The Family I Left

Me and the MillersI’m the baby in this picture, the first in my generation to be born into this family. My dad is holding me and standing next to my mother. You can see my grandparents, my many aunts, and my Uncle Philip, who was just a few years older than I was.  And this is only one part of the family we left when we moved from Grantsville, Maryland, to Flint Michigan. The Benders—my mother’s family—was even larger, more than 70 people . . . and growing.

When this picture was taken, none of us knew my parents and I and my coming brothers and sisters would move away from the mountains, away from a Mennonite community, and away the country to live in the city of Flint, Michigan.


The New School in a Rustbelt City

I did third grade twice: once in Alvina’s room at Yoder School and once in Mrs. Lott’s room in Flint, Michigan. Mrs. Lott taught at South Bendle Elementary, eight blocks from our new home in the parsonage of the Mennonite mission church. Mr. Watson, the principal, looked at my age and said I was in third grade. No matter that I already knew how to divide and had already read Charlotte’s Web. So I dutifully re-solved last year’s math problems and answered endless comprehension questions from third grade readers.

Alvina liked school, but Mrs. Lott didn’t. And I could see why. Her room was full of too many noisy kids. These kids, I decided, must not have had parents who taught them to listen to a teacher. In Mrs. Lott’s crowded room, there weren’t enough desks to go around, and we had to share books. Besides all this, there were no meadows or woods around the school, no place for her to send students to gather flowers or to read under a tree.

No wonder she looked too tired to get excited about a lesson. She sat there behind her desk with her curls tight, not bouncy and free, her mouth in a thin straight line, and worry wrinkles across her forehead. I felt sorry for her. But I also felt restless—rutschy, as we said in Pennsylvania Dutch. Still I tried to be good, to not make even more trouble for Mrs. Lott.

In Mrs. Lott’s room the flies around the window sills droned on and on. I stared out the window and watched a colorless elm leaf drift from a tree. The breeze lazily picked up a corner of the American flag, then changed its mind and dropped it. I watched the second hand tick past the minute hand, and I squinted my eyes to catch the hour hand move. Is this what school would be like away from Alvina? And somewhere inside me, an ache began to grow.

I figured it out on my paper. Counting this year, I’d have to sit in school for fourteen years to get my college diploma—almost twice as long as my entire life so far. I had thought the hard part was over when I said good-bye to Yoder School, but now I knew the hardest part lay ahead.

The back of my throat hurt, like it was bleeding. I buried my face between my arms on my desk. I can’t do this, I thought. But I had to. I wiped my sniffles on the sleeve of my dress and picked up my book. I had to find the gumption to carry on—to learn to be a good teacher without Alvina.

Background of a Blurb; John D Roth

John Roth gathers stories. He wrote, for example,  Stories: How Mennonites Came to Be. In this book, he tells a big story by showing how history and theology weave through the lives of individuals. And, in a project called Bearing Witness, John collects stories of how people living today suffer for faith.

I was with John in Nicaragua once when he was talking to people about their stories. I noticed how well he listened and asked questions and then more questions to be sure he understood. People sensed, I could tell, that John knew their stories mattered and that he would tell their stories well.

So when John agreed to read my story and comment on it, I was delighted.

 “In vivid prose, Swartz offers readers an intimate window into the life of a passionate learner. Her hunger for a deeper understanding of the world around her—be it the culture of her Amish Mennonite upbringing, the lives of her students, or the complexities of modern science and politics—is truly inspiring. I highly recommend this memoir.”

—John D. Roth, Professor of History, Goshen College; Director; Mennonite Historical Library; and Editor, Mennonite Quarterly Review

Birth of a Book

The publication date for Yoder School is here! I’ve been waiting for this day. More than 50 years ago, on my tenth birthday, my parents gave me Elizabeth Yates’s book Someday You’ll Write. I read that book and set a goal to publish a book before I died.

Through the decades I thought of this goal . . . often. But I never wrote a book. Instead, I taught school, served on the library board, and ran a music camp. I volunteered at church and had children and then grandchildren. But I kept thinking about the book I never wrote.

Then I retired from teaching. And I had a decision to make. Would I try to write a book?

I started reading books about writing and attending writing conferences. I began to write every day, and gradually, chapter after chapter, my story emerged.

