Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cain's Legacy: Marked by Plain Sorrow

Eileen Kinch is a friend of mine and a very talented writer. She recently shared with me a published piece of memoir. In it, she writes about the process of assimilating into a community of Quakers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who dress Plainly.

I hope the piece speaks to you in your own way. As usual, I'll enclose a few paragraphs as a means of introduction. The complete story is here.

All around me was a familiar sea of Plain people. I stood in a hotel ballroom, waiting in line to register for a natural foods conference. A German dialect called Pennsylvaanisch Deitsch flowed in and out of my ears. Most of it I didn’t understand, but every now and then, I caught a word or phrase before it rushed out of the realm of my understanding. Gooten Mariye. Good morning. Holde mei Sitz. Save my seat. The Amish were everywhere, and the colors swirled in front of my eyes: burgundy, green, deep blue, lots of black. There were a few Mennonites and one Old Order River Brethren couple. I was wearing my faded, worn blue jeans and carrying a purse from Guatemala, an inside outsider. 

Community. Obedience. They were Tom’s favorite words, and they seeped into my father’s mind. Tom didn’t allow Jake and Dan to participate in school Christmas parties, so Dad wrote notes every year to my Mennonite schoolteachers, requesting that I be excused from class parties and the school Christmas program. I imagine that he wrote, We belong to the Religious Society of Friends, and our community celebrates Christ’s birth every day, in our hearts. While my classmates had their parties, I was banished to the school office or the library. Outside of school, I absolutely hated Dad’s decision to have our family stay at home instead of visiting our relatives over Christmas. He didn’t seem to realize how hurtful and lonely being faithful to this community was.

Christmas was only the beginning. Tom and Anna considered clothing to be an indicator of true community faithfulness. In third grade, I returned home from school one winter afternoon and was surprised to find my mother wearing a white cloth bonnet with strings—a head covering like Anna’s. Up until then, Mom had not worn a covering and had not even talked about wearing one before, and I was shocked by the suddenness of this development.

I knew wearing the right clothes was very important when Anna gave me three dresses that were hers as a young girl. I wore the light blue one because it was my favorite, and she smiled when I wore the dress to meeting. The other dresses were ugly and too big, so I let them hang in the closet. Mom sewed some plain dresses for me, and she hovered around my legs during the fittings, indicating with pins where she thought the hemline should be, usually at least two and a half inches below my knees.This community keeps saying that the outward appearance doesn’t matter, I thought. But it’s such a big deal. And it was. Tom and Anna often showed up at our house unexpectedly, as if to inspect how faithful we were in our private lives.

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