What security, what simplicity, what ease and joy seem to surround their lives, especially the young girls. Especially the young girls who do not wish to go rum springa, running around.
"I have never had any desire to go out running around," an Amish girl was quoted in the Mattoon Post-Pioneer. "I’ve always been sure about my faith. I’m looking forward to being baptized in a few months."
Laureth Warner took note of that simple happiness as she read the article at her family’s kitchen table one August afternoon. She envied it, or rather, it confirmed her longstanding envy. Not a shred of pressure to get out, to go find your own way and earn your own living. Nice. When she finished she left the paper and went out to the backyard garden, knelt, and weeded silently in the declining sunshine.
The Warner family lived in Arthur, Illinois, in Amishland, corn nine feet high in summer, all around the mysterious hazy gray forests always receding in waves of humidity to the horizon. Mattoon was the closest bigger town, the only place of real note nearby being the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. The Warners were a nice family, by no means discontented, nice twin blond girls – Laureth had a sister, Emily – nice loving parents. Donwstate Illinois had been a beautiful place to grow up, all of it great vistas of the green corn, just as Hiawatha describes it, green feathers and sunny tresses, the stalks after harvest turning to brown stubble poking up in the snow under gigantic, blue-streaked winter prairie skies. Arthur itself was a little cachepot of things, a couple of fine wide streets, fine stone banks and the better shops, an outer strip of squat modern gray glass stores off the highway, and in the center of town what would have been almost majestic-looking Georgian brick and double-storey old wooden homes, except that they seemed to sit right on their lawns and have no dignity at all. It was very quiet. A few new, big ash-blond suburban townhomes reared up outside town, like startling daubs of tan paint on a murky Constable canvas.
Laureth, at eighteen, was a nice girl, privileged, generally good-natured, sometimes both tight-lipped and cocky, temporarily piqued at life, largely thanks to her high school graduation being two unsettling months behind her. It is easy for any young thing to reckon herself nobly misunderstood, a free spirit among cave-dwellers, born too late or too early, etc., but Laureth, in addition to her pique at this unhappy time of life, was genuinely peculiar in one way.
Atop the plinth of a basically pacific, sedentary and overly brooding nature had been laid, by an unsuspecting adult world, a granite monument which will have to be called the fear of working. Not of growing up, for the Amish were not afraid of that and neither was she. Only of working. For the life of them, no one around her could see her fear. As graduation loomed, was accomplished and then receded, neither the monument itself nor other people’s blindness to it stood her in good stead.
The plinth had come from God and from the womb. Of course she rode her bike and had friends and watched movies as much as any other kid, but she liked also to savor the small natural world around her, noticed robins and crickets, liked to think about long dresses and loved the smell of horses. She kept an accurate enough mental tally of the seasons to be disgusted, for instance, when her friends didn’t care about the birds first singing in the dark March dawns, or when people didn’t recognize sandhill cranes going over every spring and fall. "Geese," they exclaimed. Or when they couldn;t identify pepper plants, or tomato or carrot or rhubarb, in a farm garden. Or when they thought the crescent moon was rising in the west. As for the birds, they cease their dark dawn songs in mid-July. The breeding season is over then. The solstice has passed. Next winter is on the road. Laureth was a nice girl. She never told anyone.
In school, construction of the monument of fear of work began quickly. The adults meant well. In fourth grade Laureth’s math teacher taught the class how to make change by, say, counting up to twenty dollars from $3.79, because, she said, "You’ll all work as cashiers at one time or another and you’ll need to know this." Laureth was frightened. She did not want to be a cashier. Why should she have to? When she was old enough to go to the grocery store alone, she saw old ladies fluster the young clerks by giving them $20.26 for a $5.11 bill, "to make it easier." And the young clerks, always girls, would give the wrong change, be corrected, apologize for being stupid, and then the old ladies would sashay out of the store, proud as Lucifer –so it seemed – and high as a kite.
