February 13, 2009

A Gathering of the Clans…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:57 pm


…..till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

—Genesis 3:19

The text on my phone was short and to the point. From my sister, Rhoda. Three words. Abner Wagler died. Not exactly unexpected news. But still, jolting in its finality. Another one gone, from my father’s rapidly diminishing generation.

Abner was born in 1919 in Daviess County, Indiana, in my father’s family. Two years before my father’s birth.

Uncle Abner and Aunt Katie Wagler lived on a sandy farm two miles west of us in Aylmer, on the same road. With their family of fourteen children. I don’t think all fourteen ever lived home at once. By the time the younger ones were born, the older ones had married and left to establish their own households.

We grew up with their younger children, our first cousins. Went to school with them. Hung out. Played hockey. Got into mischief together.

Abner was an original founder of the Aylmer community. One of the core group. Along with my parents. Pete Yoders. Homer Grabers. Pete Stolls. Among others. Mostly Daviess County stock, they migrated like pilgrims from various points in the States, to establish the community that would be different from all the rest.

He was hard core Amish. Stern, sallow faced, sunken cheeks. He always wore round wire rimmed glasses. Yellow tinted. His large black felt hat, wide brim turned down all around like an upended bowl, covered his rimmed shock of wild unruly hair.

He spoke in a high pitched voice. Occasionally led a song in church. A thin quiet man, not as tall or strong as my father. Frugal, content to work in obscurity on his tidy little farm. He puttered about, raising crops and milking a few cows. His flock of chickens produced eggs that he sold at his stand at the Aylmer Sales Barn every Tuesday. Once, when I stopped by their place with my father, Abner was sitting in the summer kitchen, surrounded by baskets of fresh eggs, painstakingly sizing each egg on a little scale and packing them in bubbled cartons. Regular, large and extra large.

He emphasized quality, took pride in his work. Almost a perfectionist. He didn’t write, like my father. Avoided the limelight. Never got involved in all the glitz and glamour at Pathway Publishers. I’m not sure what he really thought of it. He never expressed an opinion on the matter, at least not publicly.

As a child, I thought him distant. Humorless. Grave. Sour. I didn’t fear him, just didn’t know him that well. I can’t remember many conversations with him, other than passing small talk. After we left Aylmer, I saw him and his wife only sporadically, when they happened to be in our area or we in theirs. And at funerals.

For decades, he was estranged from several of his sons who had chosen to leave the Amish church. He could not speak to them without delivering the harsh strident admonitions he felt were justified. Required, even. His ardor never slackened, and effectively strangled any possibility of meaningful relationships with those certain sons.

Sometime around the late 1980s or the early 1990s, I’m not sure when, he and Katie retired. Attached a sweeping wing to their big farmhouse, a “Dawdy House.” Lived there with their one unmarried daughter, Fannie Mae. As they advanced in years, Fannie Mae faithfully cared for her parents. Katie died about four years ago, leaving Abner and his daughter alone in the Dawdy House. His health declined steadily after his wife’s death.

The clans would now gather for his funeral. From far-flung places all across the land. His sons and daughters. Relatives. Nephews. Nieces. Grandchildren. Friends. From many denominations. Amish. Beachy. Every stripe of Mennonite. And English. Including those of us who had left the Amish church. Connected by a single thread. Our Amish blood and heritage.

It would be safe to attend. Even in Aylmer. Even for those like me. “Safe passage” of sorts. For a short time, by unspoken agreement. To honor and respect a patriarch who had passed on.

I got up early Monday morning. Loaded my bags, fueled Big Blue and left for Steve’s house. He was on board by seven. And we were on our way. We drove north on 11 and 15 into brooding overcast skies. Big Blue hummed along. This was his second long trip. Through northern PA, over into NY. On and on, stopping only for gas and to switch drivers.

We reached Buffalo around 2 o’clock and crossed the border. The stern lady border guard examined our passports, asked a few rote questions, and waved us through. After locating Highway 3, we headed west through the white landscape. Canada was blanketed with snow. Large banks lined the road. We plugged along; Highway 3 meanders maddeningly through every possible small town and village, all clogged with lights. Our progress was frustratingly slow.

