A Barn-Building Encounter With an Amish Gentlewoman

Iwas told that an Amish man named Eli could build a sheep barn for me better and cheaper than anyone. So one lovely spring evening when I thought he would be back from his field work, I called on him.

He was just entering the barn, carrying a kerosene lantern whose light caught the cows, hay, and cobwebs in the barn door in a soft purplish glow. Behind him came two little barefoot boys holding the reins of a shaggy-hoofed plow horse, and through the window of the house I could see a long table at which a number of children sat eating.

We squatted down in the barn, and I drew my idea for him with a pencil on the cement floor; he looked at it silently for a few minutes and then said he thought he could do it and named a decent price. Would I be willing then to come for him and his crew at 6 a.m. every day for about a week sometime in early summer? he asked.

We shook hands on it, and I said I'd be back the first Monday in June.

I wasn't looking forward to being chauffeur: It was a good 15 miles to his place. But I hadn't realized how much fun it would be sitting packed into the Jeep with two bearded laughing Amish men and two more in the rear of the vehicle waving and shouting at everyone we passed; nor had I known we would be stopping here and there to pick up the women who wanted to go on down to a neighbor's with this or that - a load of wash, a pile of quilt pieces, baskets of eggs. Every morning became a new adventure, and we all laughed at jokes that I understood not a word of. No matter, they were very funny.

The sheep barn went up quickly, and I don't recall a single problem. My clearest image of Eli and his men was at the noonday meal that they took down by the pond. Before eating they always knelt in prayer for a long time.

The day they were finishing up it occurred to me that Eli's wife, whom I had not met, might like to see his workmanship.

I drove over there alone that morning and found her transplanting celery in the garden. Eli was a very small man, almost wispish, but this woman was powerfully large, and also very pregnant.

Kneeling down to look at the little seedlings, I found myself staring at her big square bare feet, the toes spread as though planted in celery muck. As my eyes travelled up, I saw her wide pretty face, with high spots of color in her cheeks, smiling at me.

Yes, she was pleased I'd come to visit, and yes, they'd both be pleased to come for coffee and a chat and a look at the barn on Saturday.

They didn't have to be fetched that day; they came themselves in the buggy. I could hear them approaching, and it was one of the greatest moments in my country life to see them turn in the lane and come trotting up to the house.

She had on shoes and black stockings, a black shawl, and bonnet and was positively radiant. When we had seen everything and were walking back out to the buggy she turned and took my hand.

"I'll never forget this day," she said. "It's been wonderful." Then, with great emotion: "And I've never been so far from home!"

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