If a man harbors any sort of fear, it percolates through all his thinking,
damages his personality, makes him landlord to a ghost.
—Lloyd C. Douglas
It was kind of odd, the thing that came at me just a few weeks back. Over Labor Day weekend, was when it happened. And it was a little unsettling. I’m not sure where to go with it, so I guess I’ll just tell the story.
I live in a fairly old house. Well, not old, as they think old in Europe, or anything. Near as I can tell, my house was built in the 1920s, sometime. It’s made of brick. Two full stories. A full basement. And a full attic. Lots of old wood, to creak and groan around at night in the wind. I’ve lived all alone, too, here in the old house. Tenants came and went, over the years, and most of them were a good riddance when they left. This time, before the current tenant came wandering along, I had lived alone for two-plus years. It never bothered me. Actually, I liked the solitude. No fuss or hassles. No one around, to worry about. No one around but me. But I sure did miss that rent money.
The tenant got here last year, in the spring. The man has been real good for my place. And totally fine, to have around. He doesn’t bother me. We talk, when we see each other. Now and then, we’ll sit out on the front porch, outside his door, and drink a beer or something I mixed up. He knows the territory, he’s been around. If I need a contact of some kind, he usually knows who to talk to. He’s not religious, that I know of. We’ve chatted, now and then, about it. He gave me his sympathies, back when Mom passed away last spring. And told me in detail of how his own Mom had passed. I never told him I write. As far as I know, he still has no idea I ever wrote a book. He never even knew I was an attorney, until I mentioned it offhand, a few weeks back. He about had a fit. I figure when and if he ever finds out about the book, he’ll probably have another fit. And I’ll give him a copy. That day might come, or it might not. So far, it hasn’t.
What I’m saying is, the man is a solid, rational man, who’s been around the block a few times. Not given to telling wild tales. But it was kind of strange, back in July, when I got back from my road trip. I had been gone for ten days. No worries, though, about things at home. I just tell the tenant the dates I’ll be gone. He gathers my mail for me, and keeps an eye on the place. I feel very good about having someone like that around when I’m gone.
When I got back that Saturday afternoon, he was around. He brought my bag of mail to the door, and knocked. I opened it, and we stood there and talked. Thanks, I said, taking the mail. “No problem,” he said. Then: “Man, I’m glad to see you back. This old house makes some very strange noises at night.” I’m sure it does, I said. It’s old, and creaks and groans some. But at least the furnace is turned off, downstairs. It doesn’t clank and rattle, at least not during the summer. “It makes some very strange noises,” he said again. But he didn’t seem all that perturbed about anything. And we left it at that, as far as any strange noises the house makes. But I thought about it later, what he had said. It was just an odd comment, I thought.
Labor Day Saturday, early afternoon. I was fixing to leave to run some errands, see some friends. A beautiful sunny day. The tenant had the big garage door open, his car parked outside, the front wheels up on ramps. He’s always tinkering with that thing. I ambled out to chat a bit. He told me what he was doing, some little repair. He was sipping a cold beer, and offered me a can. Nah, thanks, I’m driving here, shortly, I said. He stood there and took another sip. Then he looked at me very strangely, kind of sideways. And then he spoke.
“Have you ever considered the fact that your house might be haunted?” He asked. A question I sure wasn’t expecting. And as I like to say now and then. Well, what do you do with that? He kept looking at me, half sheepishly. And then he got to telling me a few stories.
“You know,” he said. “I’ve never been one to pay much attention to such stuff. But I’m telling you, there is something in your house. I’ve heard it walking, clear as a bell, when no one else was around. Usually of a morning, after you leave for work. The steps are as heavy as yours, so I figure it has to be a man about your size.”
Ah, are you sure? I was a little dubious. I’ve never felt anything like that, except once. I can tell you a pretty freaky story. But I’ve never sensed any presence around me downstairs, ever. And I’m up late, often, on my computer. You know that, you probably hear me when I go to bed. Are you sure it’s not the cleaning lady, of a morning like that? She comes around once a month, and she has a key to get in.
