Cynthia Ellerby

Cynthia Ellerby, who had tormented me for sucking my thumb at the child-care center, was now in my kindergarten class at Washington Elementary. Although we were both a year older, she hadn’t changed one bit. As soon as she saw me on the playground on our first day, she sidled up and asked with a smirk: “Still sucking your thumb, you baby?” I didn’t even have a chance to answer before she stuck her nose in the air and flounced over to the swings.

Cynthia still wore pretty ruffled princess dresses every day, and she still waved around her little gold ring with the amethyst birthstone for all to admire. But something had changed. We had a new teacher, Miss Bacon, a middle-aged, no-nonsense woman who wore round, metal-rimmed glasses and wore her iron-gray hair pulled back into a tight bun just above her neck. She always wore navy blue or black suits and sensible oxford shoes.

From the first day, Miss Bacon had her eye on Cynthia Ellerby. Twice since school began, she had called Cynthia up to her desk and had talked with her about acting prissy and having such a high opinion of herself. Everyone in the class could hear. But Cynthia paid no attention and went right on acting prissy.

Then one morning Cynthia came to school wearing a brand new dress her grandmother had just made. It was sewn of white polished cotton sprinkled all over with bright green shamrocks. White lace and narrow green velvet ribbons decorated the neckline and the puffed sleeves. I’d never seen a prettier dress. Her grandmother had even tied tiny green velvet bows onto the barrettes she wore in her hair.

As Cynthia strutted up and down the aisles between our desks, giving everyone a chance to admire her new dress, Miss Bacon had had enough. With eyes narrowed and her lips pressed into a thin line, she jumped up from her desk, approached Cynthia from behind, grabbed her shoulder, and pushed her toward the cloakroom at the back of our classroom, slamming the door shut behind them. Though we couldn’t understand the words, we could hear Miss Bacon talking sternly. Then Cynthia began to cry.

Sitting silently at our desks, the rest of us looked at each other with our mouths hanging open, and then began giggling as Cynthia’s wails grew louder and louder.

After several minutes, the noise died down, the cloakroom door opened, and Cynthia came out, holding the back of her shamrock-sprigged dress with both hands. Her eyes were red from crying, and greenish snot from her nose oozed down onto her upper lip. I’d never seen such a lovely sight. Cynthia went straight to her seat, and Miss Bacon returned to her desk. “Please, children, turn your readers to page nine.”

A few days later, during morning recess, I saw Cynthia sitting all by herself on a bench by the wall. She looked like a broken doll, all slouched down and sad. Even her princess dress looked limp and ordinary. Ever since the spanking, nobody wanted to play with her. At first I relished the sight of her, sitting all alone over there. She was a brat and had  had the spanking coming for a long time! After a while, though, I began to feel sorry for her. I knew how it felt to be left out. Sometimes it hurt so much you could hardly stand it. I walked over and sat down next to her on the bench.

“I don’t suck my thumb anymore,” I said.

She didn’t reply. She didn’t even look up.

“And my big sister is teaching me how to skip on both feet.”

Still not a word, but Cynthia turned her head a bit, just until she could see me out of the corner of her eye.

“If you want, I won’t be your emeny anymore,” I offered.

Cynthia couldn’t resist. She turned to me and, in her best singsong voice, said, “It’s not emeny, silly. It’s enemy.”

I bit my tongue to stop the first words that came into my head. Instead of calling her a know-it-all or a snot, I said sweetly, “Oh, I didn’t know that. Enemy. Maybe we could not be enemies anymore?”

“Okay, but you have to promise you won’t call me Cindy. Cyntha is okay, but not Cindy. It’s a common name, you know. My mother says so.”

“I promise.”

We got up from the bench and walked together over to the swings. Cyntha let me have the first turn.

