August 24, 2012

“Home” to Aylmer…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:44 pm


I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again.

James Taylor, lyrics

It’s a long old drag to drive in one day. I know, because I’ve done it before a time or two. And as the day approached, I got a little edgy. Janice was flying in to Buffalo from LA at midnight. And she was depending on me to stop and pick her up. So by Wednesday, I’d decided. I would leave late Thursday afternoon for Aylmer. Stop and sleep somewhere in upstate New York, and pick Janice up before half the next day had passed. That way, we could cross the border into Canada and get to our destination in good time.

So at 2 PM on Thursday, I left work and drove over to my good buddies at Enterprise to pick up my rental. A Corolla, the nice man told me. Hmm. And I asked what I always do. Do you happen to have a Charger on the lot? The nice man punched at his keyboard. “As a matter of fact, yes, a gray one. Brand new, only 5,000 miles on it.” How much extra? “Sixty bucks for the weekend.” I’ll take it, I said. A Charger. There’s no better car, when it comes to power and smooth driving. And a gray one, yet. A most inoffensive color, for where I was going.

By four, I was loaded, and hit the road. Luggage. And passport. You gotta have a passport now, to cross the border into Canada. Which didn’t use to be, for most of my life, and still shouldn’t be. It’s the US that demands that, for you to get back in. More paperwork, more fuss and hassle, more stress, arbitrarily dictated by the state. I cruised out around Harrisburg and north on Rt. 11, then Rt. 15. The Charger pulsed along quietly. Handled beautifully. Around 7, I approached Corning, New York. A couple of hours from the Buffalo airport, according to my GPS. I’ll look around here. Find a motel. Settle in for the night, and get going in good time in the morning.

I settled on the local Ramada Inn. Which is below my normal standards. But the gas station guy across the street claimed it was clean. And it had a nice little lounge attached. I like a motel with a lounge, because you can settle in, eat, have a drink, and get to your room, all at the same place. I was immediately irked when my room card refused to open the door. I drove all the way around to the front office, and “ahemmed” at the clerk. She was apologetic, and fixed the card. It worked this time. I drug in my stuff. The room smelled very musty. Apparently the gas station guy across the street owns shares or something, I thought. But hey, I can make it one night. After dining in the lounge, I settled in. Janice texted that her connecting flight in Vegas was delayed. She might not arrive in Buffalo until the wee hours. I should be there by late morning, I texted back.

I wasn’t. Because my wakeup call failed. Yeah, I know. Use the alarm on my iPhone. I should have. But if you can’t trust a motel’s wakeup call, you can’t trust the motel chain. I will never stay at Ramada again, unless there is no other better option. I woke up a little after 9. More than a half hour late. Horrified, I bounced out of bed, and rushed about. Showered, threw my stuff into the Charger. Scolded the desk clerk, when I stopped by to get my receipt. She was apologetic. Sure. That helps a lot. Apologize. That won’t get my time back. And off I drove on the interstate west, the Charger pulsing along.

An hour in. I’ll call Janice, I thought. Let her know I’ll be late. I called her on my iPhone. No ring. I checked. No service. Ahh. That’s all I need now. No phone, and running almost an hour late. It was like it used to be, way back. You run blind, and get there when you get there. And then my GPS guided me off the interstate. What the heck was this? Do I trust it? Off we went, onto two-lane state roads. Winding through small towns, stopping at lights. Gah. Janice would be fretting. I checked the phone. Still no service. I would have no service for the rest of the trip into Canada and back.

The GPS eventually guided me back onto the interstate, and a frantic half hour later, at noon, I pulled up to the Holiday Inn where Janice was staying. I walked into the lobby, approached the clerk. My niece is staying here. I’m running late. I have no cell phone service. She was totally professional. “What’s her name?” Janice Marner. She dialed the room number and handed me the phone. I didn’t see the number. Like I said, she was professional. The room phone rang. No answer. Janice claimed later it didn’t ring at all. Then the clerk asked me for Janice’s cell number. I pulled it up on my iPhone, and she dialed it on her phone, and handed me the receiver. It rang, and to my huge relief, Janice answered. I’m here, I said. My cell service is dead. Where are you? I’m running late. I’m so sorry.

