It is not all bad, but it is not all good, it is not all ugly,
but it is not all beautiful, it is life, life, life…It is savage,
cruel, kind, noble, passionate, selfish, generous, stupid,
ugly, beautiful, painful, joyous — it is all these, and
more, and it’s all these I want to know…
I remember hearing about it now and then, over the years. Every July, it came around. But I never paid it much mind, I have to say. The Yoder Reunion came from Mom’s side of the family. Those people were strangers to me, pretty much. And it just didn’t register in my head, that attending their annual gathering in Daviess might be an important thing to do.
I’ve touched on the subject, here and there. And there’s even a paragraph or two in my book about it. Dad didn’t get along well at all with Mom’s family. Which was fine. He didn’t have to. But it wasn’t fine, what he did about it. After John “Pappy” Yoder and most of his sons and daughters left the Amish for the Block Church, Dad cut them off from us. And he cut them off from Mom. It was a cruel and brutal thing to do. Her family could only stand by, helpless, as Dad pontificated to the whole world what it is to live right, and what it is to raise your children right, so they stay Amish. And Mom’s family mourned the loss of their Ida, or Idey, as they say her name in Daviess.
And we were raised as pure Waglers. The Yoder blood in us was never recognized or acknowledged. Oh, sure, we knew who they were, Mom’s siblings. They came around now and then, to visit, to see their sister. They were strangers to us. Dad built his wall high and wide. In one sense, he was doomed to fail. He should have known that one day we would set out on our own to break down that wall and find those he had shut off from us. But in another sense, he succeeded mightily in every way he could have hoped to.
Because Ida’s children never really got to know their blood kin. We were strangers to each other.
In 1961, the year I was born, they held their first get-together, Pappy Yoder’s family. I’m not sure if they even called it a reunion, those first few years. Just a family, the children and grandchildren, getting together and hanging out for the day. The third Saturday in July. That’s when they did it. I’m sure Mom was invited that first time. I’m sure she had an open, standing invitation every year. But she never got to go, not even once. My father’s wall stood tall and strong and searingly divisive. And it grew and grew every year, higher, wider, stronger. And time went on, like time does. And for decades and decades, it looked like the wall would stand forever.
And in all the years that passed since I left the Amish for good, I never attended the Yoder Reunion once. It’s not that I couldn’t have. It just never occurred to me that I might or should. I lived in Daviess briefly for two years when I attended Vincennes University. Back from 1989 to 1991. I don’t even remember hearing about the Reunion. I’m sure I would have been welcomed with open arms. I would have been too shy to show up, in any case.
And in the years since, I heard it now and then, probably from my sister Rachel. She stays on top of these things. “Are you going to the Yoder Reunion this year?” she would ask. “It’s the third Saturday in July.” And I always just looked at her strangely and shook my head. Nope, I got no inclination to go, I told her. I can’t see any reason to go. I don’t know those people. And I never went.
I guess sometimes it takes the next generation to see things clearly. And at least three men from that generation did. Maybe there were more, but I know of at least these three. Joseph’s oldest sons, John and David and Reuben. Good solid Amish names, right there. John and David and Reuben. In 2013, John somehow connected with my sisters, Rachel and Rhoda. They attended the Reunion, the three couples. Then last year, John went again, this time with his family and David and Reuben and their families. Around fifty people showed up for the Reunion. A pretty small group.
And as things were winding down, the Daviess Yoders looked at Joseph’s sons, all interested. Here was new blood. Ida’s grandchildren. They needed someone to host the Reunion in 2016. They talked to John and his brothers. And soon it was decided. David lives up north of Daviess, not far. In Worthington. He’s got a nice little wooded acreage. And he agreed to host the Reunion in 2016. The Daviess Yoders were delighted and maybe a little stunned. New blood. And now, a new host. From Ida’s family. That was pretty wild stuff, from what all they had seen over the years.
And so things were set, for this year. And I gotta hand it to those three nephews, Joseph’s sons. John and David and Reuben. They’re the ones who got me and my siblings all wired up to go. They sent word. Yoder Reunion at David’s place. Fill in the date. July 16, the third Saturday of the month. And I talked to my brother Steve about it, months and months ago. I’m going. If you want to go, let’s travel together. He allowed that he wanted to, and maybe his son, Ira Lee, too. And maybe even Clifford. Good, I said. Don’t sweat it, if the women don’t want to go. We’ll make a man trip out of it. And I didn’t think or fret all that much about it, as the months slowly crept by. Until last week. All of a sudden, the time was here.
We all met at Steve’s house right at six last Friday morning. I parked down by the shop. I had packed light again, for me. Just a bag, and three shirts wrapped in plastic. That should do, I figured. Clifford roared up in his Camaro. Then Ira Lee arrived, right on time. Diving a shiny black SUV he had rented the day before. We all had to fax in our driver’s licenses the day before, so we could take turns driving. I usually rent cars that look like they could be running moonshine. This black SUV was all chromed and flashy. It looked like a drug runner’s vehicle. Oh, well. It had Wisconsin plates. Maybe the cops will leave us alone, coming from a straight-laced state like that. We loaded our stuff in the back, and by a little after six, we were off, Ira Lee cruising at the wheel. Worthington, Indiana, here we come. Yoder Reunion, 2016, here we come.
