He understood that men were forever strangers
to one another, that no one ever comes to really
know another, that, imprisoned in the dark womb
of our mother, we come to life, without having
seen her face…
The day was rolling right along, like any other day last week. And the phone rang again. Around midmorning, I think it was. Rosita answered, then beeped me. “An Amish guy asked for you.” Which is not unusual at all. I deal with lots of Amish builders, so an Amish guy asks for me a few times every day. I took the call. Hello, this is Ira. “Ira?” the man asked. A high, kind of squeaky voice. Definitely sounded Amish. Yes, I said. Yes, that’s me. “It’s good to speak with you,” he said in PA Dutch. “I’ve been wanting to chat with you for a while.” And he settled in to tell me how he knew who I was.
He was from down south, from the Peach Bottom area, he told me. Oh, my, I thought. A South-Ender. What in the world is he calling me for? I mean, those people are pretty much hard-core Amish. I don’t have a whole lot of connections down there, in the south end. I wasn’t sure about it all, but I thought to myself. This cannot possibly be a good thing. Still. I smiled as I spoke to the man, on the phone. What can I do for you?
And he told me. He had found my book at a yard sale a few months back. Oh, my, I thought again. My book at a yard sale? What’s the world coming to, that my book is at a yard sale? And local, yet? Good grief. He probably got it for a quarter. My book, speaking blood to blood, and heart to heart. It’s been four years. I guess it’s natural, that it shows up at local yard sales. It kind of freaks me out, though.
And the man rambled on, still in flawless blue-blood PA Dutch. He had read the book. Yes? I asked. And what did you think of it? Next thing you know, he’s gonna ask me if I’m in the ban, if I’m excommunicated. That’s always one of the first questions the South-Enders ask. They want to make sure I’m not a heathen. But surprisingly enough, he didn’t go there. He didn’t ask that. He hedged a little. “Well, I read it all the way through, that’s for sure,” he said. “And I have a few questions for you. Would you come around to see me some evening, so we can talk?”
And now it was my turn to hedge. He was from the south end. They’re real conservative, down there. More hard core. And way more strict. I mean, you’re talking about Lancaster County blue-bloods, the way all the blue-bloods used to be, way back. That’s what the south end is. I groaned a little bit inside, thinking of it. This is all I need, some Inquisitor from the south end, harassing me about my book. I’ve never made a habit of wandering into the lion’s den the south end can be. It’s just better, not to tempt things. Not to venture in to places where you know they’re waiting to trap you, places where the conversation can only spiral down.
I mean, I’ve fought all those battles before, over the years. Tried to defend, tried to explain, tried to excuse. It does no good, any such talk. It never did any good. It just made your interrogators feel all the more smug, seeing you squirm. And I remember, back in the 1990s, when I went back home to visit over Christmas. I was done, making excuses. Done defending my choices. And I told my brothers, Stephen and Titus. I’m not Plain anymore at all. I reject all forms of Plainness. Sure, if you want to live that way, I’m fine with it. I’m fine with how you live. That’s your choice. But I am completely English. And I lingered over those words, and savored them, as they came out. I am completely, completely English. And no one was ever gonna see me all squeamish about it. I don’t care if you judge me, or reject me, even. I am who I am.
Somehow, this South-End guy stirred up all those latent memories in me, just from his short phone call. And I steeled myself against him. I just don’t need that baggage. And I’ll never travel with such baggage again, if I can help it. I will not do it. I will not defend the choices I made, way back, to any Amish man hunting me down. This guy was knocking on doors I had not opened in a long, long time. He was real tricky, I thought. He wanted me to come down to where he was, to talk about my book, and what I had written. I recoiled, ever so slightly, on the phone, as all these thoughts and memories flashed back through my mind. But I talked back at him, real polite like. And all in PA Dutch.
Ah, I don’t know, I told him. What kinds of questions do you have in mind? He seemed a little evasive. “Oh, just some questions, some thoughts and such,” he said, still talking PA Dutch. It had been a while since I’d held an extended conversation with any Amish person in PA Dutch. I didn’t struggle to keep up, though. Not much. I grappled a little, to grasp his words, what he was saying, sometimes. But mostly, I ran right along with him. And I told him. Nah, I don’t think I’ll make it down there. It’s pretty far. You know where I work. You are welcome to stop in sometime and ask me any questions you have a mind to.
