And which of us shall find his father, know his face, and in
what place, and in what time, and in what land? Where?
Some childhood memories are vague and murky things. Shifting shadows, barely visible through the misty fog of years, recalled from many decades of snapshots stored in the mind. So many events and characters are as clear to me as if they happened yesterday. And yet, some things are so remote that no amount of careful consideration can rouse them from the slumber of the past.
And when it comes right down to it, some of the faces that were around me each day are no longer clear in the setting in which I knew them. The mind is a tricky thing. As are memories. This fact was recently brought to my attention in startling fashion.
The Aylmer community of my childhood was blessed (or afflicted) with a long train of outside seekers. Young English men who wandered in, no one knew quite from where, and made known their desires to join the Amish church. There in Aylmer. And always, a place was found for them. A place to stay. To live, to acclimate into this new culture.
In retrospect, I feel a bit sorry for them. In all earnestness they came, starry eyed and sure that they had found the great golden utopia on earth. To adopt the simple, plain lifestyle. Faith reflected by works. The true and honorable road to a rather harsh and severe God.
It takes a certain personality to pursue such a path to such a point. And a good deal of inner strength. They all had the personality and the will, no question about that. Some of them, I suspect, were about half mad as well.
And most of them lasted a good while. Six months or so. Some few hung around for a year or more. But none of them ever really had a chance to make it. In time, most of them strode merrily and zanily from the beaten path of accepted Amish norms, triggering furious frowns and sharp rebukes from the stern Aylmer leaders. And all of them eventually departed, sadder and possibly wiser. Not one of them, as far as I know, actually made it all the way through to full membership. Which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s just symbolic of how it went back then, and how it tends to go today, in similar quests. Mostly, anyway. There are always exceptions, I suppose. There usually are.
I remember a host of their names and a few of their faces. From the times they lurked about in Aylmer, so different, yet so honestly convinced that this was the right path for them. It’s tough, to try to join the Amish from outside. Almost impossible. The harsh plain lifestyle. Always, the language barrier looms, an almost impenetrable wall. And we weren’t exactly that kind to them or accepting of them, either, truth be told. Which is neither here nor there. It was what it was. A long tough road.
And yet, you gotta hand it to these guys. They tried. They didn’t make it, but they tried.
They’re still out there, most of them. Somewhere. And amazingly, or maybe not, some few of them read this blog. At least upon occasion. A connection from way back for them, I suppose. In a distant, seeking, innocent phase of their lives. They are welcome. I wouldn’t mind meeting them and just talking, catching up on the years that have passed since those long ago days. I’m sure all of them would have some stories to tell.
Last week, one morning, I opened my email. A message, with a picture attached. The sender’s name was one I had not heard in probably thirty years. One of those “outside” guys who hung around Aylmer, way back. For a few months, maybe six or so.
He wrote a short note. He had enjoyed the pictures of my family on my blog. And by the way, he had located an old photo from some archives. From that time, back in Aylmer. It was attached.
I opened it. And there it was, in clear color. An Amish man, leaning against a wall, grimly staring straight ahead, while some Beachy guy stood there gazing at him with admiring, worshipful eyes.
Clearly the man was a Stoll. Dark, humorless, like a smile would be sinful. Huge beard, with just a hint of a mustache. That was always a big thing in Aylmer. They hedged around, always allowed the mustache stubble to grow, just a bit. Sheared it now and then with a hand clipper. Somehow it must have made them feel unique, superior. An Aylmer hallmark, was the mustache stubble sported by many (not all) of the married men.
Convinced the man was a Stoll, probably Stephen Stoll, the deacon, I posted the picture on Facebook. Who is this man? Opinions and queries flowed in almost immediately. A Stoll, for sure, said the Waglers. Yep, looks like Stephen all right. Must be Stephen. I even went so far as to state affirmatively that this was the man who read Scriptures aloud in church on Sunday mornings. So it was settled, we thought.
But not so fast. Some feedback from the Stolls themselves. Notably from Sam and Ruth Eicher. Ruth is Stephen’s sister. It’s not him, she claimed. And she should know her own brother.
And then the Eichers made a startling comment. It might be David Wagler. Your father. He wore glasses. Had a gold tooth. I was appalled. No way. Not that man, staring so darkly at nothing in particular. It wasn’t Dad. Couldn’t be. Didn’t resemble him at all.
