November 16, 2018

Tales of my People…

Category: News — admin @ 5:50 pm

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. . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door.
And of all the forgotten faces.

Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know
our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the
unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his
father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?
Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

—Thomas Wolfe
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It was seven years ago, or so. Right about the time my book was coming out, back in 2011. Back when that impossible dream was unfolding around me. I remember the excitement and anticipation, as Tyndale rolled out the big red carpet for me, right here in my home town. They posted a quarter page ad in the local morning paper, back when there were two. Morning and afternoon. Two days in a row, that ad ran. I cut them out and saved them in a box somewhere. I shuddered to think of how much it cost to run that ad two days. I guess it didn’t matter, really. What mattered was the message. Ira’s new book is here. Growing Up Amish. And there will be a book signing at Berean Book Store (It’s changed names at least twice since then.), there across from Park City Mall. The public was invited to come. Meet the author, get your book signed. It was a big deal, in my head, as first things usually are. My first real book signing at a real book store.

I remember many things about that Saturday morning. The sun shone bright from a blue summer sky. A few fluffy clouds drifted aimlessly overhead. My brother Steve met me in the parking lot. He was about as excited as I was. He had a camera, with instructions to take lots of pictures. I remember the little colored signs taped on the sliding glass doors as we walked in. Signs with my book and my picture. The manager greeted us, a nice, rather rotund man. To him, I was just one more eager, hungry author. Not that he let on, much. He shook my hand and welcomed me. Made me feel important. Then he led me to the table off to the side a bit, a table stacked with my books. I pulled up a chair and set out some pens. My. Hope my hand don’t get cramped from scrawling my name in all those books.

Steve hovered with his camera. Soon, a line had formed. A small line. But a real line of real people. Here. To see me. Well, to see my book, but I was the one who wrote it, so that made me part of the equation. I sat behind the table and smiled at the first two ladies as they walked up. They had purchased fresh new copies and handed them to me. I thanked them, and scrawled my signature inside on the front. That, and the little phrase. “All the best.” We chatted a bit. They were sisters. The tallest one did the talking, mostly. I never forgot her face, because I never forgot what she told me after I signed my first two books in public.

She spoke their names, both of them. Hannah and Rebecca. I smiled. She wanted to tell me. She and her sister came from the Amish, right here in Lancaster County. They were both older, now. Widowed, maybe. I don’t know. They had left way back before I was born. Back in the 1950s. They were completely English, near as I could tell. And I can tell, usually. They had been born and raised Amish in Lancaster County. In the Ronks area. And they had lived most of their adult lives in the outside world, right here in Lancaster County. They never got far from the home where they were born. Well, not physically. In most other ways, they were strangers and exiles, cut off from their people, aliens among their own. It takes a lot of nerve and it takes a lot of strength to live in such a place as that.

We couldn’t talk real long that morning. There were people in line, waiting. But I gave them a few minutes. Asked questions. Heard a few brief details of their lives, and how they broke away, way back. It was a remarkable thing to me, meeting those two ladies. They came from the world I came from, only they had left a long time ago. And another thing was burned into my brain, too, a thing of wonder and some astonishment. They were women. They grew up as Amish girls. It’s a hard road, to break free from the Amish as a girl. That’s not a politically correct thing to say. You ain’t supposed to talk about women that way. As if something is harder for them than it is for men. But it’s true. It’s a lot harder for a girl to break away from the Amish world than it is for a guy. It’s a patriarchal structure, the way the Amish live. The men are in control, or at least they think they are. The women have way more influence behind the scenes than anyone ever acknowledges. This much is true, as well. But still. It’s so, so much harder for a girl to break free. The path is so much more intimidating, the road so much more rocky and steep.

