…His life seemed to have revived again out of its grief of
pain, its death of joy, its sorrow of irrevocable memory. For
a moment he seemed to live again in his full prime…
And for a moment we believed that all would be for us again
as it had been, that he could never grow old and die, but that
he must live forever, and that the summertime, the orchard
and bright morning, would be ours again…
We had it all set, my father and me. And I had planned on traveling up to Aylmer to see him last fall. For Thanksgiving, I told him. And he was all excited and looking forward to it. Well. Last fall, right over that time, I landed up flat on my back in the ICU, instead. So that little trip got canceled. Dad was disappointed, I think. I know I was. Still, it all was what it was. The bottom line for me, I was just happy to be alive.
Dad calls me now and then. Roughly every month or so, just to visit. And since last fall, he has kept pesking me. “So when are you coming up to see me?” A few weeks ago, he asked again. And this time, I didn’t shrug him off. I looked at my calendar. I can come over the weekend of the 18th, I told him. He claimed he didn’t have any other plans, and I should come on up. Only later did I realize that the date I had picked was Father’s Day weekend.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen my Dad. I didn’t make it to Florida to be with him last winter. I was pretty much hunkered down at home, getting a grip on things like life and living. Trying to find a balance in my new world. And time rolled on. And suddenly I realized I had not seen Dad since February of last year, down in Pine Craft. It seemed like the time was overdue, for me to go and see him again. And that’s why it all came together like it did, and that’s why I drove up to Aylmer to see him last weekend.
The Enterprise man just grinned at me when I told him my name. It was Thursday after work. I always pick up my rental car the night before. I’m not enough of a regular that they actually remember me. I think they keep notes in my account on the computer, maybe. Anyway, the guy just grinned when I asked what kind of car he had for me. It was a little Chevy of some kind, I forget the model. He dug around for the key. And I asked him. You got any Chargers on the lot? My usual question. He glanced at his inventory. “I don’t have a Charger,” he said. “But I got a Chrysler 300. Same car, except it’s the luxury model. Leather seats, and fully loaded. This car will move.” How much? I asked him. And he told me. Basically twice as much as the car I had reserved.
You know what? I’ll have to pass, I said, sadly. I’d love to try that car, but I can’t justify that kind of money. And I let it go, in my heart. And waited for the key to my little Chevy. But the guy wasn’t about to give up that easily. Oh, no. “Well,” he said. “I really want to see you driving that Chrysler. How about if I….” and he named a price about halfway between the Chevy and his original quote for the upcharge. I froze. Here it was. I’d given it up, but here it was.
OK, I said. I’ll take the Chrysler 300. He grinned a huge grin and filled out my paperwork. Then he fetched the car. It was clearly a powerhouse, a rum-running vehicle. Gleaming burgundy, and brand new. “Only 300 miles on it,” the guy told me proudly. I thanked him profusely. After signing off, I parked Big Blue and drove off in my mean machine. This was a good, unexpected start to things, I thought to myself. You don’t look for it, but you sure take it when it comes.
I packed light that night. Well, light for me, anyway. I’m learning not to throw in the kitchen sink when I’m heading out for a short road trip. A week, two weeks, yeah, I’ll load down the car. But only a few days? A duffle bag and a few fresh shirts on hangers. And I’m good. For me, that’s coming a long way.
The next morning, by seven, I was heading west and north. The Chrysler was going to be all the man had claimed, I could feel that pretty quick. Step on the gas, and the car jumps like a jackrabbit.
And the morning swept in at me, and then the day. And I thought about things, like I always do on the open road. I had driven this road many times, in the past. Back when Mom was sinking into darkness, back through all those years and miles I wandered in my head. And now, now, well, now my father is an old, old man. He and his sister Rachel are the only ones who remain from their world from their generation. And yes, my father is well cared for by my family. He has all that an old man could ask for. Comfort, security, and love. And yet. And yet.
He was once a powerful man, a leader, an undisputed force in his world, the Amish world. A man of renown and reputation. A man of passion who fearlessly pursued his dreams, no matter what. He never had much time for his family, his wife and children. And I want to be careful, here. He provided for us all, he always did. Unhesitatingly. Without complaint. But still, when it came to taking time, real time, for his family, and for his wife, he fell sadly short. It was not because of any ill intent in his heart, I’ll give him that. It was life. It just was what it was.
The thing is, now. Now he is old, and all alone. And now, he sits and grieves for his children, his sons and daughters. Now he has all the time, all the monotonous hours of every endless day. And now, his sons and daughters have about as much time for him as he used to have for them. And there is no ill intent in anyone’s heart, that such a thing came to be. It’s just the way it is.
