October 9, 2015

The Inquisitor…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:04 pm


He understood that men were forever strangers
to one another, that no one ever comes to really
know another, that, imprisoned in the dark womb
of our mother, we come to life, without having
seen her face…

—Thomas Wolfe

The day was rolling right along, like any other day last week. And the phone rang again. Around midmorning, I think it was. Rosita answered, then beeped me. “An Amish guy asked for you.” Which is not unusual at all. I deal with lots of Amish builders, so an Amish guy asks for me a few times every day. I took the call. Hello, this is Ira. “Ira?” the man asked. A high, kind of squeaky voice. Definitely sounded Amish. Yes, I said. Yes, that’s me. “It’s good to speak with you,” he said in PA Dutch. “I’ve been wanting to chat with you for a while.” And he settled in to tell me how he knew who I was.

He was from down south, from the Peach Bottom area, he told me. Oh, my, I thought. A South-Ender. What in the world is he calling me for? I mean, those people are pretty much hard-core Amish. I don’t have a whole lot of connections down there, in the south end. I wasn’t sure about it all, but I thought to myself. This cannot possibly be a good thing. Still. I smiled as I spoke to the man, on the phone. What can I do for you?

And he told me. He had found my book at a yard sale a few months back. Oh, my, I thought again. My book at a yard sale? What’s the world coming to, that my book is at a yard sale? And local, yet? Good grief. He probably got it for a quarter. My book, speaking blood to blood, and heart to heart. It’s been four years. I guess it’s natural, that it shows up at local yard sales. It kind of freaks me out, though.

And the man rambled on, still in flawless blue-blood PA Dutch. He had read the book. Yes? I asked. And what did you think of it? Next thing you know, he’s gonna ask me if I’m in the ban, if I’m excommunicated. That’s always one of the first questions the South-Enders ask. They want to make sure I’m not a heathen. But surprisingly enough, he didn’t go there. He didn’t ask that. He hedged a little. “Well, I read it all the way through, that’s for sure,” he said. “And I have a few questions for you. Would you come around to see me some evening, so we can talk?”

And now it was my turn to hedge. He was from the south end. They’re real conservative, down there. More hard core. And way more strict. I mean, you’re talking about Lancaster County blue-bloods, the way all the blue-bloods used to be, way back. That’s what the south end is. I groaned a little bit inside, thinking of it. This is all I need, some Inquisitor from the south end, harassing me about my book. I’ve never made a habit of wandering into the lion’s den the south end can be. It’s just better, not to tempt things. Not to venture in to places where you know they’re waiting to trap you, places where the conversation can only spiral down.

I mean, I’ve fought all those battles before, over the years. Tried to defend, tried to explain, tried to excuse. It does no good, any such talk. It never did any good. It just made your interrogators feel all the more smug, seeing you squirm. And I remember, back in the 1990s, when I went back home to visit over Christmas. I was done, making excuses. Done defending my choices. And I told my brothers, Stephen and Titus. I’m not Plain anymore at all. I reject all forms of Plainness. Sure, if you want to live that way, I’m fine with it. I’m fine with how you live. That’s your choice. But I am completely English. And I lingered over those words, and savored them, as they came out. I am completely, completely English. And no one was ever gonna see me all squeamish about it. I don’t care if you judge me, or reject me, even. I am who I am.

Somehow, this South-End guy stirred up all those latent memories in me, just from his short phone call. And I steeled myself against him. I just don’t need that baggage. And I’ll never travel with such baggage again, if I can help it. I will not do it. I will not defend the choices I made, way back, to any Amish man hunting me down. This guy was knocking on doors I had not opened in a long, long time. He was real tricky, I thought. He wanted me to come down to where he was, to talk about my book, and what I had written. I recoiled, ever so slightly, on the phone, as all these thoughts and memories flashed back through my mind. But I talked back at him, real polite like. And all in PA Dutch.

Ah, I don’t know, I told him. What kinds of questions do you have in mind? He seemed a little evasive. “Oh, just some questions, some thoughts and such,” he said, still talking PA Dutch. It had been a while since I’d held an extended conversation with any Amish person in PA Dutch. I didn’t struggle to keep up, though. Not much. I grappled a little, to grasp his words, what he was saying, sometimes. But mostly, I ran right along with him. And I told him. Nah, I don’t think I’ll make it down there. It’s pretty far. You know where I work. You are welcome to stop in sometime and ask me any questions you have a mind to.

