Today I’m over at Shirley Showalter’s blog talking about how good memoirs include themes that connect with readers. Meanwhile, Shirley is here sharing a story from her new memoir BLUSH: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World,
As part of our blog swap, we’re both doing book giveaways. Leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of BLUSH. Comment on her blog for a chance to win a copy of my memoir, GROWING UP COUNTRY. Now, on to Shirley’s story.
Most people who know Mennonites might be surprised to learn that in the 1960’s, many Mennonite farmers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, grew tobacco. Since Mennonites were and are advocates of “clean living,” this seems a surprising crop choice.
Shirley disliked the crop, both for ethical reasons and personal reasons. But at least her years of toil in the tobacco fields gave her one good story.
The Tobacco Worm
Then there was that day in July when Mother, Daddy, Henry, and I were hoeing. We grew about ten acres of tobacco as our only cash crop. Since we had purchased the farm, cash was more important than ever. We were beginning in the middle state of the elaborate tobacco planting and harvesting process, whacking out weeds that might otherwise overtake a young tobacco plant or sap its growth. In addition to weeding, we loosened the soil around each plant, helping it to absorb whatever rainfall would come.
Now, however, the sun was frying all living things. I could actually see heat waves forming a mirage in front of me. I began to visualize a tall glass of sweetened tea, made with mint picked from the meadow by my little sisters. Ice cubes were clinking in my imagination. The glass was covered in the kind of cold sweat that was the perfect antidote to the hot sweat on my cheeks.
“Look at this big fella!” my father said. We all turned to see him take off his Eby’s Feeds cap, exposing his white forehead in contrast to the dark red of his cheeks. Dangling from his other hand was the plumpest neon-green tobacco worm I had ever seen. It was about three inches long and half an inch wide. As it writhed in Daddy’s hand, I felt the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. We all made faces.
I could tell that Daddy was expecting more reaction, so I briefly considered letting out my best scream but instead decided to try another tack. I pretended to take a scientific interest in the little black tentacles under the accordian-like sections of the bright green body. Daddy looked at me observing the worm, so cool and calm. Then he did something rare. He spoke spontaneously, recklessly.
“I’ll give you five dollars if you bite this worm in two,” he said.
The worm dangling from his outstretched hand that afternoon suddenly became as treacherous and tantalizing as a snake in the garden. Daddy did not go around doling out five dollar bills and seldom said anything without thinking about the consequences. He must have been pretty sure I would never bite a worm.
Why was he taking this risk? Daddy’s motives confused me as I stared at the worm, but my decision came swiftly. My ten-year-old brother’s mouth hung open and my mother clutched her hoe. Then I looked into the hazel eyes of my father, sustaining the tension as long as possible. It was time to be the eldest daughter of an eldest son. The hot earth below and the blazing sun overhead merged into one. Like Daddy when he was under pressure, I would not waste any words.
I took the worm from Daddy’s hand. I held it up to the sun as if blessing it; then I took it into my mouth, biting down hard and fast, spitting almost before the green hit my teeth. I gagged and spit more than necessary, jumping all around my brother, trying to give everyone enough entertainment for such a high price of admission. Daddy’s eyes twinkled and his smile was wide. He said nothing but reached in his pocket and pulled out his dilapidated wallet. He extracted his one and only five-dollar bill and gave it to me. I discretely tucked it into my bra.
I knew I had risen to the task. I knew I was worth the salt in my soup. The taste in my mouth was sour. The taste in my heart was sweet.
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Shirley’s memoir is a treat to read. I highly recommend it. Leave a comment here for a chance to win a copy of BLUSH. Then hop on over to Shirley’s blog and leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of my book. We’ll choose the winners on Nov. 1. *** Nov. 4 – I‘m pleased to announce that Elfrieda Schroeder is the winner of the drawing for the copy of BLUSH. Thanks to everyone for participating.
Shirley Hershey Showalter grew up in a Mennonite farm family and went on to become the president of Goshen College and a foundation executive at The Fetzer Institute. She is now a writer, speaker, blogger, and consultant living in Harrisonburg, VA.