May 23, 2008

The Beginning of Time

Category: News — Ira @ 6:29 pm

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“We did not know our mother’s face; from the prison
of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and
incommunicable prison of this earth…..

Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?”

—Thomas Wolfe
__________________________________________

It was so long ago. The veil of years cannot be lifted to reveal many concrete details. Few solid facts, the story can only be conjectured.

Their history did not particularly interest me growing up. My parents were my parents. They were just always there and had always been. Immovable, like the sheer rock face of a mountain cliff. And as indestructible.

And so they stood, solid and enduring, for many decades of my life. Only in relatively recent years have I truly grasped the concept of their mortality. They entered this world in the same manner as everyone else. And in the same manner they will pass on. This much is true.

In a culture that strongly de-emphasizes individuality and values “humility,” the murky details of their childhoods remain obscured. And so today we tug at the veil.

They were born in the early 1920s. In the days of the Model T, before the Great De-pression. A few years after the Great War, the war to end all wars. And the Spanish Flu. My father in December, 1921. My mother in July, 1923. Among the muddy rolling hills of southern Indiana, in Daviess County, a hardscrabble farming community. The settlement was small then, in relative infancy, consisting of only one or two districts. But already distinct from all others in dialect and culture. Replete with Waglers, Stolls, Rabers, Knepps, Yoders and Grabers.

In a time when most people were born at home and died at home, they likely were both born at home. With a country doctor attending, or a midwife. Squalling and red faced and wet they arrived, soon cradled in their mothers’ arms on the lumpy beds. They looked up and beheld worn pain-crinkled faces and tired eyes. For their mothers, a few days of rest due, perhaps, after bearing yet another child.

It is difficult to imagine our parents as infants, or little children, because of the dearth of even the crudest visual evidence. But they were. In a time before penicillin, when diseases and plagues silently stalked the earth, and infant mortality rates were stag-geringly high. Either could easily have succumbed at birth, or certainly well before reaching adulthood.

What can be said of the time into which they were born? Of the bare, harsh day-to-day existence of their lives. Of the things they saw and heard and felt and learned. A time that cannot be romanticized, only simply told. (My own reflections on the simply told story may wax lyrical, however.)

December and the biting winds. The men came in from morning chores and ate their ample, simple breakfast. The children bundled up and set off for school, their lunches packed in little round tin pails. The men returned to the odorous barn and harnessed the horses for the day’s work. Cutting firewood perhaps, or hauling manure and spreading it in the fields. That evening one of the boys rode around and told the neighbors a little baby had arrived at the home of Joseph K. and Sarah Wagler. Another son. His name was David.

July, and summer a few years later. The breath and feel of the hot day. The shade trees rustling in the dry withering breeze. The garden dormant and wilting in the sun, now faint and far the mute promise of the heavy fall harvest and the bulging larder. The doctor arrived from Montgomery, the closest town, in his surrey. And the news spread that night, not major news, but important nonetheless. John and Mattie Yoder had another baby. Another daughter. Ida Mae.

They were normal children, I suppose. Intelligent. Inquiring. Both were among the youngest in their respective families, welcomed by clans of clamoring older siblings.

From infancy to early childhood, the days and weeks passed. And the years. They crawled, they spoke and then walked. They grew.

He was a little boy in homemade denims and galluses and tiny rumpled shirt, with coal black curly hair. She, a little girl who stood about shyly with hands clasped before her like a protective shield. Amply mothered by her older sisters.

They absorbed life in the agrarian community that was Daviess at the time. Most people farmed the fertile soil, consuming what they raised. And sold the surplus meat and milk for what little cash was needed. They attended church services and sat on the hard benches. Heard the ancient songs. Listened to the old preachers. Slept on their parents’ laps.

My parents spoke in later years of life in those heady carefree childhood days. Of the peddler’s wagon that came around, the peddler selling pots and pans and knickknacks for the house and bolts of cloth used for making dresses and shirts and pants. And the occasional treasured stick of candy. Of the Jewish man from a distant city, they knew not where, who walked his rounds down the dirty dusty roads, limping along, lugging a large leather case filled with eyeglasses. When evening came, he boarded at the house where darkness found him. Eating with the family and sleeping on the couch or on a feather nest on the living room floor.

At age six they went to school. With their peers, swinging their lunch pails, they trudged the dirt roads to the little one room public country schoolhouse.