We pushed along hard all day, each taking a turn at the wheel. Right at 4:30, we pulled into the wooded drive that led to David’s home place. It was a beautiful setting, with camping spots out under the trees. We pulled up and parked out by the shop, where the Reunion would come down the next day. We walked down to the house, where a few of my nephews lounged on the front porch. We joined them. Lots of people were on the road and getting close, we were told. Tonight would be Wagler family night. We leaned back and relaxed and got started with our visiting.
People drifted in, then. Marvin and Rhoda. Lester and Rachel. Ray and Maggie. Jesse and Lynda. Joseph and Iva had already arrived earlier. With Steve and me, that made seven of us. Seven of Ida’s children gathered for a singular event. David had rented an entire Bed and Breakfast, and late that afternoon, he led us over to check in. A beautiful old restored mansion, back a few blocks from the main drag in the small town of Worthington. All the rooms were self-sufficient and impeccable. I picked a corner room with a firm bed. Probably from back in the early 1900s, the old house reminded me of the scenes and settings in Thomas Wolfe’s stories of his Mama’s boarding house down South. I can’t imagine what an old restored inn like that is doing in Worthington, Indiana. I’m sure it’s gotta be a money pit. But there it was, and we were delighted to have it as our own for a few days.
Back, then, to David’s place for supper. Glen had loaded the smoker with two big old chunks of brisket way earlier that day. And there was a huge pot of country baked beans. And all kinds of fresh bread and butter, and great tub filled with cold chunks of cantaloupe and watermelon. Someone asked the blessing over the food, and then the Waglers gathered in to the feast.
Joseph was puttering around in his little battery cart. The man has seen and endured a lot in the past six years, fighting the disease that fights to kill him. He has approached the door of death more than a few times, right up close. And always, he somehow battled his way back. He got his food, and he and Iva sat at a long table off to one side. And as we got our food, we gravitated over to that table, all us siblings. And soon all seven of us were seated and eating together. We just chatted along, visiting about whatever. It was a beautiful moment, a thing all too rare and precious in the past.
I caught up with Marvin, my best friend from way back. We don’t get to see each other that often anymore, but when we do, we pretty much just pick up where we left off. He got to telling me. A month or so ago, he went up to Valentine, Nebraska, to attend the funeral of an old friend he knew real well back when he worked on the ranch, in 1979. Of course, I was all full of questions. How did the place look? Did he recognize anyone? Did he see the people I worked for that summer? He told me all about how it went, and a lot of our old memories of that time got mixed into our talk.
Out in the campground clearing, David had built a big fire ring. And we sat outside and settled around the fire as dusk closed in. And quite a fire it was. David and Glen had cut four-foot chunks off a big log. The middle of the log was hollow, just at the core. And they set the chunk up on end over the fire. The flames came shooting right out of the hollow middle. I’ve never seen such a thing done before. And we sat around talking. The two historians, well, there were three, but two sat there, talking. The three are Jesse and Reuben and Dorothy. Jesse and Reuben talked about the history of the Daviess Waglers. And they got to telling us.
I’ve mentioned it a few times before, over the years. My great-grandfather, Christian Wagler, shot himself in the head back in 1891 when he was thirty-six years old. His widow remained, and his sons and daughters. They buried Christian outside the graveyard, there in Daviess. Outside the fence. In those days, they didn’t mess around. They knew that Christian was damned forever, and that the shameful stain of his suicide would haunt his seed forever. And Jesse told us. The graveyard was eventually expanded, and Christian landed up well inside the fence. He got into the graveyard, Jesse said, without ever passing through the graveyard gate. We all mulled it over in silence for a moment. It was a strange and startling thing to contemplate.
The Wagler tales don’t stop with Christian. And it was Reuben, I think, who told us a story I had never heard before. Christian had several brothers and sisters. One of his brothers, John C. Wagler, died many years later, an old man. He decreed that he did not want to be buried in the same graveyard where his brother Christian was. He felt the shame of the family stain deeply, even after all those years. Maybe he was being over dramatic to prove a point. He was pure. He didn’t want to share any place with someone who had taken his own life. So they took John C. a few miles down the road and opened a new graveyard. The Wagler graveyard. And there he was buried, satisfied that he could rest in peace in this untainted ground.
Years and years later, John C’s own grandson did pretty much the same thing Christian had done. Knocked himself off, somehow. I don’t know what it is with these Waglers. They must have brooding blood. By then, the people paid little heed to John C’s wishes. Maybe they didn’t remember. Or maybe they just didn’t care much. They buried the grandson right there in the Wagler graveyard, close to John C’s grave. And since that time, it is said, there have been far more such troubled souls buried there close to John C. than ever were buried over where Christian was laid to rest outside the graveyard. That’s just the way it goes sometimes, I guess. Especially when you get all hifalutin’ about who you will or won’t be buried close to.
Almost exactly two years ago, little Abby left us. The anniversary of that tragedy was very much on Dorothy’s mind, on all our minds. When we met after I arrived, I hugged her hard. You’re my little niece, I told her. She laughed. “Yes, I am,” she said. And that Friday evening, right as the sun set, we had a little memorial for Abby. Not really all that formal. At the funeral, we had released hundreds of red balloons, red being her favorite color. And now balloons were handed out again. We stood around as all the little children got one. And then Dorothy led us, counting down from ten. And then we released the balloons again. Up and up, glinting red from the fire and from the setting sun, up over the trees, then north with the wind.
