A couple of years ago, I noticed a hand-painted sign that said, “Chair Caning” on a road just outside Quarryville, PA, right in the heart of Amish country. In this area, the backroads are sprinkled with these signs – a way for the Amish to garner a little “English” business (anyone not Amish is called English). These signs advertise plants or animals for sale; one shows that raw milk is available at the “third farm on the left.” But the chair caning sign stuck out to me because it was unique.
So when K had her grandmother’s rocking chair that needed caning, I thought of this little sign, and we set out to find it. We drove past it a couple of times before actually slowing down enough to make the turn, but we eventually pulled into their driveway and evaluated our choice of doors to knock on. I chose the front door and tapped on the frame. The tiniest lady in a black dress and green blouse opened the door, and after I told her why we were here, she invited us in with utter hospitality, despite the fact that we had knocked on the wrong door at the most wrong time.
“People usually come in the other door for this,” she told us as we walked past a woman in a wheelchair with an oxygen tube in her nose. A much younger English woman was sitting with her, holding her hand. “That’s my sister.”
When we entered the kitchen, this lovely woman took K’s chair, wrote up a ticket for it, and told us, “Are you okay if it takes a while? You see our sister is dying, and we need to take care of her first.” We nodded, stupefied by the openness, honesty, and sheer lack of manipulation in this sentence.
So rarely do people speak honestly in my world, the English world. So much of what is said is about manipulation – either conscious or subconscious. What can I say to get the reaction I want? But this little woman spoke just the truth because she needed to know our answer. It stunned us to silence.
A few months later, K got a postcard saying the chair was ready. We headed back up to get it, a little day trip to Lancaster County. As we knocked, on the right door this time, K wondered how the sister was. I nodded, curious, too. The same lady opened the door, and as we walked into the kitchen, she and another sister were snapping piles and piles of snap beans. Partially-caned chairs were set up on small platforms by the windows. This was a work room. As one sister got our chair, the other told us that she was sorry it had taken so long; their sister had died, and planning the funeral had been hard. She shared all of this without affect, like she was telling a story to her best friends who already knew what was going on. It was obvious that they didn’t remember us – and why would they? – but it was also obvious that they weren’t going to put on a show for us in any way. They were just being, well, them, and they were telling us the truth – painful, hard but every day truth.
The first sister brought out K’s chair, and it was gorgeous. “It’ll be $11. Is that okay?” K nodded, again struck silent by something so simple. An honest price (a really too reasonable price) for honest work. The second sister sat and snapped beans, a vegetable percussion for the afternoon. K paid, and we left.
We went back a couple of more times to take other chairs. The sisters never remembered us; they never fussed over guests or tried to tidy up their very clean house. They just shelled peas or caned chairs or sewed as we stood in their tiny kitchen. There was such powerful presence in that little room – hard work, community, and an honest life.
I wish more of my days included these little encounters. I walk into someone’s kitchen or he comes into mine. I stand at the counter and keep rolling peanut butter cookies. He helps himself to a glass of iced tea and leans against the wall. I say, “Life is hard today. Want to help me roll out cookies?”