There they learned their letters and figures, to read and write and cipher. With his classmates in the middle grades, he learned and recited classic poems, including the “Charge of the Light Brigade” by Tennyson.

In his eightieth year, he precisely recited the lines he had learned as a child.

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

“It was great poem, good literature,” he would say decades later to his sons. “But of course we don’t believe in war. The six hundred were foolish, riding forward into sure Death.”

Ah, but of course. But a great poem nonetheless.

The Depression came, and they lived through it. As children, they saw the hardships around them. The ragged dusty tramps, straggling down the road to no particular destination, lugging their meager belongings in torn rucksacks, offering to chop wood for food. The careworn haggard faces of the adults, the whispers, the stories of loss and hunger and heartbreak. Of families now destitute who lost all they owned. Their own homes remained secure.

He loved astronomy, a hobby he would pursue all his life. With a few carefully hoarded dollars, he bought his first cheap trinket of a telescope. The place and movement of the stars and planets spoke deeply to him of the Creator who had set universe in motion.

He loved to write and wrote extensively. She could express herself with words quite well, as well. Of their childhood writings, nothing survives.

They graduated from elementary school after the eighth grade. He hungered for more. More knowledge. More education. So he was allowed to complete a mail order course and received his high school diploma. The only one among all his peers who had the slightest inclination to do so. And the only one who did.

The years passed into young adulthood. He was a sturdy handsome young man, dark and lithe. And she developed into an astonishingly beautiful photogenic young woman.

I take his word on that. No photos of her from that time survive.

*****************

I have imagined that as a young man so long ago, he stood tall among his peers even as he joined in their simple unaffected talk of the farm and the weather and hunting and trapping, and discussed the local gossip and shared their meager dreams and humble goals.

I have imagined that through it all he read his time-worn books and soaked up know-ledge like a sponge, and from those mental journeys, he was painfully aware that there was more, so much more, beyond the boundaries of his unsophisticated world. What personal demons he faced during the metamorphosis of his teenage years can only be surmised; no one knows or has honestly recorded the unfathomable hunger and unspoken passions that raged in his restless and brooding soul.

For without doubt his towering intellect loomed above the provincial and cultural minds of the vast majority of those surrounding and leading him. Perhaps at times he exper-ienced resentment at the boundaries they erected and defended to keep him safely in the fold.

Perhaps in frustration and despair he sometimes walked the fields and the country roads at night alone or with his dogs under the ghostly paleness of the full moon, per-haps he chafed at the narrow confines of the simple, unquestioning Amish theology that demanded his abject submission to ageless tradition that taught any other path would lead to bottomless guilt and eternal damnation.

Perhaps his mind and imagination were briefly unchained when the wild winds howled and swooped at night and sleep was a remote illusion and the thoughts of young men dwell on far and distant lands and noble deeds and flight and great ships at sea and the wild harsh screams of passing trains and the untold secrets of faraway foreign cul-tures, and always, pulsing through his mind, the vague undefined vision of the exotic and impossibly beautiful princess entrapped in the tower, waiting, patiently waiting to be rescued by her knight.

Perhaps at such times he briefly roamed far and free from the mental chains that bound him.

Perhaps, but he returned.

Perhaps as a young man he at times questioned his roots and background and the value of the traditions so tenaciously clung to by his elders. Perhaps he was briefly lured by the modern conveniences of the surrounding society and was tempted by the throbbing beat of the dancing music he heard wafting from the pool hall juke box on the rare trip to town and the roar of fast roadsters as they passed his plodding team and wagon in the heat, leaving him strangled and choking in swirling clouds of dust.

Perhaps the calming breath of the moist and smoldering cigarette never caressed his lips and soothed his gulping lungs, and perhaps it did. Perhaps the harsh, homemade mash whiskey never wet his tongue and throat and settled lightly in his stomach and vapored to his head and cast its poetic and slurring spell upon him, and perhaps it did.

Perhaps all these events occurred and more, so much more, each one singing to him its own song of the destiny he could seize in his hands and forge for himself in a new way and a new land, daring him to forsake forever the seemingly senseless traditions that confined him.

Perhaps, but he returned.

*****************

He established in his heart that he would stay. And at some point in that time as a young man, he saw and desired the young woman who would be my mother. Of their courtship, details remain as murky as those of their childhoods.