And Janice laughed and scolded me good naturedly. “That’s an iPhone for you. Meet me around the back. And by the way, I didn’t check in until 3:30, so I’m good.” I thanked the professional Holiday Inn clerk and rushed out and drove around the back. A few minutes later, she called my name. Janice, coming toward me with her roller luggage. I ran to meet her, and we hugged. I’m so irritated and upset, I said. It’s all been going wrong, so far this morning. I loaded her luggage and we were on our way.

Janice is Janice. My niece, my sister Maggie’s daughter. She will forever be, oh, eighteen to twenty years old, in my mind. No matter that she’s an executive in a national company. She will always be Janice to me. And it’s been probably fifteen years since we’ve gone on a road trip together. Me and Nathan and Dorothy and Janice used to pack up and take off, way back. We haven’t done that in a very long time.

But now we were, Janice and me. We chattered in English and PA Dutch, right along, as the Charger cruised over the road. She snapped many pictures as we approached the border. I detest borders of any kind. Countries should not have borders, or should at least be much more relaxed about the flow of travel over them. But then, of course, they couldn’t keep us all frightened of the latest boogeyman, or extract tribute from us. That’s what borders are really for, in my opinion. That, and war. That day, the Canadian border guy was very relaxed. What did we have with us? Oh, I said, I got a bunch of books along. He glanced at our passports and waved us through. Janice wanted to see Niagra Falls. Stop by for a few minutes. Of course, I said. She had last seen the Falls when she was seven or eight. And I hadn’t seen the Falls in forty years or so.

We pulled off the interstate and cruised down the little two-lane highway into Niagra. It’s a beautiful road, bordered by neat little parks and a butterfly sanctuary. We passed the large flower clock, still exactly the same it was way back. The little town was packed with tourists, and it took a while to get to the public parking lot. An attendant waved us out back to a little booth. Two guys lounged there. I pulled up. How much? I asked. We’re only staying an hour or so. “Twenty bucks,” said the attendant. “But we have parking way out in the back for $5, and a shuttle will take…”

“Give him the twenty,” Janice interrupted. “No shuttle.” The guy looked startled. She doesn’t like shuttles, I explained dutifully, handing him the money. “Yes, sir,” he said. And we parked in a little field and got out to walk to the street alongside the Falls.

Janice at the Falls.

Self portrait, from Janice’s phone.

It looked about the same as it did 40 years ago, except for some massive hotels that had sprouted. The Falls themselves were as powerful and breathtaking as ever. The old rusting hulk of a ship still sits there, stuck in the rocks, exactly as it has been for decades. We walked up to the fence at different points, and took pictures. Less than an hour later, we hit the road to Tillsonburg.

Canada is a cool country, just different from what I’m used to. It seems strange that I was born there. The money is colored. The roads are good, generally, and all signs are in English and French. And people drive like maniacs, at least on the main roads. By shortly after 5, we approached the town. Now for a motel. It’s tough, to find a good motel in small Ontario towns. Tillsonburg has a Howard Johnson’s, which was converted from a Super 8. Any motel converted from a Super 8 is not something that particularly attracts me. Janice was simply appalled. “No way we’re staying there,” she said firmly. On the south side of town, we drove by a big old mill, which had been remodeled into an inn. Milltales Inn. It looked quite unique. “Let’s check it out,” Janice said. So we did. The nice man took us upstairs, and we were astounded. Every room was paneled in different wood. Oak, Maple, Pine, and so forth. Every room was spotless. And yes, they were usually booked, but they did have two rooms available for two nights. We didn’t blink, but signed up immediately. After refreshing ourselves a bit, we headed on out to my sister Rosemary’s farm in the Aylmer community. Where Mom was staying.

Milltales Inn.

I had no qualms at all about returning to Aylmer. No stirrings of fear or restlessness. Not from the people there, not from the area. I was a little tense about seeing Mom, though. I had never seen her when she didn’t speak my name. We drove north from Highway 3, then west past my old home place. Then right at the next crossroad. And the farm loomed before us. We drove in and parked.

They were expecting us. Rosemary and her husband Joe Gascho had invited all their children home for supper that evening. (The children who live in Aylmer, I mean. They have children scattered in many places, and not all of them remain Amish.) They had not yet arrived, so we were in good time. We walked in, greeted my sister and her youngest daughter, Edna. And there she sat beside the kitchen stove, reclining in her wheelchair, her lap covered with a light quilt. Mom. I can’t remember if her eyes were closed. She seemed impossibly small, shrunken. I walked up to her and took her hand. Mom. It’s me. Ira. Her sunken face lit into a smile, but it was not a smile of recognition. Her vacant eyes stared past me at nothing. Still, she stirred. Spoke a few incoherent words. I stood there and held her hand.