The morning flashed by, then. It was a very respectable book signing, I thought. The store sold out of my books. The nice manager looked a little startled. And I wasn’t done, after leaving that place. That afternoon, I had my second ever book signing across town at Costco. I’m not a member, never have been. But Tyndale made it happen. I walked in, all shy and timid. The Costco people had some real nice posters hanging around. I still have a few, they’re quite faded now. I set up at a table over by their book section. They had a huge stack of my books, hundreds of copies. The traffic came and went. Lots of nice people stopped and got their books signed. By late afternoon, it was over. I packed up and got out of there. I felt like a grizzled old hand, with two book signings under my belt.

Since that day, I have signed thousands and thousands of books for people who asked me to. At formal gatherings here and there, in all sorts of venues both local and far away. The wandering son went back to Old Bloomfield and signed a hundred books, back in the fall of 2011. Twice I went to Germany. And there were all those times over the years when people came walking through the door at work, clutching a copy of Growing Up Amish. It has always been an honor and I have always signed each one cheerfully. I’ve learned a few basic things. It doesn’t matter what your name is, I’ll probably ask how you spell it. (One of the rare exceptions is if your name is Ira. There’s only one way to spell that.) Is it Jane or Jayne? Steven or Stephen? I try to get it right. I usually scrawl “All the best” just above my signature. And I always, always mark the date. You show me a book I have signed, and I can make a decent guess as to where I was, just from the date.

The years have slipped by. And I never forgot those first two ladies who showed up at my first book signing. What were the details of their stories? How hard was that, all those years ago, to walk away from their Amish world? What did they face in life, what all did they endure? Did they stay connected to where they came from? I have wondered about it fleetingly now and then in the days that have passed.

And then a connection came, when I wasn’t looking for it. Out of nowhere, from a most unlikely place, I thought. From the office at work. It wasn’t some stranger walking through the door, though. Not this time. It came from Rosita, my coworker at Graber Supply. Her title is Operational Manager, but she actually runs the place, or much of it. The day to day bookkeeping and such. She looks after all that. And she told me, one day. One of the ladies from her small group at church was reading my book. Their group had hung out for the weekend somewhere, and somehow it came up. It was discovered that Rosita worked with me. I laughed at that thought. I hope you told them, I said. I hope you told them all that you boss me around every day. Rosita looked grieved, or tried to.

And then Rosita told me. Her lady friend had led quite an interesting life. She was widowed some years ago, then remarried. She had lived out west in LA for many years. Now she had returned to her roots. Most importantly, she had been born and raised Amish. And she had broken away as a young single girl. Wow, I said. I sure wouldn’t mind meeting a lady like that. I mean, she would have a lot to tell me. I’m sure we could exchange some battle stories.

The lady’s name was Elizabeth, maiden name Lapp. Her first husband’s last name was Bell. After he passed away, she moved back to Lancaster County. And she connected with a kindly widower, a man named Ezra Stoltzfus. Now she goes by Elizabeth Bell Stoltzfus. And she would be very interested in meeting me, Rosita claimed. We talked about it, how it might come together. Rosita went back and forth, between Elizabeth and me. And we agreed. Rosita and her husband Ken would accompany me to where Elizabeth lived in a nearby retirement complex. And last Saturday, it worked out that we went.

The day dawned cold and windy. I always like to sleep in a bit on Saturdays. And I did that morning. Got up, and cleaned up and ran some errands and got my coffee at Sheetz. Haven’t seen anything of the greasy little weasel man lately. Maybe he’s still coming around and butting in line when I’m not there. Back then, to my house for a bit. Right at 9:45, Ken and Rosita arrived. I walked out with my messenger bag and got into Amish Black and followed them over back roads to where Elizabeth and her husband lived. I stuffed a few books into my bag when we got there. I knew she had a copy of my book, but I’ve learned to drag a few of those with me into any kind of meeting like this. Rosita had told me. Elizabeth had asked if it was OK if her sister would come, too, to meet me. Of course, I said. We parked and walked into the very nice apartment building that made up this wing of the retirement center. Rosita seemed to know where she was going. I followed her and Ken onto the elevator and up to the floor where Elizabeth lived. Through a long hallway, then to the right number. Rosita knocked. The door opened.