Meeting More Kinfolk

The next time we spent the night with Grammy, Eleanor and I begged for more stories, which made Grammy very happy. As we gathered around the treasure trunk, she brought out a fringed scarf—a babushka, she called it—that had belonged to her own mother, Anna Elisabeth Haas. I thought the babushka was beautiful with its red and green and pink and yellow flowers all squashed together.

Grammy tied the babushka around her head as she began: “Both my parents were of German ancestry, but both were born in small villages near the Volga River in Russia, and both came to America as immigrants. Volga Deutsch, they were called.” She said it again, slowly, so we’d remember: ‘Vol-ga Dough-each.’

“The Volga Deutsch introduced American farmers to Turkey Red, a special kind of wheat that grew in the winter and didn’t require any water other than natural winter rainfall. Farmers could plow their fields and sow Turkey Red seeds in the fall and then simply wait for the rains to come. By the next summer, the wheat would be all grown up and ready for cutting and threshing.”

I wanted to ask what threshing meant, but I remembered, at least for a while, that Grammy didn’t like it when her stories were interrupted with too many questions.

Grammy continued: “My mother, Anna Elisabeth Haas, was only fourteen when she came to America on a ship with her parents and seven brothers and sisters in 1876. Her baby sister, Mollie, was born on the ship right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. After they docked in New York at the end of August, a large group of the new immigrants rode a train to Marion County, Kansas, where they had to stay in a big warehouse at the edge of town, all the families crowded together, until they could find other places to live. But the people of the town weren’t very nice and called them Rooshians and said they were dirty and smelled like rotten cabbage.

“My grandfather, Philipp Haas, had enough money from selling his farm in Russia to buy a section of land, 160 acres. But it was already September, and there wasn’t enough time to build a regular house before winter. Instead, the whole family—well, the older children, anyway—dug a deep hole into the side of a hill on the property and built a low roof over it, the same type of dwelling their German ancestors had built for themselves on the Russian Steppes when they first arrived there in the 1760s. The Haas family moved into the cave house, just like gophers. It was barely big enough to hold all of them, and water from the winter rains seeped in, often soaking them to the bone. But they didn’t complain.

“When spring came, Grandfather Haas built a sturdy stone house, and the cave became the root cellar for storing the cabbages, carrots, peas, cucumbers, and onions my grandmother planted in her new garden. Grandfather bought a team of oxen and a plow and prepared a big field. That fall he sowed the Turkey Red seeds they’d brought from Russia, and simply waited for the winter rains to come. The next year he plowed up another big field and planted more Turkey Red. At harvest time, every member of the family pitched in, even the children as young as eight or nine. After the harvest, the women did the threshing.”

There was that word again! Threshing, I whispered to myself, threshing. I liked the word because it whooshed out between my teeth, just like ration.

“Hush up and listen,” Grammy said. “Before long Grandfather Haas had plenty of wheat to make all the bread the family needed, and some left over to sell. He and dozens of other Volga Deutsch immigrant farmers hauled their extra wheat in burlap sacks to the town of Marion, where they sold it to a broker who shipped it by rail all over the country. Kansas became known as the Breadbasket of America, and it was all because the Volga Deutsch were so industrious—”

“What does in-dus-tree-us mean?” I asked.

Grammy gave me a patient little smile. “It means hard-working.

“My father’s name was Henry Giswein. He was of German heritage, too, but his ancestors  had also lived in Russia for a hundred years before he came to America”

“Did your father come to America with his family on the same ship as your mother?”

“No, he didn’t, but they did arrive in the same year, and they both settled in Marion County, Kansas. I think my father came as a stowaway on a ship, but I never knew for sure. He was only twenty-one, an orphan without any money who had never been to school a day in his life and couldn’t read and write. But he was a good Christian and went to the Lutheran church every Sunday. That’s where he met my mother, Anna Elisabeth Haas. Although they liked each other right away and wanted to get married, her parents objected because he was illiterate and had no prospects. But Henry and Elizabeth ran away and got married anyway.”

“What does il-li-ter-ate mean?” I asked.