Then when Laureth was in about eighth grade, her mother started a new job as a bank teller in Arthur. She told horror stories of having to stay until ten o’clock at night to "balance her drawer" to the last penny, because you could not go home until you had. Laureth asked no questions and was frightened. She did not want to work in a job that could prevent you going home. Then in high school her Film Rhetoric class watched The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, in which the young heroine who wants to be symphony conductor ends up a cashier at the local dime store, and endures old women berating her because she can’t find things. And they watched the public television drama of Studs Terkel’s Working, in which a sad-eyed actress playing a stifling factory hand says, "When this is all you know how to do ... that’s what you do." Then in health class everybody was talking about embarrassment, and Laureth’s friend Ally said the most embarrassing moment of her life had been during her first week at the restaurant, when her boss had told her to take a scissors and cut up some rags for the rag bag, and she had accidentally cut up her most senior co-worker’s brand new pants instead. He was a very nice but two-hundred-pound black man and she had to tell him what she had done. Then the next week in Film Rhetoric they watched Norma Rae, where the mom goes deaf because the mill isn’t unionized.
Maturing Laureth would emerge from all this into the air of day, in whatever season it was, summer or winter, to feel the sun and watch the birds and breathe again. She was too young to understand how much this was shaping her, even dangerously far into her teen years when one would think the wish to earn some spending money would sugar over the bitter terrors of rubbing shoulders with adults and abiding by their hard, rude working rules. She only felt the difference between what seemed like freedom and what seemed like prison; what seemed like reality and what seemed like nightmare. Why was anyone around her happy? Couldn’t they see they had been caught, that they were working? She did not want a job, ever. There was absolutely nothing she "wanted" to do. Nothing was worth it, not even the ridiculous complexity of working at a cashier’s job to earn money to go to college to get a degree to qualify for a better job. Meanwhile, what of one’s true life and desires ebbing away all that time? What of the setting moon? Long ago the Egyptians saw it as the horns of Apis. Perhaps the only way not to be imprisoned was to stay very still out in the air and sun, just as one had as a child, and not speak. No one bothers children, and how are they any different? Or like an animal.
Or like the Amish. Whenever she emerged out into the air and sun again, year after year, the Amish were there. Couldn’t anyone see how happy they were? It was just after she had learned to make change, in fourth grade, that she noticed them. They drove their buggies, they shopped in town, they walked behind their plows. They wore dresses, broadfalls, and hats, and walked barefoot in summer. With them moved that unmistakable aura of firm, busy, uninterested peace. These were people who owed nothing to anyone, who simply fed and bred in competent ranks as of old and certainly were not expected to give over their lives, at eighteen, to a masterful new world for which nothing in their youths had prepared them, not really. Their newspaper, the Budget, carried news of births and visitings, not of their young people having to think fast in grocery stores. And they did something exhilarating, year after year, while Laureth watched. They circled into her world regularly, saw and sometimes bought its effects, and then disappeared in proud, graceful anonymity. As if to prove a civilized human being, knowing the smallest alternative, could easily live in a better way. These occasional idle glances into the Budget at the hardware store, a casual question to her mother about a long-ago Amish friend, served to reinforce the research that Laureth saw walking past her life almost every day. Look at them. They did not work, and yet they didn’t starve. They probably noticed the moon and the robins. Perhaps they had to, perhaps it meant something having to do with farm routine. Maybe it was possible. Maybe you could stay away.
While weeding this hot afternoon she kept thinking about that Amish girl in the paper who had no desire to go out running around. Nice for her to have the choice. Rum springa is the Amish expression referring to the flight that young Amish people are permitted to take away from their families sometime during the teen years, to taste the pleasures of the ‘English’ world. They leave their farms, for a few months, perhaps for a year, straying only to the nearest farm town, if that. They wear jeans, buy a stereo for their horse and buggy, maybe buy an old car, go to late-night tractor pulls at the county fair. Some experiment with things that would alarm even English parents. Some never venture so far that they can’t go back home every night and have their mothers do their laundry, although Amishwomen, accustomed as they are to these rites of gentle rural defiance, draw the line at laundering jeans ("But I won’t wash his English clothes," they say.)