And then Dorothy opened a large package of Chinese candle lanterns. By now it was dark. And in the next twenty minutes, dozens of the lanterns floated up and up and headed north with the wind, glowing in many vivid colors in the darkness. After that, we all sat around the great roaring fire, and just talked and enjoyed the setting and each other. It was late when I settled into fitful sleep at the old refurbished inn. I must be getting old. Seems like my travel sleep is increasingly broken and not sound.
Saturday morning. The big day. The Reunion meal was scheduled for that afternoon at 4:30. This morning, there would be a big campfire breakfast. By 8:30 or so, we were sitting around the fire, sipping coffee. My nephew Andrew stood over the fire, tending to many pots and pans and a vast kettle hanging from an iron pole. I poked around, all interested. The vast kettle was filled with gravy, and Andrew kept stirring it vigorously. And then soon, he uncovered three or four flats of eggs. He cracked dozens of eggs into a big cast iron pan, and set it on a grate over the fire. Things were stirring, and things were looking good. Smelling real good, too.
And right at ten, we feasted on brunch. A kettle full of gravy, fresh biscuits, piles of scrambled eggs, and loads and loads of fried bacon strips. At a place like that, I sin grievously with my diet. It was Martin Luther, I think, who said: If you sin, sin boldly. That morning, I feasted boldly. It was simply the best breakfast I’ve enjoyed in a long, long time.
Afterward, Jesse and Reuben and Dorothy gathered whoever wanted to go to Daviess and tour the graveyards and Dad’s old home place. Steve went along, with his sons, Ira Lee and Clifford. Those two had rarely been to Daviess at all, I’m thinking. And they had never seen the places we keep talking about. So off they all went, the rented SUV sagging under the load.
The night before, we had discussed it. And that morning, John came around with the necessary stuff. A couple of large white posters. Blank. I helped Rhoda spread the two pieces on a table and tape them together. And she took a pencil and started drawing. And soon we could see the large family tree. John and Magdalena Yoder on the trunk. And then branches sprouting out, a branch for each of their children. Rhoda left plenty of space between the branches. That afternoon, the people attending the Reunion would sign their names below the proper branch. Rhoda is the artist of the family, and she drew a real nice tree. We felt pretty proud of our grand idea. And I just settled in and relaxed as midday came and went. The afternoon slowly wore on. Soon it would time. Soon the Daviess Yoders would come.
The chairs and tables were all set up in David’s shop, where we had feasted the night before. And the women soon began laying out the food. Grilled chicken, prepared by Marcus Marner and his wife, Joanne. And everyone who came would bring a dish of some food or other, David told us. That’s the rule of the Yoder Reunion. You bring food with you. And we were all pretty much set. And around 3:00 or so, the first people began to come.
I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it justice, the way things went and the way things felt that day. Guess I’ll just speak it as I remember it. If you come from Daviess, you can tell when you see other people who are from there. That’s about as simply as I can say it. The first cars arrived and people got out and lugged in great bowls and trays of food. We all smiled and shook hands and greeted each other. I knew the names of a few, I didn’t know the names of most. Still, it didn’t matter. I’m Ira, I said, as I shook hands. Ida’s son. Oh, we know who you are, most of them said back. And the crowd grew as the people arrived and drifted in. Amish people. English people. Daviess people. Daviess faces. Daviess blood. Daviess kin.
She arrived early and was greeted with great honor. The only person remaining from Mom’s immediate family. Aunt Sarah. She’s 91 now, and widowed. And spry and alert as ever. Way back, when she was young, she fell in love with an English man named John McGuire. They married, I don’t know when. The thing is, I never even knew a thing about her, growing up. I remember when I passed through Daviess, once, during my wanderings. I went to a cookout with friends one evening. And that night, I met my uncle Joe, Mom’s brother I never knew. And that night, this strikingly beautiful woman walked up to me and told me she’s my aunt. My Mom’s sister. It was Sarah. I was just flat out astounded.
And now, here she was. I had not seen her in a few years. We surrounded her and hugged her. She reminds me so much of her sister, Ida Mae, when she talks. My Mom. Everyone wanted to talk to her, so I tried not to intrude too much. Someone showed her the table with the family tree, and she took the pen and signed her original branch. That was a special thing. And the family tree will be a special thing for future generations to see.
And people kept coming. Walking in with trays and trays and bowls and bowls of food. And soon the table groaned under the weight of almost any kind or flavor of food you can imagine, at least food from Daviess. It all looked and smelled beyond delicious. I walked about, chatting here, shaking hands there. Jonas Schrock arrived with his daughter and some of his sons. He’s on oxygen now, and in poor health. He was the husband of Mom’s younger sister, Anna, who died a decade ago from cancer. Jonas was a transplant from Holmes County, and for many years he was a powerful bishop in his Plain Mennonite church circles. He was a kind man, from all I’ve ever heard. Now, I walked up and shook his hand and spoke my name. He nodded and smiled and smiled. It took a moment for me to grasp that the man could not speak. He sat in a chair at the end of a long table, and he mightily enjoyed the place and time he was in. You could tell by his smile.
