But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home?…
He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like
water, and that one day men come home again.
I thought about it, as I headed out south and west in the Charger that Saturday afternoon. It sure is a strange day, all around. In the morning, you attend the funeral of your niece’s little three-year-old daughter. And now, that was over, there in Kalona. And now, it was on to another place. An event I had long looked forward to, because there were a lot of people there I wanted to see and hang out with. The Bloomfield Amish Reunion.
It comes only with time, that a group of misfits gets large enough and confident enough to where there can be such a thing as a reunion. Or a second one, as this one was. Back when I left, in the late 1980s, probably less than a dozen renegades had done something so shockingly wicked as to leave it all behind. And set out on their own roads. The community was small then, only two districts. And when someone drifted off like I did, there was lots of talk. A lot of clucking and shaking of heads. The poor boy. He’s so lost. Let’s hope he finds his way back, even though this is the fifth time he left.
That was then. Now, the roads of Old Bloomfield are gone. At least the world you saw from those roads is. It’s no longer the obscure little Amish community in the sticks it once was. And a lot happened, as it grew during those years after I left. A lot of young people came up through, and some of them created scandals that made any wild thing I ever pulled off seem pretty calm in retrospect. No use going into much detail about any of that. But let’s just say that the Bloomfield Amish community has seen close to everything there is to see, when it comes to rebellious youth. Not everything. Daviess has stories from way back, stories that would make any face turn pale. No one in Bloomfield ever came close to trying to blow up a silo with dynamite, as some crazy wild Amish youth did in Daviess, decades ago. But still. Bloomfield has seen a lot.
The second Great Bloomfield Amish Reunion was the brainchild of one person, mostly. Ed Yoder. My nephew John was also very involved in making it happen. But it was Ed’s idea, originally. I remember him from way back. He was a problem child, an extraordinarily mean little kid. It was his energy, I think, that made him act like that. He was totally out of control. I don’t remember his parents’ names. But they moved in from the troubled settlement of Jamesport, MO.
I don’t know how much younger Ed is than me. Maybe ten years or so. But I remember a thing that happened one Sunday afternoon. Church was at our house. And that afternoon, I was out there, in the barn. Ed and a few of his friends were getting underfoot and making a lot of noise. I’m talking eight to ten-year-olds. And somehow, he mouthed off to me quite insolently. I didn’t hesitate. I just reached out and grabbed that boy. Held him upside down, and dangled him by his ankles, right there in the cow barn. And admonished him a bit about how he needs to learn to respect his elders a little better. I think Ed remembers that particular experience. We’ve laughed about it, since. He mentions it, now and then. We’re good friends now, we see things the same, politically. Which means he’s an anarchist, too. He’s a real good man, with a real nice family.
Anyway, people in Ed’s generation walked away from Bloomfield, after I did. And people after him left, too. They all have their own stories. They all went through their own hard times. I know Ed walked some hard roads. They all did.
This is how it goes, though, when you leave a place like Bloomfield. With the passing of time, you settle in, and settle down. That’s what happened, to all those kids that came after me. They settled down. Moved on with their lives, and with their families. And in time, there came a strong pull for a lot of us to go back to the place we left. Not individually, but as a group. To assemble there. To go back and reconnect. With the place and with each other.
I pulled in at the Southfork Motel around four. Right out along Rt. 63. It used to be a dive, Southfork. But John had told me it had all been redone, remodeled lately. So I took a chance and booked a room. The nice lady welcomed me when I walked in and told her my name. I’m here for the reunion, I said. Has anyone else checked in for that?
She smiled. “Yes, there are a few. Your friend Vern has a room here.” She handed me my room key. And yes, I mean a real key. I gaped at it. A key? She laughed. That’s how we do it here,” she said. “I do all the reservations by hand, too, on paper.” I thanked her and unloaded my luggage and checked out my room. John had been right. It was just like new. Big king bed, and real nice furniture. After unpacking, I walked out to head on out to Lake Fisher. That’s where the reunion was. I chatted a bit with the desk lady on the way out.
“So you wrote a book?” she asked. Who told you that? I asked. It was Vern, wasn’t it? That guy. I think he likes to tell people he’s in a book. She laughed again. “Well, he did tell me a little bit about what you all used to do around here,” she said.
Lake Fisher is just west of Bloomfield, less than half a mile. Along a gravel road. I drove in and followed the long, winding lane to the pavilion in the back. A bunch of vehicles were parked there. Small knots of people milled about. A softball game was happening on the diamond. I walked in to the pavilion, where a few people lounged about. I saw my friend, Ed Yoder, and walked up to him. We shook hands. A few others smiled and greeted me as I walked around and shook their hands as well. I can’t remember everyone who was there, and I didn’t know everyone who was there. So if you were, and I don’t mention your name, don’t be offended.
It was a real nice place for a group like this. A large glass electric cooler sat in one corner of the pavilion, lighted and loaded with food. I soon strolled out to watch the ball game, and met my old friend and blood brother. Rudy. He walked up, smiling, and we hugged. He led me around and introduced me to the people I didn’t know. We sat on the dugout bench and talked.
Supper was to be served at 6:30. I had originally been asked to speak a few words at the noon meal, but since I wasn’t there, that didn’t happen. John and Ed asked me if I’d MC the evening meal. I’m not particularly a public speaker or anything, I said. But yeah, I guess I’d be honored. And about then, I saw him out in the parking lot. Vern. He and his lovely wife, Kim, had left earlier for their motel room to rest a bit. I had actually met them on the way in. I walked up and we greeted each other and hugged.
