An Atheist Son’s Tribute to His Mechanized Amish Mother

“You’re the best mom in the whole world!”

That declamation burst from my lips many, many times when I was a child. Framing my early years were a father whose own childhood left him violence prone and incapable of bonding, and a benighted religious sect that was hidebound to the past. I remember these words coming across the pulpit: “The word fun does not appear in the Bible.” As a teen I read the King James version (the only “true” one) straight through from Genesis 1 to Revelations 22.


With countless spot readings.

Sure enough, no fun.

I grew up in a tiny world in which the steady drip of sacred scripture, like a Western version of Chinese water torture, taught us God’s rules:

Judgment: “Judgment is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” God knew ahead of time which of those among his creation would end up in hell. He created them anyway. Why? Because he loved them?

God knew ahead of time which of those among his creation would die in horrible ways, sometimes as babies. He created them anyway, and watched as they suffered. For what sins were they judged? We even sang a hymn at children’s funerals about God wanting them for little angels.


That wacky God.

Such a kidder.

Denial: “Wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat.”

I heard on the radio that there was a ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ but also a ‘Highway to Hell.’ I desired pretty girls and rock ‘n’ roll. God preferred chastity and country western. He could keep his stairway. I chose the route with the heavy traffic.

My mother, despite all, believed that we had been born into the group that, of all others, was “closest to God.” Imagine our stunning good fortune! She was joyful in her service to her Lord, unquestioning, fun loving, socially adept, and mischievous. She was my rock, and I clung to her when my father and the church shifted the ground beneath me.

I was fourteen when my father hit me for the last time. I had “sassed back,” and his hand moved faster than I could duck. In the face, as always. The difference this time was that he did it in front of one of my friends. My masculinity was challenged. I dropped my foot back and made a tight fist. He saw in my eyes that if he hit me again I would punch him with everything I had. That night my father’s violence ended.

In mid-life Dad had an awakening. He tearfully and repeatedly apologized to Mom and me. We forgave him, and for the rest of his life he was a devoted husband who my mother came to love. And he became my most ardent champion. We enjoyed father/son closeness for many years.

He preceded Mom in death, and losing him began her decline, which continued relentlessly for two horrible years, until finally her body acquiesced at age 94. She weighed 73 pounds.

As a child, sick in the middle of the night, I healed as Mom sat patiently at my bedside, holding my hand and caressing my forehead. When that wasn’t enough and we had to go to the doctor, she insisted on pills, not shots. Not the best health practice, but I loved her for it.

One day in eighth grade I brought a squirt gun to science class. I felt that perhaps it was prudent to squirt the teacher in the fly from under my desk as he walked back and forth past my desk. Because his pants were baggy, I tallied several handsome shots before he noticed. Regrettably, this accomplishment followed a string of others, and I was suspended from school. My poor, embarrassed mother talked the principal into giving her wayward son a second chance. She never told my father, knowing what the consequences could be, so I watched her bear her disappointment alone. I never got kicked out of school again.

Her funeral meant a return to a life I had inwardly rejected at age nineteen, but on the outside, only in my thirties. Why the gap? Because I knew it would break her heart.

I was right. When she found out, I began to receive letters like this one:

Dear Denny,
It’s 4:00 AM. I’ve been up all night praying for you. Please read your Bible. Come back to Jesus. I want us all to be together in heaven.
I love you.

My eyes swell with tears as I type these words.

There could never be a return to the Mechanized Amish on a spiritual level, but when Mom died, I of course returned to pay my respects. I found a group that has softened. They emphasize love more and judgment less. Their warmth toward me touched my heart. The service was what she wanted it to be. I cried throughout. The next day my people and I parted, perhaps for the last time, but in peace.

As I scan my memories of the people who populated my childhood, my mother emerges as the only one who made me feel loved. She was my rock, and I simply adored her.