Some go rum springa in couples, returning to the farm to be baptized and married. Some do not go back, but stay and run bakeries or artisan’s shops in small towns near Amishland. A few, like Sarah in the paper, opt never to try out the English world at all. Because they do not wish to run around does not mean they are immured on their farms. One sees them riding bicycles along country roads, beside the plowing men and the shopping women – perhaps Laureth had once seen this Sarah – free, plain skirts pumping, hair pulled back under white bonnets, white bonnet strings flying. All smiles, their complexions are as perfect as milk. Nice for them. A girl like Laureth, orbiting the catastrophe of high school graduation in the world and always carrying the memory of their example within, her granite monument soldered ever more firmly to her character, is right to envy them.
The year of her graduation had drawn on from January, brightening dreadfully with the returning sun. It was as if the calculating sun pulled up the snow from the ground, and then pulled up the corn and pulled out the leaves on the trees, and then pulled up the humidity, and with it the temperature and pressure on Laureth to make a decision, to give a sign. Her position was incredible. You are supposed to know what you want to do by the last few months before you graduate, supposed to have a plan of some kind, yet she had never so much as applied for a job or lifted a finger over a college form in her life. A few brochures came from a few colleges in the east. She looked at them. "Even if we could afford to send you," her father said, "you could never keep up with that lifestyle."
Yet you never could be sure what they would say. With other girls, they were enthusiastic. Ally had been accepted to Champaign-Urbana as a business major. "How wonderful!" they said. Laureth’s twin sister Emily got the good news from a college near Chicago in May (abnormal psych). In May Laureth wept in her parents’ arms. They tried to commiserate. "It’s like being fired from your job, honey," Mr. Warner said. "Graduation is tough on everyone. School has been your job all these years. When a man is fired from his job after thirteen years, people don’t rush up and say, ‘Congratulations! What are you going to do?’"
Laureth had laughed a little, but didn’t tell him what she wanted to do. She had told no one except the one adult for whom she was just one of a hundred cases, and not a very cheerful, rewarding one, either. During their senior year, Emily, who had gotten along splendidly with Diane Kummer, the guidance counselor, had recommended her sister to lay her case before her. "Go see her," she said. "She’s wonderful."
It was August now. The sun that had stared down hotly on her indecision had faded a little. August loses a whole hour of daylight from start to finish. Gardening at five o’clock in the afternoon was not quite the sweat-bath it used to be. And the angle of shadow from the garage and the trees was a little different. She had almost reached the end of the tomato bed. They were all turning red now, another sign of the time gone.
Laureth had dreaded the idea of going to see Ms. Kummer. The woman seemed all thin professionalism and thin brown hair. But she knew it would at least assuage her increasingly worried parents for a time. They had not known what to make of their daughter’s grim enveloping silence. So she went, that spring. Too late; unprofessional.
It was not a successful interview, and it was not Ms. Kummer’s fault. Laureth could not voice the impressions of her childhood in a way that another person could understand. What kid doesn’t get over the fear of working, of survival? Attractive mothers in their forties laugh together about it, when their eldest goes off in a blue and orange uniform for the first time. "He, uh ... doesn’t like to work," they say, and everyone bursts out laughing wisely. Laureth did not think it was funny, she thought her soul’s justice was at stake. Her soul must be protected at all costs. Therefore she knew better than to begin a high school counselor’s interview by saying, "I really admire the Amish. I wish I could live with them. Do they accept English people?"
She only just threw off one joke, in fake camaraderie telling Ms. Kummer that she knew "people who work in retail go straight to heaven when they die." Ms. Kummer laughed appreciatively, one adult to another. So even she agreed it was terrible. Why were grown-ups so cowed?
Together they had tried to work out Laureth’s future. They struggled through careers, hobbies, girlhood interests, and finally, near defiant tears, Laureth thought of something which happened to be true and which might, if nothing else, test the waters really. She got out, "I just want to get married and have kids."
