An Amish Handshake

One of the little-known facts about the Amish in general (and I’m sure there are exceptions, given there is such diversity among the Amish) is that they are not demonstrative in their affections. In my home community, hugging and kissing was just never done as a way of greeting people or saying good-bye. Handshakes were allowed and used frequently, and on solemn occasions, such as Communion and Baptismal services, the holy kiss was practiced. 

Mothers are very demonstrative with their babies when they nurse them and sing to them as they soothe them to sleep. But they don’t pick up their children to hug and kiss them. There are no rules against such demonstrations of love… it is just not done.

Another interesting fact about affections, is that the Amish don’t have a way of saying “I love you” in their language. “Lieve” is the Amish word for love, but it is only a noun, and not a verb. So you can say, “I have love for you,” but not “I love you.” And they didn’t even say “I have love for you.” Rather they used a term I found odd at the time I lived in the community. They would say, “I think a lot of him.” That seemed such a roundabout or indirect way of letting someone know they are important to me. These last few years, I’ve developed a different take on the subject. 

I believe thoughts are powerful. When I think of someone in an affectionate way, that person is occupying my thoughts. And when I think of her often, then “I think a lot of her.” I cannot speak for others, but I feel honored to know people think of me. Especially when I know someone is praying for me, because I believe prayer is the most powerful thought form. When we pray, we articulate our thoughts and direct them to our Creator, from whom all blessings flow. So when someone “thinks a lot of me” I feel loved. 

That said, there are times when that is just not saying what I feel. In particular moments with David telling him that I think a lot of him just doesn’t do it. Neither does a handshake suffice for expressing my feelings for him. What comes to mind is a quote from Ingrid Bergman when she wrote, “A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.” 

There was a time when I was trying hard to “make myself Amish” and that was when I returned to the Amish after being away for four months. David had come to visit me soon after my return, and I wanted him to know that we could only be friends… after all I was Amish and he wasn’t. When he was saying good-bye that night after the visit, my feelings got complicated very quickly. I wrote about this in my second book recently. Here is an excerpt:

David was ready to leave to go back to his sister’s house for the night. I stepped outside with him, and we looked up at the stars. He said he really enjoyed visiting, and he hoped it wouldn’t be long before we would see one another again.
That’s when the inner turmoil began. David had conveyed his feelings so naturally by simply stating his desire to see me. If he was thinking of coming back to visit, did that mean he was my boyfriend? Did I want him to be my boyfriend? Would that mean he would join my world, or I would go back to his world? Where did I want to be? The uncertainty of not knowing what my future was or even what I wanted it to be — along with all the “shoulds” of my Amish life — was enough to make my feelings churn inside me. It was so uncomfortable that I didn’t want David to be there anymore, conveying his feelings to me.
David’s voice brought me to the present — standing outside the Benders’ house, under the stars, after having spent an evening with him “as a friend.”
David was asking, “May I kiss you goodbye?”
I said, “No.”
“May I give you a hug?”
 “Then will you shake my hand?”
 “Sure,” I said and put out my hand.
David took my hand in his. Perhaps all those feelings we used to express on the sofa at the Y were channeled through our hands touching that night under the stars, because it was the most loving and the sexiest handshake I’d ever gotten. 
I don’t remember David’s parting words, only the feeling in my right hand, later, when I was lying in bed, staring into the white light of the moon out the low windows of the bedroom where I slept. I was glad I was alone and in the dark with the feelings I didn’t want anyone else to know about. I knew if I was going to stay Amish, I could not have any doubts about that choice — the people in my community would soon detect any feelings of ambivalence and then they’d watch every move I made. I had to “show” them I could be trusted before they would. Except I wasn’t sure I trusted myself. All those feelings I had for David that I wanted to tuck into a tidy package labeled “just friends” insisted on spilling out and messing things up. My right hand still felt warm with the love that David had wrapped around it. I brought it up to my face in a soft caress, the way he often had when we were together in his world, and then slowly the tears came. 

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10 thoughts on “An Amish Handshake”

  1. Beautiful post. My dad’s side of the family was never affectionate. I never heard my grandmother say “I love you” ever and was in my 20’s the first time my dad said it. My mom’s side of the family though was very affectionate. I know the amish in Missouri where I moved from were not very demonstrative of affection but I was never sure if that was just in public.

  2. This stirs up memories of my ten months with Dad, his last ten months of life here on earth. After we bonded I couldn’t contain my love for him without expressing it. But I couldn’t say “I love you”. Instead I said, “You are the best Dad I ever had”. Dad did not know what to do with this statement, but he accepted it and knew the depth of my words.

  3. Ditto on Mennonites. The stricter the church, the more likely you will only see people hugging if someone dies. Overall, we have something we jokingly like to call “the holy handshake” which is a substitute for all affection (except for the holy kiss) and all compliments, too. I love how you’ve been blogging about mannerisms. I think a lot of that. :)

  4. I am SO looking forward to your 2nd book! Sexy handshakes :-) How you tucked that little bit of humor/truth in there amongst the heartbreaking thoughts you were going through… only YOU could do that! I felt like I was right there on your porch or maybe a little sister peeking out the window … but I would have to be your older sister… *sigh*

  5. I so enjoyed this post for the reasons others have already mentioned.

    I do also think, however, that there is a difference between generaions in society as a whole. When I was growing up (1940s-5os) people were much more reserved, in public at least.My family did not ever say “I love you” nor was there much in the way of hugging & kissing, although we did show each other affection in other ways. Now that I think of it, others I knew in that era mostly fell in line with this. My friends & I did not hug or tell each other we loved them – not nearly like I see on the social media today & out in public. Expressing affections openly was not the norm, I would say. I think a lot of this started to change during the “peace era” of the 60s. Mostly, I think this is a good thing!

  6. My family too was not demonstrative; we had trouble saying ‘thank you’ or worse: ‘I’m sorry.’ We never even so much as said ‘Good night’.

    But we had some Amish friends who had an easy way I envied. One family had just two kids- there were NINE of us – and their son and daughter both kissed their parents good night. It embarrassed me mightily. Another family where I often stayed overnight did a lot of hugging. So I thought maybe it was just my family that was uptight. On the other hand, I had cousins who, I swear, were afraid of their dad. A most unhappy household.

  7. Stephen Cassinera

    I wonder why they are so afraid of showing affection. I met a lady from Switzerland years ago and it’s the norm to greet someone with a kiss there, at least someone who is a friend. So I don’t think it’s something cultural from where the anabaptists originated. So how would anyone ever get together if they never said how they felt about each other or anything. Young people I know could have their parents sort of arrange things. But how about older people who are unmarried and wanting to get married? I’ve seen unmarried Amish couples walking along holding hands. I assumed that they show more affection to one another privately.

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