June 29, 2018

Vagabond Traveler: Fortunate Son…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:36 pm


Something immensely bright and beautiful was converging in a flare of light,
and at that instant, the whole room blurred around him, his sight was fixed
upon that focal image in the door, and suddenly the child was standing there
and looking towards him.

—Thomas Wolfe

It was just the way things turned out. I didn’t make it down to see the man last winter, in Florida. I meant to and would have. But then it just didn’t seem to be working out to go. And I told my sisters at the time. If I’m needed down in Pine Craft to help care for Dad, I’ll take my turn. Be glad to. But if I’m not needed, I won’t come. It’s a long old way down there, and it would take up more than a week of my time. And as the winter dragged aimlessly on, it turned out I wasn’t needed. That’s fine, I said. I got stuff going on, here. And it was fine. I didn’t go. I assured my family, instead. I’ll visit my father this summer, up in Aylmer. Sometime in June. It seemed like a safe thing to say. A safe thing to plan. And yes, June seemed far away.

It’s been a strange year in a lot of ways. I got some intense latent pressures going on inside me and around me. No, those pressures have nothing whatsoever to do with alcohol. It’s other things, like “writing a book” and not knowing for sure what’s going on. It’s a new and different road. But even so, time moves right along. I was amazed at how soon June came rolling through the door. And a week or so in, I got to thinking. Father’s Day is coming up. Why don’t I go see Dad then? Not that the visit on that day would mean any more to him than any other visit on any other day. Still. If I’m going anyhow, I might as well go on that symbolic weekend. It was as good as any other. My plans formed and firmed up in my head.

And I thought about how I should maybe line up a rental with my old buddies over at Enterprise. I couldn’t decide for sure. I’m still irritated at them for that silly PC stunt they pulled off last winter. I don’t forget grudges like that very quick. And besides, I now drive a nice black Jeep. Why not take a road trip with Amish Black? Up to see Dad for Father’s Day. I mulled the thing over in my head, took and turned it every which way in my mind. I’m still mad at Enterprise vs. all those miles on my Jeep. But it would just be fun, to drive up there with Amish Black. Worth those miles. And that would show Enterprise. Back and forth and back and forth, I bounced it like a rubber ball. A few more days rolled by.

And sometime there in early June, the message came. Trickling through the family grapevine. Dad had some serious issues with the blood flow in his legs. And there was one night, there, when they had to rush him to the emergency room because of it. I’m not sure for what, I mean, why it was an emergency. For the pain, maybe. Anyway, the news sounded a little grim. And the message was silently conveyed, too. If you want to see Dad, you better get up there soon. It all fit, for me. I had planned to go, around now, anyhow.

My trip firmed up, then, with a little nudge from another source. I got a call from my sister, Magdalena, down in South Carolina. When was I going up? I told her. I was thinking the weekend of Father’s Day. Maybe heading up Friday, coming back Sunday. Same schedule I always have, pretty much, driving up there and back. And Maggie asked. Would I care if she and Ray came up as well, over that time? Of course not, I said. I’d love that a lot. Absolutely. Come. Let’s figure on seeing each other that weekend in Aylmer. And that became our plan.

It all became clear in my mind as the week arrived and the day approached. When I had to either make the rental reservation, or not. I would drive Amish Black. Our first road trip together. I like my Jeep a lot. And I drive it a lot. Locally, at home. I do that two-fingered wave at other Jeeps, now, all casual like. Just like a pro. You’d think I’ve been driving a Jeep all my life. But me and my first Jeep had never ventured out very far together. Not for overnight, anywhere. Now it was time. The miles would just be what they’d be. The decision wasn’t all that close, in the end. Because in my subconscious mind, I was going to drive Amish Black up to see Dad, ever since I bought it.

I don’t know what it is, with me and road trips. I’m a guy. You’d think I’d learn. Travel light. Just take what you need. But no. When the time comes to pack, I throw in everything I might remotely need. Always have done that. And that always includes way too many clothes. Thursday night. I’d be gone three days. One day up, one day there, and one day back. To any sensible person, that would mean I take along three shirts. Maybe two, plus the one I’m wearing the first day, to travel up. That’s all I’d need, really. This is what I thought to myself as I started packing that night.

At least I wasn’t taking that big old suitcase that always got dragged along on just about any trip in the past. This time, I figured, my camo duffle bag and a garment bag would do. I picked out a few short-sleeved shirts to take along. But then it went like it always goes. I poked around on the closet rack. It wouldn’t hurt to throw in a few long-sleeved shirts, too. It’s June. Summer was officially knocking at the door. But what if it’s cold, up there in Aylmer? It could easily be. I don’t want to sit around, all chilled and shivering. There’s room for more, here in the garment bag. I grabbed a few long sleeves. Six shirts in all. For three days. I mean, that’s just how it goes. The thing is, I always think. When I’m driving somewhere, why not throw in everything you might need? It won’t hurt.

And that’s how I packed for this little trip. Everything I might need, I threw in. And a small box of books, of course. I always take along a few copies of those to give away as gifts. And maybe to serve as a bribe, if I got stopped for speeding. Oh, my, officer. I sure didn’t realize I was going so fast. I’m just on my way to a book signing. What book? Here, let me show you, here. See? It’s the real thing. I’d be happy to give you a signed copy, if we can forget you ever stopped me. To be clear, here. This has never happened. I just always figured it might, if I ever get stopped for any reason. We’ll see. I probably would never write it, if it did, anyway. At least not until the statute of limitations ran out for bribing a cop. Back to the books in a box. I packed some up. And I loaded that box and a few other things on Amish Black that night, yet. Tomorrow morning, I would hit the road early.

And by a little after six the next morning, I was heading north and west. A quick stop at Sheetz first. I had gassed up the night before. This morning, a cup of hot black coffee and a bottle of Voss water. I don’t often buy bottled water, but when I do, it’s Voss. That smooth round bottle is the definition of cool. I always set one somewhere close to me when I give the rare book talk, these days. Amish Black was loaded, but the baggage didn’t make much difference, in the feel of driving. The skies were clear, the sun shone bright. Another perfect day to head on up to see my father. One more trip, one more time.

It’s been a couple of years, since I drove up to Aylmer to see Dad. I went up there for a funeral early last year. Dad was in Florida, so I didn’t get to see him then. And this time, this morning, something was heavy on my mind. Well, not heavy, as in hard. But heavy, as in persistent. I was relaxed inside, but deep down, well, some stress rippled through. Barely palpable, most times. But there. There was a little mission that had to get accomplished on this trip. It just had to. And I figured I had one shot to get it done. Pass or fail. I pondered the matter all that day on the road, off and on. Looked at it from every angle I could think of. And here’s what was going on inside me. And why.

Dad is old, now. I’ve mentioned that little fact before, many times. He’s ninety-six. Not many people get to where he is. My parents had eleven children. From those eleven children came fifty-nine grandchildren. And to those fifty-nine grandchildren were born around a hundred great-grandchildren. My father was the patriarch of such a vast and far-flung clan as that. And so things stood until a few years ago. A little baby boy was born in the Aylmer Amish community. Nothing all that unusual about that. Except this little boy was special. His lineage is as follows: My oldest sister Rosemary’s oldest daughter Eunice got married and had a family. Her oldest daughter Loretta grew up and married Jonas Eicher, the son of Jacob Eicher, Jr., the son of Jake Eicher, the fiery preacher of my childhood days, mentioned in the book. Jonas and Loretta Eicher had a son, a little boy. Jaylon, they named him. Jaylon Eicher is my father’s first and to date his only great-great grandchild. That’s five generations. All living, and all in the same community. That’s a rare thing in any setting, although maybe not so uncommon among the Amish as in the outside world. But even among the Amish, five generations in the same place, that’s not seen very often. It’s there, don’t get me wrong. But it’s always a big thing, and it’s always duly talked about.