He seemed a little disappointed, but he took it OK. “Ah, well,” he said. “I would have liked to visit with you in person. You are welcome to stop by anytime.” I hear that, I said. And you’re welcome to stop by here, too, whenever you’re in the area. We could do lunch, if you stopped by. A vague silence beamed back at me. And then we said so long and hung up.
And I mulled it over, some, the rest of the day. Thought about the guy. He had not sounded all that hostile, really. Maybe he wouldn’t have chewed me out. And I thought, too. If my book moved him enough to where he actually reached out to me like he did, maybe he was looking for a way out. I doubted that, but still. You never know. Seemed to me if that were actually the case, the man could have at least briefly mentioned as much. And I thought, nah. Follow your instincts on these things. You’ve been around plenty of Amish people who did not appreciate your book. And chances are this guy from the south end was one of those people. No sense, tempting things, by walkinging into places you shouldn’t.
I didn’t have to wonder long about it all, though. Because the very next day, the next afternoon, the phone rang again. And Rosita beeped me again. “It’s that same Amish guy, from down south,” she told me. Well, I thought. This is interesting. I’ll feel it out a little more thoroughly today, to see where the guy’s coming from. And I spoke. This is Ira.
It was the same guy, all right. Speaking in PA Dutch again. He’d been thinking, he told me. Since I wouldn’t come down to his place, he figured he’d just call me with a few questions. Sure, I said. Go right ahead. What do you want to ask me?
The thing is, I got no fight inside me, when it comes to religious confrontation. Not about things like this. I am where I am. I want to be left alone. I want to walk in peace. So it was a bit of a step out for me, to tell the guy to ask me what he wants. I’m here. I’m open. Give me your question.
And I could feel him squirming a little, over the phone. He hemmed and hawed and cleared his throat. This is a real production, I thought to myself. Then he asked the question that had pressed him to call me twice in two days. The question that burdened his heart.
“Do you still feel the same as you did at the end of the book, or are there some things that would change if you wrote it today?”
That was the question he asked. The question he wanted me to talk about, face to face, down there in the south end. And I felt the vibes. This man is not attacking you. He honestly wants to know. He’s called you twice, now. That takes more than a little nerve, to be that persistent. So at least treat him respectfully.
I chuckled. No, I said. I would not change any of the story, if I wrote it again today. “You wouldn’t?” he asked. No, I said again. It’s just my story. I don’t know why I would want to change anything. I mean, I wrote what happened. Why would my writing of it change, today? Oooh. He hadn’t quite thought of that, he admitted. We settled in, then, and just talked. Or visited, as my father would say. We just visited.
How old are you? I asked him. He told me and it’s just a few years younger than me. Children? I asked. Are any of them married? His oldest daughter is married, yes, he told me.
We talked then, about the Amish in general, and I didn’t feel hostility from him at all. Just curiosity, and general interest. He said “Unsere Leit” a lot. Our people. Our people are this and our people do that. It seemed like he included me in the phrase.
And then he asked. “Do you know what I found really sad in your book?” No, what? I asked. “The fact that you were in your mid-twenties before you ever felt you could talk to God,” he said. “It seems like we could do better, our people, so our young people don’t ever get as lost as that.” Yeah, I said. It was a pretty brutal road. But I don’t hold anything against anybody, from here, from where I am today. It’s just what happened. It’s just my story.
And we chatted, then, about other things. He told me a bit about himself. He’s been knocked around a good deal, in life. He told me a little bit about his children. And then he paused, all of a sudden. When he spoke, there was a catch in his voice. And he just kind of slid it in, sideways.
“Last year my youngest boy got killed in an accident. He was eight.” He spoke the words softly. I recoiled instantly, in empathy and sorrow.
Ah, man, I am so sorry, I said. How did it happen? And he told me. It happened out in the fields. (No actual details, for the man’s protection) I’m so sorry, I said again. No parents should ever have to bury their eight-year-old son. I don’t care what the circumstances are. I’m so sorry you lost your young son. It had to be hard. It still has to be hard.
“Yes,” he said. “It was. And it is.” And we kind of wound things down, then. I needed to get back to work, I told him gently. He invited me to stop by, again. Some evening, just to talk. I heard him way more clearly than I did the first time. But still. I hedged. You know where I work, I told him. Stop by sometime when you’re around and we’ll go for lunch. He allowed that such a thing might be possible. He told me. He had my office number. He wanted to give me his phone shack number. Down south, I think they still have phone shacks. He gave me the number. And I wrote it down.
