I’ve alluded a couple of times here in the blog that the area where I live has Amish families nearby. They aren’t in State College at all, of course, as they live on farms, but you can drive only about thirty minutes in various directions and be surrounded by Amish settlement. Across one of the nearby ridges is a rather wide, long valley, with another ridge running parallel to it across the way. The area between the ridges has been named, in a great stroke of descriptive nomenclature, Big Valley. It’s very much an Amish area, and when you drive the main road down the valley, you have to be careful for coming over a hill and finding a horse and carriage in front of you.
Having a restricted use of modern technology, or close-knit social structures, does not prevent the Amish from being very engaged with modern economic life. As an example, many construction projects around here are busy with bearded men in wide-brimmed straw hats.
One of the wonderful things about this area is the agricultural richness, and in State College we have four different open-air farmers markets in the summer and fall. One of those markets is run entirely by one Amish family, who set up in the parking lot of a shopping center. For several months of the year, the family is out early in the morning putting up a large white cover, like an open-sided tent, before setting out their wares on tables underneath. At the end of the day they take it all down, and for the next two days it’s just a parking lot for the bank, the drugstore, and the liquor store.
I’ve watched the same family operate this market for years, and since several young people are involved, I’ve also watched them grow older. Even the children work hard, putting out more tomatoes or melons, setting out jars of pickles or baked goods, and getting more plastic bags to hold the produce (I’ve thought several times of how ironic it is that an Amish market is so dependent on plastic bags).
The males, even down to the youngest boys, all wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts, no matter how hot it is, and they all wear the straw hats, with small sizes for the little boys. The females have long dresses and on their heads are scarves or little bonnets, and all the clothing is in either dark or very muted colors.
This market suddenly appears sometime in late spring or early summer, and then it runs for quite a while, until the end of November, whatever the weather. This past week I stopped in to see what they still had, root vegetables, perhaps, or some hardy greens like the collards that I love. It was a pretty, sunny day, so there were people shopping. In the summer there will be a long line moving down the length of the tent, and the line will almost always include middle-aged women speaking Russian, from the fairly large Russian community in town.
On the day that I went this week, it was not so crowded, but there were still about ten people shopping when I arrived. I was looking at a bin of parsnips when the Amish girl behind the bin, who must be about 19 by now, began singing. I’d never heard anyone sing there before, so it was a surprise, though she wasn’t singing very loud. I was also pleased because her song, in English (which struck me a little, as the Amish have their own language) is one I used to sing in church, “Amazing Grace”. In a moment she grew louder, and the young man in his 20s, who I think is her brother, took up the song with her.
Other shoppers around me stopped to listen to the singing, and people were smiling to hear it. Then it grew more surprising still, as the older woman who always seems much in charge also joined the song, and after her the heavy-set man with a face full of long white whiskers added his deep bass. For several minutes all of this Amish family ceased what what they had been doing, to stand and sing “Amazing Grace” with the astonished and delighted customers listening.
The last verse of the song has always been my favorite, maybe for its somewhat supernatural, poetic wording: “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.” When the family reached this verse, they all moved out from behind the tables and bins and cash register, walking up to customers and hugging us, and when the song ended, they said “Happy Thanksgiving” in their Amish-accented English.
I was so moved and emotional after this that I couldn’t continue with something as common as making a purchase, so I left. I got no food for the body, but the soul was fed.