She didn’t know me. But other than a brief second of shock at her emaciated condition, I was OK. Guess I’d steeled myself mentally. I sat and chatted with Rosemary. Because of an injury to one leg, she can’t walk at the moment. But she sat at the kitchen table, peeling peaches or some such thing for supper. Janice immediately stepped in to help Edna get ready for the evening crowd. A few minutes later, Dad walked in from their little house next door. Both are connected by a deck and walkway, so they can push Mom back and forth on her wheelchair. Dad greeted me with a handshake. We chatted for a few moments. And Janice walked up and he greeted her joyfully. She’s a spitting image of her mother in her youth, and Dad always sees his daughter when he sees and talks to Janice.

Titus and Ruth had arrived a bit earlier, and were resting in a side bedroom. Soon he rolled out in his chair, and we greeted each other. It was good to see my brother again. We sat and visited as we waited for Rosemary’s children to arrive.

The food was ready, and by 7 or so, the buggies had quietly rolled in. Aylmer buggies don’t rattle, not unless they are in bad shape, like Dad’s used to be years back. Because they have rubber tires on the wheels. The buggies hardly make a sound, going down the road. And Rosemary’s children came home with their families. Eunice and her husband David. Simon and his wife, Kathleen. Naomi and her husband Peter. Philip and his wife, Miriam. And Lester and his wife, Tina. They came, they smiled, they shook my hand. They openly and totally welcomed Janice and me.

Rosemary had planned to eat outside, but it was a bit chilly for an August evening. So everyone gathered around inside the house. It was a full place. We ate cafeteria style, and I sat there in the circle, enjoying the simple, delicious food. And I was struck by a deep, deep sense of how much the Amish value the family structure. Here, in this room, sat my parents. Dad and Mom. And their oldest daughter and her husband. And their children. And their children’s children. Four generations, right there at that time and place. Sure, Mom was out of it, pretty much. But still, she was there, surrounded by people who loved her and cared for her.

The children and the young adults sat outside on the deck. And I heard the cheerful murmur of their conversations, interspersed with bursts of laughter. It’s tough, it really is, to walk away from something like that. And yet, many of us have chosen to, because the cost of staying was too high.

I have never regretted my choice. But that night, sitting there with a close-knit branch of my extended family, absorbing who and what they are, I realized anew what I had really walked away from for the first time in a long time. It was bittersweet, to absorb that, and I felt the loss of what I had left all the way down, deep inside.

At eight, it was time to get Mom to bed. I was asked to help, which I gladly did. They get her up at 8 or 9 in the morning, then back to bed at noon, then up again at 4, then back to bed at 8 again. That’s a lot of back and forth. But they have a system. She sits on a large thin pad on her wheelchair. The pad has loops attached. And they bought a manual winch with an arm. It was designed to do exactly this job. She’s wheeled up beside the bed, the winch arm is lowered, the straps are attached, and up and over she goes. The pad is then removed. She actually enjoys the rides up and over. “Put your hands here, on the crossbar,” they tell her. And she does. We put her to bed and pulled the curtain over the window. In a minute, she was asleep. That’s what she does now, mostly. She sleeps and sleeps.

Saturday. Titus and I wanted to go tour the old home place, and the school house. Janice and I arrived at Rosemary’s place around ten. They were loaded in the van and ready to go. Janice decided to stay and help out around the house. So I followed Titus in his driver’s van. Dad had hopped in, too. And Thomas, Titus’s youngest son. We pulled into the drive of the farm on which we were raised.

Our old house from the southwest.

The great old barn from the northeast.

The barn window where I once caught a sparrow, and the doorway where I set it free.

The huge Maple tree on the south side of the shop and house. We scrambled on its limbs as children.

We never kept our farm that tidy. Not in Aylmer, and not in Bloomfield. Both farms eventually fell into the hands of people who are even less tidy. Slovenly people who just trashed the place. Our old home farm in Aylmer is recognizable, but barely. Yeah, I know. It’s not my home anymore, and I have no claims to it. None. But it would have been cool if the current owners could have kept up at least some semblance of preservation. They didn’t and they don’t. We never went into the house, so that might be a different story. But outside, the barns, those are so ill kept, so full of manure and cobwebs and junk, that you literally can’t walk through them. All of that is none of my business, I know. But still, it’s sad.

