And forever the river runs, deep as the tides
of time and memory, deep as the tides of sleep,
the river runs…
It’s been one of those weeks, when nothing was coming, writing-wise. And by Wednesday, I was pretty resigned. There would be no blog post this Friday. I can’t force this stuff, and I won’t. So if nothing comes, nothing gets written. Then, that afternoon, my iPhone pinged. A text message. I was on the office phone with a customer. A few minutes later, I hung up. Then I looked at the message that had come. It was from my sister, Rachel. One line. Stephen Stoll died this morning. And right there, it all slid right in, the tale to tell.
Stephen Stoll. A dark man, a dark legend in my childhood world in Aylmer. He was the deacon, the enforcer of the rules. Many a strong man paled and trembled when he came knocking on the door. He wasn’t there to socialize, usually. And he wasn’t all that good at small talk. He was real good, though, at carrying out the job he was ordained for. Keeping people in line, making sure the church “Ordnung” was enforced.
I can’t remember seeing him ordained, although I probably did. I was just too young, to grasp what I was seeing. He’s among my earliest memories of church, though. Getting up between the sermons to do his job, read the Scripture of the day. He was kind of clean-cut back then, as I recall. As a real young child, I liked the man. He seemed pretty nice, to me.
I suppose it took him a few years, to reach his stride. And then, in the early 1970s, he moved with his father, Peter Stoll. All the way down to Honduras, to convert the natives. I was always kind of fascinated, that Stephen went. I guess he had that Stoll heart of his father, deep down. He wanted to spread the gospel to those who were lost. That’s why Peter went, that was his vision. And Stephen and his brother Joe and their families moved with their father.
He was out of my life, for a few years, then. But the Honduras venture was doomed to fail, as it did. And within a few short years, although they didn’t seem all that short back then, the Stoll brothers were trickling back up to Aylmer. They moved back. And when you’re a deacon, you’re a deacon, wherever you are. Stephen Stoll stepped right back into his old role in Aylmer.
I remember how startled I was, when he first stood up to read Scripture in church. He was not the man I had remembered, from back when they left. He looked all different. Dark, somehow. His beard was a huge, untrimmed jumble. He had stubble for a mustache, one of the Stolls’ pet peeves. They believed in mustaches. And Stephen, I would say, had a clearly distinct one. I was startled, too, by his voice. It wasn’t mellow, like I’d remembered. It was fuzzy, somehow, kind of gruff. And he read the Scripture that day. I don’t remember where church was. But I can still see him, standing up there, with that big old German Bible in his hands.
And I told my brothers that afternoon, after we got home from church. The man looks like a bear. He sounds like a bear, too. Grizzle, grizzle, growl, growl. That’s how he sounded. And Stephen and Titus agreed. He looked and sounded like a bear. And from that day forward, right or wrong, Stephen Stoll was known as “Bear” Stoll in our world. It just fit, the name. And, yeah, we were derisive, speaking it, labeling him like that. Yes. We were. I’m not here to make any excuses about who we were or what we did. Just trying to tell a story of a man.
He was Elmo Stoll’s older brother, Bear Stoll was. And I’ve often marveled, that those two men were born of the same mother. At least when you heard them speak. Elmo had the golden, gifted tongue. He could make you like him, even as he was taking away your rights to please his furious, frowning God. Stephen couldn’t speak publicly, to save his life. He stumbled and muttered and growled. But they made the perfect team, when you think about it. The gifted leader always needs an enforcer, to carry out his strident decrees. Stephen was Elmo’s enforcer. And he was real good at what he did.
They were just human, the two of them. And I want to keep that in mind. But they also hurt a lot of people, hurt them deeply. There’s simply no denying that. All because of the vision of righteousness that Elmo saw and Stephen enforced. Probably because he saw that vision, too. Aylmer would be pure. Aylmer would be perfect. That’s what they believed as they strode through life, all bold and confident.