Town after little town slipped by. As did precious time. Finally we reached Tillsonburg around four. Getting close. On then into Aylmer, where we found the only motel in town, a dinky drafty little hovel. I booked a room and unloaded my stuff and freshened up a bit. Supper would be served at five. We left then, heading out to the east end of the community, then north on the road bordering the west edge of our old home farm. Drove back west along the main drag to Abner’s farm.

The community was still recognizable. But different. Houses and homesteads had sprouted, willy nilly, where bare fields had been before. Much more populated. Aylmer had expanded greatly since we left thirty-three years ago. We passed the east school. The old school house had been torn down and a new smaller one built. Simon Waglers, the old Sammy Eicher place. David Luthy’s Historical Library, then Elmo’s old farm. The old Sansburn farm. Then the west school house. Pete Yoder’s place. Levi Slaubaugh’s old blacksmith shop had shrunk, it seemed, from how I remembered it. But still there. Abner’s farm was next.

It looked the same. Old gray asbestos siding on the house he had built with his own hands almost fifty years ago. Some pieces hung in tatters, swaying in the wind. Other outbuildings looked a bit raggedy, in a state of sad disrepair. Someone had let the place slide. Old Abner would never have stood for it. His farm was always impeccably tidy, cleaned up, the whitewashed barns gleaming in the sun.

We parked Big Blue beside the road in line with other vehicles. Titus and our sister Rachel had just arrived. With separate drivers. Rachel had accompanied my parents from Florida, where they were staying for a month, all the way to Aylmer. In a little mini van Dad had hired in Sarasota, with a driver. Beachy guy. Fourteen hundred miles. In two days. Exhausting to anyone, let alone an elderly couple. Rachel looked strung out.

With the help of some strong young men loafing about, we wrestled Titus’ wheelchair up the steps into the house. The four of us were then led to a little room with two small windows on the back of the house. Ushered in by several of Abner’s sons and daughters. The coffin, a plain wood box, was set up there. We approached. And there he lay.

About as I’d remembered him, only older, worn, tired. His face settled in death, his long gray beard cleanly combed down to his chest. The round wire rimmed glasses were clear, not tinted yellow like I’d remembered. We stood there with his sons Edwin and Simon and his youngest daughter, Lydia.

They spoke briefly of his last days, how his health had deteriorated. How he’d suffered from Parkinson’s Disease for the last fifteen or so years of his life. Double pneumonia finally assaulted him. And did him in. He died on Friday, January 30, at 6:30 PM. They spoke too, of little snippets of his life, the things he’d done and said. The things he had enjoyed. On this day, it was about him. And their memories of him. We listened respectfully, shifting about in the tiny room. Titus and Ruth’s five year old son Thomas approached the open coffin and stared in fascination at the corpse. His first brush with death.

Dad had arrived earlier that afternoon. Anxious to see his brother, he hobbled hastily to the little room. Somehow he slipped in unnoticed; no one accompanied him as he entered the door. One of my nieces saw him disappear inside and rushed to be with him so he wouldn’t be alone. She found him bent over his brother’s coffin, weeping aloud, calling Abner’s name. Sobbing like a child.

We drifted out then into the living room. Every room in the vast house was crowded with people. Neighbors, Abner’s children and their partners and families. And people like us, from distant places. We waded through and shook hands with everyone. Murmured greetings. Made our way to the table set up in the kitchen of the Dawdy house, where a simple casserole supper was being served. We filled our plates and sat at a small table off to one side of the room. Dad joined us there. On the wall above us, a large chime clock hung silent, its hands stopped at 6:30. The hour Abner had died. It would remain so until after the funeral.

About then Dad’s younger sister Rachel (Mrs. Homer) Graber arrived from Kalona, Iowa. Hobbling on a cane, from a recent leg injury, Aunt Rachel approached Dad from the back; he didn’t see her coming. She sat beside him at the end of the table and spoke his name. He turned and greeted her joyfully. The two of them sat and talked.

And there, before us in that moment, the years seemed to wash from them. And suddenly it became clear to me that they were seeing each other as they did in their childhood years. To each other, they were not two elderly, crippled people. They were brother and sister, a lifetime ago, at home in their parents’ house in Daviess County. Alone, oblivious to the people in the crowded room, they spoke in cracked voices of the fateful thing that had brought them to this place. Their brother’s death. Of their family unit, only they remained. My father and his little sister.

