Leah was the last person I expected to telephone me on a Saturday after 10 p.m.
“I am sorry to call so late, but I can’t find the road [on the map] where the Fisher family has moved. The Fishers are hosting church tomorrow. You are the only one I know to call at this hour.”
Like all Amish women, my 40-year-old friend has never cut her chestnut-colored hair. With her part pulled taut down the middle, two locks twisted at the crown and hair bound tight at the nape of her neck, Leah is almost indistinguishable in a gathering of Amish mothers, each wearing the same head covering.
Leah, however, insists that she can easily identify one Amish woman from another even when they are not in clear view.
“I can usually tell by their horse and buggy,” she once confided.
Through the phone, Leah sounded both panicked and apologetic.
“Do you know how to find Tabor Road? Can you use your computer to help me?”
If Leah telephoned her Amish neighbors at this late hour (or any hour), she could only leave a voicemail message. The Lancaster, Pa., Amish use telephones but, as a rule, do not keep phones in their homes. Voicemail messaging has become more common among the Lancaster Amish, an accommodation to modernity made after much consideration from church leaders.
Asking me for help must have been a difficult decision for Leah, who is tenaciously self-reliant. Within her cloistered world, Leah handily tailors dresses for her five daughters and mends heavy coarse pants for her three sons and her husband. She prepares three meals a day for 10 people, tends to eight children, ages 1 to 23, and manages a thousand-pound horse and buggy with confidence. Over the summer, Leah gardens and preserves bushels of vegetables and fruits, enough to last the entire year.
Telephoning an English woman who lives 75 miles away, for directions to an Amish neighbor whose new home is only a few miles down the road, took courage.
I shuddered picturing Leah inside the unheated wooden phone booth set back from the road, squinting at her creased map of Lancaster County, with a flashlight. It was a biting cold and howling, windy night.
Like many Lancaster Amish, Leah has a plastic push-button phone installed in a drafty wooden shed outside her home. The Amish selectively adapt to modern ways only after it has been demonstrated that the change will not erode the unity of their settlement.
An Amish mother in her 50s remembers her lengthy waits for the one phone shared by several families when she was a girl. During the 1980s and 1990s, the church began permitting individual family phones but only outside the home. The Amish are late adapters to technology, if they adapt at all.
As I searched for a detailed Lancaster County map on my laptop, I told Leah I would place her on speakerphone. Over time, Leah has learned that a computer can access directions to out-of-the-way destinations, though she is not curious about how the device works. Only when all other resources have been exhausted will Leah ask me for help via an internet search.
Life is not expected to be easy for the Amish. Speed is not a virtue to be chased or valued.
But on this night, Leah needed my assistance urgently.
I located the road in question. Google Maps only offers driving directions by car or by foot. I struggled describing suitable horse-and-buggy directions.
“Take Yost Road east heading toward Lapp Valley Farm. Tabor will be on the left, between New Hollander and Peters Road. If you get to Peters Road, you have driven too far.”
Leah sent me a letter the following week: “Greetings, Judy. Your directions to the Fishers worked well. They were so good, we had to slow down the horses for the last mile because we arrived much too early. Thank you!”
Excerpted from In Plain View: The Daily Lives of Amish Women by Judy Stavisky (Herald Press, 2022). All rights reserved. Used with permission. Judy Stavisky is an author and adjunct faculty member at Drexel University.
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