December 18, 2009

Home for Christmas

Category: News — Ira @ 6:01 pm


“…the dark ancestral cave…from which mankind
emerged into the light, forever pulls one back –
but…you can’t go home again…you can’t go…
back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

—Thomas Wolfe

We always stirred this time of year. Plotted. Prepared. Planned. Turned our faces again to the west and north and the distant land of home. Did whatever it took to make the long journey back for Christmas.

They seem blurred now, those years in the early 1990s, to flow together as one. And every year it went the same. My brother Nate and I discussed it some throughout the summer, then got serious about mid-November. We didn’t live that close to each other, so plans had to be made. To get together and go home together.

I was attending Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. Nate lived an hour away, in the Seneca area. We existed on shoestring budgets. I was a student. Nate worked on a framing crew and was preparing for a one-year stint as a counselor at Fair Play Boys’ Camp.

We were lithe and lean and impossibly fit. In the peak and pride of our physical and muscular manhood. I look back on photos from that time and marvel that I ever could have been so skinny.

We were going home for Christmas. Home to our parents’ two hundred acre farm in Bloomfield, Iowa. The place where only a few short years before, we had lived as Amish youth. Where we had grown into adulthood, where we’d run around. Where we had sown the turbulent seeds of that period of our lives and where we had eventually torn away. Leaving in our wakes a trail of grief and pain. The dashed expectations of our parents and the broken dreams of others.

We harbored in our hearts some few tattered remnants of regret and guilt.

We’d left independently, each on his own path, and on his own terms. With little guidance, even less support, and no semblance of a safety net, we had pressed onward and outward. Walked away from the only family structure we had ever known. Driven by a vague undefined hope, and the desire for more, so much more. And always the promise of a brighter future, always the distant gleam of a great shining city in a tomorrow that never came.

Both of us were skittish somewhat, tense and raw. Unhealed. It was still so close. So little time had passed since we’d left, so few years. Back then, in youth, a few years seemed like a long time. But it wasn’t. And our internal turmoil could not be denied.

We had escaped the desolate land, the bleak deserts, the sparse hard lifestyle, and we felt free. Why then, return again into the dark boundaries of the land from whence we’d fled?

Because at Christmas, “home” was the only place we’d ever known. And despite the tenseness, the confrontations and admonitions we knew would surely come, we did not hesitate, but prepared to set out on a journey to go back.

And so we made our plans. In a time before cell phones and email, we finalized the details the Sunday before while at our sister Maggie’s place for lunch. At Bob Jones the following week, my final test was over one day by noon. By mid afternoon, Nate arrived in his little white pickup. Since we didn’t trust either his pickup or my old tan T-Bird to make the long trip, we pooled our meager resources and rented a fire engine red Pontiac Grand Prix. (Neither of us so much as owned a credit card, but that’s another story.) We loaded our stuff and hit the road.

Through late afternoon and evening and the long night we drove, taking turns at the wheel, stopping only for gas and food and coffee. Few things dull the mind more than traveling all night in a car. Into the sunrise, and on and on, the Pontiac pulsed along. North and west. By noon, we were getting close. Passed through familiar northern Missouri landscape. Crossed the border into Iowa. And the first Amish farms on the southern end on Rt. 63.

We were back.

But before heading out, we instead turned east to Bloomfield. To buy a few simple gifts for Dad and Mom. For Dad, a few boxes of Brach’s chocolate covered cherries. For Mom, a large red poinsettia. No card, just the gifts. We cruised around the deserted town square. What only a few years ago had seemed like a glittering metropolis now sat squat and dark, a collection of ramshackle rusted stores huddled in a half empty town.

Then out of town, the highway west into the burg of West Grove. Then right onto the gravel road that led to the farm. Two miles, then the half-mile driveway to home.

And by two o’clock, we were pulling up to our parents’ house.

It was all pretty much the same. As it had been the last time. The old white bungalow with a few rickety buggies parked forlornly in front of the shop. We parked and got out and yawned and stretched and stretched. Then up the concrete walkway to the house, where Mom met us at the door. She smiled and smiled and chattered in welcome. Nate handed her the poinsettia. She feigned surprise. Oh, for me! You shouldn’t have. And we followed her into the warm familiar kitchen, where her ever present pot of coffee sat simmering on the humming stove. Sat at the table while she poured us each a cup.

She fluttered about and smiled and smiled. Her boys were home. And indeed we were.

After a few minutes, Dad, hearing the commotion, came clumping in from his tiny office, which was attached to the north side of the house. He walked gingerly, limping on his gimpy knee. “Hello, boys,” he said, peering over his wire-rimmed glasses at us.

