,” said Philip, too young to appreciate the subtle shades of feelings or looks. “You can’t back out of it now. Gee, what’s bitin’ you? It ain’t four o’clock yet, and it ain’t right, neither, to go back on a promise. Anyhow, if we don’t go on and count up to thirty you got to put the worm in her bonnet--you said you would--girls are no good, they get cold feet.”
Thus spurred, Amanda resumed the game until the coveted thirty lines were marked on the paper. Then, the goal reached, it was Phil’s duty to find a tobacco worm.
Supper at the Reist farmhouse was an ample meal. By that time the hardest portion of the day’s labor was completed and the relaxation from physical toil made the meal doubly enjoyable. Millie saw to it that there was always appetizing food set upon the big square table in the kitchen. Two open doors and three screened windows looking out upon green fields and orchards made the kitchen a cool refuge that hot August day.
Uncle Amos, a fat, flushed little man, upon whose shoulders rested the responsibilities of that big farm, sat at the head of the table. His tired figure sagged somewhat, but his tanned face shone from a vigorous scrubbing. Millie sat beside Mrs. Reist, for she was, as she expressed it, “Nobody’s dog, to eat alone.” She expected to eat with the folks where she hired. However, her presence at the table did not prevent her from waiting on the others. She made frequent trips to the other side of the big kitchen to replenish any of the depleted dishes.
That evening Amanda and Philip were restless.
“What ails you two?” demanded Millie. “Bet you’re up to some tricks again, by the gigglin’ of you and the rutchin’ around you’re doin’! I just bet you’re up to something,” she grumbled, but her eyes twinkled.
“Nothin’ ails us,” declared Phil. “We just feel like laughin’.”
“Ach,” said Aunt Rebecca, “this dumb laughin’ is all for nothin’. Anyhow, you better not laugh too much, for you got to cry as much as you laugh before you die.”
“Then I’ll have to cry oceans!” Amanda admitted. “There’ll be another Niagara Falls, right here in Lancaster County, I’m thinkin’.”
“Ach,” said Millie, “that’s just another of them old superstitions.”
“Yes,” Aunt Rebecca said solemnly, “nobody believes them no more. But it’s a lot of truth in ’em just the same. I often took notice that as high as the spiders build their webs in August so high will the snow be that winter. Nowadays people don’t study the almanac or look for signs. Young ones is by far too smart. The farmers plant their seeds any time now, beans and peas in the Posey Woman sign and then they wonder why they get only flowers ’stead of peas and beans. They take up red beets in the wrong sign and wonder why the beets cook up stringy. The women make sauerkraut in Gallas week and wonder why it’s bitter. I could tell them what’s the matter! There’s more to them old women’s signs than most people know. I never yet heard a dog cry at night that I didn’t hear of some one I know dyin’ soon after. I wouldn’t open an umbrella in the house for ten dollars--it’s bad luck--yes, you laugh,” she said accusingly to Philip. “But you got lots to learn yet. My goodness, when I think of all I learned since I was as old as you! Of all the new things in the world! I guess till you’re as old as I am there’ll be lots more.”
“Sure Mike,” said the boy, rather flippantly. “What’s all new since you was little?” he asked his aunt.
“Telephone, them talkin’ machines, sewin’ machines--anyhow, they were mighty scarce then--trolleys----”
“My goodness, yes! Them awful things! They scare the life out abody. I don’t go in none and I don’t want no automobile hearse to haul me, neither. I’d be afraid it’d run off.”
“Great horn spoon, Aunt Rebecca, but that would be a gay ride,” the boy said, while Amanda giggled and Uncle Amos winked to Millie, who made a hurried trip to the stove for coffee.
“Ach,” came the aunt’s rebuke. “You talk too much of that slang stuff. I guess I’ll take the next trolley home,” she said, unconscious of the merriment she had caused. “I’d like to help with the dishes, but I want to get home before it gets so late for me. Anyhow, Amanda is big enough to help. When I was big as her I cooked and baked and worked like a woman. Why, when I was just a little thing, Mom’d tell me to go in the front room and pick the snipples off the floor and I’d get down and do it. Nobody does that now, neither. They run a sweeper over the carpets and wear ’em out.”
“But the floors are full of germs,” said Amanda.
“Cherms--what are them?”
“Why, dreadful things! I learned about them at school. They are little, crawly bugs with a lot of legs, and if you eat them or breathe them in you’ll get scarlet fever or diphtheria.”
“Ach, that’s too dumb!” Aunt Rebecca was unimpressed. “I don’t believe in no such things.” With that emphatic remark she stalked to the sitting-room for her bonnet. She met Phil coming out, his hands in his pockets. He paused in the doorway as Amanda and her mother joined the guest.
Aunt Rebecca lifted the black silk bonnet carefully from the little table and Amanda shifted nervously from one foot to the other. If only Aunt Rebecca wouldn’t hold the bonnet so the worm would fall to the floor! Then the woman gave the stiff headgear a dexterous turn and the squirming thing landed on her head.
“My goodness! My goodness!” she cried as something soft brushed her cheek. Intently inquisitive, she stooped and picked from the floor a fat, green, wriggling tobacco worm.
“One of them cherms, I guess, Amanda, ain’t?” she said as she looked keenly at the child.
Amanda blushed and was silent. Philip was unable to hide his guilt. “Now, when did tobacco worms learn to live in bonnets?” she asked the boy as she eyed him reproachfully.
Mrs. Reist looked hurt. Her gentle reproof, “Children, I’m ashamed of you!” cut deeper with Amanda than the scolding of Aunt Rebecca--"You’re a bad pair! Almost you spoiled me my good bonnet. If I’d squeezed that worm on my cap it would have ruined it! My goodness, you both need a good spankin’, that’s what. Too bad you ain’t got a pop to learn you!”
“It was only for fun, Aunt Rebecca,” said Amanda, truly ashamed. But Phil put his hand over his mouth to hide a grin.
“Fun--what for fun is that--to be so disrespectful to an old aunt? And you, Philip, ain’t one bit ashamed. Your mom just ought to make you hunt all the worms in the whole tobacco patch. My goodness, look at that clock! Next with this dumb foolin’ I’ll miss that trolley yet. I must hurry myself now.”
“I’m sorry, Aunt Rebecca,” Amanda said softly, eager to make peace with the woman, whom she knew to be kind, though a bit severe.
“Ach, I don’t hold no spite. But I think it’s high time you learn to behave. Such a big girl like you ought to help her brother be good, not learn him tricks. Boys go to the bad soon enough. I’m goin’ now,” she addressed Mrs. Reist, “and you let me know when you boil apple butter and I’ll come and help stir.”
“All right, Rebecca. I hope the children will behave and not cut up like to-day. You are always so ready to help us--I can’t understand why they did such a thing. I’m ashamed.”
“Ach, it’s all right, long as my bonnet ain’t spoiled. If that had happened then there’d be a different kind o’ bird pipin’.”
After she left Philip proceeded to do a Comanche Indian dance--in which Amanda joined by being pulled around the room by her dress skirt--in undisguised hilarity over the departure of their grim relative. Boys have little understanding of the older person who suppresses their animal energy and skylarking happiness.
“I ain’t had so much fun since Adam was a boy,” Philip admitted with pretended seriousness, while the family smiled at his drollness.