And it’s there in Aylmer around my father. Five generations. I have fussed and fussed at my siblings, ever since little Jaylon was born. Well. I’ve fussed at anyone who will listen. We heard the stories. Dad is so proud of his great-great grandson. He loves to hold the baby. And I fretted and fussed some more. Somewhere, somehow, someone has GOT to get a picture of those two people together. To preserve it for history. Our family’s history. It has to be done. And time flowed on, then. The boy grew. No longer a little baby. He could walk. And it never was done, what I had fussed so much about. No picture from anyone, anywhere. Well, that’s pretty much what you’d expect, I guess. It’s easy to see how such a thing might never get done at all. The Amish don’t allow cameras, not in the Aylmer world, they don’t. And it’s really hard for anyone to slip in and sneak a pic. I mean, little Jaylon doesn’t just go hang out with his great-great grandpa all the time. They live clear across the community from each other, Dad and Jaylon. I doubt that they see each other often. The little boy probably barely knows who the old man is.

There has to be some way to make it happen, I thought to myself that morning, cruising along in Amish Black. There has to be. And I was calm, in my thinking. One thing I knew. You can’t force such an event. You can’t. You can only invite it in and wait. And I got to chatting with the Lord, there on the road that morning. Informally, like I always do. Just talking to a friend. God. You know how important this is to me, to get a picture of Dad and that little boy. I really, really think it needs to be done. Still. I’m good, either way, if it’s not supposed to happen. I’m calm in my heart. I won’t look for anything, much. But I gotta say. It sure would be nice if some of those impossible doors would open on this trip. Because if those doors don’t open for me now, they most likely never will. Which is fine, if that’s how it’s meant to be. I’ll keep walking, either way.

And that was about it, for that conversation. That’s kind of how I signed off. Sometimes I get formal and close our little chats with an “Amen.” Mostly, I don’t. Often as not, I’ll cross myself, winding down and signing out. I didn’t do that here. I just cranked the music up and kept focused on the road ahead as Amish Black bumped along. A short Jeep rides a little rough on the open road. This much is true. I guess that’s part of the “Jeep thing.”

North and north I drove. Then west and west. Sipping my black coffee and my Voss water. No food. It’s real simple to travel, when you don’t have to fret about where you’re going to stop and eat. Or what you’re going to eat. You stop for gas and to use the restrooms. That’s about it. On and on, west through New York. Then Buffalo, the Peace Bridge, and the border. The young guard was professional and polite. Going up is always easy. I just hand over my passport and my birth certificate. I was born up there. They can’t keep me out. The guy asked the usual rote questions. Anything to declare? Any alcohol or weapons in the vehicle? I usually declare that I got a bottle of scotch along, for my own use up there. Which was never any problem with them. Not this time, though. No alcohol, I told him. I got a few books along to give as gifts. He handed back my documents and waved me through. And back into the land of my birth I drove, in Amish Black. The sun shone bright in a clear blue sky.

Highway 3 West. That’s the road I always take after crossing the border. It’s two-lane, but it’s the most direct route. The traffic flowed right along, through small town after small town and light after traffic light. I was making good time. Magdalena had called the day before. She had checked out the Comfort Inn where I usually stay, over on the eastern edge of St. Thomas. The nice lady there told her. There was an air show, so all the rooms were full. And so Maggie had found a nice little B&B, right on the eastern edge of the Aylmer square. She asked me and I told her to reserve a room for me. Check-in was at 4 PM. So I was still in good time. A few minutes before four, I pulled in and parked at the Sweet Magnolia House. It looked to be a sweet little clean place. I knocked on the door. The nice lady innkeeper came and welcomed me. She had three guest rooms. Mine was at the very top, the third floor. A very nice little suite with a full bath and a king-sized bed. That will suit me fine, I told the lady. I dragged up my bags and hung my clothes in the closet. All those shirts. I’d use two of them. The other four would ride home in exactly the same shape they came. Just more wrinkled, I guess.

I chatted with the inn lady a bit and logged my phone into the wireless internet. My text messages came pinging in from the day. I don’t have cell phone service in Canada. Well, not for under $1.00 a minute, I don’t, so I consider that the same as no service. But I can communicate with texts, as long as my phone is connected to the internet. A message came from Ray, Maggie’s husband. What time was I planning on coming out to where Dad lived? She was cooking supper for around 5:30. I’ll be there, I texted back. After getting the combination for the front door lock from the inn lady, I boarded Amish Black and drove east. Then north a mile or so. Then left into the drive of my nephew, Simon Gascho. That’s where Dad lives, when he’s up there. They even moved the little Daudy house they built for him and Mom, over at Rosemary’s home. It was portable, on skids. So they just up and moved it. And now Dad lives in the same little house where Mom died, back in 2014. It’s just in a different location.

Simon lives at the very end of a long drive that accesses three households. I pulled in spewing great clouds of dust behind me and parked under a shade tree beside the minivan Ray and Maggie had driven up from South Carolina. It sure seemed dry around this place, I thought. I walked into the little house. And there he sat on his wheelchair. Dad. Maggie was bustling about, getting ready for supper. I hugged her and walked over to Dad. We shook hands.

“Ira,” he said. Yep, I said. And the usual, back and forth. “Did you have a good trip?” Yes. “How long was your drive?” Nine hours or so. “You must be tired.” Oh, some. Not too bad. His legs were wrapped in bandages, from under his knees down. And he was wearing some kind of Velcro booties. Otherwise, the man looked and talked exactly as he had the last time I saw him in Florida in February of last year. Over a year ago. I always hear. Dad is this and Dad is that. He’s sick and not doing well. But when I see him, he looks pretty much the same as he did the last time I saw him.

Ray came in from somewhere, and we shook hands and hugged. My brother-in-law. He’s a good man, the quietest of all my in-laws. The men, I mean. He’s quiet and steady. We sat with Dad and visited as Maggie bustled about. She was cooking supper over in the main house, on the kitchen stove. Fried tomatoes, she was making. I drooled. I grew up on fried tomatoes. It was a staple of my childhood world. I could not remember the last time I had a meal of fried tomatoes. Had to be decades. I can’t wait, I told Maggie. I’m hungry. Haven’t eaten all day. This will be my one meal. I ‘m still doing one meal a day.

And then it was time. Maggie set the small table, there in Dad’s kitchen. Dad sat at one end, in his wheelchair. Then me, then Maggie. Ray sat at the other end. The table was loaded with food. We bowed our heads. Dad prayed aloud, that old German meal blessing prayer in his cracked and faltering voice. And I thought about it, right then. It wasn’t that big a deal, at least not lately. But it was still remarkable. Dad was sitting at the same table as Maggie and me. And Ray. He had steadfastly refused to eat with any of us, not that many years ago. For Ray and Maggie, it had been a lot of years. Decades. Since the early 1970s. For me, well, he shunned me for a few decades, as well. And now, now all that was over. Washed like water, under the bridge and into the past. Now, we all sat together and ate supper together in harmony and peace.