People kept drifting in with food, and the shop filled up. And soon after four, David called everyone to attention. The food would be served in fifteen minutes. He had a little mic system hooked up, and it worked very well. And a few minutes after his announcement, two people were called up front to speak a few words. My cousin, Dick Yoder, Ben’s oldest son. He usually takes care of the announcements at the Reunion. And the other person who spoke a few words was me.
David had asked me, a few hours before. “Would you speak a few words, for our family?” Sure, I said. I’ll be happy to. Now I stood back, as Dick addressed the crowd. He welcomed everyone, and thanked David and his wife Barb for hosting this event. And then he called each family out by name. All of Mom’s siblings. And as the family name was called, those people stood and held up their hands. And this year, perhaps for the first time ever, Ida Mae’s name was called. And we stood and held up our hands, me and my six siblings. And all the grandchildren who were there. It was a beautiful and powerful feeling. This year, Ida’s children stood right where they belonged.
Then Dick handed the mic off to me. And there I stood. I had not jotted down any notes. And it took only a few minutes, to speak what was on my heart to say. I thanked the hosts, of course. David and Barb. And I spoke of how grateful I was to be here, at this Yoder Reunion. Ida’s children are here this year, I said. And I just plowed right on in. We all know the reasons Mom’s family never was represented here before, I said. Choices were made years ago that were bad choices, wrong choices. But they were what they were and now we are where we are. Whatever it all was, I am grateful for this day.
And I told them. One of the hardest things I had to deal with when I was coming to grips with who my father was, was the fact that he cut us off from Mom’s family. He built a big wall. He thought he was doing the right thing. And we can never change what was, we can never change the past. Today, we are here, Ida’s children. We are honored to be here. And then I told them. It’ll never be what it would have been. It’ll never be what it should have been. But it can be something.
David took the mic, then, and I walked back to where I had been standing. Stephen Schrock, one of Jonas’ boys who took his place as bishop, then took the mic and prayed the blessing over the meal. And then the people lined up to fill their plates. It was as delicious a spread of food as I ever hope to see. There’s something about Daviess food that always takes me home. It’s Mom’s cooking. And there ain’t no better cooking anywhere. And soon the tables were full, as everyone got seated. I lurked about at the family tree table, just kind of waiting and watching. And I took my iPad up to the second floor to snap a few pics.
A funny little thing happened later as I was strolling around. A group of four or five women sat there at a table. I may have known one or two, and I may not have. They knew who I was. “Ira,” one of them said cheerfully. “You know you look like a Yoder, right? You look like Ben.” Yes, I’ve heard that before, I said. I got no problem if I look like Ben. And then one of the other ladies turned to her companions. “No, no,” she said. “He looks like Pappy Yoder, don’t you think? He looks more like Pappy than Ben.” I was a little startled. And I told her so. All my life, I’ve heard I look like Uncle Ben, I said. But I’ve never, never heard that I look even remotely like old Pappy Yoder. I’m going to have to digest that. But I guess I have no problem if I look like Pappy, either. They all laughed, and I laughed, too. Then I drifted on. Wow. I look like my grandpa. How wild is that? I thought to myself.
The afternoon just slid on by, like such times do. At some point, then, after everyone had eaten. David took the mic again. “Everyone move out to the campfire,” he told us. “There will be homemade ice cream for dessert, and fresh peach cobbler baked over the open fire. The crowd soon drifted out. I sat on the couch, visiting with my cousin Stephen Schrock, and Marvin. We got to talking about a lot of things, and next thing we knew, dusk was settling outside. We walked out then to join the others.
The crowd had stayed. No one left for home early. People lounged about in lawn chairs in a large circle around the fire, eating ice cream and chatting. Off to one side, a little band had set up. David, his brothers Glen and Sam, Dorothy, our cousin Norman Stoll, and one or two others. They belted out a good many gospel songs. I hadn’t seen Dorothy play in years. She’s a natural with the guitar and she’s a natural singer. And you could tell as you watched and listened. She was singing for us, and she was singing for Abby.
Time drifted on, and it got late. I sat here and there, chatting with different people. At a place like that, you can’t talk to everyone. It’s just not possible. So you don’t worry about it, you just talk to those you run into. And it all wound down late. People slowly got up and gathered their chairs and left. Back to Daviess it was, for most of them. And by midnight, those of us staying at the old inn had settled down for the night. Tomorrow morning there would be a brief service, there at David’s place, for those who stayed, and for the Daviess people who returned. But we were heading for home before all that came down, me and Steve and his sons. What a day it had been, this third Saturday in July, 2016. This was a Daviess Yoder Reunion like none other had ever been before. And now it was over for one more year.
It will take a while, to digest what it all was and what it all means. For me, it was a beautiful and powerful thing to connect with my roots in a way I never had before. It was time. It was way past time. But then, sometimes it takes some time to figure out the right way.
The walls of long ago can be torn down. The connections, the relationships will never be what they would have been. And they will never be what they should have been. But they can be something. It’s never too late to tear down a wall.
I like to think that the Pappy Yoder family, Mom and her parents and her brothers and sisters who have passed on, I like to think that maybe their souls can rest a little easier now. It was a long hard road, but Ida’s children have returned from exile, they have circled back to their roots. After all those years, after all those long and weary miles, they are back home where they belong.
Family is family, and blood is blood. And that’s about all there is to say.
