Progress is man's ability to complicate simplicity. ~Thor Heyerdahl
I lived in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia for four years. At least, I think I did. The term “Shenandoah Valley” has a rather loose definition in Virginia. If you ask anyone from the Shenandoah River to Roanoke whether they live in the Valley, most will say, “Well, sure, Bo” (“Bo” is what the reg'lar folks in the Valley say). Living halfway between Staunton and Harrisonburg, I think we were pretty much in the Valley, even though the Shenandoah River was nowhere in sight.
It was there (in the Valley) that I met the Mennonites. Mennonites are a religious group that believes in living in the simple ways of the past. They live in communities together, avoid the use of new machines, electricity, and telephones, and ride around in horse-and-buggy rigs. One lesson one learns early in Virginia is to be very careful when driving at night. Many of the roads in the Valley twist and turn around the foothills of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. One could come around a corner and be confronted by an optic-orange triangle mounted on the back of a horse-drawn carriage at any moment.
To people who don't know, Mennonites seem to be a lot like the Amish. Well, there were a fair number of Amish folks in Ohio not too far from where I grew up. I thought they lead an austere existence until I met Mennonites; these people made the Amish look like party animals.
Now before you get all uptight, I'm not mocking either group. In fact, I admire their sense of family and community and respect their intense faith. In fact, in many way, these groups are the models for the virtues I admire in the South. Unfortunately, what with the encroachment of big business, television, and other outside influences, those values are even starting to slip down here. But, a lot of folks are gamely hanging on, so when the nation does go to hell in a handbasket, the South will be the last to go.
But, I really wanted to tell a story about the Mennonites. To outsiders, they seem utterly serious, contemplative, and withdrawn into themselves. Of course, the truth is different, and I'm sure the Mennonites don't care what we unwashed heathens think, but I still want to set the record straight.
One evening, I had to get some sort of household item, so I did what anyone else would do in our neck of the woods; I headed over to the Nichols store. You've probably never heard of Nichols unless you live in Ashtabula (Ohio), Harrisonburg (Virginia), someplace in New Jersey (I forget the town, but it might have been Trenton), or Walla Walla (Washington). Nichols was an early K-Mart-style store, with four conveniently located locations, one near each of the aforementioned cities. How they got there and why they put two of them near towns with populations around 10,000 people (Ashtabula and Harrisonburg), I'll never know, but there it was, so there I went.
As I drove into the parking lot, I glanced over at the hitching posts. Just about every aggregated parking area between Staunton and Harrisonburg had hitching posts for the Mennonite buggies. I always wondered what they'd be doing at Nichols, with its modern clothes, toys, and electrical gadgets. That night I would find out.
I had just wandered into the store and was looking at some stuff in a rack when the family came in. They were led by the patriarch, a tall man with the typical Lincoln-style beard. He and three sons were dressed in black suits with white collarless shirts buttoned to the neck, topped off with their traditional flat brimmed black hats. Five women were with them, led by the matriarch, all dressed in a bluish gray dress with a white apron and the tiny white bonnet on their heads. The youngsters ranged in age from around 11 to perhaps 20, with the girls and boys evenly dispersed by age. And they were indeed a somber group.
Father turned and said something quietly to Mother and gestured in a way that clearly meant, “You womenfolk stay right here.” He then turned and led his sons toward the hardware department. No sooner had he cleared the corner than the women broke for the women's clothing section, which was nearby. One stayed back a little to keep watch while the others zoomed in on the racks of colorful and outrageous styles (hey, this was the '80's). Now, I would have expected a little sighing and quiet longing for the bright fashions, but I was wrong. All of them, including Mother, were giggling like, well, little girls.
They were having a jolly old time, presumably imagining how Aunt Sissy would look in this garish blouse or how scandalous it would be to be seen wearing slacks. Whatever it was, they were having a gay time of it for several minutes, when the lookout went, “SHHH! SHHH! SHHH!” In a thrice, they had gotten back to about where they were when Father left them.
Father appeared, holding an ax handle, which I was sure he had inspected thoroughly, since he had taken an inordinately long time just to pick up a single item. Trailed by the boys, he stopped in front of the women. He said nothing but seemed to take note of the fact that they were not exactly in the same position that he had left them. He looked over their heads in the general direction of the women's clothing, looked for a moment at Mother, turned and headed for the checkout counter.
As they left, I realized that these are happy people! Oh, they may look all sober and serious, and I was sure then as I am now that they are reverent and not frivolous. But, tediously somber people do not giggle. They may sigh longingly and wish they could have the fineries, but they don't snicker and laugh and have a good old time at the expense of Nichols fashion buyers.
Now I'm not saying I'm ready to return to the land, give up electricity and indoor plumbing, and work the farm from dawn to dusk. What I am saying is we don't need to think these folks are somehow humorless and tortured just because they maintain a serious attitude in the face of strangers. Obviously, many, perhaps most, of them are happy and content with their lives, which is more than a lot of people can say. There's always been one thing I would have liked to have known, though.
As I said, Father was gone for quite a while. I've always wondered if, while the womenfolk were giggling about the bright colors and short skirts, he and the boys were ogling the power tools.
You know how it is with men. Always lusting over something.