I have always said. There are two ways of looking at such a scene as that. One, you can fret and stew about all those wasted years. We could have been eating together like this, always. Shunning is brutal and silly. As it was, when Dad shunned us. It is also painful and so wrong. Or, two. You can be grateful that you get to experience this at all, at any time. That’s what I try to do. Even this late in life, for Dad. Some hard core old Amish men never reach such a place as that. Dad has. You got to give credit where credit is due. Old age mellows all, I guess. It does, or my father would never have eaten at the same table as me and Maggie and Ray.

We chatted right along as we filled our plates. We slathered butter on thick slices of homemade bread and piled the fried tomatoes high on the bread in our plates. Maggie even had the classic pot of hot milk on the table. After we ate about half the bread and fried tomatoes, we poured the hot milk over the whole mess in our plates. Well, me and Dad did. Ray looked startled and Maggie passed. Just like magic, we had instant soup. It tasted exactly as I remembered it from all those years ago. After eating, we all paused and bowed our heads again. And Dad returned thanks again. We helped Maggie clear the table. Then Dad and Ray and I sat around, visiting. Dad peered out the front door, out to where Amish Black was parked under the tree. “What are you driving?” he asked. “What kind of funny looking car is that?” I laughed. It’s a Jeep, I said. It’s nice and black. Like a buggy. He chuckled. And he got real close. “Is it an Amish Jeep?” he asked. Yep, I said. Yep, it’s an Amish Jeep.

Soon after supper, I told Dad good night and left. I wanted to head over to my sister Rosemary’s place, yet, to say hi and visit a bit. My time here was very limited. Every minute counted with every person. Out the long drive, then north to the crossroads, where the blacksmith Levi Slabaugh lived decades ago. The place is sure built up from what it used to be. Even the house. Then east on the main drag through the community. I was surprised. The roads were gravel. They had been paved for decades, I thought. Something’s going on, I grumbled to myself as me and my Jeep bumped over to the next crossroads, then turned north again. My sister’s place loomed on the left. My niece Edna’s little bake shop first, then left into the drive. I parked in the lawn beside the house. The door opened, and Rosemary walked out. She smiled and we greeted each other with a hug. She asked how my trip up was. Great, I said. I just came from seeing Dad. We had supper. She was on her way out to feed and water her baby chicks. I walked out with her as we talked. She takes the chicks inside the house every night in a box. The rodents will get them if she doesn’t.

We walked inside then, where Joe had just come in from helping with the chores. I sat at the table and we talked. They’ve seen a few changes around there since I was up last. And Rosemary asked, all of a sudden. Would I like some fresh strawberries and cream? Fresh strawberries like we used to eat, way back. Mashed up and mixed with sugar. Of course, I said. I’d love some. I’m still in my eating window. I can have food until nine. She fetched a bowl and gave it to me. Then a fresh brownie, then the strawberries, then the thick rich cream. I simply feasted on that simple dish. I chatted with Joe as I gulped down the food. He’s not doing so much produce peddling in Tillsonburg, anymore. Now and then, he goes on his regular route. Mostly, though, he’s helping his grandson, Jonathan, who took over the home farm since I was last there. And that was a big part of the big changes. Jonathan is young and single, and he has about more work than he can handle. So Joe helps out with the chores and the milking every morning and evening. It all sounded like a very busy life. Just like it always is, I guess, if you’re an Amish person.

I made some noises, then, before leaving. I’d like to go see Dad’s great-great grandson, sometime when I’m up here. I’d sure like to see him with Dad. Rosemary looked suspicious about that. Just so I can see it, I said. I want to write about it. She wasn’t fooled, though. Not that anyone let on, much. I asked Joe about the chores he helps with every day. He told me. Jonathan changed the cow herd to mostly Jerseys. My eyes lit up. Jerseys. That’s the richest milk of all, right there. Oh, yes, yes, they both chimed in. The herd was just milked. The cows were out in the barnyard, ready to amble back to the pasture. Would I like to walk out and look? Of course, I said. So we traipsed out, the three of us, back behind the barn. And there, they milled about leisurely. About a dozen small Jersey cows, dark brown and light brown. Joe pointed out where Jonathan was fixing to add a new wing to the west side of the vast old barn. And we talked about what it is to farm and milk.

Moving along, then. Saturday morning. There was a whole lot to get done on this day. I had people to see, maybe more than I could fit in. And I was mulling over how would be the best way to get people together that night, so maybe Jaylon would be there. It seemed like a long shot. Oh, well. I’ll just walk into the day and see what develops. And unfolds. God. You know my heart. Help me this day to live fully, as You intend life to be lived. The nice inn lady came around when I clumped down the stairs. Would I like my coffee? I had told her when checking in that I don’t eat food but once a day. And nothing for breakfast but black coffee. People always look at you a little horrified when you tell them you eat once a day. Most simply can’t fathom such a thing, or how simple it is to live that way. I try not to preach at anyone. I just say I like it a lot.

The night before, I had told the nice lady I wrote a book. So there on the breakfast table, I got a copy from my messenger bag. And she made the proper noises of thanks when I signed and dated the book and handed it to her. This is where I come from, I told her. Here, in this Amish community out east of town. Here I was born. These are my people. I took a bottle of water from her fridge, then. Some Canadian brand. Not Voss. Good enough for what I had to have today. That Voss bottle ain’t gonna help my image any, where I’m going, anyway. I pulled into my father’s place about the time he had finished breakfast with Maggie and Ray. I sat on the small couch in the tiny living room. And we just talked, all of us, about whatever it was that came to mind.

I walked into the day, then. As I was getting ready to leave, Simon’s wife Kathleen came over from the main house. It’s right beside Dad’s little shack and connected with a deck. And she asked us. Would we like her to cook supper tonight for us and anyone else who might want to come? Maggie and I looked at each other. Shook our heads, almost in unison. No, we don’t want you to go to that kind of bother, I said. And the idea just slid right in, from somewhere. I told them. I will get pizza tonight for anyone who wants to come. I’ll buy the food, and Maggie can make salad. That way, we provide the meal. Why don’t we plan on that? And just like that, it fell into place. Supper tonight, here. Pizza, for anyone in the family who wants to come. Ira’s buying.

I told Dad I was heading out for a bit, then. “In your Amish Jeep?” he asked. Yep, I said. In my Amish Jeep. I drove over to Rosemary’s place, then, stopping first at Edna’s bake shop to order the pizzas I needed for that evening. Flavour-Rites, her shop is called. She is doing very, very well. The place keeps her frantically busy. Every morning, real early, she gets up to go bake what she figures to sell that day. Well, not every morning. But every morning she’s open. And she got licensed to sell meat, too, not long ago. Now she has a cooler in her store with natural organic sausages, wieners, and summer sausage. She makes ready-to-bake pizzas and ready-to-heat soups. And that’s where I figured to buy my pizzas for the great feast I had proclaimed. I told Edna what I wanted. How many pizzas did she figure I’d need? Six large, we settled on. Four fully loaded with everything. And two pepperonis. OK, I said. What’s my bill? I don’t want a discount. You worked hard, to make those pizzas. Charge me what you’d charge any old English man off the street. I got an American check, here, if you’ll take that. She nodded and said she would. I wrote the check and paid her. I got a bunch of running to do today, I said. I’ll come back for these late this afternoon, so I can take them back to Simons in time to get them baked for supper.