The war had got in everything: it was in things that moved,
and in things that were still, in the animate red silence of an
old brick wall as well as in all the thronging life and traffic
on the streets. It was in the faces of the people passing, and
in ten thousand familiar moments of man’s daily life and
It had been coming to me, lately. And it has closed in close, how strange and fleeting life is. And how random. And the strangeness and randomness of it all was triggered in me, when two people I knew traveled on from this life, real recently. And no, I can’t say I knew either of them that well. And no, I don’t know all the details of who they were and what they were to the world around them every day. I just know their lives impacted mine in their own time and in their own ways.
And it’s like the Tyndale people told me, way back when I was writing my book. Your story is your story, and the people whose lives touched yours are part of that story. And you can include them in the narrative, as long as you stay within the boundaries of what you saw and lived and felt, and what you know.
Well, this is a little sliver of my story. And I saw and lived and felt every shred of that little sliver.
A brief review, to start. We all know how my heart gave out last November, and how I almost didn’t make it through. Well, if you read my stuff now and then, you know that. If you don’t, there’s no reason you should. I came that close, and I’m holding my thumb a smidgen from my forefinger here, I came that close to passing on along. But somehow, I didn’t. I guess it just wasn’t my time. The doctors got me pulled back, and I returned to my home after ten days, feeling fragile, very alone, and a little frantic.
And the doctors told me, when I left. You will always be weak. Your heart will always be like an old man’s. That’s what they tell anyone who had congestive heart failure. I went home and felt my way along for a few weeks, like a blind man fumbling his way through the night. And then I started working my way back.
In late February, I went back to the hospital for my heart ablation. That’s what they do when you have A-Fib, which is what I had and what caused the congestive failure. I wrote about that little journey back when it happened. It was like taking a hike out into the wilderness, going under for the operation. It all went well, better than I could have hoped for. And Dr. B called Janice right after the operation, before I even came back up, like I had told him to. “Everything went fantastic,” he said to her. And then he added one more thing. “There is significant improvement in his heart strength.” Janice dutifully called me later that afternoon and told me what Dr. B had said. And I thought. Hmm. Significant improvement, eh? I sure wonder what he means by that.
What he meant by that was that my heart had improved back to 100% strength, a thing they had told me would never, never happen. I simply rejoiced. And no, I didn’t make any vows about what I would or wouldn’t do to keep my heart that way. I was simply gonna live, because every day I lived my life was a gift that I should never have seen, not when you look at the odds. I’m still grateful every day. And I realize that my life is just a vapor, that it could end, just like that. My heart could collapse without warning. Or I could walk in front of a truck, or some such thing. Tomorrow is promised to no one. No one. Not for any reason. That’s the bottom line, and that’s the knowledge and perspective I try to keep close to me in my heart.
And I know. This all seems like a bunny trail, if you’re a regular reader. Yeah, yeah, you’re thinking. I know all this. What’s your point? Well, I can tie it all together if you hang in there with me. I think I can, anyway.
I’m not sure if it was just before or just after that operation. It was close to one side or the other. And I was feeling pretty good every day. And one day, here comes a phone call from my sister, Rachel. She texts me now and then, with news. And she calls to chat, now and then, too. This time she was calling. And she told me. “Magdalena Eicher is in serious condition in a hospital in Kansas City. She has serious, serious heart issues, and she has refused any corrective surgery because the chances of success are so low. She plans to return to her home community soon. In the meantime, here’s the number for her hospital room. You need to give her a call, now. Today.” Well, I mean, there were some grunts scattered in there, from me. But that was the gist of what she said.
Well. When my sister Rachel calls and tells me to call someone, I generally listen pretty close. I don’t always do as she tells me. But I always hear what she’s saying.
Magdalena Eicher. I had not seen or spoken to that woman for decades and decades. I thought about her now and then, and kind of kept track of where she was and how she was doing. And she was strong enough in my memory that she came out in my book, in my childhood years. Ms. Eicher, my teacher in first and second grades. I don’t know what it was about her. She was just an ordinary Amish girl, teaching school, totally untrained. But I have always remembered her quite vividly, and her impact on my life. I’ve never really analyzed why. From here, looking at it, I think it’s because she was the one who formally introduced me to the magical world of reading. And writing, too, although that world was one I detested early on. Under her instruction, her tuition, the letters of the alphabet came alive to me. I guess one never forgets the person who opened the door to such a place as that.
I listened as Rachel talked. And the memories from long ago washed over me like a flood. And I heard Magdalena Eicher’s voice and saw her smile again, in that old one-room schoolhouse that was torn down years ago. Yes, I said to Rachel. Yes, I will call her. I’m not sure what I’ll say, but I will call her. Text me the number. And we hung up and Rachel did.
And I stood there and looked at the number. There it was. Right there, I could call. I don’t know. Should I? I mean, I had not seen or spoken to Magdalena Eicher for probably forty-five years or so. Not long after she taught me in second grade, she moved to northern Indiana and taught school there for years. And later, well, later she lived a hard life. Endured a lot, that much I knew. She married a real plain man from a remote little community in Missouri, and he dragged her off to live with him there. His name is not worth telling. He turned out to be mentally unhinged. He did not respect his wife, or much care for her at all. An Amish woman in a position like that doesn’t have many options. She saw hard things, and she lived through many hard days that turned into hard years. They had two children, she and her deranged husband. A daughter, then a son. Her children brought her the only joy she saw in all the remaining years of her life.
