Who will tell the stories of the people who told the stories?
I don’t have a whole lot of specific recorded details, because I don’t think anyone wrote them at the time. But I remember when the man first came striding into my childhood world. I was probably six or seven. He came from the west. And to a child of that age, he looked like a warrior, standing tall and noble, with a long and glorious beard. And I remember hearing him talk, I remember his clipped accent. You could tell the PA Dutch was not his native tongue. It wasn’t, because he had joined the Amish from the outside. One of those rare guys who comes along occasionally and actually makes it work. He was such a man as that. His name was David Luthy.
And I remember the story as it was told back then. David Luthy came from the mid-west, down in the states somewhere. He was in his mid-twenties, probably, at that time. He had been raised Catholic, and he went to that most Catholic of universities. Notre Dame. There he had earned a Master’s in something or other. I remember hearing murmurs that he was studying to be a priest. I have no idea if that particular detail is true or not.
This was back in the late 1960s. And David’s life took a fairly radical turn after he discovered the Amish in northern Indiana, the same general area I left when I left for the final time. Somehow, he went out there. And somehow, he connected. And next thing anyone knew, he had decided to join them. This is far from the norm. Early on, there, I doubt that anyone had any idea of what was coming. Had any idea of how this wild-eyed convert would affect the Amish world he would claim as his own. No one knew, and no one could have known.
I don’t know how long he hung around northern Indiana. Probably a year or two, long enough to learn the Amish language. But the place would not hold him long. Because soon enough, he heard about a ragtag group of intellectuals in a place called Aylmer. Up in southern Ontario. David Wagler. Joseph Stoll. Elmo Stoll. Calvin Anderson. These guys were launching a publishing venture.
And David was pulled up to Aylmer as if by some magnetic force. Here. This was the place where he might find the intellectual stimulation he could not shake off, just because he had joined the Amish. He traveled up to visit. He was well received. Better yet, he was actually impressed. These guys had something going here, something that he figured he could join. And David Luthy made the decision that would affect the rest of his life, certainly. It would also affect the Amish culture in ways that neither he nor the Amish could possibly have imagined.
He moved up to Aylmer. This was right about the time Peter Stoll and his group were leaving for Honduras. One of Peter’s sons, Elmo, did not move with the group. He stayed behind and bought the farm formerly owned by Joe Either, a half mile east of Dad’s home farm. There, David joined Elmo. The two single men lived together in that house. Like two peas in a pod, those two were. Elmo Stoll and David Luthy. In the decades that followed, those two men would make their mark in the Amish world.
I don’t know the exact sequence of events, here. I just know the basic details. So that’s what I’ll stick with. Elmo soon began courting the young woman who would become his wife. Elizabeth, or Lisbet, Miller. David Luthy cast his eyes about, and they fell on a beautiful young eligible lady. Elmo’s younger sister, Mary Stoll. I don’t remember if Mary moved down to Honduras for a time, or not. I guess it doesn’t really matter. I do know that David Luthy never went to Honduras, and he sought her hand in courtship. And somewhere in the early 1970s, both couples got married. Elmo and Lisbet. And David and Mary. Elmo bought the old LeRoy Marner farm, pretty much right in the heart of the community. And David Luthy bought a five-acre lot from Elmo, from that farm. He built a new house for his bride. And the two couples settled in, right close as neighbors.
They were young, then. I look back, and I marvel, how young those two men were. I don’t have their exact ages, but I would guess they were both under thirty. Both wrote for Pathway Publishers. After a few years, Elmo was ordained as a minister, and he began his meteoric ascent to a pinnacle of power and influence such as the Amish world has rarely seen, before or since. David Luthy soon found his niche as a staff writer at Pathway, and he had an essay in Family Life every month.
