Two summers ago:
I spent much of this past weekend at the Amish church along the edge of town, attending a family reunion that turned out to be larger than anything I could have imagined. Uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, and more second cousins than I can remember. All descending upon that quiet little church with the softball field and the see-saw, and an ancient blooming oak that looked down upon us all.
My mother’s maiden name is Kanagy—a proper Amish name if you’ll ever hear one, right up there with the Yoders and Schrocks and Zooks. The family center is still in Lancaster County, though the years have flung the Kanagys to all corners of the country. It was a strange thing, hearing that. The Coffeys have always been in these mountains. We always will. I suppose it’s an unwritten rule that we should never roam far from our family’s bones. And yet Saturday we parked near vehicles from Kansas, Colorado, and Delaware. Sunday, it was mostly Ohio.
Many of them I’d never seen (though many remembered me as a child, one even commenting on numerous occasions that I smelled very good as a baby—a tidbit of information that never failed to make my son giggle). Others I’d seen only in passing and only years before. And yet all of them looked familiar in the way family always does, whether it was the way all of their faces had the same shape or the way everyone’s laugh seemed to lilt at the end. We all shared something important. We wandered and mingled and introduced ourselves, and we all felt that tugging of a thin cord wound around us all, placed there by some long-ago kin.
Not that things always went so smoothly. My mother’s Amish heritage gave way to the Mennonite faith when she was a child. The Mennonite in her fell away (at least in practice) not long after she married my father. I was raised more conservative country than conservative Mennonite, which was why my family showed up in jeans and capris rather than the accustomed plain blue pants and white shirts, or the plain blue dresses and white bonnets.
(Also this rather important point: If you should ever find yourself in the company of a hundred Amish and Mennonite people and you yourself are neither Amish nor Mennonite, take care to cover the ginormous tattoo running from your shoulder to your elbow. This, I found out the hard way.)
So yes, there was some getting used to things. But the vast majority of my distant relatives were more than happy to put our outward differences aside, eager to use the opportunity as a chance to see how the other half lives.
I was pleased to find many of them had kept up with my wife and children and had read my books. Just because you’re Amish doesn’t mean you’re dim. Indeed, the Kanagy’s are an intellectual lot; in my wanderings around the reunion, I met several preachers and one college professor. Reading is considered not only necessary, but pleasurable. The classics are most encouraged. Dickens is widely read.
(Which brings another rather important point: Amish people do not read Amish fiction. In fact, many of them had never heard of such a thing— its mere mention brought the very same shock and laughter my son offered when he heard I’d smelled excellent as a baby.)
I imagine much like most families, what truly brought us together was the food. Your typical Amish fare—bean soup, moon pies, barbequed chicken, fresh bread, and spearmint tea made to such perfection that I could not help but drink it and think of my own grandmother. We stood in that gathering hall to pray and we said our amens, and when we sat to eat we found that despite all of our differences, we were still all the same. Because that’s when the tales began.
One after another, each fired in succession. Tales of days gone by and times when the world seemed a better, fresher place. The hardships endured. The ones who have gone on. The ones who have come to take their place. And when we shared each of these things we shared not only our memory, we shared ourselves.
I won’t see many of them again until the next reunion. Though from what I hear, this one may be the last. Too many of my relatives have grown too old. The distance is too great between us for the traveling. Its wearying to the bones.
If that’s the case, I can rest knowing I spent my time wisely this past weekend. I learned much of my past. And I learned this as well: what binds a family together is a thing deeper than blood and body, it is story. And that is the story of us all.