“Call sometime,” he said, almost wistfully. You never know, I said. I might.
And that was about all there was to say.
It’s been a while. So a little update, here, on my sister Maggie. I wrote back in early June of how she was diagnosed with stage four cancer throughout her body. Well, in her colon, liver, and lungs, anyway. The family gathered around her, went down to her home in South Carolina to see her. Eventually, I think, we all got there to see our sister.
And things just kind of drifted along. Maggie was on some kind of natural regimen. And she seemed to be doing fairly well. Some pain, of course, from all those lumps, from all that cancer spread throughout her body. And the blood clots, too. There was an exceptionally large clot in her right thigh. She faithfully soaked it multiple times a day with some sort of treatment mixed in hot water. She stayed pretty weak and could not get her blood counts up to normal levels, or gain weight. But despite all that, she was still up and about and staying real busy.
And life just went on. Dorothy, her oldest daughter, stayed for about a month or so, to take care of her Mom. And then she took her children and returned home to Kalona, Iowa. And Maggie kept on taking her natural stuff, all while getting her blood checked weekly. And the test results were always steady. No one quite knew what all that meant. But it was good news, it was life, we figured, if she was holding steady. And the days drifted into weeks, then months.
Eventually, the family decided it would be good for Maggie to go back to a doctor for a second opinion, and take the follow up tests required, to see exactly where the cancer was. This happened a few months ago.
When the results for the MRI came back, the doctor said the cancer was pretty much isolated to the large tumor in her colon. They planned to remove the surrounding lymph nodes and her appendix. And yes, there were a lot of cysts that they needed to check out, as the first tests had revealed. But if the cancer was actually isolated, there was a real simple procedure to go in and get it. By incision. They wouldn’t even have to cut her open, or anything. We were all pretty shocked. And we all rejoiced.
The Lord still works in mysterious ways, I guess. Last week Maggie went in for her surgery. All went exactly as the doctor had told the family. He went in and removed the cancerous lump from Maggie’s colon, along with the lymph nodes, and the appendix. And then they checked out all those lymph nodes, and her liver. There was a decent chance some of them would be cancerous. And the results came back, a few days later. The lymph nodes were clear, and the liver is clear. All the blood tests were improving. The doctor felt like he had removed all the cancer. But he can’t pronounce her cancer-free until follow-up check-ups are completed. It truly was an astounding thing to see, to experience as an extended family.
Maggie was released from the hospital just a few days ago. And she returned to her home. She’s in a good bit of pain, still, but that’s to be expected, I guess. She rejoices that one of her heart’s greatest desires may now well be fulfilled. She so longed to see her grandchildren grow. To enjoy them in their childhoods, and to see them grow into adulthood.
So that’s how things stand today. I thank all of my readers who took a few minutes here and there over the last few months to pray for Maggie. Thank you. We rejoice in life and light, when we expected to be weeping in the darkness. That much is true, and Maggie’s journey is a miracle to us all.
As she walks into the future, I’m sure Maggie would appreciate any prayers any of y’all would care to present to the Lord on her behalf.
Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?
Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?
Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?
I’m not really sure where to start with all this. I figured to be writing all about Beach Week, right here. And how my soul got all rested up, out there by the sea. I never know, of course, from one blog to the next, exactly what words will come. You think you got it all mapped out, and then life comes knocking around. I’ve said it before. You just write from where you are, wherever that is. Well, you do when you can, anyway. Sometimes you can’t. And when you can’t, you don’t.
And I was pretty much locked in, that Friday morning a few weeks back. September 11th, come to think of it. I mean, that’s a big day, what with all the talk going on about 9/11, and how we must never forget. I remembered where I was, that morning in 2001, and I always think of it. But on this 9/11, I was pretty busy at work. Tomorrow I was leaving, heading out for Beach Week. And this year, I gotta say, I was way more ambivalent at seeing it come than I’ve ever been before. Not that I wasn’t looking forward to it, all the way. I was. But I’ve seen this day, a bunch of times now. You know what’s coming. And you anticipate it. It’s more of a quiet thing, that you feel deep inside. And all that is OK. Quiet anticipation is a good thing.
All that to say, I was looking forward to Beach Week coming right up, that Friday morning. And every year, there’s always that thought way up there in the back of my head. Something’s gonna come along, and make Beach Week not happen. It’s the latent dread we all store, way down there in the caverns of our hearts, when any good thing approaches. Something’s gonna come along, something that’s gonna affect my time by the sea.