"That’s great!" Ms. Kummer answered, very warmly. Laureth felt a rush of relieved gratitude.
"I did that, too. We all want to do that." Then she put her elbows on the desk, held up her hands, and prepared to tick off problems on her fingers. Laureth glanced out the second-floor window at the haze of gray-red trees budding around the campus. The spring was beautiful, as always. As always, the windows of her school represented a theater of freedom. For a long time she had envied anything, any bird, rabbit, or elderly man going about his business on that stage, and wished to change places with any of them. How superb of them to be free. What did her new tomato plants look like right now, this very minute? Were there some aphids on them, also free? No, it was too early for aphids. What crops would an Amish family be thinking of planting now? They got to quit school in the eighth grade, didn’t they?
"One, you could get divorced. Two, you may not find anybody to begin with. No offense or anything, you’re a great kid, but if Mrs. Edson has been telling you ‘there’s someone for everyone,’ let me assure you, she’s nuts.
"Three, he could be disabled. Four, he could die. Five, he could walk out on you when you’re forty and leave you with no way to make a living. Six, it’s really, really tough for a family to make it on one income. You could still be wondering how to pay for diapers when it’s time to pay for college.
"Seven, you could be looking at major personal meltdown after you’ve been out here alone in the cornfields with the kids and the dirty dishes for a couple of years...."
And on and on it went. I’m not knocking your ideas, honey, I think it’s great to fall in love and have kids. To plant roots. I love the fresh air. I bicycle to work all the time myself. You’re just an idiot and you’d better do the right thing and live my way, silly. You were never around when I was going through this stage, and my life now is none of your business, but here , let me help you.
"I’m not trying to sneer at you or your ambition," Ms. Kummer was still talking. "I wish it was a perfect world and we could all stay home with our kids all day. I wish I was home with mine right now. But that’s just not the way life is anymore. Okay? A woman who can’t support herself is just up you know what creek without a paddle, that’s all." Laureth had the distinct impression that Ms. Kummer would have used the word ‘shit’ with another girl, but that she reasoned Laureth was too delicate to hear it. "Women don’t have to be like that anymore. I don’t want you to be like that."
Laureth listened to all this with rage boiling as if in a tiny bronze dragon-footed cauldron in her stomach. The session had ceased to be a conference between two adults, acolyte and priestess, peering out at the adult world from a quiet shrine, the one calmly pointing the way, the other excited and afraid. It had become a dull grown-up performance which the polite child, just another child, steeled herself to endure until dismissed. At the end Laureth feigned conviction, and with it, a little humble enthusiasm for Journalism and Psychiatry, so Ms. Kummer happily wrote those down and promised to send for some literature about the best Illinois colleges for those subjects. Laureth left the office alarmed at herself for having tricked an adult into professionally fetching professional materials that she, Laureth, did not intend to use. She left the office thinking, what if I run into her in the hall next year and she asks me if I read her brochures? Then she remembered, I graduate in a month and a half. I’ll never have to see her again. A shock to realize.
She had come home that day disgusted with Ms. Kummer, only to find an eagerly awaiting sister soon disgusted with her. "Well, what do you want?" Emily asked in her room that night. "What do you like to do?"
"Well, gee, I like reading novels! And I like to bake!" Laureth threw some things that she had been tidying on to a desk, and then was ashamed at their clatter. Right now she feared and hated life and everyone in it. When you are eighteen and have no established plans, you forfeit your right to throw things or banter with adults, and Emily, by virtue of her plans, was an adult.
"Oh, I am just so impressed with that! Aren’t we the little princess! That’s leisure, du-uh. What are you going to do with the other twenty-three hours in the day?"
"Live," Laureth had answered vibrantly, and had stormed out of the room and down the stairs.
She knelt now at the end of the tomato bed, finished with her afternoon weeding, remembering. Her parents and Emily were all out now, shopping for a portable refrigerator for Emily’s dorm room. She had time to think.
