09 October 2006

The Amish

I've been reading a lot about the Amish lately. It's no wonder. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is, in a stretch, within the Greater Philadelphia area. Some of the land of the "Pennsylvania Dutch," more properly called Pennsylvania Germans, is well within the sphere of influence of the Philly metropolis.

My father was born in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania in 1932. His father was a coal miner who died from black lung in his 40's. My grandmother was a very staid, stoic woman who loved but never knew how to display that. We are Pennsylvania Germans.

My maternal grandfather was raised by a abusive mysogynist who beat his children. His Jewish wife (my great-grandmother) divorced him in the 1930's. (Middle to lower-middle class women did not divorce in the 1930's.) My grandfather took the bastard back in at the end and the prick died in my grandfather's home. My grandfather was gruff and unyielding but tempered with a love he could never fully allow himself. We are Pennsylvania Germans.

I've seen this heritage play itself out in both my parents, on both sides of the family, in my father's mother and my mother's father, in myself. I've seen it play out in the Philadelphia Inquirer in the last week, too. And in the faces seen through buggy windows. And in the words of those who would burn down the one-room Amish school house.

There are two themes I keep returning to related to the Amish school shooting tragedy.

The life of the Amish: I've read a lot about the response of the Amish community to the school shooting. It is amazing. Repeatedly, the Amish say they have forgiven Charles Roberts. If you know anything at all about the culture of the Amish and other Pennsylvania Germans and/or Anabaptists, you know they are speaking the truth. They have forgiven him. They attended Charles Roberts' funeral Saturday. The Amish community, which has been receiving funds from all over the world to help with medical expenses for the girls who survived the attack, asked that a fund also be arranged for the assailant's family.

Pennsylvania German culture and my heritage: As I've read of the stoicism, the pragmatism, their lack of pretense and ostentation, I've seen the commonality of our pasts, the common Pennsylvania German traditions. These are people of stiff upper lips. One of my father's favorite sayings was, "What's the use of being Dutch if you can be dense." Along with, "stubborn Dutchman," in reference to himself.

Yes, we are stubborn. And righteous...modern Dutchies are self-righteous...the Amish find their righteousness in God. And empathetic. Pragmatic and realistic, perhaps sometimes bordering on fatalistic. Utilitarian. We are useful people. We derive our sense of who we are by our ability to give help, or to accept it, which is often the greater gift.

I can see the faces of my family in the bearded men and bonnetted women. Especially my grandmother, the young, Christian wife who became an old widow by the time I got to know her, ten years or more after her husband died. No, there was never a buggy. Yes, my grandfather was an alcoholic. My grandmother was the woman who held them together as a family.

All three of her children were alcoholics, my father's sister, Grace, who died when she fell down the steps at age 55. She'd either had an aneurysm burst and fell or fell and caused a bleed in her brain. Either way, there was a brain bleed and a fall involved. There was probably alcohol involved, as well. She died in November or December of 1972. My grandmother followed her in February 1973. I could not attend my grandmother's funeral. She may have been brokenhearted. She'd always lived with Grace and Lee since the family moved to Camden, where his father died, when my dad was 14.

My Aunt Dot married men. I like one man she once married named Walt (also my dad's name). I can never remember Walt's last name but he had a great house...on a lawn... and played the most wonderful music like Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer by Nat King Cole; Ray Charles' Hit the Road Jack and, maybe, Georgia; Chubby Checker's The Twist; Bobby Darin's Mack the Knife. And my favorite...Roger Miller! Anything by Roger Miller but especially King of the Road.

Aunt Dot got married again, after the divorce of course. I missed Uncle Walt's low, white house with green awnings, his wonderful taste in music and his fabulous lawn of green grass. Aunt Dot married Jim, a worse alcoholic than she, and they moved to Virginia. Jim never quite warranted "Uncle" status. I don't really remember much about him.

We went to Virginia once, when I was 8 and had a pixie haircut which I hated. My mother made me get it so they cut off my beautiful, long, dark brown hair. That trip to Virginia was the first time I saw what would become a love of my life...mountains. They were purple off in the distance and, to me, they were majestic. I was in love.

Aunt Dot was in love, too, with a man who was a more intense alcoholic than she. They lived several years partying, binging and generally boozing it up, I'm sure. Then Aunt Grace started going to church. Then she found God...and stopped drinking.

