The earliest I remember my hair is sitting on a high chair by the large white porcelain wash sink inside the back door. My mom wet the comb periodically as she combed through my straight tresses before braiding two long blondish braids down either side of the back of my head, securing each one with a rubber band and leaving about an inch and a half of straightness hanging out of the bottom. Some mothers braided down even further. Then there was the occasional mother who would leave a larger portion unbraided at the bottom, but that was worldlier. Probably because it was a step closer to having no braids at all, just free swinging ponytails. I was glad my mom didn’t braid all the way down as far as she could. And while I would not have complained had she left several more inches unbraided, in fact I would have most likely swung those braids around rather vainly, I was content with where she stopped at about an inch and a half.
I still remember the slight pang of jealousy I experienced whenever I saw girls whose portions of unbraided hair sported a little curl. It looked so cute having curls on the bottom side of that rubber band. It wasn’t until later that I grew to understand how lucky I was that I did not have those coveted curls. I heard mothers and daughters relate horror stories of hair washings and combings. Mine was always a pleasant experience as the comb slid easily through my ultra straight fine textured hair.
My hair tells of the stages of my life as an Old Order Mennonite girl: my hair, along with my dresses, which we called frocks, in addition to where I sat in church. Every transition was like a rite of passage towards adulthood.
At birth my hair was brushed with a soft brush like any other baby born into love. Most likely with an attempt to show a slight part in the middle, but as soon as it was barely long enough it was combed back into two or four half inch ponytails or if my mother’s finger could grasp the hair firmly enough she would braid it. Two at the top sides and two at the bottom sides. Always with a part in the center. As soon as the two top braids reached the two bottom ones they were connected, sometimes even forced to connect earlier by braiding a string longer than the hair and creating a connection. But once my hair became long enough that it did not need the two top braids to maintain a kempt look, I wore only the two braids as described in the beginning of this story. That was typically at about age five or six.
It occurred at about the same time as I was old enough to sit with my friends on the front bench at church. The bench way in front with all the mothers filling the benches behind us.
Two braids. All my friends wore there’s the same. Almost. Some had them braided towards the back of the head so you could almost not see that there were two from the front. I was always glad my mom didn’t comb mine that way. Two braids literally growing out of the sides of my head would have been cool. Now days I have occasionally seen little Old Order Mennonite girls like that, but back in my day it would have been frowned upon. Rather worldly. Times change. I was always happy with mine. Two braids placed where you could see there were two. Even without the coveted curls, I was happy.
During that time my frocks had changed accordingly. As a baby they were often pleated or gathered at the breast and the skirt came down past the knees full enough that a diaper could easily be changed. But once I was old enough to walk the waist was moved to the belly waist line. Little buttons or snaps went three quarters of the way down the back to create easy access for helping a little girl get dressed. These were referred to as hinnah uch frocks, dresses opening in the back. As my braids changed from four to two, my dress pattern stayed basically the same, with a small, approximately one inch strip sewn into the waistline as a belt being the only change occurring somewhere during that time.
On Sunday mornings my girlfriends and I sat on the front bench in church, in front of all the women so that our mother’s could keep an eye on us. I don’t know whether the mother or daughter withered more with embarrassment when a mother had to come forward and take her daughter back to sit with her because she was whispering and playing entirely too much. Occasionally the same thing occurred to the little boys sitting over in front of their father’s on the men’s side of the church. But that happened benches and benches over and the only part of those incidences visible to us little girls was the father standing up and walking up front and then returning to his seat. I don’t remember what the little boys did during church to keep themselves out of trouble. I have a feeling it was always a little easier for us girls. We had hankies to fold and make twins-in-a-cradle and mice. It was easier to communicate silently when one could make something with a lacey flowered hankie and then hold it up to a friend’s smiling recognition.
The next major change came when I turned eleven. A greatly anticipated change. So anticipated that I found it to be almost unbearable that my two best friends turned eleven three entire months before I did. At the age of eleven a girl puts her hair up in a bun. Or as we called it: a haarballa (pronounced haw-ah-bawl-uh with the first two syllables slid together as one.) Months before that, my friends and I had been practicing at home. We had been braiding our own hair for years and now we were learning how to twist it just right to create a nice round bun. Next we pinned it up with a few hairpins before placing a hairnet over it, twisting the leftover portion of hairnet around and under the bun and then securing it with more hairpins. We learned how to get those hairpins in so that they didn’t poke our scalp, yet managed to keep that bun tight through a game of baseball or freeze tag on a Sunday afternoon.