Five times I thought my manuscript was as polished as I could polish. And each of these times, my critiquers showed me that it was flawed, sometimes deeply. I kept revising. Then I sent my manuscript to a press I thought would accept it. But the book was rejected. Often I wondered if this book would be published.

But I was dogged. And I was helped by many people, especially my author son. And so this publication date has now come.

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Just a couple days ago, a package from Cascadia Publishing House arrived on my porch. My complimentary books, I guessed, were inside. For a moment I felt unsure, a little breathless. But when I opened the package, it was true. My book had been published.


If you’d like to buy a copy, you can find one at the following sites:

Leaving Home

Those last months in western Maryland were a season of farewell. I found myself clinging to Gertrude, who promised to write to me. I asked my grandpa for stories of long ago. I walked in the woods to say goodbye, following my nose to the skunk cabbage by the pond and digging under leaves to find jacks-in-the-pulpit. I lifted the green hooded flowers with brown stripes to find Jack, always standing tall in the pulpit, even though nobody was listening. And in the night garden, I looked to make sure the Big Dipper still spilled stars and watched the night lights glint in the creek. In all these visits, I took pictures with my eyes so I could remember.

Finally, one day I found a comfort. I would buy some land, I decided, before we moved. Land that would wait for me while I was gone. Walking up the lane after school one afternoon, I found the plot I wanted. The lane, the creek, and a row of trees formed a triangle around a parcel maybe twice as big as my bedroom.

Later when I graduate from college, I thought, and come back to teach at Yoder School, I’ll build a small house here. I sat under the maple tree and looked around. Along the creek, shepherd’s purse plants waved in the breeze. Bees flitted in the daisies.

The land belonged to Luella and Meely, two ancient sisters with silver hair who wore ruffled aprons over their plain dresses and bustled around every Wednesday baking cinnamon rolls. They sold these cinnamon rolls for spending money. If I buy this plot of land, I thought, they’ll have even more spending money.

In my bedroom I climbed on my desk to get my piggy bank from the high shelf. The pink pig with a big belly, a red hat, and blue coveralls sat on its hind legs staring out of big black eyes. I was glad I had plunked my birthday money into the pig instead of spending it. I’d be willing to give up my entire savings for the land, I decided. My ancestors had lived in these mountains for over a hundred years, and I belonged here, too.

I held the pig in one hand and knocked on Luella’s and Meely’s door with the other. This was Wednesday, and I could smell the cinnamon.

“Come in!” Meely said.

And then I didn’t know how to start. So I stammered around explaining that I needed to own some land and I wanted it to be near my house and the triangle between the creek and the lane and the trees would work fine and I was prepared to give them all the money in my bank for that land.

Meely looked at Luella. Luella set the spatula beside the cinnamon rolls she had been frosting. She squatted down beside me and explained that, no, they didn’t want to sell their land, not even this little part of it, not even for all the money in my piggy bank—not even if I saved for another year.

I swallowed and blinked so I wouldn’t cry and said that, no, I didn’t want a cinnamon roll. And I fled.

Background of a Blurb–Shirley Showalter

Back when I thought I had finished writing Yoder School,  I reached out to Shirley Hershey Showalter, who had already published her memoir, A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

“Could you read this for me?” I wrote her. “And tell me if it’s ready to send to a publisher?”

Shirley had no reason to help me, except for a generous heart for a flailing writer. But she did. She asked insightful questions and, in a gracious and hope-giving way, made statements that were both hard for me and good for me to read.

And she set me on the way toward a much-needed revision.

So when Shirley agreed to write a blurb for the back of Yoder School, I was pleased.

“Because this story is so well-written, we the readers follow the narrator’s progress with the eagerness of a child at play.”

—Shirley Hershey Showalter, Author, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, in the Foreword

My Dad’s Diploma

Dad's Graduation

In this picture, I wish my dad had his diploma in his hands. Because that’s what I remember most of that day—the diploma he held, often close to the level of my eyes. My dad had worked hard for that diploma. And it was important, I could tell. My dad wore a graduation gown, the speeches were long, and people were snapping pictures. That’s the day I made up my mind. When I grew up, I’d try my best to earn a college diploma.