And now, now she was lying in a hospital room with a defective heart for which there was no cure. I walked out through the warehouse, then out into the sunlight. And then I called her number.
She answered. Her voice sounded exactly the same as it did all those years ago. I was a child again, in her classroom. Except I wasn’t. Hello, Magdalena, I said, half stammering. My sister Rachel told me you’re in the hospital. And before I could say my name, she told me. “You sound like a Wagler. Is this Joseph?” No, I’m not Joseph, although I’m sure he’ll call you, too, I said. This is Ira. She didn’t hesitate. And her voice sounded pleased. “Ira? Oh, I remember you.” You were my teacher in first and second grade, I said. I’ve always remembered those days. I just wanted to call and wish you well.
“I remember all my pupils from those early years of teaching,” she said. “You were all always special to me.” And we chatted a bit about those old days. And then I asked about her heart, and told her a little bit about my own. I was in pretty bad shape with A-Fib. I almost didn’t make it. But I’m feeling pretty good, now. And after a few minutes, there wasn’t a whole lot more to say. I have to go, now, I told her. I wish you every blessing. She thanked me for calling, and it sounded like she meant it. And then we hung up.
A few weeks after that, I walked into The Heart Group one morning for my 30-day checkup after my heart ablation. The nurses checked me in. All vital signs were optimal. Heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen. Dr. B came bounding into the room a short while later. “Ira,” he said. “You are looking good. And you heart is back to 110%. You really have made remarkable progress.” And he went on. “I never knew you were a NY Times bestselling author. They were talking about it while you were on the operating table. I asked what in the world they’re saying. And they told me. I usually do a little research on my patients I’m operating on. I completely missed that about you.”
I laughed. Yeah, I don’t go around telling people I’m a writer, I said. That’s beautiful, what you said about my heart. Now let’s talk about some of these drugs I’m on. I’d like to get off all the drugs I can. I’m not gonna fight you. But I want to get off.
I was on four drugs at that time. And I knew he planned to take me off the most toxic one. Which he did. Now, what about the other three? I asked. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Most doctors would keep you on those remaining three for the rest of your life. But I’ll tell you what. Come back in three months, and we’ll talk about it. We’ll see.”
I appreciate that, Doctor, I said as we shook hands. Like I said, I’m not gonna fight you. I’ll be back in three months. And tell you what. I’ll drop a signed copy of my book out front for you on my way out. He smiled at me. “I really appreciate that. Thank you,” he said. And that’s what I did.
A month or two passed. I don’t have the exact time line, here. The exact dates of what happened when. Those don’t really matter, not when you’re telling a story. You get bogged down with the details of stuff that’s not important. You have to feel it, to get it told right. And then, one day, another text from Rachel. My sister always knows what’s going on. The text was pretty simple. Magdalena Eicher is very low, not expected to live long. Not even days. And I thought about what I knew. Her sorrow stayed with her right through to the end. Her husband made no effort to care for her, so her nephew and his family took her in. She stayed in a little trailer by the side of their house. There, they loved her and cared for her. That’s what family is for, I guess. And I’m not judging anyone, here. Just telling it like it was.
Her siblings and some childhood friends made the trek to the remote little Missouri community to say good-bye. She could only sit comfortably in a chair. And there she remained, until a few days after Rachel’s message. Early one morning, then, she quietly slipped away.
And no one outside her immediate family will long remember her name or who she was. Just an obscure old Amish woman out there in the middle of nowhere. She passed away, and was mourned by her children. And she was buried with very little fuss or honor from others.
But here, I remember her, and I speak her name.
Magdalena Eicher, you were brave and strong and resolute in the face of so much sorrow and grief and pain in your life. I salute you. May you rest in peace.
I felt a little nervous the day after I got back from my little road trip to see Dad a few weeks back. I had a doctor’s appointment first thing the next morning, a Monday. Dr. B was going to see me, check me out. The week before, I had been hooked up to a Holter monitor for a day, a little electronic thingy that recorded every beat of my heart for twenty-four hours. So that was done. Still, I fidgeted a bit. Who knows what my heart does at night when I’m sleeping? And that morning, I was real tired from the drive home the day before. Stay calm, heart, I told myself as I drove over to The Heart Group.
I was plenty early. I sat and waited and watched all the other heart patients come and go. Wow. Some of them looked like they were having a pretty rough time. The nurse finally stuck her head out and called my name. I got up and followed her. It’s getting to be almost routine with me, such a thing. She took my blood pressure and heart rate. Absolutely optimal. I’m a little overweight, though. No one grumbles much about that. She took me off to another room and left. And a few minutes later, Dr. B came bounding in. I swear, the man doesn’t walk. He bounds.
It went about like before. My heart was back to 110%. Dr. B even said, “It couldn’t be in better shape if we wanted it to be.” Wow, I said. That’s great news. Now, let’s talk about some of these drugs I’m on.
He laughed. “Yeah, I remember you asking about that before,” he said. Look, I said. If my heart’s back the way you say it is, why can’t you take me off some of these drugs? Like the blood thinner? He agreed. He’d take me off the Eliquis. And he told me again. “Ninety percent of doctors would leave you on the other two drugs.” And I told him again. Look. I’m not gonna fight you. But I got three cards on the table. Three drugs. You dealt me one card. Now how many more will you deal?
