February 13, 2009

A Gathering of the Clans…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:57 pm


…..till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

—Genesis 3:19

The text on my phone was short and to the point. From my sister, Rhoda. Three words. Abner Wagler died. Not exactly unexpected news. But still, jolting in its finality. Another one gone, from my father’s rapidly diminishing generation.

Abner was born in 1919 in Daviess County, Indiana, in my father’s family. Two years before my father’s birth.

Uncle Abner and Aunt Katie Wagler lived on a sandy farm two miles west of us in Aylmer, on the same road. With their family of fourteen children. I don’t think all fourteen ever lived home at once. By the time the younger ones were born, the older ones had married and left to establish their own households.

We grew up with their younger children, our first cousins. Went to school with them. Hung out. Played hockey. Got into mischief together.

Abner was an original founder of the Aylmer community. One of the core group. Along with my parents. Pete Yoders. Homer Grabers. Pete Stolls. Among others. Mostly Daviess County stock, they migrated like pilgrims from various points in the States, to establish the community that would be different from all the rest.

He was hard core Amish. Stern, sallow faced, sunken cheeks. He always wore round wire rimmed glasses. Yellow tinted. His large black felt hat, wide brim turned down all around like an upended bowl, covered his rimmed shock of wild unruly hair.

He spoke in a high pitched voice. Occasionally led a song in church. A thin quiet man, not as tall or strong as my father. Frugal, content to work in obscurity on his tidy little farm. He puttered about, raising crops and milking a few cows. His flock of chickens produced eggs that he sold at his stand at the Aylmer Sales Barn every Tuesday. Once, when I stopped by their place with my father, Abner was sitting in the summer kitchen, surrounded by baskets of fresh eggs, painstakingly sizing each egg on a little scale and packing them in bubbled cartons. Regular, large and extra large.

He emphasized quality, took pride in his work. Almost a perfectionist. He didn’t write, like my father. Avoided the limelight. Never got involved in all the glitz and glamour at Pathway Publishers. I’m not sure what he really thought of it. He never expressed an opinion on the matter, at least not publicly.

As a child, I thought him distant. Humorless. Grave. Sour. I didn’t fear him, just didn’t know him that well. I can’t remember many conversations with him, other than passing small talk. After we left Aylmer, I saw him and his wife only sporadically, when they happened to be in our area or we in theirs. And at funerals.

For decades, he was estranged from several of his sons who had chosen to leave the Amish church. He could not speak to them without delivering the harsh strident admonitions he felt were justified. Required, even. His ardor never slackened, and effectively strangled any possibility of meaningful relationships with those certain sons.

Sometime around the late 1980s or the early 1990s, I’m not sure when, he and Katie retired. Attached a sweeping wing to their big farmhouse, a “Dawdy House.” Lived there with their one unmarried daughter, Fannie Mae. As they advanced in years, Fannie Mae faithfully cared for her parents. Katie died about four years ago, leaving Abner and his daughter alone in the Dawdy House. His health declined steadily after his wife’s death.

The clans would now gather for his funeral. From far-flung places all across the land. His sons and daughters. Relatives. Nephews. Nieces. Grandchildren. Friends. From many denominations. Amish. Beachy. Every stripe of Mennonite. And English. Including those of us who had left the Amish church. Connected by a single thread. Our Amish blood and heritage.

It would be safe to attend. Even in Aylmer. Even for those like me. “Safe passage” of sorts. For a short time, by unspoken agreement. To honor and respect a patriarch who had passed on.

I got up early Monday morning. Loaded my bags, fueled Big Blue and left for Steve’s house. He was on board by seven. And we were on our way. We drove north on 11 and 15 into brooding overcast skies. Big Blue hummed along. This was his second long trip. Through northern PA, over into NY. On and on, stopping only for gas and to switch drivers.

We reached Buffalo around 2 o’clock and crossed the border. The stern lady border guard examined our passports, asked a few rote questions, and waved us through. After locating Highway 3, we headed west through the white landscape. Canada was blanketed with snow. Large banks lined the road. We plugged along; Highway 3 meanders maddeningly through every possible small town and village, all clogged with lights. Our progress was frustratingly slow.

Town after little town slipped by. As did precious time. Finally we reached Tillsonburg around four. Getting close. On then into Aylmer, where we found the only motel in town, a dinky drafty little hovel. I booked a room and unloaded my stuff and freshened up a bit. Supper would be served at five. We left then, heading out to the east end of the community, then north on the road bordering the west edge of our old home farm. Drove back west along the main drag to Abner’s farm.