She stood there, small and smiling and spry and looking younger than I had figured she would. I took her hand. Spoke my name. She welcomed us and introduced her husband, Ezra, a quiet, beaming man. And back there beside the couch on a chair, that was her older sister, Hannah. I walked over and shook her hand, as well. And I recognized Hannah. I know you, I told her. You were at my first ever book signing. She smiled. “Yes,” she said. “My sister and I were the first in line that day. You signed our books and we talked for a few moments. We couldn’t talk long, because you had a line.”

Wow, I said. I never forgot you. I remember how you told me you had left the Amish many years ago. I always remembered that, and always wondered how your journey was. And they told me, then. Rebecca, the sister who had been with Hannah at the first book signing, had passed away very unexpectedly, not long ago. Within the last year, I think. And they found my signed book in Rebecca’s stuff. The book was marked up some with the notes she had written as she read. Elizabeth had claimed the book and read it. She had never heard of it before. But she read right through, absorbed it. And somehow, she had discovered that Rosita works with the guy who wrote it. She was a little astounded that Rosita could just make it happen, that the guy would come to her home to see her and chat. We all sat, then. And we talked about many things. Me and Elizabeth talking to each other, that’s a lot of what was going on.

Elizabeth spoke freely of her past, her journey. Well, with a little nudge now and then from me, she did. I told her a little about my roads, too, how broken they were and the things that I had seen along the way. She already knew much of my past from reading the book. She showed me the copy I had signed to her sister, Rebecca. I held it in my hands again, the second book I had ever signed at a public event. And it gradually dawned on me as we talked. The reason that she had invited me, and the reason that I had come to see her.

She had done it way before I had, she had fled from an Amish world that was a little different than the one I left. I mean, when you look at the details. It was another place and another time. She was born decades before I was, and in the blue-blooded enclaves of Lancaster County. That alone made her very different from me. But the Amish world we both knew was so similar that there was no denying the connection we made when we met each other. She knew what my journey had been, how brutal and hard the road. And I knew enough about hers to realize that in a real and powerful way, I had walked in this woman’s footsteps. Even though we had never seen each other before.

We talked and talked. Her journey was laced with hardships and a good deal of pain. From all the way back there in 1962, the year after I was born. She was a young girl then of twenty-two, I think she said. She had joined the church. Hannah and at least one of her other older sisters had already left. Not to any kind of Plain place. They didn’t just step over to the Mennonites, like so many people do and like I did at first. They were completely and unabashedly and gloriously English. Cut hair and all. And one night there came a moment when Elizabeth made a stark and simple decision. She would leave. It was late already, and very dark. She had some sort of house slippers on her feet. In those slippers, with the clothes on her back, she set off for her brother’s place. He had left the Amish for some Plain group, and he would help her. And she walked eight miles through the darkness. Alone, along rutted gravel roads. An Amish girl of twenty-two. I don’t care what you say, there are not a whole lot of girls today, at least in western society, who could ever dredge up the raw nerve and strength it took to do such a difficult thing. There are some young women out there like that, of course. Some. What few there are very likely come from the Amish or some lesser Plain group. Which reflects a lot of things on a lot of levels, I guess, when you think about it.

She looked at me as she spoke her story. She walked those eight miles in the darkness sometime after midnight, all on back roads. And at one point, she saw the lights of an approaching car in the distance. It was 2 AM. She quickly decided that it was best to not be seen. So she ran out into the field beside the road and lay down on the ground. In a little ditch of some kind, or maybe the ground was sloping just right. You could see her reliving that moment as she told it. The car came roaring right up even with where she was hiding on the ground. And roared right on by. She lay quiet for a few moments, to make sure the car didn’t turn around and come back. Then she got up and continued on her walk into the darkness in her flimsy, light house slippers. When she reached her brother’s house, her sisters came around and moved her to a new place every day. They kept her moving until they could develop a long-term plan. It was pretty intense stuff, for a single Amish girl fresh off the farm.