We checked out the pond, from a distance. It’s half the size it used to be. They pushed it in with bulldozers. And they totally pushed in the little creek behind the barn. And then I walked behind Titus’s wheelchair as he powered it up the ramp into the old barn loft. Where we used to unload loose hay from wagons, with pulleys and ropes and a great four-pronged hay fork. The entire loft was in shambles. The proud old barn is going to fall apart, one day soon. It will, simply because no one takes care of it. I could say a lot more, but I won’t. I bite my tongue instead.

Dad, reminiscing in the loft.

Titus, surveying the mess in the loft.

And then it was off, to pick up Janice and Ruth, and on to check out the old West School. They moved the building, literally picked it up and turned in half a turn, and placed it on a new foundation a hundred feet to the south. From the inside, though, it still feels and smells exactly the same as it did back 40 years ago. Generations of Amish children have passed through this building. I walked downstairs and located my name, scrawled in pencil, back in 1974. Later in the day, we drove around the community and Janice took a bunch of pictures.

The old schoolhouse.

The doorway into the schoolhouse.

The classroom, exactly as it looked and smelled forty years ago.

Pointing to my name under the stairs in the basement.

My name in pencil, preserved for almost forty years.

Janice and Robert (Titus and Ruth’s son) on the old school swing.

The house where Nicholas grew up. The dull bricks have been covered with siding, but the many sharply peaked gables remain. The place has been cleaned up and spruced up. It is no longer gloomy.

Outside Pathway, where Dad spent much of his time, writing. The second window from the left on the gable end was his office.

That afternoon, Rosemary’s son Ivan and his wife Elizabeth and their family arrived from their home up north in the Elmira area. And a bit later, my nephew David Wagler (Joseph’s son) and his wife Barbara and their family arrived as well, from their home even farther north. They had come to connect with family from distant places. Janice and I were honored. Aylmer was the focal assembly point for people from many places that weekend.

Sunday. The final day. Usually when I traveled to Aylmer, I stayed for mere hours, or, at most, maybe a day. This time, we stayed for two days. I left the inn at 9:30 or so. Janice stayed behind. Nathan had traveled up with Titus to see his girlfriend Juanita, who lives an hour or so north. They were coming down for the day, and had agreed to pick Janice up and bring her with them.

I arrived at Rosemary’s home around ten. Everyone had gone to church. Except Rosemary and her husband Joe. And Mom. She sat there beside the stove in her wheelchair, covered with the light quilt. I had stopped by Tim Horton’s that morning and bought a box of donuts. Put them in your pantry, I told Rosemary. These are for you. Not for your guests.

And we sat there for an hour or more, Joe and Rosemary and me. Joe mentioned that he was approaching his 70th birthday, the age his father was when he died. It was an offhand comment. But I pursued it. When did his Dad die? And his Mom? The stories spilled from them then, accounts that rarely get written. They spoke of my uncle Abner and his wife, Katie. How they had passed. At home. That’s so important to them. To die at home. Rosemary happened to be there that morning, when Katie died. She told of how it was, how the family gathered around. As she breathed her last, Abner called out to his wife that he was coming soon to join her. Which he did, a few years later. And Noah and Nancy, Joe’s parents, they told me of their deaths, too. Noah had suffered a heart attack on a Saturday afternoon. He was rushed to the hospital, and no one was allowed in to see him. No one, not even his wife. He died alone, in a strange cold hospital room. The pain of that injustice still shone from Joe and Rosemary’s eyes. And they spoke of how Nancy, Joe’s Mom, had warned them over and over. When it’s time for me to go, let me go. Don’t call out for me to stay. Let me go.

I sat there, almost mesmerized, and listened to their stories. Stories spoken from one generation to the next. Stories told and retold. And again that morning I grasped in the deepest sense the culture that had birthed me, but could not hold me. There is none other quite like it in all the world.

Mom sat there as we talked, beside the stove. Covered with her light quilt. Mostly staring at nothing, smiling now and then. I went up to her and rubbed her hands. She likes to have her hands rubbed. It makes her smile.

Moving Mom from her house to Rosemary’s. Dad is typing at his desk.

Mother and sons.

I give all the credit to my sister Maggie, Janice’s Mom. She always told me. “When you get up there to Aylmer to see Mom, do this. Sit down beside her, and read the dedication of your book to her. Aloud. You might think she won’t hear. But read it to her anyway. She might hear it. She will hear it.”

