(Now available on Amazon in both paperback and E-book formats.)
When a distant relative, an Amish teenage girl, asks to come for a visit, Mrs. E. can’t say no. Anna May Bontrager is pretty, smart, and discontented with her life. She meets a charming young carnival worker named Joey, who rides a motorcycle and has Bad Boy written all over him. What could possibly go wrong? Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine must call on all the wisdom they’ve earned and learned in their long lives to cope with the complications Anna May brings. In Chapter One, Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine take a tour bus to Anna May’s home territory.
The summer morning fell open before them like a ripe cantaloupe. Golden and green fields stretched to the horizon on either side of the bus. The sky was as round and blue as an overturned bowl. Outside, serenity reigned. Inside was a different matter.
“The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round,” Maxine sang.
“Stop that!” Mrs. Entwhistle clapped her hands over her ears. “Now you’ve got it in my head and I’ll be hearing it all day.”
“It’s called an earworm, and you’re welcome,” Maxine said, grinning.
Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine were diligent about snagging the first seats in the tour bus. Mrs. Entwhistle needed to see the horizon. She hated to admit she got motion sickness, but it couldn’t be denied. If she had a front-row seat and kept her eyes straight ahead, she could manage. Some of the other passengers muttered about people who felt entitled to the best spots, and Mrs. Entwhistle felt bad about that, but she said, “Needs must when the devil drives.”
“I wonder what that even means,” Maxine mused.
“Don’t know, but my mother always said it when she was pushed to extremes,” Mrs. Entwhistle replied.
“Speaking of extremes, I’ve really got to go,” Maxine whispered.
Mrs. Entwhistle craned her neck around for a perilous look backward. Her stomach immediately gave a warning lurch. Eyes front!
“I don’t see anyone heading toward the restroom,” Mrs. Entwhistle reported. “Go ahead.”
“But I just saw Frank come out a few minutes ago.”
They gazed at each other in mutual consternation. Frank’s recent presence in the unisex bathroom was a serious deterrent.
“I’ve got disinfecting wipes,” Mrs. Entwhistle said, reaching for her big tote bag.
“And I’ve got air freshener,” Maxine said, patting her capacious purse. “But still…”
“I know. Do you think you can wait until we get to the hotel?”
“Maybe, if I sit very still,” Maxine said.
They saw Frank’s wife, Mary Alice, heading for the back of the bus.
“How does she live with that every day?” Maxine wondered out loud.
“Perhaps she’s lost her sense of smell.” Mrs. Entwhistle’s nose wrinkled at the thought.
They laughed, but not too hard. Maxine couldn’t afford it.
“So here we are,” Maxine said, “one of us with a needy bladder and the other with carsickness. Tell me again why we’re on a bus trip?”
“Cheer up, honey. We’ll be there in a few minutes. See, there’s the city limits sign: Seltzburg, An Amish Community. I guess I should feel like I’m coming home, even though I’ve never set foot here before.”
Mrs. Entwhistle had distant ties to the region. Her grandfather on her mother’s side had been brought up nearby in an Amish family. Mrs. Entwhistle had been indoctrinated from an early age on stories about Jonas Hershberger’s courage, industry, and kindness, and she loved to pass those stories along. Despite her resolution to not become one of those boring old people who repeats herself, she couldn’t resist a good opening, and here one was.
“Jonas Hershberger,” Mrs. Entwhistle told Maxine again, “left his home and family when he was sixteen and moved south. Just think, he didn’t know anybody, English was his second language, and he had only an eighth-grade education. Can you imagine the courage and resourcefulness he must have had?”
Jonas prospered through hard work and frugality, opening a small repair shop and soon becoming the go-to guy for broken lawnmowers and washing machines back in the days when household items were repaired, not discarded. He married a Southern girl who shared his work ethic and careful way with money, and somehow they parlayed the little repair shop into a general store. Then they bought a couple acres of land just outside of town, raised goats and chickens, kept a cow for milk, and introduced several tow-headed, intelligent children to the world. One of them was Mrs. Entwhistle’s mother.
