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Why I Left the Amish
By Saloma Miller Furlong
MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2011 Saloma Miller Furlong
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDatt's Strugg le with Life
There are two ways to leave the Amish—one is through life and the other through death. To leave through life, someone has to deliberately walk away from the security and conformity of the strictly ordered community. Once abandoned, the future is self-determined, exhilarating, and terrifyingly open. Anyone who lives the life determined by the community leaves solely through death.
My father (Datt) once tried doing it through life. He left the community, but like the prodigal son, he returned, and was forever remorseful and shamed for leaving the fold. There is a whole decade of his life I know very little about—only that he had left the Amish, joined the military during World War II, was honorably discharged shortly thereafter, and that he worked on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for some years. It seemed like he had tried to erase the experiences from this period of his life from his otherwise sharp memory by not talking about them at all. Asking him questions about this era was strictly forbidden. Now, in 2004, Datt was about to take his final leave of the Amish-this time through death.
My sister Susan had let me know that Datt had gone into the hospital with a collapsed lung. He had been fighting for every breath for the last three years with a chronic disease called Farmer's Lung, which was caused by being around moldy hay most of his life. There was no treatment for his stage of the illness. The health professionals had sent him home from the hospital after determining that there was nothing they could do to help him. I thought about traveling back to Ohio, but the timing of his illness made this a difficult decision. I had been craving more education ever since I was thirteen and had to leave school because it was "the Amish way." After I left the Amish, I got married and had children. I decided to wait until our two sons were grown to follow my dreams. My time had finally come when I was accepted into the Ada Comstock Program at Smith College, designed for women who had not finished college at the traditional age. My first few weeks at Smith were even better than I had imagined. My classes—beginning German, Scandinavian mythology, astronomy, and ethics—provided just the right mix to challenge and expand my thinking. If ever I was in the right place doing the right thing at the right time, this was it.
The moon lit up the autumn night as I drove through the mountains on my way to Smith College from my home in Vermont. I was talking to Datt as if he could hear me, although he was 550 miles away. "Datt, I hope you can go in peace, when it's your time to go. You've had a life filled with sorrow, so I hope you will find peace in dying and in the life beyond." I wiped the tears from my cheeks as I rounded the bend. Awestruck, I saw the moon suspended above the break in the trees, perfectly centered between two mountains where Route 103 cuts through the valley. It lit up the little town of Ludlow in the valley below. The symmetry and the beauty of the moment seemed to me a visual affirmation of my prayer. As if the moon was lighting my way, I realized that I needed to let Datt know my thoughts. I would write to him as a way of saying farewell.
When I arrived at 54 Green Street in Northampton, I carried my clean laundry and backpack of homework to my room, made my bed with fresh sheets, hung up my clothes, and then sat down at my desk and typed a letter to Datt. The words spilled out onto the page without effort as my tears dripped onto the keyboard.
September 19, 2004
Dear Datt, I heard that you have been in the hospital and that you are now at home. I think it's great that you can be at home with Mem right now. I think of you many times a day, and I find myself talking to you, as if you could hear me. I decided to let you know by letter, so that you really can hear me, as read to you by Mem. I hope you can forgive me for the grief I caused you as I was growing up. I know I wasn't the easiest child to raise. I am also sorry for the guilt that you and Mem have shouldered all these years for the choices that I, as your grown daughter, made in leaving the Amish. I made the best choice for me, and I don't feel you and Mem should feel guilty for that. I am sorry that you have been made to feel that way, for that is a burden you and Mem shouldn't have to carry. I hope you have put that burden down, for I can (and should) own all the benefits and consequences for my decision. You have had more than your share of sorrows, without having that heaped on you, too. Tonight I am recalling several fond memories from my childhood. Do you remember when you used to play the hand-stacking game with us when we were little? Your hand on the table, then mine, and your other hand, then my other hand, and we would take the bottom one out of the pile and slap it on the top of the pile over and over? Sometimes you would play it with two of us at a time. You used to play it after supper some nights. One spring, during sugaring season, I helped gather nine tanks of sap. That night I brought you supper in the sugarhouse. I remember you saying, "Lomie, you did a good job gathering sap today. Thank you for your help." I knew you really meant it, because you didn't often say such things. It meant a lot to me that you said it. Another time, when I was in my young teens, I had a hard time sleeping at night. I used to lie in my bed and cry. That went on for a long time. Then, one night you opened up the door at the bottom of the stairs and called up, "Lomie, you need to stop crying now and go to sleep." Your voice didn't have any anger in it, only kindness and understanding. I don't know why, but I was able to stop crying and I fell asleep. I don't remember having a problem sleeping after that night. I am with you in spirit, as I think of you many times a day. I pray that you will soon be reunited with your father and other loved ones. May you receive that love with open arms. Go in peace when your journey here on earth is at an end. And may we meet again someday. Love from your daughter, Saloma
I typed another letter to Mem and told her Datt's dying reminded me of the time my mother-in-law, Ruth, lay dying in Vermont. My husband, David, and I did not get a chance to say good-bye to her. I hoped Mem would read my letter to Datt. I didn't know how much of it he could comprehend, but I knew this was as much for me as for him.
