October 19, 2018

Broken Roads: The Long Way Home…

Category: News — admin @ 5:33 pm

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Many years ago in days of childhood,
I used to play till evening shadows come.
Then winding down an old familiar pathway
I’d hear my mother call at set of sun.

Come home, come home, it’s suppertime.
The shadows lengthen fast.
Come home, come home, it’s suppertime.
We’re going home at last.

—Jim Reeves, lyrics: Suppertime…
____________________________

The plan came trickling out this past summer. Or maybe it was earlier, in the spring. I’m not sure who told me or exactly who thought it up. Who saw the vision of what could be. My sisters, probably. Some of them or all of them. I remember hearing about it and feeling a little astounded. It was simple enough, on the face of it. This fall, sometime in September or October, there would be a family reunion. Me and all my brothers and sisters would gather in Bloomfield, Iowa, to celebrate the 60th birthday of our brother, Titus. Well, it would be a pre-celebration, a few weeks before the actual date. We would surprise him at his home and hang out for a day or so. It was a bold plan and a beautiful one. All of us would come, all of us would travel as many miles as it took to get there. To enjoy the company of each other, all of us as one group. One family. A most beautiful thing, indeed.

But there was one persistent little question, at least in my head there was. Could it be done? Could the plan actually work? I come from a large family, by today’s standards. By the standards of most times in history, too, I guess. I have five brothers and five sisters. Dad and Mom had eleven children. Six sons and five daughters. Rosemary is the oldest. She was born in 1943. Nathan is the youngest. He was born in 1966. A span of twenty-three years, that Mom endured the the brutal and biting pangs of childbirth. She was from sturdy stock. She had to be, to make it through life with any semblance of sanity, let alone joy. She came from strong blood. I don’t know how thin you’d have to spread your love to make it stretch over eleven children. She did it, and we were never deprived, at least not that we felt or knew. She loved us all, always, through everything. The sad thing is, she never saw all of her family together since, oh, since I was about twelve or so.

We all did get together, a few years back. In the spring of 2014. We gathered with our father and huddled as a group and wept. Dad wept too. We stood as a family and looked at Mom as she slept peacefully in her coffin. She could only make it happen by leaving this earth. She had to die to make us come together. A tragic and haunting thing, when you stop and think about it. Mom came from strong blood. Her road was hard. Now she sleeps in her dark new house, where the winds are always silent (paraphrasing Thomas Wolfe, there). And now it was time for her children to come traveling in from all over, to assemble again. Not for a funeral, not to mourn this time. But to live. To laugh and to love and to celebrate all that life is. Home is people, not a place. This was as close to “home” as we were ever going to get.

It’s been a funny year. Travel-wise, I mean. I hardly went anywhere, until much of the year had passed. In June, I went up to Aylmer to see Dad. A quick weekend trip. And that was it until last month. The summer flew right by. In late August, I traditionally proclaim the Great Annual Ira Wagler Garage Party. Not this year. Early on, I kind of looked at it. And I didn’t really feel the stirring inside, the usual thrill of throwing a big old summer bash. I thought about it, kicked it around in my head. And it felt OK, not to. I sent word to the regulars. No Garage Party this summer. Just because I don’t feel like it. Actually, I wasn’t all that much into hosting a big party where the whiskey would flow, at least not this soon after going dry. I could have. It would have been no problem. But I just didn’t feel like it. There is no rule that there has to be a Great Annual Garage Party. It’s OK, not to have it. So I didn’t. That weekend came at me, then slipped right by with hardly a murmur. I barely noticed.

Late August. My birthday. One more year. I’m getting to be an old man, or what I used to think was old. This year, that old man had been dry for a year a few days after his birthday. And yes, the old man felt a small stab of pride about that. Fleeting pride, that something so impossible could be. But pride, nonetheless. And then, September came. Beach Week month. We usually go to the Outer Banks the second or third week after Labor Day, when everything is half price. This year, though, Janice couldn’t get the house we wanted until the last week of the month. Which turned out to be a good thing, because the hurricane came roaring in right during our normal week. Had we been there, we would have been chased out. Instead, we headed down on our planned day. And we were there at the beach for the last full week of the month. The seas were a bit roiling and unsettled, but that didn’t spoil anything. It was an extremely relaxed week. We got the fanciest beach house we ever had. Up on the main floor, where you could look out over the ocean, there was a beautiful bar shaped like a boat. The most inviting spot in the whole house, I thought. I sat at that bar a lot and got some serious writing done on the new, cheap laptop I had bought and hauled down for that reason.

