I recently discovered this old photo of my dad and me and I treasure it. The date on the back says December 15, 1952. I was one month shy of turning two-years-old. That’s my mom on the couch beside us wearing her bobby socks and Keds. Dad is dressed in his work clothes, so he had probably just come home from work. He was a sawyer and nearly always smelled of wind and sun and freshly sawn timber.
Sitting on my dad’s lap while being read to was my absolute favorite thing as a little girl. I remember staring hard at the words—which he always pointed out to me one by one–and wishing I could make those magic letters talk to me so I wouldn’t have to wait for a big person to interpret them. I marveled at the fact that people could make those squiggles tell stories.
I hungered so much for stories that I started making them up–sometimes in strange circumstances. I learned to count by attributing a personality and character trait to match each of the first ten numbers.( I remember the number six being a rascal and constantly in trouble. Five was a sweet little girl who was always obedient.) When my mother taught me how to set a table, I learned by creating a private story that I still rely on. The fork on the left is in love with the spoon and the spoon is in love with the fork, but the knife is an evil guard keeping them apart.
When I found this photo, I got out a magnifying glass to see the book title. Dad’s choice of reading material for a two-year-old made me laugh. It was General Douglas MacArthur’s “Revitalizing A Nation.” So typical of him. Even with only an eighth grade education, Lyle Bonzo was not into light reading.
If you notice, there is a desk right beside of us. We lived in a tiny house that had once been a railroad shanty for workers when the railroad was being built through Scioto County. There wasn’t a lot of furniture because there wasn’t much room. We didn’t have television, so on rainy days, that desk became a great source of childhood entertainment. I was allowed to store crayons and paste and scissors and other treasures in its drawers and spent hours playing there.
Peering into this long-lost frozen moment of my childhood, it occurs to me for the first time the reason behind the fact that there is not one room in my house—including bedrooms—that does not have at least one small desk in it. My family has long teased me about my fascination with little drawers to store things in—I can’t seem to have enough of them—and this is probably why.
A lot of people ask me why I became a writer. I never know how to answer that, but I suspect some of that desire began right here—on my daddy’s lap—as I leaned against the rumble of his chest as he read to me, surrounded by the scent of fresh sawdust, and knowing that I was safe within the strongest, most protective arms, in the world.
When I was a child, the only thing I knew to do with dandelions was blow on the little puffballs and watch the seeds float off into the wind. As an adult, I heard rumors that some people ate dandelion greens, but I didn’t know anyone who did.
A few years ago I went to lunch with one of my editors who lives in Sugarcreek. The “special” for the day—handwritten on a sign outside the restaurant–was Dandelion Gravy and that’s what my editor ordered.
“You’ve GOT to be kidding,” I said. “What IS that stuff!”
“It’s a seasonal Amish dish around here,” she said. “They only serve it for a couple weeks in the spring when the dandelion leaves are tender. People either really love it or really hate it.”
I decided to give this weird-sounding dish a whirl. For me, it turned out to be love at first bite. The combination of spring greens in a mild sweet and sour bacon gravy was delicious. Since then, after a long winter, I find myself craving it and I begin eying dandelions voraciously as soon as their little yellow heads begin to appear.
Our backwoods yard is carpeted with young dandelions right now, so I fixed a double batch of dandelion gravy last night. My husband inhaled two heaping platefuls and said it was the most delicious thing I’d fixed since Christmas. I agreed and savored every mouthful. My son said that it was okay, but not his favorite.
When I researched the nutrition value of dandelions, I was surprised to learn that they are not native to our country. Europeans brought the seeds with them and cultivated them in their gardens, much like we grow lettuce. Their seeds quickly began to spread across America. The leaves are packed with all sorts of good things.
Here’s the recipe I used if you want to try it.
1) Gather 4 tightly packed cups of dandelion leaves early in the spring when the leaves are tender. (Make sure the yard or property you gather them from hasn’t been sprayed with any sort of weed killer. It’s also best not to gather plants from road sides.) Wash, shake dry, and chop into bite size pieces.
2) Boil 2 eggs
3) Make enough mashed potatoes for about 4 people (unless you are doubling the recipe.)
4) Fry about 4 strips of bacon. Drain. Reserve grease.