Jim didn't stop drinking and, ultimately, they divorced. Jim died rather young (late 50's, early 60's) from, surprise, complications of the drink. Jim had a Dutchie last name. I wonder if alcoholism is rampant among Pennsylvania Germans who are not part of the Anabaptist tradition. Aunt Dot died at 72 or 74 of cancer, lung I think but it was fairly brief and moderately painless. She bequeathed everything she had to the church. Our family was able to remove perrsonal belongings and family memorabilia.

She worked until she was 70, I believe. My body looks most like hers of all my female family members except my butt and my legs (to the knees) are a little stouter. I loved Aunt Dot when she was a drinker. I loved her when she was sober even though our beliefs were worlds apart. I was happy for her that she'd found a community in which she felt she belonged and was happy there. I didn't love her any less because she belonged to a church that was not accepting of gays and were staunchly "pro-life" and believed in proselytizing. I loved her despite the fact that our spiritual paths had largely parted and despite the fact that her pastor, whom we met when Aunt Dot was in the hospital near the end, looked like a bad televangelist/used car salesman. I loved her because she was my aunt and flesh of my father's flesh.

We are alike in many ways, we modern-day "psychological cannibals" and the Old Order Amish. Our staunch ways, which are all black and white. Our stoicism and the stifling of our deepest feelings for the sake of remaining stoic. Neither group wants to be in the spotlight, either as a group or as individuals...the Amish because they don't want to put themselves forward; the modern Pennsylvania Germans because of our fears. We are no longer able to see the world of the black and white and are swallowed up by the grey uncertainty that life among "the English" provides.

I wish the rest of us could learn some of the lessons of the Amish. The forgiveness and thoughts for other who are also suffering. The empathy. The care.

But this Pennsylvania German woman can't live a life devoid of self-examination. Somehow, I think that's frowned upon among traditional Anabaptist cultures. Similar but still worlds apart.

Some of the other articles I've read in the Philadelphia Inquirer in the last week:

Grief and horror bond a shocked community

Victims' families showed the best part of humanity

Amish vendors awash in condolences

Amish prepare for final rites

Mourning in Paradise: 4 Amish girls are buried

Radical Baptist group drops plan to picket Amish funerals

Funds to aid Amish families and gunman’s kin

A father of three, a killer of schoolgirls

Man kills children and himself in Amish school

In my searching the web for information for this post tonight, I happened upon the following, wonderful sites:

Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area

and, on a completely unrelated note:

Philosophers' Playground which is just what it sounds like.

tags: Amish / Anabaptist / Christianity / morality / Pennsylvania Dutch / Pennsylvania German / philosophy / religion / spirituality


At October 10, 2006 8:06 PM, Blogger Kristin said...

Again, brilliant. I love posts like this - intimate portraits of humanity - and yours is particularly well-written.

I lived in Philadelphia for just over three years (and every day wish I could go back). I saw much of what you first describe among the Amish, Mennonites, Quakers -"stoicism, the pragmatism, their lack of pretense and ostentation", "And empathetic... Utilitarian. We are useful people. We derive our sense of who we are by our ability to give help..." This view came from the most superficial level, I didn't get to know anyone of these sects on a personal level, it was always in passing or observation. Still, this was the overall impression I got.

What stuck out for me most in your words was inre the feeling of love undemonstrated. I remember watching a grandmother and granddaughter working at Reading Terminal Market. She was directing the teenager in business matters in what sounded like a perfunctory, sharp tone, but her eyes were filled with such love and pride. The teenager was just quiet in it. She didn't roll her eyes or complain, or even look like she wanted to. She understood and it was beautiful.

Also: I heart Uncle Walt.

At October 11, 2006 12:26 AM, Blogger Cheryl said...

Gee, thanks, Kristin! Those kind words mean a lot coming from someone who writes as well as you!

It's a shame the only contact many people in the area have with the Amish is at Reading Terminal Market or the Amish Markets around the area. They are so much more than a tourist attraction.

Even living in Reading for two years, I knew very little of the Anabaptists. I'd have the occasional Mennonite patient but that was about it. I almost went to work at Lancaster General a few years back and sometimes wish I'd taken a position there. There were Amish or Mennonite nurses there. I could have learned a lot about the culture had I worked with people of those sects. I never wanted to interrogate any of my patients because, truly, the Mennonites do not like to talk about themselves.

I, too, hearted Uncle Walt. I'm sure some of my now considerable taste in music is due to that early exposure to a variety of really good music. All that was missing was a little Coltrane, Brubeck with a splash of Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt.

Thanks for stopping by!


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