I left Beach Week a day early. First time that ever happened. There was a wedding going on over close to Cleveland that Saturday. Good friends of mine, Jonathan Graber and Micaela Carter. I’ve known Jonathan all his life, since he was a baby. On Thursday afternoon, a friend drove me over to Enterprise in Kill Devil Hills. I had reserved a compact, a one-way rental. I’d drive to the wedding, then home the next day, then drop the car off at the Enterprise in New Holland.

We pulled up to the rental place. Inside, I was greeted by a stunningly beautiful lady who turned out to be the manager of the place. I told her who I was, and she punched at her keyboard. Then she flashed a brilliant smile at me. She had my reservation, but they were out of compacts. Was there anything in particular that I’d like to drive? Well. This was an interesting development. I pointed out front to a shiny black Jeep. A big old souped-up four door. I had gazed at it longingly when we pulled onto the lot. I smiled back at the stunningly beautiful lady. I’m a Jeep man, I said. I own one, back home. I’d love to drive that black one parked out front, there.

She looked a little dubious, but her dazzling smile never wavered. I think the Jeep was more of an upgrade than she had in mind. I didn’t fight it. Not at all. We stood and chatted for a bit. I asked about the hurricane that had come through the week before. She told me they had to evacuate. We chatted a bit more. Then, abruptly, she said. “That black Jeep is from Canada. Quebec. We need to get it up there closer to the border. And Pennsylvania is a lot closer than here.”

I cheered heartily at such brilliant wisdom. Enterprise always treats me right, I said. Well, almost always. We did the paperwork, and she gave me the keys to that monster black Jeep. She also gave me her card, just in case there were any problems along the road. I thanked her. And I had to laugh to myself, as I drove off in Big Amish Black. Life can be like that. It isn’t, always. But it can be. Sometimes the Lord blesses you when you ain’t even looking for it. Like He just did right there.

I left early Friday morning for Ohio. It was a long day on the road. I cut through the back roads of West Virginia to get there. New territory, that was. The big old black Jeep drove like a boss. The wedding was fantastic, a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Extremely tastefully done. The next day, Sunday, I got back home for the first time in more than a week. The following day, I returned the big black Jeep. I hope it got back up to Quebec. And I was home, then, for less than a week before it was time to take off again. Bloomfield Wagler Family Reunion or bust. That was the plan. I chatted with the tenant. I’m heading out again for a few days. Watch the place and get the mail. Let me know if you hear Billy the Ghost. I’m thinking it’s about time for him to show up again. He said he’d keep an ear out. And on Saturday morning by nine, I had loaded Amish Black and we were driving to the Harrisburg Airport.

Yeah, I know. I was flying. It’s no secret. I detest flying. I despise the TSA, and generally dislike the fluid schedules that shift with the whims of weather halfway across the country. Things change in a moment, on a dime, when you fly. But there was no rational way to avoid it, not if I wanted to get to the family gathering. It’s a two-day drive out to Bloomfield. And two days back. All for a two-day stay. I just couldn’t make the numbers work, in my head. So, I went online and bought cheap tickets from Expedia. Flying out of Harrisburg, there’s always a layover somewhere. It didn’t matter to me. If I had to run the gauntlet into an airport, Harrisburg is about as nice as it gets. And so close to home. It should be an easy hop, on the way out. Harrisburg to O’Hare. Then Chicago to Des Moines. Then a ninety-minute drive south.

I parked Amish Black in the long-term lot. That’s another thing I like about Harrisburg. Long term parking is $9.50 a day, about half what they charge at the big airports. And I can brag a little bit here, maybe for the first time when it comes to my luggage. A carry-on suitcase on wheels with an extending handle to pull it around behind you. That, and my trusty old messenger bag is all I carried. Just the basics, and only a few of those. There wouldn’t be a whole lot of unworn shirts hanging in the room where I was staying. I checked in for my ticket. American Airlines. That’s who I was flying with. And there at the counter, the lady told me. My flight was delayed at least an hour. A few tremors of unease shivered through me. Oh, well. What is to be will be, and there’s nothing I can do to make it happen any different. Not when it comes to making planes fly on time, there isn’t. I got through the TSA obstacle course with minimal hassles. Take off your shoes, take off your belt. Strip off all your dignity. Do what we tell you without protest. You pretty much have to get dressed all over again, when they finally let you move on.