5) Chop 1 onion—toss into skillet of hot grease.
6) Stir in 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour (We’re gluten free so I used rice flour)
7) Stir in 2 tablespoons water until thick
8) Stir in 1 cup of milk. (Or more. Whatever it takes to make a gravy-like consistency.)
9) Salt and Pepper to taste.
So far, you’ve just made mashed potatoes with bacon gravy. Now here’s where things get interesting.
10) Add 1 tablespoon of sugar
11) Add 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar
12) Stir in all the young dandelion greens and cook until they wilt
13) Chop up the two eggs and add to mixture.
14) Serve by ladling the gravy over the mashed potatoes and sprinkling bits of bacon on top.
You have just made authentic Amish country dandelion gravy
Here’s a picture of what we fixed last night. No, it isn’t pretty. But it IS delicious. Unless you are one of those people who really hate it. If you are, don’t blame me. Just eat the mashed potatoes and bacon and be happy. At least you got some exercise gathering dandelion greens.
Joyanne and her husband had traveled all over the country before settling in Holmes County, Ohio. Soon, they began driving a van for the Amish and became close friends with several Old Order families.
One night as we were discussing our mutual respect for the Plain community, Joyanne said, “I am convinced that Amish children are the happiest children in the world.”
I had to agree. From what I had seen, Amish children were the happiest, most contented, most competent, and the most cheerfully obedient children I’d ever seen and I wanted to know why. Was it merely the lack of television and video games that made them so content, or did the reasons go deeper?
My editor, a young mother raising two daughters in New York City, also wanted to know why. That desire to find out the secret behind the admirable behavior of Amish children led to me to many discussions with the Amish about their methods of parenting, which eventually culminated in a non-fiction Amish parenting book titled More Than Happy: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting.
I discovered many things during these interviews, but the most profound lesson came from a conversation I had with an Amish minister. We had discussed everything from the necessity of having family meals together to the methods with which they teach their children a solid work ethic. I was just about to close my notebook when my husband asked this final question:“What is your dream for your children?”
I silently ran through several possible answers an Amish person might give. I already knew the answer that most non-Amish parents would give—that they just wanted their children to be happy.
What the Amish minister said rocked me.
“My dream for my children,” he said, simply, “is that they become people of value.”
Another Amish man who was in the room nodded his head in agreement. That was his dream for his children, too.
The interview had been unemotional up to that point, but when I heard those words, I had to fight back the tears. I knew I had found my answer. The goal of an Amish parent is not to make their children happy. Their goal is to raise children who are so much more than happy.
Amish parents very deliberately teach their children how to be good workers, how to show compassion and respect for others, how to live lives of integrity, and how to be people of faith. The need for a parent to be a good example was often emphasized.
Many of us non-Amish parents, often without realizing what we’re doing, find ourselves prioritizing our children’s temporary happiness over helping them learn principles of permanent importance. Often we do this because it is just so much easier.
The Amish have learned one of the great secrets to life–persons with true value generally become very happy people.
If you’d like a chance to win a copy of More Than Happy: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting, jump on over to AmishWisdom.com and scroll down towards the bottom to sign up!
More Than Happy: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting came about because of a conversation I was having with my editor. I had mentioned to her that I thought the Amish children I knew were among the happiest and most contented children I had ever seen.
My editor, a New York City mother who was pregnant with her second daughter, was intrigued. She wanted to know exactly how Amish parents did this. I didn’t have an answer, but I promised to do my best to find out.
A year of research, interviews, pondering, writing, and re-writing went into this book as I tried to discern those things the Amish are getting right. I make no claims that it is a scholarly work because I’m no scholar. I’m just a grandmother who has been in many Amish homes and had a chance to talk with many Amish parents.
I learned an enormous amount of information during this process that I wish I’d known when my children were small. My prayer is that this book will give some useful tools to young parents trying to raise healthy, happy children.
I recently stepped outside my historical and Amish genres and did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I wrote a real nail-biter of a romantic suspense. My heroine, Erin Ramsey, is a mild-mannered high school English teacher until her family comes under attack. Then she turns into a mama tiger ferociously trying to save her daughter’s life. There is also Cole, the damaged and very unexpected protector. Available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Google Play, etc.
