Cain’s Legacy: Marked By Plain Sorrow

All around me was a familiar sea of Plain people. I stood in a hotel ballroom, waiting in line to register for a natural foods conference. A German dialect called Pennsylvaanisch Deitsch flowed in and out of my ears. Most of it I didn’t understand, but every now and then, I caught a word or phrase before it rushed out of the realm of my understanding. Gooten Mariye. Good morning. Holde mei Sitz. Save my seat. The Amish were everywhere, and the colors swirled in front of my eyes: burgundy, green, deep blue, lots of black. There were a few Mennonites and one Old Order River Brethren couple. I was wearing my faded, worn blue jeans and carrying a purse from Guatemala, an inside outsider.

It was the summer before my senior year of college, and I was at home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, preparing to write a year-long tutorial (thesis project) on individuals and religious communities in American fiction. I was especially interested in the experiences of between-people, characters that were both insiders and outsiders to their communities. Wherever I went that summer, my tutorial topic accompanied me, even to the natural foods conference. As I took notes, I glanced at a young Amish woman who sat one chair away: hair parted exactly in the middle, neat rolls of hair on either side of her brow, catching loose strands. A wave of longing swept over me, and I tried not to stare. When I was eight, my family joined a small plain-dressed Friends community. While my hair grew out, I combed it straight back and tried to secure it with an elastic band, most of the time with little success. Even thirteen years later, I still wished I could have rolled the stray hair over my temples. I closed my eyes. I wondered how I fit into the vast world of Plain people, especially since I was no longer one of them. Yet I understood bits and pieces of the language they sometimes spoke; I knew what they were wearing down to the very pins securing their clothes; I shared their love for food and eating, but I had been cast out, and like Cain, I was wandering to and fro over the face of the earth, belonging nowhere. Sitting next to the Amish teenager, I realized something I didn’t want to say to my professors: I was a character in my own tutorial.


Our Friends, or Quaker, group worshiped in each other’s homes, rotating from week to week. On First Days, we had meeting for worship and a meal afterwards. There were nine of us: Tom and Anna and their sons, Jacob and Daniel; my parents, my little sister, and me; and Mary, a woman who was studying to become an immigration lawyer. I always enjoyed eating. Sometimes traditional Pennsylvania German foods were on the menu, such as pickled red beet eggs, cole slaw, apple snitz, and sauerkraut. Sometimes there was curry, and once we made ice cream together for fun. Tom placed a chicken feed sack on top of the ice in the wooden bucket. We took turns sitting on the sack to hold the bucket steady while the others cranked the handle. That day, we had eaten curry for our meal, and our tongues burned from the spice. For dessert, we had the homemade ice cream, and then our tongues burned from the cold.

Eating was an important part of our life together, but so was having fun. One afternoon, Jake and Dan suggested we play a game, so everyone—grown-ups included—engaged in a round or two of Huckle Buckle Beanstalk. Jake grabbed a black magnet and passed it around so we could all see it up close. Then he disappeared into the room with the piano to hide the magnet in plain sight. We waited in the kitchen until he was ready, and then we walked around the piano room, looking at every ordinary thing: the windowsills, the rocking chairs, the rug, the lamp. My mother sat down on one of the chairs with a smirk. “Huckle Buckle Beanstalk!” she said. “I found it.” One by one, the others sat down, and I began to feel self-conscious. Then, at last, I saw it: the narrow magnet rested on top of a black piano key. I sat down, smiling, and the game was over. “That was a good hiding spot!” Mary exclaimed in her British accent, and Jake beamed, pleased with himself. We played again.

In late summer, we took a trip to the Baltimore Aquarium. My parents were unable to go, so I went with Tom and Anna and the boys. It was hot that afternoon, but we needed to hold hands in order to stay together. This made our hands sweat. Anna, noticing my discomfort, suggested we hold only pinky fingers. She extended her pinky, and I mine, and we wandered around the aquarium, looking at eels and stingrays, our little fingers locked together. We must have looked like quite a sight in Baltimore. People walked all around us in tank tops and shorts, women with chin-length hair and tight-fitting clothes. There we were, an island in the midst of the moving sea, a man with a beard and broadfall pants, two boys in suspenders, and a woman in a white bonnet and a dark brown dress, holding the little finger of a girl, her hair pulled back, wearing gray seersucker. But no one else at the aquarium would have known from looking at my dress and my linked pinky finger that belonging came with a price.