Some girls chose to wear one braid down the back of their heads instead of the bun. I was one of those as had been my aunts before me, my mom’s youngest sisters. My mom was the oldest of eleven siblings, nine of them girls, the youngest three were only between two and ten years older than myself. But even though I wore one braid down the back during the week, I usually wore a bun to church. I learned how to make it with the rest of them. It was preparation for the ensuing stage of life.
As a little girl I had noticed that other little girls from slightly more worldly churches sometimes had their hair parted on the side. I remember thinking that it would have been nice to have my hair that way, but knew better than to even suggest such a thing to my mom. But it was around the age of eleven that some girls began trying to slip their part just the slightest degree off to the side. I did in experimental play in the bathroom, but never for real. I had better sense than that.
But an acceptable change was to comb our hair over the tips of our ears. My girlfriends and I did that. I would not have been caught letting those tips stick out. Some girls, especially from Pennsylvania, covered their entire ear with hair. That never appealed to me. Hiding the tips was enough. Many of the plainer girls combed their hair straight back without even touching their ears. I often wondered whether it was because they didn’t want to. Did combing those strands of hair over the tips of their ears just not appeal to them in the same way that covering the entire ear with hair was unappealing to me, or was it perhaps because their mothers did not allow them to. I never asked.
At this time my friends and I no also longer pulled our hair back quite as tightly. In Virginia some of the girls actually poofed it a little at the front. We wouldn’t have dared to do that, but somewhere in between the tight back and the poofing we found a loosely pulled back style that suit us. It was at that age that hairspray became a necessity.
Our entire lives every hair on our head would be combed neatly into place. Even the slightest strand pulled out of a braid or bun or from under our covering would cause us to feel schtruvlich, messy. “Ich bin schtruvlich? My hair is messy?” is a common phrase that can be heard as a woman tucks a stray strand back into place. If company dropped in and little girl came in from playing outside the mother might brush her daughters hair back towards the braids with her fingers while apologizing for the schtruvlich hair.
At the age of eleven we also began to wear our frocks, fahnah uch, open in front. It was a major dress pattern change. The three quarter opening in back changed to opening to the waistline in front and at the right hand side a zipper or snaps closed a six to ten inch opening. Instead of buttons or snaps down the back we switched to only snaps down the front. These two openings at the front and side gave us plenty of room to get in and out of our dresses without messing up our hair too much.
In addition a loose one inch belt (one and a half to two inches for those of us who like to push the fences.) was fastened at the side by long pearl headed pins. White was the staple color and black or navy for our dark dresses which we wore to funerals and twice a year at Communion. But it was fun to wear the various colored ones to match the color of our mostly flower-printed knit dresses. Knit was the rage. It didn’t wrinkle. It was wash and wear. No ironing needed. The belts were preparation for the next step that would come at sixteen. Cape dresses. But for now they were just belts that helped make us feel grown up.
But it wasn’t the fahnah uch frocks and belts or the change in hair that made my friends three month’s age advantage unbearable at this time. It was that at the age of eleven a girl was allowed to sit on the back bench behind all the mothers and other women. It was a long ways to be separated from ones best friends for two hours on a Sunday morning. I felt horribly forsaken when my two best friends turned eleven three entire months before I did. All the other birthdays I had not minded them being so much older. At five I had only known sitting with my mom and had not realized that my soon to be best friends were already sitting up front for those three long months. But at ten years and nine months I was very aware of it. Thankfully my mom was a mother of great merciful understanding and within a few weeks I made an early transition to join my friends.
It was around this age that my mom also introduced me to nylons. That first Sunday that I wore them I walked the quarter of a mile to Emma-Grossdaudy’s house to ride to church with them. I felt so grown-up-like walking in my half inch heeled black tie shoes and brand new nylons the quarter of a mile to Emma-Grossdaudy’s. They had observed me out their dining room windows and when I entered the house they bombarded me with an unusual amount of questions. Do you have a new dress? A new sweater? Those aren’t new shoes, are they? “No, no, no.” I answered all their questions. Embarrassed that my feeling of grown-upness had been so obvious, I never revealed the fact of what had made me walk down that road so differently that morning. Nylons being held up by a brand new girdle.
But the coolest thing about turning eleven was never explained in words. It was an unspoken initiation into almost-adulthood. Aunts and other women would notice a girl wearing a fannah uch frock and would comment with a knowing smile. “Oh, you’re wearing your frocks fahnah uch now! And you wear your hair up.” They would glance at it around the back and nod in appreciation at the nice job you had done. I remember standing there slightly embarrassed, yet pleased that they had noticed that my frocks were fahnah uch now.
