Anna Davis Abel
When I was fourteen, I saw a Lifetime movie where an army of Amish women forced a young girl (with superb acting skills) into marrying a man old enough to be her grandfather. The ark of the film had something to do with lost love and the power of stay-at-home-women and conveniently shirtless men, but even now, I’m not entirely sure what the take-home message was supposed to be. For me, it was the birth of an obsession I cradled close to my chest like a small, pitiful flame for nearly five years.
I grew up in a home with a mother who rode motorcycles and collected nude Santa figurines that she’d display proudly year round from our living room mantle in our suburban home. My father lived in a different state, equally as southern, and held weekly Sons of the Confederacy meetings in the half-trailer he built in his backyard the year I started high school. My brother was the bane of his existence, being one hundred and thirteen pounds of flamboyantly gay hairdresser, with an inconvenient cocaine addiction and a slightly more inconvenient schizophrenia diagnosis. Somehow, I was the golden child with my potbelly, anxiety disorder, and utter disdain for anything my family remotely approved of. At the holidays when my extended cousins and aunts and uncles gathered in the corners to whisper about my mother and brother, I was the one they patted on the shoulders and said would “be all right” and would “make them proud.”
And I hated them for it, almost as much as I hated myself or my body or the feeling I’d get when I’d try to hook my new bra and instead would find glitter on the elastic because my brother needed something to stuff with socks during his drag show. It was like living in a fun house with mirrors that stretched and shrunk problems and solutions until I wandered in circles looking for a reflection that didn’t scare the shit out of me. I lived in the shadows of my own illusions, weaving stories to convince my friends that I was their kind of normal and my family was nothing to think twice about. And I became good at it, at the weaving of balloon animal lies to make something brighter and newer and shinier than the truth so that I could pretend with the rest of them that my life wasn’t a flaming disaster ride at a cheap, southern state fair.
I wanted an escape; I wanted out. I wanted to be something in a different world that didn’t involve police officers talking your brother down from the roof in his underwear while the neighbors watched and took pictures with the flash shamelessly on. I wanted to be someone who only existed in the space of my own skin with no predispositions about the person inside the meat suit whose family graced the lips of every old woman who dared to peek through her blinds whenever the blue lights came again. I needed a way to get past the Internet and the stories people could Google. They searched for mugshots with my family name as if they were fondling themselves, rising in pleasure whenever one of my family’s blank-eyed stares smiled back at them from the computer screen.
The little flame in my chest begging for a way past the nightmarish cartoon world I called my childhood roared into a house fire the day I learned the Amish had a website. It was an accident that I stumbled upon it really. For years, I’d casually checked up on the Plain People, making sure that everything was going right in their little piece of the world. I made sure there were no major fires in the communities I was most fond of, particularly in the upper part of Pennsylvania. I read books with romanticized Amish lovers, and I even ordered myself a heinous cotton shawl from Amazon one particularly weak day.
The website itself didn’t really hold any new answers for me; by this point of my obsession, I already knew the basics of an Amish lifestyle from paying taxes to giving birth to the proper way to grow facial hair (beards are good; mustaches are, obviously, of the devil). But finding the website planted a seed in the dirt-filled crevices of my mind. I finally had a sign: I could be Amish.
I wrote my first email to the Amish Overlord, the affectionate name I gave the person who was supposed to answer their emails, in about an hour. I slaved over every line, trying to think of the perfect way to convey my admiration, my respectful fascination, and my absolute obsession without hinting that I might be slightly unhinged (no matter how true it may have been). I thought it was perfect; I detailed my high school accomplishments and that I had been valedictorian and made an A in my sewing class so I was sure to be good at mending things. I attached my resumé so they could see that I was articulate and fairly fluent in French. (At the time, I knew they spoke German, but I figured the countries were close enough that they would probably accept me into their ranks.) I also attached a picture of myself wearing my cotton cape so that they could see how dedicated I was, and that I was also a white woman because I’d read once that there were no Amish of color. I finished the email with a lovely scripture I Googled from the King James Bible and then went to bed with a smile so big it hurt.
I woke up the next morning – a Saturday – and was crushed to find that the Amish had not replied to my email. I knew it had only been a handful of hours and that people who had never used a keyboard would probably need more time to respond to such a moving message, but I was still a little agitated to see nothing but a Bath and Body Works coupon in my inbox. I would not let myself be deterred, however, and so after stocking up on two-for-one bath soaps, I decided to get a head start on planning my move. I knew that the most important thing for an Amish woman (in my mind) was her family, and so in the weeks that followed my email, I started creating one for myself in my mind.
My mother was named Catherine, and she had long grey hair with a tint of blonde near the ends. She smiled crookedly, but endearingly, and she spent her afternoons sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch my father, Eli, built her when they were first married. For some reason, in my mind, my mother was nearly eighty despite the fact that my real mother was barely forty, but I couldn’t picture a young looking Amish mother, so Catherine had to make due with never having had attractive years.
