Twelve Years Ago
Grandmama is wrinkled, mostly broke-down with a bent back and gnarled hands. She can still shuck corn faster than a sprightly girl like me; she’s had 80 years of practice. Even as frail as she is, worn by a life of work, her mind is as sharp as the forged blade my father uses to cut burrowed ticks off his horses’ hind parts.
She winks at me.
“Rumspringa’s on ya’ now, eh?” she says, rocking in her chair as we shuck the last of the season’s sweet corn. My mother glances at me, then down at the painted boards on the porch and piles of discarded corn sleeves at her feet.
I nod, smiling awkwardly. To say I’ve been looking forward to this moment for years is a massive understatement. Leaving the Amish community for the first time has been my one desire since I turned ten. And that was even before I discovered boys.
“Make you the most of it, you,” she giggles with a toothless grin. “I did. We all did.”
“Mother, don’t be givin’ ‘er ideas,” my grandmother says. Grandmother is sixty and still has a few of her best teeth still firmly rooted in her head.
“It’s what Rumspringa is for,” Grandmama states, putting a booted foot down. She’s the matriarch here and so we must listen. “None’ll hold it against her. She’s got as much right as any to test the world and see what it’s about. And maybe if she’s smarter’n us, she’ll shuck her last ear and get far from here. Get herself a fellah who don’t expect her to break her back and break her heart making bread and babies for a husband that don’t take but a minute and not a thought what he’s doing down there.”
I want to crawl under the porch. My face flushes hot and red. I could never admit that the thought of what goes on down there has been on my mind. But it’s not the real reason I’m looking forward to Rumspringa.
“Grandma! Shush!” my mother says. “Sarah doesn’t have any idea what you’re talking about and better she doesn’t. Now just stop!”
GrandMa-Ma smiles at me, her gums shining in the sun. “She knows,” she says. “She knows, or she soon will. Sixteen-years-old and headed to Rumspringa. She’s got a lot of finding out coming. Be smart, girl. Choose wise.”
My brother Jacob comes around the corner of the house leading a dusty work horse by a bridle and rope. He’s seventeen-years-old, tall, lanky, and full of himself.
“Sarah, bring me some water! And some bread and cheese. I’m parched and hungry.”
I can’t help but bristle. This isn’t what girls in the real world have to do. It’s what good little Amish girls do. “Get your own water,” I snap. “I’m working too.”
“Sarah, get your brother something to drink and a snack,” my mother insists. “He’s been in the fields all day.”
Jacob has been fooling around in the cool air of the barn, while Grandmother, Mother, and I have been up since five this morning, working by the ovens in the bakery. I made him breakfast. I made his lunch. I washed his clothes and hung them on the line.
“Jacob, there’s a spigot right here at the porch and the bread’s in the kitchen. Help yourself, boy.” Grandmama calls out, pointing a crooked finger in his direction. “Sarah’s got fifty ears to shuck before suppertime.”
She winks at me again, watching Jacob deflate. He moves to the spigot, turning the knob, drinking straight from the stream.
If I was a man, I’d punch Jacob square in the jaw. Whoever is stupid enough to be his wife deserves to be punched too. He’s the eldest son and he thinks he owns the rest of us. He doesn’t own me, no matter how many times my mother tells me to do what he says.
It occurs to me, like a faint spark rising from a distant horizon, that no man owns me. And no man should.
“We’re going to the auction at Dinkey’s tomorrow,” Mother says, changing the subject. “I think we’ll have a big day for pies and fresh bread. The tourists love our baking, and Sarah’s pies are a favorite.”
Grandmama smiles at me. “I know those English buy your pies and sweets by the carload. I hope you’ve been saving your pennies, angel. You’re going to need every quarter you got.”
* * *
The auction is over, and the crowd has thinned out. It’s long past dark and the van waits, its big gasoline engine idling. The boys glance around anxiously, kicking the dust and rocks, impatient to get going. The girls are take a little more time with our worried parents.