He was a hard core Amish man, back in those days. More Amish than the Amish, as I like to say about those who join from outside. Somehow, those guys always seem to be the ones peering about suspiciously for the slightest whiff of unorthodoxy around them. David Luthy was very much like that in his early years in Aylmer. He published a good many essays and articles that ended up with a nice little moral lesson. About what it is to be truly Amish. There was even a short period of time when he decided to change his name from David to Titus. Not sure what was going on, there. I do remember seeing his name under his articles in Family Life. By Titus. Somehow, that little venture fell by the wayside before too many years had passed. Again, I have no idea what triggered it, or why it happened. It was just one of those quirky little things.
They raised families, David Luthys and Elmo Stolls. And here, I’ll have Elmo bow out of the narrative, at least for now. This is about David and Mary Luthy, and their lives as they lived in Old Aylmer. They were probably about as normal an Amish couple as they could have been, seeing where David came from, and all. They had seven children, eventually. Three boys and four girls. David was the grim, stern father. Mary was the loving mother.
And a few words here, about my cousin, Mary Stoll Luthy. I remember her from my earliest days, as a person in the community. She was a hard, hard worker. And she had only one speed. As fast as she could walk, her hands moving so rapidly it hurt your eyes to watch. She made the work disappear. And did she ever work. She had a true servant’s heart, Mary did. Always, always, she was helping out some person or other. Taking food, visiting the sick, smiling, always smiling, spreading good cheer wherever she went. That’s just who she was. I saw it as a child, some, that I remember. But I would see it much closer up, many years later when Mom was slowly sinking into the final twilight of Alzheimer’s.
David soon found his niche, writing. He wrote fewer stories with didactic little lessons at the end. Instead, he focused on real, respectable research. His favorite subject: extinct Amish communities. Every month, or almost every month, his contribution recorded the details of the people and places where the Amish had settled throughout the centuries. And he recorded his conclusions as to why each settlement failed, when it did.
In 1986, Pathway published what will probably be considered David Luthy’s Magnum Opus, the most direct result of his life’s work, at least up until that time. “The Amish in America: Settlements that Failed, 1840-1960.” And here is the irony of the man and his work. David was what I would consider a hard core Amish man. Very Amish. And yet, he would not have been able to accomplish what he did without his education. It would not have happened. He took his Notre Dame education and used it in a way that would have been impossible had he been born Amish. And let me say, too. I have no opinion about all this, one way or the other. Good or bad. Well, I’d lean toward good. I just find the entire thing highly interesting.
I was a surly fifteen-year-old when my family moved to Bloomfield in 1976. At that time, me and my peers considered David Luthy to be a “bear,” the term we reserved for hard, humorless Amish men. We labeled just about everyone back then. And “bear” was about as kind a term as we could come up with for the Aylmer leaders. I don’t recall that I ever had any personal run-ins with David. He was just a young firebrand I didn’t have much use for.
I never saw much of David or Mary during the turmoil of my long and tortured journey to break away from my people. But after the dust settled and I got a grip on things, I enrolled as a student at Vincennes University. Started college. And I never had much reason to travel up to Aylmer, there, for a good many years. So I rarely got to see those dark men of my youth. They kind of faded off into the mists, they and their great noble proclamations about what it is to live a true Amish life.
Still, there were connections, now and then. During the 1990s, the Aylmer Amish community was rocked with scandal after scandal. Some of it was really bad. And those who had walked in pride and arrogance tore their clothes, and put on sackcloth and ashes and wept in repentance. Figuratively, I mean. A strong and cleansing wind swept through what always before was that great perfect shining city on a hill.
I remember in the late 1990s, after I graduated from law school. I was living in a little apartment in downtown Lancaster, working for a local law firm. Dressing in suit and tie every day. I never did get used to that, I gotta say. Anyway, one day there was a letter in my mailbox when I got home. I stared, curious. From Canada. From Aylmer.
It was from David Luthy. I had not really thought of the man for years. And here came a letter. It wasn’t that long. But he was writing to tell me. Back years ago, when I was a boy in Aylmer, he had been judgmental of me and my friends. And later, too, during my years of turmoil and frantic running. He had said things he shouldn’t have. He had judged me. His heart was not in the right place. And now, he was writing to tell me he was sorry. He asked my forgiveness.