And the text came sliding in, right at mid morning. From my sister, Rachel. If anyone knows what’s going on, anywhere, she does. But I was a little perplexed at her message. “Are you going to the funeral?” Well. Are you speaking in riddles now? I thought. What do you mean, am I going to the funeral? And I scrolled up to see our past messages, just in case I had missed something. There was nothing, really, except some Yoder matriarch I never knew had passed away, back in Bloomfield. But that was days ago. So I texted back. What funeral?
Rachel texted right back. “Adin Yutzy died this morning.”
And I stared at her message. Adin Yutzy. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned his name before, here on my blog. I’ve talked about who he was, as Ellen’s father, in a few real old blogs. The bottom line is, Adin Yutzy was the only father-in-law I’ve ever known. For seven short years he was that. And then he wasn’t, because our world blew up, Ellen’s and mine. But still, there was a window there, when I knew who he was, and I talked to him. There were hard things, looking back. The man could have been a twin to Dad, when it came to cutting off his “wayward” children, when it came to incessantly admonishing them about how sinful they were living. That much cannot be denied, when you look at what I saw when I was married to Ellen. But there were strong and beautiful things, too, in his life. Just like there are strong and beautiful things in Dad’s.
And my first thought was, I’ll call Ellen. We don’t communicate much these days at all, but things are amicable between us. I thought back to when Mom died last year, and how Ellen had messaged me her condolences. And she had told me. “I promised you I would attend your Mom’s funeral with you, if you need someone to go with you. Do you need me to come?” And I marveled at her message. She had remembered. When things were blowing up, I had told her. I got no one to go with me to Mom’s funeral. And she had promised. “I will come, if you want me to.” And now, she was offering. I was touched. But I felt her presence at Mom’s funeral would be about as disruptive as my presence would be at her Dad’s. So I told her. Thank you. I release you from that promise. I really appreciate that you remembered, though. I will be alright. Janice will be there, and she’ll be with me, if I need someone to walk with. So that’s how we left it, back then. And when I got home from the funeral, a beautiful card arrived with hand-written notes of sympathy from both Ellen and her husband, Tim.
I called her, and she answered. I spoke her name and she spoke mine. I offered my condolences. The words we shared will remain between us. For a moment, we cried a little bit together. I told her I’d be thinking of her and her family in the coming days, and we hung up. It all seemed a little surreal.
Later that day, I talked to my brother Steve, like I do every day at the office. He’s a builder, and I’m his supplier. So we chat, usually several times a day. And I called him. Did you hear Adin died? I asked. “Yes, I heard,” he said. And he asked the same question Rachel had asked. “Are you going to the funeral?”
Nah, I said. It’s been eight years, since Ellen and I divorced. I haven’t had any contact with her parents during that time at all. So, no. I just called Ellen, and we talked for a few minutes. And I’ll call Paul, too, her brother. I feel like that would be all that anyone would expect of me. It would stir things up too much, if I showed up for the funeral. Steve agreed, or at least grunted assent. Are you and Wilma going? I asked. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Adin is her uncle. We’ll definitely go.” Pass on my regards to the family, if you get a chance to do so, I said. And we left it at that.
And that evening after work, I went home and packed. Tomorrow morning, I’d pick up Wilm, and we’d be off. It was my turn to take Big Blue this year. I took him to the garage recently, had him all checked out. My truck is getting old, just like I am. Eight years, and 128,000 miles. I look at all that time and all those miles. And I figure I’ll run my truck until it won’t run anymore. It should be good for a few more Beach Weeks.
The next morning, I was loaded up by 6:30, and heading over to Wilm’s. I just have luggage. She has luggage, and lots of other things. A half dozen large floppy hats. Boxes of baked goods, and flat crates of ripe tomatoes. I piled and stacked it all carefully on the back seat and floor of my truck. Only one box was relegated to the open bed in the back. And by seven, we were off. Beach Week, 2015, here we come.
We travel well together, Wilm and me. We chat some. Mostly, she reads a book or something. And on the road, we have the same focus. Just get to where you’re going. Don’t lollygag around. Stop for gas and restroom breaks, and grab a snack. But just keep moving. And we talked that morning about Adin, Ellen’s Dad. Wilm and Ellen are close friends, have been for years. I’m not sure if Wilm ever met Ellen’s parents. But anyway, we talked about it, about his passing. And the funeral.