Community. Obedience.They were Tom’s favorite words, and they seeped into my father’s mind. Tom didn’t allow Jake and Dan to participate in school Christmas parties, so Dad wrote notes every year to my Mennonite schoolteachers, requesting that I be excused from class parties and the school Christmas program. I imagine that he wrote,We belong to the Religious Society of Friends, and our community celebrates Christ’s birth every day, in our hearts.While my classmates had their parties, I was banished to the school office or the library. Outside of school, I absolutely hated Dad’s decision to have our family stay at home instead of visiting our relatives over Christmas. He didn’t seem to realize how hurtful and lonely being faithful to this community was.

Christmas was only the beginning. Tom and Anna considered clothing to be an indicator of true community faithfulness. In third grade, I returned home from school one winter afternoon and was surprised to find my mother wearing a white cloth bonnet with strings—a head covering like Anna’s. Up until then, Mom had not worn a covering and had not even talked about wearing one before, and I was shocked by the suddenness of this development. I knew wearing the right clothes was very important when Anna gave me three dresses that were hers as a young girl. I wore the light blue one because it was my favorite, and she smiled when I wore the dress to meeting. The other dresses were ugly and too big, so I let them hang in the closet. Mom sewed some plain dresses for me, and she hovered around my legs during the fittings, indicating with pins where she thought the hemline should be, usually at least two and a half inches below my knees.This community keeps saying that the outward appearance doesn’t matter, I thought.But it’s such a big deal.And it was. Tom and Anna often showed up at our house unexpectedly, as if to inspect how faithful we were in our private lives.

“Obedience is important,” Tom said during a First Day meeting for worship. “It shows our faithfulness to God.” We settled into silence again; my three-year old sister was restless. “Look, look, the kitty!” she exclaimed. I draped a baby blanket over her head to distract her. She quieted down, but Jake couldn’t help laughing at how funny she looked. He let out a giggle. Tom’s arm shot out like a flash of lightning and grabbed Jake’s shirt and shook him. I felt sorry for Jake, and I felt sorry for the cat that wandered through the open front door and made noise in the kitchen. Tom got up to put the cat out, but she turned around and came back through the open door. Then he grabbed a book from a basket by Anna’s chair, pulled the cat by her tail, and beat it with the book. He shoved the cat out the door with his foot, and she stayed there. Horrified, I glanced around the room.How was the cat supposed to know better if the front door was wide open?The grown-ups were quiet, some with their eyes closed, being obedient to God. After meeting was over, I went outside to find the cat. She wouldn’t let anybody near her.

Everything was dangerous. I stopped speaking out loud during First Day meals. Instead of asking for the bread, I caught my mother’s eye and stared at the loaf, which she passed to me. I let my eyes do all the talking and carefully followed the rules as I knew them. I didn’t read in Tom’s presence because reading was a paper television, and television was worldly. I learned not to read in Jake and Dan’s presence because they would tell Tom. I worked hard to catch all my hair in a ponytail, but some of it always fell out, making me look unkempt. I decided to wear meeting dresses even when I didn’t think we would see Tom and Anna; they might show up unexpectedly, and God would want me to be obedient and faithful. I didn’t know what to do when my parents sat down with me and said, “Tom and Anna have decided to move away. They don’t believe that our family was really ready to be a community.”

I was stunned.Hadn’t I tried to follow all the rules?“You mean we won’t get to eat with Tom and Anna and Jake and Dan anymore?”

“Probably not for a while,” Mom and Dad said.

“I hate community, and I hate Quakers,” I announced to no one in particular. Then I found a book to read. And another.


Some years passed, and I graduated from Lancaster Mennonite High School. In the fall, I went to Pittsburgh to attend a small women’s college. I told my roommate I wasn’t sure which church I wanted to go to; she recommended that I not go at all. Ignoring her advice, I discovered a combination that I liked, which was worshiping with Presbyterians most of the time and with urban, artistic Mennonites some of the time. I liked the Presbyterians because I could walk in and out of church without being noticed, and I liked the Mennonites because they were familiar. I attended Bible studies with students at nearby universities and rolled my eyes whenever students said they wanted to “build community” in their Christian fellowship groups. You people know not what you ask,I wanted to say.Let me tell you what can really happen in a communitylots of rules andconstant scrutiny.Sometimes I said this out loud. Campus ministers were often startled at the bitterness in my voice, and they talked to me, concerned, trying to help me understand the positive aspects of community. I listened politely or impolitely, depending on my mood.

