If Only We’ d Known

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Written Fall of 2012

One of the saddest stories from the Heebner side of my family is about my uncle Norman and the challenges he faced all his life.  He was born in 1921, the third child and first son of Albert and Alice (Rittenhouse) Heebner.  It is believed that Alice had a difficult labor and delivery at the time of Norman’s birth and that the doctor tried to assist Alice with his hands, but Norman was born with a bloody fontanel. Alice and Albert spent many years making trips back and forth to Philadelphia to find help and hope for their newborn son that did not seem to be developing according to the doctor’s schedule. The doctors suggested Norman go to a special school but Alice and Albert didn’t want that.

Albert raised Norman on the farm doing chores but was often frustrated at Norman’s inability to accurately complete simple tasks.  A time that was most vivid for my mom and her siblings is the time that Albert lost his temper and Alice prayed earnestly for God’s help. Albert was in a rage at something Norman had done which may have happened many times in the Heebner household. But this time was most memorable because Alice’s response was to fall on her knees on the kitchen floor amidst the yelling, quietly calling out to God in desperation for peace. Alice and Albert loved their son but were at a loss to know how to handle a child with compromising brain injuries. At school Norman encountered many children that didn’t understand his limitations and treated him badly. One time Norman even ran away for a few days.

Eventually, Norman married an empathetic woman named Kathryn. She said she knew how to handle persons like Norman. They did seem to love each other and loved their children, despite the world’s harsh requirements of providing a steady income, food and shelter.

This kind of unknowingness was in my Benner family as well.  My uncle Eddie (born 1913) had classic signs of autism that were never diagnosed.

People with autism may:

  • Have unusual distress when routines are changed
  • Perform repeated body movements
  • Show unusual attachments to objects
  • Not be able to start or maintain a social conversation
  • Not adjust gaze to look at objects that others are looking at
  • Not make friends
  • Be withdrawn
  • Not respond to eye contact or smiles, or may avoid eye contact
  • Prefer to spend time alone, rather than with others
  • Show a lack of empathy
  • Have a heightened or low sense of sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste
  • May withdraw from physical contact because it is over-stimulating or overwhelming
  • Seem to have a heightened or low response to pain
  • Get stuck on a single topic or task (perseveration)
  • Have a short attention span
  • Have very narrow interests
  • Be overactive or very passive
  • Show aggression to others or self
  • Show a strong need for sameness
  • Use repetitive body movements

Eddie lived in different homes of his siblings after his parents passed away, but it’s uncertain if he ever felt acceptance for his uniqueness.  He died a couple blocks from his birthplace, found alone after suffering a heart attack at the age of 75.

Another sad chronicle from the Benner family came with the infant deaths of two Benner boys in 1908 and 1917.  Jacob died in 1908 at one year of age from unknown causes, but could have died of an influenza that in that time killed many young children. Claude was two years old when he died.  The story is told that Claude was very sick and burning up with fever when his mother, Leanna, not knowing what to do to help her screaming baby boy, gave him a cracker. It’s said that he died soon afterwards.  A drink for the feverish boy may have been more effective but who are we to judge? Leanna loved her newborn sons and would have done anything to help them…if only she’d known.

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Beginnings of a Memoir

Written at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, July 2012

I come from the people of the Martyr’s Mirror, the defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Savior, from the time of Christ to the year 1660 AD. That’s my heritage.

But that was only a subconscious awareness in my world when I was 23 and full of hopes and dreams. Why else would I take a teaching job that was 1000 miles away from my home?

I left for Iowa Mennonite School with my college roommate and close confidant, Peggy.  We admitted on the way out I-80 that we weren’t sure which state came first, Iowa or Illinois but repeated the mantra after every McDonald’s stop, “Go West Young Man” so we remembered which direction to go.

It didn’t take long to realize this portion of the Midwest was not like our hometown in Pennsylvania.  I think it may have occurred to me soon after doing some window shopping in the quilt-laden center of Kalona.  I walked happily, anonymously into Unto Others, a religious gift store and after fingering the finely sewed pot holders near the register, asked how much the pot holders were. I looked up at the middle-aged woman expecting a polite smile and an answer only to hear, “Who are you?” A little surprised but assuming she wanted to get to know me, I smiled and said,

“Beverly Benner,”

“Yes, but who are you?”  Ok, now I really didn’t know what to say and why was her voice so insistent?

“Um, well, uh, I came here a few weeks ago and I am going to teach at Iowa Mennonite School…?”

“Oh, you’re an IMS teacher…oh.  The potholders are each $2.50.

I left dazed.

Teaching was tolerable when my name, BEEEEVVVVV (the students at IMS call their teachers by their first names) wasn’t being yelled from one end of the hallway to another. I really can’t tell you why a few of the sophomore boys did that…probably just to irritate me.  I had reasonable control over my classes with the normal seniors that weren’t sure I was up to the task. I was off and running.

Actually it was only October of my first year when I had a major setback. I had a late night call from the president of the school board of IMS.

“Yes, it’s come to our attention that an elderly neighbor of yours is spreading rumors around the community that you are a prostitute.  Our constituency is hearing these rumors and questioning our decision to hire you and even though we don’t believe the rumors, we feel that it would be in your best interest to move to another location.”

I listened and politely responded, too stunned to say much.  I had earlier invited our neighbor, Lester over for dinner because our neighbors had encouraged us to get on the good side of this vocal, elderly citizen.  The night didn’t go well though when he trapped me in the bathroom, but I didn’t think anything of it as I escaped under his 84 year old wrinkled arm.  After all, he knew I had a boyfriend.

I hung up the phone and did the only thing I knew to do when it feels like the world turns against you and you’re 23…I called my parents.  In between breathless sobs, I relayed the entire story to my dad.

