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Mennonite Dancing in the 50s: When Mom and Dad Went Away

February 13, 2015


I love this picture even though I am ditzy-looking and have on a horrible outfit. It shows how we used to wear pants under our dresses for warmth even when not allowed to wear them (unless helping with heavy-duty farm work). I love the throwback wallpaper, hi-fi, the plastic curtains. I especially love seeing my saddle shoes again. This calls up so many good memories and if you are a child of the 50s or 60s, I hope it does for you, too. I think the year was 1958.

So what is going on? Just one of our favorite activities when Mom and Dad would go away for an evening. When they went away to a banquet or program of some kind related to the farm or church organizations they belonged to, we would crank up the hi-fi in the corner of the room. My middle sister would stand on a chair and conduct an imaginary orchestra. My little brother and I would stroll around “dancing” to the music. My older sister may have waltzed like this too but she would have been in junior high by this time and likely had too much homework to do silly kid stuff like this. And she likely snapped the photo—she was the first of us to have a real camera. (And my grandparents lived in attached in-law quarters so it wasn’t like we were totally on our own.)

Indulge me to take apart the photo some more.

  • My dress: homemade (absolutely) and a pretty tricky pattern at that; mom must have sewed a blouse type top into a jumper-looking dress—all in one, I’m pretty sure. Mom made most of our dresses, which we wore to school and church. We bought some skirts, blouses and sweaters; the “bought” clothes were always my favorite items.
  • My hair: What a mess. End-of-the-day pigtails, is all I can say. No bangs—we were not yet allowed to have cut hair.
  • My expression: Loopy lane, I believe. My best imitation of waltzy and dreamy actresses and dancers on TV or in the movies. This was before we had TV, circa 1960, before I ever went to a movie, but had seen TV shows at neighbor’s or friend’s houses—when hour-long music/dancing/comedy shows like Jack Benny or Bob Hope were popular and acceptable family fare.
  • My middle sister: You can’t see her outfit here, but it was a T-shirt tucked into jeans (sans the dress), which marked her status as Dad’s farm helper—allowed to wear jeans out on the farm as she worked in the barn or drove tractor or whatever.
  • The “secretary” desk: The tall hutchy-looking thing with bookshelves was one of my mother’s favorite pieces of furniture: it moved with us to Florida, back to Indiana, and eventually to mom’s apartment in the retirement complex. She still writes cards and letters sitting at that desk with a front leaf folded down. Our school pictures from that year are stuck in the windows of the cabinet doors.
  • The living room: Pre-remodeling and the advent of modern storm windows, old timey carpet. Looking back, it was a rather simple and spare living room.

But this photo also says exercise, enjoyment of music, making our own entertainment, interaction with siblings. If we fought, we also had to live with each other or were punished later. We all remember the time Dad went away to a committee meeting or something and one of us got into that precious desk and left crayon shavings in his pencil sharpener in the desk. Crayon shavings! No one would admit to it. We three youngest were severely scolded and sent upstairs to kneel down by our beds and ask God to forgive us for lying. I remember crying as I prayed, “God, I ask you to forgive me, but I didn’t do it.”

But those were mostly carefree times for those of us lucky enough to live in a home where yes, we were punished, sometimes harsher than we deserved, but also loved and respected and made to listen and work hard. We were never abused nor went hungry. I never had to deal with an alcoholic parent. Dad never touched the stuff, nor cigarettes, to my knowledge.

MDPonytailFamilyL to r: Linda (Pert), Terry, Vernon (Dad), Nancy, me, Bertha (Mom).

We played together, vacationed together, read the Bible every morning together as this other picture shows from a similar era (although note we have cut bangs here, and my oldest sister Nancy has shorter hair). While this photo was very posed for a Christmas card one year, it reminds me of how much Dad and Mom invested in fun times for the family. The photo was taken in the log cabin Dad built by a pond in our pasture field. Dad chopped the logs for the cabin and mortared the space between the logs. It had a loft so there was space for 8-9 kids on floors for sleepovers and such. We’d retreat there on summer evenings for a picnic, a swim, a little fishing, horsing around rowing a pontoon raft, or a bigger party with chicken BBQ for groups from church or extended family.

We were not perfect, nor were our parents, but how grateful I am for the childhood I had.

Happy Birthday Poppa. He would have been 98 years old today.


What will your children remember about their childhood days?

Do you have a photo that takes you back to your childhood?


