This book is dedicated to my mother, Ida Mae (Yoder) Wagler, whose quiet inner strength sustained her through the long and difficult journey that was her life. She never wavered in her deep love for all her children, even, and maybe especially, for her wayward sons, who broke her heart again and again. Her love was her sustaining strength.
One fateful, starless, April night, I got up at 2:00 a.m. in the pitch black darkness, left a scribbled note under my pillow, and walked away—all my earthly belongings stuffed in a little black duffel bag.
Seventeen years old, bound for a vast new world. In my eager mind, the great shining vistas of distant horizons gleamed and beckoned. A world that would fulfill the deep yearning, the nebulous shifting dreams of a hungry, driven youth. And it would be mine, all of it, to pluck from the forbidden tree and taste and eat.
I could not know that night of the long hard road that stretched before me. That I was lost. I could not know of the years of turmoil, rage, and anguish that eventually would push me to the brink of madness and despair.
And so I walked on through the night. Within a month or so, all five of my buddies would follow. And the shattered little community of Bloomfield, Iowa, would reel and stagger from the bitter blow. From the shocking scandal, the shame and devastation of losing so many of its young sons to the “world.”
My long journey had just begun.
No one seems to remember exactly what was going on at the old home farm that day. Can’t say I blame them. There is no particular reason they should.
The one thing everybody does seem to agree on is that it was a typical late August day. Stiflingly oppressive heat. Barely a wisp of a breeze. Not a cloud in the sky. Not that I could confirm or deny any of it. I wasn’t there. At least not when the day dawned.
Some of my older siblings claim the threshers were there—though it was awfully late in the season for threshing oats. The menfolk were probably clattering about in the barn loft, sweeping the old wooden granary bins where the oats would be stored. And soon enough, the neighbors would have come rattling in with teams and wagons to haul the bundled oat sheaves. The threshing machine would have been there too, pulled by an ancient hybrid of a tractor and set up by the barn before the first loaded wagons came swaying in from the fields. Sweating in the dust and heat, the men would have been pitching the bundles onto the conveyor belt that fed the belt-driven threshing machine, where they would have been chewed up, separated, and deposited into the barn as oats and straw. The late harvest was under way.
I’m guessing some of the younger kids were picking strawberries in the field out by the old hickory tree. Seems late in the year for strawberries too, except for the Ever- bearing kind. Those plants produced from June until the fall frosts killed them. My father planted gobs of them every year to sell as produce—and to keep the children busy.
If Mom felt extra tired or stressed that morning, I’m sure she didn’t let on. After breakfast, she and my older sisters were probably doing what they always did: washing dishes, cleaning the house, and preparing the noon meal for everyone, which on that day would include the threshing crew.
But then, my sisters remember Mom abruptly stopping what she was doing. Stumbling to a wooden chair by the kitchen table, her face twitching with sudden spasms of pain.
“Go fetch your father from the barn,” she instructed Rosemary and Magdalena. And off they went.
“Mom said for you to come. Right away,” they gasped. Dad dropped his shovel and rushed to the house, the girls tagging anxiously behind him.
Mom was sitting there at the table, white faced. “It’s time,” she told him. He turned and dashed off to the neighbors’ place a quarter mile to the east. “English” people who had a car.
Moments later, my sisters stood silently by and watched as my mother—still sitting in her chair—was carried to the car by my father and one of the threshers. After easing the chair to the ground, Dad helped Mom shift into the backseat. Once everyone—Dad, Mom, and the English neighbor—was situated, they headed off to the hospital in nearby Tillsonburg.
Except for Rosemary and Magdalena, I doubt the rest of my siblings had any clue what was going on. They may have noticed that Mom had gained some weight lately and that she seemed tired a lot. But in those days, in that setting, no one spoke of such things. Especially to young children.
Dad didn’t return home until supper time, and when he did, Mom was not with him. My sisters remember the children gathering round.
“We have a little baby,” Dad announced, beaming. “A boy.”
They murmured excitedly. “A baby!”
“Mom is staying at the hospital tonight. We’ll go get her tomorrow.”
I’d like to think my birth was an important event, and to some extent, of course, it was. But in Amish families, the arrival of a new baby isn’t treated the same as it is in “English” families, where everyone fusses rapturously. For the Amish, where it’s not at all uncommon for families to have upwards of ten children, a new baby just isn’t that big a deal.
By the time I came along, my parents already had eight children. Four boys and four girls. An even number of each. I broke the tie. Number nine.
I’d like to think, too, that the choosing of my name was the source of much somber thought and measured consideration. Serious weighing of various possibilities and combinations. Perhaps even reciting the finalists aloud a time or two, just to make sure the name would fit in the flow of all the others in the family.
I’d like to think it was an important ritual. But again, I know better.
Earlier that summer, Dad had hired a strapping young man to help with the farmwork in return for room and board and a couple of bucks a day. He was Dad’s nephew and my cousin, probably around twenty years old. He was a fine, upstanding fellow, by all accounts. Hardworking, too. His name was Ira Stoll.
