June 23, 2017

The Child in Town (Sketch #18)

Category: News — Ira @ 5:27 pm


You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,
…back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for,
…back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed
everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the
escapes of Time and Memory.

— Thomas Wolfe

They walked in that morning at work, about a week ago or so. An Amish father and his son. I greeted them cheerfully, just like I try to greet everyone who walks in through those doors. They walked up to where I was, the father and his son. And the man told me. He needed some trim, to cover the sliding door track out by the silo, where he fed his steers. That made him a farmer. And we chatted right along about farming and such as I wrote up his invoice.

The boy hovered close to his Dad. Subconsciously. He wasn’t scared. Just in a strange world. And his eyes were drinking in every detail around him. There was something so symbolic about the two of them, standing there in front of me. And in that instant, it kind of rolled back on me, how it was in my own childhood, when it was my turn to go to town with Dad. I saw it again, in the wonder in the little boy’s eyes. Today it was his turn. He was enjoying every second of his adventure. And he would have all kinds of tales to tell his brothers and sisters, when he got back home.

I couldn’t help but smile at the boy. He was probably six years old, a miniature of his father. Galluses and straw hat, even down to the same color shirt. I smiled to myself about that. That must be a hifalutin’ Lancaster County thing, that any mother had the time or inclination to make sure her husband and son were dressed alike, right down to the same color shirts. Mom was way too busy with other things to ever worry about whether my shirt was the same color as Dad’s, back when I went with him to town. She never worried about anyone’s shirt colors, except on Sundays. That day, she made sure we wore white. Because that’s what she saw the men in her world wear, as she was growing up. It’s Amish tradition.

And it’s kind of funny, why a white shirt on Sunday was a big deal to Mom. She was pretty adamant about it. Because that little issue was a pet peeve of the Stolls of Aylmer. They were always poking and prodding around, trying to dig up ever more strict and strident ways to please the Lord. And somehow, they worked up a grudge against wearing a white shirt to church on Sundays. I suppose they were that way in part so they could separate themselves from some of the traditions they judged useless. Sinful, even, they told themselves. And so it came to be. The Stoll men liked to wear a blue shirt to church.

Mom wasn’t having any of that. White is what her boys wore to church. Always. White.

And I’ve thought about it now and then, over the years. Pondered things in my heart. It never really made any real difference, when it came to pleasing God. Whether you wore a blue shirt or a white shirt to church. It was just the idea, that the Stolls kept stirring around, and stirring around. Nothing was ever quite good enough, and nothing was ever really stable. It was all a lot of shifting sand. I think that’s why Mom reacted as strongly as she did.

Peter Stoll and his sons were among the original settlers of the Aylmer Amish community. And that community would be forever stamped by the wild strange deeds of their wild strange Stoll blood.

Aylmer was a great shining city on a hill, at least in a lot of people’s minds. The Stoll blood was a big part of the pride and passion of that shining city. A preacher and a deacon and more preachers were ordained from that family. Elmo Stoll was ordained to the pinnacle of power in the Amish world. A blue-shirt guy who became a bishop and a powerful leader. He wrote great moral lessons, instructing us all. As did others of the Stoll blood. Sadly, there was no referee there with a whistle, when the Stolls were riding high and strong those many years. I guess the referee was late, getting to the field.

Be that as it may. Back to the father and his son who were dressed alike in Lancaster County one day last week.

The boy hovered close to his father, but his eyes were drinking in every detail around him. And when I say hovered, I don’t mean he was clinging to his father’s shirt tail. He wasn’t. He wandered off the side on his own, there at the counter. To the next space over to my left, where I keep my little model pole barn. I had it built to scale, way back when. And we all use it to sell buildings, to point out construction details. I have a miniature tractor stuck in there, and a small horse stall, with a model horse. The little Amish boy was beyond fascinated by that little model building.

That thing attracted the boy like a magnet, pulled him away from that safe little radius he mostly kept around his father. He stood there and stared up into that little toy barn with wide and radiant eyes. You could tell. He was measuring the setup in his mind. Imagining how it would be, to have this barn at home. And you could tell he could tell it wasn’t going to happen. But, boy, did that kid have some stories to tell his siblings that night at home, I figured later.

And I looked at that little boy, and I watched him. And I saw it again, from the wonder that shone from his eyes. It came back to me, how it was in my own childhood, when it was my turn to go to town with Dad. It was a big, big deal. In more childhood worlds than just mine, apparently.

And I thought to myself. I sure remember how that was, back when I was his age. Just looking at that kid, there are a bunch of bunny trails I could go down, if I had half a mind to.

We took turns, me and my siblings, in the world we grew up in. We took turns at a lot of things. Of course we did. There were eleven children. A small army, when you think about it, that my Mother had to nurse and nurture, and my Father had to feed. And, of course, too, the older ones were meandering on into adulthood, by the time I came along. They knew what turns were. And I got to know, too, from the traditions that were established long before I was born.