He shook his head. Dismissively. “No, it’s not her. I hear you walking down there all the time. And I know what footsteps sound like. I know when I hear them. And it’s someone as heavy as you. And I haven’t heard it that often. Maybe ten, a dozen times. But the one morning, it was so clear that I thought it must be you. I actually walked around and looked out all the windows, to make sure your truck wasn’t parked where it usually isn’t. It wasn’t. You were gone. Those footsteps down there were as clear as yours ever are.”
And we talked about it. Strangely, there was one emotion that didn’t come to me. And that was fear. I felt none. This was my home. I won’t be afraid in my own home. The tenant told me he had felt a presence of some kind, upstairs, on different occasions. And once or twice, in his little living room, he caught movement out of the edge of his eye, as if someone were there. I wasn’t sure what to make of it all. The tenant is a calm and steady man, from all I’ve ever seen of him. Not given to hallucinations, he has no habit of excessive drinking that I ever saw, anyway. I drink way more than he does.
I’ve never felt any presence like that, I told him. Never. Never felt any malevolence from anything in that house. But I’ll tell you a little story. I’ve ever only told one person before. A thing that happened about three years ago. He looked at me, very interested. And I told him. I got home from work one day. Normal day. And I noticed the round wall clock, up behind the TV. It was stopped. I forget the exact minute, but sometime earlier that day. No big deal, I figured. The battery had just died. I’d just change it. The clock is hard to get to, up in that corner. I struggled around and finally lifted it from the nail it hung on.
It was a clock Dad had given me, years before. A “bird” clock. Every hour had a picture of a different bird. And if you put two batteries in the lower slot, you’d hear that bird singing or chirping on the hour. I never was interested in hearing those birds. So I never put any batteries in the bottom slot. The clock was just a clock, with a single battery in the top slot, to make it run.
I looked at the clock in my hands. Turned to the back, to remove the battery. And a chill shot through me. The battery had been removed from the top slot, and inserted into the bottom slot, where it took two, to make the birds sing. The battery had been removed from where it was that morning.
That freaked me out pretty bad, I told the tenant. I could find nothing else out of place, in all the house. I mean, I looked. I had stuff lying around, stuff you could easily pick up. Everything was exactly as I’d left it that morning, except for the battery in that clock. And for some reason, I thought of a ghost, a spirit, right then. Something had done that. I was pretty freaked out, at that moment. Oh, yes, I was. And I was a little jumpy for the next week or so. And I wrote a little note, and stuck it on the clock. Whoever you are, whatever you are, stop it. I will come after you if you don’t.
The tenant looked all wise when I finished. “It hasn’t happened often, that I heard something,” he said. “But believe me, I heard it.” I do believe you, I said. And he told me more. He woke up in the middle of the night, once. His bedroom door was cracked open, about a foot. “And as sure as I’m standing here talking to you, I could feel someone behind that door, looking at me,” he said. “I got up with a flashlight and walked over and opened it. Nothing was there. Do you know what the history of your house is? Did anyone ever die in there, in a bad way?”
I don’t know, I said. I know a previous tenant tried to overdose once, with pills, in my bedroom. He didn’t get it done, though.
“Well, it couldn’t be him, then,” the tenant actually chuckled. “If he didn’t get it done, it couldn’t be him.” I agreed. It’s usually a suicide when the spirits stay. Or often, anyway. I don’t know anything about the history of my house. I left then, to see my friends, and run my errands. The tenant was working away, at his car.
I got back around five or so. And I had it on my mind, what he’d told me. I wanted to talk to him some more about it. So I texted him. You got a minute? He came right down, handed me a cold beer, and we sat out on the front porch and talked.
I asked him a lot of specific questions, about what he had heard. And he was adamant. Well, I said. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll mention it to my pastor. See what he thinks about it. Maybe I can have him come over and put that spirit to rest. The tenant looked at me. “I have no problem with that, if he knows what he’s doing,” he said. Oh, I trust my pastor, I said. If he tells me he can do it, he can do it. We sat there and sipped our beers, and got to talking about a lot of other things.
