Serendipity or DNA? A curious Life Path

Posted by Daniel Mast on

by John H. Gindlesberger

   This is a story of how the search for my family roots has, in some ways, come full circle. I grew up in Holmes County, Ohio—home to one of the largest Amish and Mennonite communities in America. It is an unusual place, however, in that Holmes County is roughly divided into two parts. The Amish and Mennonites live primarily in the eastern portion of the county, while the western portion, where I grew up, is mainly “English.” The Amish have always been seen in the grocery stores, in buggies on the highways, and in the fields. A few were even in my elementary school classes. They have been a part of the picturesque Holmes County landscape, but my actual interactions with them and, thus, my understanding of them and their culture was minimal.
    After college, I returned to Holmes County and began what would become my teaching career. At that time, teachers were in short supply, and, although my undergraduate degree was in psychology, I was hired by the East Holmes School District with a temporary teaching certificate.
    I met with my superintendent in August before school began, and he informed me that I would be assigned to teach all subjects in the seventh and eighth grades at Pleasant Hill School. Having been born and raised in Holmes County, I was surprised that I had never heard of this school before. In fact, I was even more surprised to learn that my teaching career was to begin in this little two-room country school on a dirt road, and that all my students would be Old Order Amish.
    At that point, my relationship with the Amish became more direct. I would learn to know them on a one-to-one basis and discover first hand much more about their culture. Their belief system became more clear as I interacted with both the children in my class that year and with their parents. Still, they were Amish, and I was not. Unknown to me at the time, however, my connection to the Amish was becoming more personal.

        After two years in this school district, my wife and I moved to northwest Ohio for graduate school and the continuation of our educational careers. Fast forward 30+ years and more pieces fell into place when we decided to return to Holmes County in 2006.
    As if drawn by some unknown power, we were led to a home that had all we were looking for. Then it was learned that our house was situated on the property once owned by some of my ancestors. In fact, it was located very close to property belonging to the earliest Gindlesbergers who first settled in Holmes County. Along with that, we were now surrounded by Amish neighbors. These relationships with our Amish neighbors would prove to strengthen my ties to the past and would provide many more missing pieces.    
    My mother worked in the clerk of courts office and often found herself searching court documents for people tracing their families. She then became interested in her own family history and this proved contagious. When she passed, all of her records found their way to me and my interest in family history grew. I learned more and more about my ancestors and their origins and discovered that many branches of my family originated in the Palatinate area of Germany and the Rhine River Valley.
    After a chance finding of Ulrich Gindlesperger: his life, his family, and their documentation by Norman Gindlesperger (published by Masthof Press), I found the link to my Anabaptist roots: Uli Kindlishperger, my fifth great-grandfather. He was an early member of the Amish Mennonite community and came to America in 1749. A direct family line could now be traced from Europe to Pennsylvania to Ohio. A kind of intellectual and emotional kinship began to form in my mind. Although not Amish, there were Anabaptist genes running in my DNA!
    A flyer promoting a heritage tour in Germany, France, and Switzerland, organized by the Masts, editors of Mennonite Family History and owners of Masthof Press, found its way to me in 2010. This sounded interesting, so my wife and I decided to participate. Now I could see first hand where my ancestors lived, worked, and worshiped. It proved to be an exciting and memorable trip. We saw farm houses and barns where Anabaptists lived, caves where they worshiped, and much more. For example, standing in Ste. Marie-aux-Mines, France, where my ancestors had once lived and seeing what they had seen hundreds of years before was humbling.
    In May 2017, I connected directly with those ancient roots. My wife and I were invited to an Old Order Amish wedding of the oldest son of one of our neighbors. When we drove into the lane, it was like driving into the past. The first sight was of a pasture near the barn filled with dozens and dozens of Amish buggies. We walked down the gravel lane to the house and barn and were directed into the barn where the service was taking place.

    Amish weddings begin early in the morning and last until lunch time. We were told it was entirely appropriate for “English” to come midway through the service, so we approached the barn and heard the bishop, the groom’s grandfather, reading from the Bible in German. We were directed to seats on a simple wooden bench. A fresh layer of fragrant hay had been spread on the floor. As our eyes adjusted to the dim light in the barn, we were transported back in time. We were witnessing a ceremony that had remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. It was a simple, yet somehow elegant service in the most humble of places—a barn. Horses and cows could be heard in the stalls beneath the floor and birds chirped as they flitted from dusty beam to dusty beam. Dust motes were lit up by beams of sunlight filtering through cracks in the siding.
    Looking around, we noticed that the benches were lined up in long rows with women on one side and men facing them on the other, probably at least 200 of each. The women wore long black dresses with white aprons and caps while the men wore black trousers and vests with white shirts. The colorful dresses often seen on the young Amish girls were nowhere to be seen. This was life in black and white.  Between the two sides stood the bride and groom, in dress the same as the others, listening to the bishop instruct them in the responsibilities of marriage.
    Eventually, the rise and fall of the bishop’s voice gave way to a kind of chanting as the congregation sang the same songs which the Amish had sung for generations. This was done without any instrumental accompaniment. Honestly, it was a droning, haunting sound that resonated perfectly in that old barn. Truly magical.
    Then there was a movement, and we saw the young people stand and quietly walk toward the door, boys coming from the back on one side and girls from the other. They quietly filed out the door while the singing continued, and then a large number of the older women exited. They were leaving to prepare for the wedding meal.
    When the ceremony ended, there was no kissing of the bride, no walking down the aisle, no tossing a bouquet, or no showering the couple with confetti. The new couple simply merged with the others and took their place—a new family and a new generation. The vows they took to each other were also vows to their faith. This wedding represented an unbroken chain of faith for these two families, now united, and a path into the future.
    As we exited the barn, we joined the others for a typical Amish meal: baked chicken, mashed potatoes, dressing, corn, bread, and a salad. The women of the families had baked raspberry cheesecake for the entire group—no small feat! There were no speeches or toasts and no dancing. The meal was eaten in relative quiet, just the murmur of conversation. The young people efficiently served and cleaned up.
    Walking back to the car, we realized that we had participated in something very special. Previous weddings we had attended, indeed our own wedding, were in dedicated church buildings, and well lit with comfortable seating. The service was typically short and the music almost always featured organ or piano accompaniment. These weddings put the spotlight on the wedding couple, the bride’s dress, the flower arrangements, the reception, the honeymoon. Today we saw the essence of marriage, the black and white of a union, not an ostentatious ceremony. We had seen a marriage as my ancestors had seen it those many generations ago.
    Was there a tiny gene in my DNA double helix that guided me back to Holmes County and my connection to the Amish, or was it serendipity? Why had I been offered the opportunity to teach in that little, out-of-the-way school years before? Why had my wife and I been drawn to this particular property? Why had my mother’s interest in family history and all of her documentation come to me? Why had something guided us to develop those close relationships with our Amish neighbors?
    Maybe it was simply seren-dipity or maybe it was something lurking deep within my genetic makeup. What ever it was, I was given the gift of understanding my heritage far more clearly. This wedding served as a vehicle to illuminate the reality of my roots.

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