He seemed a little disappointed, but he took it OK. “Ah, well,” he said. “I would have liked to visit with you in person. You are welcome to stop by anytime.” I hear that, I said. And you’re welcome to stop by here, too, whenever you’re in the area. We could do lunch, if you stopped by. A vague silence beamed back at me. And then we said so long and hung up.

And I mulled it over, some, the rest of the day. Thought about the guy. He had not sounded all that hostile, really. Maybe he wouldn’t have chewed me out. And I thought, too. If my book moved him enough to where he actually reached out to me like he did, maybe he was looking for a way out. I doubted that, but still. You never know. Seemed to me if that were actually the case, the man could have at least briefly mentioned as much. And I thought, nah. Follow your instincts on these things. You’ve been around plenty of Amish people who did not appreciate your book. And chances are this guy from the south end was one of those people. No sense, tempting things, by walkinging into places you shouldn’t.

I didn’t have to wonder long about it all, though. Because the very next day, the next afternoon, the phone rang again. And Rosita beeped me again. “It’s that same Amish guy, from down south,” she told me. Well, I thought. This is interesting. I’ll feel it out a little more thoroughly today, to see where the guy’s coming from. And I spoke. This is Ira.

It was the same guy, all right. Speaking in PA Dutch again. He’d been thinking, he told me. Since I wouldn’t come down to his place, he figured he’d just call me with a few questions. Sure, I said. Go right ahead. What do you want to ask me?

The thing is, I got no fight inside me, when it comes to religious confrontation. Not about things like this. I am where I am. I want to be left alone. I want to walk in peace. So it was a bit of a step out for me, to tell the guy to ask me what he wants. I’m here. I’m open. Give me your question.

And I could feel him squirming a little, over the phone. He hemmed and hawed and cleared his throat. This is a real production, I thought to myself. Then he asked the question that had pressed him to call me twice in two days. The question that burdened his heart.

“Do you still feel the same as you did at the end of the book, or are there some things that would change if you wrote it today?”

That was the question he asked. The question he wanted me to talk about, face to face, down there in the south end. And I felt the vibes. This man is not attacking you. He honestly wants to know. He’s called you twice, now. That takes more than a little nerve, to be that persistent. So at least treat him respectfully.

I chuckled. No, I said. I would not change any of the story, if I wrote it again today. “You wouldn’t?” he asked. No, I said again. It’s just my story. I don’t know why I would want to change anything. I mean, I wrote what happened. Why would my writing of it change, today? Oooh. He hadn’t quite thought of that, he admitted. We settled in, then, and just talked. Or visited, as my father would say. We just visited.

How old are you? I asked him. He told me and it’s just a few years younger than me. Children? I asked. Are any of them married? His oldest daughter is married, yes, he told me.

We talked then, about the Amish in general, and I didn’t feel hostility from him at all. Just curiosity, and general interest. He said “Unsere Leit” a lot. Our people. Our people are this and our people do that. It seemed like he included me in the phrase.

And then he asked. “Do you know what I found really sad in your book?” No, what? I asked. “The fact that you were in your mid-twenties before you ever felt you could talk to God,” he said. “It seems like we could do better, our people, so our young people don’t ever get as lost as that.” Yeah, I said. It was a pretty brutal road. But I don’t hold anything against anybody, from here, from where I am today. It’s just what happened. It’s just my story.

And we chatted, then, about other things. He told me a bit about himself. He’s been knocked around a good deal, in life. He told me a little bit about his children. And then he paused, all of a sudden. When he spoke, there was a catch in his voice. And he just kind of slid it in, sideways.

“Last year my youngest boy got killed in an accident. He was eight.” He spoke the words softly. I recoiled instantly, in empathy and sorrow.

Ah, man, I am so sorry, I said. How did it happen? And he told me. It happened out in the fields. (No actual details, for the man’s protection) I’m so sorry, I said again. No parents should ever have to bury their eight-year-old son. I don’t care what the circumstances are. I’m so sorry you lost your young son. It had to be hard. It still has to be hard.

“Yes,” he said. “It was. And it is.” And we kind of wound things down, then. I needed to get back to work, I told him gently. He invited me to stop by, again. Some evening, just to talk. I heard him way more clearly than I did the first time. But still. I hedged. You know where I work, I told him. Stop by sometime when you’re around and we’ll go for lunch. He allowed that such a thing might be possible. He told me. He had my office number. He wanted to give me his phone shack number. Down south, I think they still have phone shacks. He gave me the number. And I wrote it down.

“Call sometime,” he said, almost wistfully. You never know, I said. I might.

And that was about all there was to say.

