When my mother was 16 years old, she left everything she knew and held close to her heart. She left her home and family to start a new life.
My mother grew up Pennsylvania Dutch or Amish. Her family had no car or electricity, living instead a simple life with plain dress and few modern conveniences. My grandfather worked as a carpenter and owned a farm, where they grew corn and a small herd of cows. My grandmother kept the house full of kids and managed everything else.
My mother loved her parents, she was close to them throughout much of their life. And she loved her 10 brothers and sisters. As the third oldest, she cared as a second mother for her younger siblings. However, when she turned 16, something clicked. She finally had a chance to make a decision for herself and decided to choose a different path.
She went to live with a family friend, who was Mennonite, stopped dressing in black dresses and white bonnets, and paved a new path. She was the first in her family to leave the Amish order. A couple of others in the decades to come would follow her path. In short, she was a rebel.
Several years later she would meet my father in an auto parts store called Joe the Motorist’s Friend, where she worked part-time to cover her bills. My father, back from serving in the Army in Germany in the 1950s, and my mother would date and later marry, settling down to raise my two brothers and myself and build a life together.
As a kid, I would tell friends in school about my mother’s Amish roots and I would get a million questions and the occasional odd look. I didn’t care that much about the odd looks, but I do regret now that I didn’t puff out my chest with more pride in telling her story.
As for the questions: no, I never rode in a horse and buggy. No I don’t know any Pennsylvania Dutch. No, I didn’t have a bowl haircut as kid ― in my family it was a crew cut when we were too young to know any better, combed straight ahead in our elementary school days, and feathered-back like David Cassidy in the 70s or Rick Springfield in the 80s when we were in high school. And no, we didn’t wear black with straw hats as we lounged around the house watching college football. Yes, my Amish grandparents were different and I didn’t know them well, but I always felt that they loved me. They didn’t really have an understanding of my life ― try explaining Halloween trick-or-treating or pee wee football practice to a hearing impaired, elderly Amish couple ― but they liked hearing that I worked hard, stayed out of trouble, and was a “good boy.”
I knew that I had a different story and ancestry from other kids, but it took adulthood to truly understand it. I’ve come to respect my mother much more and the challenges she faced at such an early age. At an age when most kids are living day-to-day, willy-nilly, with barely a care in the world, she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. She knew that whatever decision she made would impact the rest of her life. I can only imagine the thoughts that raced through her mind the first night she stepped out from the Amish umbrella.
I asked her recently if it was a tough choice to leave. She said that it would have been a tougher choice to stay. A big reason that helped drive my mother’s decision was the death of a sister from cancer years.
My mom was ten-years old when she watched her sister die and felt that Amish church leaders, including the local bishop, stepped in the way of her parent’s efforts to help her sister. She felt that more could have been done, should have been done to find a cure or even ease her sister’s burden. Her parent’s own faith was questioned by the bishop because they sought medical help and intervention. When that happened, my mom made a promise to herself that she would never let a bishop or someone else get in the way of getting help for someone she loved.
So when the time came and she had her chance, my mom put the naysayers out of her mind and carved a new path. Since she never officially joined the church, my grandparents didn’t have to excommunicate or “shun” her. She lost a few friends in the process and created a few ill feelings with others, but she kept her faith and belief in something better.
My mom has had other highs and lows, but she has often said she couldn’t imagine how it would be if she had not followed her conscience. I’m certain of one thing: her life would be foreign to us today. We probably wouldn’t be able to even recognize it.
In the end, I’m glad she fought for what she believed in. I’m glad too that age has helped me to better understand and truly appreciate her sacrifice. I hope I live my values like she has hers.
My mother is the most passive woman that you’ll meet, but I’m left with one overriding image: my mom, the rebel.
Your mother is a very strong and courageous woman. I was raised in a Mennonite family in Lancaster County and at 22 moved away for 32 years to Boston and then Seattle and returned when my mother’s health was declining. I know the Amish and Mennonite cultures very well and it is no small feat to decide to leave the Amish life. I was touched to find your story about your mother and your visiting your Amish grandparents. I’ll have to peruse your site and see if there are more stories you’ve written about that. Thanks for sharing.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Oh my goodness, Donna, it sounds like you’re the one with the great story. I grew up in Central PA, but I don’t live that far from Lancaster now. I can only imagine the cultural challenges that you faced growing up in Lancaster and then moving to two large suburban areas. My mom has talked some about her decision. It seems to me two things played a huge role in her leaving. The first was the death of one of her sisters. My mom was one of 12 kids and her next oldest sister was diagnosed at a young age cancer. The local bishop frowned on my grandparents attempts to have her seen by doctors and seek medical help. Her sister eventually passed away. My mom was really hurt by her loss. I think she made a pact with herself at that moment that when she had a chance she would seek our a new course for herself. The other thing that played a big role was a young “English” couple who took my mom in and helped her in the early going. She didn’t have a high school diploma, but she was able to get a job and ten years later, met my father, dated and married and later had my brothers and me. I’m sorry, I’ve written a book. I’ve written some about my Amish heritage, but I’m by no means an expert. I’ve just tried to write about my unique, but limited view in to that society. Thanks so much for finding my site. I hope you’ve enjoyed my pieces. And yes, I do agree with you, my mom is a courageous woman. I’m very grateful for that courage, otherwise my life would be very different! Thanks for sharing.