After supper, we drifted among the freundschaft, visiting briefly here and there. I spoke with Abner’s children, my cousins, many of whom I had not seen in years. Our worlds are light years apart, yet in this ancient setting, this traditional wake, we connected again, as we could in no other place. Our clamoring talk was mostly of little things.

Later, after spending some time with siblings at my sister Rosemary’s home, I headed for my motel room. Rachel rode along; she had booked a room as well. The dinky little motel was about what you’d expect. The bed was literally hard as a rock. I finally drifted off into restless slumber. Late.

At eight the next morning, Rachel and I headed out to the funeral. It was cold, with a bitter northwest wind. Titus had just arrived, so Steve and I wheeled him into the house. Every room was filled with wooden backless benches. A space had been reserved for Titus and Ruth close to the front. Steve and Rachel and I were ushered into the little side room where the coffin had been the day before. My brother Nate soon texted me that he’d arrived from his home an hour north, in the Kitchener area. I walked outside to meet him and guide him to the room where we were seated.

Titus and Steve on the morning of the funeral

At nine, the service began. There was no singing. Never is, at an Amish funeral. Just two sermons, then the viewing. A local bishop, John Martin, stood and preached the first sermon. For half an hour or so. It was the first Amish funeral preaching I’d heard in years. After he finished, Roy Miller, the well-known bishop from Shipshewana, IN, rose to preach the main sermon.

I remember Bishop Roy from back in the 1970s. Even back then he was well known. I had not heard him since. Almost immediately he broke into a rolling sing-song chant. His voice was not loud, but carried through the house. Up and down and sideways, twisting and turning, he chanted for almost an hour. Maybe it was my absence of so many years, or maybe it was just me, but I almost could not understand the man. His lulling sing-song rose and fell in hypnotic rhythm. Exhaustion crept in and I hung my head and slept. But somehow his voice penetrated even the depths of my slumber. I understood his words more clearly in my subconscious mind than when awake.

By 10:30, Bishop Roy wound down his chant and took his seat. The preaching was over. Now the long slow process of viewing the body.

Room by room, they filed slowly past the coffin. Families. With children. Parents held up the little ones so they could see the deceased. Then the youth, row upon row. And visitors, like us. All in somber reverence.

The Amish culture does not shrink from death, but faces it squarely for what it is. The end of this life and the beginning of eternity. There are no whispered condolences to the children of how Grandpa now has wings and is flying with the angels. Or that he is now smiling down from the skies. It is a somber heavy thing. And everyone, including the smallest child, views the body in the coffin. Absorbs the fact that death is a part of the journey through life. And will eventually come for us all.

In half an hour or so, everyone had filed through. Then the room was cleared, and Abner’s children and their families took their turns. Each family approached and surrounded the coffin. Unashamedly shed tears. Wept. After a moment, they returned to their seats on the benches by the wall. At last the pallbearers came in, closed the lid, and lifted the coffin. Abner Wagler was leaving his earthly home for the last time.

We mingled with other visitors and talked while the coffin was loaded on a horse-drawn hearse. A long line of buggies joined the procession, ready for the short trip to the grave yard. The hearse then trundled off, followed by the other buggies.

Procession of buggies and Big Blue’s dashboard (sorry)

Approaching the graveyard

Nate and Steve and Rachel joined me in Big Blue and we took our place in the procession of buggies and motor vehicles. The grave yard was close, about half a mile. We parked beside the road and walked in to join the crowd. I huddled in my long heavy winter coat. It was cloudy and bitterly cold. Specks of hard snowflakes swept sideways from the sky.

At the grave yard, the coffin was opened for the final time. Everyone filed by again and then stood off to one side in the crowd. And again, Abner’s children and their families approached, one family at a time, to say their last good byes. Fannie Mae, who for years had cared faithfully for her parents, now stood at the head of the coffin, hovering over her father. As each family approached, she shared their last moments with their father.

As we waited, I visited quietly with Dad. I glanced over to the grave and saw a lonely figure seated there on a wooden chair, close to the open hole, huddled in a blanket against the biting winds. Dad’s sister Rachel. Separated from the crowd, alone beside the grave, waiting for her brothers to come. I asked if he wanted to join her. He nodded and quickly hobbled over with his cane. Stood there silently like a sentinel beside her chair.

