“When The Roll Is Called A Pyonder”–What Third Graders Want To Know

Adults who read my memoir, “When The Roll Is Called A Pyonder: Tales from a Mennonite Childhood,” often have questions:

Are you still Mennonite?  (click to read my answer) 
Do you attend church?
Do you consider yourself a Christian?
Are your sisters still Mennonite?
What was your purpose for writing this book?
What do your parents think about it?
Why did you change all the names?

Last week I had the opportunity to answer a different set of questions related to “When The Roll Is Called A Pyonder.” A friend of mine teaches 3rd grade at a local elementary school, and, skipping over unmentionables like the day I found out how Baby Michelle got into Mommy’s belly, and how it is that boys get to pee standing up, she has been reading my book to them out loud. On Thursday afternoon, we arranged for me pay a surprise visit to her class. She warned me that I should be prepared for lots of enthusiasm when I walk in the door, but I hadn’t exactly pictured getting mobbed by 23 bouncing, miniature people who are shouting out all of my secrets.

I knocked on the door, nervously, to be honest, and a little boy opened it to let me in. Mrs. Wytko looked up from their math lesson and smiled. “Look!” she said to them. “We have a special visitor today. Guess who this is…”

Somebody gasped, “Diana…??”

I said, “It’s me!”

They jumped out of their chairs and took two running steps toward me, then remembered that I’m actually sort of still a stranger, and stopped.

I sat down on one of the little desks, feeling entirely oversized, held out my arms, and said something like, “So I heard you guys like my book?”

That’s when I got mobbed—group-hugged by an entire 3rd grade class, everybody squealing, and jumping, and saying, “Remember when…?” and, “Why did you…?” then dashing to get their journals to show me the pictures they’ve drawn of my childhood escapades. They showed me their scars, and asked me if chocolate pudding still makes me throw up.

Eventually, Mrs. Wytko herded everyone back to their seats. I read a few pages from “When The Roll Is Called A Pyonder” to them, while they wrote in their little journals about what I was reading, or drew pictures of what it made them think of.

After that, we had Question Time. I sat in the front of the room, and each child had a turn to come to me to tell me something, or ask a question. There isn’t a Mennonite gene in one of their little bodies, but they didn’t seem to notice. Here in the Wild West, everyone is a recent decedent of an outlaw, an immigrant, or both. Forget whether or not I go to church, or what my mother thinks about it. This is what 3rd graders want to know:

Did you ever your mom about the money you took?
Why were the geese so mean?
Did you really kill all the ducks?
Why were the eggs rotten?
Why were you drowning the kitties?
How could you run faster than that truck?
Why is your dad scared of thunder?
Did you pet the snake?
Is there still a hole in your floor?
Why do you hate potato soup?
Remember that mean teacher you had?
Why did you want to kill your sister?
Why did you think you could fly?

I left with a pocket full of love notes, knowing that my book succeeded in communicating the innocence of childhood that hasn’t got anything at all to do with adult problems like religion. And I agree that whether or not chocolate pudding still makes me throw up is much more critical than whether or not I’m still Mennonite.

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Open Book Test: February (16 years ago), 1999

When: February (16 years ago), 1999
Where: Costa Rica
What: I’ve been married for 2 years, and every day I drive from my home, in Guaitil, to Tamarindo beach.  There, I  sett up a display table outside of a little restaurant, and sell the pottery that my husband makes.  On the weekends, I teach some English classes at the Universidad Latina.
Age:  28

The sky is so wildly blue and the ocean like a precious gem. No hour is too early or too late to be burned by the unspeakable sun. The moon by night es igual. It shines so close, so completely, that you can feel its pulse in the shadows it paints. Today is also a day of wind, so all of God’s children in the tropics are happy. All except the French people who have no customers in their restaurant. I went to the beach today, early, which was a good idea. Maybe my tan it terrible, but my soul feels good. G said he dreamed I left him for another man. See? That’s how I know he loves me. I dream that about him too.

I got SUN BURNT. Wow. God have mercy on my hide! And the nice boy in the restaurant gave me a huge free cup of boiling hot coffee. His employers always charge me for a lukewarm half-cup. I have been feeling this incredible urge to write, again. I think reading poetry for Lit. class is doing it. Praise God! And now my own adversary is myself and the schedule I have made for me. But I can keep being patient. O yes I can, and I will.

