These events happened on Friday, February 23.
Friday morning as I was preparing my coffee the phone rang. My husband was calling to tell me “Franny’s mom died yesterday. Marvin told me we have to go to John and Franny’s this evening, and we need to bring food.” My mind immediately jumped into action thinking through what was in the fridge, what could I make? What should I bring? Then I started wondering what the evening was actually going to look like. I’ve never been with an Amish family in mourning before.
A Little Context
Living in western Pennsylvania, Amish are a people group that you see every day, but few outsiders actually get to know them. At grocery stores, restaurants, dressed in their simple handmade cotton clothes, the lady’s black bonnets and the men’s straw hats, they are hard to miss. You see them driving down back country roads in their square, black, covered buggies pulled by a single horse. Their close knit community believes a simple life is a Godly life. Their homes dot the country side, standing out with white siding and green metal roofs, and from the road as you pass by you can see white cotton curtains drawn back from the windows. You will not find an Amish church building because they turn the large living rooms in their homes into church sanctuaries on Sundays and rather than pastors, they have elders who lead the meetings. Their children attend school in a one room school house from grades 1 – 8, then because of their religious beliefs, the teenagers join the work force. Each family has their niche, one family are loggers, another works in construction, another farms, others have shops where they sell their produce. The women are bakers, seamstresses, shop owners, and a few teach in the one room school houses.
We met John and Franny the summer of 2014. We had moved to the area and my husband, Omar, got a job with a construction company that hired Amish and English (as they call all non-Amish). Omar and John were put on the same crew at the beginning and they hit it off right away! John invited our family over for a cook out that summer, and that’s when I met Franny and the kids. At the time we had three kids, and they had four kids, all about the same age. Through the years we have had meals together, driven places too far for their buggy to go, gone yard sale-ing together, played games as the sun set, celebrated the birth of our youngest and two more little ones for them, and developed a wonderful friendship that won’t be matched. Franny’s parents live in a small house attached to the back of John and Franny’s farm house. Her mother, Edna, had a small dry goods store in the room that connects the two houses. I stop there to buy their flour, sugar and their specialty candies. On Saturdays, if you get there in time, you can buy baked goods, including Franny’s yummy donuts.
Now Edna is gone. And Marvin (John and Franny’s Elder) had told Omar, very directly, we must go to John and Franny’s to be with them during this time.
Preparing a meal, I had to think of things that could keep without the need of a refrigerator, as their refrigeration is a modern chest freezer with ice blocks in the bottom. I threw together a crockpot soup, cornbread muffins, and a pan of brownies, it was enough for them and their five boys, (their daughter is just a few months old, not eating solid foods just yet) I trusted that all the other family members would be bringing more food for them.
As we pulled up in our mini van, two large 15 passenger vans were parked on the side of the road, English drivers playing on their cell phones, evidence that the extended family from an hour away had been driven in to be together. Four or five other mini vans lined the drive way with more English drivers waiting. I guess they could be considered Amish Lyft or Amish Uber drivers, we call them Amish Taxies. We were the only English there to mourn with the family. There was a group of 10 or 15 women standing in a circle outside talking in low voices, across the parking area were a group of 15 or 20 men doing the same. A row of 5 or 6 buggies lined the parking spaces closest to the house. We entered the house through their main door which enters into a mezzanine level, perfect for kicking off muddy farm boots, hooks on the wall for coats and hats and a wood stove that heats the mezzanine level and acts as their extra oven when they are making baked goods to sell. John’s sister Rebecca met us at the door and stood talking with us. She asked us whether we wanted to go see Edna, or wait to talk with John and Franny who were eating dinner. We decided to stay where we were until Franny came up from the basement that had been transformed into a dinning area with long tables lined with chairs for the family to eat together. Sweet Franny saw us and I gave her a long hug. We stood and talked for a while. As we stood there, one other English lady came in, saw Franny and burst into tears. A neighbor and friend herself she had come to mourn too. About that time Rebecca told Omar and me that the men had finished putting Edna in her coffin and would we like to go see her. I said yes and we followed her up stairs to the main floor of the house.
What is usually the kitchen and living room had been cleared of all family furniture and long wooden benches filled the space, it looked like it was set up for church service. Rebecca led us down a small hallway into a room off of the living room that is normally John and Franny’s bedroom. All furniture had been removed from this room as well. The only thing in the whole room was Enda’s coffin, set on a small stand. The pine box was very simple in the traditional coffin shape with a lid that had two parts. One part closed over her legs and torso, attached with a hinge was a door/second part of the lid that was open to show Edna’s lovely face, shoulders and hands, folded on her chest. A single oil lamp, set on the lid, lit the room. Edna was dressed in her dark blue dress, her white shawl and white cap neatly tied under her chin, her wire rimmed glasses in their place. All Omar could say was “wow.” The atmosphere was peaceful, and it felt like we were on holy ground. Rebecca and I spoke about my memories of her smile and sweet spirit. Franny and the other English woman entered, we all stood there crying for awhile. After a few minutes Omar went back down the hallway to spend some time with John and the other men that he knew. Rebecca encouraged me to follow Franny and her neighbor through the other door into the living room turned church sanctuary to sit with her while Rebecca went back to playing hostess. Franny found an empty group of rocking chairs lining the edge of the room. She asked me and her neighbor to sit on either side of her, she grabbed hold of our hands and didn’t let go for a long time. Family and friends were there sitting on the benches and in the rocking chairs, talking in low voices. More people started coming through, filing out of the bedroom door with tears in their eyes. I got to see a few of the other Amish women I have met through my friendship with Franny. Our threesome became a cluster. It was an honor to just be there. I’m not sure how long we sat together, but I would not have wanted to be anywhere else. When the time came for us to take our kids home we said goodbye to Franny and John and collected our kids who had disappeared outside to play with the other kids. Edna’s husband of 53 years happened to be coming in as we were going out. He grabbed Omar’s hand and thanked us for coming. He immediately started crying and made the most profound statement. “Tomorrow is the last time I’ll ever see her again.” In a world of Instagram, Facebook and selfies, here to me was the biggest difference between our two cultures. The Amish don’t allow photography taken of their faces. Once the lid is shut on the little pine box tomorrow they will not see her again and will have to rely on their memory to remember the shape of her face. What an interesting situation.
As we loaded our kids into the van we could see the driveway of Rebecca’s house next door filling up with parked buggies as more family and friends were coming to pay their respects. Driving away down the muddy road, we passed 10 or 15 buggies, all on their way to John and Franny’s. Franny told me that after the funeral tomorrow, the tradition is to have family and friends visiting the home “for as long as it takes”. She invited me back out next week during the day and said men could come when John is home from work. She also asked that we come back for a game of Dutch Blitz (the best card game ever) to give her something else to think about. My dear friend, I’ll be praying for you.