I think my willingness to talk about it and not fight is what swung the man. We chatted for a while about the Lisinopril. I don’t need my blood pressure regulated, I said. “OK,” he said. “I’ll take you off that one, too. I’m leaving you on the third one, though. I’m thinking you’ll be on Metoprolol for, well, for the duration.” I didn’t flinch. I thanked the man. I’m not fighting you. I’m happy you took me off two drugs. When can we talk again, about the third one? He chuckled. “You’re a pretty good persuader,” he said. “Come back and see me in six months.
I will, I said. We shook hands. And I floated from that place on fluffy white clouds drifting gently under bright blue skies.
And that should be about it for this blog, seems like. Except it’s not. One more little trail to go down, then I’ll be done. Or maybe it’ll be a big trail. I walked out of that doctor’s office with a deeply grateful heart. Walked into life and living, and all that such a thing was. It seemed so strange. It’s all so unpredictable. One day you’re almost dead, and the next day you aren’t. And then you reach out and touch death in the face again. And you go or stay. That’s how things were. Life, just walking along, making plans for the summer, and my garage party. When you live with real gratitude in your heart, all of life seems like a dreamy dance. At least for a little while it does, anyway.
Then last week, at almost exactly this time, here comes a text from an old friend. Gloria. I hadn’t heard from her in a while. And I sensed instantly from her question that something wasn’t right. “Have you heard from Freiman or Tim?” And I texted back. No, I haven’t heard from anyone. What’s wrong?
Her return text was terse and simple. “Linda is leaving us.” And I groaned aloud and then we spoke to each other briefly on the phone, Gloria and me. Linda Beiler was back in the hospital, and fading fast. This time, she wasn’t going to make it. That’s what Gloria told me. I’d heard it before, in the past few years. She’s back in the hospital. And every time, she returned. This time, the feeling swept through me like a cold fog and I knew what Gloria was telling me was true. This time, Linda wasn’t coming back. This time, this time, well, we all knew that one of these times would be the last. Always before, it was just not this time.
It took some soaking in. In my heart and mind, it took some soaking in to really grasp what I had just heard.
Linda Beiler. She was so much to so many. I almost shudder, to even open the door to talking about who she was to me. Except, it’s like the Tyndale people told me. Your story is your story. And the people in it are a part of that story. You can tell of them, from what you saw, and how you knew them.
I don’t remember when or where or how I first met Linda. It was back in the 90s, I think, at some artsy event or other. I don’t recall when I first laid eyes on her. I never was a part of Linda’s inner circle. And if I ever was in her village, I was way out there on the edge of things. I’m an introvert. I don’t like the city or noise or large crowds. So we connected very sporadically, over the years. But when we did, well, that’s what I want to tell you about.
Things are foggy, about when we first made a real connection. We saw each other here and there. After my marriage blew up, and I started writing, we met now and then, mostly through my good friend and one of her closest friends, Freiman.
And somehow, when I launched my first garage party, I invited her. Oh, yes, she bubbled. She’d love to come. I was probably a little suspicious. People tell you they’ll be there all the time, about things like that, when they have no intention of showing up. I didn’t need to fret about Linda, though. She arrived, back at that first party, lugging in some sort of delicious dish or other. Tomato pie, I think it was. She knew most of the other guests, and the ones she didn’t know soon weren’t strangers. And I have a small surge of pride, here. That night, the first time Linda was at my garage party, that night she learned what it was to play Hi-Lo at my bar.
I remember half keeping an eye on things, like a good host should. And I remember much shouting and confusion at the bar. I walked over after a while, to take a look. And there stood Linda, smiling and smiling. And raking in everyone’s cash, just like she had a right to it. The thing was, she smiled and laughed so brightly that all the losers smiled and laughed with her. It was a strange and wondrous thing.
And after that, I saw Linda a bit more frequently. I got invited to her little parties, and to her Sunday lunches now and then at her apartment on North Lime Street. There, I briefly met many of her friends. I saw Linda and her daughter, Sarah, together. If there ever was a mother’s love for her child, and a child’s love for her mother, that’s what I saw when I saw Linda and Sarah.
My book got published in June, 2011. Linda called me one day, soon after that, out of the blue. She had read the book, and she loved it. I blushed and said, aw, shucks, tain’t nothing. But it was something. She knew it and I knew it. And from the book, then, flowed some of my fondest memories of me and Linda, walking through a small slice of life together.
Things moved along, then. Linda came to my garage party that year, as always. That’s when we always connected, most closely. She was just so exuberant and alive and free. And she always scooped up the money from the Hi-Lo games at my bar. And she always held the fan of $20 bills high and wide, with the biggest smile you ever saw. I always tried to take a picture of me and her together, at that moment. I figured I had the right to stand with her, being the host and all.
In the fall of 2011, my friend Joanna Miller King scheduled a book signing for me at her business in Shipshewana, Indiana. Joanna was an old friend I knew from way back in my Florida years. I had not seen her in decades. She wanted me to come out to Davis Mercantile and sign books at her store on a Saturday. I made plans to drive out the day before, a full day’s travel. And then Linda called me. Somehow, she had heard I was going. Turns out she and Joanna were best, best friends for years. And she asked me. “Can I ride out with you? Don’t tell Joanna. It’ll be a surprise.” Of course, I said. Of course. I’m happy to have company on a long road trip like that.