By the time Dad had fetched Mom and me from the Tillsonburg hospital the next day, someone—I suspect it was my two oldest sisters—had come up with the fateful suggestion: “Why don’t we name the new baby boy Ira?”
“After our cousin?” I can imagine Dad stroking his long black beard thoughtfully.
Mom, resting in bed, did not protest. In fact, I’m guessing she was even a little relieved. And so it was settled, in the most lackadaisical manner imaginable. With zero fanfare or fuss, I was saddled forever with the name Ira.
No middle name.
And thus began my life in the Old Order Amish community of Aylmer, Ontario.
The Old Order Amish are a pretty exclusive group. And there really aren’t that many around. By latest official count, right at a quarter million worldwide. It just seems as if there are a lot more because, well, the Amish are so different.
So quaint and old fashioned.
And so ideal. At least from the outside.
It’s not their fault that English society finds them endlessly fascinating. Mostly, they just prefer to be left alone.
A few defining factors must exist for one to be considered Old Order. First, and most critical, no cars. Horse and buggy only for local transportation. Second, no electricity. Not in the house or in the outbuildings. Third, no telephones in the house. Old Order Amish fiercely and jealously defend these boundaries.
Of course, there are a few other defining characteristics: All Old Order women wear long, flowing, home-sewn dresses and some sort of head covering with chin strings. The men wear homemade trousers with no belt loops and no zipper, just a large, four-buttoned, horizontal flap across the front. Barn-door pants, we called them. And all the men have beards. At least the married men do. A full beard is pretty much a universal requirement. But no mustache.
Which makes little sense, really. If it’s biblical to grow a beard, one would think it’s just as biblical to have a mustache. It’s all naturally growing facial hair. But somewhere along the line, back during the Civil War, supposedly, the Amish decided that mustaches looked too militaristic. And since that time, the mustache has been strictly verboten.
Not that this issue hasn’t been a cause of much dispute and dissension over the years. Always, it seems, some wild-eyed heretic somewhere is spouting Scripture and publishing bombastic little pamphlets arguing in favor of the mustache. Such arguments, however logical, have always been rejected by the powers that be, with the mighty hand of the church forcing the heretic to either repent or be expelled.
Other than the facial hair thing, there is wide variation and a lot of inordinate fussing within Amish circles. Some groups use only hooks and eyes on their clothes; others use buttons and snaps. Some pull motor-powered machinery with their horses; others refuse to use motors at all, not even small gasoline engines. Some groups allow little phone shacks at the end of the drive; others have phones only at their schoolhouses. Still others have no phones anywhere and must bother their English neighbors in an emergency.
Most Old Orders use buggies with steel-rimmed wheels, though a few allow rubber-covered rims. In most communities, the men wear suspenders, or “galluses,” to hold up their pants, but no communities allow belts. The size and shape of the women’s head coverings vary greatly from region to region. As do the length and fit of their dresses. And so on and on.
Most Old Orders today have running water in their houses; only the plainest groups reject indoor plumbing. And some practice strict shunning of former members, while others are more relaxed about those who leave.
Amish life is made up of a mishmash of confusing rules about what’s allowed and what’s forbidden. Most of them make little sense, especially to those on the outside. They don’t have to, as long as they make sense to the Amish themselves. Which, I suppose, they do.
Despite the differences, almost all Amish are considered Old Order as long as they don’t allow cars or electricity, or phones in the houses. I say almost all, because some groups, such as the Swartzentruber Amish and the Nebraska Amish of Big Valley, Pennsylvania, reject the Old Order label. For them, Old Orders are too modern.
I grew up in Aylmer, an Old Order community located about thirty miles southeast of London, Ontario. As Amish communities go, it was considered middle of the road, or somewhat moderate in its rules.
The Aylmer community was founded in 1953, after a small exploratory group, which included my father, traveled by Greyhound bus from Piketon, Ohio, to the Aylmer area to scout for suitable land to settle. Why they ever wandered into southern Ontario remains a mystery, at least to me. But they did. And for some reason—perhaps on a whim—they got off the bus in Aylmer, walked into the office of a local real estate agent, and asked if he knew of any farms for sale in the area.
After regaining his composure at the sight of the gaggle of plainly dressed, bearded men before him, he allowed they had come to the right place—and what do you know, it just so happened that he did know of a few farms for sale!
He squired them about the area for a few days. Was most gracious and attentive. Probably couldn’t believe the good fortune that had dropped out of the sky. Imagine it—a hapless pack of wayward Amish people emerging from the bus and asking to buy land. An agent’s dream.
And the men were impressed. Their new buddy showed them several farms for sale, amazingly all within a two-mile range or so. They boarded the bus and returned to their families, singing the praises of this new land. In the following months, they returned and bought farms. The Aylmer Old Order Amish had arrived.
