(Note: My brother and sister-in-law have been working as missionaries in Mexico for more than a quarter of a century. When Esther read my previous memoirs on this site, she suggested my sharing about my first visit to that country. Glad to oblige. JJB)

My Earliest Memory


When we divided my dad’s personal effects after his death in 2003, I inherited the Sugar Jar. The Sugar Jar, some family legends, and a thin sliver of personal memory are what I have left from my first trip to Mexico.


The Sugar Jar is a one-gallon glass jar with a, now rusty, wide mouth lid and the remnants of several cones of more than sixty year old raw Mexican sugar. During my childhood, the Sugar Jar had its perch above the bookcase over top of Dad’s roll-top desk. Whenever we had guests, Dad would inevitably get the jar down, wipe the blade of his pocket knife on his pants leg, carve off some slivers of sugar from one of the cones and pass them around the room. This would be the times when I got to hear the stories about the winter of 44-45 and cooking sugar cane in the interior of Old Mexico.


Also, sometime during my childhood, I was going through an encyclopedia and looking at the bright illustrations of animals. “Look Mom,” I said, “Here is a picture of the big cat I saw in Mexico.”


“You remember seeing that?” she asked. When I insisted that I did, Mom got very frightened all over again.


With the approaching winter of 1944, Dad had taken his young family of four, by train, from Buchanan County, Iowa to somewhere deep into the heart of Old Mexico where the Amish had considered starting a new community. Dad’s uncle Phineas Borntreger was already living there and needed help in harvesting the oncoming sugar cane crop.


Going to Old Mexico however, to cook sugar cane for uncle Phineas’ was nothing like a vacation for my mother. Mom had responsibility for caring for my oldest sister, Lydia, who was not yet one year old, and for myself, who would celebrate my third birthday before we returned home. From Mom’s perspective, everything about the trip was one great big frightening experience. On the other hand, Dad was living in the heights of glorious adventure.


The whole time we were down there, Dad insisted that he wanted to go mountain lion hunting with some of the natives. For some reason crawling into a brush pile on your hands and knees to flush out a Puma never got Mom’s approval and Dad was forced to return to Iowa without having ever experienced this singular pleasure.


While we were in Mexico, we lived in a one room shanty. Partly to provide ventilation, our house was built with a gap under the roof where the rafters rested on the walls. One night we heard a scraping noise on the side of the house. When we turned on the flashlight we saw a pair of evil eyes looking in on us from under the roof. Dad grabbed the rifle and dashed outside. Of course, by the time he got there, whatever had made the noise had melted back into the jungle leaving a lot of sheer terror in its wake.


Our water supply was a mountain stream some distance through the woods. At least once a day someone had the job of taking two small children and a bucket to retrieve this much needed commodity. Guess whose job that was. Mom couldn’t carry two children and a bucket of water too. Guess who walked. Guess who kept hearing his dad insist that there was nothing to worry about and, though being oft admonished otherwise, would not, no way, stay at his mother’s side.


I clearly remember walking, perhaps 15 to 20 feet, behind my mother. Lollygagging, looking this way and that, and not a bit concerned. We walked past a red clay bank, remembered as perhaps 12 feet high. After passing it, I looked back at it over my shoulder and there on top of it stood the biggest kitty I had ever seen. He didn’t appear particularly friendly though and for some reason some blubbering three year old could finally catch up with mommy. When Mom wheeled around and looked where I pointed, once more there was nothing there. Nothing that is, but another dose of terror for Mom, and a memory for me.


Jonas J. Borntreger

© 2007 JJB