David Luthy, who ably filled the role of funeral director, stepped up and closed the coffin lid. For the final time. The pallbearers lifted the coffin and walked the few steps to the grave. The crowd surged and stopped, surrounding them. The coffin was carefully lowered into the earth with straps, then a wooden cover. Two pallbearers then lowered themselves into the grave on top of the cover. Shovels full of dirt were handed down, and they filled the edges around the coffin. The grave was quickly filled. As the top was rounded out, local bishop Peter Stoll delivered a short graveside eulogy, reflecting that Abner Wagler was the last original settler of Aylmer who still lived there. Now he was gone. After silent prayer, we were dismissed. It was over.

We all headed back to the house, where lunch was being served. I sat with my nieces and nephews (Rosemary’s children) and visited with them and my brother Nate. And my cousin and old friend Phil Graber from Florida. So many people, so little time to talk. I didn’t get a chance to meet many old acquaintances who were present. I did shake hands with a few of Aylmer’s leaders, and say hello. All were most gracious.

Shortly after 2 PM, Steve and I walked out and boarded Big Blue and drove off on the snow-swept road. We were among the first to depart, in Aylmer for less than twenty-four hours.

The clans had gathered. The people had come, braving the bitter winter winds and snow, some from far away. For a brief window of time. In solemn honor and respect. Accompanied one of their own to his final resting place. Shared the ancient traditions.

As they had in the past, for others. And will again.

Soon the last stragglers would go their separate ways. Within a day or two, the clans would be dispersed. And scattered to the winds.

Until the next time.

February 6, 2009


Category: News — Ira @ 6:30 pm


I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes
several days attack me at once.

—Jennifer Yane

I’ve been wound way too tight these last few weeks. Not that I’m a nervous guy. Not so you’d notice. But there was lots of tension. From various sources.

Writing last week’s post was enormously stressful. I fussed and fretted. Spent night after night at the computer. Working on what seemed about a hundred rewrites. Just the right word for this description, the right term for that. Friday finally rolled around, and it was time. So I breathed deep and hit the “Publish” link. It was done. Out there, for the world to read. And to excoriate or cheer, or shrug indifferently.

All I wanted then was to unwind for a few days. Relax. Rest. Rejuvenate.

But it couldn’t be that easy. Not that simple. Never is. Exactly ninety minutes after posting, I received the message that my uncle Abner Wagler (Dad’s older brother) had passed away. In Aylmer. I had always planned on attending his funeral. He was a fairly important character in my childhood world.

And that’s how it went. Publish the last Elmo Stoll blog, which included a few good solid whacks at Aylmer, and then attend a funeral there four days later. The stars were misaligned, I guess. Should have waited. To post, I mean. Death waits on no one. Including my uncle. Or the timing of my posts. Ah, well. I can’t unpost a blog, without flat-out deleting it. So I took comfort in Pontius Pilate’s succinct little creed. What is written is written. And left it at that.

My brother Steve and I attended the funeral, leaving Monday in Big Blue, then returning immediately after the service on Tuesday. Five hundred miles each way. Eighteen hours on the road. Eighteen hours in Aylmer. Into the bear’s den, and right out again. Lots of adventures. Mostly good. More funeral details next week.

Last week’s post was the longest ever. This week’s will be one of the shortest. Balance, and all. At least, that’s the official excuse. Truth is, what with the Super Bowl, then the funeral, I couldn’t even get started writing until Wednesday night. I usually start the next week’s post on Saturday or Sunday night.

And so, a bit of housekeeping. And some observations.

Last week my total hit count quietly passed the one hundred thousand mark. One hundred thousand hits. In 96 weeks. Not a lot, by some standards. But, compared to others, huge. During the first year, I averaged from 750 to 1000 hits per week. The numbers held steady, but didn’t increase much. Except for one or two particularly brooding posts, when they would spike up a bit.

I’ve always figured if I keep writing halfway decent stuff, the numbers will increase as the word gets out. That’s been my philosophy. New readers will come, as others drift away. A few links appeared. Then Amish America linked. Listed my site on his blog roll. The hits spiked up. And have held well since.

Guess I should send the Amish America guy a case of good wine or something.