The community was still recognizable. But different. Houses and homesteads had sprouted, willy nilly, where bare fields had been before. Much more populated. Aylmer had expanded greatly since we left thirty-three years ago. We passed the east school. The old school house had been torn down and a new smaller one built. Simon Waglers, the old Sammy Eicher place. David Luthy’s Historical Library, then Elmo’s old farm. The old Sansburn farm. Then the west school house. Pete Yoder’s place. Levi Slaubaugh’s old blacksmith shop had shrunk, it seemed, from how I remembered it. But still there. Abner’s farm was next.

It looked the same. Old gray asbestos siding on the house he had built with his own hands almost fifty years ago. Some pieces hung in tatters, swaying in the wind. Other outbuildings looked a bit raggedy, in a state of sad disrepair. Someone had let the place slide. Old Abner would never have stood for it. His farm was always impeccably tidy, cleaned up, the whitewashed barns gleaming in the sun.

We parked Big Blue beside the road in line with other vehicles. Titus and our sister Rachel had just arrived. With separate drivers. Rachel had accompanied my parents from Florida, where they were staying for a month, all the way to Aylmer. In a little mini van Dad had hired in Sarasota, with a driver. Beachy guy. Fourteen hundred miles. In two days. Exhausting to anyone, let alone an elderly couple. Rachel looked strung out.

With the help of some strong young men loafing about, we wrestled Titus’ wheelchair up the steps into the house. The four of us were then led to a little room with two small windows on the back of the house. Ushered in by several of Abner’s sons and daughters. The coffin, a plain wood box, was set up there. We approached. And there he lay.

About as I’d remembered him, only older, worn, tired. His face settled in death, his long gray beard cleanly combed down to his chest. The round wire rimmed glasses were clear, not tinted yellow like I’d remembered. We stood there with his sons Edwin and Simon and his youngest daughter, Lydia.

They spoke briefly of his last days, how his health had deteriorated. How he’d suffered from Parkinson’s Disease for the last fifteen or so years of his life. Double pneumonia finally assaulted him. And did him in. He died on Friday, January 30, at 6:30 PM. They spoke too, of little snippets of his life, the things he’d done and said. The things he had enjoyed. On this day, it was about him. And their memories of him. We listened respectfully, shifting about in the tiny room. Titus and Ruth’s five year old son Thomas approached the open coffin and stared in fascination at the corpse. His first brush with death.

Dad had arrived earlier that afternoon. Anxious to see his brother, he hobbled hastily to the little room. Somehow he slipped in unnoticed; no one accompanied him as he entered the door. One of my nieces saw him disappear inside and rushed to be with him so he wouldn’t be alone. She found him bent over his brother’s coffin, weeping aloud, calling Abner’s name. Sobbing like a child.

We drifted out then into the living room. Every room in the vast house was crowded with people. Neighbors, Abner’s children and their partners and families. And people like us, from distant places. We waded through and shook hands with everyone. Murmured greetings. Made our way to the table set up in the kitchen of the Dawdy house, where a simple casserole supper was being served. We filled our plates and sat at a small table off to one side of the room. Dad joined us there. On the wall above us, a large chime clock hung silent, its hands stopped at 6:30. The hour Abner had died. It would remain so until after the funeral.

About then Dad’s younger sister Rachel (Mrs. Homer) Graber arrived from Kalona, Iowa. Hobbling on a cane, from a recent leg injury, Aunt Rachel approached Dad from the back; he didn’t see her coming. She sat beside him at the end of the table and spoke his name. He turned and greeted her joyfully. The two of them sat and talked.

And there, before us in that moment, the years seemed to wash from them. And suddenly it became clear to me that they were seeing each other as they did in their childhood years. To each other, they were not two elderly, crippled people. They were brother and sister, a lifetime ago, at home in their parents’ house in Daviess County. Alone, oblivious to the people in the crowded room, they spoke in cracked voices of the fateful thing that had brought them to this place. Their brother’s death. Of their family unit, only they remained. My father and his little sister.

After supper, we drifted among the freundschaft, visiting briefly here and there. I spoke with Abner’s children, my cousins, many of whom I had not seen in years. Our worlds are light years apart, yet in this ancient setting, this traditional wake, we connected again, as we could in no other place. Our clamoring talk was mostly of little things.