He had one redeeming factor, Bear Stoll did. Talking through a child’s eyes, here. And that was this. He never, never preached a sermon. A deacon’s job is to get up, and read the Scripture. Way too many Amish deacons seize that moment in the sun. Here’s their chance, to get their voice in. Here’s their chance, to say something profound. It’s probably a big temptation, and I don’t judge them like I used to, back when I had to sit quietly on a hard bench and listen to a third sermon in church, when there were only supposed to be two. And to an Amish child, it’s a big deal, that a deacon sits down on time. And that a preacher does, too, come to think of it. You respect a deacon when he pretty much just does his job, at least when it comes to reading Scripture.
Bear Stoll always, always spoke his favorite Bible verse, leading up to the reading. “Ich habe Meine Augen auf zu denn Bergen…” “I hold my eyes up to the hills, from whence cometh my help…” He also had a few short stories, that he liked to share. He took only a minute or two, telling them. And the one he told over and over was this. He was born in Daviess, where his father was born. And he grew up there, before Peter moved out. And he and his brothers loved basketball. They loved to play it and watch it. And there was some big rivalry game going on one night, at the local high school. Probably Barre-Reeve. And Stephen and his brothers wanted very badly to go watch that game. After school, they approached their father. If we work fast, and get our chores done early, can we go watch the basketball game? His father looked real grieved, Stephen said. And he didn’t say anything for a little while. And then he asked his sons. “Is that where you would like to be, if Jesus came back tonight?” By this time, tears were always trickling down Bear’s dark and bearded face. And he always sobbed a little, in the telling of it. His closing line was always the same. “That was enough of an answer for us.”
That’s where the Stolls come from, from a world like that. Where a father asks his sons if they’d want to be watching a basketball game, if Jesus came back right when they were doing that. It’s a messed-up place, such a world. And that’s the world I came from, too, now that I think of it. Actually, Stephen and his brothers were far bolder and far freer with their father, than me and my brothers could ever hope to be with Dad. We would never have dreamed, never have dared, to even ask such a thing of him. Can we go to a basketball game? We would never have asked, because such a question was never even a remote possibility in our world.
I never was a church member in Aylmer, so I never had to experience the terror of a visit from the man. Still, what he pulled off now and then affected me. And I remember one particular incident. Some youth were visiting from another Amish community in Indiana. And they got the grand idea, my brothers and sisters, and their friends from Indiana. Let’s all go to the Sand Hills, one evening. We can hire a bus to take us. We’ll have a big picnic. And we’ll play softball, on the diamond, there. We figured to spread the word around, to all the other youth. Well, I wasn’t sixteen, but I was old enough to go along to a place like this. And we sent Titus out on the road, the day before, spreading the news. We’re going to the Sand Hills with our Indiana friends, tomorrow evening. And Titus made one big, innocent mistake. He told people, including Bear Stoll’s sons. Bring your softball gloves. We’ll have a good game, playing together.
The next day came, and we were all looking forward to it, eagerly. The Sand Hills. A big old cookout. And a softball game. Stephen Stoll was greatly perturbed, when he heard the news from his sons. And that day, he took his horse and buggy on the road. He stopped to see people, the leaders of the church. He grizzled and growled. And by late that afternoon, late on the afternoon of the very day we had planned our picnic, he had triumphed. He had called it off. Boys and girls should not be playing softball together. It might lead to lust. I remember vividly how shocked and disappointed I was, hearing the news. I was probably fourteen years old, right then. And the bitter thoughts and bitter words that flowed from me had pretty much the reverse effect that Bear Stoll had expected from his holy stand. I despised the man, deeply. Right there, at that young age, if you despise the deacon in your church for pulling off a stunt like that, someone’s in trouble. Either me, or the deacon.
That’s where the Stolls come from, a place like that. And no, this time I can’t identify. I think even my father was perturbed, that the picnic had been canceled on such a flimsy pretense. You think about it. There is no way you’re not serving a furious, frowning God, when you pull off something like Bear Stoll pulled off, that time.
And time flowed on, and brought what time usually brings. We moved out of Aylmer, my family. Dad did what he thought he needed to do, to keep his sons Amish. And I didn’t see much of Bear Stoll, after that. Not for years. I held the bitterness of who he was in my heart, though. They all became “Bears,” the Aylmer leaders. Anyone in my circles knows exactly what I mean, when I mention that term. Bears. Dark men, dark people, with dark hearts, pretending to live in light, up there on that shining city on a hill.