Most of the original Aylmer Amish settlers were young—in their thirties and forties— with young children. It was a rare and unusual thing back then to just up and move and establish a brand-new settlement, especially so far away, and in another country, yet. A bold thing. Even a brazen thing. Who did they think they were?
But those concerns didn’t faze them. They were idealists, with their own progressive beliefs and newfangled ideas of how one should live. They were determined that this new settlement would be different from all the others. More pure. They would not tolerate the sinful habits and customs common in the older, larger settlements: smoking, drinking, or “bed courtship” among their youth. And their youth wouldn’t be allowed to “run around” wild, driving cars and partying. This they purposed firmly in their hearts. Dark and humorless, the men peered about suspiciously for the slightest hint of sin among them.
The Aylmer community considered itself an example for the lesser elements.
The perfect church.
The “shining city on a hill,” from which would come noble directives about how people should live. Pronouncements that were particularly harsh toward communities that allowed tobacco use and/or bed courtship. And toward fathers who worked away from home instead of farming. There were proclamations about not spending money eating out in restaurants and about how children should be raised and disciplined.
In time, people came in droves to see the place for themselves, the perfect church, the place that issued such grave and noble proclamations. They came from all over: from the small communities dotted about in the various eastern and midwestern states. From Michigan. From northern and southern Indiana. New York. Wisconsin. From the hills of Holmes County, Ohio. And, yes, even from the blue-blooded enclaves of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
The visitors displayed a wide variety of dialects and dress. Daviess County people talked fast and sloppy, with many English words mixed in. Holmes County people conversed in a slow drawl, taking forever to get anything said. Even their English taxi drivers spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. And Lancaster, well, those people used old German words we had never heard before and had no idea what they meant. We thought the Lancaster people the strangest. They were certainly the most unlike us. The men wore wide, flat-brimmed black hats, and the women sported funny little heart-shaped head coverings. We even heard rumors that their buggies were quite distinct from those in other communities. Rectangular, like a box, with straight sides. Not angled in at the bottom, like those in most communities. And rounded tops. Hilarious to us, and strange.
Guests frequently arrived unannounced, often just minutes before mealtime. Many of my early childhood memories include having strangers in the house, company from other communities who stopped by for a meal or for a day or for the night. Mom always scratched together enough food for everyone. Cheerfully. Only later in life did I ever consider how inconvenient that must have been for her at times. My sisters, too, have commented that they would bake a cake or some other delicacy, only to see it wolfed down by hungry guests they would never see again.
Some guests left bigger impressions than others. Once, when I was about four years old, a couple stayed with us for the night. The man had salt-and-pepper hair, a sharp, pointy little beard, and piercing eyes. I was terrified of him for some reason and thought he looked quite evil. The next morning, as they were getting ready to leave, he looked right at me and asked if I wanted to go home with them. They needed another little boy, and I would be just the ticket. I was horrified and speechless, and wildly shook my head. He was, of course, only joking, but I didn’t know that. I learned to keep my distance from our guests after that.
Once, several couples from Lancaster stopped by for a late afternoon meal. Only Dad and Mom ate with them. The visitors requested cold peach soup, which consisted of cold milk, peaches, and soggy lumps of bread. Standard fare in Lancaster County, we had heard. We lurked behind the curtains and watched as the adults sat there primly, visiting and eating the cold, gooey mess as if they enjoyed it. Though we were relieved not to have to eat the atrocious concoction, nobody collapsed after eating it, so it must have been okay.
Occasionally single men would make the pilgrimage to Aylmer, emerging from the hills of who knows where, on a mission to find wives. Wild eyed and shock haired they came, sometimes lurking about the community for a week or two. None, as far as I know, were successful in their mission.
One such long-bearded youth stayed with us for a few days. The first day, he asked for a basin of water and towels; then he disappeared behind our large barn to “wash up.” I don’t know why he didn’t just use our bathtub. They probably didn’t allow indoor plumbing where he lived.
It was a good thing, I suppose, to be exposed to Amish people from other communities. It greatly broadened our experiences and our views, albeit still from inside the culture. Sure, we made fun of what we had not seen before and what we didn’t understand. But we absorbed it too. And eventually we came to respect others who were different from us.
It’s a strange but indisputable fact: Even among the Amish, other Amish seem odd.
NOTE FROM IRA:
During these past four years, I have never asked for anything from you, my readers. Never. I wrote and posted, and you came and read. I want to continue that relationship. But this one time, I am asking you for something more. I’m asking you to pre-order my book (at a substantial discount) on the Amazon link below. If you’re going to buy the book (or two or three copies) anyway, please do so now.
This book is a miracle, at least to me. Without all of you, it would never have happened. The book would have joined the ranks of history’s myriad unknown and unpublished potential works. A silent intense vision, burning somewhere deep inside the recesses of my frustrated mind, doomed before its birth.
And yet, because of you, here it is. Thanks for reading my stuff.Share