Over, then, to Rosemary’s house. She had coffee ready. And I sat there in the living room with my oldest sister, and we talked. Just the two of us. Joe had left real early to peddle strawberries in Tillsonburg. It had been a while, and he figured his regulars were wondering what’s going on. So we sat there and talked, me and Rosemary. About a lot of things. She told me stories of her life. And I told her stories of mine. It was a pretty rare moment for both of us. You never quite realize what it really is, such a moment, until you look back on it. I invited her over to Simons for pizza that night. And just as I was getting up to leave, our sister Maggie showed up. She had stopped by to spend some time with her sister. We all chatted for a few minutes as I finished up my coffee. Then I was on out of there.

Over east next, over to where my niece Eunice lives with her family. She married David Swartzentruber. I wanted to invite her to the pizza feast that night. I pulled in, and we greeted each other. I told her why I was there. Would they be able to come? She looked a little crestfallen. The men were just too busy, to get it made over there. Too much work lined up for the day. Well, I wish you would come, I said. And I asked her where her daughter Loretta lives. I knew it was real close. Loretta, married to Jonas, the parents of little Jaylon. I wanted to tell them I was expecting them over at Simons for supper tonight. Eunice laughed and told me where they lived. Just a few places down, on the same side of the road as she was. I want to see that little boy with his great-great grandfather, I told her. I want to see that.

I drove out and down the gravel road then, a few places down. And there was the pole building shop, like Eunice had told me. I pulled in and parked and strolled into the open doors of the shop. A handsome young bearded man came up from the back. Jonas. I wouldn’t have known him from anyone else. I don’t know if I saw him before. Probably did, somewhere. I smiled at him and spoke my name as we shook hands. He smiled back in welcome. I asked him about his shop, a one-man cabinet operation. He shyly pointed out a few things and nodded when I asked if he’s busy. Yep. And then I asked if his wife was home. And his son. I wanted to meet them. He led the way into the porch and into the little house they bought. Lovely little tidy place. And she stood smiling in the kitchen. Loretta. We shook hands and chatted for a few minutes. And then I asked. Is your son around?

They both smiled and nodded and pointed to a little side room. And there he was. A cute little boy, in a shirt and tiny barn door pants with galluses, playing with a toy wagon or horse or some such thing. I could see Eicher in his features. “Jaylon,” they called to him. The boy looked at me quizzically, as in, what’s this stranger doing here? He came to his momma, then, and she stooped to pick him up. And I told them. We’re having pizza tonight, over at Simons. Would you come? I really, really would like to see Jaylon with my Dad.

They looked at each other, like Amish husbands and wives do. They talk without talking. And Loretta let me know. It had been a long week. She was really tired. I understand completely, I said. If you can’t come, you can’t come. But I sure would like to see that boy with his great-great grandpa. You know I don’t come around often. Pressuring with a little guilt, there. I would use whatever means I had, as long as it wasn’t dishonest. And I simply told them. I’d really appreciate it if you could make it tonight. The food is on me. I’d be honored if you would come and partake. I don’t know what did it. Maybe they sensed that I would accept whatever came, maybe that relaxed them to where they didn’t feel pressured. They told me they would come for pizza. I wanted to pump my fist. Yes. But I didn’t. I smiled very calmly and thanked them. I’ll look for you, I said. And then I got into my Jeep and left.

And the next stop came. My old friend David Luthy. I had stopped briefly the night before and told him. I want to come visit tomorrow. He seemed receptive. I had heard through the Amish grapevine. The man wasn’t doing well since his beloved Mary had passed on early last year. There were whispers. He’s losing it. He just sits around. He’s not himself. He’s in the early stages of dementia. I thought it all sounded like a hard road. And I wanted to stop in and chat with my old friend. Me and Amish Black were running a little late as I pulled into his place and parked. Right around eleven. I walked over to the door of his historical library. I figured he’d be out there. I knocked, the door opened. And there he was. We shook hands as I stepped inside.

He’s aged a good bit since I saw him last at his wife’s funeral. He has the somber eyes, the full shock of gray hair, and the long magnificent gray beard of a full-fledged Amish patriarch. We’ve always gotten along well, which is a little strange, considering how our paths diverged. Still. The man is my friend. And I was there to see him, to see how he’s doing. We immediately began talking and catching up, pretty much where we had left off the last time we talked like this.

A brief tour of his library. That’s his natural setting. That’s how he visits best, when he’s showing you around his place. I had heard, from my contacts in Lancaster. David was shipping much of his collection down to his buddy, Amos Hoover, the Black Bumper Mennonite. Amos lives here in Lancaster County, and he stores his vast archives of historical documents up on the hill at Fairmount Library, over at Fairmount Homes. And David told me. Amos Hoover had been there just a few days before. They had boxed and loaded several tons of historical documents and shipped it all back east to Lancaster County. David still had a lot of good stuff there, though. We walked into the darkened room, there on the north side of the library. It’s where he stores old Bibles, old Ausbunds, and many reproductions of the famous Dirk Willems scene. The classic Anabaptist nonresistant hero who turned back and showed true Christian love to the guy who was hunting him down to kill him. Dirk rescued his pursuer, who had broken through the ice and was drowning.

A little bunny trail, here. I’ve always been a little skeptical of that Dirk Willems tale. Well, ever since I discarded the errors of Anabaptist theology, I have. I’m sure there’s something to it. But how did Dirk escape over the same ice that broke through when his pursuer followed? And when he turned back and pulled the poor guy out, how could that happen? Why didn’t the ice break under the weight of both men, when it had just broken under the weight of one? I don’t know. That’s one of the most famous scenes in all Anabaptist lore and legend. I heard that story from the time I could understand what was being preached in a sermon. David had probably close to a dozen reproductions and original pencil drawings hanging on the wall in that north room. I just looked and admired, of course. Didn’t express any doubts or skepticism whatsoever. Didn’t seem like the proper time or place.

David was in fine form that morning. The details of history rolled from him in a continuous stream as he expounded on this piece and this item and that book. After the north room, we walked through several other rooms with rows and rows of empty shelves. His life’s work is being transferred to another place, where it will be kept safe. I nodded and listened as he talked and talked. We circled around to the front door of the library, then. It was time to head on, I told him. I have a few other stops to make. We sat there on a bench, and I sensed that he wasn’t finished. And he wasn’t. Right then, as I was fixing to walk out the door, right then he began talking of his memories of his beloved Mary. And when that window to his past was opened to me, I stayed back and settled in to listen.

I won’t share a lot of the details, because what he told me was spoken in private. He told me of the journey from the beginning, when Mary was diagnosed with an aggressive form of liver cancer in the fall of 2016. The doctor’s verdict to them both, addressing Mary. You have months to live. There is nothing we can do. We can alleviate the pain, but that’s about all. David spoke then, of how she quickly sank lower and lower. And he told me her final words to him. A day or so before she died. He was wiping her brow when she woke up from her coma and whispered to his ears alone. It was a beautiful and powerful moment when it happened and it was deeply moving to hear the account firsthand. As we were winding down one more time, I made noises to leave one more time. But he wasn’t quite ready to let me go.

