Christmas Shopping with the Amish

My spirits rose with the car as I crested the hill on route 30. An Indian-summer sun shone on the patchwork of green and gold fields stitched between the barns, farmhouses and villages that quilted the rolling hills of Lancaster County. The light lit the road like a silver river, carrying me back in time through the open land I had believed was as limitless as the life waiting before me when I was a child in Pennsylvania.

The signature, ringing sound of The Edge’s guitar work brought me back to the present. I smiled when I realized my Ipod had shuffled to the day’s perfect track. I sang at the top of my lungs, stealing the lead from Bono while U2’s “In God’s Country” accompanied my descent into the homeland of the Amish.

Maybe it was the difference a day can make that made my mood soar. I had spent the previous afternoon locked in a conference room with colleagues and clients, battling over budgets and trying to save a well conceived ad campaign from the slow death of redesign by committee. That stale space felt a thousand miles away today. I rolled down my window as I passed a pasture, took a deep breath and was knocked back into my seat by the smell. But I smiled again; I’d take today’s bullshit over yesterday’s, any day.

I was here to help my boss with the peculiar self-assigned community service she performed each year, shuttling a van full of Amish women to town for a day of Christmas shopping. Mia’s Hispanic heritage and head for business had granted her the insight to open a successful marketing agency fifteen years earlier. Over that time, the sensitivity towards the needs of others that she shared with her clients and their Hispanic customers pulled others into her orbit as well. The fact that a chance encounter between a Latina businesswoman and an Amish farm wife a few years earlier had blossomed into a deep friendship between Mia and a entire cadre of Amish women would surprise only those who didn’t know Mia.

I had little first hand knowledge of the Amish - only hazy memories of childhood Sunday drives through their land - when my father would slowly pilot our family’s station wagon around the curious horse-drawn buggies that clopped on asphalt lanes laid for wheels, not hooves. If I was lucky, I’d catch the shadowy glimpse of a straw-hatted head as we pulled past, but t I knew little of the people inside - only that they were farmers, and that their refusal to adopt the conveniences and luxuries of modern life that I knew as necessities was somehow tied to their steadfast commitment to God.

I checked my rearview mirror to make sure Mia was keeping up. She had borrowed her teen son’s white Chevy “sports” van for the day- a relic that rolled right out of the seventies. It was so old and foreign that he found it cool. But I wondered if today’s passengers would agree. They certainly wouldn’t be rocking to its 8-track sound system, and I shuddered to think of the incongruity between what might have happened within those shag-carpeted walls in the past and the chaste exchange of pleasantries that would probably fill it today.

Our destination was Exton. I had visited what had been the town’s small mall in the weeks preceding Christmas each year as a child. It had grown several times since then, trying in vain to satisfy an insatiable American appetite for goods. When the mall’s footprint could no longer be expanded, the stores took off on their own, spilling farther and farther down the surrounding streets, until the fields and farms that had defined the town were buried under a homogenous mix of glass and concrete that cut any connection the place had to its past.

That past was alive and well in the country I now drove through 30 miles west. My GPS led me through the twists and turns that took me to the first trim farmhouse on my list. As soon as we stopped, Sadie popped out of the door, straight from another century. She was in her young twenties, dressed in a long black skirt, black sweater and apron, the only hint of color peeking from her muted blue blouse. Her hair was parted in the middle, with two long, thin curls framing either side of a rosy complexion free of even a hint of makeup. Her head was topped with a crisp white bonnet pinned firmly in place. It was fashioned from two pieces; its flat collar hugged her from ear to ear, supporting a puffy, heart-shaped pillow of open white fabric that delicately screened the head it floated above. Two thin white ties floated freely from the bonnet’s back, unused, frivolous appendages I found curious on the dress of people I’d pictured as fastidiously practical. Her shoes were certainly that, black and chunky, contrasting sharply with her airy white hat, but both seemed at home on a woman who worked close to the land with her mind set on heaven.