The Chrysler 300 throbbed along, on and on. You could haul a lot of moonshine in a car like that, and it would never flinch or know the difference. On up north into New York, then west toward Buffalo. And as the hills passed alongside me, I saw them again, and flinched and turned my face. Those ugly, ugly giant windmills, those jarring gashes in the skies. There is no thing uglier to mar a beautiful landscape than that. And there is no thing uglier to mar the beautiful open skies.
I am convinced that one day, perhaps hundreds of years from now, sons and daughters will ask their fathers. “Father, up here in these hills, what are these deep foundations, these remnants of a previous people? Why were they here? And what did they build, way up here on high like that?”
And the fathers will tell their children. “What you see, those remnants, these foundations dug deep and poured with ancient concrete, these come from a foolish people who lived here long ago. Those foolish people worshiped the wind god, and these remnants are all that remain from the huge idols they built on the high places all around. The wind god, of course, let them down like all false gods do. And in time, their massive idols fell on their faces and disappeared into the earth, from whence they came. What you see is all that is left of those foolish people and their false and foolish religion.”
One day, these things will happen. One day, they will. That’s what I thought grimly to myself as the ugly giant windmills flashed by on both sides of me.
The border came up, then, right on schedule. I was making decent time. The Canadians are always pretty friendly. It’s coming back, that’s when the American guards are thugs. I pulled up to the guard gate window and gaped a bit, I will concede. The guard was an astonishingly beautiful woman, probably in her thirties. Oh my, I thought. I wouldn’t mind getting questioned out a little more closely by her. Maybe I should mumble my answers and act suspicious. She took my passport and asked a few rote questions. I’m going up to see family, I told her, not even remotely mumbling or suspicious. She looked bored and waved me through. So much for that. I wish the American guards were half that attractive. I’m sure, going back, some guy with a chip on his shoulder will bark at me like I’m some kind of common criminal. That’s how American guards are.
On then, to Highway 3 and west. The lovely Canadian landscape was marred with dozens and dozens of those ghastly giant windmills. The “Green” gospel spreads to all nations. It is a harsh and relentless thing, demanding endless sacrifice to pointless and insatiable idols. The Friday afternoon traffic clogged the road, but I kept pushing on and on. And by five or so, I was pulling into the parking lot of the Comfort Inn on the east edge of St. Thomas. The place where I always stay. I’m generally suspicious of Comfort Inns, but this one is relatively new and clean. I walked in and asked for a room for two nights, like I always do. It’s never been a problem, getting a room there. This time, it almost was.
The nice lady behind the desk was on the phone for a few minutes. I stood there patiently. I need a room, I told her after she hung up. “You’re in luck,” she said. “I got one room left. You can have it.” One room left? I half hollered. I always stay here, and you have never been even close to full. What in the world is going on? “The air show,” she looked at me as if I were dense. “Every motel for miles around is full. The air show is tomorrow and Sunday.” And right there, I learned that St. Thomas has an annual air show, where all kinds of stunt planes show up and do all kinds of dangerous and stunty things. Who knew? It’s certainly not something I remember from back in my childhood. I don’t guess it was going on, then.
Around 5:30, I pulled into the drive of my sister Rosemary’s place. It was very warm outside. I parked the car under a shred of shade from a small tree and walked into my sister’s house. Rosemary stood there in the kitchen, smiling and smiling in welcome. “We’ve been looking for you,” she said as we hugged. “Dad is over at his office, looking for you, too. He’s so excited, he could hardly sleep for his nap. Sit down for a few minutes, here, before going over.” I laughed. OK, I said. I’ll stay here and visit for a bit, before going over. Here, I brought you this. And I reached into my messenger bag. I got Edna’s message last night and printed about ten blogs. It’s good that she called and told me, because otherwise I wouldn’t have. I don’t go around pushing my blog on people. I handed her the hard copies. “Oh, good,” she said. “Thank you. It’s been a long, long time since we got any fresh copies. We’ll enjoy these.”
And we just sat there and caught up, me and my oldest sister. Her husband, Joe Gascho, had still not returned from his daily produce peddling route in Tillsonburg. Right now, the strawberries are coming in full force. Umm, I said. Fresh Canadian strawberries. I would love some. And I’d love some smoked sausages for supper, too. “Oh, I was going to ask,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what your restrictions are, when it comes to food and salt. I don’t want to feed you something you shouldn’t eat.” Don’t worry about it, I told her. I’m eating just about anything I’m hungry for, now. The salt doesn’t bother me. I keep a pretty close watch on everything. But I’d sure love some smoked sausages for supper. “Then that’s what we’ll have,” she smiled. And I got up to go over to see Dad.