And we stood respectfully and shook hands with him and he spoke our names. We gave him his gift of chocolate cherries. He sat down to visit a bit. How was the trip? Good, we said. Did you drive all night? Yes, we did. You must be tired. Yes, we are. And so on.

My father had an ironclad rule. No son who owned a car could live at his home. For the first few years after we left, his face darkened if we so much as drove a car onto his property and parked it for a short visit. But by the early nineties, we’d reached an uneasy unspoken truce. He wouldn’t fuss overmuch if we parked our car out front, as long as it was clearly understood that it would be only for a few days. Over Christmas, for instance. We honored the truce. And to his credit, so did he.

We settled in and sat around then, whiling away the late afternoon hours, laughing and chatting with Mom as she bustled about, filling us in on all the latest gossip while preparing supper. She hovered over the hot stove, stirring up a pot of her milk-based bean soup laced with herbs, because she knew it was our favorite. And she knew her kitchen was the only place in the whole wide world where we would ever find it.

Darkness fell and the hissing mantel lanterns were lit, brightening the entire house. We sat down to eat, and it was a comfortable pleasant thing. Just Dad and Mom and my brother and me. After supper, we sat drowsily, nodding off on the couch. And as bedtime approached, Dad cleared his throat and announced it was time for evening prayer. We knelt and heard again the rich mellow rhythm of my father’s voice as he recited the five-minute High German evening prayer from memory.

And somewhere in these years, I don’t remember exactly when, after the others had retired, I sat up with my father and we talked. Just me and him, man to man. He had many questions about my college classes and what I was learning. I was comfortable and open with him for the first time in my life. The hours passed, and the hissing lantern flickered low. At midnight, as the cold crept in, Dad got up and stirred the dying embers in the stove and restocked it with firewood. And with that we finally went off to bed.

After that first time, we made it a tradition. The first night of any future visit home, he and I would sit up late and talk. Those are among my most treasured memories of my father.

We slept in the bedrooms that a few years ago had been our own. The smoky kerosene oil lamp flickering dimly on the night stand. The bed smothered with plump feather comforters Mom had carefully placed there. I snuggled in, the cold night air engulfed the room, the high clear chimes of the old black wall clock struck once as I drifted off into fitful slumber.

The next morning I awoke early, startled by my surreal surroundings. Dad called for us to come and eat the breakfast Mom had already made. Eggs and bacon and toast and thick rich gravy. We sat at the table and groggily stuffed our faces with the food on which we had been raised.

After breakfast, Dad took up the Bible and read a passage of scripture for devotions. Nate and I glanced at each other. We might even have winked a bit. This was the ideal moment for the obligatory admonitions we knew would come at some point. We sat there, a captive audience. We were trapped. It was Dad’s time to deliver a little mini sermon. About how we were living in the world and of the world. How we should even now change and return home and establish ourselves as upstanding members of the Amish church. Me and Mom believe that’s the right thing for you to do. That’s how he always wrapped it up.

Might as well get it out of the way, we figured, and get on with things.

And so he did. The same old song, exactly as we’d heard it many times before. Just a slightly different verse.

Seems like it must have been a Bloomfield rule or something. If your worldly children come home to visit, make sure you lecture them. Don’t let that chance slip by or you will have sinned.

It would have been nice to go home just once and not be subjected to that particular refrain. But mostly, we learned to just let it pass and let it go.

After the obligatory lecture was over, Nate and I thanked Mom for her delicious food and took off to tour our old haunts. Stopped to see Titus, who was calm and collected as always. Then to Chuck’s Café in West Grove. Reconnected with all the local farmers we used to hang with. Then around the settlement itself, stopping here and there to say hi to an old friend. And stopping by at our siblings’ houses for coffee breaks and sweets.

Everywhere we went, the fire engine red Grand Prix was a source of great fascination. Someone must be doing well, people would comment slyly, to drive a car like that. We grunted vague replies and pretended the car was Nate’s. Didn’t seem to cross any- one’s mind that it might be a rental.

Bloomfield was expanding. Every year, it seemed, new buildings had sprouted where only pasture grasses waved before. Or some English farm had been snatched up by an Amish farmer. The character of the community changed. New names, new faces from people we had never seen before, people who had moved in from Jamesport, MO and other troubled settlements.

For my parents, it was a golden age, those early years of the 1990s. Unrecognized as such in the moment, as I suspect are most of what are later nostalgically referred to as “golden ages” throughout history. But for my parents it really was such a time.

They were surrounded by their married children. Six of them. Titus and Ruth lived a few hundred yards down the lane. Halfway out, my brother Joseph and his wife Iva and their family. My sister Naomi and her husband Alvin Yutzy and their family a half mile south. Steve and his wife Wilma and their family a mile south. Rachel and her husband Lester Yutzy and their family a mile west across the fields. And my sister Rhoda and her husband Marvin Yutzy lived in a trailer up the hill on the home farm.