But if I thought waiting for eleven to join my friends at the back of the church was rough. It was nothing compared to the sheer torture of almost sixteen. At sixteen a prayer covering would cover my bun at church and a cape would be attached to my belt fastened with those pearl headed pins. And our seating in church changed, but not vertically as before. This time it was a horizontal change across the aisle to the center row of benches where all the youngie, the young folks, sat. But as exciting as all of this was, it dimmed in the light that I was now old enough to begin rumschpringa. I would now be allowed to go to the Sunday night singings and all the midweek gatherings rather than just the church yard mowings in summer and sledding and skating parties in winter like we did at age fifteen. Rumschpringa at sixteen- hanging out with my friends several times a week and joking around and flirting with the boys. This was heaven on earth.
The three weeks after my friends turned sixteen that I had to wait before my mom allowed me to start early felt like a living death. I used to love going to Dorothy-Grossdaudy’s every Sunday evening and playing with my aunt, Dorothy, my cousins and the card games with Grossdaudy, but for probably about a half year before I turned sixteen I lost interest in all things not associated with my friends. I went to Grossdaudy’s without much outward complaint but I remember laying around on the couch in total boredom.
I began sewing cape dresses in preparation and then finally that first Sunday came when I could wear my first cape dress and pin that covering over my neatly arranged bun. By now my nylons had changed to pantyhose and one inch heels were the norm. But the sitting across the isle from where I used to, knowing that for that entire day I would hang out with my friends. Priceless.
People that hadn’t seen me in years would comment on the fact that I was wearing a covering, but that acknowledgement of growing up paled to the fun of finally being able to rumschpringa. It was as if my entire life had been lived for this day. For this time.
I loved rumschpringa and I dreaded growing old. I pictured old as sitting in a rocking chair rocking to nowhere, no-fun, no-life.
A young mother in her twenties had gone ice skating one Sunday afternoon. She hadn’t tried on her skates since before she had gotten married and the large frozen puddle out back in the former wheat field beckoned her. I remember hearing the talk. “What does she think she’s doing. She has young children. Who does she think is going to take care of those children if she were to break a leg?” No one commented that about me. Not even when I was in my twenties. I was single and could skate backwards and twirl in a vicious game of crack the whip and if by chance my leg broke, no one would suffer the consequences but me… and perhaps my younger brother. But once marriage occurred and of course children with it, a person took on a whole new set of responsibilities. The same would have been said about a man. Accidents could happen but why take an unnecessary risk? Growing old seemed dull and scary to me.
Well, no one commented about the health risk unnecessary adventures could create for me, except for once, in my early twenties, when I was talking about wanting to go horseback riding an older person made an insinuating comment that I should have grown out of those types of behaviors by now. I never wanted to grow too old to have fun.
As I would have aged into my thirties, whether married or single, I would have begun to pull my hair back tighter and probably stopped coming them over the tips of my ears. In hindsight I now know that would have most likely occurred as my first strands of hair were beginning to gray- early like Emma-Grossmommy’s. My covering would have gotten a little bigger, covering more of my ears and the strings, changing from white to black, would be tied a little tighter. Meaning that rather than swinging loosely from below the nape of my neck as it used to, the strings would be shortened to swing right at the nape of my neck and eventually right below the chin. The bonnet that covered it on Sundays had already changed from navy blue to black, but I would have been expected to begin wearing it for more than just Sundays. Like the plainer girls had been doing their entire lives, I would now start wearing it every time I went away. And on Sundays I would begin to wear a schatz, an apron the same color and length as my dress. On cool days my sweater would always be black, not the navy or brown I could now choose, and over it I would wear a light black fringed shawl. In the winter the shawl would be a heavier dark gray woolen one. If necessary I would wear a coat underneath. My dresses would cease to be light colored and the flowers or other designs on the fabric would become smaller.
But it wasn’t the black sweaters, shawls, dresses and hair changes that bothered me. My entire life I had eagerly anticipated each change in hair, dress and seating at church. These continued changes were not the ones I dreaded as I thought of growing old. These outward life transitions were rites of passage that allowed me to know I was becoming a woman.
It was the thought of no more fun that caused me to feel as if my life would be over- no ice skating, no sledding, no fifty mile bicycling adventures, no occasional horseback riding with my friends… only spending every Sunday afternoon sitting around on chairs visiting… I pictured growing old as sitting on a rocking chair, rocking my life away, going nowhere… that thought was as terrifying as rumschpringa was fun.