David’s “Faithful Charger” outside my parents’ home in 1981
Lately I have been reading my journals that I wrote in the months and years following the second and final time I left my Amish community. I’ve also been reading letters I received from “home” during that time. What I am concluding is that I would not want to go back and experience my young adult life again. What a tumultuous time! I felt so torn between the Amish life I grew up in and the life I chose.
There were so many logistical details to attend to when I made the transition from my Amish life to my Vermont one. According to my journal, I spent my first days in Vermont shopping for new clothes, opening a bank account, looking for work, signing up at the Adult Basic Education Center, and looking for a place to live.
I was also in search of a new church community. Less than a month after I left, David was away at a craft fair, and I wrote this in my journal:
A very quiet day. I went to the Unitarian Church all by myself. I wasn’t impressed at all. It just wasn’t inspiring. I spent the time sitting there thinking about how much I’d like to be at the Amish church right then.
After leaving church I went down by the park on the end of Pearl Street, overlooking the lake and the Adirondack Mountains. I felt pretty good after that. It’s always inspiring to see the wonders of nature. It makes me feel close to our Creator.
When I came back, I studied science, then put in David’s quilt and worked on it. I really miss David tonight.
There is so much I can read from this journal entry today that I wouldn’t have been aware I was conveying at the time. The fact that I wrote that I missed the Amish church is revealing. I thought I was good at burying these thoughts of missing aspects of home back then.
It is not surprising that I found looking at the wonders of nature inspiring. I still find that beauty in nature feeds me spiritually.
Studying science on a Sunday? Now that surprises me, especially so soon after leaving the Amish. I would not have been studying science on any day back in my community, never mind on a Sunday. Another surprise is that I was quilting on a Sunday. That would never do in an Amish community, either. I am surprised that I abandoned the Amish ways so soon.
When I read the letters “from home” from that time frame, it is no wonder I was in turmoil. These letters were brimming with Amish guilt — about the promise I had been required to make when I was baptized that I would stay with the Amish church for the rest of my life and how I had broken that promise; about how hard this was on Mem; and about how I would one day have to pay when it was time for me to meet my Maker.
No one was quite so skilled at pulling on my guilt strings as Mem. When I left the second time, I was on good terms with her. When I decided to leave, I had taken her for a walk to let her know what I was about to do. I was astounded when she shared with me that she once had the chance to marry outside the Amish, and how she had always wondered what that would have been like. Maybe it is a stretch to say she was giving me permission to leave, but she at least conveyed that she understood why I was doing it.
Mem was often of two minds, especially when it came to issues of being Amish. She would have been appalled that she had “let it show” but it was so very obvious to me. She would often open the door to her true feelings just a crack, and then quick as a wink, she would shut that door and lock it. I would be standing there, wondering if I had imagined what I’d seen or heard.
So when Mem wanted to take back what she had shared on our walk, it should have come as no surprise — and yet it was always jolting when Mem made one of her U-turns. Here is part of what she wrote, just 10 days after our walk together (I’ve changed some names for anonymity):
Sunday eve. Just a few lines from me so you know I or us think of you. We were in church and many people asked about you. […] We left your things as was till now. Except the girls cleaned out pantry and dad and I brought over all that and cubbard [cupboard] things. I think we’ll just leave it for a while yet unless Wills get a notion to rent it then they’ll let us know. The girls brought home some of your clothes but I left everything else hang for the time being. Just in case you change your mind and come back. That way it’s easier if you do. I mean for you.
Oh, Saloma — I’m worrying for fear I didn’t encourage you enough to try and stay as you were. And through that you’ll see or have lots of heartaches. I feel such a failure as a Mother [mother] at times. But I’ve decided to try to live for the good things I still have. Maybe I’ll see better times ahead. Rhoda Troyer seemed much better. More herself. Think Lena looks some better. She was really bad right after you left. If Gertie and I don’t end up in a nervous breakdown yet, will be a wonder. Such as all is! […] Love from Mom
Here is a good example of how Mem had opened the door a crack to allow me to see her true self when we were on that walk — and how she now wanted to shut that door and lock it — when she wrote that she worried that she didn’t encourage me to stay “as I was,” which I think means Amish. I was sure what she had told me had come right from her heart and I knew I would remember it always, so I was not about to let her close that door. If I remember right, when I wrote back I said that once the toothpaste is out of the tube, she could not put it back, just like when words from the heart have been spoken, they cannot be unspoken.
I believe Mem was sometimes torn between being a mother and being Amish. When she wrote about other people asking about me in church, and what they were doing with my Amish belongings, she was being a mother. There were other times when she put being Amish before being a mother. This is when she would pull on the guilt reins by writing things like, “I feel like such a failure as a mother at times.” And then writing about others’ mental illnesses, and how she and another person in the community were on the verge of a nervous breakdown. My role in my family was to be the “fixer.” I think Mem knew what she was doing. She was trying to appeal to this role, implying that I could fix everything by coming home and taking up my place in the community.
It is no wonder I was in such turmoil. I already was struggling with finding my way in a world so different from my Amish one. The pressure from Mem and others only intensified my struggle.
What sustained me through all this turmoil was being free to develop my relationship with David. After having been separated for nearly three years, it was so good to be with him. A month after I left, I wrote this in my journal:
We decided we’d like some quiet time to ourselves. It had just started to snow in powdery, soft puffs. So we drove out to Redrock Apartments. It was so quiet and peaceful. So were my feelings — spiritually and for David. Some nights I like being with David so much, just having the feeling of his arms around me and being there. Tonight was one of those nights.
Oh, the sweet tenderness of being with David! I feel such gratitude for these feelings — back in December 1980, and in all the days, months, and years since then. Throughout all the struggles he and I have been through, this is what has sustained us.
I’ve had conversations with people my age who long to go back to the days of their youth. Not me. In looking back, I am amazed that I made it through all those tumultuous years. I am glad to have the distance from that turmoil that the intervening years allow me without losing the insights I’ve gleaned from having gone through those struggles. To me, this is the best of both worlds.