Amish life is more than plain dress, a Germanic dialect and an aversion to modern technology. It is also an insular faith which demands that adherents live, worship and marry within the community.
Those strict expectations, along with a troubled home life, were too much for one Ohio Amish woman. Saloma Miller Furlong was 20 years old in the 1970s when she first ran away from her Amish community in Ohio and sought refuge in Burlington, Vt. It’s a story that she tells in her new memoir, Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds. Miller Furlong recently spoke with Vermont Edition about her experience.
On wrestling with individuality and curiosity
"In Amish culture, community is the most important. It’s not the family, and it’s not the individual. It’s the community. So for me, I could not, no matter how hard I tried ... tamp down the questions that just kept boiling right up from within me. Things like, why can’t we have bicycles but we can ride in somebody else’s car? ... Why can’t we take pictures in school? And then later on, as I got older, I would ask things like, 'If God really doesn’t want people to ask questions, then why did he give me such an inquisitive nature?'
"And those were just questions that the Amish could not or would not answer ... And my mother used to say, ‘Oh, Saloma, if you only knew how much better off you are without asking those questions, maybe you’d stop asking them.'"
"And so having that curious, feisty, adventurous spirit that I had from the start, I just did not fit into a community where the women and the girls are expected to be demure and quiet."
On lighting out for Vermont in 1978, as a 20-year-old
"When I was in seventh grade, I fell in love with New England and certainly Vermont. I did indeed subscribe to Vermont Life magazine, and they were literally my lifeline because I would put myself into those pictures and I had escaped to Vermont in my mind long before I actually did it.
"When I was looking for a place to stay, I called the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and asked where in the state I could find a residential YWCA. The only one in the state of Vermont was in Burlington, so that’s how I ended up in Burlington."
On becoming a new person in Burlington
"It was amazing. It was as if I was becoming the person I was meant to be, and especially when I met [my husband] David. It’s like the little romance we had going was really amazing. We dined in the restaurants and we danced in the bars and all of those things, and then we also liked to go out and drive into the country and just talk for hours."
On returning to Ohio after family and community members show up, unannounced, in a minivan
"With the bishop and his wife in the van and my uncle who had a lot of sway in the community, [and] my older brother who was used to forcing us sisters to do whatever he thought was right, I did not want to find out if they would stuff me into the van physically. The thing is, from the moment that I saw my sister’s dress outside, I felt like I was a puppet on a string. It felt like I had no choice and then when I found out who was in the van, I just completely gave up. It was as if they had brought the community to my Vermont world and I had to choose."
On returning to Ohio
"'I am going to make myself Amish.' That was the attitude I had, and I was really getting a lot of pressure from the Amish after David’s first visit. He had asked for a hug and kiss that day and I only allowed him a handshake and then I wasn’t so sure that I could stay just friends with David. And then when he was pushing on one end and the Amish were pushing on the other end, I was trying to figure out where I fit in all this.
"He sent me [a Christmas card]. On the inside of the card the message started out, ‘All living things respond to the warmth of love.’ And I remember just about melting. He had also sent me a Vermont Life calendar with gorgeous pictures of Vermont. He knew exactly how to bring the nostalgia on for Vermont. And I was thinking to myself, 'If he was here with me now, I would just give him that hug and I would never let him go.' And it was that moment that I said, 'God, if David and I aren’t meant to be together, please help me find my way back to him.' And that was my moment of when my mind started changing because the longing to be with him outweighed my desire to make it in my Amish community."
On leaving Ohio – again
"As we’re growing up, from the time we can understand the concept, we’re taught that because God had us be born Amish, he wanted us to stay Amish and if we left then all hope of our salvation would be lost. And I was calling that belief into question. I did not believe that that was the case and my sisters still were afraid of that.
"At first I felt like they [the Amish elders] were wrong because there’s always a part of me that will be Amish, but I don’t have to put up with the restrictions of Amish life. But then somewhere along the line I realized you know what, the Amish are right ... When we make choices in life sometimes there are other choices that are not available to us anymore. And when we leave the Amish, we are leaving a community and a way of life that we cannot replace in the mainstream culture. So I think the Amish are actually right. You really cannot have it both ways."