Well. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Looking back, I couldn’t remember any specific instances he mentioned. Still, he knew. And he was writing to tell me he was sorry. I mean, if I ever had anything against the man, it went out the window, whoosh, just like that. I was touched. I wrote back. Of course. I forgive you. I can’t remember what there was to forgive, but I’ll accept your message. After that, we slowly developed a friendship, a relationship, David Luthy and me. I think, deep down, he always respected the fact that I had gone to college, too.
And here, I will say this. He might have hurt a lot of other people, and probably did. None of that is any of my business. That’s between him and God. And between the people he hurt and God. None of my business.
Other than his research, the man had one more major accomplishment, from the work of his hands. He founded a library. An Amish historical library. Way back, in the 1980s, I think it was. And he methodically set out to find and preserve heirlooms from Amish households all across the land. He traveled to different communities. Met with people. Crawled up into the attics of old homes to inspect what the people told him they had. Old books. Old German Bibles. And in time, the man amassed what is probably the greatest collection in the world of books and artifacts from Amish lineage. He cataloged everything he gathered, and stored it in his library. It truly is an astonishing place, and a stunning accomplishment.
And that is where I connected with the man, when I started going back up to Aylmer to see my parents in the past five years or so. When I went to see Mom after she had drifted off into the darkness. More than once, on my way to my motel of an evening, I pulled into the Luthy place. David and Mary always met me on the porch. Smiling and welcoming. I just stopped by to see if I can come and tour your library tomorrow, I told him. He was always, always eager to show me around.
They raised a family. Seven children. I never knew any of them that well. I don’t know if the children felt different, growing up as the sons and daughters of a man who had joined from the outside. He was different, his habits were a little different. I don’t know what effect this all had on his children. But I do remember hearing, now and then. David’s son or David’s daughter was moving to such and such a place. New Order Amish, mostly. Some left for the car world. Eventually, it happened that every single one of their children moved out of Aylmer. There had to be a lot of pain, there, somewhere. But no judgment at all from me toward anyone involved, here. Just an observation of the facts.
Mary missed her children. As a mother, she longed to stay connected to them all. And she did. In the meantime, she stayed busy doing what Mary Luthy did. Helping others with her willing and capable hands.
She always had a reputation for unselfishly helping others. I saw it firsthand, the times I traveled up to Aylmer to see Mom. My mother took a lot of care, every day. She had to be fed like a baby, clothed, lifted in and out of bed with a winch a number of times, every day. And the Aylmer people came in and helped, every day. Among those people was Mary Luthy. I can’t remember a single time that I was there that Mary did not show up. Always smiling, always helpful, always busy with her hands. And when Mom passed, Mary wept and mourned her. It was an honor, she told us, to come and help take care of Ida Mae. She would miss that.
And it didn’t stop, after Mom left us. Mary still came over faithfully to see Dad. Not every day, like she did with Mom. But often. And once a week, usually on a Friday or Saturday, she trundled over with her buggy to take Dad to the schoolhouse to make his phone calls. Dad was always mysteriously absorbed in his own business affairs. Mary never asked any questions. She just came and took him where he wanted to go.
And so things stood. Life went on, for David and Mary. That’s how it always goes, I guess. Life goes on, until it doesn’t. Last year, the news trickled out. Mary Luthy was not feeling well. She claims there is nothing wrong. But there was something wrong. And last November, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of liver cancer. It was far advanced. There was nothing to be done. She was sent home to die. From a distance, like I was, you just kind of absorb such a thing. Well. One more person from my Aylmer world will soon leave.
The people who had known her since childhood traveled up to see her and say good-bye. My brother Joseph, in ill health himself, trekked up from his winter stay in Florida to see Mary. They were in the Aylmer youth group together, years back.
He was there for a little over a day. Stopped to see her that afternoon, and returned the next morning. I’m not sure if she was still able to sit up. But she was coherent. She could visit. And during a lull in the conversation, she spoke his name. “Joseph.”
“Yes, Mary?” He answered.
“Will you preach at my funeral?” she asked. A simple question. Unafraid. Direct.