When you pretend to live all perfect like that, it’ll catch up with you. It just will, when you proclaim your purity like the Aylmer Bears did. And it caught up to them, back in the 1990s. I don’t remember the exact dates. But there were scandals, up there. Big, big sandals. I won’t go into detail. Let’s just say it was all pretty humiliating, for people who had projected all the answers before, to their world. And there was lots of humility, going on. I was pretty bitter, when it all came down. I ignored their humility, and smirked. Yeah. Take that. You deserve it.
Time has a funny way of changing how you look at the past, though. And it’s been pretty strange, looking back. The Bears of Old Aylmer are no longer what they once were, when I look back. They are human, and they are people. They always were, I suppose. I just couldn’t see it. They were people trying to live their lives before the Lord, as best they knew how. Sure, they were flawed, deeply flawed. But then, who isn’t? And from where I am today, I can see that so clearly. It’s all so plain. It doesn’t mean people don’t hurt people. They do. It just means you can let it go. And in the last decade or more, it’s been almost a fond term, to those of us who came out of that world. Bears. Aylmer Bears. It’s a connection. If you understand the term, you came from where I was.
He moved out of Aylmer for the second and final time. I don’t remember exactly when that happened. Early 1990s, maybe. A group of Aylmer people wanted to be more plain, live a more holy life. So they moved up north a ways, to Lindsay, Ontario. To set up an even more perfect place than Aylmer was. It was a disaster from day one, Lindsay was. The place has been plagued with dissension since the day of its inception. That’s neither here nor there, I guess. It’s just the place where Stephen Stoll lived out his final days.
I remember the first time I faced those men, and they looked at me without judgment. It was after the scandals. In the late 1990s. Reuben and me, and my nephew, John Wagler, snuck up there for my nephew Ivan Gascho’s wedding, on Reuben’s plane. We weren’t invited, because they’re not allowed to invite you. Somehow, I had let them know. We’re coming. And when we got there, they had a bench for us. And later, they had food, too, on a table, waiting for us. Everyone was very welcoming.
The thing I remember about that day, though, is this. They came and spoke to us, the Bears of Aylmer. And they spoke to us with no judgment on their faces. This was way before I had a writing voice, so it wasn’t fear that made them act that way. It was their hearts. They meant it, it was real. I remember especially that Stephen Stoll, and his brother, Joe, made a special effort to come to where we stood. And they just smiled and talked. Visited. I don’t remember what we talked about, much. Just that we talked.
And since that day, I saw Stephen Stoll probably three or four times. I was always increasingly shocked, when I saw him. He was gray and bent and feeble. Just an old man, struggling along. And I wondered. How could such a man as this ever strike terror in anyone’s heart? It’s the passing of time, I guess, that changes things. For both sides. For those who instill fear with force. And for those who felt that fear and force.
The original “Bear” of Old Aylmer mellowed tremendously in his old age. And I’ve heard he spoke it. He would do some things different, if he had them to do over again. He would do some things different. He realized what he’d done, the people he’d hurt. He regretted it. And he spoke that regret.
He was old and gray and frail, the last time I saw him. At a funeral. And he usually made it a point, to come over and speak to me when he saw me. And I never sensed any judgment in the man. Only kindness, and perhaps some sprinkling of regret. He smiled and talked to me. And I smiled back and talked to him.
I had heard his health was bad. And now he has passed away after a long struggle with cancer. He was seventy-seven years old.
Stephen Stoll, Rest in Peace.
To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing;
to lose the life you have, for greater life; to
leave the friends you loved, for greater loving;
to find a land more kind than home, more large
We almost lost him, back last summer, when I was on that road trip. From that serious infection he got in his leg, right after Abby’s funeral. And just that close, he was gone. But the doctors managed to bring him back, calm down the raging infection. And within a week or so, he was released. He gained some strength back. And they went up to see him, many of my siblings, from wherever they lived all around this country. And always, the question came dribbling back. Mixed with scolding, from my sisters. When is Ira coming? Ira, you need to go see your Dad. And that’s why I hit the road last weekend for Aylmer, to go and visit my father.
