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"Amish Quilt" - Marilyn K. Neulieb


“Get out of bed,” I ordered my husband that October Saturday morn.  “We’re driving to Amish country.”

                “It’s 6:55 a.m.  Can’t a man get a good night’s sleep?”

                “You’re going to buy me a piece of permanence, an original goose down quilt from the hands that made it.  Just to connect with a community that holds fast to its lifestyle, a community that never adapts to the times, a community that resists…”

                “O.K.,” he interrupted, lumbering out of bed, “We’ll buy your quilt, but first let me eat breakfast.”

                Over the buttery smell of scrambled eggs the harangue continued.  “I can see it now, natural fabric, of cotton or wool, of course.  I’ll deal with the folks who gathered the down from their own geese in spring and stitched my dream piece by hand or on a treadle sewing machine using the light of a lantern or the rays of the sun… Hurry up and eat.  We’re taking the Bronco.  You’re driving.  We’ll connect with those who resist change come what may!”

                Leaving Theresa that sunny sweatshirt-cool day, we turned north on US 11 at Philadelphia.  On the right, leaves of gold and crimson drifted downstream on the Indian River as we searched onward.  I envisioned corn shocks dotting the fields and a young Amish girl in a dark long-sleeved, ankle-length dress pumping water.

                We reached Antwerp, no Amish.  We reached Gouverneur and crossed the Oswegatchie River, no Amish.  At Greg’s restaurant we turned left on Rock Island Road.  From the front seat I surveyed the entire countryside until we reached the dead end, still no Amish.

                We turned left again and pressed on.  Suddenly appearing before us was a Hollywood movie set.  Corn shocks.  Water pumps in yards.  Tall white farmhouses without wires.  Black horse-drawn buggies.

                We continued.  Smoke curled from a chimney.  A team of draft horses plowed a field with a trim, long-sleeved, darkly-dressed bearded man behind the reins.  Roadside stands of bread, jam, handwoven baskets and vegetables beckoned us, but we kept driving and I kept looking for those quilts, determined to bring back a sample of the 19th century from those living it.

                Then, on the right, my dream came into view.  Next to a field of corn shocks stood a huge, two-and-a-half-story, white frame house with a whole clothesline of quilts for sale.  “STOP!” My husband turned into the gravel driveway and parked.  A girl pumped water by the front porch; three boys in straw hats gathered winter squash from the family garden; a buggy rested by the horse barn.  This was reality, no movie set.

                “You stay here, please,” I said and sprang from the passenger seat.  The scent of wood smoke soothed my senses as I neared the handiwork.  On straight-back chairs and nodding to me, sat a plump woman and a shy girl, probably a grandmother and granddaughter, studying a small book.  Both wore black, topped off with a black poke bonnet.  I said hello and approached those symbols of permanence.  My eyes and fingers pored over each of the seven, patterned with black, dark brown and dark blue strips and each crafted by the most devoted hands… Then suddenly my jaw dropped.  I froze, turned, smiled at the two, said thank you and left with a drooping head and an empty heart.

                “What happened?” asked my husband from behind the steering wheel as I plopped down, crossed my arms and pouted.

                “They can’t fight it.”

                “What are you talking about?”

                “Polyester fill and a synthetic cover.  That’s what I’m talking about.  They have to live in this century, too.”

                “What do you mean?”

                “Their quilts must be easy-care, easy to make and they know it.”

                From the front seat I re-examined everything that said Amish:  the field of corn shocks, the water pump by the front porch, the piles of winter squash, the black buggy resting by the horse barn and the wood-heated home, standing free of electricity and phone.  I exhaled a deep sign and waved good-bye to the world I thought existed and to a lifestyle I thought could avoid change.  The two waved back and we backed out.  As the gravel crunched slowly under the weight of the tires, I shot a parting glance at the two sitting there in their 19th century attire next to those spanking new 21st century synthetic quilts swaying to and fro in that brisk fall air.

                Heading home toward Rock Island Road I reflected.  Even this community which holds fast to its values must adapt.  The boys collecting winter squash used five gallon plastic buckets, not the ol’ oaken buckets.  The only thing permanent is change.  We can’t stop our clock from ticking and neither can they, singly or as a group.

                Under the hypnotic purr of the engine I settled back and closed my eyes.  I’m grateful for electricity and telephone, which that Amish girl at the pump may never have… but I’d be happier if my life were slower paced… if I had fewer things to control me, fewer things to clutter and speed up my life.  Didn’t Gandhi say “There’s more to life than increasing its speed?”  Maybe that’s why I’ve yearned to connect with them.

                Through the side window I studied an Amish woman hanging up dark shirts and pants, clothespin by clothespin, and thought.  All I want is a slower life where there’s more time for what really counts.  Who doesn’t?  Were the 1950s so bad?  Then, people were more important than things.  My husband and I don’t need to wear Amish fashion, cancel electricity and phone and trade in our Bronco for a horse and buggy.  I need a plan to simplify.  I’ll have it by noon.

                As we re-crossed the Oswegatchie River, I found myself sitting straighter behind the seatbelt with my head cocked proudly.  Our free time, I proclaimed to myself, shall be personal, not controlled by cold, sterile addictive machines that put our lives on hold.  We shall no longer be possessed by possessions.  Clutter shall be donated to charity.  Who was it that said, “Less is more?”  I don’t know, but I could have.  The problem facing my husband and me is how we, the consummate packrats, will ever be able to minimize.  I don’t know how, but I’m going to break the news to him after twenty-nine years of marriage.

                In a subliminal flash I concocted a plan.  A glance of the slow placid Indian River on the left cinched it.  Patience, just like that river coursing its way.  It’d take a while, I knew.  It’d never be his idea.  He will resist, I shall insist.  He will resist, I shall persist.  I shall not compromise.  I shall win through endurance.  I shall calmly announce to him in the sweetest voice this side of the Mississippi that we are changing our lifestyle for the better, but I can’t mention it while he’s driving.

                “You’re thinking deeply,” my taciturn husband said.  Stewart’s convenience store on US 11 at Philadelphia came into view as the stoplight ahead turned red.  He depressed the brake pedal; we slowed to an idle.

                “I didn’t want that quilt anyway,” I blurted out.  “After all, it was only a symbol.  If they can live on less, we can, too.”  Shocked at my brusqueness, I held my breath.  I can’t blow it now, I told myself.

                “You know,” he said in his slow confident voice, “we started out with almost nothing.  We didn’t even have a TV.”  Timidly, I nodded in agreement, glanced at him as he adjusted his grip on the steering wheel while we awaited the light and then, still on edge, turned my thoughts to our first apartment.

I laughed to myself.  “We were happy,” he added.  “It didn’t take much.”

The light changed and he changed our lives.