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!”



The Dame and the DMV

After I got married on Jan. 1, 1994, I visited the DMV to update my license.
The Dame and the DMV
“How do you want your name to appear?” an older woman behind the counter asked me, fingers poised over the keyboard to enter the information.

“You can type Karen Christina Cubie Henck,” I answered.  “No hyphen please.”

Her fingers did not move.  She turned her head and looked straight into my face.

“Ummm, are you sure?” she asked.

“Why?” I responded.  “Doesn’t it fit?”

“Well, it fits,” she replied.  “It just doesn’t look right.  And besides, you’ll have to write this long name every time you sign documents.”

“I’m not the president,” I said, confusedly.  “I don’t expect to sign hundreds of documents a day.”

“But it just looks so squished,” she declared.

“Can I change it later if I think it’s a problem?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said.  And, seemingly satisfied that I understood what I was getting into, she completed the form.  My new, wifely identity was under way.

I was glad for the trace of my maiden name in my new identity a few years later, when I sold the car I had brought into our marriage.  The legal documents were in my maiden name, and I was able to demonstrate continuity of identity and sell the car without a problem.

But getting a driver’s license in my new home state of Connecticut has not been so simple.

Armed with my birth certificate (with my maiden name), the driver’s license from my previous state (bearing my full name), and mail I had received at my new address, I approached the DMV counter and told the woman at the keyboard why I was there.

She took the documents from me and shuffled through them, pausing to compare my birth certificate to my driver’s license.

“Okay,” she said, “but where’s your marriage license?”

I looked blankly at her.

“You need your marriage license,” she declared.  “Because the name on your license is not the same as on your birth certificate.  You have to prove continuity of identity.”

She pulled a form from her file and clipped it to my pile of papers.

“But doesn’t the inclusion of my maiden name on my driver’s license cover that?” I asked.

She pushed the papers to me and shook her head.

“Make sure you fill everything out before you come back,”  she said, looking behind me and waving the next person in line forward.

As I carried the documents to my car, I reflected upon what this demand for continuity of identity highlighted about women’s lives.  I pondered the social pressure the women of my generation faced to “give up” their names when they married, how some people became angry even at the idea that I would maintain my maiden name while taking on my husband’s surname.  “A man’s name is all he has when he comes into this world and it’s all he’s got when he dies,” one relative exclaimed, suggesting that a wife who maintains her own identity is stealing something from her husband.  Good girls, I gathered, should not be so selfish as to insist on their own names, nor should they desire to carry this single inheritance from birth unto death.

My registry experience demonstrates the persistence of traditional gender relations, a tradition shaped by the old system of coverture in which Eliza Jones became Mrs. John Smith, losing even her birth name as her newly married status submerged her entirely into the identity of her husband.  “The two shall become one,” I remember people reciting at weddings, a saying intended to affirm this understanding that the wife is too delicate, too dependent to require her own identity.

“It’s just easier,” one well-intentioned friend insisted to me, with a comment that directly contradicted my registry experience, making me question just how dependent she was on her own significant other.   Would she still maintain that position today, I wondered, when she has to arm herself with additional documents linking her adult identity to her birth certificate?

A few of my bolder friends refused to alter their identities at all upon marriage.  I, however, hoped to have the best of both worlds, retaining “good girl” status while also bearing a name that links me and my pre-marriage career equally to my birth family and our future children.

But such a compromise was not enough.  It has not prepared me to navigate the sea of bureaucracy more easily than women who simply dove head first into their husband’s names.  I’m beginning to think my boldest sisters were also the wisest.  For the rest of us, a trip to the DMV ends with question of  logistics.  What is a better expenditure of my time?  Spending hours digging through a storage unit hunting for documents or waiting to change my legal address until a new marriage certificate can fly to me from a distant state?