And I thought back, as our conversation lagged into silence. Back to those seven years, when I had a real father-in-law. Adin and my Dad had a lot in common. Dad came from a hard core Amish place. And Adin came from an even harder core Plain Mennonite/Beachy place. And I remember our wedding day, down in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, back in 2000. Some of my siblings came. Some of Ellen’s came, too. But none of our parents did. I’ve written it before, and this is not an excuse for how things went later. Our parents would not attend our wedding. And they would not bless our union. I’ve always felt that the lack of their presence, the absence of their blessings, actually amounted to a curse.
Adin was always cordial to me. And Fanny (Ellen’s Mom) was always beaming and so gracious. It never was her choice, to reject any child for any reason. She loved them all, and she grieved the loss any of relationship with any child. Just like my Mom always loved all her children, regardless, and always welcomed us home. They were very alike, Mom and Fanny, when it came to their husbands and their children.
I remember a trip we took, Ellen and me, a few years after our marriage. To Bloomfield first, then on down south to Grandin, Missouri. Ellen’s home stomping grounds. Her home farm, her home place. We stayed there with Adin and Fanny for a few days. And I have good memories about it. Adin smiled and was all cordial. A seasoned, old-time realtor, he drove me around the neighborhood, pointing out properties, telling me stories of this and that. I never felt a bit of tension during our stay in that home.
Big Blue pulsed along, on and on, ever further south. I grumbled to Wilm about my GPS. I don’t trust it. Every year, it tries to take me down different roads. And on and on we went. South through Delaware. Maryland. Virginia. Soon, the Bridge Tunnel was coming up. I pulled up and handed the man his thirteen bucks. I’d like a receipt for that, I told him. An older guy, he smiled pleasantly at me. “I’ll be happy to give you a receipt, if you give me two more dollars,” he said. “It’s the weekend rate, I guess.” I fished around for the money. Y’all are ripping me off, I grumbled at the guy. He just kept smiling, took my money, and handed me my precious receipt.
From the Bridge Tunnel, you close in pretty fast, to the Outer Banks. The Saturday traffic roiled and rolled about us. And by 2:30 or so, we were pulling in to Awful Arthur’s, our usual meeting place. Janice and Brian and Melanie were already there, waiting for us. We greeted each other with hugs and laughter. And we all got a table downstairs and just chilled out. This was the magical moment, the magical beginning of a new week. Beach Week. There is no feeling like arriving, knowing that there’s a full week ahead of you of doing nothing that you don’t want to do.
We set out then, for the house. After last year’s new lemon, Janice located another fine mansion twenty miles north, in Corolla. We plugged along in the two-lane traffic. Through Duck, then on. And finally Brian pulled into the development where it stood, the beach house. This one was big, really big, and kind of plain, set up like a square box. The one redeeming factor: the house had a wide deck on three sides, on three stories. We unloaded, then, and I found a real nice bedroom off in a corner of the second floor. And then it was upstairs, unpacking boxes of food and many bottles of wine and whiskey. The girls soon headed to the grocery store for basic supplies. I set up my laptop at the far end of the long table in the dining room. I figured to get a little writing done in the coming days. And I stepped out onto the porch, too, there on the third floor. Less than 300 feet away, the waves crashed and roiled. I breathed in the salt air, deep inside. This was it. This was the time.
And late that afternoon, all the others arrived. Steven and Evonda. Fred and Melissa. Sam Thomas. BJ and Ashley. And Brandon, who joined us last year. We all assembled in the kitchen and sat around and just caught up. There was lots of boisterous shouting. And a few toasts with shots of good quality bourbon. A few of us had not seen each other since last year’s Beach Week.
It always gets real relaxed, the first night at Beach Week. It’s the first night. No formal meal is served. Everyone just snacks on cold cuts and cheese and whatever else there is. Fred hung a string of ltittle box lights out on the porch. And after dark, we all assembled outside on the third floor porch, like we always do, there at Beach Week. Assembled and just talked. It was a loud and merry time. There’s not a whole lot that is off limits, when it comes to the conversations that go on there. We could solve the world’s problems, we figure, if people only had the sense to listen to us.
It got late. And at some point, I found myself seated by the kitchen bar, across from my nephew, Steven. Maggie’s only son. He and Evonda are getting married this very weekend, in a totally private family ceremony. They plan a more public reception next June, sometime. They’ve been together as a couple for many years, and I’m very happy for them. Anyway, Steven and I sat there and discussed a few things. We’d had a few, well, more than a few. And we got all somber, in our talk.