He jolted, startled. And he spoke, softly. “Yes, Mary,” he said. “If I’m able to come, I will preach. I’ll be glad to.” And they parted soon after that. It was the last time they would see each other on this earth.
She suffered terribly at the end. Wasted away. Her children all gathered around her that final week. Every day, she sank lower. But still, she hung on. Clung to life. She wanted to let go, I think. She just couldn’t, quite. There was so much, here. Her husband. Her children. One day, as the last week slowly passed, she looked into the distance and cried out. “There. I see Jesus. Why can’t I go to him?”
Those around her assured her that Jesus was coming to take her with Him very soon. A few days later, in the early hours of the morning, He did.
Mary Luthy’s suffering was over.
And it all closed in, the things that happen in the Amish world when a person passes on. It soon became clear, from conversations in my family. Not a lot of us would make it to the funeral. Dad was in Florida. He was simply not able to make the journey. Too far, too fast. After Joseph had returned to Florida from his visit with Mary a few weeks before, he sank into some sort of flu for a week. So he wasn’t able to go. A couple of my sisters were sick, and others were traveling elsewhere. And it soon became clear. The consensus. Ira would be the one to go to the funeral to represent the David Wagler family.
Well, I wanted to go. It’s not like I was drafted. Problem was, I was just coming off the worst cold I’ve had in years. And I was coughing. Hard. Every time I tried to talk, the spasms came. If I stayed quiet, it was mostly OK. But still. Someone had to go to Mary’s funeral, and it looked like I was about the closest one. All right, I told my sisters. Unless I get real sick, I’ll plan on leaving for Aylmer on Monday morning. The funeral was to be on Tuesday, the last day of last month.
On Monday morning, I was waiting outside the Enterprise office when they opened. The young man was quite cordial. A Ford Focus, I said. I’ll take one, unless you got a Charger. He punched his keyboard. “No Charger on the lot,” he said. OK, I said. Bring up the Focus. It was a tiny little car. Still, amazingly roomy when I got in. Plenty of headroom, even for a big guy like me. The little car darted along. Drove nice. I stopped at home, loaded my bags, and off we went. Me and the Focus.
The drive up was uneventful, and I arrived at the Comfort Inn in St. Thomas a little before five that afternoon. Very clean little motel. I asked the clerk. Are others here for the Amish funeral? “Oh, yes,” she said. “We have quite a few guests checked in for that.” Can I get a funeral discount? I asked. “Hmm,” she said. “Yes, you’re the first one who asked. I can give you a discount.” And she did.
I headed east then, out through the main drag of the community. As I neared David Luthy’s place, I saw there wasn’t much going on. I pulled up. A large sign was posted, out by the road. Mary Luthy Viewing at Wagler Mini Barns. The arrow pointed east. Well. I wasn’t sure where that place was, but I could just follow the traffic. I pulled over, and let a large passenger van pass. I followed. East to the crossroad, then south. On the left, the western edge of the farm I grew up on. On south, past the woods. And there the place was, on the right. A large mini barn manufacturing place, with a huge warehouse. That’s where the viewing was. That’s where the funeral service would be.
I pulled up and parked in a long line of cars and vans. Five-thirty. It would be dark soon. I walked up to the front door of the little apartment at the end of the warehouse. There, an Amish attendant met me. I spoke to him in PA Dutch. Is this where I can see Mary? He nodded, and led me into a small back room. And there the plain wooden coffin sat on two wooden saw horses. The lid was open, up at the front. I walked up. The attendant hovered respectfully off to the side. Gave me my privacy.
And there she was. Mary Luthy. I gazed silently on the person I had known all my life. She was so thin and emaciated, a frail wisp of the energetic Mary I remembered. She looks so thin, so wasted, I said softly to the man. He agreed, and told me her final days and final hours had been excruciatingly painful.
He showed me the door that led out to the main space, then. A huge, huge room. And a huge crowd of people. I walked in, and right there were the tables with food. They were finishing up supper. I loaded a plate and walked around the edge of the room. Sat and ate. A few people who recognized me as a Wagler came and talked. After eating, I went and mingled and visited. Most people there didn’t know me, but I heard more than a few buzzing whispers. “That’s Ira Wagler. That’s Ira Wagler.”