Sadie’s greeting, however, was not quite as saintly as her headdress. “Hello’,” she said warmly, then blurted, “are you ready to meet a bunch of crazy Amish women today?” I laughed, taken aback, before leaving to lead the van to our next destination. We made the round through four more farms spread between towns with curiously famous names, driving through Gap and Bird-in-Hand and even Intercourse to pick up four more women. Each wore Sadie’s identical hairstyle and dress, and all greeted me just as warmly - some more direct, others more reserved - but none at either end of those extremes. Marian, Katherine and Barbie were close to Sadie’s age, only Katie was older, a bubbly matriarch in her early fifties who proudly presided over her brood in the van.

Every farmyard I drove into stood before clean, cleared fields and a spotless house - tidy reflections of lives lived in order. I met only one man, when Katie’s husband, Christ (pronounced like “Chris” with a t at the end, not like the savior’s) came out to help me load crates of his eggs into my car to be ferried from his farm to another. He wore a crisp, white shirt under black suspenders, and offered me a gentle handshake and firm smile from a face framed by a wide straw hat above and a flowing mustache-less beard below. I wondered what he must have thought of this strange man who had come to drive his wife and her friends into the bustling commercial heart of the “English” world.

One vignette of Amish life after another flashed past me as we made our way among the farms: a bonneted old woman at the reins of a buggy - waiting to merge her one-horse power vehicle into a stream of 150 horsepower cars, a girl kicking and gliding on a bright red scooter – balancing her body against the giant egg basket perched high on its handles, a young man racing towards a barn - standing braced behind a pair of galloping, muscular horses like some ancient Amish charioteer.

But their were other scenes that were harder to reconcile with my image of the Amish: a bonneted head behind the wheel of a minivan, quiet villages with an occasional store clad in ads and gaudy signs. They were contrasts between centuries that lay side by side, like the old wooden towers and modern plastic tubes that stood and laid as old and new silos together on the same farms. Part of the puzzle was solved later, when I learned that the rules of the Ordnung, the church - sponsored code of conduct that governs Amish life, can vary quite a bit between church districts and settlements. But though that explained the differences between the Amish themselves, it did not reveal where their lives parted from mine, and I spent the day puzzling over just where to place them on the road that ran from the present to the past.

Finally, with the last lady loaded, we headed into town. First stop was Marshall’s, the big, bargain-priced store that set the tone for the day. Thankfully, I was only needed for loading, not shopping, and was delighted to confine my services to the stores’ parking lots. We established a pickup plan, and I blessed the Amish elders who decided that this group of women could pack a cell phone on the trail. I was free to explore the wilds of greater Exton till they called me to help with their haul.

I ran errands to tend to the electronic minutia I’d become addicted to: hunting for a cell phone charger, window-shopping for software, rejoicing when I realized I could fire up my Mac in the wireless food-court. I pecked away and noted the glazed, passive faces of most of my neighbors. The women I had just left were chomping at the bit to roam the aisles, here I joined the ranks of the other shuffling mall-zombies, numbed by too many visits to buy too much stuff that most of us didn’t need.

My cell buzzed to let me know that after sweeping through Marshall’s and the Dollar Store, the ladies were ready for lunch. Mia knew what they wanted and steered us towards the Old Country Buffet. The key to eating out among the English, I learned, was to see what you were eating before you ate - no mysterious menus for this crowd - Old Country was just the place.

I found us a table and quickly saw that the girls in our group were at least thirty years younger than the rest of the clientele. Still, they seemed comfortable, so comfortable, in fact, that it took me a minute to realize I was suddenly starring in a Norman Rockwell painting. And though no neighbors gawked as blatantly as the teen boys who stared at the praying mother and son giving thanks in the diner where Rockwell’s painting, “Saying Grace,” was set, I was sure that the bowed, bonneted heads that blessed our budget buffet made quite an impression, just the same.

I loaded up at the salad bar (trying to eat lean for at least one time that day) and sat down to graze with the herd. I decided to wait for the women to talk, but they were too busy eating to chat. It wasn’t until they circled the buffet again that I realized they were just warming up. They returned with plates piled high with chicken, pot roast, potatoes and gravy, then waited till they were halfway through before the conversation commenced.