And we talked about the Wagler blood, the extended family, and the traits and tendencies of each branch. Rosemary, my oldest sister, married Joe Gascho. A unique mixture of blood, right there. Wagler and Gascho. Then Maggie, Steven’s Mom, married Ray Marner, one of the calmest and most laid-back personalities you’ll ever meet, anywhere. Joseph married Ive Mae Hochstetler. Again, she comes from very calm blood. The Hochstetler blood calmed the wild and unruly Wagler blood a great deal, I claim. Jesse married Lynda Stoll. Straight Daviess blood, both of them were. I think the Stoll blood runs a little wilder and a little stranger than even the Wagler’s, if that’s possible. And every single one of my other married siblings crossed into the Yutzy blood. Every single one. Naomi married Alvin. Rachel married Lester. Stephen married Wilma. Titus married Ruth. And Rhoda married Marvin.
We talked about it, the wildness and the strangeness of a clan like that. I have fifty-nine nieces and nephews. And mostly, they all get along. Sure, you wouldn’t want them all living in the same community, or anything like that. But they all get along tolerably well, and that’s more than most extended clans like that can claim.
Steven and I sat there in the kitchen. Outside, the others all were still talking and laughing loud. It was getting late. We talked about a few other things, too, things I don’t really feel like telling here. Except he told me solemnly, in response to a rant I kept repeating relentlessly, about how someone had wronged me, had hurt me bad, had yanked me around. I mean, I was in my cups in a real way. Steven spoke to me, in my cups. And he spoke truth.
“You Waglers hold onto hard, hurtful things for a long, long time. It’s one of those traits that you have.” He wasn’t scolding me, just telling me. Well, maybe he was scolding me a little bit. Yeah, I know, I said. I know I hold on to wounds a lot longer than I would ever need to. I’m not quite sure what to do about it.
I drooped then, and settled over onto the couch. Sat there and fell fast asleep. Outside, the party was still rolling right along. I have vague memories of someone shaking me, telling me it’s time to go to bed. Then that someone took me by the hand and gently led me to the door of my bedroom. It was very late. I fell onto the bed and instantly slid into a deep dreamless sleep.
Sunday morning. I got up late, after ten, and shuffled upstairs to find some coffee and some food. My head didn’t hurt too badly from the night before, surprisingly. I stumbled about, feeding my face. The girls were sitting around. I glanced out to the ocean. The guys were already out there, standing in the surf, fishing lines strung out. After coffee, I got into Big Blue and drove the five miles to the Tackle shop, where I bought my fishing license for the week. Then I returned and walked out to the beach to join the others. Today, they were just shore fishing, looked like.
They had not rigged up their shark lines, Steven and Brandon. But I saw their tackle, back at the house. Some serious, heavy stuff. Shark hunters, is what those two guys are. Since last year, they have refined their craft. They actually know what they are doing, I would see that soon enough. But today, on this Sunday, we all just fished for the small stuff, right off the shore. I pulled in a few tiny ones, too small to keep. And after an hour or so, I headed back in. This year, for some reason, the small fry fishing just didn’t tug that hard on me. So I didn’t do much of it.
And I thought of it a few times that day. They would all be together now, Adin’s children. Up there in Ohio, in the little community Adin and Fanny had moved to, oh, around five years ago, if I remember right. They had lived in Grandin, Missouri, for decades and decades. Raised their family there. I guess Adin kind of retired, so they moved out east to where their daughter Sue lived with her family, in Logan, Ohio. And that’s where the man would be buried.
They had come from all around, the children. They’re about as scattered as my family is. Paul and John and Arlene and their families live just out west of me here, up in Lebanon. I have kept cordial relationships with all of them, especially Paul. He and I never had any issues, back in those terrible days when my world was blowing up. He always made a point to keep in touch, to invite me to his gatherings. Vernon lives out in Oklahoma somewhere, if I remember right. I only ever saw that man once, and that was at my wedding. He walked Ellen down the aisle, and when the preacher man asked who gives this woman to be married, Vernon spoke for all his siblings who were present. “Her family and I do.” And Glen is an auctioneer, out somewhere in Missouri. The only one of all of Adin’s sons that I never met. I don’t know how that happened. It sure wasn’t planned, on my part. I guess we just never were at the same place at the same time. And Andrew, Ellen’s younger brother, he was there, too. And Sue, and her husband, Tony.
