A little while ago, I received a rare treat — a four-page handwritten letter. It came from Ruth, an elementary school pal. We first attended the same school when we were third graders, the first year an Amish school was built near us. She came from one local public school and I came from another. Her second-grade teacher had taught students how to go from “printing” to “writing.” My second-grade teacher forbade her students from writing so when I entered third grade, I didn’t know how to write all the letters in cursive. I often poked Ruth, who sat in the desk in front of mine and printed the letter I wanted to learn. She wrote the letter slowly so I could see how it was formed. She was a wonderful teacher. It was the beginning of our friendship.
Ruth and I competed for the second best grades in our class. (There was a genius in our grade who earned straight As). Ruth’s handwriting was the best in the school. We were both outside the click of “popular girls” but we spent a lot of time at one another’s homes, sometimes for sleepovers.
After we both graduated from eighth grade, her family moved from Ohio to Michigan, and we didn’t see much of one another. I traveled to her wedding some years later, and I visited her twice after she was married. By the second visit she had three children. Then I left the community and she went on to have a total of eleven children.
We’ve stayed in touch infrequently, but when we do, we always remember our time in Burton, Ohio when we were neighborhood pals. In this latest letter, in her always beautiful handwriting, she wrote about a chartered bus trip with relatives to our area (60 in all). They visited places of significance: where each of her parents were born, where they grew up and went to school, and where relatives were buried. Then they had a huge get-together at a cousin’s home. Ruth wrote that she has 24 grandchildren. She was planning to bake 40 loaves of bread for her granddaughter’s wedding.
These are the things I sacrificed when I left. There is a sense of belonging that comes with folks knowing one another from the cradle to the grave. Most couples can count on having multiple grandchildren by the time they are in their fifties. Of course I long to have grandchildren, and how glad I would be to bake bread for a granddaughter’s wedding.
On the other hand, I was able to fulfill my lifelong dream of earning a college education when I was in my forties. With Ruth’s significant intellect, she would have thrived in a learning environment. But this avenue was not open to her.
I also value freedom of thought. In such a tightly-knit community, it is hard to think differently from the group. I often felt like I was the only one with my thoughts and perceptions, which left me feeling lonely within the group.
An example is that Ruth mentioned she had not attended church the day she was writing the letter because she had lost her sense of taste and smell, and she had a fever. She asked, “Does that sound like the virus?” and drew a sad face.
From what I know, most Amish communities seem to be allowing the coronavirus free rein. The prevailing attitude is that they put their trust in God, not in masks. I understand that some Amish women are becoming belligerent by resisting the mask rule in their local libraries. The police have become involved in a few instances.
If I were living in an Amish community, how could I stay virus free? More importantly, how could I keep from spreading it? One can only skip church so many times before it will prompt a visit from the preachers. In such an environment, there is little to no defense against herd mentality.
Along with the yearning for what I have lost comes gratitude for what I have gained. I am living with the love of my life who is willing to treat me as his equal. He does not have preachers telling him it is his responsibility to be the “head of the home” or that it is the wife’s duty to submit to his will. Instead, we are part of a church community in which women are partners in leadership.
After much reflection about the vastly different lives Ruth and I lead, I have concluded that she probably made the best choice for her life, even though she sacrificed certain freedoms. And I made the best choice for my life, even though I sacrificed the Amish sense of belonging and being a grandmother to 24 children at age 63.
I was taught to believe that God has planned out our whole lives before we are born into this world. This concept of destiny fits with the deep Amish traditions that carry a person through life without need for self-reflection or questions about whys and wherefores. I find it more empowering to believe our life path can be determined by our choices. But then I wonder if there is a Divine Plan for those of us who choose to live the examined life. Perhaps Ruth staying in the Amish culture into which she was born and me leaving and choosing my life path are both part of this Divine Plan. Maybe without knowing it, we are following the path that was already marked out for us.