Dear Mem, I've been waiting to get news of Datt, so I can write to you, knowing at least a little of what is going on. I talked with Susie tonight who had the news through Lizzie. I understand that Datt is home from the hospital, and that he is on morphine to relieve his coughing. I also heard that he is able to talk and is aware of what is going on around him, but falls asleep often. It sounds to me as if he is about as comfortable as he can be in these circumstances. I know that I asked you a little while ago what you need from me, and you said, "Write to me." I haven't been very good about that, and I'm sorry. My thoughts are with you a lot more often than my letters. Is there anything I can do for you at this time? If you or Datt feel that you want me to travel to Ohio, please let me know. I am in my first couple weeks of classes, so this is a hard time for me to travel the distance, but I will if you and/or Datt would like me to. Susie asked me tonight whether I am okay with the fact that I have probably seen Datt for the last time, and I said I am. I feel over the last ten years or so, that I have let go of hard feelings I had for anything that happened between him and me when I was young and still living at home. However, I decided to write a good-bye letter to Datt, and I am wondering if you would kindly read it to him? That is the one regret I had after David's mother died, is that I hadn't gotten a chance to say a proper good-bye to her. I think she would have liked to have that chance, too. The way I am hearing you are accepting this, and the strength you are exhibiting is wonderful. I believe that the Amish attitude about death and dying is so much healthier than that in mainstream America. I don't feel you cling to the people who are dying, but accept it as God's plan, and part of life. This is so different from what I experienced in David's family when Ruth was dying. Bob clung to her with everything he had. I send prayers up for you every day. I hope you are granted the strength and grace to see Datt through this. I know that you will miss him, despite (and perhaps even because of) all the difficulties you have been through. May the unconditional love you have shown him all these years come back to you in ways you may never have expected. Speaking of love, I send you mine. This letter is small, but it comes with oceans of feelings. Thank you in advance for reading the enclosed letter to Datt for me. Love, Saloma After printing out the letters, I sat with my head in my hands, and I could see Datt lying in the narrow bed in the bleak bedroom in the Dodde (Grandfather) house he and Mem lived in. I could see him lying on his back, his bald head depressing the pillow. When I was a teenager, I used to be embarrassed by Datt's looks. His big head was misshapen—pointed at the top and astonishingly flat in the back. His Amish beard was untidy and seemed to be all the hair his head could manage. Datt had big dark-brown eyes that turned black and snapped open and shut when he was angry. He had a long hawk nose, a feature shared by his family. And then there was always Datt's sunken mouth, which came from his having no teeth. He had had no teeth for as long as I can remember, because Mem had convinced him that he would not be able to adjust to dentures. Putting all these features together, Datt didn't look like any other Amish father I knew. At the age when most young people want to be the same as others, Datt's distinct looks were a source of embarrassment I could have done without. In my Amish community, one's family is much of one's identity, and I could not distance myself from him. He was my father, and I could not trade him in for another, much as I wanted to. Not only was I embarrassed by him when I was growing up, I was also afraid of him.