The campus ministers, however, didn’t know about my Saturday morning outings. I often got up early to wander into Squirrel Hill and see Jewish people go to temple. The Jews didn’t drive cars on Saturdays, as that violated Sabbath laws, so they walked together as families, men and boys in skullcaps and women in hats. Usually more men than women went to the synagogue, and the ultra-orthodox men had beards and earlocks and wore white ritual fringes that fluttered behind them as they moved. Once a man hurried down the sidewalk, engulfed by a huge prayer shawl, chanting quietly. Most of the time I observed from a distance. If I was close enough to smile at the temple-goers, they never acknowledged my presence, except for the time I found myself following a family of five one winter morning. The mother and father walked ahead, keeping tabs on their son, who ran his mittened hand against every snow-covered hedge along the path. Two daughters lagged behind, trudging through the gray slush in boots, carrying their shoes in plastic bags. For a few seconds, I let myself indulge:I am going to meeting. I belong to these people. After meeting’s over, we’ll all eat hot soup and have pie for dessert.The girls turned around, their brown eyes full of questions, staring at me. They moved to one side to let me pass. I went back to my residence hall and checked my face in the bathroom mirror, looking for the mark of Cain.


During winter break of my senior year, I was at home, writing my tutorial. I was in the process of drafting the second and third chapters. One novel I was working with was about a young woman who takes up her mother’s abandoned Judaism. She feels accepted, attends a Jewish school, graduates first in the class, but is then denied the honor of being class valedictorian because she is female.Community acceptance, I couldn’t help thinking,is always conditional.Between-people know this all too well.

The phone rang, and Mom answered it downstairs. After a few minutes, she announced that Tom and Anna had moved back to Lancaster County, and they had invited us over for a meal. I smiled, thinking of what we might be eating, but then my hands shook. “Did you tell them that I’m a vegetarian now?” I could imagine Tom making fun of me if he knew, but the thought of not being able to eat anything at the table was even worse. “I told them,” Mom said.

We ate at Tom and Anna’s new house the evening before I returned to Pittsburgh. I had long since drifted from plain dress, but I still had long hair and wore it up. Tom and Anna were dressed the same way as when I last saw them, only they looked older. I noticed Dan standing near the doorway. He had a pierced ear, and he wore baggy black pants with lots of zippers. We looked at each other, and our eyes locked for a moment. “Hey,” Dan said. “How are you?” I said fine and asked where Jake was. Dan shrugged. “Working. He works all the time.”

We walked into the dining room. Tears came to my eyes when I saw the familiar deep blue tablecloth and white dishes. We took our chairs, and the prayerful hush came, just like it used to. After we raised our heads, Tom pointed awkwardly to one of the big bowls. “I made a vegetable stew.” He paused and cleared his throat a little bit. “I spent the morning searching through cookbooks to find a recipe we might all like.” I suddenly realized that he was speaking to me. Anna passed the bowl and let me serve myself. When the bowl came around again, I had more stew. I also reached for another slice of bread and spread generous layers of butter and strawberry jelly all over it. I couldn’t stop eating. I was so hungry.

“You’re about to start your last semester, aren’t you?” Tom asked, looking at me. I opened my mouth to answer, but nothing came out. I saw a cat sitting on the windowsill behind him. “Yes,” I finally managed to say. “Just one more semester and then I’m finished.”

Anna brought in the dessert. There were three kinds of pie: cherry, apple snitz, and lemon sponge. Even though I was full, I sampled all of them.

Then Tom said, “Let’s return thanks.” We bowed our heads and prayed again, this time thanking God for the food we had just eaten. I silently prayed my own version of Psalm 137:If I forget what it is like to eat at your table, O my friends, then let my right hand forget its skill.One by one we raised our heads, looking at each other and smiling. Before we left, Tom shook my hand, and Anna hugged me. I hugged her back, and I didn’t want to let go. “God bless you,” she said softly.


Back in Pittsburgh, I finished my tutorial and turned in the seventy pages one day before the due date. I prepared myself for the presentation and the question-and-answer session that was to take place before a board of professors. I rehearsed in my mind the summary, over and over: “Between-people are both outsiders and insiders. They don’t belong anywhere. The focus of my work is how characters in these novels negotiate their between-ness in relation to their religious communities. What are they willing to sacrifice, or not sacrifice, in order to be true to themselves? How do these characters make their decisions?”

My stomach was in knots, and I couldn’t think of what to wear to my final board. I opened the closet door and let my hands guide me. My fingers touched a dress shoved all the way to the left wall, and I smiled. It was the only plain dress I still owned, a dark blue dress that had been Anna’s. I put it on and found some dark stockings and black shoes. Then I walked across campus to defend my tutorial.

About the Author

Eileen R. Kinch

Eileen R. Kinch graduated from the Ministry of Writing program at Earlham School of Religion. She lives and writes in Lancaster County, PA. Read some of her poems at www.eileenrkinch.com.