The women bustled about, and soon a large feast was spread on the long picnic tables. Pulled pork, crispy grilled hot dogs (I love crispy grilled hot dogs), and large array of side dishes, beans and salads and such. Ed came and told me to get things rolling, to get people ready to eat. So I stood and hollered loud to get everyone’s attention. Everyone got real quiet and looked at me. Supper is ready real soon, here, I said. But before we start, let’s all introduce ourselves. Starting in the back corner over there, stand up and tell your name and where you live. And introduce your family if they’re with you. I can’t remember how many people were there. I think the rough count later was around 150. And they all stood, one by one, or in groups of families, and told us who they were and where they live now. But not where they came from. We all came from Bloomfield.
After that was over, I had a few announcements. And I’d been asked to speak a few words. They were brief, as my words usually are. It’s really great to be here, I said. It’s also great to see all of you, so many people. A lot of you, I don’t really know. You were here after I left. Our connection is this place, this community. We all had our own journeys, and they were all different. But now, tonight, we are drawn together, here. Bloomfield is no longer the same place it was, but we all have our own special memories. And now we all are here. And I am very glad to be here with you.
I asked Orie Helmuth to bless the meal, then, and he stood and prayed. Then we ate. The food was just outstanding, all of it. It took some real effort, to plan this event, and to assemble all that food. It really did.
Afterward, we lounged around and talked. The youth went out to play volleyball. There was one thing I wanted to get done. So I walked around and bugged the others until I got us all together. And we stood out there by some trees with the lake behind us. Four of the original “Gang of Six.” Marvin, Rudy, Vern, and me. We handed our phones to my sister Rhoda, and Kim, Vern’s wife, and a few others. They took a bunch of pics. The first time in thirty-two years that the four of us had all been together in one place. And the first time in thirty-two years that we had our pictures taken together.
From left: Ira, Vern, Rudy, Marvin
After that was over, I asked them. Do you guys want to go ride around the community together? They all agreed instantly, and we got into Rudy’s big new Ford pickup. Marvin and I sat in the back seat, Vern rode shotgun. And we headed out.
It was dusk when we returned. People were sitting around outside, around a nice big old roaring fire. John had hauled in a bunch of good dry wood. We joined them for dessert. I’m not much of a dessert person. But I was that night. My nephew David had baked several big pans of peach cobbler over the open fire. And there was homemade ice cream, too, dipped from a huge five-gallon freezer John had rented and hauled in from Arthur, Illinois. It was all just flat out delicious.
We sat around in a large circle and just communed with each other. Ed Herschberger, Vern’s younger brother, set up with a loose group of musicians. They had guitars and a banjo of some kind. Ed strummed away at a large stringed instrument as tall as he was, a Double Bass. It made the sound of drumming. And they sang and sang, as we sat around and talked outside. It was peaceful, it was very calm. And very comfortable. By 10:30, I headed back to the motel, about the same time as Vern left with his wife. Their room was right across the hall from mine. I invited them over. They brought a couple of beers, and I sipped some scotch, and we sat in my room and talked and just caught up.
The next morning. Sunday. They had planned that day, too, Ed and John. There would be a church service, out there under the pavilion. Ed Herschberger and the boys played a few real good old-time tunes, including a fast English version of the Lob Song. We all joined the singing. And then the preacher stood to preach.
John had proudly showed me the nice little sturdy podium he got made. A 4×6 pole from one of his pole barn jobs, with a chunk of 2×12 lumber slanted across the top. His brother, Glen, had nailed it together. And now, Gideon Yutzy, Rudy’s younger brother, stood there with his bible and notes. Gideon lives in Montana somewhere, with his family. And John had somehow cajoled him to make that long journey to the reunion. “We need a preacher for Sunday morning,” John told him. And eventually Gideon relented, and they came. I had not seen him in a lot of years. He looked a little grayed and older, like all of us did.
He started in, and he was a good speaker. His message. How do you deal with that big void in your heart? He was talking to a lot of people who came from places where there were big voids in the hearts. And he spoke it, a brief and simple gospel message. After that, a few more songs. And then the MC, my nephew David, asked Rudy and Marvin to say a few words. Rudy spoke first, about how he appreciated being there, and appreciated the message. And he spoke a few memories. And then Marvin stood, too. He spoke along the same lines as Rudy had. He wrapped it up with a little humor, though. “Talking to the younger ones, here,” he said. “Be careful of your actions, because one of your friends might go out years later and write a New York Times Bestseller book about what all you did.” Everyone roared. I laughed, too. “Yeah,” Rudy said. “He never even asked our permission. We want a cut of the money.” Nope, no way, I said. After that, Herman Kuhns prayed the final prayer, and we were dismissed.
But we didn’t leave. There was one more important ritual. The noon church meal. And I marvel here, some more, about all the work that went into getting everything ready. John’s wife, Dort, and the other ladies scurried about. And soon they had all the long tables loaded with the classic Amish church meal. Amish peanut butter. Homemade bread. Pickles. Cold red beets. Tubs of Smear Kase. Plates of sliced bologna. And there was even an extra, that I don’t remember from those meals. Fresh delicious egg salad. You pile all that stuff on a slice of homemade bread slathered with real butter, and you got yourself an authentic Amish church meal. And one big whopper of a sandwich. We sat and ate and feasted. And washed it all down with cups of steaming black coffee.
After the tables were cleared, most of us sat or stood around and visited. I mingled, here and there. John had told me to set out a few copies of my books, at a side table. And for a while, it looked like no one was interested. But as people started trickling out, one or two of them sought me out. I want a copy of your book, signed. So I sold a few. Gideon, the preacher, told me he wanted a copy. He had one, and he had read it and liked it a lot. But it wasn’t signed. So I signed a copy to him and his wife, Anna. He reached for his wallet, but I stopped him. You flew all the way out from Montana to bring us a sermon, I told him. The least I can do is give you a copy of my book.
