Daddy’s Girl

Showalter's narrative of her early teenage encounter with her father amid tobacco culture among Lancaster County Mennonites is densely personal, cultural and literary.

That afternoon in the tobacco patch, I thought I might die of a lethal combination of heat and boredom. I was just at the right age for a histrionic death: 13. The scorching sun was beating down on my head, which was crowned by a white net prayer covering, indicating my obedience to I Corinthians 11:5 and to the Ordinances of the Lancaster Conference Mennonite Church.

My arms were bare, but I wore a cotton blouse and billowing cotton skirt. I was hoeing our cash crop, tobacco, with my father, my mother and my younger brother. It was just one more long summer day in Lititz, Pennsylvania, but I could pretend I was Joan of Arc, going to her death, not for a noble cause but due to lax enforcement of child labor laws.

On this particular July afternoon we were whacking weeds that might otherwise overtake a young tobacco plant or sap its growth. We also loosened the soil around each plant, helping it to absorb whatever rainfall would come in the future.

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. I knew if we could get to the end of the row, there would be tea waiting for us and I would be saved from total dehydration and death.

"Look at this big fellow," my father said. We all turned to see my father take off his feedmill 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 a half-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 take another tack. I pretended to take a scientific interest in the little black tentacles under the accordion-like sections of the bright green body. Daddy looked at me looking at the worm, so cool and calm. Then he did something rare—he spoke spontaneously, recklessly.

"I'll give you $5 if you bite this worm in two," he said.

Mennonites seriously try to live their faith. They, and their cousins, the Amish, have established a reputation for simplicity, hard work, good craftsmanship, love of neighbor, family and community, and the courage not to go to war when called—even at the risk of their own lives.

My Mennonite world contained a number of paradoxes. Tobacco was one of them. Since Mennonite codes of conduct were strict, and smoking, like drinking, was severely frowned upon, it might seem strange that some Mennonite farmers raised, and occasionally still raise, tobacco. In 1961 no one knew as much about the harmful effects of tobacco as everyone knows now. And what little was known, or suspected, my father rejected.

He was a smoker himself—a cigar smoker. Since my mother never allowed him to smoke in the house, I was not even aware of his secret vice until I was old enough to follow him around the barn. Inside the terra cotta tiled milk house where cans of milk were cooling, along a shelf beyond the reach of his children, were two boxes—one brown and gold, with a picture of someone named Muriel who did not look the slightest bit like a Mennonite. When Daddy flipped up the box, opening it just like I opened my pencil case, I could see the double row of tightly wound cigars, each with its own Muriel smiling on the gold wrapper.

The second box was for Chiclets. When Daddy wanted a smoke and I was around, he put a Chiclet in my grimy palm. I could work up a sugar party in my mouth while he got his nicotine hit. There was a hint of conspiracy in the air. This was my time with Daddy. As the oldest child, I was the first to see him smoke.

I had always enjoyed Daddy's company, often preferring to be with him and outdoors to being with Mother indoors. I got an oil smudge on my best Sunday dress, and a severe scolding from Mother, the time I ran to the tool shop to finish a project right after church. Often I followed Daddy around the farm, playing with an endless succession of kittens and cats while he did his work.

Daddy permitted this attachment and seemed to be amused by my aspirations to make things in his shop and keep up with his long strides. He neither coddled, cajoled, nor goaded. He understood how to command, because he was the oldest son, and that is how his father spoke to him. I didn't mind being his gofer as long as I could trudge along by his side. He would take the time to teach when I was especially curious.

One of the things I was curious about was tobacco. Daddy would sometimes leave a partially smoked stogie on the window sill under the forebay of the barn when he needed to shake loose some straw for cow bedding or take care of an injured animal. I would sneak up and grab the cigar, one end wet with saliva, the other still smoking, and I would take one puff, trying not to choke, and carefully put it back again.

Once, when I asked Daddy why he smoked cigars, he said that cigars weren't bad like cigarettes. He didn't inhale them, so how could they harm him?

Nothing on the farm compared to tobacco for security of income. You never lost money on tobacco. Recently I found the little black ledger my father kept from 1944-1946 when he was trying to earn enough money to gain some independence from his father, buy a car and get married. In it were all his sources of income—working at a cannery, trapping muskrats and skunks, fattening pigs, chicks and calves, and growing tobacco.

His cannery wages were $209.69 for three months. His tobacco crop was $260.54. He lost $22.45 on his calf crop and made $35 from chicks.

When George Brunk, a Mennonite preacher from Virginia, brought a big tent to Lancaster County and set out to preach, all through the 1950's, about the evils of growing tobacco, Daddy was not happy to hear that his chief source of income (and, more important, his character as a tobacco-growing Mennonite) was being maligned in front of thousands of people night after night. Up to that time, Daddy had never said anything resentful or angry about the church. However, when a minister from another place, who apparently never dirtied his hands in soil, started stirring things up about tobacco, Daddy thought it was none of his business. Using a few choice words, he even said so emphatically.

After Daddy took on a $70,000 debt in order to buy the home place, he was doubly dependent on cash income. Daddy might have given his life for his faith, but he was not prepared to give up his farm or the crop that sustained it.

The worm dangling from my father's outstretched hand that afternoon in the tobacco patch was as treacherous and tantalizing as a snake in the garden. Daddy did not go around doling out $5 bills and seldom said anything without thinking about the consequences. He must be 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 10-year-old brother's mouth hung open and my mother clutched her hoe. Then I looked into the blue eyes of my father, sustaining the tension as long as possible. It was the 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 wallet. He extracted his one and only $5 bill and gave it to me. I discreetly tucked it into my bra.

The taste in my mouth was bitter. The taste in my heart was sweet.

About the Author

Shirley H. Showalter

Shirley Hershey Showalter is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and earned a PhD in American Studies from the University of Texas. She began teaching history and literature at Goshen College in 1976. Showalter went on to serve as president of the college from 1997-2004 and Vice President for Programs at The Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan from 2004-2010. In 2007-2009 she won five prizes for memoirs in Kalamazoo and California. Her memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World is her first book. Visit Showalter’s website at www.shirleyshowalter.com.