I remember exactly how that was, to take turns to go with Dad, when he went to town. It’s a big, big deal, for any little Amish boy or girl to go to town. Dad usually headed out late on a Tuesday afternoon. He’d get his shopping done, then stop at the Aylmer Sales Barn on the way out. It was a huge deal, a great adventure, to go with Dad into the great and glittering world that was the town of Aylmer.

And you go from that world to the world I am in today. From what I see now, the town of Aylmer is practically a hovel. A bedraggled string of small stores lined up on the east and west sides of a crossroad with a stop light. We always heard that crossroad called a “square” when I was growing up. And that’s what I always thought a town square looked like. A crossroad. It wasn’t until we moved to Bloomfield, Iowa, that I ever saw my first real town square. All the stores were lined up around a city block, with the courthouse in the middle. That’s what a classic town square is. I never knew that, when we lived in Aylmer.

And I remember one of the first times I was ever allowed to go to town. It wasn’t with Dad. It was Mom who took me along. I’m talking memory, here. I’m sure Dad took me along before this memory, when I was very small. But on this trip with Mom, I was probably three years old. I’m thinking we went with an English driver. And I don’t remember a lot of the sights and sounds of that little excursion. Except one. The Canadian Tire store, just north of the square. Mom took me to the back of the store. And there, on the south wall, were shelves and shelves of shiny new toys. I remember the big bright plastic dump trucks.

I was a little curly haired Amish boy with large brown eyes. I stood and gaped at those bright new gleaming toys. And Mom smiled and gave me a dollar bill. “You can buy any of those toy trucks you want,” she told me. I remember that a clerk, or someone who worked in the store, came around and stood and talked to Mom. The clerk smiled and smiled as I picked out my toy. And when we got to the checkout, I proudly handed over my dollar bill. I’m not sure it was enough to pay for my truck. But I am sure Mom quietly paid the difference if it wasn’t.

And I took my toy truck home. And told anyone who would listen. Look. Look at what I brought back from town.

And now, back to the counter last week, for a moment. I smiled at the little Amish boy, standing there with his father. He smiled back, hesitantly. Almost, I was tempted. Say something to him in PA Dutch. His home language. That would surprise him, I bet. But I bit my tongue.

I’ve learned long ago not to let an Amish stranger know that I can speak his language. Nothing good comes out of that, usually. Besides, this guy looked like he came from the south end. He’d get all startled and suspicious if I spoke to his son in his native tongue. All kinds of awkward questions would follow. Had I ever been a member of the Amish church? Am I in the bann, excommunicated? It just wasn’t worth the time it takes to say, no, no, no. Yes, I was baptized Amish. No, I am not in the bann. They gape at you like you’re insane. I’m just done, explaining all that.

So I smiled at the little boy again, and turned back to finish my business with his Dad. Speaking all English, of course.

And right back now to the bunny trails. Taking turns was a good way to keep order and to keep life halfway fair, for us children. I see that, from here. And it was a good system. Dad always took one child with him. I rarely, rarely remember going to town with another brother or sister. It was just too much hassle for Dad, probably, to keep track of more than one of us at a time. And it was OK. The system worked.

Before you started school, you didn’t take turns, much. You were home all the time, and you got to slip along with Dad when your older brothers weren’t around. Only after you entered first grade did the real “turn” concept kick in. Near as I can remember, anyway.

And your turn was a sacred thing. I can’t remember that Dad ever denied a trip to town as punishment for the sometimes massive mischief we boys got into. I do remember the bitter disappointment of having a trip to town yanked out from under me. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really. It’s just how it happened.

I was in first or second grade. Six or seven years old. And we had just gotten home from school one fine spring Tuesday afternoon. I think it was spring, because the sun was shining, and it wasn’t cold. And Dad was getting ready to head to town. The horse was hitched up to his rattletrap top buggy. And I guess he thought it was my turn. So he told me. “Get ready, you can go along to town.”

It wasn’t my turn, and I knew that. But the glittering vision of a trip to town with Dad made me less than honest. I never said a word. Just got all excited. All right. Let’s go. Let’s get out of here, before anyone can say much of anything. My brother Titus heard all the commotion, and he figured out what was going on. He came around, looking a little grim.

“It’s not your turn,” he told me firmly. “You went to town with Dad two weeks ago. It’s my turn.” And he turned to Dad. “It’s not Ira’s turn. It’s mine.” No, no, I protested. But I could feel the great shining adventure getting yanked right out from beneath my feet.

Dad looked at me, then at Titus. “Well, if it’s Titus’ turn, he can go along,” he said. I looked very sad. I don’t think I cried right there, as Dad and Titus trundled out the lane, and west on the gravel road to town. I did walk out behind the corn crib where no one could see me. And there I sobbed bitterly, wiping my eyes with a grimy fist. I shouldn’t have taken it so hard, probably. Titus was totally right. It was his turn. But that’s just how big a deal it was, to get to go to town with Dad.