The talk started small, and I caught bits and pieces that began to give color to their dark silhouettes; announcements of pregnancies and weddings and other domestic details that shaped an impression of their daily life and future aspirations. Their faces flushed pink as they shared a common laugh over Katherine’s question of how one woman was “making out” at home, their hysterics doubling in volume as they tried to explain the double entendre’s meaning to the older woman to let her in on the joke. Their words were shaded in a slightly strange intonation and delivered in a curious cadence. The sound of their speech was not quite American English, but much closer to it then the heavier accent of a foreigner’s tongue. Their language was mysterious music that seemed to belie the strange place they lived their lives, somewhere between the commerce-crazy culture that surrounded them and their pastoral European past across the sea.

They moved on to the news and weather, debating the efficacy of the swine flu vaccine and questioning global warming’s responsibility for the 70 degree day we were enjoying in late November. I wondered again at just where these women’s lives overlapped the modern world. It certainly didn’t pour into their living rooms through the screens that flashed the flotsam of information that flooded most American homes; perhaps the Amish grapevine carried news as efficiently as   Comcast’s cable.

Finally, their talk settled on what they knew best, but even their discussion of farming centered on the mood of the modern market. They spoke of how the demand for organic food was reshaping farm production, and I learned that they struggled for the same balance between sustainability and profit that the rest of the globe grapples with. When Barbie spoke of the superiority of grass-fed dairy cows, I entered the conversation, recommending Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which ends with a profile of a model, sustainable “grass” farmer. She jotted down the title, eager to grab the book as a gift for her husband. She and the women that shared my table may have lived lives deeply rooted in old-world values, but they were bold and wise enough to investigate and recognize the worth of ideas in the new world as well.

Just when I thought lunch was over, I was amazed to see the ladies make another lap around the buffet. They came back with bowls brimming with towering treats: brownies and slices of pie peeking from mounds of whipped cream and ice cream. They all made the trip - and every one of them was trim - even Katie in her 50’s was leaner than most women her age. I marveled that these thin waifs could put food away like farm hands untill I remembered – that’s exactly what they were.

When the last spoon was settled we made for the van and they began their rounds refreshed. The afternoon was a blur of parking lots as I pulled up to one storefront after another to add bag upon bag to the back of my car. I couldn’t help but notice the contents that spilled from their sacks: a flannel shirt and a pair of wool socks, a set of sheets and a mixing bowl. The ordinary items I’d pick up on a regular run of weekend errands had been elevated to Christmas gifts by these women. No watches, X Boxes or flat screens for them, and I envied their immunity to the mania of a Madison Avenue Christmas. I thought of the gadgets and trinkets that crowded my list: plug-in diversions to keep boredom at bay, or beautiful baubles priced to buy the affection of those who wore them. These women made gifts of the simplest of things, meant to swaddle the bodies and ease the hardworking lives of those they loved.

Suddenly it was 8 PM, and they still weren’t done. They had talked of heading home early at the beginning of the day, but I guessed even Amish women could be swept by the tide of a full-blown shopping spree.  Mia and I ushered the gang into one last shop, then walked to wait in the lot. Neon winked at us from across the street, and ten minutes later we were watching the cell phone, praying it would stay silent while we worked our way through the tall beers and mound of nachos that circled it on the bar. It had been a long day, and while we had enjoyed the company we had been keeping, shuttling them from one big box store to another had proved to be thirsty work. Just after our second round, the cell buzzed to end our party. We grabbed handfuls of mints on our way past the hostess stand, munching and hoping they masked the smell of our secret, happy hour.

We pulled into Penny’s and picked up the crew, who were tired, but still buzzing with tales of the day. By the time we made it to Lancaster, even my GPS was fried. I followed it blindly in circles and rounded a turn, where my headlights caught a cow, sleeping on the other side of a fence. She winced at the intrusion of my high beams into her dreams, and I realized I was entering a world still in synch with the sun and the circadian rhythms of the day. Finally, I surrendered the lead to the van - the women were on their home turf now, and had no problem directing us to their dark and silent homes.