I believe places can be haunted. I totally do. I believe there are ghosts, and such things as spirits, mostly unseen and unheard. I don’t know how you can be a Christian, and not believe in them. They are there, in a spiritual world. Thing is, all my life, I have never, never “tempted the spirits.” I’ve never dabbled in anything even remotely, that would make such entities show up. I’ve never visited a fortune teller, never consulted a medium. I would never play with any Ouija Board. That kind of stuff is not for me. I would never walk into a “haunted house’ at night to see what I can see. I just don’t want to go there, I never have. It’s best to leave alone what you don’t understand. That’s how I’ve always felt, what I’ve always believed.
And now, here’s my tenant, a totally rational man, telling me he’s hearing things in my house. Below him, right where I live. I don’t know. I can’t help but believe him. Or at least I believe he’s telling me what he believes he heard. This is an older house. There are all kinds of pipes running through it. Hot water, cold water. And those pipes make all kinds of noises, when they contract and expand. Rational thought, to me, goes like this. I take a shower, every morning. And then I leave. Who knows, what kinds of noises the water pipes make, after all that hot water just flowed through them? Not saying it’s one way or the other. Just saying, that’s where my mind goes, trying to rationalize what the tenant’s telling me. But on the other hand, he’s telling me he heard those footsteps only ten to a dozen times, in the year and a half he’s lived here. It’s all kind of weird.
Other than that freaky clock battery incident, I have never, never felt any presence down here in my part of the house but my own. Never. I’ve never sensed anything. Never seen any “movement” out of the corner of my eye. And I’ve never been afraid. This is my home. This is where I live. You can’t live in fear in your own home.
The next morning, after church, I didn’t get a chance to chat with Pastor Mark. I had to leave a few minutes early, for a cookout more than an hour away. The next day, Labor Day, I was just lounging around that afternoon. And I decided I’d call him. So I did. He didn’t act all that surprised to hear from me, until I hemmed around a bit. Do you believe a house can be haunted? I asked.
“Yes, I believe that,” he answered. “Why do you ask?” Well, I’d come this far. So I plunged right on in. The tenant swears my house is haunted, I told him. A slight pause. He was still on the line. At least he hadn’t hung up on me. Or called me crazy.
“Well, tell me about it,” he said. And I did. Told him all the stuff the tenant had told me. How he had clearly heard footsteps, right down here where I live. Right here, in my house, when no one’s home.
I give the man a lot of credit. How many pastors get a call like that, from anyone attending their church? My house might be haunted. Pastor Mark didn’t blink an eye. He engaged. First, of course, he went through all the rational things. Old house, creaking timbers, creaking floors, thumping pipes. Things that go “bump” in the night. Combine all that with the human imagination, and it’s very real, what you hear. Yeah, yeah, I said. That’s what I told the tenant. I’ve never sensed any presence here, except once. And I told him about the clock battery. He absorbed that. Someone snuck into your house and did that. He didn’t say it. But I could hear him thinking it.
It all doesn’t matter, I guess, I said. I feel no fear. I’ve never felt any fear, living here. But I’m intrigued by what the tenant’s telling me. He’s a rational man. And he’s not leaving, or anything. But I believe him, when he tells me what he heard.
And Pastor Mark told me. There has to be a portal, somewhere, for a spirit to enter and settle. He took the worst case scenario. “Let’s say there was a mass murderer, down there in the basement. And let’s say he slit a whole bunch of victims’ throats, then committed suicide. Right down there, in your basement. Yes, I could see where evil spirits would enter and stay, and haunt your house. But they have no authority, to physically hurt you. They don’t.”
There’s no record of any such thing in my basement, that I’m aware of, I told him.
“That’s the most extreme example,” he said. “There are lesser ways, lesser portals, for a spirit to enter.” And he mentioned an example. I don’t have a problem with that particular thing, I said.
And then I thought about it, and I asked my pastor. Could that portal be alcohol? I drink. More than I should. (I’m fixing to do something about that real soon, now.) Which he already knew. Because I told him. And now I was asking. Could that be it?