The flight to Chicago was an hour and a half late. There was a short layover, then a connection to Des Moines. I was a little uptight about it until I got the to the gate to board for Des Moines. That flight was over an hour late, as well. I didn’t fret, much. Stayed calm. The next stop was my destination. I’d get there when I got there. And shortly after six that evening, I loaded my bags into my Enterprise rental. It was a small upgrade from the compact car I had reserved. A Buick SUV. A tiny, tinny little thing with four doors. It drove nice enough.

The Des Moines Airport is easy to get out of. The GPS directed me to Highway 5, where I headed south and east. The weather had been unsettled all day, all across the land. Random drops of rain came spitting from the skies as dusk settled in and darkness fell. It was happening. I was getting close to Bloomfield. Old Bloomfield, in my mind. A place from long ago. And it washed through me, the wonder and the tension of the moment. I thought of things, thought of how and why we had never done this before, me and my family. We had never gotten together, all of us, just to get together. This was a new place. A new road rising. An impossible and miraculous place, is what this new road was.

There were reasons that we never got it done, of course. Reasons that seemed important enough at the time, I suppose. It’s what happens when you’re from a large family, and you break away from the Amish. The ones who don’t leave take it a little hard, often. And if they’re from a hard-core place, well, they can’t invite you to come around. And they aren’t allowed to come around if you invite them to your celebrations. Aylmer and Bloomfield are both hard-core, that way. They can’t invite you, and they can’t come. Here, now, we had kind of invited ourselves to a place where everyone could come. The sisters had figured it out. Make the plans, keep everything quiet, and just show up. We hoped it would work.

We’re not exactly young anymore, me and my brothers and sisters. Rosemary is the oldest. She’s seventy-five. Maggie is a few years behind her. Then comes Joseph. He is seventy. At the other end, Nathan will soon be fifty-two. We have walked hard roads, some of us. In different ways. Health-wise and otherwise. A few years back, Maggie fought off cancer that had riddled her body. She did it naturally. Joseph has not been well, either. He has battled multiple myeloma for ten years. It’s been a long and weary struggle. Most people who get that cancerous blood disease don’t last much more than five years. He fought it off for ten. And Naomi, too, has fought through a couple of rounds of cancer in the last ten years or so. And, of course, Titus is in a wheelchair. He is rail-thin and has always been. He deals with health issues, too, that nobody ever hears much about, because he doesn’t fuss much. And me, well, I had all those heart problems a few years ago. Somehow, I got through that minefield with about as little long-term damage as one could ever hope for in such a place. Knocking on wood, here. We’ve all seen our dark days and hard roads. From Nathan all the way up to Rosemary. And every single one between. And now, now we were walking up to a door such as none of us had ever seen before. This day, this time, this moment was ours to touch and hold in our hands. It was ours to taste and savor, but only if we could actually get it done.

It had been mentioned, early on in the planning. What about Dad? Would he want to come, too? I’m only one voice in the group, but it seemed to me from the start. It should be just the children. All the brothers and sisters, the family. Dad wouldn’t be able to absorb much, anyway. And as the date approached, that little issue took care of itself. A few months ago, we heard from Aylmer. Dad is not well. He can’t remember where he is. He can’t write anymore. He sits and stares at the typewriter. He sleeps all the time. He barely eats. The official diagnosis came from the care nurse. He’s shutting down. He could easily leave us soon. Or it could go for a while, yet. We just don’t know. But we did know it wouldn’t work to try to get him to the family reunion.

The little SUV plinked along, like little SUVs do. It reminded me of a frightened rabbit, dodging in and out of traffic. Rt. 163 into Ottumwa, a real nice four-lane highway. Through the roundabout then, and onto 63 South to Bloomfield. Around the Floris turnoff, left onto the side road that led to my nephew John’s place. Joseph’s oldest son, John and his wife Dort had opened their large house to the uncles and aunts. They had spare bedrooms, and they would be happy to host whoever came. That was the word on the family threads. I texted John when leaving the airport. I’m on my way. Don’t wait on me, to eat. I’ll get there around eight or so. He messaged back. We have a full meal waiting. We’ll eat when you get here. And right at 8 PM, I pulled up to their place and parked. Grabbed my luggage and walked up to the porch and knocked. The door opened, and I walked into a warm and welcoming place.