We stopped at Barbie’s first. I popped my trunk and helped her with her bags. Before I could get back in the car she had disappeared into her house and returned to stand beside me. She gave her thanks for the day, offering me a wide smile to go along with the heavy glass jars of pickles and relish she extended towards me.

The smile of a pretty young woman can be a powerful catalyst, and before I could think, the chemical reaction in my brain took the place of my better judgment; I returned Barbie’s smile and went in for a hug. Halfway through my maneuver the sirens went off, when I noticed that Barbie had frozen in place. The normal opening of arms and softening of expression that usually signal the acceptance of an embrace were absent from the stone stance I was approaching. I stopped cold, frozen like some strange bird with outstretched wings who had aborted his landing at the last minute. I mumbled and stumbled back into the car.

I learned my lesson though, and at every subsequent stop I graciously accepted the same jarred gifts with a broad smile and a generous space between myself and the giver. The women had been friendlier and more open to me than I had ever expected that day, but I had found at least one boundary between their world and mine; even the slightest of physical intimacy seemed reserved for their spouses and children. Like anything rare, I expected those carefully awarded affections were all the more precious because of it.

When we got to Katie’s house, she insisted I come inside. There was no flipped switch to suddenly illuminate the rooms we walked through, so I followed her closely, passing shadowy sketches of Amish domestic life. The rooms were well ordered but spare, with no elaborate rugs or pictures, no layered window dressings to hide the bones of the simple home. We made our way through the dark to her dimly lit workshop, piled high with a riot of colorful bolts of fabric and quilts. She told me to pick out a “quillow” – a quilt that folded in on itself to create a tucked pillow – from a vibrant stack of squares. I was overwhelmed by the history of work recorded on the blankets in that small space – hours of pinning and stitching that yielded the beautiful bounty before me. I protested the extravagance of Katie’s gift, but she simply repeated her orders. I left with a soft blue prize tucked under my arm that would later sit on my bed to remind me of the day.

It was almost midnight when we turned onto the dirt road that wound its way to our final stop:  Marian’s hilltop farm. Her young husband, Jacob, emerged from the pitch-black house and offered the same gentle handshake I’d received from Katie’s husband to begin the day. Marian disappeared into the shadows and emerged with two more jars of vegetables for me to add to the larder that had grown on the floor of my car. I gave my final thanks for the night and got back in my Honda to wait while Mia said her goodbyes.

I watched the stage-lit profiles of Marian and Jacob caught in my headlights as they waited for Mia, their features floating in front of their gigantic shadows, cast on the empty white side of the van where they played like a silent movie. Marian’s long, dark hair has slipped the confines of her glowing bonnet, freed after her long, extraordinary day away from the farm. Jacob’s white shirt was rumpled and slightly untucked, and his wavy brown hair was as wild as his bushy beard. I realized he must have sprung from bed when he heard our cars, wakened at what must have been far past the middle of the night for a man who rose with the sun to work his land.

They waited for Mia, as still as a painting; the chiaroscuro-lit farmyard and their antiquated dress adding to the drama of the scene, but their portraits were the details that still burn so brightly within my mind’s eye. Both watched Mia intently as she rummaged through her purse for a pen and paper to exchange addresses. Marian’s mouth faintly twisted as she bit her lower lip, her anxiousness mirrored by her husband’s raised eyebrows and a slight tilt of his head. I realized the cause of their concern was Mia’s mild distress at failing to locate her pen. They simply embraced her consternation as their own.

That simple exchange illuminated a feeling that had grown stronger within me with each passing hour of that day; a day of international travel, that found me crossing the border between suburban Pennsylvania and the rare, agrarian Swiss - German community that thrives inside of it.

It was my deep respect for a people whose lives were built upon respect, where Hochmut (pride) was rejected and Demut (humility) was honored. Lives lived centered on the care of others and harmony with the will of God. Lives like those of the young couple who stood before me, with faces that were as shining and open as their hearts.

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