And that’s how it went, as time went on. We took turns to go just about anywhere. Rhoda and Nathan entered the rotation when they started school. And eventually we grew out of that mode, too. I was probably twelve or thirteen, when I decided I was a little too big to ride with Dad to town. And by that time, my brother Stephen had turned sixteen and was running around with his own horse and rig. He slipped into town at least once a month, sometimes every few weeks. And it was just a matter of catching a ride with him, now and then. Never asking permission from Dad. Taking turns was for little children. And Dad never made much fuss as we grew out of that tradition. I guess he figured his boys were growing up and he wouldn’t interfere too much.

And back to the counter last week, one more time, for one more moment.

We finished up, then, me and the young father. He paid me, and I handed him his paperwork and told him where to go to load. They walked out the door, the little boy half a step behind his Dad. And no one thought much about any of all that. Except I couldn’t help but go back in my head, back to a little slice of life as it really was. And you see it when you see it. Some things never change.

Fifty years ago, a father and his young curly-haired son walked out into the beautiful sunny day, from some store in town. Fifty years ago, a young boy clung close to his Dad, as they stepped out into the street. His wide and wondering eyes drank in every detail around him. He was on a great adventure. And he was sure going to have some tales to tell his siblings when he got home.



  1. A good story from the heart. Thank you

    Comment by Jennifer Lee — June 23, 2017 @ 7:50 pm

  2. Oh, my stars! That is such an accurate description of what I’m seeing! “…stirring around, and stirring around. Nothing was ever quite good enough, and nothing was ever really stable.” Sooooo glad I’m no longer in the middle of it all. Thanks for another great post!!!

    Comment by Phyllis — June 23, 2017 @ 7:51 pm

  3. Ahh, memories! It seems when we reach a certain age, the least little thing brings back memories of days gone by, like a sort of life review.
    Good post.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — June 23, 2017 @ 8:28 pm

  4. I like how you watched your father, unknowingly, with a writer’s eye and held it in your heart, and now shared it with all of us.

    Comment by carol ellmore — June 23, 2017 @ 8:34 pm

  5. Lovely

    Comment by Pizzalady — June 23, 2017 @ 9:28 pm

  6. Excellent post Ira, thank you.

    Linda Morris

    Comment by Linda Morris — June 23, 2017 @ 10:33 pm

  7. I think this is my favorite story you have written (and I’ve read them all)! This is lovely, thanks.

    Comment by Susan C — June 23, 2017 @ 10:36 pm

  8. Has to be in your top ten blogs of all time…

    I got a little emotional when you told the story about selecting a truck from your Mom, my Grandma.

    Comment by Titus Yutzy — June 23, 2017 @ 11:44 pm

  9. Good story, I very much remember those ”turns to town” totally some of the highlights of life at that age, especially exciting at Christmas time !

    Comment by Gideon Yutzy — June 24, 2017 @ 1:19 am

  10. Memory lane – a great blog!

    Comment by Audrey Kauffman — June 24, 2017 @ 3:54 pm

  11. Yeah that’s the square where I nearly lost my life chasing my hat across the street, trying to fulfill my little Amish boy duties…. Believe me, I remember Canadian Tire!

    Right across from Canadian Tire is where I got my first real English hair cut… Lol.. I thought I had lost half of my head. I remember feeling the cool breeze through my hair. It felt great.

    Comment by Gerald D. Hochstetler, Jr. — June 24, 2017 @ 5:31 pm

  12. I kept thinking you were going to say the boy spotted your book on the counter. I’m sure if the model wasn’t there he would’ve been curious about the book cover.

    Comment by lisa — June 24, 2017 @ 11:08 pm

  13. Just loved this!

    Comment by Erin — June 25, 2017 @ 4:49 pm

  14. I am enjoying reading this blog of yours. I grew up in middle Iowa in a town called Adel. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Comment by Susan — June 30, 2017 @ 10:00 pm

  15. Reading this got the flash backs going big time..up until I was 9 years that trip to town in the horse and buggy was almost an all day thing.We lived 9 miles away and usually went with mom.Stopping at Grandpa’s who lived a mile out of town to drop off the young ones ,my brother and I would go along to help Mom carry bags and boxes of groceries or whatever she bought at the Ben Franklin.Eads grocery store had cold storage locker boxes.My parents rented a box to hold the meat from the annual winter family butchered beef so a trip into the cold to get packages of meat was a treat in the summer.A tall pop machine with a glass door and glass bottles of soda stood next to the locker.A dime got you a bottle if we could wrangle one out of mom.That happened every once in a while and made the whole trek to town a red letter event.Then it was back to Grandpa’s for a late lunch .Loading everybody up into the buggy,we would head out for home.In late summer my brother and I would sit in the back of the buggy box facing backward with our legs hanging out.The smell of warm asphalt was in the air.We could hear the sounds of insects buzzing in the weeds in the road side ditches.It made for a very peaceful ride, especially when the horse was walking because of the heat.The sun would be starting to set by the time we got back to the farm.Many years later I was home for a visit.I took Mom to town in the red Corvette I had at the time for some grocery shopping.And I thought about those long ago days of going to town in the horse and buggy with her.

    Comment by lenny — July 12, 2017 @ 7:19 pm

  16. Love the story and it brings back so many memories. I relate to most of your experiences.

    Comment by Lena — July 20, 2017 @ 5:22 am

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