When he was eighteen, his father, Joseph K., collapsed while threshing oats. He slumped without warning in the heat on the wagonload of bundled oats beside the threshing machine and slid to the ground. His son-in-law, Peter Stoll and others carried him to the shade of a nearby tree. He died on that spot. At home, surrounded by his family.

The drumbeat of the second Great War invaded their community and their lives. And it called for him and his young friends. He would not serve in the armed forces, but would register as a Conscientious Objector, and would serve time in civilian camps.

They married on February 3, 1943, when he was twenty-one and she was five months shy of her nineteenth birthday. Young, by today’s standards. Probably a bit young then too. A rare double wedding was held that day. His youngest sister Rachel married her fiancé, Homer Graber.

The wedding date was moved up because of the looming military draft. Married men were more likely to be excused. They hoped he would not be called up. He was. So in the end, their optimistic strategy failed.

And so they began their lives together.

*****************

Their first few weeks and months together were no doubt like some fairy tale. In seeming slow motion they floated along in their newfound wedded bliss. The sun shone on their eager upturned faces, the gentle meadow breezes wafted with the fresh scent of lilacs and sweet clover, and the banquet of life with all the rich and ample fare it had to offer was spread before them like a feast, waiting to be plucked up by her gentle hand and tasted in all the fullness of their youth. Her laugh rippled like music in the air, her fresh and exquisite face glowed with the promise of all the secrets she harbored that were his alone to unlock and discover. His strong arm enveloped her in gentle embrace, and his protective eyes told her that he would not disappoint, that he would rise to the occasion, that he was hers to claim, and that her wish was law to him.

They were alone, lord and lady of vast domains, the king and queen of all their eyes could see. And night seemed far away, and they knew that they would be forever young.

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(6 Comments) »

  1. It is an odd feeling to turn around and look back at your parent’s lives and to see them separate from you and your experience of them. I wish I could say it was a comforting thing to do and would provide those elusive “answers” that people always seem to be looking for- for me it is not. I have a stack of photographs found among my father’s things, they show a man riding a horse, playing ball, surrounded by friends with a thick head of hair. I see myself in his features, but other than that I do not recognize the man as my father. My father could not tie his shoes or pick up a ball never mind ride a horse. I entered his life about 25 yrs after those photos were taken.

    Comment by Glo — May 24, 2008 @ 6:44 pm

  2. You have remembered things as an author would and perhaps it is very close to the truth. It scares me to think, will one of our children sometime years down the road try to remember us this way? If they do, then I only hope they will be as kind as you have been.

    Comment by Rachel — May 28, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

  3. Good article. Have you ever published anything?

    Ira’s response: Nope. Intend to, though.

    Comment by Rich Miller — May 29, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

  4. Good stuff, old man. Good stuff.

    The beauty of it is not restrained to a remembrance of your parents, but in how it stirs my own thoughts.

    Like I said twice already. Good stuff.

    RagPicker aka (The “other” Rich Miller)

    Comment by RagPicker — May 31, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

  5. I’m reading this one five years after the posting but it’s right on time for me. I’m in the process now of looking back into my past which naturally leads me to my parents and their past. And I’m really frustrated because “The murky details…remain obscured.” There isn’t much information available and those who have it are reluctant to share it. “Perhaps” and “I imagine” aren’t very satisfying right now. But reading this article expressing your need to “tug at the veil” along with my current introspection and hearing the questions my boys ask are all coalescing into a decision to begin writing my own history. I’ve thought about this before but I’m no writer and so I never started anything. I’m looking forward to the task though.

    I haven’t read many of your articles yet but, of the ones I have, more than a couple seemed to speak in some way to my own thought-flow or situations. Or maybe I’m just reading them with too much of an ego-centric perspective. At any rate, I’ve been enjoying them. Thanks.

    Comment by Eric — April 4, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

  6. I wonder how your dad pulled it off. Stifling his writing abilities, his intellect, having a friend or circle of men in which to share his love of writing. How very painful. There must have been times he thought he would go mad. I wonder if he ever confided his longings to your mom. Or did he just go it alone?

    If only he knew God did not expect this from him. That he was loved unconditionally and didn’t need to have such restrictions in his life. That God is held by nothing and knows no bounds.

    Comment by Francine — September 22, 2014 @ 2:10 am

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