I approached the row of chairs where the family was. David Luthy sat there, bent and old. I stooped and took his hand. He smiled. I’m not quite sure he recognized me. I think he did. We talked, chatted for a few minutes. He seemed happy to see me. His daughter, Ruthie Cain, came up, smiling and introduced herself. “Are you really Ira Wagler?” she asked. Yes, I said. I am. “Thank you so much for coming to Mom’s funeral,” she told me. I wouldn’t have missed it, I said. We visited for a while, me and Ruthie. Her smile, her actions, and her mannerisms reminded me a lot of her mother. I could see the beautiful heart that David saw in Mary when he first met her.
Before late, I left. I wanted to go see my sister Rosemary at her home, a mile or so north. She figured someone would be coming, she just didn’t know who. I parked and walked in and knocked. Rosemary and her husband Joe welcomed me. A few of their other children were there as well. We sat around and talked for a while. I coughed and coughed, just right along. Seemed like anytime I spoke, that annoyed my throat. Rosemary looked alarmed. I’ve had this cold for a while, I told her. I just can’t shake this cough. And I hacked away some more.
And we talked about Mary Luthy, and her life. She and Rosemary were close friends, and I could see my sister was deeply affected. Not that she let on, much. The Amish are pretty stoic, in the face of death. But I could tell, from how Rosemary talked. Of how Mary used to come and help take care of Mom. That was a big deal. I knew it was, and I listened respectfully. And Rosemary told me something more, about the next day.
“You knew that Esther Herrfort lives around here, now,” she told me. Yes, I had heard that, I said. “She’s Joe’s older sister, you know,” Rosemary continued. “We are taking her with us to the funeral tomorrow.” I stared at her. You are taking Esther Herrfort to the funeral? I asked. Can you make sure I meet her? Esther Herrfort is the widowed mother of Nicholas, the bullied boy I wrote about in my book, the boy who eventually took his own life. Here was a tangible connection to my memories of that story. I most definitely wanted to meet her again.
The next morning, well before nine, I arrived at the mini barn place. Rosemary had warned me. Don’t be late. Get there early. So I got there with twenty minutes to spare. I huddled in the London Fog trench coat I picked up last year off the clearance rack for just exactly such a time as this. I never thought much of the fact that the coat was brown, not black, like the Amish wear. In my world, it was professional and subdued. In the Amish world, the brown stuck out like a camel, or something. Didn’t matter, though. I don’t let such things bug me anymore. I walked around the back, where people were entering the warehouse.
I walked in, in line with the young married men. The place was almost full. We were seated toward the back of it all, on hard backless benches. The benches were spaced close together, so you could barely stumble through. I guess they were looking for a pretty big crowd. I looked out over the vast crowd of people. A thousand people, they told me later. Half the room was a sea of bobbing white head coverings, where the women sat. The other half, dark somberly clad men with great long beards. I was surrounded by grim-looking young bearded men who know what an iPhone is, so I didn’t dare try to sneak any pics. I didn’t want to get hauled out of there.
And a few minutes before nine, the service started. Three short sermons. The preachers stood off to one side in the middle of the room and hollered both ways. The first preacher was an older guy I could barely hear. He did his best, but he just didn’t have it. He preached from fear, mumbling about how death was coming for us all, and we’d better be ready. He sat down after twenty minutes. Let the next preacher speak louder, I prayed.
I was startled when the second preacher stood. Caleb Stoll, oldest son of the late great orator, Elmo Stoll. He is not his father, but he spoke in a clear voice that reached us all. In English. He preached his entire sermon in English. I have never seen such a thing at an Amish funeral before. I figured it had to be for David Luthy’s extended family. They didn’t speak or understand PA Dutch. So the Aylmer people were accommodating for that. Caleb, too, sat down after a short twenty minutes or so.