Vern and Kim took their leave soon, too. They were driving back to their home in Tennessee that afternoon. A good long drive. Marvin and Rhoda headed out, too. And by three or so, I headed back to my motel room to rest a bit. Tonight, I was invited to Titus and Ruth’s home for supper. And tomorrow morning, I planned to meander south into Missouri.
And that was about it for that day, as far as the reunion was concerned. I’ve thought back to it a lot, that bunch of misfits who assembled back there at the Lake Fisher Park in Bloomfield. The memories are all good, and there are so many. A couple of things stand out in my mind, though, a couple of things I want to say.
The current Bloomfield Amish church, or at least its leadership, is extremely hostile to the reunion gathering. They don’t want any of us around. They strictly forbade anyone from the Bloomfield Amish to attend the event. On pain of harsh discipline. That’s a pretty big old hefty club, to keep people in line, people who would have loved to attend and hang out with family. And those people are there, in Bloomfield.
Talking now to the leaders of the Bloomfield Amish. Don’t kid yourself. A whole lot of your wounded members would love to hang out, when us misfits come around. You won’t let them. And that’s fine. It’s understandable, what you decreed, at least from your perspective. I’m not gonna get all high and holy on you. You are who you are. And it’s certainly understandable, that you just want to be left alone.
The thing is, we did leave you alone. You just can’t seem to get it out of your heads, the thought that we are getting together to talk about you and mock you. Somehow, that’s a heavy burden you choose to lug around. Yes, we did talk about our memories. We did talk of how hard the journey was. And some of our talk wasn’t all that flattering. But we have a lot of good memories, too. And we spoke those, too. Somehow, you Bloomfield people, or at least the leaders, have a real flawed concept of what happens at these reunions. I think you think it’s all one big party, one big beer bash. I heard that someone in Bloomfield even dubbed our gathering as “Woodstock, 2014.” What’s that supposed to mean? That we’re all hippies standing out there in the rain, getting stoned? Cheering wildly for whatever band is playing? It’s just totally silly, that comparison. And a little bitter.
If you know who you are, you will not need to be afraid to hang out with anyone. If what you’re living is true, it should be strong enough to mingle with any misfits. No matter where they came from, and no matter where they are. And that little truth applies to anyone, Amish or not.
The second thing I remember vividly from the reunion is this. The ride I took with my friends from the “Gang of Six” that Saturday night in Rudy’s truck. We talked right along as Rudy cruised out on the gravel roads, and turned right onto the highway. Toward the big hill that leads to Drakesville. Thirty-some years ago, we drove that same highway, up that steep old hill, in our steel-wheeled buggies.
We talked about that hill, how small it looked when you’re not in a buggy. And then we pulled into Drakesville. Rudy parked on the south side of the little square. We got out, and stood there and talked. On the north side, Bea Cormeny’s old convenience store sat huddled in beside other decrepit hulks that once were alive with commerce. It’s been boarded up for years. It looked so very small, the place where we’d sneak in of a Sunday afternoon and furtively buy a few six-packs of beer. Bea was an angel to us. I never knew her that well, she seemed old and stern to me. But she did what people did back then, when you could legally drink at eighteen. Back before MADD got all crazy drunk with power, back before all those draconian drinking laws were passed by the nanny state. She wouldn’t do it today, because she wouldn’t dare. But she did it back then. She sold us beer when we were seventeen. It was so long ago. We were so young. And I’m glad I was seventeen when I was.
And Vern stood there and spoke. The Vern of old. He told us of how he left, on that long-ago Sunday morning. He sneaked out of the house at midnight, and walked the three or four miles to town. He arrived way before dawn. He had hours to kill before he could call an English friend to come and fetch him. So he hunkered down in the phone booth, there in the middle of the square. You couldn’t see through the bottom few feet of those old phone booths. He crouched there, hidden from passing prying eyes, until the sun finally rose. Then he fumbled some quarters into the pay slot and called his friend, who came and took him to the bus station in Ottumwa. There, he boarded the bus for Valentine, Nebraska.
The phone booth is gone now. Only a little concrete slab remains where it once was. Vern walked over and stood on that little slab, and I snapped a few pics. The very spot where he had sat, all cold and miserable and scared and alone, way early that Sunday morning. But he sat there for as long as it took to break out of that place, that community. He sat there because he wanted to be free.
And we talked about it, how strange it was. Vern was fifteen years old, when his family moved to Bloomfield from Arthur, Illinois. He was sixteen when he first ran away from home. And after we all returned home to Bloomfield from Valentine, Vern left, soon after that. He might have been seventeen, or close to it. He never returned. We knew him, ran around with him, for only two short years. Which seemed like an eternity, back then. It was a pretty intense and bonding experience for the six of us, that journey we took together. And right now, this moment, four of the six were standing on one spot, remembering. It was a beautiful thing. And it was kind of haunting and sad, too.
Thirty-two years is a long time. Back in the day, none of us could have imagined it would ever go that long. We could not have imagined that we’d ever see the things we’ve seen since, or that we’d ever do the things we’ve done. It was so long ago. We’re getting older now, all of us have reached and passed fifty. About the age some of our fathers were, back when we caused them all that grief.
We talked about it, standing there around the bed of Rudy’s pickup. How deeply we had hurt our parents. Especially our Mothers. It’s not like we were loaded down with tons of regret and guilt. It was just somber talk. Of who we were, and what we did. The choices we made. Of how desperately we wanted to be free, how desperately we grasped for it, no matter the cost. It was what it was, all those years ago. Nothing can ever change any of what happened.
We loaded up and headed west then, along the highway. Cruised slowly past Vern’s old home, on the right. He spoke a lot of old stories. Spoke the old memories.