She could not think what she wanted, though, it was too burdensome, like peering through a fog. All she could think about was what the Amish had, especially the girls. She saw them riding their bicycles in her mind’s eye and thought, Blessed, blessed, thrice blessed. To care about rain and soil, plants and babies. To go home and cook, and take care of animals, and clean, and put up preserves in jars with fifteen other contented, unpursued women during a "bee." No Drivers’-Ed. No job hunting. No television, no bad music, no lectures from grown-ups about budding young sculptresses just like you. Nobody pestering you about race and the economy, injustice and politics and crisis intervention teams. No being shunted out into the world to take your chances with your own apartment, cities, elevators, parking garages, landlords who were also strange men. And college and a dorm room before that, just like Emily. What kind of fate was that for parents to expect their daughters to embrace? It was almost as if they didn’t care. The unprotectedness and the whipping of young women in the world – Laureth privately added, the English world – was criminal.
She tried to "plan." What a marvelous word. Everybody planned. She tried to think of who else got to live like the Amish without actually being of them, but she only conjured up vague visions of gentlewomen in long dresses baking bread, writing novels and walking the moors in a long ago, safer time. They were older than she, over thirty even, because they could go on living in their father’s parsonage without shame if he could afford to keep them. No more. The shame was now too real. Now a gentlewoman would be busy studying to be a paralegal, or a field tech or policeman or cashier. And Jane Eyre would not get written.
Sometimes when alone she felt proud of her sensitive torment, proud that she was different and probably truly made of more elemental, interesting stuff than the Emily who didn’t read novels and had made great friends with their insufferable guidance counselor. It was easy to guess which of the three of them would have been able to carry on a conversation with the gentlewomen on the moors. But Emily’s calling her a princess cut her straight back to earth. So that was how she looked to other people. It wasn’t fair. "’Do you think,’" she might have said, "’because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?’" she was about to be thrust out of the parsonage, soon and forever, her good parents having not the slightest idea of protecting her. She was a modern gentlewoman. That she must not want or require protection was a part of the new rules. No one would demand of her, as Mr. Rochester does of Jane, "’Who goes with you? You don’t travel a hundred miles alone.’"
She rose stiffly from the garden and turned at the sound of a car on the gravel road a little way off. Here they came, with Emily’s refrigerator. She pulled up a smile at the sight of her family – a bit like the sun pulling up the snow in February – waved, and prepared to go into the house with them.
Mr. and Mrs. Warner together carried the refrigerator into the house. Laureth held the door open for them while Emily followed importantly after, as if it were her baby. Once inside, they grunted their way to the kitchen table and slid the box up onto it. The paper Laureth had been reading an hour before had been pushed half off the table by the box and dangled there, ready to scatter forth on the floor. Mr. Warner saw it. He pried the last corner of it loose from under the box and paused to look at the page boasting a full color picture of the pretty Amish girl who didn’t want to go rum springa.
"Now there’s somebody after your own heart, Lor," he said as he tossed the paper out of the way. One of those situations was about to develop, in which nice people suffering under a single unspoken anxiety suddenly come, half-willingly, to hash it out, half-rehearsed, under the silliest circumstances. Maybe Mr. Warner was keyed up to it by the vigorous activity of buying a concrete item for his vigorous daughter’s future.
"Yes," Laureth answered with a forthrightness that up to now her parents had only heard from Emily. She was working to undo the tape from the box. "I admire them a lot. I wish I could join them, for my career, to be honest."
Mr. and Mrs. Warner both burst out laughing. Emily smiled. Laureth saw she had made a bad beginning. She could have dropped the subject in absolute safety but decided to pursue it now or never. She said, shaking, "Well, at least they’ve found a way to get out of this petty society of ours. Everything here is made for machines or money. If you just want to live and be human, like them, you’re out of luck. At least they understand that. And stay away."
Her parents paused a moment. "My dear," her father began softly, "they are not escaping modern life. They’re escaping the seventeenth century. That’s where they began."
When she was silent, he went on. "Still. I see you’ve been paying attention in social studies class."
"I’m so sorry if you’re tired of living off our petty money under our petty roof," Mrs. Warner said, staring. "Would you care to go out and earn your own sometime?"
