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Called to Be Amish: How I Connect with Marlene Miller’s Well-Told Memoir

July 21, 2015

Book review: Called to Be Amish

The back of the book asks, “Ever wish you were Amish?”

AmishCountryOhioCows crossing the road in Ohio Amish country.

I know some people who have wished that–perhaps fleetingly–traveling through scenic rolling Amish countryside where horses, buggies, kids in cute carts, and neat farms with beautiful vegetable and flower gardens line the highways. We sometimes think of Amish life as quaint, picturesque and all about family, food and farm.

I can’t say that I’ve ever wished to be Amish but in reading a memoir recently, Called to Be Amish, I was taken back powerfully to my own Amish roots (grandparents who grew up Amish) and made to think of my wonderful Amish neighbors growing up, and close grade school friends.

3rdGradeClassMiddlebury3rd grade class at Middlebury Elementary. Bertha, lower right, first row, rode my bus and we sometimes sat together. Ten of those pictured were Mennonite, Conservative, or Amish. I’m middle of “tall” row.

Marlene Miller’s book in the Plainspoken series from Herald Press (disclosure: one of my employers) destroys some of the picture-perfect myth with its relentless portrayal of the hard work inherent with this lifestyle: barn chores, field work, housework, childcare, cooking, canning and cleaning—in addition to Marlene’s husband working in a factory 8-10 hours a day. While this memoir is also a sweet lifelong romance story, much of it deals with the hard realities of every day life.

I was charmed when I read how Marlene met her husband-to-be in almost the same way I met mine—on skates! Different kinds of skates and rinks, and a small difference in who spoke to whom first, and different faith backgrounds, but the same scenario.

First a romantic passage from Called to Be Amish:

As I was making my way around the ice, I noticed a very nice-looking eighteen-year-old Amish boy and his friends skating very well. This boy wasn’t wearing Amish clothes, but I knew he was Amish because of his accent. He really impressed me. I thought he could skate like a pro because he could skate backward just as well as forward.

“Hey, would you teach me how to do that?” I asked. He took off, demonstrating some of his skating techniques … especially making beautiful circles going backward. I took off trying to skate just as he had done …

“No,” he said, you’re crossing your feet over the wrong way. Don’t pick up your foot so much; just let it flow on the ice.”

Then the whiz skater noticed her loose laces and bent over her feet to tighten them, which he said would help her skate better. Marlene writes:

Johnny Miller was so kind and gentle while he tightened the strings on my skates I think I started to fall in love with him right then.

And now a maybe-romantic scene from my own first encounter with my husband-to-be (which I’ve long promised to share and which I’ve never actually published, but I’ll set it up like a quoted passage):

One of my apartment mates my senior year at Eastern Mennonite College was going skating at the new roller skating rink in Harrisonburg and invited me to go along on a Saturday night. I had planned an enticing evening of study. Barbra explained how some of her friends had started skating just to unwind from stress and homework, and how it would do me good, too.

So I agreed to join them. But as I was making my way gingerly around the rink after not having been on roller skates since junior high or high school at Eby Pines Rink near Middlebury, Ind., a guy I’d noticed hot-dogging around the rink skating backward and forward called out to me, “Bend your knees, you’ll skate better.” Was it a pick up line?

I blushed and tried to do so but still likely looked as stiff as I felt. As he passed me again, I probably smiled and shrugged in a gesture of “this is the best I can do” and at some point asked him how everyone took curves so smoothly.

After hanging out with Eastern Mennonite guys the three years I’d spent on campus where everyone was “just friends” and dates were rare, it was, frankly, nice to be noticed. When he finally asked me to skate on a “couples only,” lower-the-lights skate, I panicked momentarily, worrying about what my EMC friends would think of me skating with a “local.” But then I decided I didn’t care.

StuartsSkatetown80sSkatetown in Harrisonburg at our daughter’s birthday party many years later.
Under the red light hanging from the ceiling is near the spot we first met.

So even though Marlene was an Englisher who became Amish as she dated and eventually married Amish-raised Johnny Miller she met ice skating, and I was a Mennonite girl who eventually left the Mennonite church as I dated and married Stuart, a Lutheran, (and together we became Presbyterian, touched on briefly here), I could identify with that fluttery butterflies-in-your stomach feeling.

Stuart1975Top, my husband-to-be when I first met him.

Bottom, dressed up for his brother’s wedding, 1975.

stuartandmelodie1975

I did not come from a difficult or abusive home background like Marlene, but when she also describes the flirting between Amish and English that could go on even while doing the backbreaking, intense, filthy, and stinking job of catching chickens and loading them on trucks in the dark of night, I found other connecting points in Called to Be Amish.

Marlene writes of making and wearing her first buttonless cape dress, the kind where Amish use straight pins pushed through the cloth opening to hold things together, and the gicks you receive to your flesh as you move about in the dress. Oh my! Gicks was a Pennsylvania Dutch word? We had always used that in our home for something that pricked or stuck your skin, but I do not think I knew it came from Pa. Dutch.

The same mouth-dropped-open feeling came to me when she talks about teaching her child that something was bache or yucky (and she uses the word yucky in her book to help explain the meaning). If I ever knew bache was Dutch, I do not remember that now. I was well aware of many other Pa. Dutch words that sprinkled our conversation because my father loved using it on us, and whenever he’d talk to his Amish friends, or occasionally with his dad and mom who lived in a “dawdy” type apartment attached to our own farm house. Schushlick, (uncoordinated); strubblich, (messy, as in hair); doppich, (inclined to drop things) and oh yes, shiesh stihl (shut up, slightly vulgar)—were all words we knew and used (and my spellings may not be quite right here.)