I had to go, at some point, I knew. And I wanted to go, too. But still, it was easy to kind of push it off, push it back. He’s improved, in his health, since July. When he got out of the hospital, he was totally bedridden. He couldn’t get up, or walk. He could barely sit up in bed. And then he had a stroke, to top it all off. That almost did him in. But he survived. And that close, I went up to see him, back when all that was coming down. But as each day passed, the news came. He’s getting stronger. He’s going home. And it wasn’t really something I wanted to see, my father as helpless as a baby.
My brother Steve stopped by to see him, when he was helpless like that. And it shook him up a bit. He told me, when he got back. “He’s weak. I fed him. Fed him with a spoon. It’s a pretty shocking thing, to see your Dad in such a state as that. It’s a shocking thing, to feed your father with a spoon.” And I couldn’t imagine what that would have been like, to do that. That’s why I shrank from going up, right then.
I figured to make it up there, maybe in late September. But that month just swept right by, what with Beach Week and all. And then I said, October. And that month slipped right by, too. And Dad kept right on improving, from what I heard. Well, improving from where he’d been. Still, he was real weak, they said. It was all he could do to make a loop around the house, with a walker. But still, that was a lot better than lying flat on your back, in bed, all the time. And getting spoon-fed by your children and grandchildren.
The nice Enterprise man let me down a bit, when I stopped by to pick up my car, on Thursday after work. “No Charger on the lot,” he told me when I asked. All right, then, I said. I’ll just take the car I reserved. He went out and brought up a little white Ford Focus. Good grief, that’s a tiny thing, I thought. The car would surprise me very nicely on the road, though. It had plenty of zip, and to my amazement, plenty of head room for a guy like me. I’ll hand it to the Enterprise guy behind the counter in the New Holland office. He’s pretty smooth. He always slips it in, when we’re out there, and he’s handing over the keys. “We have some very good insurance options, here,” he always just kind of slides it in. I always laugh and tell him he’s good. But nah, I got insurance from my truck. It transfers over. He shrugs and looks sheepish. And he always does the same thing the next time.
I hit the road the next morning around eight. Like I said, the little car had some kick. It’s always a struggle, for me, to figure out two things on a new rental car. The radio, and the cruise control. The radio panel looks like the control panel of a rocket ship. No dials, all buttons. I punched and poked around, trying to figure out how it all worked. And the cruise control took about fifty miles to figure out. Yeah, I guess I could just have looked at the instruction book in the glove box. But I never do that. I figure it out on my own, or I don’t, right while I’m driving.
It’s a long old drag, up there to Aylmer. Right at nine hours, usually. Depends on how long you get held up at the border. And I thought about it, as the Focus slipped along. I was going to see Dad. He was in way better shape than he had been, a few weeks back. Every day, he takes a few turns around the house with his walker. So he had improved, some. And I thought, how do you look at it all? How do you deal with it, what your father was or was not to you? Who actually speaks honestly of such a thing, at such a time as this? When it’s dusk in winter, like this? How do you look back? What do you hold on to and what do you let go? Because it’s a pretty heavy thing to speak of, if you’re honest. It’s a pretty heavy thing.
My father was a giant among his people. A man with a vision, striding through life, proclaiming his message of righteousness as he saw it. Boldly, he went where no one had ever gone before, from his people. A giant on the land. The thing about giants, though, is that they leave a lot of damage behind them, as they’re striding along, proclaiming their visions. That’s just how it works, with giants. And my father left a lot of damage in his wake. A lot of wounds, buried in the dust and rubble, back there. The wounds of his family. His wife. And the wounds of all his children.