Silence. They were all mortified, including Emily, whose hands shook as she pried at the tape on her side of the box. It was one thing for her and Laureth to bicker alone. As a whole family, they never argued. This was unprecedented.
Mr. and Mrs. Warner both stole identical glances at Laureth’s shamed face and decided to join forces but proceed as kindly as possible. Mr. Warner got out his pocket knife and said, "What would you like to do, my dear? Really."
Laureth tried to appear lofty and jaded. "I’d like to be left alone to live and have fresh air and have children like everyone has always done. Like they do. That’s all. They survive."
"Are you trying to tell us something interesting?" Mrs. Warner asked. "I didn’t think you even had a boyfriend."
"No," Laureth answered, mentally adding, ‘...stupid,’ as she would have said literally to Emily – and then being terrified of such disrespect, even in her own head.
"Well, I’m sure they have a nice simple life in some ways," Mr. Warner carried on, "but if you’re thinking .... I can’t imagine anyone else would really be happy with them. They certainly would never accept anyone else into their fold. And they’re not as pristine as you think. Especially not where the law is concerned. They use gas generators, and get their immunizations like everybody else."
"And they sell dope in Lancaster County, may I add, speaking of law," Mrs. Warner said. "Gone straight to jail for it, too. I would say that’s pretty modern and corrupted."
"I didn’t say society was corrupt," Laureth answered in a mouselike voice, though she knew she had meant exactly that.
"Well. Anyway, honey, it’s fine to be interested in them as a hobby. You can always, you know, do some of the things they do in your spare time. You like to garden, or you could get some of their recipes and bake and so on. If it interests you, there’s nothing wrong with that as a hobby."
Laureth was almost at the end of her courage but determined to get one more thing said. They still didn’t understand.
"They are the only people who live remotely like I would want to live. People just leave them alone. I don’t want to major in Abnormal Psych and then be a personnel director like everybody else." She ripped off a stubborn piece of tape and broke into her side of the box. "I don’t think they have any laws about English people not joining them. If you’re willing to abide by their rules – "
Her parents both laughed again, laughter shading from merriment into soft pity. "Honey," her mother said, "you can’t join them."
"Because you can’t!"
"For heaven’s sake, Lor, they’re farmers, when you come right down to it," her father interpolated. "Wearing pretty dresses and riding horses and so on, that’s really just window dressing. They’re farmers, and you’re not. They work incredibly hard."
Laureth frowned. Mr. Warner had not meant to be hurtful, but to Laureth it sounded like the usual dig. You don’t work; therefore you’re a child; therefore you have no right to say what work you’d like to do. Work first, then plan your life. Surrender first; then we’ll discuss terms.
"You’ve got to be born to that life to ever be used to it, even on a modern place. You know that. Not to mention all the things they’re not allowed to do."
Laureth was so exasperatingly difficult at times. Emily had fished the owner’s manual out of the box but scarcely turned a page of it while her family talked. She was a French major, and dutifully tried to decipher the French third of housewares’ instruction booklets when she came across them.
"Oh, well, honey, you know, no t.v., no movies, no Internet, no air conditioning if you can imagine that. Nothing modern like that. No electricity at all, I think. And then, like I say, they’re farmers from a hundred years ago. They spend most of their time just storing up food to survive, I think. Like people a hundred years ago had to do."
"It sounds just as good as being a dental hygienist or cashier or something in Mattoon if you ask me, to be honest," Laureth shrugged.
Mrs. Warner stared at father and daughter as they talked. Mr. warner went on, "Well, honey, it may sound good to you but you have no idea what the life is really like. Nor are they any too enlightened about women, I don’t think. You could well end up with a husband who thinks a wife has to obey and have ten kids and that’s about it."
"My dears," Mrs. Warner burst out in an annoyed sing-song, "I really cannot believe we are having this conversation! What husband? Why are you even encouraging her? We should be talking about reality, please."