Several people have asked about getting a copy of the movie, and I promised to let everyone know as soon as I found out. Fox is releasing the DVD, Love Finds You in Sugarcreek next week! (10/7) but it’s available for pre-order right now via Amazon & Barnes & Noble and available for digital download from Amazon, Nook, iTunes, & VUDU. The DVD will also have some behind-the-scenes interviews with Kelly, Sarah, Tom, the director, and me. To my knowledge, at least four million people have watched the movie so far on the UP network, and many other countries have picked it up to broadcast on their stations. As I work here in my farmhouse, living a normal life of canning tomato juice and babysitting grandkids, I am astonished that a story I struggled so hard to write will soon be viewed in countries as far-flung as the Middle East. I am very, very grateful to the talented actors, producers, and director who brought that story to life.
It is my favorite time of year again. September! The Swiss Festival in Sugarcreek, Ohio is happening this weekend (September 26-27) and I intend to be there on Saturday from 6 to 8 pm, signing books at the Gospel Shop at 112 Main Street. At 8 p.m. if the weather holds, there will be a showing of the movie right in the middle of downtown Sugarcreek.
For those who watched Love Finds You In Sugarcreek, Ohio, you’ll recognize the Swiss Festival from the scenes shot in the midst of it last year. For the most part, those were not actors you saw in the background, but real people enjoying themselves at the festival as the crew shot around them.
People frequently ask me to recommend places to go see while in the area. Here’s one place I always stop by. Finders Keepers, 100 E. Main Street which is just a few doors down from the Gospel Shop.
Serena in front of Finders Keepers on Main Street in Sugarcreek, Ohio
Serena and Big Mike inside Finders Keepers
It’s owned by “Big Mike” Schario and his business partner, Mitch Joseph from Canton. If you’ve seen the Love Finds You in Sugarcreek movie, you’ve already met Mike. He’s one of the actors (big guy, red shirt) who threw the stone in the Steintossen “competition” they filmed. What most people don’t know is that Mike lifted all 138 pounds of the real rock (instead of the lighter, pretend one) while nursing several broken ribs he’d sustained just a few days before in a car wreck.
Mike and Mitch run a store that makes me want to just stand and stare. It’s always changing, and it is always filled with things that bring back good memories. Old-fashioned candy I haven’t seen since I was a kid, old board games I played with my cousins on rainy afternoons, bikes I wish I’d had, and some memorabilia they simply won’t part with–like a microphone once used at the Grand Ole Opry.
It’s an old-fashioned business in more ways than just the merchandise they carry. They also use an old non-electric cash register and take cash only. Last I checked, they didn’t bother with Facebook or Twitter. You’ve gotta be careful when you go, though. They’re usually only open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The rest of the time they’re scouring the countryside rescuing old items to display in their store.
I love seeing people make a living doing what they love–and if you ever get a chance to meet Mike or Mitch–you’ll meet two guys who are doing exactly that.
I grew up up in a four-room house perched on the banks of the Little Scioto River in Southern Ohio. That river provided unending entertainment for us kids. There were crawdads to catch, mussels to track, and ancient grapevines to swing on. We swam, fished, paddled around in an old flat-bottomed boat, took slivers of soap along with us and took a soapy bath when the weather was hot. It even had a nice gentle swimming hole that doubled as a baptistry for our church both summer and winter.
My older sister would sometimes fry up bacon and tomato sandwiches, wrap them in waxed paper, grab her bathing suit and little sister, and we’d go spend the day up the river on a sandbank where she could lie in the sun, and I could play in the water or dig for buried treasure. One memorable day I dug up a snapping turtle.
When the rains came, our mother checked the level of the creek several times a night to make sure it didn’t get into our house. But if it did, we knew we’d be okay because we could climb up the hill to the railroad and walk the tracks to my uncle’s place on higher ground. A mile up the river in the other direction was my Aunt Mary and Uncle Frosty’s home which was filled to bursting with cousins to play with.
One of those cousins recently wrote a song about our river that I thought I’d share.