Her life took many twists and turns down some crazy roads, of course. You don’t come from such a place without that happening. But she always returned to one simple refrain. The Lord guided her steps. Even when she had other plans, even when she really wasn’t quite sure where she was going, He guided her. Quietly, often with little nudges, not hard whacks over the head. There were some of those, too, I’m sure. There always are. But mostly, she can look back and see now, plainly. How God was always there, even during the times when He seemed far away.

She went to work in a mission place in Canada. Red Lake, maybe. I don’t remember exactly where. In her heart, she wanted to be a teacher, there in the mission to the natives. But she couldn’t without a high school diploma, and college, too, I think. She went to classes to get her high school diploma. In Philadelphia somewhere. And somewhere in that time, she met the man she would marry, the guy named Bell. They settled out in LA around his family. She went into nursing, instead of teaching. LPN, at first. She worked at that level for a good many years, then decided to go get more education. She got her RN degree right around her fiftieth birthday. I could tell she enjoyed all that living of life to the fullest, just from the way she told the story. She could not hide the joy of looking back and seeing it again, to tell me. I listened and spoke a few thoughts, too. The conversation flowed between us quite naturally, I thought.

She saw hard things, too, from her family. All the Lapp sisters did, the ones who left. Hannah and Rebecca and Elizabeth. When their mother died, they were forbidden to attend the family disposal sale. They were never invited around to any Amish weddings in the family, either, of course. That’s a given in much of the Amish world, including where I come from. You don’t get invited to the celebrations. Funerals are another matter. In most places, you can show up for funerals. But sometimes not. I saw the pain in Elizabeth’s eyes when she told me about that. They were told to stay away, when a young niece was tragically killed. They were allowed to attend the viewing only. But not the funeral. And a brother-in-law, too, passed on some years ago. They were called, Elizabeth and her sisters. And they were told. You are not welcome to come, not even to the viewing. I can’t imagine that it was their widowed sister, telling them that. It was the men. It’s always the men, grim, bearded, combative, and legalistic. Telling a family member to stay away from a funeral is a brutal and senseless thing. It’s unnatural, unless you got a dead heart of stone in you. That’s the only way you could ever do such a thing. From a dead and stony heart.

It happens more out there in the stricter places. The really hardcore settlements like, oh, a few places up in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest. And the Swartzentrubers are that way, too, wherever they are. But they are considered half whacked out by most mainstream Amish, anyway. So that’s not a surprise. Whatever level, it’s hard for me to fathom how any human person can be so cold and cruel.

Not long ago, a young mother related to me by blood was barred from attending her own mother’s funeral. I don’t know her, but I know of her. She had left the Amish with her husband and young children. When they showed up for the viewing, they were allowed in, but they had to wear Amish clothes. The next day, at the funeral, the young men met them at the door and rebuked them for showing up and refused to let them in. It’s beyond my descriptive powers to express the horror and repulsion I felt upon hearing what happened. What kind of messed up people could possibly believe they are pleasing God by being so brutally inhumane? They aren’t worshiping God, they are worshiping idols. It’s idolatrous, to cut ties to family blood for pretty much any reason. Such severe shunning is a deep and dark stain among the Amish people who practice it. I call on all such hardcore Amish to repent from their wicked ways. May the Lord rebuke you.

Her eyes shone with tears as Elizabeth spoke softly of the pain of that level of rejection. It was buried deep inside her and it was real. The kind of pain that always bubbles up, fresh and biting. I could only express my sympathy. I know a little bit how that is. Still. I told her. I respect the Amish. They are my people. However flawed they might be. I defend their right to believe as they see fit. Even their right to bar me from coming to a funeral. I know it hurts. It doesn’t have to make sense to me or any of us. They still have that right. I know about the rejection, the hard things, the pain. Life isn’t fair. It never was and never will be. We are who we are and we come from where we come from. We can’t change the hearts of others. Only the Lord can do that. We can pray that He will.