Later, after spending some time with siblings at my sister Rosemary’s home, I headed for my motel room. Rachel rode along; she had booked a room as well. The dinky little motel was about what you’d expect. The bed was literally hard as a rock. I finally drifted off into restless slumber. Late.

At eight the next morning, Rachel and I headed out to the funeral. It was cold, with a bitter northwest wind. Titus had just arrived, so Steve and I wheeled him into the house. Every room was filled with wooden backless benches. A space had been reserved for Titus and Ruth close to the front. Steve and Rachel and I were ushered into the little side room where the coffin had been the day before. My brother Nate soon texted me that he’d arrived from his home an hour north, in the Kitchener area. I walked outside to meet him and guide him to the room where we were seated.

Titus and Steve on the morning of the funeral

At nine, the service began. There was no singing. Never is, at an Amish funeral. Just two sermons, then the viewing. A local bishop, John Martin, stood and preached the first sermon. For half an hour or so. It was the first Amish funeral preaching I’d heard in years. After he finished, Roy Miller, the well-known bishop from Shipshewana, IN, rose to preach the main sermon.

I remember Bishop Roy from back in the 1970s. Even back then he was well known. I had not heard him since. Almost immediately he broke into a rolling sing-song chant. His voice was not loud, but carried through the house. Up and down and sideways, twisting and turning, he chanted for almost an hour. Maybe it was my absence of so many years, or maybe it was just me, but I almost could not understand the man. His lulling sing-song rose and fell in hypnotic rhythm. Exhaustion crept in and I hung my head and slept. But somehow his voice penetrated even the depths of my slumber. I understood his words more clearly in my subconscious mind than when awake.

By 10:30, Bishop Roy wound down his chant and took his seat. The preaching was over. Now the long slow process of viewing the body.

Room by room, they filed slowly past the coffin. Families. With children. Parents held up the little ones so they could see the deceased. Then the youth, row upon row. And visitors, like us. All in somber reverence.

The Amish culture does not shrink from death, but faces it squarely for what it is. The end of this life and the beginning of eternity. There are no whispered condolences to the children of how Grandpa now has wings and is flying with the angels. Or that he is now smiling down from the skies. It is a somber heavy thing. And everyone, including the smallest child, views the body in the coffin. Absorbs the fact that death is a part of the journey through life. And will eventually come for us all.

In half an hour or so, everyone had filed through. Then the room was cleared, and Abner’s children and their families took their turns. Each family approached and surrounded the coffin. Unashamedly shed tears. Wept. After a moment, they returned to their seats on the benches by the wall. At last the pallbearers came in, closed the lid, and lifted the coffin. Abner Wagler was leaving his earthly home for the last time.

We mingled with other visitors and talked while the coffin was loaded on a horse-drawn hearse. A long line of buggies joined the procession, ready for the short trip to the grave yard. The hearse then trundled off, followed by the other buggies.

Procession of buggies and Big Blue’s dashboard (sorry)

Approaching the graveyard

Nate and Steve and Rachel joined me in Big Blue and we took our place in the procession of buggies and motor vehicles. The grave yard was close, about half a mile. We parked beside the road and walked in to join the crowd. I huddled in my long heavy winter coat. It was cloudy and bitterly cold. Specks of hard snowflakes swept sideways from the sky.

At the grave yard, the coffin was opened for the final time. Everyone filed by again and then stood off to one side in the crowd. And again, Abner’s children and their families approached, one family at a time, to say their last good byes. Fannie Mae, who for years had cared faithfully for her parents, now stood at the head of the coffin, hovering over her father. As each family approached, she shared their last moments with their father.

As we waited, I visited quietly with Dad. I glanced over to the grave and saw a lonely figure seated there on a wooden chair, close to the open hole, huddled in a blanket against the biting winds. Dad’s sister Rachel. Separated from the crowd, alone beside the grave, waiting for her brothers to come. I asked if he wanted to join her. He nodded and quickly hobbled over with his cane. Stood there silently like a sentinel beside her chair.

David Luthy, who ably filled the role of funeral director, stepped up and closed the coffin lid. For the final time. The pallbearers lifted the coffin and walked the few steps to the grave. The crowd surged and stopped, surrounding them. The coffin was carefully lowered into the earth with straps, then a wooden cover. Two pallbearers then lowered themselves into the grave on top of the cover. Shovels full of dirt were handed down, and they filled the edges around the coffin. The grave was quickly filled. As the top was rounded out, local bishop Peter Stoll delivered a short graveside eulogy, reflecting that Abner Wagler was the last original settler of Aylmer who still lived there. Now he was gone. After silent prayer, we were dismissed. It was over.

