Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is nothing but cornfields, barns, and grain silos. Amish buggies periodically clop down the old roads. The four-beat gaits of the high-stepping strutters sounds like overwound metronomes.
Tonight I’m attending a garden party in the country. Before the guests arrive, I’m helping with odd jobs, setting up tables, loading coolers. My work partner this evening is 82-year-old Miss Annie.
You’d like Miss Annie. Everyone does. She is a woman who tells me upfront that she can see angels.
“Really?” I reply.
“Oh, yes. Mmm hmm. Angels.”
Miss Annie weighs maybe 90 pounds soaking wet. She wears an Amish head covering, a long black skirt, and Teddy Roosevelt glasses. She was Amish for most of her life, and it shows. Her voice has a Germanic lilt. She speaks in a singsong way. Like a Bach prelude minus the organ.
“Actual angels?” I say, stocking a cooler. “You don’t mean the ones in Los Angeles?”
“Real angels. Mmm hmm. Yes. I see them.”
“What do they look like?”
“Long white bathrobes?”
All afternoon she has been saying things like this. You never know what she’s going to say or do next. Earlier, for instance, radio music was playing and Miss Annie put down her broom, lifted the hem of her skirt, and began to buck dance. I haven’t seen a woman buck dance since my granny died.
“I have always loved to dance,” she says. “When I was sixteen, we Amish kids would sneak off and have barn dances. We would dance all night long to records.
“Oh, I loved it. When someone’s parents would find us, we’d run and hide in the fields. But it was fun.”
Miss Annie lived in the Amish community from the end of the Great Depression until ‘94, after her husband died. When she decided to leave the Amish she was in her mid-fifties.
She was shunned for defecting, which is the punishment du jour for all who leave the fold. She was disowned by family, neighbors, and lifelong friends. It’s hard for me to imagine this level of emotional pain.
It’s even harder to imagine what it must have been like for a middle-aged woman and her children to suddenly find themselves thrust into a noisy, technological, self-absorbed, fast-paced, dangerous, modern American society.
“It was great!” she says, clasping her hands to her chest. “Oh, I felt like a little bird who’d been set free. Oh, yes. Mmmm hmmm.”
The first thing Miss Annie did with her new freedom was take driving lessons. The Amish, of course, are not allowed to drive cars. So this was huge. She got her learner’s permit, passed her test, then bought a car and took to the interstates. Lord help us all.
Try to imagine the thrill. You’re 50-some years old, set free for the first time. Windows down. Hair blowing. You’re sitting atop four thousand pounds of Dearborn steel with two fingers on the wheel, traveling 65 mph.
“I drove all the way to Florida,” she said. “I just couldn’t stop.”
At this stage of her life, Miss Annie considers herself a helper to ex-Amish people who feel alone. Her main task is to pray for those who need it. This woman does a lot of praying.
“Praying is my full time job.”
Today Miss Annie awoke at four in the morning because she says God told her to pray. So she did. The old woman crawled into her car during the morning hours and drove to her church to pray. She does this often.
“I pray for their financial worries, for their families, their health, or that they have a good home. Oh, yes. Mmm hmm. Home. We all need a home. And peace. I always pray for peace. Mmm hmm.”
In the middle of our conversation, the old sage announces that she is going to pray for me right now. This is not up for discussion.
The woman’s eyes close. Her voice does the Bach thing again. She prays in what sounds like perhaps German, then in English. Her words are precise, not haphazard like the blues-solo prayers from the wordy Baptists of my youth. And I suddenly realize Miss Annie is not improvising, she is reciting a Psalm.
“Do not fret because of those who are evil,
“Or be envious of those who do wrong;
“For like the grass they will soon wither,
“Like green plants they will soon die away…”
For some reason hot tears come to my eyes as she speaks. I’m not sure why. I am not a particularly religious guy. Then again, it’s not every day an 82-year-old seer prays for you.
Her words finally fizzle out. She remains silent for several minutes. Eyes still closed. At one point I am certain this old woman has fallen asleep, but she hasn’t. Miss Annie takes my hand, smiles, and speaks in a whisper. “Oh, do you feel that? Yes. They’re here. I can feel his angels.”
And I, for one, believe her.
Oh, yes. Mmm hmm.