Then Rudy turned left, onto a gravel road. Toward my old home place. Bloomfield is sure built up, these days. Places that used to be English are now Amish. Plus, a hundred little new homesteads have popped up, where only bare fields lay before. We approached my home place from the south, because the bridge was out from the north. And Rudy turned in. We slowly drove the half mile to the house. This is the lane I walked out of, I told them. That night I left, when I was seventeen. The heavy black bottom fields were spread out around us. The fields I used to plow.
We drove up to the buildings. The family was seated out on the deck, on the south side of the house. Rudy turned the truck around. We waved at the people by the house. They waved back. It’s not that unusual, what they were seeing. A vehicle pulling in, then turning and leaving.
Over the gravel roads, then, through the community. Over Monkey Hill, past Henry D. Yoder’s old homestead. That poor man died destitute and lonely, just like he’d lived all his life. We talked about how it all happened, how he’d moved with his family from Bloomfield to a new settlement he founded, somewhere in some remote place in Missouri. He shook the dust of Bloomfield, and spoke boldly of that shaking. He was heading out, to live right. Bloomfield was too corrupt for him. So he moved. And then he took sick and died, soon after that. A tired, worn-out man with nothing. The Bloomfield people went down to his sad little new “settlement’ and buried him. Because there was no one else to do it.
And then we drove past Bishop Henry’s farmstead. And Jake Beachy’s sawmill, on the right. Jake moved out, years ago. Ervin Mast, I think that’s his name, took over Jake’s operation. But back to Bishop Henry. He passed away from cancer, six or seven years ago. Nathan and I stopped by see him, a few months before he left this earth. He was an emaciated shell of the man I knew, but he smiled in welcome and shook my hand. “The Waglers have been well-represented in coming to visit me,” he said. The old house still stands, his widow lives there now, I think. A new house stands there, too. His son, Paul, has the home place now.
A few more miles, then we approached Marvin’s old home. I looked for it, in the field west of the house. It’s a little mud hole, now. The pond where Titus dived. The place where he took his last steps, ever, on this earth. There it is, I said. And Marvin and Rudy told us their vivid memories of that night. The house loomed, then, and Rudy pulled in. No one seemed to be around. Marvin’s younger brother, Elmer, owns the farm now. And it was at the same place, the old hitching rail where I tied up my horse, when I came around so many times, hanging around with my friend all those years ago. The shop and barn looked about the same, too. Everything in good repair. Rudy slowly edged out of the drive, and we headed east to the Drakesville Highway.
We had one more stop. Rudy’s old home. His father, Dave, used to have a harness shop. A place where we’d all hang out when we could. He sold shoes and boots, a lot of general stuff like that. I bought more than a few pairs of work boots there. The place is built up a bit now, we saw as we pulled in. The old house was torn down years ago, and a new one built. Rudy’s cousin, Harley, bought the place from Rudy’s Dad. Harley died from cancer a few years back. His widow now lives there with their children. Rudy talked his memories. Of all the big old trees in the front yard, only one remains. After a few minutes, we left, down the highway, and off to the right onto the gravel road. We’d made a big circle. And now, back to the park and the reunion.
Dusk was settling into darkness when we got there. People lounged about in little knots in the pavilion and around the crackling fire. Rudy parked the truck, and we walked to join them.
My sister Rhoda met us in the pavilion. “How was your ride?” She asked, smiling.
It was a good ride, the four of us agreed. It was real good, I said. It was a ride we waited thirty-two years to take.
And only later, when I was mulling over things, it came to me, where we had been on that ride. We had traveled the roads of Old Bloomfield again that night.
I can’t hardly believe it’s that time of year again. The Great Annual Ira Wagler Garage Party is just around the corner. Once a year, I invite a large group of people to my house, for a cookout. Once a year, I spread wood chips on the floor of the garage. Set up a rickety little bar I picked up years ago at a yard sale. And fire up my charcoal grill, to cook up the finest sausages from Stoltzfus Meats. Guests are instructed, along with their invitations, to bring along salad or dessert. All kinds of wild and delicious food always shows up. It always balances out pretty well, amazingly, what people bring. Well, it has so far, anyway.
And every year, the crowd keeps expanding. This year, I fear there will be a serious parking shortage. A pretty good handful of first-timers claim they will be attending. And one friend I’ve never met, other than on Facebook, plans to truck all the way in from Missouri to be here. I’m very much looking forward to meeting him and hanging out.
I’m looking forward to all of it. It’ll be a big bash. For one night. And then it’ll be over for one more year.
The women weeping at the gate have gone…And
will not come again. And we shall pass, and
shall not come again…And death and dust will
never come again, for death and dust will die.
The day slid in like such days mostly do. And the dark and brutal thing came, out of nowhere. Totally unexpected. No one saw it coming. No one was quite prepared to deal with it. And there was nothing else to do, but to face the bitter winds and walk.
It was a bright and beautiful Monday morning. I don’t talk that way about Mondays a lot. I’m a grumpy kind of guy, I guess. But that day, that Monday, I was feeling pretty good. Just a few more days, and I would be on my way. Heading out on my road trip to Bloomfield and points south. Heading out to meander. It’s been way too long, since I’ve done a thing like that. I think I even hummed a tune, now and then. Good things were coming, good times. And I was all busy getting my stuff lined up, getting my projects scheduled for delivery in my absence.
And right after lunch, it all came down. Everything was quiet. I was sitting at my computer, I’d just hung up my office phone. And my cell phone rang. That’s not unusual. My cell phone rings lots of times every day. I glanced at the screen. Janice. That’s a little odd, I thought. We chat now and then, but not often during the day. Mostly evenings and weekends. Oh, well. Maybe she was in the area somewhere close and wanted to hang out sometime soon. I answered. Hey. Janice, dear. What’s up?
