A friend of mine, Shawn Smucker [see photo insert], recently finished writing a book titled My Amish Roots.
While the book begins with a brief introduction of himself, his story…literally hiSTORY…begins more than 400 years earlier with a herdsman named Paul Steltzefuss – a grandfather of Shawn’s to the 11th power.
From there, Shawn effortlessly weaves back-and-forth between time and space, present and past creating a vibrant, rich and beautiful tapestry of his heritage.
Incredibly, this book reads like several books all at once. One moment it’s a well-researched and lively reference of historical facts that nourished the roots of his family tree. The next, it’s an Amish novel that affords the non-Amish or “English” the chance to observe some of its simple yet rich traditions. The next moment, it’s an introspective yet accessible autobiography about the search for one’s self. Shawn expertly integrates all of the seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive and fluid whole – I’ve never read a book quite like this.
Now that’s saying something.
An example of Shawn’s abilities is captured in his details surrounding his great-grandmother who was simultaneously nearing her 100th birthday and her death. While those two points along the circle of her life didn’t exactly meet, Shawn writes of his grandmother’s final weeks where “…96 years of life began to intermingle with 96 years of memory, like two tangled threads. She could be heard having conversations with her husband, Samuel Stoltzfus, who we had always called ‘Daughty.’ He had died 21 years before.”
Now that’s great writing.
He goes on to write about the tradition among the Amish of creating one’s own funeral clothes before dying. Initially, such a thought seems a bit strange or macabre to the “English” mindset, yet Shawn deftly describes it with a fresh perspective.
“…Something about making your own funeral clothes sounds very peaceful to me: acknowledging the inevitability of death, planning for it, staring it in the face for a moment, but then placing that realization under the bed, going about your everyday life, knowing there is little to be done about it.
When Amish people die unexpectedly, sometimes it is left to the living to make their funeral clothes. My aunt remembers visiting some 25 relatives the day after a loved one died. The daughters sat in a circle in the living room. They would cry, and they would sew, and then they would graciously allow someone else to have a turn.
‘I’ll do this sleeve,’ one of them would say through tears. It was an honor for them to make the clothes their loved-one would be buried in, and still they passed the garment graciously, giving everyone a turn...”
Now that’s profound beauty.
He goes on to share many other moments from his life and lives of his ancestry – assembling a breathtaking mosaic along the way. For me, Shawn’s book is ultimately about the blending of our life and memories.
His writing, breathed new life into the familial cliche of endearment, “Do you remember when…” – it’s the default conversational kick start at any family gathering especially around the holidays. There’s a kind of magic that such an overused phrase evokes when its shared with loved ones, and Shawn has bottled some of that magic here for his readers. I plan to give that phase a workout during shared moments with my extended family in the coming weeks.
Without being overly dramatic or sentimental, I feel blessed to have read this book because it reminded me of the importance of memories and that memories of loved are so much more than just shades of the past – they’re who we are today.