John has done well for himself. He has run his own construction crew for decades. Reroofing houses, mostly. He and Dort have three lively young daughters, school-age girls. Vanessa. Kara. And Vidalia. The whole crew was scattered about the big log home. Dort smiled from the kitchen. The girls looked at me a little shyly. There were hugs all around. And Janice had arrived, too, earlier. She was working in Kansas City, and drove over. We plotted that she would show up for a while at the reunion on Sunday evening, to take a few pictures. Unobtrusively, of course. So you wouldn’t notice. I sat and unwound for a few minutes, then we were all called out to the vast kitchen table where a great feast had been spread. If my stay in Bloomfield would be judged by the food, this was a good start. A great, classic Amish meal. Chicken, real mashed potatoes, thick rich gravy, corn, salad, it was a feast. All of it was beyond delicious, especially for my One Meal a Day. I had snacked a little right at five when my window opened. And I had lost an hour, coming this far west. So it was nine o’clock, which is a little later than normal for me. Didn’t matter, though. The food tasted so, so good. I topped it off the meal with two kinds of pie and a few dips of ice cream. Oh, and coffee, of course. I leaned back, then, satiated and utterly content. At peace with myself and pretty much everyone in my world that I could think of.

Sunday morning. The day was here. The one that had been so carefully planned and plotted. I already knew that all of the siblings had come or were on the road to getting here. Rosemary and her husband, Joe Gascho, had arrived on Saturday. They were the “triggers,” the reason Ruth could get ready for company without Titus knowing anything special was going on. Rosemary had announced. They were coming to visit for the weekend. And Titus was looking for them, to take them to church over in another district, where Joe would preach the main sermon. So they were there. Over east in Kalona, by the home of their daughter Dorothy and her husband Lowell Miller and their family, Maggie and her husband Ray Marner had arrived. They were driving down to Bloomfield this afternoon. And Joseph had snuck in the day before with his wife, Iva. They brought a driver over from Kentucky and stayed with their daughter Rachel and her husband, Lester Beechy, and their family. Naomi and her husband, Alvin Yutzy, were driving in that day from Arkansas. Jesse and Lynda had arrived from South Carolina the day before. They slept at John’s, where I stayed. Rachel and her husband, Lester, were coming in from Kansas this afternoon. Stephen and Wilma were arriving today as well. I was here. Rhoda and her husband, Marvin, were coming from Kansas, too, from the same place as Rachel. And Nathan had arrived from his home in London, Ontario, a few days earlier. He was staying with friends over in Pulaski. And there it was. All of us were here or getting here. A new road leading to a new and shining dawn.

I started the day slow. Slept in a bit. Got up and cleaned up, then wandered downstairs to drink some black coffee. The others were all up already, in various stages of eating breakfast. We sat around in the living spacious living room in the log cabin part of John’s home. And we kind of shook ourselves awake and talked. We were meeting at Yoder Lumber at four that afternoon to go as a group to surprise Titus. So there was some time to kill. John had told his father Joseph that we were stopping in to see him at around eleven that morning. I didn’t know, so I asked. Did you mean that me and Janice would go along, too? “Absolutely,” John said. “I told Dad you’d be coming.” OK, I said. That sounds like a neat thing to do, go see Joseph.

Janice and I drove out together in her rental car. Over to West Grove, then out north to the old home farm. I talked to Janice as we crept along the muddy, spongy road. I told her about that night I left home when I was seventeen. Here, this road. Right along this stretch. It was so, so dark. I walked right past this graveyard, here. Over the Fox River we drove, then, on the new bridge they built after I left. And left into the drive. Halfway in the lane on the farm where Joseph lived many years ago, that’s where his oldest daughter Rachel lives now with her husband and their family. Lester Beechy. He’s a young up and coming deacon in the Bloomfield world. John had arrived when we got there. We walked in and were welcomed. Joseph sat on a comfortable chair. He smiled and shook hands with us both and spoke our names. Iva sat beside him and smiled, too. He doesn’t look too bad, Joseph doesn’t. He can smile and talk and move around. But he doesn’t look that good, either. He has battled along and struggled for more than ten years, fighting that evil blood disease that is going to get him in the end. It just hasn’t, yet. And I think about it, too, now and then. Joseph has suffered more real pain than any of his brothers and sisters, except maybe Titus, who hasn’t walked a step since 1982. They could both tell us a few things, I suppose, Joseph and Titus. About what it’s like to not have things go your way in a big way.

