Follow one travel blogger’s journey home to see his mother which turns into an unexpected adventure at a nearby Amish settlement — and, in turn, into the trip that finally brings them to an understanding of one another.
“I hope we’re in the right place,” my mother sighed as we sat down in the restaurant.
“This place doesn’t look very Amish.”
Behind us, a large buffet basked under the heat of a dozen LED bulbs and beside us, a couple was debating the merits of Donald Trump’s candidacy. There were more adults with smartphones than with children, although most of the children present had their own smart devices as well.
“It must be a few more miles down the road,” I reassured her, then perused the menu options – buffets usually freak me out. “This food doesn’t look particularly Amish, either.”
Just then, a young woman emerged from the kitchen wearing a bonnet and a dress that looked like something out of the Oregon Trail computer game. “OK, she looks pretty Amish,” I conceded. Mom perked up. “That one’s actually a Mennonite,” she said, citing the particular shade of modesty the girl sported. “But we’re headed in the right direction.” I hope we are, I said to myself silently.
I adored my Mom when I was growing up, but we began to grow apart after she divorced my father, a separation that intensified when I went off to college — significantly so when I started traveling full-time. Although I come home often and call more than most people my age do, I’ve found that time and distance amplify each other in quantities as great as this.
Earlier that morning I’d arrived in St. Louis for one of my many yearly visits home. They’re typically sedentary affairs filled with eating, gossip and reality TV, but my mother had set her heart on visiting the Amish community of Arthur, Illinois, a small town equidistant from St. Louis, Chicago and Indianapolis, so that was where we went.
“This was my jam in high school,” she turned up the radio as we continued west on Illinois 133, past cornfields that seemed to extend way past the horizon, rolling down the windows and drumming on the steering wheel. Do you, you, feel like I do? She and Peter Frampton sang in unison. Before she could continue singing along with her teen idol, however, she turned the volume all the way down, rolled the windows all the way up and slowed the car nearly to a halt. “Do you see that?” she pointed to horse and buggy slowly making its way toward us from the opposite direction.
“We’re in Amish country alright.”
As for Mom, she’s only visited me once in the 12 years I’d been living away from home, which was the only time she’d left the bi-state area at all during that time. In fact, aside from a late 70s trip to Hawaii she often describes fondly, I don’t know if she’s ever willfully traveled anywhere in her life. That life, to be sure, has been far from a cake walk. Having been born into a troubled family, she lost both her parents early and endured divorces both before and after my father. It was heartwarming to see her so excited about something, even if it was something so seemingly unexciting.
“Look over there!”
She exclaimed, giddy as a schoolgirl, and directed my attention to an Amish woman hanging what appeared to be Michelle Duggar’s laundry out to dry. “But if you take a picture,” she warned, “don’t zoom in on her face. They consider those ‘graven’ images.“ I wasn’t planning on obliging — I’ve never been too concerned about what the Bible says and curiously, my mom hasn’t really either — but it seemed that the woman had spotted me as I pulled out my camera: She hid her face.
“Those little buggies see right there,” Mom pointed to the small carriages, pulled by even smaller horses, “those are for the students. In some villages they can ride bikes, but I guess the bishop of this town has banned them.” “The bishop?” I tried to discreetly snap the school yard as we sped past. “Yes,” she explained, as we pulled into the parking lot of Beachy’s Bulk Foods, Arthur’s famous Amish grocery store.
“The town bishop dictates most aspects of life for the townspeople, including how much technology they can or can’t have.”
“Businesses,” she continued, as we walked into the fluorescent-lit market, “are exempt.” Mom was like a kid in a proverbial candy store. Well, a real candy store, given that at least a quarter of the merchandise at Beachy’s was candy, from rock candy, to salt water taffy, to Lucky Charms marshmallows without the nasty brown stuff. Then there were all the non-candy sweets, like fruit preserves and honey, made in an actual in-store beehive. And the dolls without faces, which like photographs are considered graven images.
Oddly, we were the only customers in the store, which made the presence of an older man near the entrance all the more conspicuous. “I bet he’s the one who gives carriage rides,” Mom said as we made our way toward the exit. Sure enough, he was. “You’re my first one today,” the man, who introduced himself as Melvin, sighed. “Actually, you’re my first one all week. What day is today, anyway?” “Friday,” I smiled. He steered his horse, whom he’d introduced as Judy, around a bend in the path. “People just aren’t coming here like they used to.” Mom seemed shocked.
“I just don’t get that at all. Your way of life — the purity of it — is just so fascinating to me.””I sometimes wish I could leave my own life behind and start again someplace like this.”
“Take your time decidin’,” Melvin laughed. “Arthur ain’t goin’ anywhere.” Unfortunately for Arthur, my mother and I had a two-hour drive back to St. Louis, so we were, at least for now.
“Maybe the next time you’re here,” she postulated, still visibly giddy from the experience, “we can head further south and see the Mennonite communities there.” “I’d really like that,” I said, as I flipped through some of the pictures I’d taken of our amazing Amish day together. “Just say the word.” Our new-found understanding was a simple one, yes, but an understanding just the same. Yes, mother, I thought, for maybe the first time in my adult life. I do feel like you do.