“Come inside, to the house,” he said. “I want to show you her things, and the last card she wrote to me.” Of course, I said. So I followed him across the drive into the big old two story house he had built for his bride, way back when they got married. I can’t remember that I was ever in your house before, I told him. Always before, when I stopped in, you and Mary met me on the porch. I never got invited in. I’m sure it wasn’t planned that way. It’s just how it happened.

It was a simple house, and simply furnished. He led me over to the far wall in the kitchen. On the china hutch, that’s where he had laid out some of Mary’s favorite things. A special cup and saucer she had treasured. A few other items. And the card she had written to him soon after the cancer came. David told me. He had never, never imagined that she would leave this earth before he did. And when she left, he figured he didn’t need to grieve. That’s what got him. When he finally went to the doctor to see why he wasn’t sleeping, he was told. You are suffering from suppressed grief. It’s OK to let it out. It’s OK to cry.

He showed me the corner bedroom, where Mary had spent her final days. This was the room, but not the bed she died on. He moved that out. And we talked about it and chuckled a little, of what it is for a man to live alone and cook for himself. I know a little bit about that, I told him. He knows my story. And there was one hilarious and embarrassing moment. He was showing me something there in the kitchen. I bent over, and my butt hit the glass chimney of a kerosene wick lamp sitting there on a stand. I had not seen it. The glass chimney crashed to the floor and shattered into a hundred pieces with a great clatter. I was horrified. Mortified. Embarrassed. Here the man had invited me into his house for the first time ever, and now I go and clumsily break his lamp. He waved it off, though, and laughed. I went and got the broom and dustpan and we swept it all up. “I’ll have a lot of fun, telling this story,” David said. I groaned, then laughed. I’m sure you will.

And with that, it was time to leave. On to the next stop. I was running a little behind, but that’s how it goes. It all worked out great, and the day rolled on. Jumping right over to late afternoon. By four, I was racing back from town to go pick up my pizzas from Edna’s bake shop. Country Flavour-Rites. I want to get that name out there. It’s well worth your time to get there if you’re anywhere close. Edna smiled and greeted me. She looked a little tired. She had just closed up at four. She and her helpers had fixed fresh new pizzas to fill my order. AND she had sold all the other pizzas in the cooler. The woman is a busy bee worker, I’ll say that. She fetched my six flat boxes from the back cooler and set them on the counter. And she added a few trays of tarts to the stack. “On the house,” she said. “This is my contribution to supper tonight.” Wow. I appreciate that a lot, I said. Thanks. And I set the flat boxes in the passenger’s seat of my Jeep and headed west and south across the community. Over to Simon’s place. Over to where Dad was. Over to where the others were coming tonight to eat. I felt it stirring inside me. The little man-child was coming, too. The moment was approaching. Something would happen. Or it wouldn’t.

I pulled up and parked outside the door of Simon’s house. Opened the passenger’s door and carried in the six large flat boxes. Kathleen smiled and smiled. She was mixing up a large salad to serve for supper, too. “I’m not sure how much to bake these,” she told me. “I’ve never heated prepared pizzas before, like this.” Maggie was bustling about, too. Oh, I’m sure you’ll figure it out, I said. And I thought about it, then. Do you have some place to keep ice cream, if I run to town and get it? I asked Simon, who was sipping some coffee before heading to the barn to do the chores. He shook his head. No freezer. They had an ice box. Well, that won’t work, I said. That’s not cold enough. I guess I’ll have to run and get the ice cream after we eat pizza. You can have a little break between the first course and dessert.

I wandered over to Dad’s little house, then, and sat on the couch. Dad was puttering about, not particularly doing anything. I can’t recall that I saw him writing at all on this trip. Of course, I wasn’t out there all that much, either. We visited, me and Ray and Dad. Maggie was in and out. Dad had requested fried potatoes and eggs for supper, so she was busy fixing that. At five, I took my multivitamin, to break my fast. And I snuck over to the big house and swiped one of those tarts Edna had donated for supper. Delicious, those things are. Just totally loaded with sugar. Soon it would be time for people to get here. On the couch, there, talking to Dad, I was strangely calm. I had done what I knew to do, to make things happen. It was out of my hands, now. I could do no more, except be ready.

And soon a buggy came in the lane, stirring a small cloud of dust behind. I watched. Was this Jonas and Loretta? The buggy pulled up. It was Edna and her mother, my sister Rosemary. They had arrived. Turned out Joe had gotten back from his peddling route in Tillsonburg. But he was just too tired to go away for supper. So Rosemary came with her daughter. That’s fine, I said. I’m happy you could make it. We sat around on chairs on the deck, talking. Inside, the six large pizzas were baking in the kitchen stove. Soon the food would be ready. I scanned the lane to the north. Just checking. And sure enough, there came another horse and buggy.

It was Jonas and Loretta and their son, Jaylon. And my niece, Eunice, Loretta’s Mom. They had arrived. They were here. They tied up the horse and came strolling up to the deck. I greeted them. Hey. I’m really glad you made it. Before you sit down, here, do you want to go see Dad? He’s inside his little house. They smiled and shook my hand. Sure. Might as well get in there and see if Jaylon still knows his great-great grandfather. And here was the moment, coming at me. I led the way into Dad’s little house. Jonas and Loretta followed with their son.

The scene is surreal in my mind. I suppose it will always be. Here it was. The thing I had talked to God about. The thing I had asked Him for. It was here. Now. In this little room, in this little house. Dad was sitting at his table. Dad, I said. He looked up. Look who’s here to see you. Your great-great grandson. Jaylon Eicher. They came for supper. He smiled and backed his chair away from the table a few feet. He smiled again. “Hello, little boy,” he said, in his most jovial voice.

They were ninety-four years apart, this man and his offspring. The boy was blood of my father’s blood, five generations removed. And Dad made a motion to his lap. I watched. Would the boy be held? His mother moved in and asked softly in PA Dutch. “May he hold you?” He squeaked in protest and clung tighter to his Mom. No. He did not want to be held. Not by this old man. Loretta paused. And then she set her son on the floor, a few feet from Dad’s chair. Jaylon stood there, lingering close to his Mother for a moment. Then he pattered with tiny steps to the back of Dad’s chair. Around and around. I slid over to the opposite side and slipped my iPhone from my shirt pocket. I had turned it on outside. Now I held it discreetly at the ready.

Jaylon toddled around the chair in a half circle, glancing furtively at Dad as he came. And Dad looked down at him. I saw the boy was going to do it, by the smile on his little round face. I lined up my phone and clicked as Jaylon Eicher smiled and waved at his great-great grandfather. Dad smiled and waved back. I glanced quickly at the screen and saw that I had caught a real slice of the moment. I wouldn’t check it out much closer until later. But I knew I had captured something special.

Dad and Jaylon

Back into my shirt pocket went the iPhone. And right that moment, the air kind of whooshed out of me, too, like a basketball deflating. I felt exhausted, all at once, as the realization sank in. It had actually worked. The Lord had honored the desire of my heart. God. Thank you. You opened an impossible door. I am grateful. And I am a fortunate son, to get to witness and preserve such a moment in my father’s life. History will judge that this picture was the reason for my trip. I have no children to carry on my name. I never will have. Still. If I get nothing else accomplished in life, two things will survive long after I am gone. Two things will speak to the fact that I lived and walked this earth. My book. And this photo.

