Life inside an Amish Home

The garden still needed more weeding as the sun slid below the horizon, taking with it my ability to distinguish between weeds and produce. Laundry on the clothesline flapped in the nighttime breeze and supper dishes sat in the sink, reminding me and my Amish friend, Anna*, that we’d moved too slowly through the chores as I spent a day learning to handle the summertime responsibilities of an Amish woman.

Tomorrow, Anna’s morning would begin before daylight, as she prepared breakfasts, pack lunches, and passed around clean clothes for her husband and three oldest sons. The boys had already graduated from the eighth-grade, one-room school house and now apprenticed full-time within the Amish community.

Crossing the lawn without the privilege of flood lights or streetlamps, we checked on our youngest children. They were sitting around a campfire with one of Anna’s teen sons, roasting marshmallows and making s’mores. The fireflies they’d caught earlier glowed in a jar beside them, waiting to be released.

Anna and I went separate ways in order to finish the day’s work, she to the clothesline and I to the kitchen.

Washing dishes by kerosene lamp, I could see Anna through the window. Her silhouette was bathed in moonlight as she removed the last of the laundry. As I wiped sweat from my face, I heard her call to the children, telling them it was almost bedtime.

While Anna’s children doused the campfire, my son made his way inside, washed up at the mud sink, and waited for me to escort him through the dark home. I took the kerosene lamp and we climbed the wooden, spiral stairway. A mule brayed, cows mooed, and bullfrogs from a nearby pond croaked—all quite loudly. I had to smile, but I knew before sleep came, I’d long for some type of electrical device to block out the sounds of the farm and cause at least a stirring of the summer’s humid air.

Five years ago, as a resident of Georgia, I was quite doubtful that I could find a way to interview someone living an Old Order Amish life, but I had a story living inside my heart and I needed an inside view of Plain living to be able to write it.

Growing up in Maryland, I’d had an Amish best friend, and our adventures—along with the reservations of our parents—generated a desire to write about the joys and difficulties of relationships—both within their community and with outsiders. But, like many writers, actually beginning to write those stories took place decades later. Long before I sat down to write, my family had moved away, and my Amish friend and I eventually lost all contact.

But in 2002, my sister was living in Pennsylvania, and after several weeks of asking around, she connected me to Linda*, who, at an Amish birthing center at one time and as an EMT among the Amish. Of all the Amish people Linda knew, she could only think of one who might be willing to answer questions—if my queries went through Linda. This began a complex, long-distance relationship where I’d ask Linda questions and she’d pass them on to Anna. Then I’d write segments of my novel and Linda would take them to Anna to read. Over a year into this relationship, Anna told Linda I should come to her place for a visit.

Since the Old Order Amish community travels by horse and buggy, a hired driver, or by train it seemed the perfect opportunity to travel as my character would in my first book, When the Heart Cries.

So, at midnight, during the heat of summer in Georgia, my youngest son and I went to the train depot.

After waiting for close to two hours at the dark, unmanned depot, the train did arrive, as I assured my son it would, and we began our eighteen-hour trip, changing trains in Philadelphia before arriving in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

That was the first trip of what is now a yearly visit. Anna and I have become friends. We marvel now that it was easier than either of us expected, but we were both moms, interested in raising our children to know the creator of the universe and live by His Word. That one bond was strong enough to transcend all differences and unite us in understanding each other. Since that first visit, our youngest sons look forward to our next get-together months in advance.

This past summer, her husband, Simon*, and my husband, Tommy, met for the first time and spent a day journeying through Simon’s world as an Old Order Amish man.

Simon’s family trade is timber framing, an intricate skill of taking square timbers and building a frame in a way that supports an entire building without nails, bolts, or screws. This is part of the Old Ways the Amish fathers have passed on to their apprenticing sons for generations, begun before nails, screws, or bolts were easily accessible and affordable through mass production in the nineteenth century. Wooden pegs are driven in the tightly fitted joints. Timber framing is used for houses, barns, and even on modern office buildings, and it’s even reported that timber framing is as strong as a steel structure.

The two men compared notes on the differences in living Plain or living English. An Englischer (spelling in accordance with the Pennsylvania Dutch language) is anyone not Plain. The women of Plain Amish and Mennonite sects wear the prayer Kapp and cape dresses (a particular style of dress) and the men dress plain in accordance with their sect. The men in many sects grow a beard as a sign of being married and the single men are clean shaven.

Later Tommy shared his thoughts with me:

Simon is a warm, friendly, bear of a man that has an easy laugh and he wears a natural, pleasant smile most of the time. We talked of family, faith, cows, horses, timber framing, land surveying, and life.