You never quite sense the magnitude of a moment as it comes down. I decided to do it that morning before they trundled Mom off to bed at noon. Janice arrived with Nathan and Juanita around eleven. At 11:30, I told them what I wanted to do. Push Mom over to her little house. Go get a book from my trunk. And read the dedication to her. Alone, with no one else around. And everyone was supportive.

Janice accompanied me as I pushed Mom over. I parked the chair in the little living room, and walked outside to fetch the book. And that moment was the only time that she spoke my name, in all the time I was in Aylmer.

To Janice, she spoke. “Is Ira coming back again?”

“Oh, yes,” Janice replied. “He’s going to read you a story. He’ll be right back.”

And by the time I returned and Janice told me what had happened, Mom had drifted off again. And I sat there with my Mother. I wrote this book, I told her. Here. I handed it to her. She took it. Caressed it. Opened it. Janice quietly snapped a few pictures and left us. It’s about when I was a child, here in Aylmer, I said. She smiled. But she could not speak. And it’s about Bloomfield, too, I said. About how I left, and how I hurt you. I want to read the dedication to you. She smiled. And I took the book from her thin frail hands, and haltingly read the dedication. Switching from PA Dutch to English. That’s where I lost her, I think. There was no response. I set the book aside and just held her hand. And I spoke to her in our native tongue, words that were on my heart to speak, words that will remain between us in that room, at that moment.

That afternoon, we hung out at Rosemary’s house. A few visitors trickled in and out. Including Barry and June Kinsey, who stopped by to have their copy of the book signed. We hit it off and got to talking. They knew Les Shackleton, the auctioneer who had our sale in Aylmer, when we moved in 1976. A figure from my childhood. He’s still around and still alert. I signed a copy of my book to “the auctioneer of my childhood.” The Kinseys promised to get the book to him.

And Nathan and I caught up a bit and I chatted with Juanita and her friend Trudy Metzger, who had driven down to meet me. A fellow blogger, Trudy has been my friend for some time on Facebook. We’ve chatted there and even once on the phone, but we’d never met. The five of us, Nathan, Juanita, Trudy, Janice and me piled into the Charger and took off for a ride. I wanted a picture of the Aylmer town sign. We found it just outside town. I posed for the pic.

After we returned to Rosemary’s house, Janice and I made noises to leave. Rosemary almost couldn’t have it, that we didn’t stay for supper. Her children were all coming home again that night. We can’t, I said. We have to get going. We have hours to the border, and Janice has to catch an early flight to Boston. We pulled out around 4:30. We were both exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. It had been a wonderful experience. For me, to go back and see my Mom and family. And for Janice, to see her Grandma and to connect with relatives she had never really known. We talked about it, how everyone had so completely accepted us. It wasn’t that long ago when such a thing would have been impossible.

After we sat in line at the border for an hour, some thug border guard barked at us as if we were common criminals for wanting to return to our own country. I detest borders of any kind. He waved us through, then, barely bothering to check our passports. We checked in at a very nice motel, then sat in the lounge and ordered food and drinks and unwound for a while. And then we retired to our rooms. Janice left early the next morning before I got up. I left the motel around 10 and meandered my way home. And that was our trip to Aylmer.

Home is where the heart is, at least that’s what the old cliché claims. And clichés are always based in some seed of truth. Mom’s heart, I think, has never left Daviess, the place she was torn from many decades ago. Her childhood world, to which she was rarely allowed to return. But she can’t express that to us now. As she couldn’t express it years ago when her mind was clear. Even then, she could find no words to speak it.

Because she never had a voice to speak her heart. She wasn’t allowed one. All her life, she suffered in silence. And that silence, too, is all too common, all too accepted as simply another quaint element of Amish culture. It’s so much more than that. It’s real people, with real lives, like my Mother. And it’s all that she endured. That’s what that silence is.

My father now resides in Aylmer, the place he loves. He never left it, not in his heart. And now he has returned with Mom, in her current state. She will abide with him, wherever that is, as she always has through this life. This time, though, she will never leave Aylmer. One day soon, her body will be laid to rest in the tidy little cemetery on the west edge of the settlement. And one day soon, Dad will either greet or join her there.

And so they approach the end of their journey, the two of them together.