I had three brothers who were all older than me, and their names came from the most obscure parts of the bible. The oldest – older than me by nearly ten years – was Kenan. His arms were long and sinewy and they’d long been stained red by the sun. His eyes were blue and intense, and he rarely smiled except for when he looked on his young bride’s face – a girl I named Julia, and who would become my closest friend once I joined the order. The second of my brothers was named Edom, and he had all of Kenan’s intensity with none of my oldest brother’s control. He was the problem child, and the one my old-woman mother and I sat up late at night whispering about, hoping one day he would find his way and stop fighting with the overweight pig farmer’s boy up the street.
My closest brother was Cedron, whose name I chose because it reminded me of a Harry Potter character. I didn’t bother to learn what it really meant until some years later, when I found out that the brother I imagined telling my deepest secrets to had a name that literally meant “sadness.” It is more than a bit ironic now, but back then, Cedron could do no wrong in my eyes. He was my partner in crime, my biggest supporter. He stood lookout at the barn doors while I hid our English food in the hay inside. He chastised me about the music I sang to him when old-mother wasn’t around, but he never asked me to stop. Cedron was my best Amish friend and my best brother, and for nearly two months, I couldn’t go to sleep without whispering all my thoughts aloud to him before bed. He was real and unreal. The only thing that kept him from coming to fruition was the official order of acceptance from the Amish Overlord.
After the first week went by and I didn’t receive a reply, I resent my first email with a few more adjectives detailing how good of a cook I was, which wasn’t exactly the truth but I figured if I was accepted, I could learn a few recipes before shipping off. Then after the second week, I sent a gentle inquiry letter, asking them if they’d ever received my first emails. I even had the courtesy to let them know that in English correspondence, a confirmation message was customary but that I understood how there might have been a culture gap.
When the first month passed with not a single peep from my Amish relatives, I began to get desperate. My brother had recently shaved off his eyebrows and my mother was in a new phase where she wore nothing but leather chaps, so I knew the time for passive inquiry had left. I went to the local crafts store, bought the oldest, most weathered scrapbook paper I could find, and I set to handwriting a letter. It was only natural that I should write with a fountain pen (because what else would the Amish write with?), but I had never written with one before, and it took me nearly three more trips to Hobby Lobby before I wrote a letter clean enough to deem acceptable. I knew I had a few grammar mistakes near the end of the plea because my hands were having spasms due to the pressure I felt the letter required. In all my research, though, I’d learned the Amish had (what I considered to be) poor English skills so I figured they probably wouldn’t notice, and I sent the letter off anyways.
After nearly three weeks, I awoke to a shining blue “1” next to the mail app on my iPhone. I’d been preparing myself for my electronic-free lifestyle for the better part of a month, so I’d only been allowing myself to check my emails three times a day instead of the usual ten. When I awoke and saw the notification next to the mail account I’d set up solely for correspondence with my people, I knew the glorious day had finally arrived. I sat up straight in my bed, holding my phone like it was the Holy Grail, and opened an email that consisted of only three sentences:
Hello Anna. We appreciate your admiration of the People, however the community is not accepting applications for membership. Congratulations on your achievements and good luck in college.
Clearly the Amish Overlord was mistaken. He (or she) had obviously not read my emails or looked over my resume or even taken the time to feel the indentations of my script on my handwritten letter, and so he had no idea how committed I was to the cause. He didn’t realize that I had a whole Amish family waiting for me to join them in Pennsylvania; he was doing a disservice of God by not allowing me to come live amongst them.
And so I kindly explained that to him in another email, and then another, and finally a third before I received another email asking me to stop contacting them. I looked for a phone number so that I could calmly call the Amish Overlord and let him know that he had no choice but to accept me, but believe it or not, the Amish do not readily advertise their phone number. The email I had been using too was “apparently” only supposed to be used for inquiries into buying the hand-made goods that supported the Lancaster communities, and so I couldn’t keep sending them my letters because for all I knew, they’d blocked my email address.
For the first time in months, I had to come to the realization that I might not be able to be Amish. Catherine, Eli, Kenon, Edom, and sweet Cedron would never exist anywhere other than the dustiest parts of my mind, and I would have to make due with my real family. I was angry at the Amish and their snooty overlord and so for an entire summer, I left negative Yelp reviews for Amish owned businesses in Lancaster county to express my spite. It was all petty, and I knew that, especially since the Amish didn’t have light bulbs, let alone wifi to read my reviews, but it felt better to have the sense that I was getting to say something back – like I was getting some kind of revenge for the death of my Amish livelihood.
I got into every college I applied to except for the only one I wanted: the elusive and exclusive Plain People. I left for college in the fall with a backpack of notebooks and journals stuffed full of letters I’d written and never sent, and photographs of the family I now had to fully accept as my only one. My time as an Amish groupie faded into the crevices I shoved old homework assignments inside, but even now, I can’t turn the channel when a good Lifetime Amish move comes on.
About the Author: Anna Davis Abel received her Bachelors in English from the University of Alabama in 2016. She is currently pursuing her MFA in creative nonfiction at the West Virginia University and focuses her work on feminist literature, southern voice, and issues of mental health. She is currently working on a coming of age memoir about her time growing up in the rural south with a single mother and mentally ill brother struggling with his sexuality.