I walked out and across the yard to the tiny little house where he and Mom used to live. The house Mom died in. Dad stays and works there during the day, and then goes over to the big house for the night. They have a nice little bedroom in the corner, and that’s where he sleeps. I reached for the door and opened it and walked it. It was cool and dark inside. Back in the back room, I could hear noises. That was Dad’s office, back there. I walked through the tiny kitchen and stood in the doorway to his office. And there the man sat at his desk.
It’s a scene I’ve seen ten thousand times before, but now I always catch my breath. The man who is my father, sitting and doing what he has loved to do all his life. Writing. His typewriter sat off to the right side of his desk, and he was peering at a large open bound volume of The Botschaft from years past. He must have heard me or maybe he saw the shadows shifting around him. He looked up and saw me and smiled. Hello, Dad, I said. “Why hello, hello, Ira,” he replied. “Come in and sit down.” He closed the large bound book and pushed his wheelchair back from his desk.
Doing some writing? I asked. “Yes, I’m doing some research for my writing,” he said. And I told him. Writing is hard work. He pressed his hands together. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it’s hard work, but I like it. I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t writing.” And he asked, then. “Are you writing? Are you working on your next book?” I was a little surprised that he thought to ask. Yes, I said. I’m writing. Mostly on my blog. But yeah, I’m playing around with the structure of the second book. Mapping it out, and getting a little writing done. I’m getting things cleared, in my head. One of these days, it’s going to get here. Pretty soon, now.
I pulled up a chair and sat down by his desk. And the two of us just sat there and talked. He was pretty excited to see me, I must say. Excited and eager. He asked what I wanted to do the next day. He thought maybe we could hitch up his horse and go and visit the graveyard where Mom is. Of course, I said. I definitely want to go with you to see her new gravestone. He kept saying, “We’ll take the horse and buggy.” I guess he figured I might try to get him to ride with me. I would never dream of such a thing. But he doesn’t know that. Either that, or he keeps forgetting. “Rosemary can go with us, and she can drive. She has a real safe horse that she drives,” he told me two or three times. Yes, yes, I said. I’m good with that. That’s what I want to do.
Dad is old now. He has lived way beyond the lifespan of most people. He’ll be ninety-five this December. And, yes, the family is there, around him. He has people, and he has loving care. But the man is also achingly alone. He has seen so much and lived so much and told so much. Now, he’s not in the present so much anymore. And his stories of the past are all he has left to say.
I prodded him with a few questions about his childhood, about Daviess. How big was the community, back when he was little? It had four districts. There were three when Dad was born, and by the time he remembers anything, they had divided into four. That’s a small community, by today’s standards. Today Daviess has around thirty or thirty-one districts. It’s a big place, Dad told me, compared to what it was when he was a child.
And a name I can’t remember hearing before kept coming up. Somehow, it got stuck in Dad’s mind. John Raber. He was older when Dad was young, and he was the wealthiest man in Daviess. People always came to him to borrow money. He’d tell them. “Come on in, and tell me about what you need the money for. I want to help you out, but I don’t want to help you in.” John always listened carefully, and he freely lent his money if he judged the loan to be a wise investment. His wife died, and he soon sought the hand of my Mom’s aunt, the widow Fanny. She rebuffed him and he went back home. Two years later, he asked again. Again, she said no. And some time after that, he asked again. By this time she got to thinking. This man won’t leave me alone. So maybe I should say yes. She did, and they were married, the two wealthiest people in Daviess. That’s what Dad told me that first evening, a story like that.
Rosemary came walking in, then, to tell us. Supper was ready. Joe still wasn’t home from town, and Edna was busy at her bakery. So it was just me and my Dad and my sister. Dad usually walks over with his walker. It takes some time. Can I push you over in your wheelchair? I asked. “Sure,” he said. And we trundled over. The table was set with delicious food. Homemade, all of it, and home cooked. Vegetable soup, and smoked sausage and bread and mayo. It all smelled and tasted like my childhood home of long ago. We sat around the small table and feasted to our hearts’ content.
The motel was crammed with air show people when I got there later. I retired early and slept fitfully that night. There’s just something about traveling and sleeping in motel rooms. I don’t rest well. The next morning, I got up and meandered out through the main drag of the community. I had cruised past the old home place the night before. Nothing looks the same anymore. And now the old house, the house that was the only home I ever knew as a young child, that house has been torn down, and a new monstrosity built in its place. It was time, I guess. The old house was old, and Rosemary told me. Once, years ago, when the house was full of people for church, there was a loud cracking sound right during the service. And the entire living room floor settled a bit. Everyone felt it. So the old house wasn’t safe to live in, anymore. Still, I felt a surge of sadness as I drove slowly by the old home place. It’s just not recognizable anymore.