Tears came to both of our eyes as he described to me the acts of heroism on the part of the law-enforcement officers who tried so desperately to save the children the day of the Amish school shooting. The pain was raw as Simon shared the aftermath the community still faces from the incident. Anna and Simon have siblings whose children attend that school. (Nickel Mines Amish School, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. October 2, 2006)

Simon talked openly about the patriotism he and the Amish have for our country and the troops fighting in Iraq. Even though the Amish are non-resistant and don’t agree with war, they are deeply respectful of those who give their lives to protect the country and the Amish often become involved in service to the military families left behind.

I found when I spoke of my modern day life amongst fast vehicles, computers and electrical gadgets, that there was a hollow sound to it compared to his life. An uncomfortable desire for simpler things invaded my mind.

My time with Simon was much too short. I can’t remember ever enjoying a conversation with anyone as much as I did with him. Simon seemed to be living the real American dream, the one that’s slower paced, quieter, and filled with hard work, but also time in lawn chairs, visiting with family and friends.

The ability to live Plain in a modern world began generations before Simon was born and through ancestral as well as personal determination to stick to the Old Ways, the heritage continues. The community is self reliant—not something any one family can do because they decide to live the simple life. The Amish provide training and jobs for their own. When Englischers are sitting in a classroom through high school and maybe college, the young Amish men and women are being full-time apprentices in vocations that won’t lay them off or fire them. If one job comes to an end, an entire Amish region, filled with Amish entrepreneurs, will begin trying to find a place for them. This worked well when the primary industry shifted away from farming.

Regardless of how some in the mainstream may feel about living such a unique life, the wisdom and grit to change only when necessary and never for the sake of convenience, entertainment, or ease of lifestyle has equipped the Plain to hold on to a lifestyle they believe in.

My husband found the timber framing work absolutely beautiful and the skill unsurpassed. The generational trade that goes farther back than Simon’s life and is aimed at going on into the lives of his grandchildren and great grandchildren is remarkable. The work ethic, as well as the camaraderie, in every generation working that day was incredible. And my husband’s observations left me wondering if Georgia will remain this author’s place of residence.

At times, to help me get a feel for living Amish, Anna and I worked the garden, washed clothes by means of a wringer washer and hung them out to dry, prepared meals without electricity, and drove by horse and buggy to visit relatives so that I could get some hands-on perspectives of other Amish livelihoods . We met bakers, blacksmiths, horse trainers, and many types of carpenters. Our youngest sons fished, played ball, rode scooters as well as horses, and walked to the one-room school.

My son says the only part that ever bothers him while we’re visiting is the inability to escape the heat, even at night. His joy could stretch for months if he could run a fan at night, giving him two things he’s used to: the mechanical purring of an electric motor and artificially produced air. I find it interesting that he doesn’t miss all the electronic gadgets that permeate our home.

On the last day of our visit in 2007, Anna and I sat under shade trees near her well-tended garden and chatted for several hours. After covering the highlights of all that’d taken place since the last time we saw each other, we talked of the book I was working. We brainstormed on other books and dreamed of collaborating on a writing project one day.

While we spent our day in relative leisure, a mile down the road, Anna’s daughter-in-law and her sister canned a hundred quarts of corn—without even the whir of an electric fan to cool things off. She has a toddler and is expecting another baby soon, so when I spoke to her that evening, she was looking forward to taking it easier the next day. But the satisfaction of planting, tending, and harvesting from her garden and preparing for winter months seemed to give her more energy than if she’d worked in an air-conditioned office.

As our last day to visit slipped into evening, we sat in the front yard, under the stars. The frogs croaked loudly and the moon’s reflection glimmered brightly across the pond. The phone in its shanty near the side of the barn remained as quiet as usual. Many of Simon and Anna’s family had gathered with us: parents, young children, adult children, spouses, and, at that time, their only grandbaby. I could see that the peaceful sounds of the surrounding farm had settled into my husband’s soul and he longed for more.

The use of kerosene lamps to navigate a dark house, washing dishes by hand three times a day, and hanging laundry outside year round would take more of an adjustment for me than a few lessons from Anna. I longed for my Blackberry, Windows Vista laptop with high speed, Wi-Fi Internet, and let’s not forget about the air-conditioning, electric washer and dryer, or ease of jumping in my van to grab a bite out to eat.

But my affinity for technology and Anna’s resistance to it doesn’t diminish the kinship we share, knowing those things make no difference to our God who is no respecter of persons. (Acts 10:34)

*names have been changed to assure their privacy

Look for Cindy Woodsmall's New book When the Soul Mends. It is the third and final book to this series. You'll definately want to pick it up. I have read all these books they are amazing. I can't wait to see what Cindy writes next.


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