They were all gathered as a family to bury the patriarch of their clan. I wondered how long it had been since they had all been together in one place. It couldn’t have been forty-plus years, like it had been for my family as we stood around our mother’s coffin. But I figured it had been some time. I don’t know that. I’m just surmising, here.
And I remember the good things Ellen always spoke about her father. And Paul, too. They spoke almost in awe of who their father was, at least at times they did. He worked hard, and he taught his children to work hard. I remember Ellen telling me of how her Dad took her deer hunting, when she was just a young teenage girl. And how proud he was, when she shot a real nice buck. And how proud she was, that he was proud of her. He was a worker, and he was a provider. That was all very clear, from all I’ve ever heard spoken of the man.
One of the man’s most enduring legacies came from the most unlikely of places. Adin Yutzy was one of the three defendants in the 1972 landmark legal case, Wisconsin v. Yoder. Where the supreme court ruled that the Amish have the right to have their own schools, and, more importantly, have the right to not send their children to high school. It was a huge deal then, and it still is. Practically all of the homeschooling movement emerged from the aftershocks of that case. I have always admired the man tremendously for having the backbone to simply stand up to the state. To tell the king. I will not bow down. I will not obey. It takes a strong and courageous man to speak truth to power, like Adin did.
And then there was another side, of course. There always is, seems like. The side that I saw, through Ellen. I don’t remember quite what year it was. Probably around 2004 or so. We had gone through a tough period, in our marriage. And for the first time ever, we both went to counseling. It was good stuff, what our counselor friend Sam told us, and taught us. And Ellen and I reconciled, after six months of separation, back in 2003. The thing the counseling did, it woke up a deep calling, a deep yearning inside both of us. We wanted to hear our fathers’ voices, spoken over us as a blessing. I wanted to hear that from Dad. And Ellen deeply, deeply yearned to hear words of affirmation, words of acceptance, from her father.
Sam warned us. It’s always a risk, to reach out. Especially to our fathers. They are set in their ways. And no, that doesn’t make them evil. It just makes them hard of hearing. They don’t understand that language. Can’t comprehend it. It’s a huge risk, to tell your Dad you love him. It’s a huge risk, to ask your father for a blessing. And to me, it all sounded so strange. To me, it wasn’t about risk. It was about sheer impossibility. Why would I ever tell my father I loved him? And why, in my wildest dreams, would I ever remotely believe that he will ever bless me?
Ellen was all about risk, though. That’s how she lived. And this is one of the most poignant memories I have of our time together, the memory of how she tried to reach out to her father. She wrote to him, late that summer. I can’t recall the exact year. But I remember the seasons. She wrote to him honestly, her memories of who he was and how he had always protected her. The things he had taught her, and how she cherished all of those things. She wrote of how she loved him. And at the end, she asked. Can I come home this fall and go hunting deer with you? I would love to do that.
I wanted it to all work out. But coming from where I came from, I pretty much knew it wouldn’t. And it didn’t. It was a brutal, brutal thing to see. I held her as she wept and wept. She wrote to him a few more times. Pleading for acceptance, pleading for, well, pleading for the unconditional love only a father can give. All to no avail. And eventually, her pleading subsided. Her weeping subsided, too. Until she didn’t weep any more at all.
There are so many parallels, between who Adin was and who my father was. Except my father lived long enough, to where the fires of rejecting his “worldly” children burned out in him. He simply got too old, too weary, to fight the battles that defined so much of his life.
That night, we had our first formal meal, around the table. Tilapia (a fancy name for fish), rice, and mango salsa. And wine, of course. It’s such a mishmash of people, but we all gather, every night, for the meal. The first time is always special. As the aging patriarch, I get to pray the blessing before each meal. We all hold hands, around the table. And I always manage to stammer out a few words of gratitude. No words can ever express the real gratitude in my heart. But the Lord knows that. I think He hears what I really mean to say.
Monday. This would be a big day. (And I’ve got to wind this blog down.) The shark hunters set up early. Steven and Brandon. They had it figured out, this year. They had done the research, and they had fished the beaches closer to where they lived. And now, they were here, at Beach Week. They had all the equipment. The short, stiff trolling rods. The huge reels with 80-lb. line, with a large crank handle. They set it all up like they had last year. Except this year, they actually knew what they were doing.
