Finding friendship in a quieter world

True Tales From Everyday Living

February 25, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun Reporter

I raised my hand to knock on the door, then paused, thinking about the tragedy that had shocked this quiet community. The day before, a gunman had burst into an Amish school four miles away and shot 10 girls, killing five, then taking his own life. By tracing the name of the father of two of the girls, I was led to this house on a hill on Little Beaver Road in Strasburg, Pa.

I didn't want to trouble the family, but I wanted to learn about their daughters and tell their story. Still, I felt like an intruder as I ran my eyes over a pair of small black shoes that sat on the porch. I tapped on the door.

A young woman wearing a long tan-colored dress opened the front door. She was barefoot, breathless and her organdy bonnet sat cockeyed on her head. In a tumble of words, she apologized for not answering the door sooner and, to my surprise, invited me inside.

Her home was cool and dark and smelled like herbal soap. One large straw hat and three small ones hung in a line on a wood-paneled wall. A little girl and boy scampered over to the woman and clung behind her skirt.

I introduced myself and nervously explained why I had come. The woman told me that her name was Verna Stoltzfus and that the girls who had been shot were the daughters of her cousin, who had the same name as her husband. She said that she was 28.

"Oh, that's how old I am," I said. We looked at each other silently, then laughed and, in that moment, a friendship was born.

That afternoon, she told me about her four children and Christ (pronounced Chris), her husband of nine years, who builds sheds at a wood shop. She taught school for two years, then left, as Amish tradition dictates, when she got married.

She explained the complicated relationship that the Amish have with technology.

Her family has a refrigerator and stove that run on propane and a washing machine powered by compressed air. The fact that no electric lines run to the house is a symbol of their desire to remain independent from mainstream society.

"If we had everything electric, we'd never stop," she said. "We'd have too many conveniences."

She led me to the barn and showed me the two horses that pull her family's buggy, their chickens and a donkey named Apple Pie. Two-year-old Steven carried golden retriever puppies and the barn cat's kittens over to me.

The next day, I accompanied Verna and her children to school and spent the day in a one-room schoolhouse, much like the one where the shooting took place. I was struck by the utter innocence of the children. One boy tapped another on the back and showed him the shavings from his pencil sharpener.

Walking home along the country roads in their old-fashioned clothes, the children looked like figures from the Little House on the Prairie books that I loved as a child.

But as I have gotten to know Verna better, through letters and packages we send in the mail, I have realized that she is not an anachronism, but a modern woman who has decided to live differently.

"You know, I think if I had a TV, I would really get into politics," she told me last week when I dropped by for a visit. Then she said that she would like to go back to teaching.

"I thought you said that married Amish women can't teach," I said.

"No," she said, shaking her head.

Although Verna and I were born less than two months apart, the subsequent 28 years couldn't have been more different. When I was an irresponsible high school student, she was single-handedly managing a schoolhouse of children. While I was discussing Nietzsche over Natty Bohs in college, she was married and expecting her first child.

She lives the life that I dreamed about when I was a little girl. At 8, I would have never imagined that I would be unmarried and childless 20 years later. I can't see a single tree from the windows of my apartment in the city. Most days, the only thing I make with my own hands is a cup of coffee.

There is a sense of wistfulness when Verna and I get together. We look at each other and see a reflection of how our lives could have been.

Her quiet voice stays in my head when I drive back down Little Beaver Road and head to the highway.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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