"I’m not encouraging her! I’m just saying – "
Mr. Warner laid his pocket knife on the countertop. "Honey, your mother’s right," he said. "We’re all just being very silly. Look. You’re a great kid with a lot of talent and a great future. The Amish may look like they’ve got it made, but I can’t see you preserving jellies and slaughtering pigs or whatever for the rest of your life. I know this has been a rotten time for you, but you’ll find your niche. Everybody does, believe me. Nobody knows what the hell to do after high school graduation. I just looked through the want ads the next day myself. And you’re a lot more on the ball than I was. You’ll be fine."
"Yeah. And you can’t join the Amish," Mrs. Warner said.
After a small pause Laureth looked up. "Why not?"
Emily rolled her eyes, slammed something down and left the kitchen. "Excuse me, are we done with this yet?" Mrs. Warner yelled. "My darling, it’s a religious cult. It’s a cult, and it’s a very inbred family. Did you ever wonder why they’re all called Yoder and they all speak German? It’s an old, wacko European farm cult. They can have buttons, but not suspenders, or the other way around, or whatever. Because the Bible forbids buttons. Plus now they sell dope. Du-uh, as your sister would say. Nobody just walks in."
"Because you can’t! And I really think I am through hearing about this!"
Laureth nodded. "I understand. Women can’t do what they want."
"Oh, don’t be idiotic! You can do whatever you want, you just can’t be what you’re not. You’re not Amish."
"But they become what they’re not. They go rum springa, they leave, they become English."
"Well of course they do," Mrs. Warner laughed. "Who wants to boil jam and kill pigs in the heat and humidity all day?"
"Yeah, when you can zap a pizza and put your feet up and watch wrestling," Mr. Warner said.
"They go rum springa, and they come back," Laureth said in a small voice.
"Uh-huh. They’re Amish," her mother replied.
"Emily is doing what she wants," Laureth faltered. "She is going to be what she isn’t yet."
Mrs. Warner wanted to say, Emily is rational, but she checked herself. "Yes, and so will you," she said mildly. "It takes everyone a little time to find their niche, that’s all. Daddy is right. You’ll find yours." Mrs. Warner sighed, and sniffed as if she had a cold, and looked down into the box. "Now. Whose bright idea was it to plop this thing on the kitchen table until September? It weighs a fricking ton."
Laureth sulked against the cabinets, no longer helping with the box. Her parents were scooping out the Styrofoam fill and dumping it in the garbage can. Her mother looked at her and decided, out of kindness, to go back to the subject, only for a moment.
"Besides, honey, these people don’t live in some kind of earthy artist’s colony, you know. They’re not pilgrims with pewter jugs and mandolins lying around. I had an Amish friend years ago. They’re up at four in the morning, and they live on sugar because they need the calories. Orange soda at every meal. And they live off plastic dishes and polyester clothes because they have huge families and it’s easy."
Emily must have sensed safety because now she wandered back in to the kitchen and took part in the dying conversation. "And I hate the men in those bowl haircuts, du-uh," she said.
"What exactly interests you about them?" Mr. Warner asked, busy. "I mean, what do you think you’d like to do, in general, that pertains to that? Knowing that could be helpful."
"Anthropology," Mrs. Warner said, suddenly struck by the idea. "What about anthropology? I’d say you have that written all over you."
Laureth summoned the nerve to laugh bitterly. Normally she would not have dared to do that in her parents’ faces. "Well who really gives an f what I’d like to do?" she cried, and fled, banging, from the house.
She went for a walk.