“It’s when you don’t know how to read and write, which are both very important skills because you can’t ever get a good job if you don’t go to school and learn how.”

“Didn’t Grandfather Giswein ever get an education, even after he came to America?” I said ed-jew-cay-shun very slowly and savored the last part as it whooshed out between my teeth. Shhhhhhhun.

“My father learned to speak English quickly,” Grammy continued, “but he had a thick accent and often mixed German and Russian words in with the English. He never did learn to read and write, so he was never able to become a citizen. You had to be able to read and write English in order to take the test to become an American citizen. Father was always curious, though, and kept up on the news. They would sit on their front porch every afternoon and Mother would read the newspaper out loud to him so he’d know what was going on in the world.

“So he never got a job?”

“Oh, yes, he did. He’d grown up among industrious wheat farmers in Russia”—she sounded out the word in-dus-tree-us slowly so we’d remember it—“but he also knew how to grow all kinds of plants and trees. At first he worked for his father-in-law, Philipp Haas, on the farm near Marion, Kansas. The two men didn’t always get along, though, so in the l880s Father moved his family to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where other Volga Deutsch immigrants were raising apples. The weather was very cold and wet, and that winter their two little girls died of croup. Fearing for their three sons, they returned to Dickinson County, Kansas, and Father went to work for another wheat farmer. I was born in 1891, while they lived in Dickinson County.

“Still, Father longed for something better. In the early 1890s the family moved again, this time to Pasadena, California. Because he knew so much about plants, Father landed a job as head gardener at Brookside Park, where the Rose Bowl is now. You know, the Rose Bowl is where they play football every New Year’s Day.

“Because my father was illiterate, he never got a driver’s license. Instead, he bought himself a bicycle that he called his “wheel,” and he rode it back and forth to Brookside Park every day for thirty-five years.”

“The same bicycle?” I couldn’t imagine a bicycle that old.

“Yes, the same bicycle. Father kept it in tiptop mechanical shape and polished it to a high shine every afternoon after work, while Grandmother read to him from the newspaper. After he died, the same shop where he’d originally gotten it bought it back from my mother and mounted it as a display in the front window of their store so their customers would know what good quality bicycles they carried.”

Next Grammy unwrapped something she called a concertina.

“What’s that?” Eleanor wanted to know. We’d never seen anything like it.

“It’s a musical instrument, sort of like an accordion, only smaller,” Grammy said, pulling on the handles a bit so it made a noise like a harmonica. We knew what a harmonica was because Mommy’s brother, Cecil Jr., carried one in his pocket and would play it if you asked him nicely.

“It belonged to my father,” Grammy went on. He had a wonderful deep voice, and he would sit outside on the front porch in Pasadena and play this concertina and sing Russian folk songs. People walking by would stop and stand in groups or sit on the curb to listen. His favorite was a song called “The Volga Boatman.”

Next Grammy unwrapped a necklace her mother, Anna Elisabeth, had made when she was a young girl in Russia, before her family came to America.

Volga Deutsch girls had a tradition of making beads from rolled-up paper. They cut brightly colored magazine pages into long skinny pennant shapes about an inch wide and six inches long. Beginning with the wide end, they rolled the pennant shape up tightly around a wire, all the way to the tiny point, ending up with a multi-colored bead that was skinny on each end and fatter in the middle. After the beads were varnished—to preserve them and give them a high shine—the girls carefully removed the wire and strung them into necklaces, placing tiny black jet beads in between the paper ones to make a nice pattern.”

Eleanor and I tried on the necklace. It was so long we could loop it around our necks three times.

Then Grammy showed us a glass-beaded purse. “This was made for me by my Aunt Eva Haas, one of my mother’s sisters. I’ve always loved it because of its pale green color, the same color as the sea before a storm.”

“That’s so pretty,” Eleanor marveled. I wish I had a purse like that.