The afternoon came. The hour drew near. Janice and I drove back to John’s home. We hung out for a bit, then headed out for our next stop. Nathan was staying over in Pulaski with his good friends, LaVern and Karen Yoder and their family. Janice wanted to ride out with me to pick up my brother. She followed me to a parking lot south of Bloomfield, where I parked my tinny little SUV. I got into her car, and we headed east and south for Pulaski. We caught up on a few things. I can tell Janice just about anything, that’s how much I trust her. Sometimes it goes a while before we see each other again, but that old connection always kicks in. The miles flew by, and we were pulling up to the house where Nathan was. We got out. Nathan and LaVern were sitting in the garage, chilling. Nathan joined us then, and we drove back to where my Buick was parked. Janice wished us the best. She grasped the magnitude of the moment. Nathan and I drove off to the west. Then north on Drakesville Road. Then left and into the yard of Yoder Lumber. Two vehicles were already waiting. We pulled in and around and lined up. Other vehicles were now pulling in. Everybody, from everywhere. We got out and greeted each other and hugged. But not for long. The skies were spitting a hard driving rain. And right at four, the first vehicle led us west. Over the little hill, and right onto the drive. We all lined up, and drove in together. I couldn’t imagine what Titus might be thinking, if he happened to look out and see us.

We all parked off the lane in the wet grass around the circle drive. We huddled around in the rain for a moment. Robert and Thomas, Titus and Ruth’s sons, came outside to greet us. We shook hands. Then Ruth came rushing out. “Come in, come in right away,” she said. “We will all walk in together and surprise him.” We still milled around a bit, then followed Ruth inside. Into the porch, then into the open door into the living room. I was probably the third or fourth person behind Ruth. As we walked through the porch, one of my sisters started singing. Happy Birthday to You. We all joined in and walked in, singing hard and loud. I will never forget the sight of my brother, Titus. He was sitting on his wheelchair by the little table in the kitchen, looking our way in astonishment. On the far side of the table sat Rosemary, smiling and smiling. She joined us in our song. And then we were all there together around Titus. Murmuring and milling and talking self-consciously. We all stepped up one by one and grasped the limp and curled hand he held out in greeting. He looked a little pale, I must say. But we greeted him loudly and cheerfully. It sank in slowly, for Titus. We were all here to see him, to surprise him for his birthday.

There was a jumble and clatter of voices, then, as we mingled and greeted and hugged each other. It took a few minutes to settle down. Ruth told us how nerve-wracking it had been these past few weeks, as she fretted about what might or could go wrong. The poor woman actually lost a few pounds from the stress, it turned out. Things didn’t stay quiet for long. The sisters had planned this event right down to the smallest detail. The men dragged in great tubs and pots of food. Soon two different soups were simmering on the kitchen stove. Some kind of clam chowder. And a pot of vegetable soup, like Mom used to make. All the food that day and the next would be prepared like the food we grew up on. Ruth laid out some crackers and snacks to start. Their son Thomas had killed a young deer recently, and they had fresh deer bologna, all sliced up. And my sister Rachel, bless her heart, had fetched along a large container filled with pickled cow tongue. Sour and bitter and covered with onions, it tasted exactly the same as the stuff Mom always made. We snacked until the soup was ready. Then we all stood around to return thanks. The large leaf table in the dining room had been pulled out and extended to an impossible length. We helped ourselves to plates of hot soup and slabs of homemade bread slathered in butter and sat around the vast table and slurped our soup with much noise and great delight.