What a waste of effort it had all been. Half the point of her upbringing had been that women can have anything they want, and really should want a lot. Perhaps she was still child enough to be in the habit of thinking that to tell her parents she wanted something was as good as getting it. Perhaps she had read too many stories in girls’ magazines about young Tracys and Megans who had taken one look at an Olympic ice skater, or famous ballerina, and then "decided" that in x number of years, they would be the same. Laureth had a great vision of herself safe in a bonnet and cornflower-colored dress, baby one-year-old in tow, herself heavily pregnant again, proudly eyeing Ms. Kummer when they met by chance in the street a few years hence. And how lovely it would be, surely, to make love in a dark bedroom way out in the silent cornfields, having put off all those heavy modest clothes. As if Amish people did not know what a naked body looked like! Knowing you have only a few hours before he will have to be out in the barns at four a.m., and you up probably making bread at that hour, too. And how lovely to know that when you woke up in the morning, you need not go anywhere. He would think of you in the fields, and you would think of him in the kitchen, and you would be all the while so very near each other, in the same world. You would be like the patriarchs. "And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son’s mandrakes." You need not meet people you do not wish to see, you need not rush about doing unnatural things.
Now it was all ridiculous, now it irritated her. As she walked out towards open farmland through the summer evening she had the unpleasant feeling of living out a childhood memory, of tramping out the last moments of an episode which she would remember as important, but whose original sources and cataracts of excitement she would never feel as deeply again. This was disappointment, straight, unwatered. She was rebuked, beaten, and knew it was correct. All the familiarity of this childhood dream, maybe all childhood dreams, was over. She wondered if she had not lost some ability to recognize magic or dreams, wondered if she had lost a perfection of soul. All her school years she had been told that children are the future, are wise and good and could do anything they wanted. Only no one warned you when it was over. They just pushed you into the abyss and you had to make room for the next batch of children who were he future. A real child would have been asked his opinion.
Now she could imagine that cashiering might not be the end of the world and the death of the soul after all. And it might be nice to earn some money to buy things of her own. Was that so terrible? It would have seemed so yesterday. The monument was crumbling.
She walked along, thinking honestly but bitterly that above all, she had not expected to be taken aback by her family’s casual strength in this encounter. Family can be wonderful for this service, painful though it is sometimes: they are very good at safely jeering their members out of tempting projects whose dangers can never be lit up so neatly as when the guilty one tremblingly puts forth a dark desire and hears, in response, a shrieked What? If only she had brought this up long before, they could have, so to speak, lanced the boil and she could have had the intervening months to make real plans and be as advanced in adulthood as Emily was now.
It was nearing sunset. She must have gardened a long time this afternoon. They must have stayed out shopping for that fridge very late. Rows of small, round high clouds trooped up from the western horizon, handsome gray clouds rimmed with gold before the washed blue sky. The corn was nine feet high. The crickets rang like shaken winter bells. Arthur was quiet. Her family waited lovingly for her at home. Somewhere a few miles away there must be a houseful of Amish at a singing, men and children and women nursing their babies in a room where fine ancient people sang Gregorian chant in German. People whom, even as late as this afternoon, she had regarded as her future in-laws. People who never had to count change up from $5.11, probably. Albeit maybe her mother could enlighten her about that, too. They did run a lot of gift shops and bakeries. Why did any of it ever seem attractive?
She went home before dark, so as not to worry her family. It was a measure of her upbringing that, still upset and exhausted, she accepted their small greetings when they saw her safely in that night, and bade them a grudging "Good night" in turn before going up to her pink room. It was a measure of her resilience that she got a job the next week at the local grocery store, bagging and stocking with a view to promotion to cashier – and possibly money for college, and who would have thought it required promotion? – in the near future. It was a measure of her nobility that she performed so pleasantly, so competently, that old ladies learned to look anxiously for her when they shopped, and to steer their carts firmly into her checkout lane because no one else was so careful with things like eggs and blueberries. They told her so, which pleased her.
And when the Amish housewives came in with their families, mother and elder daughter sometimes both greatly pregnant, they told her the same. That pleased her, too. Sometimes she got the treat of loading sack upon sack of sugar into their wagons. She took care then to feel the rough wood and bare steel of the wheels, to drink in the gorgeous, sour-musk smell of horses. She still felt an affinity with these women which she liked to think they could sense, and maybe the horses too sensed it too.
She baked from their recipes, as her father suggested. Someday – for she did not work at the grocery store forever – she would answer questions about this time with great poise, laughing and saying yes, I wanted to join the Amish, but instead my interest led me to do x; for she became great in x.