As most of you know, I write novels about the Amish. At the beginning of my career, I visited Abram and Leah’s Old Order Amish home for dinner. Abram is an extraordinarily spiritual man who speaks openly about God and grace. He is also an extremely social person and seemed delighted to have company. The invitation had come through mutual friends and so this was the first time I had ever met Leah. She was quiet and seemed to be deep in thought as she prepared our dinner.
It was early days in my research of the Amish and I thought perhaps this was just the way of Amish women. Quiet. Pensive. Allowing their husbands to carry the conversational ball. Abram was well-read in the Bible and he and my minister husband were having a discussion about Bible translations while Leah silently worked, and I tried, quite awkwardly, to help in her unfamiliar kitchen.
I didn’t know if Leah was resentful of the fact that we were there and was just being an obedient Amish wife, or if the woman was depressed out of her mind. Our conversation was halting and stilted.
After we’d eaten and were sitting around watching their children play. Leah asked if we had any children.
I assumed this was her attempt at polite conversation.
“Yes, I have three grown sons.”
“And your husband is a preacher?”
She gave this some thought. “For how long?”
I counted up. “He’s preached full-time for over thirty years.”
She looked me in the eyes for the first time since we’d arrived and asked, “How have your sons turned out?”
It was a strangely intimate question from a woman who’d barely said two words all evening, but I answered truthfully. “By the grace of God, they have grown into fine men who love the Lord.”
It was at that point that the verbal dam broke and I discovered that Leah was not quiet by nature, or depressed, or simply being an obediently silent wife. The woman was worried sick.
“Our church is going to choose another minister soon,” she said. “And I’m afraid that Abram will be chosen.”
I had read enough about the Amish church to know that the men didn’t become preachers by choice. They were selected from within their church after a lengthy process of elimination. I also knew that this position was considered an honor in their culture so I did not understand why she was so upset. “Why are you so worried?”
“Because,” she answered, sadly. “In the Amish church, sometimes the preacher’s children turn out very badly.”
I was surprised by her statement. “Sometimes preacher’s children in non-Amish churches turn out badly, too,” I told her.
“Do you know what they call preacher’s children in the Amish church?” she asked.
“No.” I wondered what awful name Amish kids might have come up with.
“PK’s,” she answered, obviously offended. “They call them PK’s! That stands for preacher’s kids. People expect them to be perfect.” Then she added mournfully, “They expect the preacher’s wives to be perfect, too.”
Ah. Now I understood. The old stereotype of the perfect preacher’s wife. I had been painfully aware of it for most of my married life, and equally aware that I had never come even close to achieving it. I was surprised to find that it was part of the Amish culture as well.
My heart went out to her. It’s a rare preacher’s wife who doesn’t wrestle with feelings that unachievable expectations are being thrust upon her and try as she might, she can’t measure up. The preacher’s kids have to deal with it, too, which can cause a lot of problems.
“How have you done it?” she asked. “How have you raised sons who love the Lord when your husband is a preacher?”
I was old enough to be Leah’s mother, and had a lifetime of watching many preachers’ families crash and burn while others managed to thrive. I’d learned a few things that I thought might help her. Things like how I’d given up on being the perfect preacher’s wife a long time ago, and had given up on my kids acting like little angels as well. I had learned that it was just best to be who I was and let my kids be regular kids. I told her how the women at the churches we’d served had always seemed a little relieved when they found out I was struggling along in life just like the rest of them.
She explained that the Amish culture was much less flexible in their expectations of preacher’s families than ours. For the next hour we had our own, private conversation about how to survive as a preacher’s family–while our much more spiritual husbands had a rousing discussion about Biblical passages.
Leah and I bonded that evening, and we have been friends ever since. The next time I saw her two months later, she was a different person. She was bubbling and smiling. All signs of depression were gone.
“What happened?” I asked. “Was Abram chosen to be your church’s minister?”
“No!” she exclaimed, obviously giddy with joy. “He wasn’t chosen! We’re safe until someone else dies!”
I’ve learned a great deal about Amish ministers since then and have spoken to several. There are some things about being an Amish minister that would make even my husband cringe. There is no feeling of a “calling” involved. An Amish man does not have the luxury of deciding whether or not he wants to preach. If chosen, it is a position he will hold for life, with much responsibility. Once chosen, most Amish men take on that responsibility with great dread….and yet they do take it on.