The evening rolled along, then. And it was all beautiful and good. Simon and his sons carried out a table to a picnic spot west of the house, under some trees. And chairs. Lots of chairs and benches. The pizza was served piping hot and devoured with much acclaim. After eating a couple of slices and salad, I told the family. I’m running in to Aylmer to buy ice cream. Does anyone have a favorite flavor? And I was told. Just get what you want. So I did. Those tarts were delicious with ice cream, I gotta say. Sugar and all.

In the west, the sun sank into crisp and glowing skies as we sat around the fire and just talked. Yes, they had a fire. It wasn’t that chilly, but a fire seemed right. I nudged Dad with a few stories, or the start of them, and he finished the telling. Most of the details were just as I had remembered. You get Dad started, he’ll go back in time and relive all kinds of things. Sure, I’ve heard the stories before, but it’s always good to hear them again. Rosemary and Magdalena chimed in, too, with tales of the old “Halloweeners.” Back in the day, you hid your buggy behind the barn on Halloween Eve so the evil young local English toughs wouldn’t drag it off. The younger generations in Aylmer have no concept of how that was and how it went.

It gets dark late in summer, up there in Aylmer. They’re further north than most places in this country. And people made noises soon to go home. Rosemary and Edna left. And soon I saw Jonas and Loretta gathering their little son. They were ready to go home, too. I walked out to the deck with them and thanked them for coming. They smiled. They had enjoyed the evening. I said good-bye to little Jaylon, too. For as small as he is, he sure had been an important part of my day.

I helped push Dad back across the bumpy yard to his little house. And by 9:30, I was ready to head back to my room at the Sweet Magnolia. Get some sleep. I had a long drive tomorrow. I chatted with Dad a bit as he settled there in his little house. We shook hands, and I hugged Maggie and Ray good-bye. They would head out late this evening, starting for home. And then it was back to town for one more night.

Promptly at six the next morning, my iPhone alarm buzzed. I was half awake by then, anyway. I got up, showered, and dressed in a fresh shirt. The third one on this trip. That’s all I would have needed. Maybe next time I’ll bring less stuff. (That’s a joke.) I packed my bags and checked one last time to make sure nothing was left behind. Then I walked down the two flights of stairs. Grabbed another bottle of Canadian water from the fridge. No one stirred as I quietly stepped out onto the porch and softly pulled the door shut behind me. The Sweet Magnolia. Maybe I’ll see you again.

I loaded my bags on the back seat of Amish Black. My Jeep was gassed up and ready to go. The June skies were clear and blue as I pulled out to the road and turned east into the morning sun.

June 8, 2018

A Resting Place…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:30 pm


Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take…

—Children’s bedtime prayer

An ordinary Monday morning at work. I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes, from the weekend. Not that my weekends are wild or anything. Not anymore. And not that I was up late and running around the night before. I wasn’t. I’m about as meek and mild as a lamb these days. Still. It takes a little time to get unlimbered, to get in the flow of things on a Monday. And you just never know, what the first day of the work week will bring at you.

I had just got off the phone when the doorbell jangled. I got up to take care of the customer who clumped up to my counter. An old friend, who has bought from me sporadically over the years. I smiled and greeted him. Good morning. I don’t know if the man ever was a cowboy, but he could have been. He’s tall and lean and bald with a long and majestic gray beard. He’s impeccably polite, neatly dressed in jeans and lumberjack shirt and cowboy boots. He stands ramrod straight, no slumping. And that morning, he was after the usual. Some white pine siding. That’s pretty much what he always buys from me. A few dozen pieces at a time. That’s all I’ve ever sold him, I think, those white pine boards.

I knew he had retired a few years back. He had told me when it happened. And now, this morning, I asked him a little bit about how that’s going. How’s life treating you? Staying busy? He chuckled. “You know,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, back when I retired. But I got more to do now than I ever did before. All kinds of projects to fix up at home. And you know what? That’s the way I like it.” I agreed. Yes. You gotta have something to work on, something to stay focused on. Otherwise, you’ll just wither up. And that’s no good. You’ll waste into nothing.

I don’t remember if I ever told the man about my book. I might have. Might have sold him a copy, even. I just don’t remember. But I must have talked to him about going up to Canada to see my parents, over the years. I’m sure I mentioned to him when Mom died. And I’m sure he was genuinely sympathetic. He remembers what I told him a little better than I remember the telling, I think. And he asked, right there, just kind of out of the blue. “How’s your Dad doing?”

And I told him. Dad’s doing pretty well, considering he’s ninety-six. He’s staying with family, up there in Canada. I’m fixing to head up to see him, later this month or sometime in the next. But to your question. He takes a lot of care. Every day. A lot of attention and a lot of work. When you’re as old as he is, everything takes time, to get done. Everything takes effort, and it takes energy. I’ve wondered sometimes. I respect the Amish for the way they take care of their elderly. Well. The way they take care of their own across the board. Including the elderly. In that culture, you live at home and you die at home. As much as possible, anyway, you do. Still. I’ve wondered sometimes if it wouldn’t be just as good when you get really old, to go stay in a retirement home where you get professional care and attention. I don’t know. I just don’t know, anymore.

The man nodded and leaned in on the counter. Something I had said stirred something down inside him. And he told me. His Mom is ninety-four. She has full blown Alzheimer’s. Sounds familiar, I said. He went on telling me. It got to where he just couldn’t give her the care she needed every day. She lived at home, and she wanted to stay there. But a few years ago, he had made the decision. And he had placed her in a “home” where they were staffed with professional help. And she was pretty comfortable there. He drove by every day, to see her. She’s getting bad, and can’t remember things. It’s hard, when she doesn’t know him. Still. He was grateful that she was at a place where she could be cared for by trained people. She was in a resting place. And she was as comfortable at this stage in life as he could make her.

And we stood there, he and I, face to face across the counter. Most real talk comes down in a place like that, in the natural flow of ordinary lives. And I told my friend. I know how that is. That’s how it was with Mom, too. She died back in 2014. She was completely out of it when she passed. And at the end, she took a tremendous amount of care, of time and effort from my sister and her family. And the community, too. I wondered back then. Would she have been as well off in some nursing home? I don’t know. I sure don’t judge any family who makes that decision. I just don’t. It’s too personal. People do the best they can with the options they have. Life has way different circumstances for you than it does for me. That’s just how it works.

My friend paid up and left, then. And that little conversation triggered a few other things that were stirring around in my head. I’ve thought about it often, in the past few years. Well, I think a lot of things, watching my father grow old. I’ve seen how hard it is, to walk that road. I’ve felt for the man. Used to be he could do pretty much what he wanted to, when he wanted to do it. Back through most of his life, that was how it was for him. Now he’s old. And now he can’t. It’s like the Scripture says. When you are old, a child will lead you by the hand and take you to a place you do not want to go. Now, today, the simple things in life aren’t that simple anymore. Everything is a production, everything has to be planned out. From getting up to cleaning up to sitting at the table and eating a meal. It all takes a lot of time. And it all takes the care and attention of someone else. That’s life, when you’re old. This I can say, from watching my father.

And I’ve wondered. Would Dad be better off in a nursing home of some kind? A place that is geared to taking care of you when you’re ninety-six? Why would one not at least consider such a thing? Can it really be that wrong?