And her voice was very strange. Flat and heavy. But somehow, calm. “Uncle Ira. What are you doing?” Just working, I said. What’s up? And she told me, just launched right in. “I just got off the phone with Dorothy. Little Abby drowned. They couldn’t find a pulse, but she hasn’t been declared dead. They’re airlifting her to Iowa City right now. I don’t have any details at all, what happened. Can you let the family know?” Ah, no. I groaned. Then I caught myself. In a time like that, it doesn’t do anyone any good to groan. I’ll contact the family, of course, I said. I’ll take care of it. Keep me updated when you know more. “I will,” she promised. We hung up.
And I stood there behind the counter. The dark cloud descended around me, in me, through me. No. It couldn’t be. Not a death like this. Not in my family. No one has ever died in my immediate extended family, not until Mom passed away a few months back. It can’t be. No. It can’t be true. It always hits you way down deep inside when you hear about the tragic death of any child. There’s something so brutal and so senseless about it all. But Abby wasn’t just any child. She was blood kin, the three-year-old daughter, the youngest daughter, of my niece, Dorothy Miller and her husband, Lowell.
And I thought about Dorothy and her little family. She’s Janice’s older sister. We’ve kind of disconnected in the last number of years, at least when it comes to actually seeing each other. We’re friends on Facebook, of course, and we’ve stayed connected there. She married Lowell Miller, a guy from Kalona, Iowa, back in the late 1990s, I think it was. I just don’t get out that way, much. I saw her at Mom’s funeral, back in April. That was the first time in a few years that we got to hang out together.
They are always little girls in my mind, Dorothy and Janice. They forever will be. Years ago, when I was in college down south, I hung out with my sister Maggie’s family almost every weekend. The girls were teenagers back then, slogging through all the drama and angst of that age. And I was their big old rugged uncle, a guy who protected them. Or tried to, at least. I scolded them around a bit, too. We still talk about those days.
Dorothy and Lowell had four children, I knew. I’d been around the older ones. Kali, Hunter, and Lexi. But Abby? I don’t recall seeing her, except maybe when she was a baby. I have ninety-eight great-nieces and nephews out there, scattered all over creation. It’s impossible, to keep track of them all, to know who they all are. So I had no real clear picture in my mind of how she looked. But she was Dorothy’s youngest daughter, and from what I’ve heard told, the life of that family. The baby. The live wire. The little drama queen. She had everyone wrapped around her fingers. And now, right this instant, she was being airlifted to Iowa City, with no pulse.
But she hadn’t been pronounced dead, yet. That tiny glimmer of hope flashed through my mind as I called my sister, Rachel. She answered. She’d heard. Janice had left a message on her phone. And we talked about it, my sister and me. The heaviness and sorrow of it. A new burden, a huge burden, for our extended family. “I’ll text everyone,” she told me. “You post it on the family Facebook page.” OK, I said. Let’s keep in touch as we hear more news. “And let’s pray,” she said. “She’s not been pronounced dead, yet. Where there’s any life, there’s hope.” I knew in my heart that it was probably too late, for prayer to make much difference. Not that I don’t believe in prayer, and the power of it. I do. But life is life, from what I’ve seen. And death is death. But I answered my sister. Yes, I said. Let’s pray.
Abby Marie Miller. Three years old. Being airlifted to the hospital, even at the moment. And I logged onto Facebook on my work computer. Posted a brief message on the family page. “Just got terrible news from Janice. Dorothy’s little daughter, Abby, is being airlifted to the hospital. She has no pulse, but has not been pronounced dead. She drowned. At this moment, until she is pronounced dead, please pray hard that the Lord will spare this beautiful child.”
The responses were swift and strong. The family, closing in. Such a thing has never happened before, nothing even close to it. Except for Titus, I guess, way back in 1982. But he was always conscious, when they pulled him from the water. My family has been blessed with life, over the years. Death has been very rare. Mom was the first to leave, of all her extended family. And now the thought flashed through my head. She went first. Because she was needed, to welcome those who would come soon after. She was needed to welcome her little three-year-old great-granddaughter to a far better place. I don’t know if that’s actually something that happens, if it’s actually scriptural or true. But in such moments, your heart, your mind, grasps for some small solace in thoughts like that.
It was gone that day at the office, any chance of getting any real work done. I sat and brooded. The calls came in, and I talked to people, family. I called Steve, and told him. And my nephew, Ira Lee. They both responded in solemn shock. I paced about, tried to focus on what I needed to get done. It was pretty much hopeless. And then I thought. I’ll call John, my nephew. He’s lives in Bloomfield, not far from Kalona, and he and Dorothy are close. He’ll know something. I called. He answered, in his calm, deep voice. Yes. He had been called. He was working just about an hour away from Iowa City. And he was on the way to the hospital now. “Look,” he said. “No one quite knows what’s going on. But Abby hasn’t been pronounced dead, yet. Until she is, I will simply hope and pray for the best.” Yes, I said. Well, hey, thanks. Keep us posted on Facebook, when you get there. He said he would.
I told the others around me, at the office. And everyone got all somber. It’s a brutal, brutal thing to contemplate, the loss of such a young child in such a tragic way. I kept checking the messages on the family page. John announced he’d arrived at the hospital. Dorothy’s family was coming, traveling from far away. Her parents, Ray and Maggie, left immediately from their home in South Carolina. Along with Dorothy’s siblings, Steven and Rhoda. Janice and Evonda were flying in from Houston. He would stay until Janice got there, John wrote. From his words, you could tell the situation was pretty grim.
They found a faint pulse, there at the hospital. Abby was immediately hooked up to the breathing machine. Tomorrow morning they would scan for any brain activity. No one said it, but we all knew. The chances of that were pretty slim. If there was none, they would take her off the machine. I could not imagine what Dorothy and Lowell were going through at about that moment. And their children, Abby’s three older siblings.