He didn’t hesitate. “No,” he said. “That’s a chemical thing, alcohol. That in and of itself will never open your house to any spirit. What you do when you’re under the influence might. But not the alcohol alone. It’s a chemical thing, by itself.”
We chatted for a few more minutes, then wrapped it up. “It could be something natural, like imagination combined with the house creaking. It could be a spirit, or it could just be a mystery,” he said. “We live free in Christ. And in the end, if you want, we can walk through the house and rebuke whatever it is that’s in your home. In the name of Jesus. I’ll be glad to do it. That is your home. You own it. And you can tell anything that shouldn’t be there to leave, because Jesus is Lord over all.”
His words were calming. But still, I wasn’t quite ready to go that far, right now. Look, I told him. I’m leaving soon for a week. The tenant doesn’t want a lot of hassle. So let’s leave it as it is, for right now. I’ve never felt anything, any malevolent force in my home, except maybe for that clock. And the tenant doesn’t seem all that eager, to get anyone else involved. I’m leaving for a week, for the beach. Let’s just wait until I get back, and we’ll go from there. If the tenant keeps hearing things, I’ll get back to you, and we’ll do the walk-through. “Certainly, that’s no problem,” he said. And that’s how we left it.
And that’s where it all is right now. Just resting. Waiting.
And yes, that beautiful magical time is here again. Beach Week. We head out tomorrow, for a full week of relaxation and no drama. And I am beyond ready for it. This has been a tough, tough year. In more ways than one. It’s been a while, since I’ve seen one like it. There have been hard things, there have been sad things, and real joy has been sparse. I have never claimed more than a mustard seed of faith. This year, sometimes, even that tiny little seed seemed to be slipping away. But I grasped it, held on to it, because there was nothing else to do. God is always there, even when He doesn’t seem to be. I know that, and I hold on.
I am so, so tired. Weary, right down to my bones. And I am ready to breathe again the salt air of the sea, to absorb the sound of those crashing, calming waves. Ready to relax and let it all sink in. Ready to rest my heart and cleanse my soul.
Who owns the earth? Did we want the earth, that we should
wander on it? Did we need the earth, that we were never
still upon it?
There’s only one way to take a road trip, the way I see it. Well, there might be more than one way, but there’s only one best way. You take a road trip alone. You travel with no baggage of any kind but your own. That’s how it’s worked for me, anyway. You live alone. You walk alone. And you travel alone.
I was feeling pretty relaxed about life, that Monday morning after the Great Bloomfield Amish Reunion. Well, mostly, anyway. I checked out of the Southfork Motel soon after eight. The nice desk lady smiled and we chatted. I’m heading out, I told her. Heading to points south. She wished me well, and thanked me again for the book. She had asked about it, and I had sold her one the day before. I hope you enjoy it, I told her. She was sure she would. After gassing up the Charger at the Casey’s down the street, I headed west on Highway 2 for Rt. 63 South.
There’s a huge trading post there now, by that intersection where 2 and 63 connect. Dutch Country General Store. And I mean, it’s huge. Someone cranked out a lot of capital to make that happen. It seems strange, to see such a thing in that area. Don’t seem like there’s enough people living around there to support it. Not unless it becomes a tourist destination in and of itself. Which might happen. I hope it does. Anyway, the place is pretty breathtaking. Large signs line the road. Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. Bulk Foods. And the one that pulls in lots of passers-by, I suspect. Free Soft Ice Cream. I had checked out the place, the week before. It’s just amazing what all they have in stock. Everything from groceries and meat to bulk foods to large stuffed animals. Trinkets, signs, you name it. I’m pretty sure you’ll find it there.
And that morning, I stopped in as I was heading out. I wanted to talk to the proprietor, a very friendly young Holdeman Mennonite. I had chatted with him when I stopped in before. He knew my brother, Titus. And he claimed he occasionally checked out my blog.
This morning, I wanted to do a bit of hawking, something I rarely do. I’ve never pushed my book on anyone. Today I would. I walked in shyly, clutching a copy. He smiled when he saw me. And I showed it to him. This book happened right here, in the area, I said. I think you should stock it. I have some in my trunk. I’ll sell you a few, if you want. He took it from me and looked at it curiously. I showed him the back cover. Right there. It happened in Bloomfield, Iowa. Right around you, here. I know they’d sell.