August 10, 2012

The Old and the Young…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:38 pm


For the wild tempest breaks above us, the wild fury
beats about us, the wild hunger feeds upon us—and
we are houseless, doorless, unassuaged, and driven
on forever…

—Thomas Wolfe

Wednesday of last week seemed like another ordinary morning at the office. But not for long. Early on, a phone call from a guy I didn’t know who asked for me. An older guy, from the sound of it. He wanted to check before he came out to see me. In a somewhat quavering voice, he introduced himself. He lived in Lancaster. Had just finished my book. Then he’d discovered that I’m local. That I worked at Graber. Would it be OK if he stopped by for just a bit that morning?

Of course, I said. I got a few minutes for anyone who stops by. Bring your book, and I’ll be happy to sign it for you. Thanks, he said. I’ll be out later this morning.

An hour or so later, he walked in, smiling. “Is Ira here?” he asked. Yep, that’s me. And he walked up to my counter and shook my hand. He was old, in his eighties, I would have guessed, stooped and bent.

His name was Chester Haverstick, and he lived in Lancaster. He’d picked up my book a few days before. After reading it, he discovered the author was local. Worked in the general area. And then, he thought, let’s see if I can get hold of the guy. That’s when he had looked up the Graber number in the phone book and called me earlier. And he had driven out to see me by himself.

He had been around for a long time, from the look of the seams on his weathered face. But it’s been a long time since I have been around someone who exuded such a deep, deep level of quiet peace. He was simply joyful. Happy. You could see it in his bearing. You could see it in his smile. And it shone from his eyes.

“That was a lot of turmoil you went through,” he said. “I had to think back to what my Sunday School teacher told me years ago. It’s all about love, not the law.”

It is, I agreed. It is about love. He leaned in to hear my words.

“Isn’t Jesus just great?” He beamed. He is indeed, I said.

Chester had self-published a little book about his life. He had come to talk about mine, but also to give me his book, aptly titled “My Life.” Would I like a copy? Absolutely, I said. If you sign it first.

He had forgotten to bring my book for me to sign. His primary purpose was to bring his book to me, I think. Which was totally fine. He opened the front cover of his book, and I gave him a pen. Slowly he scrawled his name in impossibly fine script. Don’t forget to date it, I said. So he did that as well. Beaming, he handed me the hard cover book. I thanked him. And we chatted for a few more minutes.

“I can’t believe I’m talking to you,” he said several times. Then, “How old do you think I am?” That’s always a dangerous question, coming from anyone. But I figured to play it safe. Oh, I’d say about seventy, I said. He beamed again and pointed up. Higher. Nope, I said. I’m not guessing again.

“I’m 94 years old,” he said, beaming some more. I’m honored, I replied. I’m honored that you came to see me, and I’m honored that you brought me a copy of your book. After chatting for a few more minutes, I told him I’d have to get back to work. We shook hands, and he turned and walked out. Still smiling, just quietly joyful. How remarkable, I thought. He’s probably my oldest fan. I can’t quite see ever getting that old, but if I do, I want to be as happy and content and joyful as my new friend Chester Haverstick.

And things moved along at the office, like any normal morning. An Amish guy called and ordered four sheets of metal roofing, twelve feet long. A driver would stop in shortly and pick them up, he said after I gave him the total price. The phones rang, but during the intervals, I thought a good bit about the old man who had driven out to see me that morning. How cool it was, that he did that. And I thought about his quiet joy. Absorbed it.

About then, a young man walked in. Mid-twenties, I’d say. Clean cut, with a well-trimmed little beard. I greeted him. He had come to pick up those four sheets of metal for the Amish guy. I took his check and printed out his invoice. He smiled at me. Then his eyes caught the little poster I have taped up about my book. Instantly he became alert.

“Did you write this?” Yes, I did. “Are you a Christian?” Yes, I am.

He leaned in against the counter, his intense eyes looking right through me. “Tell me, what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?” It was a challenge, really, in the form of a question.

Well, what do you do with a question like that? I wasn’t prepared mentally to engage in any debates, especially in my relaxed state of mind after Chester’s visit. Whatever answer I gave would be wrong. There was no way I was going to get it right. But I engaged.

It’s love, mostly, I said. The love that Christ gave, to love others like that. And to meet them where they are, as He did.

He was friendly enough, and stayed friendly. It’s just that he was so adversarial. Of course, I had flunked the test. And he launched right in to tell me how it really is. Repentance. And yes, judgment of sin. Love is fine and all. But it takes more than love.

