The house across the street from my church has recently been utilized by a foundation that assists with reconstruction of houses destroyed by Hurricane Issac. For a few weeks now, rotating groups of volunteers from Illinois have been living there while they rebuild south Louisiana. The concept of volunteers rebuilding our state following a hurricane has become the norm in these parts. Still, these volunteers were different from most. These volunteers were not college students filling up service hours. They were not teams of mainstream Christians rushing to the scene of the disaster to sooth and heal the devastation. They were not professionals donating their expertise. These volunteers were different, for you see these volunteers were Amish. Yes, Amish. Garden growing, home sewing, gently going…Amish. From the moment I heard about them, they had my complete attention.
I asked the minister at my church to accompany me to the house bearing the gift of a fruit basket. So off we went, and that was the beginning of my fascination and admiration of these gentle souls. Each week the teams would come and go. The women stayed put inside the house during the day to cook (all from scratch), sew (with a machine don’tcha know), wash the laundry (by hand) and clean the house (by hand as well). They were all dressed in traditional Amish garb; plain solid dresses held together by straight pins (no buttons allowed), delicate white pleated caps with ties that hang on each side of their chin, and plain black shoes
The men would leave early in the morning to go to a worksite where they would rebuild with a level of pristine skill foreign to most. They wore plain dark trousers, plain white shirts, suspenders and simple brimmed hats. They looked like the team that they are.
Yesterday, I made a regular visit to my new friends only to find a new group of ladies in the house. I introduced myself and told them I was going to the produce market. Would they like me to pick anything up for them? The response was at first silence then exchanged looks of confusion before the oldest lady (and I do mean lady), clearly the First in Command, spoke up. “What is that?”
“Well,” I said, “it is an open air…you know…outside, market that sells fruits and vegetables. They sell other stuff too. You know. Olive oil and vinegar and fancy bread, and fudge. Other stuff too.”
The blank looks settled in as they responded in unison, “What other stuff?”
“Well,” I began, “King Cakes! You know. For Mardi Gras.”
“Oh? What is a King Cake?” First in Command gently asked. As we piled into my Subaru and headed to Berry Town Produce, I did my best to dissect it all.
“Uh, it is a special cake that people in Louisiana make during Mardi Gras. They are good! And they have little babies inside.”
“Oh! Goodness! What is Mardi Gras?”
Here we go. Try to explain Mardi Gras to someone who has never watched television, seen a parade, enjoyed a cocktail or dressed up silly. But I gave it the old college try. I paused before I responded, taking time to choose my words carefully.
“Mardi Gras….is the season…period of time….days on the calendar between Twelfth Night and the beginning of Lent. It is a time where…here in south Louisiana…we have lots of parties and parades…and we eat King Cakes and the person who finds the little baby has to get the next King Cake…and at the parades the people on the floats- the motorized trailer things that ride one behind the other in the parade-throw multi colored beads at…to…the people on the streets. And the people on the decorated flo….motorized trailers wear fancy costumes. The people on the street scream throw me something mister, so they throw beads. Unless it is Zulu, in which case they hand out decorated coconuts.” Whew!
The ladies looked at each other and quietly snickered as they each covered their smiles with three middle fingers held upright, like a family of trees. They gracefully decline my offer to pick up groceries for them, but indicated that they would ALL like to ride with me and buy their own food. Fine with me. You only live once. So we all piled into my little Subaru and I continued my pontification on Mardi Gras…
“Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday and it really is a Tuesday. That is the last day of the big parades. The day before Ash Wednesday, so you have to squeeze in all your partying…you know…food, drink, debauchery (did I really say that?) into that last day because the next day is Ash Wednesday which kicks off (really?) Lent. Then you have to be prayerful and sacrificial and ….prayerful. South Louisiana has a heavy Roman Catholic population and…I am not Catholic, I am Presbyterian….but you know that…..but I still like Mard…Fat Tuesday.” Oh look! We are here (thank God)! The produce market where we can buy the fruits and vegetables. And I can show you King Cakes!”
The four ladies careened their necks as we pulled into the parking lot. As we poured out of the car, I couldn’t help but notice the attentive stares we received from the locals. We might as well have just landed from another galaxy for the looks we were getting, but somehow, these precious four ladies (and I do mean ladies) were oblivious. They were too, too fascinated by Mirlitons, Blood Oranges and King Cakes to take notice of all the Louisiana mouths hanging open. As they respectfully examined the crops, it occurred to me that they may have never tasted our local seafood. “They have shrimp too! And they will let you taste one!” I shouted as though I was speaking to a two year old from Budapast.
“What’s that?” Here we go again. So I led them to the seafood counter and introduced them to the lady who worked there, explaining that they had never had the pleasure of eating shrimp. She graciously handed them each a gorgeous, perfectly seasoned boiled shrimp and a paper towel. The ladies snickered and glanced at each other as I clumsily explained about ripping off the head before you peel off the shell. The ladies each took a bite and smiles spread across their faces as they nodded, yes, yes. The seafood clerk was so delighted she shouted (see I am not the only one) “Ya’ll want a crawfish???”
Oh Lord. The shrimp was easy compared to this one, but I tried. “It is sort of like a small lobster.” They stared at me. I got nothing. “It has a harder shell than the shrimp but it tastes very good. Try it!” So they did. Teaching them how to peel it was like teaching brain surgery, not because I am so skilled at teaching, but because they were so conscientious of doing it gently, correctly and well. After they tasted the mudbugs, they looked at each other as they wiped their pristine fingers on a wet wipe (another new source of fascination.) The lady Second in Command declared with confidence, “I like the first one the best.” The others nodded in agreement. We finalized their purchases; four cucumbers, three heads of iceburg lettuce and one clamshell of local strawberries, and headed back to our spaceship so I could drive them back to the house.
On the drive I became brave, brazen almost, as I spoke up. “I want to ask you something. I want to learn from you. I noticed that your dresses have no buttons, just straight pins holding them together. I am surprised that they don’t poke you.”
“Oh, they do!” Second in Command howled as the other three broke into peals of laughter. “They do indeed!”
“Why don’t you use buttons? I asked.
They all became silent then First in Command responded, “I don’t know. I don’t know. We sew the men’s trousers with buttons. Hmmm. I just don’t know.” Hip hip hooray! They couldn’t explain things either! It wasn’t just me! Yay!
I hesitantly spoke. “Well, I think you should be able to have buttons too.” The minute the words were out of my mouth I regretted it. Their straight pins and buttons and traditions were none of my business. I wished I had kept my mouth shut, but they seemed amused. I dropped them off at their house and waved them goodbye as I threatened, “Tomorrow I will bring you a King Cake that I made.”
“Oh. Will it have a baby in it?”
I snickered as I put the car in reverse. “Yes ma’am it will. It certainly will.”