And the moments flashed right by. I was solidly content after eating two bowls of soup, several slices of buttered bread, and many slices of cold pickled cow tongue. But there would be more. Of course there would. The men were rounded up and herded out to the porch, where two White Mountain Ice Cream freezers needed turning by hand. Joseph’s wife Iva had made the mixtures, and someone had brought bags of ice and salt. That’s how those freezers work. We used to crank homemade ice cream almost every night in winters in Aylmer. I remember one time me and Titus didn’t put salt on the ice. We figured we didn’t need it. The ice cream never got hard, and we couldn’t figure out why. Until one of our sisters, probably Rachel, asked enough questions to discover the error. Much shouting ensued, with detailed instructions. The ice cream will never, never get hard unless there is salt on the ice. So, anyway, some of the men and boys got busy getting the ice cream cranked. I tried to skip out on it, but sadly I was collared and arbitrarily drafted to go help. I will sit on the freezer for weight, I said. I won’t crank. I’m too old for that. So I sat. For weight. It worked.

In the kitchen, sister Naomi was rushing about. She had brought two cherry pies, all ready to bake. Exactly the kind of cherry pies Mom used to make. There is no other pie like it, except maybe you’d find it in some places in Daviess County, where Dad and Mom grew up. After half an hour or so of cranking, the men triumphantly proclaimed that the ice cream was done. About right then, Naomi was extracting her two pies from the oven. The two delicacies met on the kitchen table. We sat around with bowls and simply feasted on this treat. I can’t remember eating authentic “Mom” pie with homemade ice cream like that since maybe back in the 1990s, when Nathan and I went home for Christmas every year. Mom was still active, then. It would have been around twenty-five years ago, I figure. Now, in this rare moment, we savored such a rare treat again.

Reunion Family
Titus at the table. To his left: Stephen, Jesse, Marvin Yutzy, Ray Marner
To his right: Nathan, Ira, Rhoda, Maggie, Rachel, Naomi. Thomas lounging at the far end.

Reunion Joseph and Rosemary
Joseph, Rosemary, and Stephen

There was coffee flowing freely all the time, of course. From the second we walked in, fresh pots were brewed without ceasing. I drank it down, strong and black. I’m trying to think, now. Somewhere about the time dessert was being wolfed down, they came walking through the door. Janice, and her older sister, Dorothy. Lowell and Dorothy had driven down from Kalona to John’s house. And now the two sisters, my “little nieces,” had slipped on over to hang out a while. I had told Janice, early on. By all means, come around. The nieces and nephews were not invited, but still, John will stop by. You need to, too. Someone needs to sneak a bunch of pictures, and there’s no one better than you who can do that under the radar, so people don’t notice, so much. We got to have someone like that around, at least for a little bit. And Nathan wants to see you, too, I’m sure. You two haven’t seen each other in a while.

Reunion uncles and nieces
Proud uncles, lovely nieces: From L, Janice, Nathan, Dorothy, Ira

So they came, Dorothy and Janice. They mingled into the moment seamlessly and naturally, just chatting and catching up with everyone. I saw Janice was busy with her phone. And the evening just kind of swirled by. Before long, then, Janice and Dorothy took their leave. They didn’t want to interfere too long. A few minutes later their father, Ray, approached me. He was wondering. Janice had called and asked if they should come back to sing a few songs. My face lit up. Absolutely, I said. Tell them to get back here. They can lead us in a little singing. And soon they walked in. Janice announced to the room that she and Dorothy would sing a few songs and lead a few more. She asked for requests.

And they stood there at the end of the long table, the two of them. Like I’ve seen and heard them a hundred times back when they were teenagers. Dorothy always strummed a guitar, then. That couldn’t happen, here. But they could sing in harmony, and they sang us a song or two. The requests came pouring in. First, from my brother Joseph. He asked for Amazing Grace. The girls led and we all joined from all around the rooms. As fast as one song ended, another began. We sang them all. We Have This Moment. Today We Call it Heaven, Tomorrow We’ll Call it Home. Fill Up My Cup. And a few others. Our voices rose and swelled and echoed through the house. Pure joy from the heart is what that singing was. Tears streamed freely from more eyes than just mine.

We wound down, then, with a farewell tune. Janice and Dorothy left one more time. This time, Nathan left with them for his ride over to his friends in Pulaski. It was a little after eight, probably, and the rest of us were winding down, too. Titus can’t stay up too late. He has to get his rest. By 8:30 or so, I was making noises to leave. But there was a thing I had in mind to say to the others. I asked Titus. Where is your German prayer book? Let’s have evening prayer before we go. Joseph can lead us. Titus rolled out the kitchen table, then came back and handed me a worn little black book patched together with tape on a good part of the cover. I stood off to the side. Held up the worn black prayer book. And I got everyone’s attention.