Family folklore celebrated the quick-witted ancestor who piled strength upon strength, becoming modestly rich while never quite losing the trace of Pennsylvania Dutch accent that made his j’s into ch’s and his w’s into v’s. “I chust thought if you vas going that vay anyhow…”
Mrs. Entwhistle’s memories of her grandfather had faded to a comfortable sepia brightened now and then by the retelling of family stories. Until she got the letter.
Anna May’s calloused bare feet hardly registered the feel of the splintery wooden floor. The deck outside the restaurant was in full sun and the patio umbrellas weren’t much help against the heat. She hoped the sweat on her forehead wasn’t about to drip on the customers.
“That’s a BLT, egg salad on rye, and a cheeseburger; all with iced tea,” she said, writing rapidly on her pad.
Once she’d turned in this order, her shift was over. Pop would be waiting in the buggy. The horse would be standing patiently at the hitching rail, flicking his tail at the flies that literally bugged his days. Anna May sighed inwardly at the thought of the slow jog home, the smell of liver and onions that would be floating from the kitchen (because it was Tuesday), and the chores she’d toil at until dark.
As an Amish girl, working at a paying job in the community was a privilege extended to her only for the benefit of the family. Mom and Pop reminded her of that every time she handed over her paycheck, receiving only a small allowance in return. They could withdraw their permission at any time. Then she’d be stuck on the farm all day, every day. The tourists who made up the restaurant’s clientele could be annoying, but at least they were new faces. Anna May tried to tamp down the restlessness that made her toss in her bed at night.
School had been a wonderland for her. Text books the other kids found boring opened new worlds to her, and the library was a constant source of joy. She wasn’t allowed to check out novels from the school library, but if she finished her schoolwork, she could spend the rest of study hall reading. She got through Lorna Doone and Treasure Island that way. Having to leave before she finished David Copperfield was a continuing sadness.
With her sixteenth birthday, the education compelled by the state ended. Amish kids didn’t graduate from high school. High school was considered a bridge too far, a temptation too great. Maybe young people exposed to science and literature and trigonometry wouldn’t want to return to the farm, to the Amish way of life. Worse yet, maybe raging teenage hormones would promote a romance with an English person – a non-Amish individual. That was something to be avoided at all costs.
Anna May knew all that, but on the eve of her sixteenth birthday, she approached her father. She had to at least try.
“Pop, do you think it might be possible for me to stay in school a little bit longer?” She’d clasped her hands together to stop their trembling.
“Why, Anna May, what would you do with all that book learning?” Pop smiled indulgently at his bright daughter. “You’ll get married, have a houseful of children and be a good Amish mother like your Mom. You can read and figure better than most already. Any more learning would just make you discontented.”
Too late, Anna May thought. She bowed her head in submission.
The tour bus disgorged its passengers at the hotel’s front doors under a canopy displaying the sign, Seltzburg Inn. It was an imposing building for such a small town. Not even a town; a wide place in the road, really. But the Seltzburg Inn was within walking distance of the Seltzburg Flea Market, and it stayed solidly booked during the summer season. Town residents had quickly adjusted from living in a sleepy backwater to hustling for the tourist dollar.
Maxine quick-walked toward the bathroom while Mrs. Entwhistle scoped out the big hotel lobby. The space was filled with light and the staff seemed to wear perpetual smiles. There were huge blow-up photographs of Amish life, with the people seen only from the back, which fascinated Mrs. Entwhistle. As she worked her way down a corridor lined with pictures, Maxine rejoined her.
“Why don’t the pictures show their faces?” Maxine asked.
“They never face the camera,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “There’s a Bible verse forbidding graven images, and they believe that applies to photographs.”
“So, no baby pictures? No wedding photos, or special occasion snapshots?”
“It seems disrespectful to picture them at all, then; it’s like an ambush,” Maxine said, and Mrs. Entwhistle agreed.
But they couldn’t help enjoying the photos of an Amish blacksmith bent over the dinner-plate-sized hoof of a patient Belgian draft horse, and a trail of ducklings waddling behind a tiny boy in a straw hat. Another featured a dog riding high atop a hay baling wagon. That made Mrs. Entwhistle miss her dog, Roger.
“I’m worried about Rog,” she said to Maxine.