The way I understand it, most Amish churches have one bishop, three ministers, and one deacon. The bishop is chosen from the ranks of the three ministers when the old bishop grows too infirm or dies. To become a minister basically involves two steps. First, people privately give the bishop names from within the church of men they think would make a good preacher. Then the bishop decides which of those men mentioned are viable candidates for the office.
If there are, say, five candidates, there will be a service where five hymnals will be laid out, and after much prayer these five men will each come forward and choose a hymnal. The one who chooses the hymnal with a paper inside that says something along the lines of “You have been chosen” will become the new minister.
The paper in the hymnbook is the Amish way of “casting lots,” of allowing God to have the final, ultimate, say.
Being a minister is a responsibility most Amish men do not desire. Neither do their wives. It means that for the rest of his life, he’ll be expected to preach, teach, and watch out for the needs of the church—without pay—while trying to also make a living and care for his own family. The only way he can get out of this responsibility is the same exit path as the bishop. He must become too infirm to function, or die. Either that or leave the church entirely, which a few actually do.
One minister described to me the sick feeling he had in the pit of his stomach when he opened the hymnal and found the “you are chosen” paper inside. He said he had dreaded the possibility so much, and felt so ill when he saw it, that it was all he could do not to throw up.
He did, however, shoulder the responsibility and began to spend much time in prayer, in Bible study, and in learning how to prepare sermons and preach.
Knowing well how hard the responsibilities of the ministry have been for my husband who was a man who actually desired it, trained for it, and got a salary for it–I can only imagine how hard it is for someone like an Amish farmer to step up to the plate and handle all the responsibilities involved.
And on top of that is the fear that, as Leah said, the preachers’ kids will turn out very badly—and it has very little to do with the particular church. A friend of mine who is the wife of a Unitarian Universalist minister confessed to having the exact same worries as she was raising her own children. It is hard to find a church more liberal than hers, and it would be nearly impossible to find a church more conservative than Leah’s, and yet the concern for the children is the same. Will the pressures of living in a preacher’s home destroy them?
Here’s some advice to anyone involved in ministry—from a veteran preacher’s wife—the same things I shared with Leah that night.
Sometimes preachers’ children do turn out very badly. Sometimes preachers’ kids turn out very well. Either way, Leah is safe….for now. The last time I talked to her, she said their bishop, ministers, and deacon are all looking wonderfully healthy and she is praying that their good health continues for many, many years to come so that a replacement will not have to be sought until her children are grown.
Last Saturday evening, June 14, I watched hundreds of people enjoy an old-fashioned drive-in movie.
The screen is setup, just waiting on it to get dark!
The Village of Sugarcreek hired a company to construct a temporary drive-in theater in the same area where the Swiss Festival is conducted each year. I didn’t even know there were companies that did such a thing, but it turned out to be a brilliant idea. The screen was large and worked perfectly, the sound was wonderful, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. People spread picnics out on blankets, set up lawn chairs, or simply parked their cars and rolled down their windows.
Annie Kitral (who played Aunt Lydia) and Marianna Allachi (who played Aunt Anna) Signing my LFY Sugarcreek books with me :)
For two hours before the movie started, I had the privilege of signing books with two of my favorite actresses in the world. Annie Kitral (who played Aunt Lydia) and Marianna Allachi (who played Aunt Anna) gave readers an extra thrill by sitting beside me and also autographing each book.
I love getting to talk with the readers!
It was SO funny to see people’s faces when they recognized the two women–but it didn’t happen immediately. I’d sign a book, and then pass it down to Annie/Aunt Lydia. I’d ask the customer “Do you know who this is?” And whoever was standing across the table from me would stare at her and say, “Well, she looks familiar.” And then Annie/Aunt Lydia would say, “I LUFF to cook!” in that accent that she used in the movie, and Marianna/Aunt Anna would bat her eyes and say, “We got cookies!” just like she did in the movie. People would gasp, and throw a hand over their mouths, and then stand and talk until they had to move on to give someone else a chance to get their books signed.
Even the kids were getting into it!
So why am I going on and on about this? Because moments of sheer, pure joy are rare. June 14 was one of those times for me and I wanted to share it with you.
Welcome back. Just a moment while we sign you in to your Goodreads account.