The next morning, I arrived out at my sister’s home around nine, sipping my large cup of fresh Tim Horton’s coffee. I had asked timidly, at the counter. Do you take American money? Oh, yes. And it was just outstanding coffee. Tim Horton’s coffee always is. Rosemary was in a bit of a tizzy when I walked in. She and Dad had expected me earlier, and they were ready to go to the graveyard to visit Mom. I’m sorry, I told Rosemary. I thought I told you I’d be here around nine. I’m here. We walked out and hitched up the horse that Joe had harnessed before leaving that morning. Sally was a tame old plug, and the only horse my sister will drive. We chatted as we hitched her up. It’s been a few years for me. Then Rosemary led the horse and buggy over to the front of Dad’s little house, and I walked in to fetch him. He was dressed and ready to go. That coat looks a little warm, I said, holding the door open as he slowly hobbled out with his walker. We’ll take it off after you get loaded. All right. Let’s go.
It was a beautiful cloudless morning. And the day was going to get real warm. They’re having a heat wave, these days, up there in Aylmer. And the fields are dry and thirsty. There’s never been a drought, in all the years the Amish have lived there. This year, there will be, unless the rains come soon. It’s a strange thing. Rosemary and Dad sat up front. We loaded Dad’s wheelchair in the back, and I sat back there with my messenger bag and my faithful iPad. Rosemary slapped the reins and spoke to the horse. And Sally slowly lumbered out the drive and north toward the corner. We were off.
We trundled along. Dad asked. “Why isn’t Ira driving?” Oh, that’s quite alright, I said. I’m good back here. He kept fussing, though. OK, I said. I’ll drive on the way home. Over the old railroad tracks, then, and down toward the corner. There’s a school there, has been for decades. There wasn’t, back in the day. Left then, and west. Past Solomon Herrfort’s old place. It used to be all overgrown and dark and gloomy around there. No more. The place is cleaned up, all spic and span. There’s a strange story they told me again, as we were driving past. Years ago, Solomon sold the place to Nathaniel Stoll, and moved away. And some years after that, Nathaniel was cleaning out the well, for some reason. And he dug up and brought up an old gravestone. It was dated in the mid-1800s, and the young girl’s name was Mathilda. Nathaniel notified the authorities, and the local newspaper did a write-up, complete with pictures. No one knows how the gravestone got down there. Does anyone know where it is now? I asked. Dad and Rosemary didn’t know if anyone knows. Well, someone should be preserving a thing like that, I said.
All the roads around the community used to be gravel, years ago. Now they’re all paved. Except one. The road that goes by the graveyard remains graveled. The township planned to pave that road, too, but the needed setbacks would have disturbed the first row of graves, out close to the road. So they decided just to leave it graveled, Rosemary told me. Nothing wrong with that, I said, as we turned left onto that road and trundled along. The graveyard was almost at the south end of the graveled stretch, on the right. Sally plugged along, and then we pulled up to the graveyard.
It used to be all raggedy and unkempt. Not anymore. The place was neat and mowed. Most noticeably, there was a brand new wooden fence along the road, with a brand new metal gate. Wow, I said. That sure looks good, that new fence. It sure wasn’t that way when we buried Mom. Rosemary smiled, and there was pride in her face. “It was Lester (her son),” she said. “When we came over to place Mommy’s gravestone, Lester was horrified at how bad the place looked. And he got the committee together, and scheduled the frolics. The youth boys came and worked a few evenings. And now, here it is.”
Rosemary guided Sally up to a new fence post, and tied her up. I got Dad’s wheelchair and set it up beside the buggy. Then I helped him step out and sit down. I opened the shiny new green steel gate and pushed him in. We bumped over the short grass, over to the second row of gravestones. There was one long row, out along the front edge. Then there was a second row, the length of a coffin in. And then a third row, or partial row. That was where Mom was, kind of off the one end, alone, by herself. The wheelchair bumped along, through the grass. And we crossed the second row, and approached the newest gravestone in the graveyard. Mom. This was where she lived, now, in her dark new house, where the cold and bitter winds can never reach her.
I pushed Dad right up to the stone. As we got near, he removed his big black hat and placed it on his lap. I removed my hat, too. And we sat and stood there with heads bowed, me and my father, in silence for a moment. Rosemary stood behind us, closer to the fence. There were no words to speak, really, right that moment. Here, on this spot, here is where I last saw my mother’s face on this earth. Here is where Dad last looked upon the woman who had been his wife for seventy-two years.