We all headed back to the house, where lunch was being served. I sat with my nieces and nephews (Rosemary’s children) and visited with them and my brother Nate. And my cousin and old friend Phil Graber from Florida. So many people, so little time to talk. I didn’t get a chance to meet many old acquaintances who were present. I did shake hands with a few of Aylmer’s leaders, and say hello. All were most gracious.

Shortly after 2 PM, Steve and I walked out and boarded Big Blue and drove off on the snow-swept road. We were among the first to depart, in Aylmer for less than twenty-four hours.

The clans had gathered. The people had come, braving the bitter winter winds and snow, some from far away. For a brief window of time. In solemn honor and respect. Accompanied one of their own to his final resting place. Shared the ancient traditions.

As they had in the past, for others. And will again.

Soon the last stragglers would go their separate ways. Within a day or two, the clans would be dispersed. And scattered to the winds.

Until the next time.


(No Comments) »

  1. Wow. Well done, Ira. While visiting an Amish community in Jamesport, MO, an Amish woman and I were talking about how deep down we are more alike than most would like to admit. New parents all count fingers and toes, want their children to love the Lord and to obey, and worry when teenagers are out late or lose interest in their faith; we all miss loved ones who have died and ponder (however briefly) what could have or maybe should have been, even if we’ve done what we know to be right; we all want to love and be loved; and we all hurt. And yes, we all want to nod off during a sermon from time to time! Male, female, Amish, English, Catholic, Baptist, etc. and so on.

    You summed it up just right and from your writing, I felt as though I were there. I cracked up when you showed us all how your old and new worlds collided when you said that you got a “text” from your brother while you were sitting on the backless benches in the side room where the coffin had been the day before. I know it wasn’t meant to be funny, but kind of it was.

    Your words were perfectly chosen when you said, “The clans had gathered” and then, “…the clans would be dispersed”. I, too, attended a funeral this week and felt much of what you did. Though I won’t see most of these people again until the next funeral, our “clan” had gathered and the good Lord had brought us together again. The young ones could look around and see their future, and the old ones their past. Thanks for another great week.

    Comment by Beth Russo — February 13, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

  2. A good report, Ira. I was at that same house, attending my first funeral, in what was the 1st burial there, in ’60 or ’61.

    A bit of lore as to why the graveyard is in such a forsaken, lonesome spot out there on the side-road. When they built the school, (Known now as West School), there was some discussion and support to put the Burial ground right beside the schoolyard. (This was in ’55 or ’56). Some feared that would be too scary for the students, out in the open like that. So they did it the Amish way, hiding it away well.

    I was always somewhat frightened of Uncle Abner, though I don’t know why. He once wrote me a really nice letter, (at the beginnings of my wanderings, seems like). I appreciated that, then & now.

    Comment by Grandpa Jess — February 13, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

  3. During my 13 years in Aylmer, I had a few good conversations with Abner and I treasure them.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — February 13, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

  4. Your uncle died 2 days before my grandfather, also an old Amish man. I’m far away and did not go for the funeral- and quite likely the only of his many grandchildren not there, although I didn’t ask. Reading this account and going over again what Mom and my siblings told me of Daudy’s fun’l made it all very real. Lots and lots of memories, some still painful and hard to ‘figure out’. The long wake and then funeral (yours there was shorter than the N. IND. one was) was hard for Grandma and some of the others.

    One thing I’ve always liked about Amish fun’l traditions is their coffins- seems a lot more reasonable than the expensive ones in the ‘English’ world…

    Thanks for the post.

    Comment by Ann — February 14, 2009 @ 10:33 am

  5. Oh- and of the 3 preachers at my Daudy’s funeral, the last one (who had the main part) spoke in the old sing-song way- like you described- and was also the most difficult for my family to understand.

    Comment by Ann — February 14, 2009 @ 10:34 am

  6. Like Jesse I attended my first funeral ever there in early 60s. It was Abner and Katie’s son Willis, a beautiful baby born too soon. And they didn’t have the knowledge back then about preemies that they do now. Both Aylmer and Daviess Co. used to have factory made caskets. Now they have hand crafted ones, a work of art. David Luthy was sharing with me that they could have gotten someone with a louder, clearer voice to preach so we could have all have heard, but am sure it was planned by the family and it was fine.