He smiled again. “We have to check out any reading material, before we sell it,” he said. Great, I’ll sign this copy and give it to you then, I replied. And if you decide to sell them, you can order direct from Tyndale. So that’s what I did. He took it from me willingly enough. I’m not sure what he’ll think of it, or thinks of it by now. Or if he’ll stock it. He may not want to offend his Amish customers. So who knows? But hey, I tried. I guarantee that book would sell in his store. Just thinking aloud, here. If any of you happen to pass through there, stop by and ask for it. A little pressure is always a good thing.
And then it was off, down Rt. 63 South. Toward the Missouri line. I can’t remember thinking about it right at that moment, but this was the same stretch of road where three scared and desperate boys rocketed along in an old green Dodge late one long-ago Sunday morning. Same road. Same scenery, just a little more built up.
Into Missouri then, toward Kirksville. I dreaded that little slog, through that city. I remembered it had a hundred stop lights, or so it seemed. When I approached, though, there was a delightful surprise. A bypass, right around the east side of the city. It was pretty new. My GPS kept screaming at me to turn right onto side streets, to the old Rt. 63. I ignored it, and very shortly Kirksville was behind me as I headed on south.
And I thought about it, as I drove along. The news we had heard last night, while I was out at Titus and Ruth’s home for supper. I think my sister Rachel texted me. And I called her, and we talked. It was about Dad. He had attended the funeral of little Abby, the day before. They drove straight through, to get to Kalona from Aylmer. And soon after the funeral was over, that afternoon, they drove all the way back home, straight through. The next morning, Sunday, he was pretty tired. So he told Rosemary he wanted to stay home from church, and rest. Which was fine, but unheard of, such a thing coming from Dad. He used to drag us to church when we were more than half sick, years ago. So something was dreadfully wrong, for him to decide not to go. There had to be. And there was. When they returned that afternoon from church, they found him over there in his little Daudy house. On the floor, incoherent. Of course, everyone’s first thought was that he’d had a stroke. He was rushed to the hospital in Tillsonburg. And the diagnosis came back. I heard it that day, that Monday as I was driving along. No stroke. He has a severe infection in his leg. Good. No stroke. But still, he was in pretty bad shape.
And it was almost more than an exhausted mind can take, to consider the loss of one more person in the family. No. Not now, Lord. Not now. We’re all tired. Weary, beyond words. I’m so weary of death and loss. And I’m so weary of writing about it. Can’t you just hold off, on calling my father home? And yet, I thought of the logistics. I was on the road. And I had my black suit and white shirt right with me. Funeral clothes, if I needed them. Whatever came, I would walk into it. That’s all you can do. But still. Lord, please spare my father for a little while.
The Charger cruised along into the beautiful sunny day. I-70 West for an hour or so, then south toward Springfield. Then off on little two lane highways, over toward Dunnegan. There’s something unique and very calming about the Missouri countryside. You can tell it’s Missouri land. Grass fields, kind of sparse and bleak. But it all seems so very laid back. Little towns sprout up, and you cruise slowly through them. Check out all the little stores on the square, half of which are boarded up. They once pulsed with life, those little towns. They once were worth building. Now they’re barely hanging on, most of them. Barely worth maintaining. I guess it’s some kind of symbol of some kind of cycle of life. But me, I’d rather have been around those towns when they were alive.
And I arrived at the ranch in Dunnegan, right at two o’clock. They welcomed me, Elmer and Naomi. My good friends, from back home. They bought the eight hundred acre ranch a few years back. Their sons, Raymond and Allen live there. Raymond works full time with the cattle and sheep. Elmer and Naomi go out for a few weeks at a time, a few times a year. I had told them when I’d be coming through, and it just happened that they had some business affairs going on about right then, at the ranch. So there they were, my friends from Lancaster, welcoming me to their sons’ home in Missouri.