“Daddy….they ….think…I’m …a…prostitute.”

And Daddy actually heard me.  For the only time I remember in my life, he went to bat for me and defended his daughter’s virtues to the IMS principal.

“Look here now, we sent our daughter out to you there in Kalona, Iowa, to a good Mennonite community.  We entrusted her into your care. She’s a good girl. These rumors are false.”

It brought out a heart-warming courage even I didn’t know he could muster.  Perhaps he remembered the false accusations that had been hurled at him on the workplace and knew he didn’t want this for his daughter.

My dad had some 17 jobs in his lifetime but never seemed to find his professional niche.  He was an intelligent man that a few years before he died said he wished that when he came out of Civilian Public Service at the age of 26, he had relocated his new wife and baby daughter and gone to college somewhere.  “They do that today you know,” he said.

My First Date

Written Summer of 2009

When I was growing up, I really didn’t feel comfortable with any of my brothers and sisters.  I loved being with Mom and Daddy since they were who I knew the best.  I think my brothers and sisters all resented me for one reason or another.  I was often told that I was “spoiled” and “needed attention” or that I  “had to have my own way.”  My next oldest sibling, Steve, a quiet one, may have suffered, too, because of my presence.  We played games together and in the summer he had to watch over me, but we didn’t relate to each other that much.

My sister Linda lived in the same room and I admired her beauty and her sense of style. She went out on dates and seemed so desirable to men. Even though I knew I shouldn’t, I sometimes read her journals of her dating exploits for entertainment.  It was interesting reading and better than any romance novel.  But I also read Keep Yourself Pure by B. Charles Hostetler and wanted to remain pure for my husband and the Lord.  So, I had a lot of longings and desires as I sat hovering over my sister’s journals in the closet, yet had barely matured by my first date at 16. I didn’t want to go out with the guys who asked me, but when my brother told me I was “just chicken,” I decided to try dating.

First Date

I went out on a Saturday night with an upperclassman whom I also knew from church.  He wore big cowboy boots and was short, barely my height at 5”5.  He had a big pickup that was shined up real nice, but I wasn’t impressed.  In fact, I was experiencing a strong reaction….but not in his favor.

He picked me up around 7 and we went to a movie, I believe.  Then afterwards we went to the R & S diner.  I wasn’t hungry at all (not being accustomed to eating at night) but got something small. He was a regular at R& S and knew all the games, so we played pacman and other precursor electronic games.  It was hanging out time that went all too slowly for me.  I just wanted it to be over.  Well, when we finally got back home, I tried to do the right thing by asking him in.  He readily came in.  My parents were asleep, so we sat on the couch looking at pictures and talking and I was hoping he would leave soon and very afraid he would try to kiss me.

The one thing I clearly remember is that when he finally left, I went to my bedroom.  My mom got up and came over to my room to ask me how my first date went.  I told her that if that was dating, “I didn’t want any part of it.” It was just an eye-opening experience of how wrong it could feel when you went out with someone you weren’t remotely interested in.  I tried to steer clear of such actions in the future.

Sunday Afternoon Drives

Sunday Afternoon Drives
Written Fall 2010

What ever happened to the Sunday afternoon drive? As a young girl, I recall my dad saying after the beef roast, after the dishes, and after an afternoon nap, “Let’s go for a ride!” Mom always looked excited at the unknown adventure that lie ahead and quickly reminded me to take my sweater.  So the two of us made a habit of grabbing our cable knit sweaters, mine just a smaller version of Mom’s.  We never knew where Daddy was going to drive, although his vehicles always seemed fond of “the Ridge” and the Morwood area.  Daddy liked to scout out game for his fall hunting and loved seeing the open countryside.

It often seemed like we ended up at someone’s house for a visit, but we never planned or called ahead.  Daddy would just say, “Let’s see who is home and maybe if they’re home we’ll stop in for a visit.”  If they weren’t home, we usually got out and did an obligatory walk around their garden, checking out their beans or their corn to see if they “had come up” better than ours.

Wellington Cassel’s, Harvey Freed’s, Bill Meyers’s or Uncle Marvin’s were all possibilities. But for some reason, I remember most vividly stopping in on Paul and Betty Clemmer. They were always gracious and invited us in as if they were expecting our visit.

Mom and Daddy would settle in the living room after a walk around the outside of the Clemmer homestead.  Daddy and Paul were usually laughing their way through a greeting while Mom and Betty were issuing warm words of encouragement.  Paul and Daddy had traveled together as young men and loved to recount a fabled trip to Eastern Mennonite School when the car was stricken with vapor lock.  Paul loved to hear Daddy recount deer hunting stories from the Benner men’s escapades in Tioga County and Paul in turn would tell a peculiar story or two that ended up sounding more like a joke than a story.  They seemed to feed off of each other’s zest for life.

Betty never forgot about the fact that no other children were around and would bring out a box of games and toys that I might enjoy.  I always appreciated her thoughtfulness.  I also looked forward to her bringing around a tray of refreshments after an hour or two. First, were the drinks and then the tray of snacks. For some reason their food and drinks always tasted so much better than what we had at home.  They seemed to have the latest crackers or snacks that my mom would never buy.

I also remember going for outings with Paul and Betty like a picnic supper to Audubon or Valley Forge to see the dogwoods.  Betty and Paul not only enjoyed my parents but would engage me in conversations, wanting to hear about school or things that interested me.  At times, Betty would also bring along extra bread for me to feed the geese or ducks along the way.

I have fond memories of these Sunday afternoon traditions and wish we still went out for relaxing, aimless drives around the countryside.  These times instilled in me the joy in the spontaneity of life and the thrill in finding friends along the way to share it with.