From → Faith, Family Life

  1. Pert Shetler permalink

    Oh how funny…what memories

    • I wish we could see more of you in the photo. 🙂 I snagged shots of these photos one time when I was at Mom’s and I have more that will be fun to write about. Have a good day!

  2. It’s impossible not to click on a post that has Mennonite and dancing in the same sentence. The outfits (no need to apologize) and furnishings are all part of the charm. My sisters and I used to play “Bride” and dress up like fancy people, but we didn’t have a hi-fi until I was dating age. Your prayer for forgiveness for a non-sin is touching, but that’s not the right word . . . maybe hilarious!

    You had a happy childhood and so, apparently, did your children. What a legacy, Melodie!

    • I always write in awareness of those who were not raised in settings as happy as what we were privileged to experience. We used to play bride too–no photos of that–although now that I think about it, I do have photos of MY kids playing the same. They were very imaginative and although they had their favorite TV shows, they did not know video games etc. until much later. They also had a wonderful pediatric dentist who DID have video games at the office, so they LOVED going to the dentist! Thanks for the additional memories!

  3. Yes, we absolutely did have a happy childhood! Our version of this was our “band” The Rackets (because, yanno, we played tennis rackets like they were guitars), singing along to Tommy James and the Shondells, the Beach Boys, and Creedence Clearwater Revival–all bands that belonged to our parents’ generation (we were 80’s kids) because that was what Dad had on cassette tape.

  4. LOL. I remember the tennis racket guitars, but did not know the band name! Let’s dance to some Creedence soon!

  5. Athanasia permalink

    The high top secretary looks exactly like my mother’s. It was actually bought for her by my father shortly after they got married. She has it now in her senior apartment. When you drop the front down it is full of cubbyhole slots. There are 3 drawers underneath. The top shelves hold family treasures…there are 3 Hummels, small framed pictures, a Venetian glass paperweight and a glass swan (presents from a foreign exchange student) , a china toothpick holder from Switzerland, a little hanging glass bauble with pressed edelweiss in it. Many other mementos. We were not to play in there, but of course we wanted to.

    As my sister and I got older my parents found a desk for each of us, drop leaf also, but unfortunatey neither of them had the high top. But we still use ours. My father’s desk was a roll top one, also equally mysterious and attractive. My oldest brother has that desk now.

    • I am not surprised that someone would mention having a high top secretary just like that. I ran into one recently in a home where I was interviewing a family. Mom’s is full of cubbyhole slots too, even a hidden one that I especially loved as a kid, Magical. And some of Mom’s most treasured keepsakes are on the shelves above. I never minded cleaning those shelves because it meant I could “play” with those items. Interesting notes here! Thanks.

  6. Elaine Buckwalter Ritter permalink

    So much of what you wrote reminds me of our childhood in the 50’s! (I was reared Brethren In Christ) We wore corduroy flannel-lined slacks under our dresses to keep warm. Oh, how I wished to wear the slacks only. 🙂 Our home was probably a typical 50’s style–wall papered by my mother–simple but comfortable. We had no TV, but oh, how we loved to watch Howdy Doody, Mickey Mouse Club,cartoons, and even American Bandstand at our cousins’ house.

    As a side note–I married a minister from the Wesleyan doctrine, and later in our lives he came on staff at a Presbyterian church in Florida, thus I am now a Presbyterian! Interesting where life takes us.

    • Elaine, how nice to “meet” you–a fellow Anabaptist-reared now Presbyterian. 🙂 My aunt and uncle were professional wall paper hangers so at least mom and dad didn’t do that for themselves. But we were always fascinated when they came with their gear and set up to do a room or two and we could watch. My mother confirmed last night for me that the curtains were indeed plastic, which my daughter had never heard of. After we remodeled and got a big picture window there in the living room, Mom had a woman from church who sewed drapery to make ours, and for the first time we had real draperies. Dad could NOT understand why Mom wanted a big picture window so badly and then covered the whole view up with drapes!

  7. Athanasia permalink

    Melodie, I love the idea of the log cabin your Dad built. Who lives on your family properly now? Your brother or sister? You yourself live in ?? Virginia??