They brought two kayaks, to the beach. Sea kayaks. They baited their hooks with real whole fish, bait bought from the Tackle shop. The rods stayed on shore, usually nursed along by Steven. Brandon boarded a kayak. Two baited hooks were stored behind him, in a little plastic basket. And he set out, with his little double oar. Rolled right along, into the waves. And he rowed and rowed. About 500 yards out, he stopped, and looked back. Steven stood there, with his hands raised. That’s far enough. And Brandon dropped one of those baited hooks. And then rowed off to the right, another hundred yards. Then dropped the second baited hook. And then he paddled hard, to get back to shore.
And Brandon pulled in a shark, early that Monday morning. Way before I ever got out there. I hollered at them, though. This is early in the week. Can’t we butcher a shark? I’d love me some shark steak. Both Brandon and Steven looked at me kind of strange. I couldn’t figure out why, right then. I would, though, soon enough.
And late that morning, Brandon snagged another shark. These guys were for real, this year. I stood by and snapped pics with my iPad, as he fought the fish in. You watch the line, and it comes closer and closer to shore. And then you see the shadow of a log, out there in the water. The shark. Brandon expertly beached the fish. He and Steven swooped down and subdued the beast. Measured the length. This one was right at 74 inches. Just a tad over seven feet long. That’s a big thing, to pull out of the sea.
Sam Thomas and I stood by, close. And we argued hard, for shark steaks. Steven and Brandon paid us no mind. And I got a little bit of a grasp why. A large crowd had gathered around, as if by magic. Oooooh. Aaaah. Look. A fish. What is that, a shark? What are you going to do with it, turn it loose? Steven always smiled, and told the people. “It’s a shark. Do you want to touch it? Come here, if you do.” Most people shrank back, but all of them smiled when they saw the shark being released back into the waters. If we ever get to butcher a shark at Beach Week, I guess we’ll have to go out and catch it at night, when no one’s around.
The Monday wasn’t over, quite. The rigs were reset, the baits taken out and dropped. And I’m thinking it was early afternoon, when Steven’s reel started screaming. There was something big on the other end of the line. And Steven took up his rod and reel, and started fighting the fish in. It took a while. Like I said, Steven and Brandon are true shark hunters. And I saw the shadow of the log again, emerging from the depths. And then Steven beached the beast.
They measured the shark. 93 inches. Just three inches shy of eight feet. The fish snaked around on the beach, as Steven and Brandon fought to remove the hook from its mouth. A crowd gathered, all agog. I made a few weak noises about shark steak. But I didn’t protest much, when Steven grabbed the fish by its tail and drug it back into the waters. And released it. When you release a shark, it wobbles around, all weak. That’s because it’s exhausted, from getting pulled up to the shore by a hook in its mouth.
And that day, as the boys were hunting large sharks from the sea, Adin Yutzy was mourned by all his sons and daughters. Then he was laid to rest, there in a plot close to the woods at the edge of the graveyard. I didn’t follow a lot of actual details that day, but I thought of it a few times, his burial. I suppose his sons or his grandsons carried him to his final resting place.
I had to think, too. The man saw a lot of pain in his life. There had to be a lot of pain, somewhere buried down there deep. Pain begets pain. I think that’s how it works, from what I’ve seen.
And I look at the choices they made, both my Dad and Adin. Choices they made, to reject the children they felt were not walking in the Word. They used the “sword of that Word” to, well, to reject their own flesh and blood. It’s a harsh place to come from. And it’s hard place to be. In the end, it was all such a terrible, terrible waste. A waste of time, and a waste of love. I’m not a parent. But family is family, and blood is blood. And you don’t ever, ever reject a child. Not for any reason.
But somehow, from where I am today, I can only wish peace upon any father who ever did.
And Beach Week rolled along, like all Beach Weeks do. Every night, there was a big old feast. And the shark hunters went out twice again. Three times, total, they set up. And they pulled in a total of six sharks. Steven’s 93-incher was the largest shark caught all week.
On Wednesday night, we had a hymn sing, like we always do. Fred strummed his guitar, and we all just sang our hearts out. I got some writing done. And every night, there was a big feast. There never were any shark steaks, though. Maybe next year.
The week wound down, and all too soon, it was time to head back north with Wilm and Big Blue. Time to settle back in, at home. And this year, the words of my nephew Steven stayed with me, way back there in the recesses of my mind. “You Waglers hold on to hard, hurtful things for a long, long time…”
Before the next Beach Week comes, I want to let go of at least some of those hard and hurtful things.