The next morning, I talked to John. Janice had arrived around 11:00, he said. That’s when he left. The people from South Carolina drove all night, and arrived just before dawn. It doesn’t look good, does it? I asked. “No,” John said. “It’s not good at all.” And we waited that morning, for news on the brain scan.
There was no life there, when they checked. Lowell and Dorothy took turns, lying in bed beside their daughter, holding her in their arms for the last time. The family gathered in the room, as the life machine was turned off. And they saw the heartbeat on the screen, slowly receding, receding. And then it stopped. Little Abby left them, there. She just left. The text came to me from Janice. “She died at 8:30. Let the family know.” I stared at the message I knew was coming. And I knew what it would say. She was gone. Passed from this life. A beautiful, lively, healthy three-year-old girl.
I told the others in the office, then texted Rachel. Let the family know. Then I posted the news on the family site. By noon, the word came. The funeral would be on Saturday morning. The day we had planned the Amish Reunion in Bloomfield. John and I kept the phone lines hot, calling each other. He’s the one who got it all together, the reunion. And he told me. It would go on, there were a lot of people planning to attend. John just delegated his duties to others. The Wagler clan would show up, but we would just be late.
I called my friends at Enterprise. For this trip, I didn’t ask for a Charger. The medical people have been baying on my trail like relentless bloodhounds, the bills have been piling in. So I figured I’d rent something a little smaller, to save money. Just get me a compact, something like a Fusion, I told the guy. I had planned to leave on Thursday. I moved that up a day, to Wednesday. Because of the funeral, I wouldn’t get to see some of my English friends around Bloomfield. So I figured I’d head up a day early, and see them then. On Tuesday morning, on the way to work, I stopped by to pick up my car. What do you have for me? I asked. The nice man peered at his computer screen. “I have a Charger. Will that work?” It absolutely will, I said. It’s my favorite car. He went out and brought it up. Beautiful, gleaming, snow white. How fitting, I thought. I rode a black horse of mourning to Mom’s funeral. Now for Abby, for a little girl, I had a pure white horse. And there was no upcharge, even. Lord, I thought. Thank you for small blessings like this. I never looked for it, never expected it. And now you gave it to me anyway.
I left on Wednesday morning. Packed up two weeks’ worth of clothes. And a black suit for the funeral. I brooded as I drove, the sadness seeped all the way deep down. How do you walk into such a sorrow, such a loss? What do you say? What can you say? I dreaded the next day, when I’d get to Kalona. The Charger cruised and cruised like only Chargers can, that was one nice thing about that day. I-70 was clogged with construction every few miles, it seemed like. I pushed on, making decent time. On and on, through Ohio, then Indiana. Then by early evening, I was in central Illinois. I pulled into a nice Holiday Inn and settled for the night. Tomorrow, a four-hour run would get me to where I was going.
I got to my destination shortly after noon the next day. Janice had told me. The girls were going shopping, so they wouldn’t be home right at that time. The men were there, though. I walked in and greeted my nephew, Steven. We hugged. Then Maggie stepped out of the house. Her face was tired and haggard. Beyond tears, now. It had been three days. We hugged, and I held her tight. I’m so sorry, I said. I’m so, so sorry. We walked into the house. The place was bustling with people, cleaning up and preparing food. I greeted them. Then I walked into the living room where Lowell was. He met me at the door. I’ve never known him that well, never been around him that much. We embraced, and he burst into tears. It’s no one’s fault, I said softly. It’s no one’s fault. And we sat there in that room and talked.
Maggie bustled about, rousting up some food for me to eat. I hung around, chatting with Steven and his father, Ray, who came wandering in. The details of what had happened trickled out. Lowell and Dorothy live in a rented farm house. And out by the barnyard, they had placed some sort of water tank. Dorothy carefully researched on the internet. What was a safe level of water for children? And they put in nineteen inches of water, for the children to play in. Late that Monday morning, the older children were out there, splashing around. Abby came running in and asked for her bathing suit. Her Mom dressed her and sent her out. No one is quite sure how it all happened. The other children thought she was just playing, stretched out there in the water. But the time they realized what was going on, Abby was gone. Her little goggles were there, at the bottom of the tank. They think maybe she was reaching down to pick them up, and slipped and panicked. But she was gone. In nineteen inches of water.
After an hour or so, Janice and Evonda got back from shopping. I hugged them both. Everyone was very calm. Maybe they were still in shock. Or maybe there were no more tears to weep, at least not in that moment. Dorothy was coming soon, Janice said. About half an hour later, the van pulled in. Dorothy and her sister Rhoda, and some of their children. I met them on the back deck. Dorothy walked up to me and I hugged her tight. She wept in my arms. You’re my little niece, I said. You’ll always be my little niece. “I know,” she said, through her tears. “It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.”
I left then, soon, and headed the ninety miles southwest to Bloomfield. I checked in at the local motel, and then drove on out west to West Grove. The café. It was closed already, but Linda happened to be puttering around outside. She smiled when she recognized me. We talked for a while, then I followed her the short distance to her Mom’s house. Mrs. C was very surprised to see me. At 82 years old, she’s still as spry and beautiful as ever. We sat in her living room and visited and caught up. They both clucked in sympathy when I told them about little Abby. Then it was on, up north of Bloomfield to John’s house. He has a big place. And over the years, he has built one very large, beautiful home. He welcomed me. The place was already bustling with company. Two of his brothers, David and Glen, and their families had arrived. And Ed Yoder, our mutual friend from Illinois, and his family. Ed was taking over John’s duties at the Reunion, at least on Saturday. We hung out. Dort had prepared a large delicious meal. We ate, then sat around John’s roomy porch and chatted the hours away. We talked about the Reunion, coming up. And we talked about Abby, and the unspeakable sorrow of her loss. John and Dort’s youngest daughter is almost a twin to Abby. They look like twins. They were close friends.