We drank the strong black coffee she brewed and served in heavy coffee cups. She also brought out a large, moist, delicious-looking apple pie and offered us each a slice. I declined and explained my One Meal a Day lifestyle. I told her. I quit drinking whiskey in August of last year. In November, I started OMAD. I love it, and wouldn’t change a thing about it, except I regret having to turn down a good slice of pie like that. She accepted my explanation graciously.

elizabeth and others
From Left: Ezra, Elizabeth, Ira, Hannah

It was right around noon, I think, when we left. I need a pic before we go, I said. So we posed for a few. And that was my meeting with Elizabeth Lapp Bell Stoltzfus. The lady who left the Amish by walking eight miles through the night. A long time ago, when I was an infant. She saw hard things. She walked on broken roads. I’m glad I got to hear her story. And one day, if I ever reach a similar place, I hope I can reflect the joy of a life well lived as she expressed that joy to me.
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It’s Amish wedding season. We’re right in the thick of things, around here. Every Tuesday and Thursday, the buggies clog the roads. It’s a real hazard, really, but it’s just part of the local scene. I have mentioned it before, about the Amish. They have a special food that’s served at every single one of their weddings in Lancaster County. It’s got a one-word name. Roasht My knees tremble and I start shivering when I get to be around where that food is served. All the vain boastings, all the hifalutin’ airs of the Lancaster blue bloods, all that is entirely justified by this one single mouth-watering dish. Such a claim as that I make.

I got a few contacts around here, people who are Amish and attend Amish weddings. Last month, as I do every fall, I pestered a few of them. I bring up the matter well in advance. Hey. What’s your wedding schedule this season? Any chance you could smuggle me some Roasht? Levi is one such Amish builder friend I’ve worked with closely for more than a decade. And this year, I nagged him like I nagged a few others. Please get me some wedding Roasht sometime this fall. He allowed that he had a couple of nieces getting married, so there’s a decent chance that he might snag some for me. I was almost overjoyed. This was a realistic shot at real authentic Roasht. One of those weddings was this past Tuesday, the other one is coming up. I told Levi I’d call him the day before both, to remind him of our little conversation. Get Roasht for Ira. He agreed to that plan. And that’s how we left it.

Life’s little bunny trails are far more fascinating than any you could make up. So off we go, on a small one. Levi’s elderly Mother has not been well for some time, and late last week we heard that she had passed. I knew she was poorly, but I didn’t figure Levi and his family were expecting something this imminent. Apparently she sank pretty fast when it happened. I didn’t want to bother Levi, so I called another builder, a mutual friend, to confirm that the news was true and that we had made the right connections. It was. And we had. I left a brief message of condolence on Levi’s phone.

Then the day before the wedding, this past Monday, I called as I had promised, to remind him about the Roasht. He answered, and we chatted. I asked about his Mom, and he thanked me for my message. He appreciated that I thought of him. He told me about the funeral. I listened. We only go one Mom, I said. He agreed. That’s right. We do.

And then I hemmed around a bit. Not disrespectful or anything. Just kind of casual like. Are you still going to that wedding tomorrow? How’s it looking for my Roasht? Levi chuckled and assured me that he had not forgotten. So, I got my fingers crossed. Maybe I’ll score some authentic Amish Wedding Roasht at least once this season. I figure to find out next time me and Levi chat.

We got ready to wind down. I asked where the wedding would be, and he told me. It’s on the home farm just down the lane from his home, where his Mom had just passed. “It’s pretty strange, when you think about it,” he said. “On Saturday, we had a funeral on the home place for my Mother. Tomorrow, there will be a wedding at that same place.”

And we talked about it. One generation moves on, the next one comes along and takes its place. Our time is coming, we agreed. We’re not young, anymore. Soon enough, it will happen. And I thought about it as we hung up. The Amish recognize and respect the cycle of the seasons as very few cultures do. They walk calmly through life, just as they step calmly through the door when death comes calling. They live close to the land, and in that land is where they sleep.

These are my people.
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Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers.

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