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Finding harmony among my cousins in faith

May 1, 2013

I spent three days as “tourist” in eastern Ohio Amish country over a long weekend with my husband and brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Of course we enjoyed lots of fine Amish cooking in local restaurants.

But the highlight was stepping inside a home at about 5:30 p.m. on Saturday evening where the owner had a small handmade sign out by the road, “Baskets for sale.” Was it too late, were they closed? No, come on in. It’s fine.

And fine baskets they were: hand woven with beautiful artistry that look a lot like the brand name baskets that comes from Ohio but less than half or two thirds the price.

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We walked in the back door to a mudroom where basically the only objects were a small bench and about four or five pair of boots, including small children’s. The next room held a variety of wares their were selling from other crafters, including rows of home canned pickles, apple butter, wedge pillows, a few odds and ends that might appeal to children, and around the edges, all shapes and designs of baskets: a three slot bill/correspondence holder, a basket filing system for on top of a desk, waste baskets, bread, eggs, and garden baskets, over the stairstep baskets, toilet paper holders, tissue holders, cutlery, napkin, casserole, pie carrier, blanket holder—anything that could be fashioned from reeds into a basket. A side room held basket making supplies, and still another room was filled with more baskets for sale.

But I was just as fascinated by what was in the simple and spare other rooms. In the kitchen was a beautiful old cook stove with several shiny stainless steel pots on it, already sending out good smelling whiffs of the family’s evening meal. There were two irons heating up. Besides a table with oilcloth tablecloth, there were a few plain chairs, ironing board, and a large calendar (with no pictures). There was nothing else in the room that I could see. The only light was from gas lighting or from daylight still lingering in the windows.

After making our selections and returning to our minivan, my sister-in-law sighed and said, “I could still live like this.” We were both remembering simpler times in our own childhoods where we washed clothes with wringer washing machines on Mondays and hung them out to dry, gathered eggs in wire baskets, and played in mud and truly had only a few simple dolls and toys, compared to today’s children.

I longed to capture these scenes in photos, but of course know and understand the Amish teaching against the vanity of photography. I figured animals were fair game though: twice now my husband and I have run up a farmer and helpers helping their cattle cross the road in these parts of Ohio.

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At another country store, a proud peacock (are there any other kind?) allowed us to admire his showy feathers.

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But there were endearing rosy-cheeked kids in pony carts driving to town or to a neighbor house. In one backyard where we inquired about a furniture shop, there were two adorable pint sized boys, (had to be twins no more than three years of age), dressed in matching but plain denim coats and straw hats. Matching because that’s pretty much what all the little ones wear—either purchased locally in dozens of small country stores carrying the clothing, or handmade by a family member.

I told my sister-in-law the little denim coats were exactly like the coats my Amish neighbors in Indiana used to wear to school 50 years ago. Among them, my friend Bertha. I identified with her because her name was the same as my mom’s and the family lived only about two miles down the road from us and rode our school bus. Somehow my early school friends were allowed to be photographed in school pictures.

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Bertha is in the front row, far right.
I’m the middle girl in the back row with a splotch (old photo) on my hair, one of the taller! kids.
Ten of us in this photo were either Amish, Conservative, or Mennonite.

My father could and did frequently talk Pennsylvania Dutch so I grew up hearing it when he spoke to neighbors or acquaintances in town. And while I knew they were my “cousins” in my Mennonite/Anabaptist faith family, I was always (shame on me) secretly glad that I didn’t have to wear the very plain clothing or drive buggies or wear a covering or “bonnet” to school. I was glad that I didn’t have to wear long dresses with straight pins instead of buttons.

There is, of course, a great deal of fascination and curiosity about Old Order and Amish folks. My in-laws live in a Virginia community where you can see or pass Old Order buggies almost every day, so it is not all strange. And growing up Mennonite, and working to help interpret Mennonite and Anabaptist beliefs for the general public at the Third Way Café website, I know many of the unusual, silly and even embarrassing questions that people sometimes have and ask.

Last year I got to interview David Kline, an Amish farmer in those parts of Ohio who also happens to be a lovely writer and observer of science and nature who has greatly expanded my appreciation of the Amish way of farming. This year I’m excited about working with an Amish cook demonstrating how to make “Amish noodles” this fall at Camp Amigo’s Road Scholar program, which I blogged about earlier. I have much to learn from my cousins in faith. We’re all just people.

And sometimes the best pictures are word portraits, even though my words here fail. Sometimes the best memories are those you hold in your heart, almost inexpressible. So be it.

***

There are many websites of course but here is one about the middle of Amish country. We stayed at a very fine motel, Dutch Host Inn. No one paid me to write about this!

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