I first realized that there was something wrong with Datt early in my childhood. On winter nights lit by a hissing gas lantern, Datt would sit in his rocking chair and talk with someone only he could see. Datt refused to leave his hickory rocker despite Mem's urging. The bitterest arguments between Mem and Datt happened on those dark winter nights in Ohio. My eyes would follow the shadows of my parents cast by the light of the lantern as they exchanged bitter words. I remember feeling paralyzed with fear, confusion, and helplessness. I wished Datt would just go and do the farm chores so that Mem's bickering would stop, but it seemed as though he couldn't—it was as if someone had strapped him to the rocking chair. Mem would shriek out her frustration: "I just can't do it all! I should not have to do your work and mine too!"
"I have done my share and I do work hard!" Datt would say, the words coming out in a muffled garble as though his tongue were tripping over itself in his toothless mouth.
"You work hard from your rocking chair? What about me? I work all the time. I carry the water and the wood, make meals, do the wash by hand, take care of the children, and keep the house clean—and that's not enough! Now you want me to go feed the chickens, the pigs, the horses, and the cow; do the milking and gather the eggs; and then come in and make supper too, while you sit there on the rocking chair? Why should I?"
"You were the one who wanted to have children. Now you have them!" Datt would say this with his arms folded across his chest and his shadow frantically rocking on the wall behind him.
Defeated, Mem would take down her old black coat from the hook by the cookstove in the corner of the kitchen, wriggle it on over her wide body, put on her old scarf, and leave, taking with her the only gas lantern we had. Mem spoke with her whole body when she was angry—normally she did not have a heavy footfall for someone her size, but when she was angry, she stomped so that I could feel each of her steps in the vibration of the floor. I can still hear her say the sharp words as she slammed the kitchen door: "Hock uf dei Stuhl und läss mich oll die eiwet du dann!" (Sit on your rocking chair and let me do all the work then!). We would be left in the dim and flickering light of the oil lamp. Datt would stop rocking and look at the kitchen door, then slowly start rocking again, with his feet crossed, back and forth over the hand-woven rug. I would be so hungry my stomach hurt, but I knew we couldn't eat until Mem was done with the chores and could make supper.
"Sarah, come here," Datt would say in his sorrowful voice. When she came and stood before him, he would pick her up and sit her on his lap, then rock back and forth, the bent hickory rocking chair creaking in the same place with each rock.
The sharp sound of Mem's angry words still hung in the room, as Datt and the rocking chair cast a big shadow on the wall that moved back and forth as he rocked. He would stop in the forward position, with his beard moving up and down and his dark eyes snapping. He seemed to be talking with someone. I would look up toward the ceiling, where he would be directing his angry whispers and gestures, and not see anyone. Then he would resume his rocking with his feet crossed, back and forth over the hand-woven rug, with his eerie shadow moving back and forth on the wall.
On one such night, I was holding onto the arm of the rocking chair and asking Sarah if she wanted to come and play dolls with me, when I got too close and Datt rocked on my big toe. The crunching sound came first, just before the crushing pain. I shrieked from the shock of it. I sat on the floor and cried and screamed so hard I couldn't catch my breath. I wondered if the rocker had cut off my toe, the pain was so terrific. I wanted Mem to come in. Datt tried to distract me by getting his metal matchbox from his pocket. I usually loved watching him unscrew the matchbox, then tilt the top to show the blue tips of the matches inside, but my toe hurt too much to pay any attention. Then he offered me a penny if I would stop crying. I tried, but my desire for the penny could not compare with the crushing pain in my toe, and I kept on screaming. Then Datt turned away from me and started rocking Sarah on his lap. When I realized that Datt was not going to help me or even go call Mem, my sobs came heaving out of my chest, not only from the pain, but also from the fear of recognizing that Datt could not help me, no matter what happened.
When Mem finally came in, I showed her my toe. Blood oozed from under my toenail, and my toe looked flat. I was still sniffling after my sobbing. My toe still hurt, but more like someone was pounding it with a hammer than the feeling that the toe had been broken off . She gave me water in a wash basin to soak my toe while she scolded Datt with her sharp voice: "You can't even take care of the children while I am outside doing your chores!" He sat with his arms folded across his chest, and he kept his lips pressed together so hard, it looked as though he had no mouth. Mem kept scolding: "You could have gotten her cold water to soak her toe!" Still Datt sat there and said nothing.
Excerpted from Why I Left the Amish by Saloma Miller Furlong Copyright © 2011 by Saloma Miller Furlong . Excerpted by permission of MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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