The ones who leave always stay in my mind. At a writing festival I went to, the famous writer who introduced the show left at intermission with her suitcase. She was flying in from or out to somewhere important. When I hosted a short film festival, the noted keynote speaker cut out after three films, with her entourage and a bag of popcorn. Today, as we walked through an Amish community with our cabinet designer, she talked about a deaf Amish child who’s being schooled with the English. Now that he’s learned to sign, he’s become much happier and better behaved. She wonders whether he’ll stay in the community after school. His parents have learned a bit of sign language, but not much, and they’re the only ones. Even if he learns to lip-read, they mostly speak Swiss German, except to outsiders. Maybe he’ll find he agrees with their principles and believes their religion, but would I want to stay somewhere people didn’t even try to speak my language?
This second trip to California, Michigan has been anti-climactic. We arrived an hour early, trying to anticipate the time change our designer had already compensated for when she told us what time to show up with the truck. Instead of being finished with lunch and prayers, the Amish family is just sitting down. Good thing we came to the designer’s farm first and didn’t barge up the dirt path to the family’s. “Hey, we’re here for our beautiful cabinets we’ll never cook with, is that God you’re talking to? Thank him for the money and credit cards and stuff, what’s for lunch?”
The designer takes us on a walk around the community, since there are no stores close enough to drive to. She points out houses and farms, and I’m able to ask a few of my million stupid questions about the Amish – “Does their religion make them uniformly virtuous?” “Duh, what do you think?” – and it’s all interesting, but it’s hard to beat singing for the Amish. More accurately, watching Dave sing for the Amish. Back in January, standing in their barn, bundled in my puffy Michelin Man jacket, smiling at the line of women and children who smiled back but did not speak. They’d allowed us to bring Django into the barn too, though their dogs stayed outside, and as she nosed around I hoped she wouldn’t see the dirt floor as an invitation to do anything inappropriate.
Dave examined a set of cabinets they were building for another customer, and praised things I didn’t understand at the time – inset doors and some kind of hinges and some kind of joins. The father and his sons seemed not to hear the praise. They’d wait til Dave was done speaking and then explain the next thing they wanted him to know. Where the wood came from, how the stiles were designed. Then the designer told them Dave was a musician.
“We don’t have instruments here,” said the father, “but we sing. Do you sing?”
“I studied German lieder in college,” said Dave.
“We would like to hear you sing.”
Dave laughed. “Well, when we come back for our cabinets I’ll have to…uh…prepare something.”
The father waited.
Dave laughed again. “You mean, right now?”
“Yes,” said the father, “we would like to hear you sing.”
The sons waited. The wives and children waited. I looked hard at Dave, willing him not to freeze up like I would. But he opened his mouth and out came 16 bars of some beautiful German art song. He abruptly stopped. “That’s all I remember.”
The family smiled. The father continued to wait. “Uh, there’s a Russian folk song,” said Dave. And he sang a melancholy song he’d learned when he played Andrei in Three Sisters. When he finished, the father nodded. He didn’t say, “very good” or “very nice,” but he seemed to be satisfied. When we left, one of the women said, “’Bye,” and I said, “Goodbye, thank you!” I felt like we’d established ourselves somehow. I wondered what to bring back as a gift when we came for our cabinets.
But now that we’re here, I’m glad I couldn’t think of anything. The father and sons carefully pack each beautiful cabinet and load it onto the truck. They are genial, but the father doesn’t ask Dave for any more songs. A few of the women come out and I extol over how perfectly they’ve finished each piece with Deft oil. They smile absently, but like all the praise that falls so effusively from our lips, it seems to be just stuff people like me say to people like them. It’s Cottonwood fluff. They quietly ask the designer for the check, so they can get to the bank before it closes.
My friendly overtures are irrelevant. Our one reason to be here is as customers, and with that transaction complete we become a benign interruption. When we pull away in our truck, we allow them to resume their world. If that boy leaves the community when he’s old enough, will he stay in anyone’s mind? Will they wonder how he’s doing in a world that doesn’t seem to count for them? When he comes back to visit, will he be a star or an interruption? Or are these concepts that don’t even have meaning to them?
As we drive back to Chicago, I munch on peanut butter pretzels from World Market and figure I’ve learned exactly one thing: my million questions about the Amish may not be exactly stupid, but they’ll probably never be answered in a language I can understand.