After unpacking in the large spacious guest house, I went on a tour of the place. Elmer showed me around. Eight hundred acres is a lot of land. Miles of it, practically. There’s lots of lanes and ponds and woods. And everything was so green. Usually the grass is brown in Missouri in July. Not this summer. They had an abnormal amount of rain, always coming down right at the right time. We went first to see the sheep. I have a particular soft spot for sheep; I used to raise a few back on the old home farm in Bloomfield. Raymond runs about four hundred “hair” sheep, total, with the lambs that came this spring. He does the natural grazing thing, with electric fences that he moves every day or every few days. Then on to the cattle. Red Angus and another brand I don’t remember. Cattle that can take the heat. Raymond grazes those the same way, moving the electric fence to new grasses every few days or so.
That night, after supper, I did something I hadn’t done in far too long. I went fishing. There was a pond across the pasture, with a dock. Elmer and I walked up, and we baited our hooks. I cast a line into the water for the first time in probably seven or eight years. And we just sat there and talked, two old friends. I think I caught one. Elmer caught half a dozen or so. We threw them all right back in. And as dusk settled around us, it was all so peaceful and country and quiet. And I thought to myself. It’s been way too many years since I fished a pond at sunset.
The next day, we just putzed around, running errands in town. And checking out the area. I could live in a place like this. I really could. We stopped by a little country flea market. It was so totally Missouri and so totally comfortable. Wandering through, poking at stuff laid out on tables. Chatting with the vendors. The day passed, and that evening a group of friends and family came around. Homemade pizza and salad, is what we had. It was all a good thing.
The week was moving right along. The next morning, I left my friends. On then, to the next stop. My nephew, Andrew Yutzy, lives in the Warsaw, MO, area with his family. They had been at the reunion in Bloomfield. That’s where Andrew was born. I had asked him. Mind if I stop by and see you for a day or so? He was adamant. Absolutely. We don’t get much family company. Stop by, we’ll hang out. And by late that Wednesday morning, I pulled into their little farm out in the country.
I met all the family, and was welcomed. Andrew took me around the place. Lovely little farm, over a hundred acres, I think. That afternoon, we drove around the area, and he showed me around. Land that was for sale, a farm here, a little acreage there. I felt the same as I had back in Dunnegan. I could live here, back in the Midwest. I really could. And one day, I probably will. Thing is, I just don’t know what there is to do for a living. If I could figure that out, I’d be out there a lot sooner than later.
It was pretty warm that afternoon. But Andrew insisted I would catch fish, if I wanted to, out by his pond close to the house. So we took lawn chairs out. The children came too. Andrew hooked up one of his rigs, and I started casting. Like I said, it was a real hot day, when fish don’t usually bite much. His pond must have been swarming with hungry fish, because for over an hour, I pulled them out, one after another. And threw them right back in. Nine, ten inchers, little bass. But it was a lot of fun.
We talked about the latest news about Dad, Andrew’s grandpa. After one night at the hospital, he had insisted on going back home. So he was released, that Monday. It was a very poor decision. That night, he tossed and turned, and called out, delirious. And the next day, they rushed him back in. His leg had swollen to twice its normal size, and was dark red. Cellulitus. The doctors instantly hooked him up to IV medications and oxygen. And there for a day or so, he drifted off right into that gray area between life and death. He was still hanging on, when I was at Andrew’s house. But we figured there was about a fifty/fifty chance he’d make it.
Andrew had fired up the smoker, way earlier in the day. And he proudly served smoked brisket for supper, a delicious feast. His wife, Marnita, and the children all went off to Bible School at their church, then. The children were all excited and eager to go. Andrew and I hooked up his boat to his pickup, and went off to a nearby lake to do some more fishing. It was the first time I’d ever done such a thing, I think. We pushed off, and Andrew headed a few miles to his favorite spots. We sat there and relaxed and cast in our lures. I caught one large Crappy. Andrew caught a bottom feeder of some sort. We just talked and caught up. About life, and how it goes. And how it is, sometimes. Andrew has a very nice little family. I look at that, and feel a twinge, now and then. I will never see, never experience such a thing. After dark, we headed home. The children were just going to bed. We sat around a bit with them. And then Andrew and I walked out to his pond and relaxed on the lawn chairs and just chilled.