Us kids are going to a gathering in Indianapolis of all the Rumspringa kids in Indiana. The church fathers have put together a program on the dangers of mixing with the modern world, and what we need to caution against while we’re running around.
Father hugs me, telling me to be good. My little sister Hannah throws her arms around my shoulders, tears in her eyes. She knows. The rest of my siblings wish me a fun time. When it’s Mama’s turn, she doesn’t want to let go; she holds me so tight it hurts. She leans close, pressing her lips to my bonnet.
“Always be the best person you can be. God is in your heart and He won’t ever leave you. Be kind to those you meet and be good to yourself. Always respect yourself and others will respect you in turn.”
I haven’t told Mama, but I know—just by the way she’s looking at me—she knows too.
I’m not coming back.
“Easy Mother, she’ll be back on Tuesday,” Father says, his eyes smiling.
He’s going to be so disappointed in me. He’ll never forgive me. That’s the hardest thing to think about. I may never see any of my family again. I’ll be shunned, excommunicated from the church and the community. Everyone I know will be forbidden to speak to me again.
That’s a horrible thing to consider, but I never want to see the inside of a henhouse again, or knead a roll of sticky bread dough, or wake up before light so a house full of men can eat everything on the table before I get their scraps, leaving me to wash their filthy clothes. If I never wash a dirty diaper again, it’ll be too soon.
There is no way, as long as I have this opportunity, that I’m going to get married at eighteen-years-old and start having babies, spending my entire life working my fingers to the bone for a church full of old men who will tell me what to do, when to do it, and what to think about it.
I may be Amish, but I’m not stupid. There’s got to be more to life than this.
I’ve left three letters: one for my parents, one for my siblings, and one mailed this morning to Mrs. Daniels at the public library in Odon. Mrs. Daniels will understand; she was Amish too when she was a girl. She met an English boy when she was on her Rumspringa and decided to try the outside world for a while. She went to the public school in Odon with the boy and his friends, and then she went to college too. They got married and have a family; all her children are almost grown up now. Mrs. Daniels became the town librarian, and she became my friend. As soon as I find a place to live in New York, I’ll write Mrs. Daniels and let her know I’m settled, so she can come to the bakery and tell my mother.
As our van pulls off, dust rises thick in the gravel parking lot of Dinky’s Auction House. Everyone’s waving goodbye, and me too. In a minute we’re on the paved road headed north, passing buggies, catching up with slow-moving cars, their tail lights flaring red through the grimy windshield.
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when we get to Indianapolis?” Ruby, a girl my own age from another church in a nearby town, asks me. In the dim light I can’t see her well, but I can see she’s fidgeting nervously with her apron strings.
I smile shyly into the darkness. “I’m going to buy some English clothes and buy a bus ticket to New York City.”
Ruby gasps. “No, you’re not!” she exclaims.
“Yes, I really am,” I reply, feeling the weight of my words.
I reach up and pull off my bonnet, shaking out my long hair, letting it fall freely across my shoulders and down my back. A couple of boys seated behind me snicker loudly, whispering something between them. They’ve never seen my hair, or probably any girl’s hair before. Not even their sister’s.
We’re supposed to be ashamed of our hair, but I don’t understand why. If there’s a God, He gave me long blond hair. He doesn’t ask the trees to hide their leaves, or the mare to cover her mane. I’m never covering my hair again. I’m proud of who I am, and proud of who I’m going to become. If that’s a sin, then I’m a sinner. No one is ever going to shame me again, not for just being me when it hurts no one at all.
With every mile of narrow, Indiana farm lane passing away behind us, I’m a little bit closer to the life I’m determined to live. No one else is ever going to make a plan for my life again. From now on, the decisions are mine. I’ve got almost six thousand dollars saved and a list of people in New York from my teacher, Mrs. Daniels. She said they’d help me; I can only believe her.
I’m going to start high school in a few weeks. After that, I’m going to college. One day, when I’m grown-up, I’ll start my own business, support myself, travel, do what I like when I like.
And I am never, ever, getting married.