In some small sense, it was my father’s empire. The Waglers were an influential force in Bloomfield. He was the undisputed anchor of that force. The aging patriarch surrounded by his offspring, approaching the sunset of his years. There was no way he could have known that in less than a decade it would all be gone. Had he, I suspect he would have treasured and appreciated those days far more than he did. Or maybe not.

And my mother too, could not have imagined what the future held in store. That the day would come when she would endure the sight and bear the sorrow of her family scattering to the winds. And just as well she did not and could not know. Surrounded and honored by her children and grandchildren, she glowed when her daughters came home to spend the day with her, sewing and canning and doing the things mothers and daughters do. Those times, I believe, were among the happiest of her life.

The day slipped by and another night. And then Christmas dawned. We slept in, awoke late and got up to Mom’s fresh coffee. For the scripture reading that morning, Dad read the Christmas story from Luke. No admonitions forthcoming this time. That little chore had already been done. Mom bustled about, covering hot dishes to take to the noon meal at my brother Joseph’s house halfway out the lane. By eleven, a line of buggies trickled in. All the family gathered, as we always did on this day.

Nate and I joined them. A large group. Our brothers and their wives, our sisters and their husbands. And all their children. The house soon echoed with our boisterous talk and great peals of laughter, common sounds at any Wagler gathering. A ragtag line of nephews hung in the shadows, rough and rugged boys, growing like weeds. They spoke shyly to their “English” uncles and discussed us among themselves. Soon enough, they too, or a good percentage of them, would taste of the world outside the boundaries of their own.

A sumptuous feast was spread, and we gathered about. Heads bowed as my father prayed the blessing. And then we dug into the food.

After lunch as everyone lounged around dozing and drowsy, Nate and I made noises to depart. It was best to start back that day, to beat the heavy post holiday traffic. Dad wished us safe travels. Mom gripped our hands and smiled and slipped us small gifts of stocking caps and gloves, or similar practical things.

And then we left. It was time to go. We could feel it. Just something in the air.

This was not our world. It would never be our world again. Sure, it was “home,” but in cold hard reality we were vagabonds and strangers. We didn’t fit and we didn’t belong.

And as we absorbed that truth, the deep stirring desire to return home for Christmas diminished in our hearts. Receded gradually, almost imperceptibly, over time.

Until it pretty much died. And we could find little reason to go back.

December 4, 2009


Category: News — Ira @ 6:46 pm


All the children say:
We don’t need another hero.
We don’t need to know the way home.
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome.

—Tina Turner, lyrics: Thunderdome

My cell phone rang the other evening, as I was tooling down the road in Big Blue. My brother Titus, calling from the local schoolhouse phone in Bloomfield, Iowa. Just to chat. He checks in with me once in awhile, usually about every week or two.

I answered. We talked. He’d enjoyed my last blog. Someone usually stops by and gives him a hard copy. As we wound down, he allowed that his son Robert had a question for me. A pause, as someone picked up on the other line. Then seven-year-old Robert’s eager slightly raspy voice.

“Hi, uncle Ira.”

“Hi, Robert. How are you?”

“Good.” Then right to the point. “May I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I said. “Go ahead.”

A brief pause. The question tumbled out, the words tripping over each other. “Do you think you’ll ever find yourself a wife?”

Whoa. Don’t know where that came from. “A wife?” I chuckled, taken aback. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Don’t you think you need a wife? He persisted. “Me and Thomas think you should have a wife.” Obviously, it was a matter of grave concern to him. To both of them. They probably felt bad for me.

On the other line, Titus chuckled, a bit awkwardly. “The boys have been discussing this quite a lot lately. It’s a big issue and they’re very preoccupied with it. And concerned for you,” he said. “They weren’t really satisfied with our replies. So I told them they could just ask you themselves.”

Ah, good parenting, that. “Yes, yes,” I agreed. “The only way to get the real answer. Go right to the source.”

Back to little Robert, and his important question. “No,” I assured him kindly. “I don’t think I need a wife. I’m pretty happy living by myself. I’m used to it, to living alone. So I think I’ll be alright.”

“OK. Bye.” He said abruptly. He didn’t seem convinced. He would discuss it at length, I’m sure, with his younger brother Thomas. The two of them would grapple with it. After chatting a bit more with their father, I hung up.

And it was fine. Other than a slight twinge of sadness, I thought the whole thing frankly humorous. And I was touched that my two little nephews concerned themselves with my well being. Children, in their innocence, will come right out and tell you what many adults think, but can’t bring themselves to say.

