‘God is our lives’

Spending time with an Amish shopkeeper’s family

A little work, a little play, and a sunny spring day; Amish life offers a simpler life at a slower pace.

PULAWSKI TOWNSHIP–In a flat valley between gentle hills west of Posen lies a swath of green farmland. A white sign at the end of a driveway marks the location of Gingerich General Store.

Doughnut day is Friday, it says.

Life is gentle at Gingerich General. Amid bags of powdered sugar and jars of homemade jam, in the plainness of white walls and the far-away sound of a rooster, a message resounds: Simple is good.

Thomas Gingerich, the store’s owner, stands behind the counter slicing a block of butter-yellow Muenster cheese into smaller portions, wrapping each carefully in clear plastic wrap. A plain, slightly graying beard frames his chin, his voice patient as he pauses from his work to talk about his store.

Formerly in the dairy business, Gingerich and his family decided in 2013 or 2014 to tap into his wife’s gift for making lovely pies and other baked goods to create a bakery in their garage. A few years later, when a married daughter moved out of the house and across the road, her living space was turned into the store, where bulk baking goods, meats, dried fruits, soup bases, and jams have been available to customers since the store opened last May.

“Have a nice day,” the Gingerich General Store roadside sign on Leer Road says politely, inviting visitors to sample baked goods and home-grown pork chops.

The tantalizing goods on a rack near the entrance are baked from scratch, requiring a full 50-pound bag of flour each week. Granola and canned goods come from other kitchens in the community. The maple syrup is made by his sister. Other products are ordered from a Mennonite catalog.

The store carries a few non-food products, such as leather fly swatters and an effective burns-and-wounds ointment, but the baked goods are the store’s main draw.

The Gingeriches and several other Amish families moved to the area seven years ago, leaving behind a larger Amish community near Cadillac. The local Amish households — there are 14 in the Leer Road area — are regulars at the store, coming especially for the bulk baking products.

Amish families are large, Gingerich said, and use a lot of baking supplies in their preservative-free food preparation.

There are 13 offspring in the Gingerich clan. The oldest are married, several of them still living near the family farm. The remaining two girls and two boys live on the farm, helping with chores, playing, interacting with the animals, and attending the Amish school up the road. Three-hour church services are also held there on Sunday mornings, congregants singing and listening to speakers from their seats on backless wooden benches.

Full shelves offer candies, home-canned jams, baking supplies, and freshly-baked pies and cookies at the Gingerich General Store.

A boy with suspenders criss-crossed over his back passes by the window, skipping at bit as he works at balancing a large cardboard box on his head. This is 10-year-old Matthew, who shyly peeks around the corner of a building but then cheerfully becomes the farm’s tour guide.

An unconcerned dog lazes in the driveway. In a barn, a horse in harness crunches oats rhythmically, wheeled buggies parked nearby.

Horses are important to the family, some used for transportation to town, others assigned to pull plows to plant the family’s crops of corn, oats, and hay.

Matthew, his 7-year-old brother Leon close behind, ducks expertly under a barbed wire fence (“Be careful, it’s electrified,” he warns) to visit the other horses. The foal, elegantly named Queen Victoria, is shy, but her mother, Pearl, is untroubled by the barefooted boy trotting comfortably toward them.

A cackle of chickens erupts from a barn. The hens are only producing about 10 eggs a day, Matthew says, peering out from below straight-cut bangs, but more chickens are coming soon. He expertly tugs the tail of a hen that’s crowding into another hen’s nesting box, producing an indignant squawk.

A curious horse investigates a visitor as a foal peeks out from behind her mama on the Gingerich farm.

Young Martha Grace, a blue scarf holding back her brown hair, does the family’s wash in a patch of sunlight falling into the shady garage. With pleasant voice, the well-spoken 14-year-old explains how the wringer-washer squeezes soapy water out of the overalls and blue dresses hand-sewn by her mother. Nearby, a tidy row of men’s button-down shirts flaps lazily on a clothesline.

The children’s voices lilt with the gentle cadences of a Pennsylvania Dutch accent.

“It’s our mother tongue,” says Grace Gingerich, the pie maker and mother of 13, of the High German dialect spoken by Amish who settled in Pennsylvania in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The family speaks the language in their home, intermingled with English words.

It’s not uncommon for visitors to the store to remark on the appealing simplicity of the Amish lifestyle. The Gingeriches accept the comments with calm grace, gently deflecting the focus off of themselves.

Freshly-glazed doughnuts glisten from the counter of the store, making mouths water. Friday is doughnut day, and the treats are snatched up by eager customers as soon as the store opens at 9 a.m.

“What we want to be the most appealing is that God is our lives,” Grace says. “That’s what we’re living for.”

The Gingerich children glide politely away as a camera is raised to capture a moment on the farm. No photographs of themselves, the family has requested. In Amish teachings, as they strive to live simple lives focusing on their faith. To pose for photos is to put themselves before God.

“We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves,” Gingerich says. Posing for a camera doesn’t fit with the quiet and humble lifestyle the family has chosen for itself, he explains.

A few customers step into the store, hoping to purchase a raspberry pie. The cross-topped dessert claimed from the baked goods rack, the customers hesitate, not yet ready to leave. They amble down the short aisles, looking at bags of cinnamon bears and black licorice bites, picking up dried apricots, standing at the open window for a moment, the serenity of the store loosening their shoulders and smoothing their brows.

Stepping onto an Amish farm, to eyes accustomed to rushing cars and demanding screens and deadlines and angst, feels like stepping backward in time, back to an imagined past where the world didn’t intrude and a person could take a deep breath of air sweetly scented of animals and hay and molasses cookies.

Horse-drawn buggies stand ready to transport the Amish family to town. Horses are essential to the Amish lifestyle.

For the Gingerich family, however, and for others like them, the life of simplicity and separation is not the past. It is the present, the today they have chosen to live, an island of peace amidst chaos. In Thomas Gingerich’s steady, kind eyes is an understanding of the world that is just up the road, and a deliberate, uncondemning decision to not be a part of it.

“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world,” Gingerich quotes quietly from scripture.

“Jesus, when he walked this earth, he didn’t have all that this world had to offer back then, either,” the bearded man behind the counter says, his voice slow, gentle, serene. “He didn’t have even a home of his own.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.