The next day I headed back up to Kalona and the Miller home. The viewing would be from 2:00 to 8:00 PM. That sure seems like a long old drag, I thought. That’s going to be brutal on Dorothy and the family. Jesse and Lynda and a few of their children had arrived from South Carolina, after driving through the night before. I greeted them. And soon before 2:00, we headed over to Fairview Mennonite Church, where Lowell and Dorothy are members. We walked in. A nice big place. It looked like they were ready for large crowds. A podium was set up in the hall, where you could sign the guest book. And there was a big sign as well, on an easel. Abby loved going barefoot, it said. In honor of her memory, please feel free to remove your shoes. And that sign was why there were a lot of barefoot women and children that day at the viewing, and the next day at the funeral.
I walked into the large room where the coffin was set up. Lowell and Dorothy stood at the far end, along with members of both their families. A large table was on the right with pictures and memories of Abby. And down along the wall, there was the little white coffin, with half a dozen huge bouquets of flowers. A few people had already lined up. I joined the line, as it crept slowly toward the coffin. And then I was there. And there she lay. Abby.
She looked like a beautiful little girl asleep. Just lying there, eyes closed, sleeping. On her left arm, she snuggled her favorite doll, Minnie Mouse. Another doll on her right arm. I stood and looked down on her for a moment. It surged through me, the unspeakable sadness and sorrow of it all. Then I turned and embraced my niece and her husband. I’m so sorry, I said. I’m so, so sorry.
I walked down the line, shaking the hands of all the people there. And turned back to the room. Janice was sitting off in one empty corner, by herself. I grabbed a chair and joined her. That spot was where my family would gather, as they came. And they came, from all over. This was a new thing for all of us, a thing we would have given just about anything not to have to face. But it was what it was, and we came. Nieces and nephews and their families. My siblings. All of us made it, except Joseph and Rosemary. Joseph wasn’t well enough to attend, or he would have been there. Rosemary didn’t make it, but some of her children would. That afternoon we got the word.
Dad was coming, too. When the news got up to Aylmer that Tuesday, they told Dad. That day, he decided he would not attend. The next morning, he walked over to Rosemary’s house. His eyes were bloodshot, he had slept very little the night before. And he told Rosemary. “I want to go to this funeral.” Rosemary’s children, Eunice and Lester, and Lester’s wife, Tina, wanted to go, too. So early on Friday morning, they loaded up on a van and headed out for Kalona.
The line flowed through in a steady stream all afternoon. At 4:30, the family was invited downstairs for the evening meal. Around 5:00, Dorothy and Lowell joined us. By then, so many of the family had arrived that the room was pretty much overflowing. They fed us well, the people of that church. They surrounded Dorothy and Lowell with tons and tons of support and love. It was all a bit overwhelming to see.
And right about then, Dad’s load arrived. Someone guided him through the short line, right up to the coffin. He stood there, bent and leaning on his walker, and just looked down on Abby. I don’t know what was going through his mind. He’s seen a lot in his lifetime, but he’d never seen anything like this. His great-granddaughter, lying there in a little white coffin, asleep. He’s ninety-two years old. She was three.
Dad’s sister Rachel, who lives in the Kalona Amish community, was with him. We seated them at the end of the line, where Dorothy and Lowell had stood. We set up a little table for them, and Maggie and I carried up food for my father and his sister. I went downstairs again, but Maggie sought me out. “Dad would like someone to come up and sit with them,” she said. I took my plate of food up to where they were and sat and ate with them.
After supper, the place filled up quickly as the crowds surged in. The line strung out the room and flowed into the foyer. It’s maddening, how slowly funeral viewing lines crawl along. People mean well, but they don’t think. You can’t stop and visit with every person in the bereaved family. It takes up too much time. And by 7:00, the line was through the foyer and out the door. I conferred with Janice. We have to get those people moving along. I’m not from around here, I told her. If people get mad at me for nudging them along, I won’t be around to hear it. Let’s do it. So that’s what I did. Kind of stalked up and down, and policed the line. Once in a while, I tapped some slowpoke on the shoulder. You really have to keep moving, I’d murmur quietly. The line is out the door, back there. You have to move along. And they did.
The most heartrending scene happened right about that time. A family came through with young children. And there was a little daughter, right at Abby’s age. The little girl was Abby’s best friend. I saw the father lift up his daughter, so she could see her friend, lying there. I saw him explaining to her the story of what had happened. That Abby was now sleeping, now up in heaven with Jesus. And then the family approached Dorothy and Lowell. And I saw the poor woman, my poor niece, I saw her body heaving as Abby’s best friend walked up to her. Dorothy sobbed, slow and deep, as the enormity of her loss swept through her, all the way down. She reached out and enveloped the little girl in her arms. The family stood there, half circling her. Tears flowed freely from all standing close by. I stepped up with Janice, and we directed the people in line around the little huddled group.
After she composed herself, Dorothy’s sisters led her outside for some fresh air. A short time later, they returned. But the strain was just too much for Dorothy. Ten minutes later, they brought a wheelchair and took her outside and took her home. She had requested that the family stop by after the viewing. She wanted to have a fire outside, and sit around. So we all assembled there. It had all been taken care of, the wood was chopped and someone had started a nice crackling fire. My nephew David, Joseph’s son, popped popcorn in a large black lidded kettle above the fire, and we feasted on that. And then a bunch of food arrived, food that people had delivered to the church. And we sat around and talked and ate. Soon, a guitar was strumming, and you could hear the accompanying harmonica. And they sang. Songs of heaven, songs for Abby. After Dorothy had recuperated a bit, she came out and joined us. And we just hung out, as a family. It was a good time, a beautiful time, and a very sad time.