    My mother sewed clothes also but we did lots of trading and hand me downs with cousins. My sister and I never wore pants, always a dress, with thick warm tights in the winter. When I was in grade school my mother discovered some knit pants of polyester fabric that had elastic to go under your feet, like stirrups . I had a royal blue pair and I remember wearing them for a long time, under the dresses of course. I thought they were especially fashionable when ice skating. I made big kelly green and royal blue pompoms for my skates from the yarn my mother used for my hat, scarf and mitten set. The hat was a long pointed elf style. I wanted it 2feet long but my mother stopped at one foot. Some kids hats were 3 feet long and more! My mother made the hat and mittens but we made our own scarves. We had this wooden board with a slit in the middle and it had smooth prongs all around the opening . You looped yarn around and off with a crochet hook and growing scarf came out the bottom.

    Thanks for the memories . I may be a few years younger but many things seem similar.

    • Athanasia, the cabin was indeed a special place and it lasted for many years after we moved away but it deteriorated to the point where eventually the new owners of the land tore it down. Sadly. It was sad for all of us. We sold the whole farm in 1969 to a cousin and her husband, and they lived there maybe 10-15 years and then sold to an Amish family, who still live there. That family had to sell off parcels of the 128 acre farm to make a go of it, (not a development, but people bought an acre or two and built houses) and they still have about 50 acres there I think, but they sold off the parcel with the cabin and pond to someone who built a house. The Amish family does still have their own “retreat” space in a nearby field, using the creek that went through that part of the farm; it is a beautifully landscaped space with rose bushes, picnic table, cookout stove/grill etc. where they also go to relax after hard days. So that’s cool. But no, we long ago sold the farm.

      Love your description of your homemade clothes and of course we had hand me downs too. I remember the stirrup pants! Under dresses and skirts of course. Sounds like a neat loom for your “knitting.”

    • Elaine Buckwalter Ritter permalink

      I remember the stirrup pants, too!! You jogged my memory, which I’m sure has sooo many other lovely things from the past there.

  8. Loved all of this, Melodie. All the details. Isn’t it amazing how helpful photos are to the task of accessing memories? We had so much in common. I wrote about my most clear memories in BLUSH, but now, as I read other blogs and other memoirs of that era, I think of more.

    What will my children remember? I made memory books for both of them full of anecdotes of their cute and philosophical sayings. And I also kept scrapbooks and slide collections.

    My mother’s documentation of my life inspire me to want to do the same.

    Stirrup pants, above, made me laugh. I loved them at the time. Having been deprived of many kinds of pants, I made up for the loss in later life. 🙂

    • Glad this stirred other memories for you, Shirley. The memory books are a great idea. My daughters who’ve had babies are enjoying the journals I kept from their early years so I’m always grateful for anything I had the energy and time to write down. Glad the stirrup pants made you laugh.

  9. Caro-Claire Wiles permalink

    Hello Melodie
    I will not say too much here as I am too bleery eyed with tears!

    So many memories for you and so touching to read of Your childhood with your family.

    I had a fairly dysfunctional family situation and although there are some good memories , I am afraid the others are sometimes difficult to deal with.

    Thank you for sharing this one.
    I have done so as well

    • Caro-Claire, dysfunctional families and those struggling with addictions are two of the situations I had in mind. Sexual abuse is another–some friends experienced. My heart grieves and I hope it wasn’t too painful to read. You are a sweetheart for sharing your current joy with others! Take care and hope you’re not too snowed in!

  10. My sister Mary Ellen shared the link to this “must-read” post. How well we can relate to almost everything! The plastic curtains, the wallpaper, the clothes, the hair, no TV, the LOVE. Seven girls in our family (one brother), and I was the oldest of the little girls. We were always playing “house” and “church”. Because I was the oldest I always had to be the dad or the preacher. I hated it!

    • Thanks, nice to hear from you. I remember Mary Ellen speaking of you way back when. Mary Ellen mentioned playing church–we did that for sure, too. Dad was deacon and so we’d bring home the little communion cups to wash and the leftover bread squares. We were thrilled if Mom and Dad let us use the little cups for afternoon playing after communion. Interesting that you “had” to be the dad or preacher. My sister and brother enjoyed being the preacher as I recall. Also played school. Got one school teaching sister out of that! Thanks for chiming in and I’ll check out your blog.

  11. If anyone is still reading, my mother sent a correction! She is sure she did not make the dress I have on in the photo. It is much too difficult, and she thought we might have bought it at the old Jack N Jill shop in downtown Goshen. She adds she LOVED to make our clothing because it was a creative challenge for her, and enjoyed sometimes inventing or adapting her own patterns. She enjoyed that much more than cooking or cleaning!

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