I have realized something that I will confess only because I will be dead by the time anyone else figures it out. If I were disgustingly wealthy, do you know what I would do? I am embarrassed to confess it, but I would go get this belly liposuctioned away. I would. I know, I know. What about children who never get vaccinated because their families and countries are too poor? What about cancer and AIDS? But I would do it anyway, because how can you enjoy gorgeous clothes if you have to pull them over a dumpy body? How can you enjoy good food if you’re already fat and don’t want to be? Huh? You can’t. So now I confess to myself that I am no better than the wretched people I complain about.

I am going on four years of living here, now, and you know what? It didn’t turn out at all like I expected. I never expected to have a real “job.” I expected I’d have a little house with a red floor and a kitchen like Silma’s. I expected to marry J. I expected never to cut my hair. I expected to write volumes, write letters, make beautiful pottery, listen to the frogs and owls at night. I expected to make tortillas and learn to murder my own chickens. I expected to have girlfriends, any friends.

And this is still my dream: to wake warm in the morning, to greet the sun brushing back my long brown hair, eat with the songs of birds at my table, ponder the mountains, moments, days of my life. I still dream of dusk, those few yellow moments when the mountains hum the note that calls night, and all is hushed but the whish of wind and the conversation of birds. I still dream of this and will not cease.

 

Hunger Changes Everything

It begins with the sound of Jorge scraping
the bottom of the pot
metal on metal
at six AM.

I don’t need a clock.
By seven, Yolanda’s radio
will play louder than the rain.

From my thin bed, I
listen to him scraping:
the sound of nothing.

Hunger pangs, they say, dull
if you lie on your belly.
I have been sleeping face down for weeks
since the rains began in
earnest, and the buyer of our earthenware
stopped at the dangerous bridge.
It will rain until October.

He scrapes carefully, filling the morning
with echoes of emptiness.
Each grain of rice will be
gone and there will not be one
spoonful left for me.

Who will believe the hot fat
tears that slide around my
nose and onto the bed?
If I say I have wept for a
plate of rice, who will
not politely cough and look away?.

Watch me dry my eyes and pour
thin sweet coffee
from my cup into the hollow space
between these new hipbones.
Watch me look out
at the rain and not at Jorge
chewing.

I will lie on my back tonight
listening to the thunder.
I will be waiting
when Maria lights the cooking fire
in the morning dark.

It begins with the sound of Jorge scraping
the bottom of the pot
metal on metal
at six AM.
A spark ignites the slow-burning panic
of hunger that
changes everything.

Open Book Test: From a February 2 years ago

When: February 2013–2 years ago
Where: Northwest corner of USA
What: My husband is having trouble healing the way the doctor intended, after the third of what we never imagined would be nine reconstructive surgeries over 17 months
Age:  42

Well well well.  No thank you Mercury for your f*ing retrograde self.  We merrily drove to Seattle to see Dr. JR today and got slapped down.  Poor P. Poor me.  F* ing Dr. JR.  Some stitches on P’s right nostril didn’t hold—again, apparently—and he wasn’t all that nice about it.  Not like being nice is really required, but we’d gotten a little used to it.  He scolded us heartily and told P to come back next Friday, and we’ve added another surgery to this.

P is sorry he even started.  So am I, honestly.  And today, I think Dr. JR was too.  It’s long and hard and discouraging for him, too.  It was a very very bad day.  P is depressed and honestly so am I.  I feel like it will never end.  Now P has to be super calm and careful for a week, because if one more inside stitch goes, the rib cartilage will die and then… we start over.

Please God, don’t let that happen to us.  We’ve been stupid and wrong.  We’ve lied and made bad decisions about money and other things.  But please have mercy on us and don’t punish us anymore, just now.  Have mercy on us and let us heal.  I wish I could help his boredom/loneliness/desperation.  But I am out of ideas.

I am the one with nothing and no one, just a broken husband, beautiful as the sun but sliced and cut so many times he is unrecognizable.

Tell me what is the right thing to do.  Tell me clearly.  Write it on the wall.  I am so tired.