Look, I said. That’s all fine. Sure it takes repentance. And sure, we judge sin. But I’ll tell you this. You don’t talk down to people. If you don’t get right out there and right down there and meet people where they are, as they are, your message will be lost. That’s just how it is.

“Would you have time to meet some evening?” he asked. Sure, I have time. But I won’t, I told him. Tell you what, though. You buy my book and read it, then I’ll meet you to talk. Then you’ll know where I’m coming from.

He considered my offer for a moment. “I got so much reading to do already,” he hedged. But you have time to meet with me to “talk,” I thought. Which really boiled down to he didn’t want to meet to listen to me talk. He wanted to meet so I could listen to him. No deal, I said. Get the book and read it, then I’ll meet to talk.

“How much time do you spend reading the Word every day?” he asked suddenly. Another bunny trail, another trap. What difference would that make? Whatever I said, it wouldn’t be enough. Besides, how much time do I need to spend each day, to reach his level of salvation? Fifteen minutes? An hour? Three? Half a day? Full time all day, maybe? When do you reach the point of being saved from having been lost, from how much time you spend in the Word? Or how much time must you spend in the Word to keep yourself saved? Maybe that’s what he was after.

He left then, still wanting to meet to talk. When you read the book, I said. But he did take a business card, and I scrawled my blog address on it. He’d check it out, he claimed. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. And maybe he’s checking out this post. He drove out to the yard to load, and I kind of sat back and thought about it. I was tense from the exchange. Fifteen minutes later, I suddenly sensed that he had not loaded and left yet. I walked out to the warehouse, and sure enough, he had one of my Amish yard guys trapped. He was leaning in and talking intensely. His truck sat there, unloaded. I ambled up to them. Look, my guys have work to do. You need to get your truck loaded. Looking a bit sheepish, he backed off then. His metal sheets were loaded, and he tied them down and left.

After he drove away, my Amish yard guy muttered, “Some people think they are the only Christians.” Yes. I agreed. Some people do.

And there you have it. The contrast of two totally opposite encounters, less than an hour apart. From two totally different personalities forged from life and experience, and the lack thereof. The old guy. And the young guy. I’ve thought a lot about them both since that day came down.

From the old man, I felt calmness and joy. He left me energized and exhilarated. From the young man, I felt deflated and accused. And he left me drained.

As a Christian, I walk out there on the edge of things a good bit, at least that’s how many others see it. But I don’t shrink from what I know or from what I have lived and seen and felt. Or from telling it. I respect the broad spectrum of those who follow Christ, including many in the Amish church. And all the way out to the fringes of the “mad” preachers thundering on the street corners in the cities and towns across this land. The Lord’s vineyards are scattered everywhere. And He calls His children to proclaim Him in vastly different forums over all the world.

I’ll stand by what I said that day, though. You don’t talk down to people. When the gospel is preached from above, it can only be heard from below as an ultimatum based on fear, which is all so paralyzing and hopeless. It is best lived, face to face and eye to eye, often with few words. I don’t care where you are or who you are. I won’t speak to you from “above.” I simply will not do it. I will meet you where you are, as you are, it doesn’t matter where that is. That’s the only way I know to share Christ’s love. Because the first time I grasped and understood it, that’s how it was shared with me.

And when I think of the young guy who accosted me in the office that day, I wonder. What’s eating at him, that he has to prove his way is the right one, the only one? That his beliefs, his thinking (or that of his group) surpasses all others in the Christian world. Why are they like that? What drives them, what drives him, to proselytize so aggressively? Where does all that energy come from? Day after day, week after week, on and on, until it all folds in upon itself. Which it will, one day. Something’s eating at him. Something inside him is not at peace.

It’s the raw passion of youth, I suppose. I’m not judging him (well, maybe a little). I’m not condemning him. And I wish him well. But his life would be so much calmer if he could just settle in a bit, and see the real peace that is there, if only he could accept some very simple truths. To him, and to all like him, I’ll throw out a little challenge of my own.

Claim what you claim to know, without all the drama. Stop it, with your demands for this and that, for others to prove themselves to your standards. Or to prove your superiority. Because when it comes to the finished work of Christ, it’s all done. All of it. There is nothing we can do to deserve it. There is nothing we can do to earn it. Nothing. You will never grasp what true freedom really is until you grasp that simple concept.

You don’t have to take my word for it. But just try it. It’s impossible for me to describe the joy of letting go of all that baggage.