“Aunt Eva was always artistic, and she loved to do beadwork. She ordered this part from a catalog,” indicating the silver-colored top part of the purse, the part that snapped open and shut and had a silver chain so the purse could hang from a lady’s wrist. Grammy showed us that the snapping-shut part had small holes all around. “Aunt Eva tied lengths of heavy thread through these holes, and then, starting at the top, strung the tiny glass beads onto the threads and tied the threaded beads into patterns to make the rest of the purse. When the purse was as long as she wanted, usually seven or eight inches, Aunt Eva ended it by making a fringe of glass beads across the bottom. Then she sewed a lining into the purse, pale green to match.

“I wish I could have a purse like that,” I said.

“If your mommy hadn’t been so careless, maybe you’d have one,” Grammy sniffed. “Aunt Eva made a glass-beaded Sunday school purse for your mommy when she was little. It was red, white, and blue, just like the American flag. But your mommy didn’t take very good care of it, and pretty soon the threads broke and the purse fell apart.”

I couldn’t imagine our mommy being careless, even when she was a young girl. She could do just about anything and always took the time to do it just right.

“Aunt Eva was the prettiest of all the Haas girls,” Grammy went on, “but one of her legs was shorter than the other and she walked with a limp, with her head bobbing up and down. After the family had been in Kansas a while, a local shoemaker made her a pair of shoes with the right sole built up three inches. After that she didn’t limp anymore. The only trouble was the built-up shoe was so heavy and Aunt Eva was so small that she would be exhausted after walking only a quarter of a mile.”

“Did other kids make fun of her?” I wanted to know. I knew a little something about kids making fun of other kids.

“When she was a girl back in Russia, they did. Mean boys would walk along behind her and mimic her limp and call her bad names. She told me she cried at first, but then she got tough and didn’t pay any attention to them and just limped on home.”

“After she got to Kansas and got her new shoes with the built-up sole, I bet they didn’t make fun of her anymore,” I said hopefully.

“Sometimes they did, but in those days all the women still wore long dresses with very full skirts, so you couldn’t see that Aunt Eva’s right shoe had a built-up sole. Besides, when she was in her twenties, a handsome young man—Jacob Riffel was his name—fell in love with her and married her, and after that nobody ever made fun of her again. In fact, the other women were jealous because Eva’s new husband treated her like a queen, much better than their husbands treated them.”

“Good,” I said. “She deserved to live happily ever after, just like a queen in a castle.”

“I’m sorry to say that’s not the way it turned out. Aunt Eva and Uncle Jake didn’t have any babies for a long time, and that made them very sad. Finally they had a baby boy, Clarence, and Aunt Eva was the happiest woman on earth. Her baby had blond curls and was the sweetest baby anybody had ever seen. She read to him all the time he was growing up and saw to it that he never missed a day of school. She and Uncle Jake saved every penny they could because they wanted to send him to Throop Academy in Pasadena to get a good education. Then World War I came along and Clarence had to go into the army and was sent overseas to Europe to fight against the Germans. Only a month before he was ready to come home, Clarence was in a battle and got sprayed with chlorine gas by the Germans. He was never the same again. His speech was all garbled and he couldn’t learn anything anymore and he walked with a limp. It broke Aunt Eva’s heart.”

“That’s so sad, I said, putting my hand over my mouth to stifle a yawn.

“That’s enough for tonight,” Grammy said. “I can tell you many more stories, but it’s getting late and we’ve all had a big day. We’ll save the rest for another visit.”

After Grammy tucked us in and turned off the light, I lay awake for a long time, thinking and thinking and thinking about coming to America all the way from Russia and threshing Turkey Red to make bread for your family and having people make fun of you when you were little because one of your legs was shorter than the other and about the Germans spraying chlorine gas in Clarence’s face. I wanted to suck my thumb, but instead I wrapped it inside its fingers to make a fist and shoved my fist under the pillow. Eventually, I fell asleep.