She’d said that at regular intervals since they’d left home. Usually, if she traveled and couldn’t take him along, she left Roger with friends or hired someone she knew to stay at her house and look after him. But this time none of her friends were available, and she had to leave Roger at a kennel. True, it was his own vet’s facility, where Roger had been so many times that it might have seemed like home to the old fellow. But still. A dog used to sleeping on his human’s bed would have a hard time adjusting to life in a kennel. Mrs. Entwhistle had bought him a new bed to take along and filled it with one of her old sweaters and a towel from home so he’d at least have the comfort of familiar smells.
“I hope the other dogs’ barking isn’t driving him crazy,” she said.
“That’s one good thing about being deaf,” Maxine said. “I bet Roger can’t even hear them.”
That was a comforting thought, and Mrs. Entwhistle decided she’d go with it. There wasn’t a thing she could do for Roger until she got home, anyway.
Maxine and Mrs. Entwhistle always packed light. No sense in taking a lot of clothes, they agreed. Sitting on the bus didn’t call for high fashion, and besides, they were experts at mixing and matching. They picked up their two small bags from the pile of luggage dumped in the lobby by the bus driver and headed for their room. Once there, Maxine insisted on leaving the bags outside the door while she performed a reconnaissance.
She threw back the bedcovers and peeled the fitted sheet from the mattress. Illuminated by her phone’s flashlight, she ran the edge of a credit card along the mattress seams. Nodding in satisfaction when she didn’t find anything suspicious, she advanced to the bathroom, flung back the shower curtain, eyeballed the tile grout for mold, inspected the bathtub for stray hairs, flushed the toilet, and shook out a bath towel.
“It’s spotless,” Maxine decreed.
“That’s because they have Amish cleaners,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “Did you notice the woman pushing a cleaning cart in the hall just now?”
“I did. But I didn’t know Amish women worked outside their homes.”
“I didn’t think so, either; apparently, times have changed.”
“But isn’t the whole point of being Amish making sure that you don’t change with the times?” Maxine asked.
“Well, maybe not the whole point, but a big one, anyway. Young couples can’t count on farming to make a living anymore, because the available farmland is pretty well taken. So some of the men work in trailer factories and some of the women and girls take service jobs. There’s a big tourist industry here in the summertime. I imagine it put them outside their comfort zone at first, but they adapted. They had to.”
“Surely they are capable of doing more than factory work,” Maxine said. “Aren’t any of them in professions? Teachers or doctors or something?”
“Oh, no doubt they could be, but without an education…” Mrs. Entwhistle’s voice trailed off.
“But they must go to school. It’s the law.”
“You know, that law actually went to the Supreme Court in 1972. I looked it up. The court ruled that Amish are exempt from compulsory schooling after the eighth grade because of their religious beliefs. They can quit school then, and they do.”
“The Amish believe their rural way of life only calls for the ability to read, write and do basic math. Anything beyond that might tempt their kids to stray from Amish beliefs.”
Maxine shook her head. “Well, I certainly respect their religion, but it seems a shame to arbitrarily stop learning and experiencing the world at a certain age.”
“The young people have one more option to sample what they call the English life. When they are in their mid to late teens, they can go on rumspringa.”
“I watched a television show about that,” Maxine said, pursing her lips disapprovingly. “There was a lot of drinking and drug-taking and car wrecks. Of course, that might have been exaggerated for the show.”
“Maybe,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “But I think a fair amount of that does go on. The hope is that the kids will sow their wild oats and return to the Amish way of life. Most of them do.”
“But some don’t?”
“No. Some don’t. My grandfather didn’t. They call it ‘going high,’— Jonas went high and left the Amish.”
“My folks used his repair shop,” Maxine said. “Mother always said the children, including your mother, were beautiful, with one blonder and prettier than the next. She claimed to be jealous.”
“My mother was the youngest. Grandpa died when I was a child, but whenever I smell butterscotch, I think of him. He always had butterscotch candy in his pocket for me. I can’t remember his face, but that smell takes me right back to him. Isn’t it amazing the memories that scents trigger?”
“Not if you’re Frank’s wife,” Maxine said. She didn’t have to worry about laughing too hard now.