The next morning, we gathered at the church to bury one of our own. The place was pretty well packed out. The coffin was set up in the foyer as we arrived. And I looked again, down on a beautiful, sleeping little girl. They seated my family way up in the front rows. And the service began. A short devotional, then the main sermon. After that, a video tribute to Abby, very touching. And then Abby’s aunt and uncle, Janice and Steven, stood at a mic in the back of the church. All was somber and silent as Steven strummed his guitar and they sang with tears streaming down their faces, in perfect, absolutely beautiful harmony. A slow, achingly haunting rendition of “Jesus loves me, this I know…” And then they finished, and all was quiet. And then we were dismissed.
They trundled the little white coffin right out to the graveyard. We stood under the canopy, the crowd flowing all around. Dorothy and Lowell and their children had one last look at Abby. Then the coffin lid was closed. The family stood close to the grave, right at the very edge, as the coffin was slowly lowered. It was some sort of winch system. They didn’t do it by hand, like the Amish do. The coffin slowly sank down, and settled. And thus little Abby Marie Miller was returned to the earth.
They had brought out dozens of red balloons. I guess that was Abby’s favorite color. The balloons were passed out after the coffin went down. The crowd kind of spilled out to an empty part of the graveyard. Dorothy stood there, surrounded by her children and her family. And she told us. “Abby liked to claim she was eleven. So we’re counting down from eleven to zero, then we’ll release the balloons.” She started the count, and we all chanted with her. ”Eleven, ten,” all the way down to zero. And then we let them go, the balloons. A hundred of them, it seemed like. They floated up and the south winds instantly caught them and carried them away. And they drifted out of sight within a few minutes. Abby’s balloons.
And that’s about all I got to say about the funeral. I wasn’t sure I could even write about it, because to write such a thing, you have to walk back through and relive it all again. And that was pretty tough to do. But I’ve always said. You write from where you are. Wherever that is. Even from the hard places, maybe especially from the hard places. So that’s what I tried to do.
Lowell and Dorothy and their surviving children are going to have a long, hard road ahead of them. It will return again and again for a long time, the heavy sorrow of their loss. It’s the cruelest loss of all, of that there is little doubt. I’ve seen a lot of hard losses, in my life. A lot of hard things, stripped away. But I’ve never lost a child. And I’ve never lost a sibling.
I’ve been thinking about things a bit, about Dorothy and Lowell and their family. I’ve never asked for a penny for the twenty-plus hours of labor that go into every blog I post. But now I am asking my readers. If you enjoy my blogs, please consider donating to help defray all the expenses incurred by Abby’s tragic accident and death. There are medical and funeral costs. And loss of work, for Lowell. They will have financial hardships. And no, they didn’t ask me to post this link. If you can’t contribute, I understand, just pray for the family. But if you can, any help you could give would be greatly appreciated. (If you saw this link on Facebook before and responded, just ignore this paragraph.) Or if you’d rather, just send them a card or letter in the mail. Thank you, either way.
Lowell and Dorothy Miller
4808 Sharon Center Road SW
Iowa City, IA 52240
A couple of thoughts in closing. How does one make any sense of it all? It seems so random and so brutal and so wrong. Maybe things happen for a reason. Maybe they don’t. I don’t think that anyone’s ever going to tell Lowell and Dorothy the reason why their little Abby is gone. There are no formulas for that. No wise words, no pat answers.
But still, there can be words of comfort, when you grasp down deep to find them. And speak them from the heart. And now, I think back to that day as it came down. As it was descending around us, the dark thing, that Monday after lunch, my mind flashed back thirty-five years or so. Back to a connection, back to a simple scene in Bloomfield, Iowa. I don’t remember where church was that Sunday. But I remember my brother Joseph, preaching. And in that moment, that dark Monday, I went back to a time and place of long ago. And I heard again the rhythm and flow of my brother’s voice.
Somewhere in his sermon, he told a story. I don’t know what triggered it. But he spoke in detail of a young Amish couple in another community. About Lowell and Dorothy’s age. They had four or five children. The youngest child was a daughter, the baby of the family. Just like Abby. And somehow, that little girl got killed, in some totally senseless and tragic accident. One moment she was there, healthy, bubbling, happy. And the next moment, she was gone. Dead. And they buried her in the graveyard.
Joseph struggled to describe how hard it was for the parents to let their little daughter go. Especially for the mother. She wept and wept and grieved. Her heart was simply broken, she would not be consoled. All she could do was mourn for her little girl. It was beyond Joseph’s comprehension, such a loss, such a heavy sorrow. And he spoke tenderly and compassionately of how brutal life can be sometimes, of how some are called to face hardships that few others ever see. Burdens that few others can even imagine.
And then he spoke of the comfort that can only come from the Lord. He’d heard it said, or maybe he’d read it in a poem somewhere. Children are like flowers in a garden. Blooming there, in innocence. The Lord looks down on His garden every day. And once in a while, Joseph said, He reaches down with His finger and plucks up one of those beautiful little flowers from His garden. And takes that flower home to be with Him.
Somehow, it affected me deeply, that simple sermon and that simple analogy. I never forgot it, and thought of it now and then, over the years. And it applies here, if you think about it. And if you believe, by faith. There is no other way any of it makes any sense. It gives me comfort, the way Joseph told the story in that long-ago time and place. That was then. This is now. But he could just as well have been speaking about little Abby today.
The Lord looked down on His garden, back on that fateful Monday morning. And He saw a beautiful flower blooming there. A beautiful, beautiful rose. A rose like no other. He reached down with His finger, and gently plucked little Abby from this earth. And took her home to be with Him.
Now, here we are, heartbroken, right where we were when she left us. And now, there she is, in that magnificent place no tongue can ever describe. A rose like no other.
And there she’ll live forever, blooming for Him.