What do you say at the dusk of your father’s life, looking back? I wasn’t sure. But I was heading up to see the man whose blessing I have craved more than any other’s. And I thought of the times I had approached him, asking for a blessing. Over and over, throughout the years. Especially that one time, only a few years after I left. And how he had turned away, cold. Come home, and be the person you should be, and then I’ll bless you. Not his exact words. But still, his answer. I thought of how devastated I had been, over and over. And how I had finally given up. Given up, asking.
Through upstate New York the little Focus zipped, then, approaching Buffalo. Then, the border. I’ve never had that many problems with Canadian border guards. They always seem pretty cool. But what with those false flag “terrorist” attacks they just had up there, I didn’t know. They might be a little jittery, I figured. The guy was courteous enough. Nope, I got nothing to declare, I said. I have a few books along, to give as gifts. I always take a dozen copies of my book with me when I travel. “What’s the value of those books?” he asked. Ah, come on, I thought. Next thing, I’ll have to show them to you. Oh, well, if he made me show him, I might be able to bribe him with a copy. Oh, a hundred dollars’ worth, or so, I said. He waved me through, and I never got a chance to tell him I wrote a book. Which was all just fine by me.
The second I crossed into Canada, here came the rain. Seems like it’s always dreary when I get up here, I thought. I drove along, and the rain came down, intermittently. And by late afternoon, I was pulling into the Comfort Inn, in St. Thomas. I checked in. The place is getting downright familiar. It’s where we all stayed last April, for Mom’s funeral. I dropped my bag in the room, and made sure I had a connection with my iPad, on the internet. Then I headed out, for my sister Rosemary’s place. Drove right down the main drag of Old Aylmer. The main road, where all the important people lived, way back. And it was strange, driving along. The landscape, all of it, barely registers as the place of my childhood, anymore.
Rosemary’s husband, Joe Gascho, was working outside in the rain when I pulled in. He walked over, smiling, and greeted me. He was surprised. Didn’t you get the message that I’m coming? I asked. He shook his head. “No one told us, but that’s alright.” Edna came strolling by about right then. And they told me. Rosemary was up in Maine, visiting her daughter, Laura, and her husband, Raymond Eicher and their family. A van load of people had gone up for the week. She would be home late the next day. Well. I was a little perturbed. But it was what it was. And I asked. Is it OK if I stop in and see Dad, yet, tonight? Or doesn’t he take company this late? “No, that should be alright,” Joe told me. “He’s staying over at Simons.” I chatted a bit more, than headed over to Simon’s home on the southwest edge of the Aylmer settlement.
I pulled into the long drive that led back to my nephew Simon Gascho’s farm. He’s Joe and Rosemary’s oldest son. He and his wife, Kathleen, have a nice large family. And a house that isn’t all that big, either. But somehow, they offered to take Dad in for a while. He had been staying over at the home of my niece, Eunice, and her husband, David Swartzentruber. Over at the east end. And they kept him, when he was all helpless. Lying there in bed. For a few months, they did. And then Simon took some of that pressure off. He asked Dad if he’d like to come and stay with his family. This kind of thing doesn’t happen much, in today’s world, outside the Amish. There’s no question that you’ll be cared for. And you have people asking you to come stay with them in their home, when you can offer nothing. Nothing but continuous and daily care. And still, they’ll ask you. Come stay with us.
I parked the car on the gravel drive. A dog barked savagely as I got out of the car. Over by the house, little children hovered, whispering to each other. I got out. Ah, calm down, I said to the dog. And I asked the children. Is your Dad home? I’m here to see my Dad. They fluttered into the house. And by the time I got to the inner door, Kathleen met me, smiling. I’m Ira, I said. I’m here to see Dad. Didn’t you get the message?
They had not gotten the message. But she welcomed me in. I walked into the kitchen. And over around the left, there was the room Dad was staying in. I walked in. And there he sat, on a wheelchair. Dad. On a wheelchair, his legs stretched out, on the leg rests. An old man, a shrunken man, a weak man, with a tired and broken face. I walked up to him. He peered at me. Dad, I said. I reached out my hand. He smiled. And he took my hand. “Ira,” he said. “Is that you?”
Yes. It’s me, I said. I thought I had sent a message, that I was coming. He welcomed me joyfully. And I pulled up a chair, and we sat there and talked. Me and Dad.