I recoiled from the suggestion. The Aylmer men of my youth were a pretty somber, humorless bunch. Grim. Stern. Took themselves far too seriously. Freely lectured other Amish communities about their glaring sins and shortcomings. Almost all of them were like that. And it all got a little tiresome to those of us who lived among them, those of us who knew their flaws, their faults and failures.
We called them Bears, the dark Aylmer men. Behind their backs, of course. A rather nefarious term, but totally accurate, we felt. Because they grizzled and growled incessantly. And their grim, bearded visages, well, they literally resembled bears. I take full credit for coining the description, along with my brothers, Stephen and Titus. It was so apt and so natural that it instantly stuck. Even today, in certain circles of former Aylmerites, if you describe someone as a Bear, it is instantly understood exactly what you mean.
But somehow, I always held Dad a bit apart from the others. Sure, he could be dark and humorless too, and was, plenty of times. But he wasn’t a Bear. He was my father. Somehow, that made it different, at least to me. I didn’t pause long to consider why it would be so. It just was.
There were no pictures of him from that time. None that we knew of. So there was nothing to which to compare this picture. Except our memories. And they sure didn’t jive with this.
And the matter kind of died, there on Facebook. Those who claimed it was a Stoll seemed to have the upper hand. The Eicher/Stoll camp was silent. Seemed to have been beaten back. And then in the calmness of one morning this week, a startling observation from none other than my older brother Jesse. Grandpa Jess, from South Carolina.
He had studied the photo. And reached a conclusion. The man in the picture was Dad. Jesse did not have any doubt. I was shocked. And that’s stating it mildly.
That man, leaning against the wall, back in 1968 at my uncle Pete Stoll’s public disposal auction before leaving for Honduras, that dark man symbolic of so much that was so wrong with Aylmer, that man was my father? It could not be. But I looked closely. Studied the picture. Gradually the thought gained acceptance from my recoiling mind. It could indeed be him.
I am now convinced it is. This picture shows my father’s face.
This is the only known photo of him from that period of his life. In 1968. He was going on forty-seven years old. Two years younger than I am today. The year before, in 1967, he and Joseph Stoll had launched Family Life, the monthly magazine that would propel my father into the limelight as one of the most famous and influential Amish figures in the world.
It’s astounding, the picture. And it almost takes my breath away. This is how he looked and who he was, a lifetime ago in another place. This is the man, then, who loomed so large in my childhood world. And beyond. The man whose rich, mellow voice prayed the morning and evening prayers in a rhythmic lulling flow. The man whose deep, rich baritone led many a song in church. The man who gently rocked and soothed his restless toddlers into calm slumber on his lap, crooning “Sweet and Low,” as the sun sank in the western skies.
This man, standing there in an ordinary moment in an ordinary day of his life, more than forty years ago. This man, my father.
Only those born and raised Amish up to and including my generation, and maybe the generation following, can understand what this picture truly means, what a rare treasure it is. Today, it’s not that big a deal anymore. What with digital cameras on cell phones, many if not most Amish people are photographed one way or another. At one time or another. But not back then. Back then, the stars had to align. And even then, the results were rarely so clear, like this.
Back then, Amish history was almost exclusively spoken and written, not visually recorded. It’s impossible to grasp the significance of this particular photo. There are simply no others out there of my father. Not from way back. At least none I’m aware of. Not from his youth. Not from his running around years, or from his camp years during WWII.
Why, then, could not we, his children, glance at the photo and instantly recognize him? Because there is no reference point from which to compare him, at that time. The very fact there are no pictures makes him a stranger to us. We remember him in later years, after we were adults, and he had aged a good deal. After the memories from our childhoods faded.
We, his sons and daughters, will cherish it always, this frozen moment of my father from so long ago. As, I suspect, will future generations of his offspring.
Now, if someone out there could only come up with something similar of my mother.
More photos from the day of Pete Stoll’s sale. The same day Dad’s picture was taken. Amish back then weren’t the “hot” item they are now; the headline erroneously describes them as Mennonites. We’ve come a long way, baby. Thanks to Sam and Ruth Eicher for these photos.
The three Amish men, from front to rear: Uncle Abner Wagler, Alva Eicher, Stephen Stoll (Yes, I’m quite certain that is Stephen, this time. Note his sizable mustache. More distinct than Dad’s, even. )Share