The third preacher was Peter Stoll, a local bishop, and he stood with bowed head. I felt a little sorry for him. Mary was his beloved aunt. How do you preach at your aunt’s funeral? Peter did not mess around. He turned this way and that, and his powerful booming voice reached every crevice of the vast warehouse. For the first ten minutes, he simply proclaimed praise by quoting Psalms. In Old High German. It sent shivers up and down my spine. His rhythm and cadence took me back to the days when I heard his uncle Elmo preach.
We all filed past the coffin then, and it took a while. There is no other culture that faces death as honestly as the Amish do, at least not in the western world. Everyone files past and pays respect. Even the children. Small children who aren’t tall enough are held up so they too can view the deceased. It’s a somber time, it’s a time when the people of that culture stop and reflect on the fate that is coming for us all, eventually. Death will come for all of us. It is also a time when wayward sons like me are welcomed and respected. Or at least we are not reviled.
At the end of the viewing, the most powerful scene. The family gathering around the coffin. They came in couples, first. And then, just the family. David Luthy stood at the head. His children gathered around him. He spread his arms wide to envelop as many as he could reach. Old and stooped now, he stood there and wept for his beloved Mary.
At the burial, it’s all respectful, too. I’ve written that before, how it’s done. The coffin is lowered by hand, with straps. Then the wooden lid that covers the box that holds the coffin. Then two men step down, and shovels full of dirt are handed down and carefully placed until the lid is covered with a layer. Then the men step out, and the grave is fully covered, by hand, with shovels. That day, Mary’s sons and sons-in-law stepped up and took a turn in covering the matriarch of the clan.
Back to the warehouse, then, for the noon meal. And to visit. Good simple food. Somehow, it seems like the Aylmer Amish don’t believe in adding any kind of meat to the noodles they serve. Don’t know why. They sure do make a delicious potato salad, though. Then it’s mingling and visiting and catching up. It’s all so exhilarating, and it’s all so exhausting.
I watched where the women sat, and soon tracked down my sister Rosemary. I want to meet Esther Herrfort, I told her. Rosemary scanned the place. “There she is, over there,” she said. “Come with me.” I followed her to where Esther sat. I think I would still have recognized her. The mother of Nicholas Herrfort. Rosemary took a chair close to Esther. Esther smiled at her. And Rosemary spoke.
“This is my brother, Ira,” she said. Esther looked at me, a totally English man, bearded and gray-haired. And she smiled. I held out my hand, and she took it. She remembered my name, she told me. And I asked about her surviving children by name. She told me where they all lived. And then I told her. I went to school with Nicholas. It was the only time his name was mentioned. She smiled softly, but did not respond. And soon the moment passed.
An Amish funeral is one of the most unique social experiences in the world. It’s unique, because you don’t have to be invited, to go. Not in the world I come from. They can’t invite you to their weddings. They’re not allowed to. But you can go to their funerals. And that’s how you connect with people from that world, and people who have left that world, like you have.
It was time to wind down, then, that afternoon. Head on over to the motel, and rest a bit. That night, I would go out to my sister’s place. Tomorrow I would head for home. Mary’s daughter, Ruthie, sought me out as things were winding down. She and her pilot husband and children were leaving right then for their home in Tennessee. Wait, I told her. I went out to the Focus, and grabbed a copy of my book. Signed it to Ruthie and her family. My condolences on this day of your Mother’s funeral. She smiled and thanked me, and thanked me again for coming. It means a lot, she told me.
And that was the end, then, of that funeral. And the end of the road for David and Mary Luthy, and their long and fruitful life together. They were a remarkable couple. Different and remarkable. Their journey was unique, but it was their journey.
And I’ve thought about it, over the years. About that little group of writers, that little band of warriors (of whom David Luthy was one), that assembled in Aylmer around my father, way back in the years of my childhood.
Those people told the stories of their people. And yes, they were flawed, as were their voices. But they spoke those stories as they saw them. And I’ve wondered, through the years. Will all this be lost? Who will tell the stories of the people who told the stories?
Now and then, I suppose, that’s what I try to do in my own flawed voice.Share