My mom suspects we have Amish roots, based on family migrations from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and memories of her straight-laced, bun-wearing great-grandmother. She muses with our family as we sit in my aunt’s basement, studying photographs of our predecessors and wondering how much we have in common with them. My eyes eventually rest on one of my Granny Pat wearing a blue dress. She’s 18 years old, side-by-side with my grandpa.
The A-line dress is topped with a high neckline and short sleeves, cinched by a pleated bodice, and flares into a skirt hemmed just below her knees. It is crisp, understated elegance, and it’s my great-grandmother’s handiwork, so my aunt tells me.
An all-encompassing lifestyle of plainness seems extreme, but the Amish committed to it because it positioned them to honor God in purity and truth.
I already knew I came from a line of seamstresses, watching my mom sew dresses for my sister and me, listening to her recollect the outfits she and my Granny Pat had made together. Even now, the quilt they stitched for me rests on the back of my couch, and I often join my mom at the fabric store to indulge her latest project. My mom thrives in the labor and creation of it all, as have generations of women in my family. Simplicity and work—over convenience, comfort, and leisure—was natural; it seems to run through their veins.
If the men and women in the photographs I’m studying were Amish, their simple life would have been a deliberate choice. An all-encompassing lifestyle of plainness seems extreme to most of us, but the Amish committed to it because it positioned them to honor God in purity and truth, bridling distraction from frivolity. It was that allegiance to genuine worship that initially distinguished them from the Catholic Church when they chose to baptize confessed adults, rather than infants.
Mom points me to the headshot of an old, but sturdy, woman with her hair tied in a bun, mouth forming a nearly perfect line, and tells me I got my red hair from her. Could she have also given me traits of her character, no less diluted than the genes that gave me her hair? I wonder because echoes of Amish purity and their sensitivity to spiritual dissonance often seem to direct, and sometimes haunt, the way I worship. On Sunday mornings when singing in church, I’ve caught myself limiting the sway of my body and movement of my hands if I’m not certain my heart is fully invested.
I remember the Sunday morning I absently followed my family to the altar at the front of our church sanctuary. It was a drudge, passing row after row of pitying, curious eyes, but I did it because Granny Pat had lymphoma, and we weren’t prepared for it. So, I copied my parents’ motions, placing my then small knees on the green striated cushion, lowering my head after they lowered theirs. I don’t remember the words that were prayed, or if I listened. But on the ground, reduced to my knees, feet limp and head hanging, I understood that God was our strength. After a while we stood, and I returned to my seat believing He held my Granny Pat fiercely in His hands. What did God think of my heart then, how slowly it bent after my knees?
I don’t see many men and women in the Bible kneeling before they were captivated by God. Peter fell to the ground when he comprehended Jesus’ holiness and his own unworthiness, and again with James and John, at the awe of Jesus’ transfiguration and glory. The leper, too, marveling at Jesus’ power to heal and restore, laid at His feet.
Jesus petitioned the Lord’s will—not once—but three times, as if He needed to convince Himself that He wanted to obey.
Jesus knelt once—but out of agony. He was in the Garden of Gethsemane getting ready to pray, but first He lowered His body and pressed His knees into the ground. There, Jesus petitioned the Lord’s will—not once—but three times, as if He needed to convince Himself that He wanted to obey, not unlike the man who’d previously said to Him “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Had Jesus searched His heart and found it callous? Did He hope kneeling would help Him yield, His body itself a prayer?
I’m so absorbed in the photographs I don’t notice my aunt leave until she returns holding a familiar dress—the one I’ve just finished admiring in the shot of my grandparents. She brings the dress to me, says I can have it. She thinks it will fit. I’m heading up the stairs to try it on and nearly out of earshot when I hear that my Granny married in it.
The way it rests on my body—it could have been made for me. I can see now that the high neckline dips into a V in the back. And the edges have softened to a warm lavender, probably from years of sunlight, and nicks speckle the fabric, but they’re not visible in the mirror.
I wish I could show Granny Pat, celebrate how much my shape has grown into hers. But our prayers over her were answered not in healing, but in death.
At the time I couldn’t help but wonder if I had prayed often enough, passionately enough for her. The days that I prayed with an absent heart, only mouthed the words to my heavenly Father—were those pleas lost on Him? I never knew.
Fifteen years later, all I know is what transpired in her wake—family ties woven taut, others strained, the ache for her to cradle great-grandchildren, her essence tucked into my mother’s being. I see the God who walked her into death also carried us past it, and still—we feel and grieve her absence. God carries us not despite our prayers but because of them. My Father isn’t deterred by my heart, whether unfeeling or tender, or by weakened or rigid knees, but holds me through it all with mercy and grace.