September 3, 2010


Category: News — Ira @ 6:41 pm


They had been young and full of pain and combat,
and now all this was dead in them; they smiled
mildly, feebly, gently…spoke in thin voices…
looked at one another with eyes dead to desire,
hostility, and passion…

—Thomas Wolfe

He passed away quietly that Friday morning, a few hours before sunrise. His health had deteriorated in the last few years. He had not been able to get around very well for some time, and used a walker. But still, his final demise was unexpected and abrupt. He suddenly took a turn for the worse and weakened quickly. And by that Friday morning he was gone.

I didn’t know Uncle Virgil Stoll that well. Sure, I knew who he was. The man who married my mother’s older sister Mary, way back when. A quiet man, from all I’d ever seen. And from all I’d ever heard about him. A quiet man, content in the background. Never raising his voice, never inserting himself. Just minding his own business. In quietness and confidence was his strength.

I knew him when I saw him. But I didn’t really know him or his family, if that makes any sense. Who they really were. What they really were. Their children, my first cousins, might as well be strangers from another planet.

The same is true of host of other relatives in Daviess, mostly on my mother’s side. A host of first cousins. I wouldn’t know them if I met them on the street. It’s always been so. But after Uncle Virgil’s passing, I got to thinking. And brooding about the reasons why.

My mother’s parents, John and Mattie Yoder, were solid Daviess County stock. Old blood. Their home farm, where Mom was raised, is just a mile or two north and east of Montgomery. I’ve never been on the place. Parts of the house still exist, where she was born. I want to stop by sometime, and check it out. Take a tour.

She had a bunch of siblings. Brothers and sisters. Rachel. Leah. William. Mary. Sarah. Joe. Ben. Anna. Except for Leah, who died as a young girl, all of them remained in Daviess after my parents moved out many decades ago.

It’s strange and tragic, really, when you think about it. Strange, how a few stark decisions made more than sixty years ago still affect my family and our connections to my mother’s side. And tragic, how they always will.

I want to be careful here. Not to come across too harshly. It’s not like anything can be done about the distant past. And it’s not that we were all somehow irreparably traumatized. We really weren’t. But still, when one looks back over the years, and examines the reasons why things were done as they were, one can perhaps expose the empty futility of strident religious dogma. Relentless and arbitrary, borne of absolute conviction of right and wrong. And the harsh words and deeds that followed.

And one can reflect honestly, without rancor. At least, one can try.

My father returned from his service as a Conscientious Objector after WWII. Returned to Daviess, rejoined my mother and they purchased a little farm not far from her parents’ place. The farm was along the main drag on Montgomery Road, about four miles from town. They lived there for a few uneasy years, but Dad was restless. And not entirely content with the way things were going in Daviess. Which was fine. That’s how it was, and who he was.

He never got along all that well with Mom’s family. The Yoders were pretty laid back, not as driven or hard core Amish. Not like Dad. And that’s not unusual, either. Or necessarily bad. Personality conflicts often mar in-law relationships.

But things got worse after the Mt. Zion Amish Mennonite Church, also known as the Block Church, was founded. A car church. Most of Mom’s family, including her parents, abandoned the Amish and joined the Blocks. I’m not sure if that happened after my parents had already left Daviess. But after they defected, Dad made a fateful decision. He was determined that his children would have as little exposure as possible to Mom’s family.

In 1950, my parents moved to a little fledgling community in Piketon, Ohio. From that date to the present, Mom was pretty much separated, walled off from her family in Daviess. As were her children, at least until they reached adulthood.

Dad was right, in his mind. I don’t begrudge him that, or question his resolve. But still, from where I am today, I really wonder what the man was thinking. How could he believe that his children would not one day grow up and realize what he had done? That we would not one day ask why? How could he not see that, back then? A very intelligent man, he must have been caught up in the frenzied righteousness of his cause. He did have a reputation to protect. As a writer and all, especially after moving to Aylmer. Editor and founder of Family Life. Author of dozens of didactic little stories. Where everything always worked out, and the Amish way was always portrayed as right and true.

Maybe he was just shortsighted. Whatever his motives, he was certainly all too human.

Eleven children. That’s how many were in my family. Six sons and five daughters. We grew up, mostly in Aylmer, in a world devoid of any real knowledge of our back- ground or our Yoder heritage. By decree, we were raised as pure Waglers. But the Yoder blood still pulsed within us, and always would.

