During a capstone communications course I took in college, our desks were arranged in the shape of a circle. This was done in an effort to enhance communication within the class and it worked well for me. We spent some time discussing subcultures within their larger cultural context. My professor’s slideshow on the topic displayed photos of Australian Aborigines back-to-back with the Amish. Many of my classmates were bona fide New Yorkers, as perplexed by the culture of the American Amish as they were the Australian Aborigines. But the Amish weren’t exactly foreign to me, at least not as foreign as the Aborigines. There are 249,000 Old Order Amish throughout the U.S. and Canada and, as far as I know, zero Aborigines. When the professor asked me to relay my experience with a specific Amish family to the class, I did as she requested, with the faces of my classmates forming a quiet, circular audience.
I grew up in Marietta, Ohio. The Amish don’t live in Marietta, but they do live nearby. We saw traces of them everywhere in town, but the people themselves were missing. Handcrafted furniture made by the Amish showed up in our stores. My friends Alex and Abby, who were twins, weren’t Amish, but their relatives were. And I knew enough to know that the Mennonites, who I once saw modestly lifting the hems of their floor-length dresses and wading in the pool beneath a waterfall in Hocking Hills, weren’t the same as the Amish.When I was 8 years old, my parents took my siblings and me to an auction on a sunny Saturday morning. We traveled what seemed like hundreds of miles at the time, but was actually closer to forty. Being only 4-foot-something, I remember this day as being crowded and boring because I couldn’t see anything. When we left, we took a beautiful antique sewing machine with us. The conversation on the way home wasn’t about the purchase, though. Instead, my parents guiltily discussed the Amish couple they’d beat out in the auction for the sewing machine. Not only did my parents place the highest bid on the sewing machine, but, without pause, they also struck up conversation with the Amish bidders before leaving.
My mother had jotted down the address of the Amish woman, Ruth, in post-auction conversation. Not one to miss a beat when it comes to keeping in touch, my mother soon after sent her first letter to Ruth. The two women began corresponding with each other one handwritten, cursive letter at a time. Moved by guilt, God, or both, my mother had decided to give the old sewing machine to the Amish family. Accompanying the machine would be an old wood-burning stove that had been dormant in our unfinished basement for years. Both the stove and the sewing machine were housed in the garage for a week or so while my father sanded, scrubbed, and polished them. We arrived at their farm in Chester, Ohio, two months after the auction.
The animals and the land were the things I noticed first and because of that, I leaped excitedly out of our aging Toyota Tercel. Rabbits, cows, pigs and ducks scurried away from me in clusters as I ran toward them. The land had been transformed into grids. Carved into the hillside, the rows of half-grown crops made neat lines that blurred into the hazy horizon. One of Ruth’s many daughters offered me a handful of unripe berries, and I noted the unpleasant, bitter taste. She asked if I wanted to try milking a cow (I did). We walked together down to the cow barn. My arms grew tired after only a few minutes. Not much milk had accumulated in those minutes. The cow’s hoof knocked into the metal bucket, spilling my paltry collection. We climbed the hill to the house where the adults had been familiarizing themselves with one another and exchanging gifts. The shiny sewing machine and stove looked out of place in the spartan living room and my mother was clutching a handmade quilt and an apple-filled wicker basket.
We visited Ruth and her family of 7 living children (the eldest son had drowned after a bridge collapsed some time ago) regularly thereafter. Through these visits, I learned small things about the Amish in passing. We could not take pictures of the family members, for instance. I learned not to talk about hairstyles, clothing, or anything else that might make the girls feel uncomfortable. I didn’t really talk to the boys in the family and it seemed as though that was the way everyone preferred things to be. As I grew older, visiting their family became more difficult. I started listening to rock music and that wasn’t something any of Ruth’s children had ever heard, or would ever hear so long as they refrained from using electricity. They weren’t allowed to read the books I was reading; they would never see the movies I loved. The more I began to individually develop, the less I had in common with the family. Had I taken on farming, homemaking, or religion as personal interests, perhaps there would have been more for us to discuss. By the time I began middle school, the best my parents could do was drag me to Ruth’s house kicking and screaming and the tantrum itself was evidence of yet another thing we did not have in common: Gelassenheit.
At some point in time, my mother must have started feeling the disconnect herself. She and my father once visited the family several times a year. These days, they don’t visit at all. Now that my mother keeps in touch with most of her friends through email, her natural gift for keeping in touch seems to have been hampered by the handwritten letter, so they exchange long letters only at Christmas. The letters have the same dull edges and climatic points that a year’s worth of Facebook statuses would.
While visiting the Amish Country near Warsaw, Indiana, last December, my friend slowed the car he was driving through the cold and heavy rain as a horse and buggy passed us. The orange triangle affixed to the bed of the buggy was the only thing visible through the mist. The sky was dark and I imagined the man inside the buggy was eager to get home to his family, and for a moment, the horse and buggy didn’t register with me as unfamiliar. I then imagined the attentive faces of my classmates in that communications course as I told them about my experience with the Amish. My experience associated me with them in the context of that classroom in New York City much more than my actual self was ever associated with them in reality – not exactly foreign, no, but not exactly familiar.