One thing I remember vividly from growing up is Dad praying the morning and evening prayer, I said. I thought it would be nice if we had an evening prayer tonight. Joseph can lead us. Everyone seemed agreeable. I walked over to where Joseph sat in the recliner and handed him the book. I took a seat on a nearby couch beside Rosemary’s husband, Joe Gascho. We all sat somber and silent as Joseph paged through the prayer book to find the right one. He found it, then cleared his throat. “I will remain sitting, and Iva will, too,” he said. “But those who can and want to may kneel at this time.” And there was a rustle and bustle as all the other people in the house rose to their feet, then knelt. It was silent for an instant all through the house.

And Joseph read that prayer aloud in a steady but very quiet voice. A man who has seen much and suffered much, a man just speaking from his heart to God. I remembered in that moment how my brother had always prayed the German prayers aloud in church after a sermon. His voice was never overpowering, but it always throbbed as a vibrant and living thing. Life. His voice had life back then. Now, that quiet voice reflected the immense calmness of a man who has stood face to face with death again and again and is not afraid. He read the familiar prayer, haltingly now and then. He spoke the blessing at the end. And then the prayer was done. Another bustle and stir as we all scrambled to our feet.

We talked a about that prayer, discussed it a bit. And Joseph said. “Those prayers have a tremendous impact on a child. They did on me. You just hear them spoken, day in and day out, morning after morning, and evening after evening. The effect wears off on a child. It has to.” I had never thought of it in those specific terms. But I agreed. Yes. These prayers have a big impact on a child. One of my very fond memories is hearing the comforting rhythm and cadence of Dad’s voice praying. I can close my eyes and hear him exactly as he spoke it back then.

John and Dort had a full house that night. They were more than gracious. We sat around late and talked, all those who were there. I was in bed soon after eleven. Of all my recent nights away from home, the beach, the wedding, and now here, that night was the only one where I tossed and turned incessantly until dawn. I had slept well the night before in that same bed. I slept well again, the night after. Just that one stretch, there, I think the tension and nerves of the moment just kind of washed in over me. And kept me restless.

The next morning, I was on the road before nine to go pick up Nathan in Pulaski. The sisters had asked me to provide fruit for breakfast. Grapes, they decided. There at John’s, I gave my sister Rhoda some money and told her to buy what they wanted on her way out. I don’t eat any breakfast. Just black coffee. Nathan was ready to go when I got over there. I chatted with his friend LaVern for a few minutes. It was awful nice of him and Karen to offer Nathan a place to stay like that. He assured me that they were honored to have an old friend as a guest for a few days. And I thought to myself. It’s a beautiful thing to see old friends connect like that.

The day came at us. All our brothers and sisters were clustered around the long kitchen table when we got to the house. Lots of things were scattered haphazardly on the table. Many of my siblings had brought gifts for Titus. I had been told, too, but it completely slipped my mind, I must say. I brought nothing but myself. Nobody seemed to mind or look twice. We talked about our childhood memories, and then Jesse pulled out an old song book from our days at the Aylmer School. The songs were compiled, typed up, and printed by the Aylmer people. It’s a thin little song book in a full-sized folder. I paged through and saw lyrics I had not even thought of since, well, I don’t know since when. A long time. Decades, for sure. Stephen sat beside me, and we checked it out. Oh, look. Only Two Little Rosebuds Were Taken From Their Home. We started with the first line. And me and Stephen led each of the four verses and the chorus. All the others sang the words as they came to mind. It’s amazing how they did. After that, we paged through and sang a few more. When Mothers of Salem Their Children Brought to Jesus. Once I had a Tattler’s Wagon. And a few more.