It’s been a while. So a little update, here, on my sister Maggie. I wrote back in early June of how she was diagnosed with stage four cancer throughout her body. Well, in her colon, liver, and lungs, anyway. The family gathered around her, went down to her home in South Carolina to see her. Eventually, I think, we all got there to see our sister.

And things just kind of drifted along. Maggie was on some kind of natural regimen. And she seemed to be doing fairly well. Some pain, of course, from all those lumps, from all that cancer spread throughout her body. And the blood clots, too. There was an exceptionally large clot in her right thigh. She faithfully soaked it multiple times a day with some sort of treatment mixed in hot water. She stayed pretty weak and could not get her blood counts up to normal levels, or gain weight. But despite all that, she was still up and about and staying real busy.

And life just went on. Dorothy, her oldest daughter, stayed for about a month or so, to take care of her Mom. And then she took her children and returned home to Kalona, Iowa. And Maggie kept on taking her natural stuff, all while getting her blood checked weekly. And the test results were always steady. No one quite knew what all that meant. But it was good news, it was life, we figured, if she was holding steady. And the days drifted into weeks, then months.

Eventually, the family decided it would be good for Maggie to go back to a doctor for a second opinion, and take the follow up tests required, to see exactly where the cancer was. This happened a few months ago.

When the results for the MRI came back, the doctor said the cancer was pretty much isolated to the large tumor in her colon. They planned to remove the surrounding lymph nodes and her appendix. And yes, there were a lot of cysts that they needed to check out, as the first tests had revealed. But if the cancer was actually isolated, there was a real simple procedure to go in and get it. By incision. They wouldn’t even have to cut her open, or anything. We were all pretty shocked. And we all rejoiced.

The Lord still works in mysterious ways, I guess. Last week Maggie went in for her surgery. All went exactly as the doctor had told the family. He went in and removed the cancerous lump from Maggie’s colon, along with the lymph nodes, and the appendix. And then they checked out all those lymph nodes, and her liver. There was a decent chance some of them would be cancerous. And the results came back, a few days later. The lymph nodes were clear, and the liver is clear. All the blood tests were improving. The doctor felt like he had removed all the cancer. But he can’t pronounce her cancer-free until follow-up check-ups are completed. It truly was an astounding thing to see, to experience as an extended family.

Maggie was released from the hospital just a few days ago. And she returned to her home. She’s in a good bit of pain, still, but that’s to be expected, I guess. She rejoices that one of her heart’s greatest desires may now well be fulfilled. She so longed to see her grandchildren grow. To enjoy them in their childhoods, and to see them grow into adulthood.

So that’s how things stand today. I thank all of my readers who took a few minutes here and there over the last few months to pray for Maggie. Thank you. We rejoice in life and light, when we expected to be weeping in the darkness. That much is true, and Maggie’s journey is a miracle to us all.

As she walks into the future, I’m sure Maggie would appreciate any prayers any of y’all would care to present to the Lord on her behalf.



  1. Great to hear Maggie is better, continuing to pray for her. Thank you for sharing your stories.

    Comment by Erin — October 9, 2015 @ 7:16 pm

  2. Hi. First, When I got the signed copy of your book I Thought it would be nice if I shared the other copy I had with my senior group, so I wrote my name on the inside cover so they would know I donated the unsigned copy and put it on the sun porch where all the other books were. The next meeting they said that they donated most of the books to God knows where. Sooo if there is a copy floating around with my name on it, that would be why. (sigh)

    Second, I am in prayer often for your sister, Maggie and her daughter Dorthy. They seem like lovely people and I pray that God gives them a happy, peacful life and keeps them all in good health.

    Comment by Carol Ellmore — October 9, 2015 @ 8:05 pm

  3. I look forward to reading your blog on Friday nights. I read your book for the first time a couple years ago and a second time just recently to refresh my memory. In both your book and your blog, the honesty and insight with which you write are at times painful to read but always thought-provoking. I look forward to reading more about your conversations with the inquisitor…quite certain this wasn’t the last we will hear from him.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memoirs with us. And by the way, I knew Joy Kraybill in college. She taught some of us how to make a German fruit dessert. Good times!

    Comment by Kathy Alderfer — October 9, 2015 @ 8:16 pm

  4. Thank you Ira, for another great post.

    Comment by Mark — October 9, 2015 @ 8:23 pm

  5. That man down south is reaching out grasping for something he doesn’t have.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — October 9, 2015 @ 10:01 pm

  6. Wonderful news on Maggie! And I have a feeling the south end story will be continued. Someone found a safe sounding board in you, an honorable thing indeed.