He’s been doing pretty well, he told me when I asked. They moved him over here from Eunice’s place, just this week. And he got to telling me, all of what he had going on. He was all busy, writing. The second volume of his memoirs, that was just published this past week. “My Stretch in the Service.” And no, he didn’t have a hard copy to give me. He didn’t have any, yet. But he’d send me one. And we talked. Are you typing again? I asked. “Oh, yes,” he said, proudly. Can you show me? I asked. And he pulled his wheelchair right up into the table. Set his fingers on the typewriter. And he typed it out. Slowly, it was a far cry from all that frantic typing I heard, growing up as a child. But he did it. Proudly pulled out the paper, and showed me. “Ira is here and asking me to type.” Not an exact quote, there. But he wrote something like that. Lucidly.
I was pretty impressed, and I told him so. We sat there, and talked. He filled me in, about how he had just moved over here to Simon’s home. Over Thanksgiving, he told me, was when they asked him. Canada’s Thanksgiving was way last month. The family gathered, over where he was staying, at Eunice’s house. And Simon asked him. Would you consider coming over to our house for a while? David and Eunice are going to need to get ready to have church, in their home. You could come and stay with us, over that time. And the big question from Dad was this. “Did they ask you to ask me?” “No, no,” Simon said. “We just thought we’d ask you on our own, to come, and stay a while.” That was a big deal, to Dad, right there, that no one asked him to leave from where he was.
Kathleen asked me to stay for supper. Sure, I said, if you have enough to go around. “It won’t take much, to make more soup for one more person,” she said, smiling. So I agreed. And soon Simon came in, from doing his chores. I thought I had sent a message, I told him, just like I had told all the others. Apparently it didn’t get through. I’m sorry. It was no problem with anyone, though. They were just glad to see me. Dad beamed and beamed and smiled.
The table was set, and they made room for me. Dad was trundled in, on his wheelchair, at the end of the table. I sat beside Simon and his children. After silent prayer, the soup was passed around. I ladled out a full plate full. And it was all good. We sat there, and ate and talked. After supper was over, I sat with Dad again, back in his little space. We talked. And I told him. I’ll come back around tomorrow, probably in the afternoon.
The next morning dawned, and it was a different feel, in the wind. November. I walked out to my car, to drive out to the family. And I haven’t felt it that strong, not since I was fifteen years old. The feel and smell of the fall. The November winds were blowing in, pretty hard, from the northwest. And I felt it, what I felt in the cornfields, as a young man. We husked corn by hand, in a wind such as this. We smelled the fall, the winter coming in. It took me back, that morning, and those winds.
And the day just came at me, and I walked into it. First, it was out to the Gascho farm. My niece, Edna, opened a little bakery, there, earlier this year. After she waded through unbelievable amounts of red tape. It’s a beautiful little place, just south of the house, with a retail store on the front. Country Flavour-Rites, it’s called. There’s a nice big sign out by the road. She’s open on Fridays and Saturdays, only. I mean, a little bakery, right out there in the country. And she’s making it work. Her first-year sales exceeded her business plan by a good bit. I got there, and she proudly showed me around. In the back, where they do the baking, it’s all set up with commercial equipment, and a big multi-level baking stove. And the stuff she sells up front, well, it’s mouth-watering, all of it. And not that healthy for you, I’m sure. She’s got the old Wagler entrepreneurial spirit, that’s what she has. I hung around for an hour or so. A steady stream of customers came and went.
On over east, then, to Eunice’s home. She smiled and smiled in welcome. They had heard that I was around, the night before, at the school meeting. I’m telling you, word gets around, in an Amish community, simply by word of mouth. Nothing goes on, that doesn’t get told. It’s pretty interesting, that little fact. I sat and drank coffee. They were doing the Saturday cleaning. The men trickled in, too, from the work outside. Eunice invited me to come back for dinner (lunch), and I agreed. Now, for a little run around the community.