Such a thought is anathema to the people I come from, of course. The Amish. One of the very few groups in the western world who have hung on to the traditional concept of what family is, going way back before there was any government “assistance” for anyone. It’s simply ingrained into their thinking from the way things always were. We take care of our own. Family is the first line of defense. Backing that up, that line of defense, is the church community. Culture and religion mix. And the bottom line when it comes to taking care of family is this. You don’t stick your old people in some antiseptic nursing home where they’ll be ignored. You don’t take someone from old familiar surroundings and put them in a place where they will wither and waste away. It’s just not done. Not in our world.

We are people of the land, the Amish say. The earth sustains us. We know we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. The land is our home on this earth. We live at home. And if there’s any means possible, if there’s any way to make it happen, we choose to die at home, too. That is where we lived. That is where we will lay down to rest. And that’s our resting place. And when all that is all you ever saw or knew from the time of your youth, it’s hard to grasp the thought that there might be another way. Another path that is just as right.

When you get out of the Amish culture, when you get around the Plain Mennonites, there they do it. There, it’s pretty much accepted, to place old people into a retirement home. It’s not always done, not by a long shot. But it is done. Their youth often go into “service” working at such homes. Way back after I left the Amish and moved down to Daviess, it was a pretty common thing. People I knew, good friends of mine, went away to work a year or two at Mountain View Home in Virginia. And there’s Hillcrest, in Arkansas, too. Both those places served as a “meet market” for Beachy and Mennonite youth, almost on par with Bible School. I’d say they still do, although I have been away from those circles for decades. Such things generally don’t change much.

Years ago, back in 1990s, I visited Mountain View Home over a weekend to see some friends who were working there. I was fairly impressed with the place. It was clean, well run, and the old people who lived there seemed about as content as an old person in a retirement home could be. I had just started college at Vincennes. I remember attending the Beachy church service that Sunday morning in the Mountain View community. And how the bearded Beachy “bears” looked at me a little grim and suspicious, I thought. Might have been my imagination. I never hung around that world long enough to really tell. Of course, those grim Beachy bears would not have been surprised at all that I didn’t stick around. They could tell I was being drawn out into the “world,” what with me going off to college and all. You don’t do that when you’re on the proper humble Beachy path. Not in those days, you didn’t, anyway. It’s probably a lot more accepted now in Beachy circles, to go to college.

A little side road, here. Well, it might end up a detour. The other week, I got to texting my old friend, Amos Smucker, the horse dentist. We don’t see each other that much since I quit drinking. I used to hang out at Vinola’s all the time, and he’d come over to meet me there. And we got together and talked a lot. Just to be clear. He hung out at the bar because I was there. Not because he hangs out at bars, much. Don’t want him to get in trouble here with his lovely wife.

Anyway, we try to stay connected in other places now, too. Me and Amos. I mean, I still eat at Vinola’s once in a great while, and we usually meet up for that. A few months ago, I wrote about going to the gun show with him. And he told me the other week, in his text. He was going to see his father-in-law the next Saturday morning. He thought I might be interested in going along. Of course, I said. I knew about his father-in-law. I couldn’t remember his name, but I knew the man was over a hundred years old. And I remembered how Amos had told me a few years ago at the bar. They were placing the man into a retirement home over in Ephrata, right around his hundredth birthday. I had listened to the story at the time, but it never really sank in. Not until that day, when Amos asked me if I wanted to go with him to visit. And I didn’t hesitate. Sure. I’ll go talk to a hundred-year-old man just about any time, I told him.

Saturday morning. A beautiful sunny day. Amos was stopping by around ten. I drifted out and about, ran some errands. Picked up some shirts at the dry cleaners. This and that. And by 9:30, I was back home, waiting for my friend. Just before ten, I saw his old car pull in. Amos waved as I walked out. We took off and were busy talking until about a mile down the road. Then he asked, abruptly. “Did you bring a book, for my Dad in law?” Well, no, I hadn’t. Never crossed my mind. But I definitely think I should take him one. Let’s go back and get one. And back we went, to my home. I threw a couple of books into my trusty messenger bag, and we took off again. North and east. Around Ephrata, then off on a side road. And Amos pulled in and parked. It was a Mennonite Rest Home. A spacious low flung place with different wings, looked like. We got out. I shouldered my bag and followed Amos across the parking lot and into the front doors.

It’s been a while since I walked into a place where old people live. The lobby was bright enough, and the place smelled clean. Still. There they sat, willy-nilly, in a rough half circle. And scattered about randomly. Old men and old women, hunched and scrunched over on their chairs and wheelchairs. Bent over and leaning on canes. I thought of a scene from Thomas Wolfe, where he vividly described the dust and ashes of old age. “They had been young and full of pain and combat, and now all this was dead in them: they smiled mildly, feebly, gently, they spoke in thin voices, and they looked at one another with eyes dead to desire, hostility, and passion.”

And that’s exactly how these people looked. They had been young once, all of them, and filled with passion and desire. Now their eyes were dead. Some of them seemed alert enough. Some glanced at us. Some stared into the distance. Others stared blankly at nothing. A few attendants flitted about. Plain girls in flowery cape dresses, wearing head coverings, smiling cheerfully. A shiver sliced through me, a premonition of something cold and lonely and dark. Lord. Please don’t ever let me live long enough to end up in a place like this. Or if I do, please make sure I got access to lots of whiskey. It won’t matter much either way at that point, I don’t reckon. This I pray from my heart.

Amos strode through the lobby like he’d been there before. I tagged close behind, clutching my McDonald’s coffee. Black and hot, it was. Off into a hallway, then, and down the hall. Not far. A door stood ajar, and Amos stopped outside. Knocked. Called out. “Hey, anyone home?” Someone shuffled about inside. A voice called to us, high and thin. We walked in.

The place was small, but roomy enough, I guess. Like a motel room, really. A bathroom walled off in the corner. A bed, desk, and some chairs. A table against the wall. And the man who lived there stood from his easy chair in the corner. He walked to greet us. He sure looked spry enough. Aaron K. Martin. That was his name. Mennonite stock. Old Order and Black Bumper. Clean shaven, like almost all old blood Plain Mennonites are. Somehow, Amos had connected with Aaron’s daughter, Velma. Amos comes from pure Amish blood, over in the Conestoga area. Velma is pure Black Bumper Mennonite. It’s extremely rare, that the two cultures mix in marriage. Amos turned to me and spoke my name. “This is my friend, Ira Wagler. He’s one of David Wagler’s boys.” The old man looked a little blank about that. Then he smiled and shook my hand. He seemed wiry and alert. He was also 102 years old. That right there was astonishing to me.

I took a seat, there at the end of the bed, beside the table. And we sat and talked, me and the old man. Aaron K. Martin. Here he lived, in this old people’s home. He looked to be in fantastic shape for having been around over a hundred years. And it wasn’t planned, any of it. But somehow, he spoke a few words in his native tongue. Pennsylvania Dutch. I talked back the same way. Comfortably and fluently. I’ve kept the mother tongue. Made a conscious effort to keep it over the years, by speaking it when I’m with my siblings or with people from my background. It greased the skids with Aaron. His eyes lit up. And we got to visiting about a lot of things.