Next Friday morning, I plan to head out early, hit the road. To Buffalo, New York. There, I will pick up my niece, Janice Marner, at the airport. And we’ll cross the border into Canada and head on up to Aylmer. Janice, who works for Waste Management as a high-level executive in their management’s consolidation team, has taken time from her hectic schedule to travel up with me to see her Grandma. I’m delighted for her company. We plan to arrive late Friday and leave late Sunday night.

And it’s looking like my brother Titus and his family, and maybe my brother Nathan might be there right over that time as well. So we’ll have a little reunion. But we’re all going to see Mom. I’m not quite sure what that’s going to be like. She’s the focal point that draws us. Back to the site of our childhood world.

I want to see that childhood world, too, as much as possible. I want to drive around the old Aylmer settlement a bit. Maybe take a quick tour of the old home place and the old schoolhouse. We’ll see.

After my last post about Mom, things got a little, well, scary early the following week. I got a call from my sisters. Mom was shutting down. Kidney failure. And by Tuesday evening, I was pretty much on hair trigger alert, ready to head out on short notice. But somehow, as always up to this point, she pulled out of it. By Friday, she was functioning as normal. Those are tough people, of tough stock, her generation. And so she’s pretty much back to normal, or what passes for normal for her these days.

And it was all nip and tuck for a bit, but last Saturday evening, the great annual Ira Wagler Garage Party came down. I had randomly picked the date, August 4th, about two months ago. Invited more than thirty people. I wanted them all to attend, but of course, not all of them could make it. I ended up with 25 or so guests.

They started trickling in around 5 or so. My friends, Dominic and Jamie Haskin from West Virginia drove up. And many locals, from every imaginable level and background. When I throw a party, my garage is a safe place for all. Neutral. Like Switzerland. Doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’ve been. If you’re invited to my party, you have safe passage. We just hang out, chill out, and enjoy the evening and the company of each other.

I grilled Stoltzfus Farm Meats sausages, as usual. On charcoal. I provided the meat, the sausage rolls, and the condiments. And a case of premium beer. All guests were encouraged to bring a salad or dessert. And they all came through, as usual. It was a magnificent feast. The evening arrived and unfolded, and then it was over. For one more year.

The book reviews have been sporadic lately, but a few weeks ago, my Google alert snagged an interesting one. From Mennonite World Review, a mainstream Mennonite publication. I’ve never been associated with the mainstream Mennonites. And I’ve always been a bit leery of them. Not as individuals, the ones I know are quite jolly and genuine and accepting. But I’m leery of them as a group. They tend to run around and spout the latest left-wing gibberish, be it global warming or “social justice” (a code word for Marxism), gun control and a myriad of other pet project fiascoes like Obamacare and “Green” energy. The intelligentsia, especially, tend to hold such views. Seems like they’re always burdened with torturous guilt for the perceived collective current and historical sins of the West. And always calling for some magical government solution, for sure some state intervention to make it all better again. Which basically means the state plunders from the productive at gunpoint and dispenses the loot as it pleases.

And it astounds me, when I think of it historically. That they’ve strayed so far from the legacy of their founding patriarch, Menno Simons. That their ancestral memories are so darkened to the brutal persecution their people endured way back, their history of blood and death by fire and water and the sword. Inflicted by the state. And now, they turn to the state. Trust the state, the most murderous entity in all of human history. It makes no sense to me. I’m talking about certain “progressive” segments of the mainstream Mennonites, here. Not the more conservative groups.

So when I saw the link to this review, I opened it with some trepidation. They’re gonna whack me. I just knew it. I was very pleasantly wrong. The guy really nailed it. He made many pertinent observations. He obviously understood my background. Knew where I’d come from. But it was his closing paragraph that floored me.

“Wagler writes that one must make peace with the past. But his main passion is for freedom.” Yes. It is. My main passion is for freedom. Freedom from all oppression, be it religious or secular. Freedom from any oppressive church. And freedom from the state, which by its nature can only be oppressive and corrupt.

And then the reviewer concluded in closing: “For that ideal he is as effective a writer as was his father for traditional Amish ways. Despite the pains of breaking away, the apple does not fall far from the tree.”

Sure, this was one reviewer, out of hundreds. And most or all of those hundreds might dispute the point. But no matter. Even from one lone perspective, it is an honor to be compared like that, to be judged as effective a writer in my world as my father was in his.

There is no higher compliment.