For the noon meal, we all sat around a large table. It was quite a table full of people. We ate and laughed and talked and chattered. Just caught up. I left, then, to drive around a bit. Simon had told me. After dinner, Dad always takes a little nap. He usually gets up around 2:00 or 2:30. I still had some time. So I headed over to town, and walked into the little flower shop on the west side of the square. The place smelled just as lovely as I’d remembered. I want a single red rose, I told the nice lady. She smiled and wrapped it for me. I paid her, and headed out to visit Mom.
It was cold and cloudy, that day. But the rain had stopped. I climbed over the wooden fence and walked to where Mom now lives. The soft earth that had been piled above her was flattened out, now. It was wet and cold and hard. I stooped, and placed the rose on the ground. I didn’t speak to her. Just stood there with my back hunched to the bitter northwest November winds. And remembered how it was that day when we brought her to this place.
It was shortly after 2:00 when I pulled in to the place where Dad was. The dog barked savagely at me again. Ah, shut up, dog, I said good-naturedly. I walked in. Dad had just gotten up. He was sitting at his desk, typing. And I sat there on a chair beside him. And for the next three hours, we just sat and talked, me and my father.
They had told me. He tends to repeat himself, circle back to the same old stories. He must have been well-rested that day, because he didn’t do much of that at all. And we talked about a lot of things. The stuff he had seen, in his lifetime. His writing. “I have to stay busy, doing something,” he said. “I’m sure thankful that I can write, yet.” The second book was just published. He’s about halfway through the third book. That’s when he moved his family up to Aylmer. I sure hope he gets that book done. He has every intention of doing so, of course. But he told me. “I’m ninety-three. My time won’t be long, here.” Yes, I said. Just keep right on writing, for as long as you can.
We talked about what it was, to care for him. Make sure you appreciate the family you’re staying with, I said. There’s a lot of time and effort, every day, to care for you. He looked off into the distance. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I know that.”
We talked about a lot of other things, too, most of which will stay between me and him. But I brought it up, there toward the end. I had heard. He kept telling others. He had some issues with my book. I can’t understand why Ira treated me like that. And I asked him. What hurt you in the book? He smiled a little shyly, and tried to change the subject. But I persisted. I want to talk about it. Tell me.
And he told me, and his issues will stay between me and him, too. But I told him. I was just trying to tell the story honestly. No one’s perfect. We’re all flawed. And I asked him. Who in the book did I treat the worst? He didn’t say anything. It was myself, I said. I treated myself the worst of anyone. I took the blame, for all the wrong I did. I don’t know if he understood what I was saying, or if he’d ever considered that point of view. But he seemed to accept it.
I had thought about it, the night before. Something was different about the way he looked. And that afternoon, it came to me. He was on a wheelchair. And he was dressed in some kind of pajama bottom, with a regular shirt. And he wasn’t wearing galluses. I had never, never seen my father like that before. Not wearing galluses. Small little point there, I know. But still, it seemed so odd to me. That’s what age brings, I guess, to a man like my father. All his life, he’d judge you, if you weren’t wearing galluses. Now, he’s too old to care.
And I asked him. Have you been to visit Mom, yet? He shook his head. “She’s not here, anymore,” he said simply. I know, but someone needs to take you to visit her, I said. And he agreed. We talked about the tombstone, too. It’ll be set up next spring, he thought. “I want it to be made of something that will last,” he said. “Something that won’t just fade in a few years.” Yes, I said. That’s a good idea. Make sure you get something of good quality.
Simon and Kathleen fixed a little snack for coffee break. We all sat around the table, drinking coffee and eating cookies. That was about the only time I got any real visiting done with Simon. And he told me. He had gone to Solomon Herrfort’s funeral, last year when he died. I was all interested in that. Sollie lived in a real poor community in Hillsboro, Wisconsin. He was a known oddity there, too. Simon claimed the man would never ride in any vehicle, not even in a buggy. He walked everywhere, didn’t matter how far it was. And when he got old and too weak to get anywhere, they hired a driver to take him to his other son’s home, to stay a while. When they got there, Sollie realized he had forgotten something, back at the house he had just moved from. Maybe his wallet, I don’t know. And the man turned and walked the five miles back to where he had just come from, to fetch what he had forgotten. You can’t make up a story like that.
