Aug 20, 2005

Barefoot Amish Mother of Ten Seems Happy

Well, I couldn't resist adding blueberries to the peach crisp I made, and they colored the whole thing blue, oh well. It was delicious, and was duly devoured my our fellow CSA members.

We met the Stoltzfus family and their ten children, ages 17 down to 4 months. All of 'em barefoot and quiet. Henry, age 8, was willing to speak when some of them took us on a tour of the barn to see the animals. Their mother, also barefoot, is a cheerful plump woman in her late thirties. Her "Pennsylvania Dutch" accent sounded almost like it had an Irish lilt to it, and when she was taking us down the endless rows of squash I was wondering about that, and also remembering the nearby town of Colerain and a "Derry Road," (also towns in the North of Ireland) and speculating idly about the early Anglo-Irish settlers mixing with the Amish. People asked questions like "What do you do about Japanese beetles?" and "When will the spaghetti squash be ready,?"and I wanted to ask her, "Was there ever another life you envisioned?" "Is this life enough for you?" "Is it too much for you?" The questions I want to ask are huge, unwieldy, impossible.

I'm as fascinated by the Amish as the next person, but I find their rural life of endless physical labor and pragmatic chores horrifying to contemplate in too much detail, especially the women's. Sewing, cooking, washing clothes, cleaning everything including the walls constantly, having babies the "natural" way every year and a half over and over and over and over and over. (I had to have C-sections so I guess I would just be dead a few times over.) The same everything over and over and over. And no way to leave the system without being shunned.

Last summer John and I read a romance novel of his mother's about an "English" design student who develops a crush on an Amish hottie and ends up converting to be Amish and marrying him. It was a howl. She was studying Amish design in school, which is strange because I don't think there's a respectable art school in the country that would consider traditional Amish quilts, for example, to be "designed." The quilts are all very predictable, symmetrical, programmatic patterns with formulaic use of color, aren't they? One of the students at the art school I used to work at told me that her art history instructor called Amish quilt design "mundane." Maybe it's no surprise that a contemporary art history scholar would decry an aesthetic that does not value innovation, period. It's simply not about that and never has been. Amishness is about tradition in the most repetitive sense. And when I was listening to Saloma, the mother, I was thinking, she doesn't have to invent herself. The blueprint for her life is there. She follows it. She fulfills a destiny she has always known, not a personal destiny, but a small role in the destiny of her people, who believe they are following God.

We said goodbye, took our only two children, shod in new sneakers and not quiet at all, and traveled back to the suburbs in the minivan. Saloma and Henry and their children will pick more fruit and vegetables for us in the months ahead. Maybe Saloma will have three or four more children in the next decade. Her whole world supports that, expects it, is leaning toward it. She doesn't need to pick and choose among parenting styles, choose preschools or wardrobes. It's been predetermined, proclaimed by the elders long ago. She doesn't need to stand out, make a statement, be the best mother, have the most brilliant children. She is merely a square on the quilt, helping to form a larger pattern that may not be visible for generations to come.


Songbird said...

I'm reminded of a little lyric from "Carousel," when the women compare notes about men after the clambake. They ask a young woman what marriage is like, and here is her response:

"The clock just takes your life away
There's no relief in sight
It's cookin' an' it's scrubbin'
An' it's sewin' all day
An' God knows what-in' all night!"

I've often tried to imagine what would make such a life feel worth living! Love? I don't think they count on that.

I guess I'd better wipe the fingerprints off the walls.

Amishlawyer said...

There is at least one Irish strand among the Pennsylvania Amish. Julia Kasdorf's biography of Joseph Yoder tells about it. Yoder's mother was Irish Catholic and was raised in an Amish home after her mother died. It would be interesting to find out if Mrs. Stoltzfus is descended from her.