To their enormous credit, Mom’s siblings made the pilgrimage to Aylmer to see her, since she was rarely allowed to return to Daviess. Even when my parents traveled back to visit, Dad mostly kept her at his relatives’ homes, while she silently pined to see her family. So they showed up at our home, her siblings, usually during the summer about every two years, and stayed for a day or two. Even then, it was always a strained and joyless thing. While they were there, dark thunderclouds hovered, and pure tension rippled through our house. You could have cut it with a knife. I marvel that they ever came again, after the first few times. It couldn’t have been easy, to return. But they did, because they loved their sister.

They had families, most of her siblings. Children our age. We rarely, if ever, saw them. Our first cousins. We grew up in different worlds, and our connection by blood simply could not span the borders of those worlds.

And so we were “protected” from our non-Amish cousins, from our uncles and aunts. Allowed to associate only with the Amish relatives. We didn’t know enough to realize what was going on, or if we did, we could not grasp the senseless cruelty of it all.

And the years flowed on. And on. To the present day. Of the eleven children in our family, only three remain Old Order Amish. That’s not a good percentage, by any standard. It was all in vain. All that “protection,” all those arbitrary walls erected to keep us from our non-Amish kin. My father’s strategy worked flawlessly in only one respect. We never really got to know them and we probably never will. Not like we would have. Not like we should have.

I’m sure if my father had it all to do over again, things would be different. Vastly different, by his own admission. And therein lies perhaps the deepest tragedy in this narrative. He was a gifted man, a visionary with myriad talents who stubbornly pursued his dreams, sailing boldly where no one had sailed before. A giant among his people, a man who influenced tens of thousands, a man who reached the pinnacle of fame and honor within the boundaries of his culture, a man now approaching the sunset of a long and productive life.

And here, at this point, at the journey’s end, he is realizing too late the utter futility of the strident, hard core Amish polemics that defined so much of who he was. Realizing too late that so much of what was so important to him a lifetime ago has crumpled to dust and ashes at his feet.

Much of what truly mattered in life passed him by, because of his choices. And as he has discovered, we rarely get second chances at things like that.

Sometimes there is a second chance, if one is young enough to change. Or decides to change at any age. In either case, it’s rare. But it can happen. That’s one reason, maybe the main reason I’m writing this, for those who might yet pull back from the brink while they still can. While there is still life left to live.

Family is family and blood is blood. And there is no more to say.

Uncle Virgil and Aunt Mary stayed with the Daviess Amish church. Raised a family. And then, in the late 1970s, they left too. Joined the Block church, I suppose, or some similar “car church.” Now Mom was the only one who remained Amish, in all her family. I can’t say for sure whether my father admonished Virgil about the matter, when he had a chance. I can’t imagine any other scenario. Virgil probably smiled serenely and remained silent.

In 1997, Mary was struck with Alzheimers. She sank rapidly into that twilight existence where her body remained healthy after her mind had fled. The same place in which my mother resides today. Virgil faithfully and quietly remained with his wife and cared for her. For ten years. He didn’t get out much. Just stayed with her, the woman he loved from his youth.

In 2007, after a decade of suffering, she was mercifully released. I remember hearing the news with barely a twinge. She was a stranger to me. I don’t know if any in my family attended the funeral. I suppose a few may have, but I don’t know that. I hope someone did.

And then he was alone. He stayed with his daughters and their families. Reveled in his grandchildren.

I had not seen him in years, I don’t even remember the last time. And then, in late July, I made a rare one-day trip to Daviess. A gathering of sorts, that I wanted to attend. Virgil showed up, accompanied by his son or son-in-law. He hobbled slowly with the help of a walker. Sat there on a bench. I saw him from across the yard, and eventually went and sat beside him. We visited. He knew who I was. I should have had a picture taken of the two of us. But I didn’t. Never even crossed my mind. That’s my loss.

A few weeks later he was gone. He passed away in the early hours of Friday, August 13, 2010. I don’t know when his family realized the end was imminent. Probably at some point during the previous evening. The children came to be with him. As the night hours passed, he slipped in and out of consciousness.

He stirred now and then. And twice, he looked off into the distance and called his wife’s name. “Mary!”

They may have sensed her presence, the others in the room, but their eyes could not behold her.

“Do you see her? Do you see Mom?” They asked. His sunken face lit up. He smiled and nodded. Yes.

And by the time the sun came up, he had quietly slipped away to join her.