I also stepped back in time as Marlene wrote about her husband or oldest son climbing up the silo rungs to throw pitchforkfuls of silage down the chute. The dangerous levels of fumes in silos are something to be very careful about of course, and my dad was always careful about making sure proper ventilation was maintained. Somehow as the third daughter, I don’t specifically recall throwing down silage but I certainly remember the smells and watching my older sisters climb those high rungs. (We no longer used the silo when I would have been big enough to handle that responsibility.)

Back to the present: these days one of my tasks is working long distance with Old Order Amish columnist and cook Lovina Eicher, which MennoMedia began syndicating a year ago as “Lovina’s Amish Kitchen.” Lovina and her mother before her, the late Elizabeth Coblentz, has made a cottage business out of sharing a weekly recipe along with the ups and downs of her family of eight children, the oldest of which is planning to get married this August. So Marlene’s descriptions of preparations necessary for an Amish wedding and holding church service for hundreds in one’s home (or barn, as the case may be) are fascinating, and a reality which Lovina, my work colleague, (from a distance) is living.

If you want to catch up with that kind of authentic Amish living from scribe Lovina Eicher, head over to Lovina’s Amish Kitchen blog where her column is posted each Friday after it has appeared in newspapers, or join the Facebook page we manage for her at Lovina’s Amish Kitchen.

And if you want to read 50 years worth of Amish living from the viewpoint of a non-Amish woman turned faithful and committed Amish—with homemade cape dresses, pinpricks and all—check out Marlene’s memoir. This is an Amish romance in real life, complete with Marlene’s own unplanned pregnancy, deep despair when life with three children all in diapers threatens to overwhelm her, tragic turns, and ultimately a faithful love that lasts a lifetime.

CalledToBeAmish_frontcover***

Have you ever thought you wanted to be Amish? How and why? Why not?

Or if you are formerly Amish, or your parents were, we’d love to hear from you her here!

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17 Comments
  1. The title drew me in of course and then all the connections between you and Marlene – awesome! I am working into my memoir some PA Dutch expressions that I remember. Mother said “poo bache” when something smelled stinky. Close enough. The other expressions resonate with me too. I have never found a reliable source for spelling.

    This book looks way more attractive to me than any Amish romance novel. Amish + romance in an authentic setting has my vote. The cover looks enticing too. I should read this!

  2. Now that you mention “poo bache” I have to chuckle; I know my sister would say that when changing the diaper of her first two babies, when I was around her. Another thing I’d forgotten!

    I think you would enjoy the book, Marian. Frankly it makes me grateful that, even though I/we work hard (I was out picking and canning beans this morning before coming to “work”)–it is nothing compared to what Marlene and Johnny did over the years to feed all their children!!

    Thanks for being such a loyal commenter. 🙂

  3. Athanasia permalink

    I see that you have added the archive and subscribing option now to Lovina’s blog. That’s good.

  4. Caro - Claire Wiles permalink

    I am very backed up in my emails and readings
    I took the time tonight to try to get caught up and thoroughly enjoyed reading this one
    Thank you once again for sharing your stories

  5. These stories, real Amish and Mennonite crossover romances, are delightful. I loved this sentence: “Johnny Miller was so kind and gentle while he tightened the strings on my skates I think I started to fall in love with him right then.”

    The hard work she describes and the PA Dutch expressions resonate also.

    Very few people would be able to be Amish, even if they admire them very much.

    Glad you have your Stuart and that Marlene has her Johnny. Wisdom emerges as traditions unite, strengthened by faith, hope, and love.

    • I agree that very few would be able to be Amish. The work is daunting. I was glad to see that towards the end of her book, Marlene seemed to have found a place for her mother in her life again.

      Regarding wisdom emerging as traditions unite, at Mennonite World Conference on Saturday, I was moved to meet the two seminarians who began the movement of Lutherans and Mennonites reconciling after all these years. A future topic here, for sure! Thanks for pausing here. Your own Blush memoir came up over the weekend as I spent time discussing books, EMU & Mennonites & the future with a college friend in Lancaster. 🙂

  6. Huh! Your phrasing, Melodie, when you mention the gicks you “receive to your flesh,” makes me think of hair shirts. I know, I know, that’s not the reasoning behind the straight pins. At least I don’t THINK so.

    • The issue of using straight pins instead of buttons–alone–would be enough to keep me from ever wanting to be Amish. Just for the record. 🙂

  7. Athanasia permalink

    Melodie, I bought the book for our church library. It has many nice pictures which are always a plus in a bio/autobio type book. It is also very well written.

    • Glad to hear you got the book for your church library–and I agree about photos in a memoir or bio. Thanks for letting me know!

  8. Athanasia permalink

    No, no, never thought about being Amish. Perfectly content as I am. My children have not gone off looking for other fields either so I am happy about that. I have no Amish in my background. I did marry an ex-Amish turned Mennonite. I have many ex-Amish inlaws and many many more Amish relatives from his side that we don’t really know. We try to keep in contact with the distant part of his family and keep current with their doings by mail. His parents are both gone but 6 of his siblings live with in a couple hours of us, or less. His parents did live with us the last years of their lives, when they were unable to stay where they were.

    We live in an area where Amish, Old Order Mennonite and Brethren cross many paths.

  9. Fascinating in-law background you have! Thanks for sharing more.

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