The Grapes of
On Burr Road, Part 1
I was quickly satisfied that our New York home would be a good place to live—it offered plenty of places and things to explore. There were trees, from towering old Maples to scrubby creek-bank Willows, and the trees never ran out of sight wherever you walked or drove. There were fields to run through, and even a barn with dairy cows.
The big girls were much awed by the view of Lake Erie, which spanned the northern horizon when you looked out the upstairs window on a clear day. To me it just looked like a slice of light blue sky.
Another thing that excited the big girls was a storeroom upstairs that contained piles of books and magazines, elegant dishes, and knickknacks. It was a handy place to get lost in, and Mom wasn't thrilled whenever one of her kitchen hands disappeared and she'd discover the girl upstairs, engrossed in a questionable magazine.
The owners of the place milked twenty cows not a hundred yards from our doorstep, and this provided us children with daily lessons in the world of dairy farming. Rachel and I were surprised to see cows eating corn silage. The stuff was brown and soggy and smelled sour, but those cows dug into it as though it were dessert. Later on when we made our own corn silage we discovered that it is comprised only of chopped-up corn-stalks, leaves, and ears mixed together and fermented in their own juice. Rachel brought a small pailful of silage home one day when we returned from our expedition to the landlord's barn. Mom was not impressed "You can't take something from someone else's place," she eluded. "That's not yours. You'd better take it back where you got it."
When Mom or Dad said "you'd better," it was as good as an order. The same went for the request "would you?"
"Would you help with dishes now?" Mom might say, and that meant, "help with dishes now."
Our parents rarely spoke to us in English, though. Within the family, we used Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect which is not Dutch at all, but hails from Southern Germany. (English folks gave it the name Dutch because they got it confused with "Deutch," which means "German.")
The English language trickled into my awareness without any particular effort on my part, although there was plenty of effort on the family's part to familiarize me with its terms. Before I started school, big sisters often read to me, and I was taught early on to answer when addressed by anyone, even someone outside the family.
Communicating with strangers was not a priority on my personal list, but I could force myself to do it if I had to. Of course, it could come in handy sometimes, too. Like the time when I fiddled with a faucet in the built-in porch which we had in our previous home. Before I could comprehend what was happening, the landlord was rushing past me in a huff, headed for the faucet area. I watched with wide-eyed intrigue as he grabbed the mattresses that had been stored near the faucet and endeavored, with all kinds of hisses and mutterings, to drag them outdoors. I edged closer to get a better look. To my surprise, he stopped right in front of me and peered straight at me over an armful of doubled-up mattresses. I was even more mesmerized to find him addressing me directly. "Do you want a licking?" he asked.
I thought it over for a moment. "Licking" sounded yummy enough, so I said yes. But he never did bring me a Sugar Daddy or anything else that was good to "lick."
Another reason for communicating with outsiders from time to time was to enhance my own ego. When Nathan grew big enough to toddle, I took him along to the barn once, and the landlord and his wife lavished us with comments and questions. It made me feel like I was growing tall on the spot as I informed them that "Nathan Lee Lapp" was the full name of "my little brother." My brother, and a creature so commanding that grownup folks would make big eyes, coo and a-a-h just at the sight of him!
Little by little we became acquainted with our neighborhood, on the rural backroads of Brocton, New York. It looked to be a tolerant enough area; there were plenty of unmowed pastures, flimsy fences, and unpainted houses and barns. "Tumbledown" was a better description for certain of the buildings on the backroads—some of them had collapsing roofs or walls, missing windows, and splintering, rotting boards. To Mom and Dad, the scene was a startling contrast from the meticulously kept farmsteads of their native Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "Why," Dad mused aloud, "wouldn't you take down an old building when it's worn out?"
Scattered among the outdated structures along Brocton's country roads were large, nifty new houses, complete with manicured lawns, and the more modest ones, which had been painted or had their ancient wooden shingles replaced with modern asphalt roofing. In the latter category fell our closest neighbors-although their "modest" houses looked attractive compared to ours.
The grownups in our family were concerned about what our new neighbors were like. You'd have to be careful before knowing how suspicious they might be about our outlandishly plain style of dress—or the fact that we went to school at home. The main thing was to behave respectfully, even down to the littlest children, so that the neighbors would be accepting. We were not supposed to chatter to each other in Deutch when outsiders were around, because, as our parents explained, "it might make them feel bad if they don't understand what you're saying."
We children became acquainted with the neighbor youngsters at a modest, casual pace; we saw no urgency in the making of friends. The Lahnen boys, just a quick jog down the road, were the courteous sort, and pleasant to play with. On the other side of the road from us we met Tracy Bates, an interestingly outgoing girl in dark curls—but she was only three or four years old. Even more exciting than Tracy were her grandparents, who owned a small vineyard. Robert and Helen were at once accepting and helpful with us, and they spoiled us children at every opportunity.
Helen gave us children some thick books of cloth and wallpaper samples, each page about ten inches square. Studying the colorful, textured pages charmed me no end. It became a foray into fantasy where every swirling pattern and leaping line acted out its part in my imaginary world.
Books, purchased by my parents or handed down by neighbors, were an excellent supplement to the imagination. Before I could read, I pestered the big sisters to read story books to me over and over again. My heart would quiver and thrill to the adventures of Henrietta the Hen, and sometimes I'd break into tears over her misfortunes, but still the urgency would flood me, the urgency to reach the storyland characters, to reach out and learn.
School was at home, around the kitchen table when there was no extra room, with 19-year-old Lydia as teacher in between her household duties. She had "eyes on the back of my head," as she put it, and could handily see to it that we behaved while she made lunch and cleaned house. Her presence was authoritative enough to satisfy, while unobtrusive enough to be comfortable. "Spell it for me!" she'd say from across the room when we came to a word we couldn't pronounce. Or, a brusque "Look it up," when we wondered what a word meant. Yet if there was a question or problem that required further assistance, she'd be right there, even if it meant looking over a student's shoulder while patting a piece of bread dough into shape. Lydia possessed that priceless, unassuming manner that allowed, rather than pressured her students to learn.
My older sisters had attended public school for one year, back in Pennsylvania, and that was long enough to confirm my parent's fears that it was not going to work out. The public school environment, Mom and Dad concluded, was not the kind in which they wanted their children to grow up in. They both knew that come what may, they would never send their children off to such schools again.
Next the "plain" schools (Amish and Mennonite) wouldn't accept the children because my parents began driving a car and deviating from Amish clothing rules such as the "head covering" for women. Homeschooling became the only alternative for them.
Mom and Dad had heard about some "plain" families teaching their children at home, and found out that school officials in some other states tolerated this practice. After we started homeschooling, we always checked out an area's education requirements before moving there. That was, until we moved to New York. When Dad asked our real estate agent about laws in this state, he was told, "try it and see." Though not without apprehensions, we proceeded to do so.
Days turned into weeks, and our rented house became "home," while Dad searched to no avail for the farm that would qualify as our very own dairy farm. Perhaps, he reasoned, it would be better to buy a smaller homestead while awaiting the opportunity of owning a place that would satisfy all our needs. Renting, Dad always said, uses up money without getting you closer to ownership. So the familiar tune of "Let's move again," prevailed once more.
© 1993, Hannah Lapp