    Comment by Rhoda — October 9, 2015 @ 11:36 pm

  7. We walk in wonders. Both of these stories are a wonder, evidence of supernatural work, in and around us. Thank you for writing them.

    Comment by LeRoy — October 10, 2015 @ 2:37 pm

  8. Good for you keeping up your native tongue. This Amish guy, inside plumbing or outside? Just curious as to where he comes from. (“Outsiders”, we’re talking some pretty antisocial/highly suspicion casting types) Wonderful to hear Maggie is doing better. Curious again as to what she was taking naturally. Have a pleasant week. P.S. Get out in the sun. :)

    Comment by Lisa DeYoung — October 10, 2015 @ 9:10 pm

  9. Your book showing up at the garage sale reminded me immediately of Clive James’ poem, “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.”

    Comment by Sarah — October 11, 2015 @ 9:23 am

  10. You go girl! Alright Maggie! She totally rocks! My brother had cancer 3 times in his 50 year life, the last time was the worst, they told him about a 2% chance of living (it was on the mesenteric artery). They basically told him to go home and get his things in order. No one would operate on him. Everybody prayed. I went into warrior mode and went out in search of a surgeon who was brave enough to operate – found one, she did, it’s been two years and it hasn’t grown back. He dodged a bullet. And that surgeon is my heroine. I don’t know if the prayer worked – that requires a lot of Faith – and I’ve prayed hard for lives lost around me before and it didn’t work then, so why did it work this time? I don’t know. But I figure I’m betting with Pascal’s wager on this one…

    “It posits that humans all bet with their lives either that God exists or that he does not. Based on the assumption that the stakes are infinite if God exists and that there is at least a small probability that God in fact exists, Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).”

    Comment by Judith — October 12, 2015 @ 11:42 am

  11. Oh – and by the way, not that I’m telling what you should or shouldn’t do – I hate the word “should”. But I (just me personally) would totally go visit that Amish guy. I’d make a whole day trip of it. I would sit on his porch and talk to him for hours. He’d get real sick of me. I’d totally wear out my welcome. I would sit and listen and shoot the breeze and let him try and convert me (resisting conversion is my personal specialty – I love it when people ask me if I found Jesus, I just smile and “No! I didn’t know he was lost!” sort of thing) and talk about God and talk about being “English” and talk about talking and agree to disagree and eat his wife’s delicious food, give him a kiss of peace and his remaining children a huge bear hug, thank his wife and then drive all the way home with a full belly. Yup, I’d totally go visit him. But that’s just me.

    Comment by Judith — October 12, 2015 @ 12:55 pm

  12. Happy to hear Maggie is improving. Wonder what that water-mixed remedy is. I know the Amish are very much into strange remedies. I remember my own folks sometimes going “doctoring” to faraway places which is very common among the Amish. My sister went to a [quack]? doctor in New Mexico in the seventies for a serious eye problem and had very satisfactory results. My mom went to Dr. Ever’s clinic in Alabama, also in the seventies, for chelation treatments and had good results also. Of course, anyone who’s thinking of going to such a place should investigate it VERY thoroughly, beforehand.

    Comment by Jon Fisher — October 13, 2015 @ 5:32 am

  13. Very happy to hear about Maggie. About phone shacks–we’ve seen them in Ohio, but we’re seeing fewer and fewer. We used to contact the Amish general contractor who built our cabin by calling his neighbor, who would take the message, relay it to Mr H, who would then call us, either from the neighbor’s or from a phone shack, I guess. Now the neighbor has moved. I wonder what Mr. H does now.

    Comment by forsythia — October 13, 2015 @ 3:56 pm

  14. GOD is Faithful. As for the Amish man, God is involved in that too, one way or another. In God’s world, nothing happens by chance, everything has a reason. Take Care

    Comment by Warren — October 18, 2015 @ 12:20 pm

  15. Its great that your sister’s health took such a turn toward improvement. Miracles do happen and continue to happen.And for the Amish guy asking questions,good for him.Being ex-Amish myself,I too am sometimes wary of conversations with Amish people,particularly if their seems to be an agenda involved. I understand them,they don’t really get me and that’s OK.And some good conversations have been had.Its about respect…peace to all…

    Comment by lenny — October 18, 2015 @ 5:23 pm

  16. Very happy to hear about Maggie. What wonderful news! About the Amish guy, it seems to me he may have some doubts about his religion and wants to talk about it with a person not a part of “his people.” Good luck with that if he contacts you again.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — October 30, 2015 @ 7:03 pm

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