The next morning, after a scrumptious breakfast with the family, I was on the road by 9:30. Heading back east now. Next stop, May’s Lick, Kentucky. My brother Joseph’s home. I’ve referred to it, but never explicitly told it, here on this blog. Because Joseph asked me not to. But now, he told me I could. The man has been seriously ill for about five years or so. Multiple Myeloma. A cancerous blood disease. A lot of people afflicted with it live for a good many years. You can manage it, if you’re careful. Joseph has been very careful, but there’s been more than a few times that he came just that close to leaving us. Earlier this spring, or maybe it was late winter, he got pneumonia. And it came within a hair’s breadth of taking him. He barely pulled out. Which made it all the more of a miracle, that all of my family was gathered there in Aylmer when we buried Mom.
And he tires easily, Joseph does. He has seen a lot, and suffered a lot. I had called him before leaving home. Told him I’d like to stop by, on my way back home. He was very welcoming. So now, on this Thursday of my week on the road, I drove the Charger east. All day, around St. Louis and on through Indiana. And by 6:30 or so that night, I checked in at a Holiday Inn in Louisville. I love Holiday Inns, not the Express ones. The real old ones, because they always have a pub attached. You can check in and unpack, and walk down for some food and drink. And that’s what I did that night.
The next morning, I headed on east. Looked like I’d arrive in May’s Lick around eleven. I hadn’t figured on the road construction, though, on those two-lane highways. I puttered and putzed around, through small town after small town. And shortly before noon, I arrived at my brother’s place.
His married daughter, Laura, and her husband and family live in the big home house, now. Joseph and Iva have moved over to the little attached house, where Dad and Mom used to live a few years back. I shook my brother’s hand, and they all welcomed me. Lunch would be served soon. And Joseph and I just sat there and caught up. It’s been a while since we’ve had a real one on one conversation, face to face.
He had a couple of funny stories to tell me. And we laughed together, about them. “I’ve been asked by about five different bishops about your Elmo Stoll stories,” he said. “They ask. Are these stories true? And I tell them. My brother was fifteen years old, when he saw these things. Just a young boy. Reacting to a powerful leader.” I laughed. What were their reactions? I asked. “They smiled and looked real wise,” Joseph answered. I laughed some more. I tell you, I wrote it as it was, I said. Not that you or any of them will ever agree with what I wrote. But I did. I wrote it like it was.
We visited about this and that. And soon, he told me another funny little story. He was talking to some plain Mennonite from right here in PA, recently. And the guy asked him. “Was that your brother who wrote that book?” Joseph shriveled a bit, then admitted that it was. “Well,” the plain Mennonite announced loudly. “I read it, too. And I’m sure never going to let any of my children read it.” I sat there and roared. What did you say, then? I asked. Did you agree with him? Joseph just smiled sheepishly and refused to answer, but I’m pretty sure he did. Which is totally fine. But I told him. You can’t keep your children from reading a book, once they get older. And this guy won’t be able to, either. The more he rages against my book, the more they’ll want to read it. And one day, I think they will, or at least some of them will. But hey, whatever works. If he thinks he can control them like that, more power to him.
We talked about Dad, too, and how it was going up in Aylmer. He was still in the hospital, there in Tillsonburg. The swelling had gone down, in his leg. I think they pulled him back from the edge, I said. And we talked about how close it had come. To us losing him that week. One of these days, and it won’t be long, he’s gonna leave us, I said. Joseph agreed.
Laura and her sister, Rosanna, had prepared the noon meal. And we walked over to eat. It was a haystack meal. Delicious. Corn chips. Cooked ground burger. Shredded cheese, and all the other toppings. We loaded our plates, and sat at the table to eat. Talking and laughing all the while.
And by three o’clock, our visiting was done. Joseph had an appointment somewhere, to go to. And I needed to be moving on. I wanted to get some miles behind me, before stopping for the night. Because I didn’t want that last stretch for home tomorrow to be too long.