And in a young Amish kid’s world, it must be a strange and frightening thing. To have an uncle, Daddy’s brother, who used to be married, but now lives alone. They can’t fathom such a thing, turn it in their young minds and grasp it. A concept wholly foreign to their world.

And that, I suppose, is how it should be. I’m glad it’s still that way somewhere.

But I reflected on the conversation. Mulled a bit. Children say the darnedest things. And their conclusions are usually more true than not. Which got me thinking about an incident years ago, when I myself was a little boy, younger even than Robert.

Not that I’m remotely comparing the two disparate incidents. Just that Robert’s childish wisdom roused my own long dormant memories from decades of slumber.

It was a Sunday morning in Aylmer, a sunny summer day. I was four, maybe five years old. Church was at Alva Eichers’ place, a mile north and west of our home.

We left for church that morning, rattling down the road in Dad’s great old topbuggy. I stayed with Dad as he stood around with the men out by the barn, visiting before the service. A family of strangers from another community attended that morning as well. I don’t remember whose company they were. Probably relatives of someone or other. The father looked slick, cleaned up. Trimmed beard. He may not even have been wearing galluses, I’m not sure. They were from Nappanee, Indiana, I heard later. A couple of young boys hovered close to the slicked up man from Nappanee. One of the boys was about my age. I stared at him, fascinated. Inordinately rotund, his little body was about as round as tall.

Around noon, the church service ended. After Uncle Pete or Nicky Stoltzfus or Jake Eicher had preached the main sermon. The final slow drawn out song. The children were released. We ran out to play.

And somewhere in the course of our play that afternoon, I approached the little boy. The rotund one. Round-cheeked, he wore glasses, perched on his pudgy nose. We stood there, sizing each other up. Hands in pants pockets. Awkwardly scuffed the dirt with our bare feet. At least I was barefoot. He probably wore shoes, coming from Nappanee and all.

We stood there, face to face. I was on my home turf. He was a stranger in a strange land. He smiled hesitantly.

“What’s your name? I asked.

“Ernest,” he said shyly. He smiled again, almost pleadingly.

Ernest. Never heard of a name like that before. I looked him up and down. Then into his eyes. Then I spoke.

“You are fat.” I said. Flatly. Matter-of-factly. Little rancor involved. I had never before seen someone so young so heavy.

His face fell. The smile vanished. His eyes widened with dismay and pain. He seemed to shrink into himself. Without a word, he turned and lumbered away.

I walked off. Didn’t really think anything of it. I didn’t despise him. Or laugh at him. He was just different. He was, well, fat.

That afternoon, after we had returned home, my sisters talked of the strangers from Nappanee. And the little boy. Ernest.

“Did you play with him?” One of them asked. Probably Maggie. She was always admonishing us to be nice.

“A little.” I answered innocently. “He was fat.”

Maggie looked sharply at me, startled and suspicious.

Utterly unaware of the effect my words would have, I blithely prattled on. “He was fat. I told him he was fat.”

It was a huge mistake. My three sisters instantly reacted with expressions of great horror and disbelief. Maggie, Naomi and Rachel. They gasped in unison. “Aaaaaaah.”

“You did WHAT?” They shrieked. Practically in unison again. And right there on the spot, an impromptu school session was called to order. Three screeching teachers. One poor little unwilling four-year-old student.

The tumultuous clamor of their voices echoed through the house in waves, loud, over-whelming. Next thing Dad would be awakened from his nap. And that wouldn’t be good for anyone. I stood there hunkered in the full force gale, perplexed. I honestly wasn’t quite sure what all the fuss was about.

“You can’t do that, make fun of someone because of how he looks,” they lectured sternly. “It’s not kind.”

Kind? What did that have to do with anything? Truth was truth. I saw what I saw. And I knew what I saw. Unwilling to concede without a defense, I bristled.

“But he WAS fat.” I said stoutly.

Alas, my rock-solid reasoning was promptly smashed and swept aside like so much dust. My retort triggered a great cascade of even more anguished screeching. Many ominous scenarios were trotted out. What if people made fun of the way you look? Laughed at your curly hair? How would you like that?

Although failing to see any connection between their ominous scenarios and my supposedly dark and apparently unforgivable sin, I nonetheless made a hasty tactical decision to shut up and retreat. Not say anything more. The screeching eventually subsided. Soundly admonished and feeling very chastised, I was released at last. Relieved, I dashed off to play.

Their lecturing must have sunk in somewhat. Penetrated the obtuse barriers in my subconscious mind. I’m sure I committed countless childish transgressions in the ensuing years. But none even remotely approached the level of my stark pure cruelty to a poor little overweight boy named Ernest on a long ago summer Sunday afternoon in Aylmer.

At least none that I remember.