I visited with Dad a while, then. He was all excited. The next day, Sunday, they were having Big Church over in the district where Eunice lives. And Simon was taking Dad over, after lunch. So he could participate in communion. Yes, that’s great, I said. I’m glad you can go. It was time to head on, soon. And Simon told me. I was welcome to stop by tomorrow morning, on the way out. To just see Dad for a few minutes, and drink some coffee. I’ll do that, I said.
Rosemary was getting back home late that afternoon, so I planned to head over there for supper. And that’s where I went. She had just arrived. An eighteen hour trip, that’s how long it takes to get to northeastern Maine from Aylmer. And back from Maine. You must be real tired, I told her as we hugged. She would have none of that. “Come in, come in, so we can visit,” she said. And I sat there on the couch as she flitted about, unpacking and making supper. It’s a welcome place, her house. And after a fine meal, we just sat around and visited. They don’t get all my blogs, she told me when I asked. Just one here and there. They got the one about Mom, of course. And the one about Abby. And she asked if I could send her the one about Uncle Ezra, from last spring. She had heard that one of Ezra’s children had made a comment about it to someone. “Ira didn’t quite get everything told right.” I gaped. How in the world did those people ever get hold of my blog? I asked. They’re hard core plain. How in the world would they even find out about it? “I don’t know,” Rosemary said. “I guess someone gave them a copy. You could think that someone would.” I was pretty stunned. Sure, I’ll mail you a copy when I get home, I told her.
And I got scolded a little bit, too, sitting there. I wrote something that wasn’t true, in the blog about Mom’s funeral. Edna made sure to track me down for that. Good-naturedly, of course. I wrote that there had never been any graveside singing in Aylmer before they sang for Mom, that day. That wasn’t true. It had happened before, at least twice. Right here, in Aylmer. Oh, my, I said, trying to look ashamed. I didn’t know. I try to be as accurate as I can, in my writings. I’ll make that right, with my readers. So that’s what I’m doing right here.
The next morning, I stopped by to see Dad again, as I was heading out. He was all excited about going to church that afternoon. We sat and visited, there in his room. Simon brought me a cup of coffee, and some tarts from Edna’s bakery. Dad and I just chatted. “Do you want a copy of my book?” He asked, almost shyly. “I’ll sign it for you.” He had already mailed me a signed copy, back when it came out. But I didn’t let on. Of course, of course I want a signed copy, I said. I would be very honored. He showed me where they were, and I dug out a copy. He picked up a pen with his stiff and gnarled fingers and laboriously scrawled his name. And a little Bible verse in German. I thanked him sincerely. And after half an hour or so, I made noises to leave. I’m going now, I said. “Well, thanks for coming,” he told me. We shook hands. “Come back and see me again,” he told me. I will, I said. And then I left him.
And I thought things over, as I headed for home. My father is in the winter of his life. And he’s at the dusk of that winter. I look at where he is, and where all he’s been, in his life. And I don’t ever want to get to where he is right now. I don’t ever want to reach the shrouded, foggy fields of that dusk in winter. I hope the Lord calls me home, long before I ever reach those fields. And I think He will. I’ve always felt it, sensed it, deep down. I will never grow old. Got no rhyme or reason to believe that, except I’ve lived a pretty hard and intense life. I’ve seen things, felt things. I have absorbed the savage tides of life, all the way, inside. There is a cost for all that, I think. It wears the body down. Whatever. I don’t want to be clinging to life, not when there’s no one there to care for me. I don’t want to live until I’m a hundred years old. Or anywhere close to that. I want to be gone. I want to be called home to a better place.
It all is what it is, I guess. For all of us. We’ll stay, until we are called home. Because life is a rare and precious and beautiful thing. And that means all of life. It was for Mom, right up to her lingering last days, and those final brutal hours. Maybe those weren’t beautiful, at least not from where we are, or how we see it. But still. Those last brutal hours were life.
And life is a rare and beautiful thing for my father, too, I think, as dusk settles and the darkness closes in around him.