We all gathered round in the living room, then. Kind of in a circle and just talked. Someone came up with an idea. Let’s all share a memory we have of Titus. And from oldest to youngest, we did. Some of the stories I knew, some I remembered, and some I didn’t. Some were from before my time. We laughed and laughed at the tales of how things went, sometimes. As you can only laugh with those who were there in that world way back when. The most famous story was retold, a story that I never saw happen. It was when Titus was three or so, when I would have been the baby. The family was over at Jake Eicher’s to visit. Kindly old Jake, the fiery preacher man of my childhood. Jake smiled at young Titus. “What’s your name?” He asked, very kindly. I’m sure he knew. He was just making polite conversation with a child. Titus never answered, but abruptly threw himself on the floor and started rolling around. Around and around he rolled, in a circle, as fast as he could propel himself. His embarrassed older sisters finally got control and held the boy and stopped the rolling. Later, they asked Titus. “What in the world did you think you were doing?” The little boy wiped his shirt sleeve across his runny nose. He never hesitated. “Showing off,” he said.

Noon came. Time to eat soon. At one o’clock, my nephew John came around with a great pot of chicken for lunch. He is a skilled cook and had been requested to prepare the meat. Shake and Bake. A full meal was laid out on the counter in the kitchen. The kind of food Mom used to feed us every day. Mashed potatoes. Mom’s gravy, as only Rosemary can make it. Chicken. Corn. All the fixings. We walked through and filled our plates and feasted again. It was a great and merry time. For the first time since last November, I ate a meal for lunch instead of supper. I moved up my eating window, from evening to midday. That was my one meal for that day.

After lunch, Titus took us on a tour of his truss shop. His business, where they manufacture framing trusses. Titus and his brother-in-law, Elmer Yutzy, own the great majority of the shares. They have done quite well. Expanded the original little shop a few times. Now they have several large buildings where they cut the lumber and assemble the components. We watched. The place runs like a well oiled machine. They were stacking a new sixty-foot truss onto the pile about every three to four minutes, I’d say. They have some fairly complex presses and machinery, all powered by hydraulics. Amish businesses will always be extremely competitive, because the Amish know how to work. That’s what they’ve been taught, since they could walk as toddlers. To work. And you could see all that production in full force and effect at the Midwest Truss factory that afternoon.

Reunion Titus and Ruth
Titus and Ruth in the truss shop

By late afternoon, you could feel it. Things were winding down. I ran some errands around the neighborhood. Nathan wanted to get back to his lodging for a nap. LaVern would bring him back out to the house for supper. When I returned, my sister Naomi and her husband Alvin had left for their home in Arkansas. Joseph and Iva left soon for their daughter Rachel’s house over on the old home place. They would leave the next day. As would we all, those who remained.

John had hung around that afternoon, and he was dispatched to Bloomfield to fetch half a dozen pizzas for supper. He returned, and people gathered and ate. Kind of half-heartedly, I thought. I ate nothing. We sat around outside on the deck, then, and watched some wild weather in the northern skies. They had tornado warnings up there. But the storm never made it south to where we were. Robert and Thomas, Titus and Ruth’s sons, bustled about mysteriously, then lit and launched two Chinese floating lanterns. Those things where you light a candle inside a big transparent paper balloon, and the whole thing lifts and floats away in the wind like some UFO. There was much laughing and shouting and cheering. It was a production, to get the lanterns airborne, but the boys got it done.

It was time to go, then. To take Nathan back to his lodging, and to get back to John’s house. I started the process of saying good-bye. It seemed surreal that it was all pretty much over already. That’s how it goes, though. Every time, it’s like that. The fleeting moments slip away before you really get a grasp of what’s happening. That’s how I felt. I gave Ruth a little hug. And Titus, too. Their two sons met my extended hand with a strong, firm grip. I said so long to the others, and Nathan and I walked out to my SUV and got in. The day before, a small triumphant convoy had entered the drive with great joy and much boisterous shouting. Now, we drove out alone in silence.

It was over. All the special moments were engraved in our minds, to hold and to relive at our leisure. Let come what may, now. Let death come stalking when it will. No one can ever take this away from us. Let the story be chiseled in stone, let it be proclaimed from the rooftops. It’s a big deal. The sons and daughters of David and Ida Mae Wagler got together, every single one of them, together as a family. They went home, in their hearts, because they loved each other. They conquered every barrier, they walked the broken roads, they did what it took to get it done. They gathered in love, and they parted in love.

I turned to Nathan and told him. It was a gift from the Lord, every moment we all shared yesterday and today. A gift to be grateful for.

He nodded. “It sure was.”

We drove south and east into the night.

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