I Was a Teenage Shaker

Sprigg’s has written ten books, organized a major exhibition on Shaker design and served as curator of collections

Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration. It's not as if I wanted to join the Shakers, or that they would have accepted me, even if I could have joined. By the summer of 1972, the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire, had long since closed their doors to converts, figuring that it wouldn't do for a young hopeful to enter a celibate, religious community that now consisted of a half dozen old ladies on the decline.

I did live with them, however, for three sweet summers half my lifetime ago. The bond we formed in that first summer led to a friendship that lasted through the next twenty years—as long as they lived. My summer job as a tour guide through the museum part of the village was what had brought me there, but it proved to be the least important aspect of my service.

I was a girl, and these celibate Sisters had spent their young and middle lives caring for girls like me. Brought to communal Shaker villages themselves when their own families had fallen asunder, the Shakers I knew had chosen to spend their lives in the faith when they grew up in spite of the cost—no marriage, no sexual expression, no children of their own. As they grew to womanhood, their motherly hearts found reward in the care of girls.

So when I came and showed enthusiasm for Shaker history and affection for the Sisters, I entered a place in the heart already prepared, although I didn't realize it at the time. I was just glad that they liked me.

At nineteen, like most young people, I felt bewildered by my passage from childhood to adulthood. Overnight, I was an adult, more or less. I could drive, vote, and do all the things that adults did, for better or for worse. But I didn't know who or what to trust. My peers said, "Don't trust anyone over thirty," and I could understand that. The rules handed to me were from another era. They may have worked for Mom in the 1940s or Grandma in the 1920s, but they didn't fit my world. On the other hand some of my generation were going off the deep end with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I wasn't sure they were so trustworthy either.

By 1972, two years of college had taught me everything from books, but little about life. At nineteen I was half in and half out of the egg, older than my years in some ways, younger in others. I had learned how to work hard and how to play hard, how to swear, and how to drink. But I was more baffled than ever about the single thing that mattered most; how to become an adult, to live at peace with myself and with others, and to live decently and remain undiscouraged in a dirty old world.

I had a long way to go.

That summer with the Shakers gave me something to trust. It's not why I went, and it was the last thing I expected. Who would have thought that a handful of little old ladies who belonged to an offbeat religious sect could make sense to a teenager like me? I could not have explained why at that time, but I knew without question that I hungered for teachers and that they had to be women and old. Why women? Well, how else could I learn to become a woman myself?

The snapshots and memories of nearly thirty summers have faded since my first days with the Shakers, but the days with my six "extra grandmothers" remain brilliantly clear. Sister Lillian Phelps at 96 was the oldest and the spiritual axis of the group. That summer, she celebrated the 80th anniversary of her years with the Shakers. At 16, she had surprised her family and perhaps herself with the decision to stay on with the community after her own first summer visit.

Lillian's dearest companion was Bertha Lindsay, newly elevated my first summer from simple Kitchen Sister to Eldress. Bertha became my own dearest Shaker friend as time passed. Orphaned at four, brought to the community at seven, she had found in Lillian a lifelong mother, sister, and friend. In the hospitality department, Bertha was Canterbury's Martha Stewart, if you can imagine Martha at 74 and as kindly as a Disney fairy godmother. Bertha continued to feed us in handsome Shaker style while shouldering the considerable new responsibilities of leadership. If you want a taste of her table, read Seasoned with Grace: My Generation of Shaker Cooking, which she wrote near the end of her long life. For a glimpse of her soul, watch The Shakers by Ken Burns, who has aptly recognized her as one of America's great spiritual leaders.

That summer, Maine's Eldress Gertrude Soule became Bertha's sidekick. Short, ramrod straight, and tart as a green Maine apple, she was to spend the rest of her life at Canterbury, delighting friends and visitors with her generous heart and delicious malapropisms. (When she wanted the car to speed up, she urged the driver to step on the "exhilarator." Reading about the Great Pyramids of Giza, she asked if there were just one "fink" in ancient Egypt.) When she was 82, Gertrude rushed across the road to my room and fearlessly climbed on a chair to rescue the bat that had sent me gibbering. She released it tenderly, of course.

The other three Sisters remain warm and strong in my mind and heart, too—Miriam Wall, the world's most diehard Red Sox fan; Alice Howland, by this time, a sweet, faded rose; and Ethel Hudson, Canterbury's leading (and in fact sole) devotee of The Tonight Show and Shakerdom's own "material girl" and slightly rebellious spirit.

They were human beings, not impossibly perfect saints, and that made all the difference. Doing unto others as I would have them do unto me didn't mean I had to be perfect, or a Goody Two-Shoes, thank God. I could be my own real self. In fact, God wanted me to be my own real self. All I needed was to keep in mind that kindness is never a mistake, that we all make mistakes, and that forgiveness is the key. The heart of the Shaker way was so powerful that I knew I was onto something big within my first week at Canterbury. I could sense a door opening to hope. Maybe I could find a wise and safe way to maturity. By the end of the first summer, it was clear what I'd found: a North Star at last. If I didn't always know exactly where I was going, or got lost and wandered off the path, at least I'd know which way I wanted to turn.

I hadn't gone looking for that. It was a gift.

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