Excerpt from Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds
Author’s Note: This scene takes place the morning after a vanload of Amish arrived at my doorstep in Burlington, Vermont, to take me back to my community in Ohio. I had taken the name Linda when I left the Amish and moved to Vermont; now I needed to become Saloma again. Here is what happened that morning.
I hung up the phone and struggled to keep from crying. I would have to call David too. This could be tricky, especially if I didn’t do it right. I didn’t want the Amish to know anything about my relationship with David. That meant I could not do anything to show that I cared about him. And how could I be sure that he wouldn’t show he cared? I decided I’d just have to take that chance.
I found his number in my address book. I hesitated. What if I got one of his parents? That would be really awkward, since I didn’t know them. I didn’t allow myself to think about the plans we had made for me to meet them the next day. I knew that was now impossible. I would wake up in my Amish world tomorrow morning. My arms and hands felt like cement as I dialed the number. I was suddenly very aware that Sarah and Ada would be listening from upstairs. I could not allow my voice to give away my feelings. My heartbeat pounded in my ears as I dialed the phone number. I hoped his parents wouldn’t answer the phone.
A quiet voice answered, “Hello.”
“Is this David?”
“It’s Linda.” All of a sudden I felt like a liar. I wasn’t really Linda—not anymore.
“Hi, Linda. What a surprise.”
“I’m going back to the Amish today,” I said bluntly.
David hesitated, then said, “That’s a shock. What made you decide that?”
“They came to get me.”
“Who came to get you?”
After I named them, David asked, “Are you going to say goodbye to me?”
Now I felt like I had gotten into quicksand and I was slowly sinking. I tried to keep my voice from betraying my conflicting feelings. “I’m going to be saying goodbye to Barbara Lalancette at the Church Street Center at nine o’clock. You can come see me there if you’d like.”
“I’ll be there,” David said.
David arrived at the Church Street Center soon after I got there with Sarah and Ada in tow. Like two shadows, they were following my every footstep. The others were at a dry goods store I’d told them about on lower Main Street, where they could buy dress material for incredible bargains.
David tried to give me meaningful looks, and then he motioned for me to follow him as he sauntered over behind a curtained-off area. He sat down and asked, “Is this what you really want?”
I already felt like a deer in the headlights, but before I could answer, Sarah and Ada came and stood next to me, one on each side, with their arms folded across their chests. It seemed the turmoil I felt inside would wrench my heart in two: David and the nights in the parlor on one hand, and the overwhelming presence of the Amish on the other. David gave me a look that seemed to beg me to give him some indication of my feelings. Sarah and Ada were also giving me looks, but of another kind. I felt as though I was caught between two worlds. I would have to keep my heart well guarded or else David would see what I felt inside: a tornado twisting and turning. I handed the two tickets to David that I’d gotten the night before from the theater group and said, “You may as well have these.”
David took them hesitantly.
“I need to say goodbye to Barb,” I said, and walked over to her desk.
My bonnet got in my way when I hugged Barbara goodbye. She toyed with my bonnet strings as she said, “Ah, Linda, I’ll probably cry tonight, when I am all alone. I am going to miss you!” I had to go out the side door of the Church Street Center before I would burst into tears. I turned and waved to Barb. I got a glimpse of David, but I could not bear to see the look in his eyes. I turned and left.
I was heading to the bank with my two shadows just behind me when David called out to me. When I turned around, he came up to me and said, “I wanted you to have my address,” and he handed me a folded-up paper. I could tell there was something folded inside, but I took it and tucked it into the pocket of my dress and said, “Thank you.” I paused and then said, “By the way, my real name is Saloma.”
“Saloma. That’s a different name.”
I turned to leave, without hugging him, without acknowledging all those nights in the parlor, without even admitting to myself that any of it happened.
“Will you shake my hand?” David asked my back.
“Sure,” I said. I turned around and shook his hand. David tried to look me in the eye, but I would not return his gaze. “I will always remember you,” David said. He was trying to break down the façade that he knew I was hiding behind. Perhaps I was wearing my Amish demeanor along with my Amish clothing. David could not reconcile the two Lindas or, more accurately, the Linda with the Saloma. In that moment, when David held onto my hand and told me he would always remember me, my facade nearly did collapse. I had to turn away ...
From Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman's Ties to Two Worlds by Saloma Miller Furlong. Copyright 2014 by Saloma Miller Furlong. Excerpted by permission of Herald Press.