When you travel ten hours one way with someone, you either hit it off or you don’t. We talked and talked. We told our stories of who we were and where we had been and what we had seen. We told each other of our marriages, and how they blew up. She spoke of her hopes and dreams, and I spoke of mine. The hours flowed by as we rolled along the toll road, on and on, north and west.
I’m sure she thought my anarchist views were a little uncouth, but she just smiled and never let on. I’ve never seen a person who smiled so much. And a funny thing happened as we approached our destination late that afternoon.
Linda was driving. I had been grumbling pretty savagely about the toll road and how much it cost to use it. It’s highway robbery. And as we approached the toll booth to pay and get off, I told Linda. Now, these toll people work for the state. They’re robbers. I don’t want you to smile at the toll person who takes our money. I want you to look all grim. “I will,” she promised. And she deliberately pinched her lips together and tried to frown. We slowed and stopped at the booth. Linda rolled down the window and handed over our ticket, and then a wad of cash I had given her. The toll booth guy, obviously smitten by such a lovely woman handing him money, got all smarmy. “Oh, thank you,” he said, smiling at her plaintively.
And Linda just couldn’t stop herself. “No, thank you,” she said, brightly. And she shot him the most dazzling smile you could imagine as we pulled away. The poor toll booth guy looked grateful. I was horrified. Oh, Linda, I groaned, slapping my forehead. No, no. Don’t thank him. He just robbed you. And you smiled at him. You weren’t supposed to smile. Good grief, woman. And she laughed and laughed and I laughed and laughed with her.
And it was very soon after that road trip that the dark night descended. Cancer. She had cancer. I remember the sinking feeling in me when I heard the news. I waited a few days, then called her. I don’t know what to say, I told her. I’m so sorry. What do you need from me? I’m here, for whatever. And she thanked me and told me. “I know how close you walked with Paul and Anne Marie, through all those long years,” she said. “I know how draining it had to be. You don’t need to do that for me. I have a lot of family and friends who will.” Thank you, I said. I’m here, for whatever you need.
And I just kind of stayed out there on the outskirts of her village, where I had always been. We connected sporadically, but when we did, well, we had a blast. Through Facebook, I kept up with her life and how it was going. She went down low, got close to the door of death, that first round. But somehow, she bounced right back. And every August, she came to my garage party. Smiling and smiling and carrying a great plate of some kind of food or other. After dinner, when things had settled a bit, she always rounded up her willing victims at the bar. And there she skinned everyone in Hi-Lo. And it got to where everyone knew. If you play at my bar, Linda is going to walk away with a bunch of your money. People flocked to my bar, anyway.
And every year, she told me as she was leaving. “Thank you so much. I will be back next year. Let me know.” Oh, I will, I always said, as we hugged.
And I’m not sure what year it was, 2013, maybe. I had been contacted by a group in a retirement home in Mechanicsburg. We had scheduled a book talk one Friday afternoon. After that, I planned to head on down to see my friends, Dominic and Jamie Haskin in West Virginia. Linda and Jamie had hit it off pretty well when they met at my garage party, so I called Linda. I’m heading out for a book talk, then down to West Virginia. Would you like to go along? Would she? Of course she would. And so it was set, our second and last road trip together.
She showed up that morning in her convertible. She had bought it not long before, after her first bout with cancer. And she offered to drive. I agreed, of course. I mean, who could turn down such a thing? I threw in my bag, and we were off. It was just a perfect, beautiful sunny day. We passed around Harrisburg and headed south on the Interstate. Linda cruised along at well over seventy, top down, radio blasting. I recognized the moment as the rare and beautiful thing it was. And I reveled in it.
And after that, life just kind of flowed on. A few years ago, she called and asked if I could bring Big Blue to help move some of her stuff from her Lime Street place to Hollinger House, the great, grand old inn she remodeled and opened over in Willow Street. Of course I could, and did. Later, I attended the grand opening of the inn and gave her half a dozen signed copies of my book, so she could gift or sell them to her guests.
I’m not sure when the last time was I saw her. I think it may have been at my garage party last August. I guess it doesn’t matter much. A few months ago, I messaged out my invitations for this year. August 27th. Ira’s Great Annual Garage Party. Come if you can. Linda messaged right back. “I can’t wait. Bring your quarters!” The last three or four years, when I invited her and she came, I thought quietly to myself that this time will likely be the last time. It never was. This year, such a thought never crossed my mind. I had no doubt at all that Linda would be there.
I stood there after Gloria and I had hung up. So this was it. The end of a long, hard road. And the realization settled in, deep inside me. So much of life is a battlefield. You don’t choose your battles. You take them as they come. But you can sure choose how you fight them. Linda was a warrior. She lived intensely. She fought with grace and courage and joy and great anticipation of good things to come.
But mostly, she lived and fought without fear.
We waited, those in her village, for the final news. We knew that this time it would come. She slipped lower and lower. And last Sunday evening, as the sun sank into the fiery hues of the western sky, the great warrior laid down her sword. And now, the battlefield stands, empty and quiet. And now, she rests.
Linda Sue Beiler, you were my friend. It seems so surreal that you’re actually gone. It was an honor to know you. One day, when I get to where you are, we’ll head out together on another road trip again. And this time I won’t scold you when you smile at the toll keeper. Because the passage to where we’re going will be free.