He’d heard of my Dad, he claimed, when I asked him. Well, I had to nudge him a little. You know, the David Wagler who started Family Life. The magazine. Oh, yes. I saw in his eyes, that he had heard the name. And I asked him a lot of questions, then. About his memories of his youth. He was born in 1916. That was during the first World War. A long, long time ago.

And he told me, when I asked. He was born into the horse and buggy Mennonites. Back then, pretty much everyone drove a horse and buggy. And some people in his church decided it was OK to have a car, back when he was a boy. It didn’t seem like that big a deal, that he remembered. But then some people had a problem with the car. And the church split, right there. His parents went with the car faction that would later be known as Black Bumpers. His father was a businessman. And he was fairly well off during the Depression, when a lot of people weren’t.

We chatted right along. In a moment like that, you never quite realize how rare it is, what you’re seeing. And that’s fine. You have to walk naturally into every situation. So we just talked. I asked of how it was, when he was young and running around. And he told me. Just before his eighteenth birthday, his father bought him a car. Back then, Ford started off with the Model T. Then came the Model A, and after that, they made the Model B. I had never heard of the Model B, but I took the man’s word for it. His father bought him a Model B Touring car with a curtain top. For the grand price of $185.00. It was used, over a year old. And I don’t know if I heard the old man right, but I think I did. When it rained, he had to stop and snap the curtains over the side windows, too. That seemed strange to me. But I just nodded. And he told me, too. The car had no heater. The roads were mostly dirt, except for Rt. 322, which was paved pretty early on.

We talked about church things, too. Still in our native tongue. And along at some point, the old man asked me. He was making small talk, is all. “Are you married?” Well. What was I going to say to that? No, was my first response. He looked surprised, until I told him. I’m divorced. I wouldn’t have had to tell him that. He looked a little shocked at how lackadaisical I was about it. The thing is, I made up my mind long ago. I will never flinch from who I am. I won’t pretend to be someone I’m not. Would that have to mean that I tell an old man I’m divorced? No, it would not. But we were getting along just fine, and I felt comfortable telling him. He looked like he could handle it. So I said. I’m divorced. His eyes widened a little. And the conversation rolled on.

“Oh, well,” he soothed himself. “You’re not remarried, then?” I shook my head. He looked pleased. And again. I could have let it go and probably should have. But I didn’t. I piped up. I would get married again to the right woman, I said bravely. Or maybe it was a little foolishly. I should have let it go. Quit tormenting the old man. But something in me bristled a little, that he just assumed I’d never remarry. That’s the black and white world I came from. The Amish and the Plain Mennonites got all the answers, got all the marriage rules pretty much perfect and inflexible. Doesn’t matter who does what or who says what or who’s abusing who. You stay married. That’s why some (not all, but way too many) Amish and Plain Mennonite women stare at life somberly with hard, sad, stern faces that look like they’re set in stone. They are trapped. They have no options.

And I told the old man. It wasn’t me, that filed for divorce. I got served the papers. So I signed on the line and didn’t fight it. He smiled at me. Got a little conciliatory. “Oh, I see,” he said, relieved. “You were wronged in your marriage. You were the innocent one.” And one more time, I had to disagree. One more time, I had to shake up his worldview a little. No, I said. When there is a divorce, there are no innocent parties. Well, other than children. We didn’t have any children. I’m talking husband and wife. Sure, one might have made worse choices than the other. But neither one is innocent, regardless of how it looks from the outside. We’re all flawed. There is no innocence. He looked at me, astounded, as if he had never heard such an analysis about divorce in all his years.

We meandered off, then, down happier roads. I asked him how it was, way back when the Black Bumpers split off from the horse and buggy Mennonites. This man had seen the birth of all the Plain car churches. Everywhere. That is an astonishing thing. He saw them all because he was born before there were any. And I asked him. Where are your church houses? Are they still the same as they always were?

We meandered down a lot of bunny trails, too. Assurance of salvation was one of the man’s pet issues. And he was a little dubious at the plainer buggy people, that they shied away from the subject. The Amish and the OOMs don’t like to talk about “assurance of salvation.” They will generally make noises about having “hope” of salvation. And it seemed to be an issue with the old man, that they couldn’t see what was so clear to him. Still, when I asked about the split, about how the Black Bumpers broke off from the Old Order Mennonites, his eyes gleamed. And he told me. “There was a split, yes. But we worked it out, to where one group used the church house on one Sunday, and the other group used it the next. We have church every two weeks. So even though there were disagreements, we could still work together. That much, we could do.” I agreed. Yes, that was very peaceful and brotherly, to work out a schedule where two groups could use the same church house like that. I cheer for such unity.

I asked him a little bit about how that was, to move into a communal home like this after a lifetime of living free on the outside like he had. He smiled wryly and admitted. It had been a struggle for him to adapt, early on. But he had done it. And he liked it well enough, the lifestyle here. That’s what he told me, and I believed him.

It was getting time to wind down. Soon lunch would be served in the dining room. Amos and I made noises to leave. I reached into my bag and pulled out a copy of my book. I want to give you this before I go, I told Aaron. He smiled in thanks. I signed the book and handed it to him. He allowed that he’s not much of a reader, but he’ll look over what I wrote. I’d be honored, I said. As I was, that he accepted my gift.

Amos and I left then, walked back outside into the beautiful sunny day. And I couldn’t help thinking of the old man and my father, in the same thoughts. Aaron K. Martin and David L. Wagler. They are both in a place that very few people ever see. Dad was very much in the limelight in his journey among his people. Aaron labored in obscurity in his. One lived with the “hope” of salvation. The other lived with “assurance.” I bet they’d get along pretty well, now, anyway. Without a lot of fuss and argument.

Age has a resting place. Well, I guess it does. Dad lives with members of his family in their homes. Aaron lives in a retirement home. Both seem about as content as one could expect. Both are functioning decently well. Aaron is in better shape than Dad, physically and mentally, even though he’s six years older. Which is a lot, when you’re 102. Life is really random, like that.

And the logistics would probably be impossible, but I can’t help but think to myself. I sure wish those two men could meet.

A brief update, here. Some of you may remember when I wrote back in 2015 about my sister, Magdalena. Early that year, she was diagnosed with stage four cancer. It had riddled her body, all through. She was in really bad shape. She bravely told us. She would not do chemo or radiation. She would leave this life with integrity if she had to go.

We trekked down, all of us, to take our leave and say good-bye. Even Dad insisted that he wanted to make the trip, the thousand miles down to see his daughter. We all went, at one time or another. There was little question in any of our minds that Magdalena would not remain long on this earth.

She went on an intensive natural treatment regimen with essential oils. She sank pretty low. And then a strange thing happened. She started improving. And by late that year, the cancer had left. She was healed. Cancer free. We all marveled and shook our heads in amazement. Miracles still do happen, we saw for ourselves. Magdalena has remained healthy since that time. She is entirely cancer free, which, again, is just astonishing.

And sometime along the way since then, she was interviewed about her journey. The story was professionally produced. It’s short, only six minutes or so. And I know how that is, when you speak on camera for hours, and the final result is edited to a few soundbites. Many of the details you spoke get left out. But still. It’s a powerful story, in my sister’s own voice and in her own words. Here’s the link. I’m proud of her honesty and her unabashed gratitude to the Lord for the miracle of healing and the blessing of life.