He spoke, then, and told me. Feel the stone with Mom’s name engraved. The letters are cut in there pretty deep. He wanted something that would last, he wanted her name to be legible for a while. Longer than some of those earlier stones up in the front row. Go and feel that writing on those. It’s almost gone, almost worn away. And you won’t be able to tell, who all is buried in those spots. Not after the names get wiped away.
And we spoke, too, of the names on the stones in the second row. Familiar names to me, all of them. All of those people were alive and vibrant, all were characters in the world I knew as a child. Many of the original founders of Aylmer lived until their eighties, and a few reached the nineties. Two of Dad’s older sisters, Anna Stoll and Martha Yoder, lived the longest of all. Anna was a few days shy of ninety-six. Martha was ninety-five, if I remember right. My figures might be a bit off, but not by much. And now my father is the only one left, of all those original Aylmer settlers. Of them all, he alone remains in Aylmer. His younger sister, Rachel, lives in Iowa. The two of them are all that’s left of the original crowd. And it seemed that he knew and felt the burden of that knowledge, there that morning, sitting on his wheelchair beside my mother’s grave. One day, perhaps soon, perhaps not, he will join his people there in that spot. And one day soon, his generation will be gone. No one will remain.
We wound down, then. And I’ve got to wind down this blog, too. It’s getting way too long. That time, those moments at the graveyard that sunny Saturday morning, that brief span of time was the highlight of my trip. A powerful and moving and symbolic thing that either happens on its own or doesn’t.
I pushed Dad back to the buggy, and he got in. I loaded the wheelchair while Rosemary untied the horse. And then she got in the back, and I got in the driver’s seat and took up the reins. OK, Sally, let’s get going. Sally lurched along slowly. This time we headed south, to the corner. Then left and east, right through the main drag of the community. We got home in plenty of time for dinner (lunch).
I sat with Dad for a while and visited, then. Later that afternoon, Rosemary’s children drifted in. Eunice stopped by for a few hours. Then Phillip and his wife came over. Everyone sat and visited, just like old times. Late in the afternoon, Dad got some company from around the community. Bishop John Martin and his wife came by. We shook hands. I saw you last at Mom’s funeral, I told him. Then Mark Stoll dropped in, too, to visit. I was impressed. The Aylmer people make sure Dad gets his full share of people stopping by to see him. That’s a good thing, and so typical of the strong ties in any Amish community. You respect your elders. You care for their needs. And you go see them and spend time with them.
Rosemary bustled about, making food for supper. Lester and Tina and their family and Naomi and her husband, Peter, were coming. They usually come for supper on a Saturday night, Rosemary told me. And they all eat outside, on the deck. And soon enough, those children trickled in. The food was spread on a table outside, and we all sat around and enjoyed the feast and each other’s company. It was a calm and relaxing time. I hung out until after nine, then took my leave and headed to St. Thomas and my room.
The next morning, it was time to head for home. My Aylmer trips are always brief. I headed out through the main drag of the community one last time. The roads were clogged with horses and buggies and swarms of people walking. There would be church at Bishop Pete Yoder’s old place. My cousin, Ezra Wagler, lives there now, and has for decades. I saw all the buggies packed together and parked as I slowly drove on by. Forty years ago, that was me, walking along the road to church at that farm.
I pulled in and parked under a sliver of shade at Rosemary’s place. I walked into the big house first. My sister sat there with her husband and their youngest daughter, Edna. Their district had Sunday School that afternoon, so they were in no hurry to get anywhere. I sat and drank coffee and visited for a while, then walked over to Dad’s little house to say good-bye.
He was sitting at his desk, as usual. But on a Sunday morning, he wasn’t typing. He was reading. The Bible, I think. I didn’t look that close. I stood there just inside the door, and we chatted for a few minutes. It had crossed my mind before on this trip, but this was the first time I told him. Well, I guess this is Father’s Day, I said, kind of awkwardly. Happy Father’s Day.
“Father’s Day?” he asked, and then he looked a little shy and chuckled. We observed the day, when I was growing up. But nobody made any kind of big fuss. And that’s how he was taking what I said. Without any kind of big fuss. I’m leaving now, I said, offering my hand. He took it and held it for a brief moment.
He is an old man, now. He has seen and lived and felt more than most men will ever see and live and feel. He is surrounded by family and love and communal support. But still. He is more alone now than he has ever been. And he sits and grieves every day for his children, his sons and daughters who live far away.
Good-bye, Dad, I said.
“Good-bye,” he said. “Thanks for coming to visit. I hope you have a safe trip home.”
And then I turned and left him.Share