The Education of Emma

Monument for Great Emma

Emma watched her six-year-old daughter push the tear off her check with the heel of her hand.

“LaRue,” she murmured, “you catch more flies vith honey than vith winegar.”

She looked down at three-year-old Arlan collapsed in a deep sleep against her arm, exhausted from the fight with his sister over who got the window seat.  LaRue had closed her eyes, too, with her cheek resting on the cool bus window.

Glancing around at the other riders, Emma noticed two women who sat murmuring to each other across the aisle.  Diamonds sparkled from the ring fingers on each of their left hands.  Suddenly, she felt the nakedness of her own finger now that she no longer wore her wedding band.

Her marriage was fine, thank-you very much.  But the ring Elton slipped on her finger during their wedding had to come off.  In the eyes of her in-laws—and their Mennonite Congregation—her reputation as a woman of virtue depended on it.

Before moving to the farm of Elton’s Uncle Timothy so he could work as a farm hand, the young couple attended her family’s Dutch Reformed church.  But the move into the farm’s cottage came with strings attached.  Taking the house and the job obliged them to join the Mennonite congregation Timothy presided over as elected elder.  Emma was vaguely aware that Mennonite women, including her in-laws, never wore jewelry, but it never struck her as a problem because she didn’t have any jewelry either—save the gold ring on her left hand.

The afternoon before their first Sunday as Mennonites, Aunt Sadie rapped sharply on the cottage’s front door.  Emma welcomed her, thankful she had just pulled a hickory nut cake warm from the oven, and put a pot of coffee on the cookstove.

They sat down at the pine kitchen table with their coffee cups and Aunt Sadie grabbed Emma’s left hand.

“So this vill haff to go,” she declared.  “Goot Christian vomen do not vear sutch pauples.  They shpend their time and enerchy being useful to others and don’t haff time for glitter and gold.”

In their bedroom that night, Elton watched as Emma removed her ring, placed it back in its velvet box, and tucked it away deep in her oak dresser’s top drawer.  He agreed this was the right thing to do after she described his aunt’s visit.

“The matrons haff spoken,” he announced.  “The men might lay town the law, but the vomen vield da vip!”

A few Sundays later, Emma saw the whip in action when 15-year-old Anna Musselman stepped into the chapel’s choir loft.  The congregation gasped as sunlight sparkled playfully over two gold crosses dangling from Anna’s ears.

“Vat a pity,” Aunt Sadie announced on the way home.  “Such a beauty, but doplich!”

Emma sat back against the bus seat, congratulating herself on the maturity she had shown in adapting so readily to the ways of Elton’s family, even after her growing family had left Uncle Timothy’s farm and bought a home of their own. She was doing everything right, she thought.  She submitted graciously to her husband, no matter what she thought of his demand.  She kept an immaculate house, cooked hearty food, and supplemented the family income by taking in ironing.  She loved her children but never spared the rod.  She even loved her monthly shopping trips with the children, no matter how tired and cranky they were by the end of the day.

She stretched her neck and kissed the top of Arlan’s head, slowly becoming aware that the conversation of the lady passengers had turned in her direction.

“Look at that woman with the beautiful children,” the first woman whispered loudly.  In her mind’s eye, Emma saw the speaker’s hand wave vaguely in her direction and smiled smugly to herself.  Others often spoke so admiringly of her children when they were out and about.

“What a pity!” the second woman said.  “Such a lovely family, but look at her hand!  She isn’t even married!”

She slunk down in her seat, and her face flushed hot and red.  Suddenly, she wished herself far away.  For the rest of the trip, she kept low and refused to look over at the whispering women.

Emma saw the front porch of her house approach as the bus slowed.  Squaring her shoulders, she gathered her children and herded them down the black rubber-steps and through the folding plastic doors.

Once inside, Emma ignored Elton’s greeting and ran up the stairs to their bedroom.  She yanked the top drawer of the dresser out and rooted around until she felt the velvet box.  Pulling it out, she snapped it open, snatched up the ring, and shoved it back on her left ring finger where it belonged.

She marched towards the kitchen to start dinner, but stopped when she saw the worried look on Elton’s face.

“I haff put my vedding ring back on my finger where it belongs,” she declared, waving the hand with the ring in front of his face.  “And it von’t come off again!”


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