Have you ever thought you were doing something for one reason, only to find that a far more significant reason emerged than you could have anticipated? That happened to me last week when David and I took our trip to the Midwest. I thought I was making the trip to see several Amish communities I hadn’t seen before, to visit friends, and to visit my sisters and their families. It turns out the more significant reason for me to have made these travels is to gain a different perspective about what it means to have Amish roots. The friends we visited in Holmes County were both born Amish. Their experiences in their respective Amish families and communities were so different from my own. One of them said, “I see the Amish way of life as a cradle of love.” Both of them have regular contact with Amish people and neither of them has ever been shunned, even though one of them was a member of the community before he left. They literally did not feel rejection from their community when they chose to leave.
While I was visiting the Behalt Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center (http://www.behalt.com/), I heard Amish singing in their German chant (much in the style of a Gregorian chant). Lo and behold, there is a CD of Amish songs in German, other hymns sung in English, several songs played on a harmonica, and still others on a stringed instrument called a zither (this instrument is new to me, but the others were very familiar). And if these weren’t enough to take me back in time, there is Amish preaching and a German prayer being read by a preacher also on the CD. I had no idea the Amish would allow this recording to happen, but there it was.
One of the books I bought at Behalt is titled Tobias of the Amish, written by Ervin R. Stutzman, who was three when his father died. He is writing the story of his father’s life in an Amish community in Oklahoma and Kansas. He doesn’t avoid writing about his people’s failings, which makes the story realistic and very touching. He is sensitive in his rendering of the Amish ways, to the point that it makes me miss things I didn’t even realize I missed, such as the setting in an Amish wedding when all the tables have been set and the guests are all seated. At that point the bishop will say, “Wann dah Disch voll iss, dann wella mia betta.” (If everyone is seated, then let us bow our heads.) It is these little details that bring back memories of the sense of community and belonging and causes me to miss this aspect of the culture.
As I get to know people in the Holmes County area, I realize that there are people who experience the Amish way of life differently than I did. It seems they view the Amish in Geauga County almost as their backward cousins. I do see that there are some great differences, when I see how the Holmes County Amish are adapting to the outside world much more than in Geauga County. Seeing Amish women biking along with their cap strings flowing behind them certainly looks like a lot of fun, while in my home community bikes are forbidden. Seeing how several women in Holmes County conducted themselves in the clock shop where we bought a mantel clock shows that they are not afraid to be themselves and interface with the outside world, when the women in Geauga County may not be allowed to have a job like that. I have to ask myself whether it’s true that the Geauga County community is more dysfunctional than the Holmes County community. Certainly my friends had a very different experience from my own and the signs are there, but I cannot judge just how different a young woman’s life is in Holmes County versus Geauga County. Is she less likely to experience depression, feel trapped, or endure sexual or physical abuse then her counterpart in Geauga County? I just don’t know without seeing it for myself. There is little likelihood of getting an inside view of either, so I may never know the answer to this question.
When I was in Indiana, I went into an Amish woman’s home to see her quilts for sale. I let her know that I used to be Amish, but she said it didn’t matter, she would sell quilts to me anyway. In my home community one of the rules of shunning is that the Amish may not do business with me, so I was surprised by this. As we got to talking, I asked her about my best friend, Ruth, from childhood, who I had heard moved to her area. It turned out the person selling me the quilt is a good friend of Ruth’s. Unfortunately, Ruth was away at the time, otherwise we would have paid her a surprise visit. It felt good to have an exchange with an Amish person, without my background being an issue.
In all of these experiences, I am reminded once again of how much diversity there is within the various Amish groups. It is rarely appropriate to lump them together as “the Amish.” I’ve probably done this more than is appropriate myself. There are only a few things that are true among the Amish in general. I will address these as I see them in a future post.
So, when I left for the trip, I had no idea I would be taking my quest for understanding my heritage or my roots to another whole, deeper level. So far I have questions without too many answers. But then again, that is all part of the journey. In all of it, I am so blessed to have David not only support me in this process, but actually find meaning in it for himself.
In my next post I will write about a discovery I made when I traced an ancestor back nine generations.