And last Saturday night, it came down. The Great Annual Ira Wagler Garage Party. I had invited more people than ever before. And almost all of them came. A few pulled out at the last minute, but they told me why. And that they’d love to be here next year. I lugged home fifty sausages from Stoltzfus Meats. My friend Paul grilled them over charcoal. Usually, there’s ten or a dozen left over. Not that night. After the last person had left, around midnight, there were five measly sausages in the pot. Almost, I had cut it too close.
A huge feast showed up like magic, as people arrived. Dishes of this and that. Delicious stuff, all of it. We sat around, and ate and talked. Just like usual. Around 7:30, it started drizzling. I couldn’t believe it. Rain hadn’t been in the forecast. It was supposed to be clear. But then a funny thing happened. Everyone crowded inside. The Hi-Lo card game was going on over at the bar. I hovered, keeping an eye on it. And at one point, the pot reached heights never seen before in my garage. One of these years, a SWAT team is gonna raid my party. And because we were all inside, people stood around and sat around, real close to each other. And you had to talk to the person next to you, or it would have been rude. So overall, I think, the rain actually was a good thing. It stopped, after about an hour, and the lawn chairs were soon spread in a half circle outside again.
My friend from Missouri didn’t make it like he’d promised, though. I was pretty disappointed. That’s the one thing that’ll always evoke a visceral reaction from me. If you tell me you’ll be somewhere to get together, and then you back out. I don’t know why. Must be some deep seed down there that triggers it, a seed that recoils at the slightest hint of rejection. If you tell me you’re gonna be there, be there. And if I ever figure out that you never intended to show up, if I sense that you were always just pretending, I get pretty livid. Some of my father’s rage bubbles and boils hard, down deep. Yeah, maybe I could use some counseling. But that’s just the way it is.
I contacted the friend I’d never met, the one who had promised to show up. I thought we had an understanding, I told him. I even wrote on my blog that you were coming, trucking in all the way from Missouri. Bragged about it. He was extremely apologetic. And he had a very valid reason for not showing up. He was haying. All that rain they had out there all summer, all through July, that rain kept him from cutting his crop. He needed four straight days of drying weather when the ground was bone dry. And those four magical days aligned, the very week of my party. He had to make hay when the sun shone. And I fully understood that. I come from the farm. All right, I messaged him. You’re still invited next year. I hope to see you then. But consider yourself on probation. If you don’t make it next time, I’ll have to rethink things.
Dad was released from the hospital about a week after I got home. A very different man than he was when I last saw him only a few short weeks ago. He’s bedridden, and a little befuddled in his mind. He can’t walk. At one point, and maybe even still, they had to feed him. It was too much, for my sister Rosemary to worry about, to have him back in his little house. So her oldest daughter, Eunice, and her husband David, offered to take him in and care for him. They have a row of daughters. Lots of help. And so now, there Dad is, with the family of one of his granddaughters.
And they told me a little story, from when Dad was in the hospital. One evening, as they were there with him, he saw a man across the room that slightly resembled me. And Dad took a notion in his head that it was me. So he told them. “Tell Ira to come over here. I want to talk to him. There he is. Tell him to come over.” They tried to tell him it wasn’t me. But he kept calling out my name. And he did it a time or two in his delirious states, too, when he didn’t even know what he was saying. He called out my name from where he was.
What do you do with that? Where can you take it, in your head and heart? How can you balance that out against all the pain and heartbreak and rejection of the past? I don’t know. The man’s writing days are over, I think. The thing that was dearest to his heart is gone, now. And I’m thinking that one day pretty soon, over a weekend, I’ll be driving up to see him, probably for the last time. I have a clear picture in my head of who he was, and how we spoke to each other the last time I saw him, there at Abby’s funeral. And a clear memory in my heart.
It’s a beautiful picture in my head. And it’s a beautiful memory in my heart. I’m not sure I want to ruin any of it.
I guess I’m in a strange kind of place. And I can’t really explain it. But this is how it is. If he leaves before I get there, then so be it. And if he’s there when I get there, then so be it, too.