Last week’s Elmo post got the record number of hits in one week. Around 2300. Everyone who knew someone who knew someone in the Communities must have spread the word. Through whatever communication pipelines those people maintain. And they emerged from the woodwork and came and read. Some of them probably won’t be back, although they are most welcome.

I think the Elmo posts were pretty well balanced. Not that I’m biased or anything. A bit harsh in spots, but honest overall. I received one virulent private email from a guy who detested the spirit of my writings. Whatever that means. Also a lackadaisical observation from Ohio that I wasn’t nearly hard enough on Elmo. From that, I figured I’d probably done OK. When you get lambasted from both extremes, you know you’ve hit the center.

A belated update on Anne Marie. She has been doing quite well. I haven’t mentioned anything about her condition lately. Her parents, who had come for the brain tumor operation back in December, left about two weeks ago for their home in British Columbia, Canada. Fine, good people. I’ve gotten close to them.

Anne Marie has been on a stringent natural diet since the operation. Currently she is taking absolutely no pharmaceutical drugs. She looks great and has tremendous energy.

About two weeks ago, with Ellen’s help, she finally got that appointment at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. There, they met with a cancer specialist. He reviewed her files and will receive copies of her next MRI scan. He was astounded at how good she looked, considering she was taking no drugs of any kind. He told her to keep on doing whatever she was doing.

After he and a team of doctors review her next scan, they will design a treatment program for her that may include some radiation. At this point, that’s still an unknown. Paul and Anne Marie were greatly encouraged by their trip and the doctor’s analysis.

The incessant winter drags on. It’s only early February, and I’m sick to death of all the cold and snow. Seems like every other day we get more snow. Deep freeze every-where. It sure has slowed things at work. Not much going on. At least I hope it’s the cold weather and not the economy alone.

For the first time in its history, Graber Supply laid off a few workers this week. Great guys. My friends. It’s tough to absorb. For those laid off and for those who remain. Certainly increased the week’s stressors. Dramatically.

And now, the Super Bowl. Wow, is all I can say. It was a fantastic game with a hair- raising finish. Only one huge problem. The wrong team won.

My usual guests, my brother Steve and Paul Zook, arrived and watched the game with me. This year, Paul’s nine-year-old son Cody, entered the hallowed halls of football manhood and came along to watch with his Dad. He picked the Steelers to win.

They almost didn’t. Heavily favored, they let the game slip away until Big Ben rode to the rescue. The refs did a decent job, the only really atrocious call was a personal foul against the Cards for hitting Big Ben late. They didn’t. The refs threw a few “makeup” flags against the Steelers later to even things out a bit.

I was irritated at the announcers. The whole game it was the Steelers this, the Steelers that. As if the Cards didn’t have a chance. They quieted a little after the Cards took the lead with less than three minutes to play.

Big Ben will enter football lore as the guy who can. Who, even though his stats weren’t that great, marched his team down the field when the chips were down. And got it done. That final touchdown was a beautiful thing, even though I almost suffered a stroke when it happened. When not on the field, Big Ben stood grimly on the side lines, focused, unsmiling. Unlike another quarterback who always seems to smile, whether winning or losing. That would be McNabb. And there’s the difference. Smile and lose. Look grim, stay focused, and win.

Of course, I was cheering and rooting wildly for the underdog Cardinals and Kurt Warner. They came to play. And they almost pulled it off, with those two forth quarter touchdowns to Fitzgerald. But after they took their first lead of the game, I had that awful sinking feeling that it wasn’t going to be enough. And it wasn’t. A fine classy group of guys, who gained a lot of respect, even though they suffered that heart-breaking last minute loss.

The interception just before the half, with that 100 yard rumble for a touchdown, is really what did the Cards in. Had it just been an interception, they could have absorbed it. But not a touchdown the other way. A fourteen point swing, just like that. Longest run in Super Bowl history, pulled off by a lumbering linebacker. Incredible.

I was so tense by the game’s end that I could hardly get to sleep. And I didn’t even have any stakes in the game, really. Other than I’d picked the Cards to win by three in our office pool.

Ah well. Another Super Bowl, another year. Come on, preseason. August seems so far away.

This week, I plan to unwind a bit. And write about uncle Abner’s funeral.