    It was like you said, I felt or saw no anger directed at us, seemed like Abner’s family seemed glad to see us all. So many of their grandchildren had grown up with families of their own. Edwin’s Marie even has a Rachel and Marie pointed her out to me. All in all it was good to be there to reconnect. I had very nice visits with people like Nancy Eicher (Stoll), Leroy Sarah, our neighbor, as well as cousins galore. Linda, Hannah, Lydia, Fannie Mae, Simon and Eli. And more.

    I traveled back to Iowa with Titus and Ruth and Ted Toops and I enjoyed that too. Titus knows all the good coffee places, right down my alley.

    Comment by Rachel — February 14, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  7. Very nice report Ira, kind of made me wish I had went.

    Comment by Bob Mutch — February 14, 2009 @ 11:34 am

  8. Excellent report, Ira. It’s been close to 30 years or more since I was in Aylmer. It was good to see so many of the cousins again. I briefly got to visit with Peter Stoll who was in my grade in school and is now an Amish Bishop. Also to see Mom and 6 of my siblings. After the funeral, we went and toured the old homestead. A lot of good memories. It’s amazing how much had changed and how much was the same. I am glad I went.

    Comment by P. Graber — February 14, 2009 @ 11:27 pm

  9. Hi Ira,

    I feel like I know you as I have read much of your blog. I was first directed there by a comment on the Menno Discuss website to your first installment on the Elmo Stoll saga. This has been very enlightening, inspiring and very captivating for me. My own roots come from Waterloo County where I grew up in the Conservative Mennonite community. (I saw a picture of you in a true blue “plain coat” so you obviously know what I am talking about. My church was Countryside Menn. Fellowship in Hawkesville a Mid-West church) Like you, I have moved away from the community and the ideology of my roots and like you I have pursued expanded my knowledge of the world by pursuing an education. (I have a graduate degree in counseling and one in theology and am currently working on a doctorate in theology in Toronto) My connection to Aylmer is of course through their publications which we eagerly read in our early childhood and of which my parents faithfully subscribed to every issues of every publication. By the time we were in our teens my older brother could compose “Young Companions” stories instantaneously leaving us all in gales of laughter with their predictable plots and adjectives. I suppose we quit reading them around that time, but my mother, bless her heart, continued to love those stories – amazing how wide an appeal they had. My other connection with Aylmer and with Elmo is through Jonathan Stoll his adopted brother – I believe, who ended up in this area as a teen and who ended up marrying my wife’s first cousin Rhoda. I have seen little of Jonathan and Rhoda in the last fifteen years and I don’t have any recollection of him ever talking about his childhood except for passing comments about their inconsistencies.

    Anyhow, your stories intrigue me and move me. You have an engaging, honest, forthright approach that is very refreshing. I was moved by the raw pain and anger in your love story and the subsequent loss of your love. I am a psychotherapist so I am drawn by such stories and yours is filled with emotion – it feels very real and healthy. Re: Aylmer; undoubtedly your perspective is tinted by your experience, but I feel it is your story and you tell it well. The fact that you are not deriding and lashing out at the many who undoubtedly hurt you seems healthy. On the other hand, to not see the unhealthy and to make it look all rosy would not be true or helpful either. In that regard I think you have a balanced approach that sees both the good and the bad. It is certainly an inside view that we outsiders would never have if someone from inside would not give it to us. You make me ask myself why I don’t put my thoughts about my childhood on paper for others to read? I hope to write my memoirs someday, but to do what you are doing is an act of courage – it is like getting naked in front of your family and friends –not a very sexy thought. The most I have written for public display is a master’s thesis showing the absorption of Protestant fundamentalism on the Conservatives, the church I grew up in. A dry academic piece of research, hardly the emotionally charged experience of my childhood. That experience I have only shared with very trusted audiences, therapists, friends. But you challenge me to write from my heart – yes, I think that is what you do in a nutshell – you simply write from your heart and you have the knack and knowledge to do that well. Thanks so much for your contribution to my understanding of the Amish in general and the Aylmer Amish and Elmo in particular. I found it fascinating that the Amish stop the clock in the house of the deceased, I just read that the Irish Catholics do the same at a wake.

    I recently acquired a small booklet of the “Conservative Mennonite Fellowship” history 1957-1966 and in the list of minister’s names is Elmo Stoll of the Pleasant View Conservative church, Montgomery, Indiana. Do you know anything of that stage of his life? I had no idea he was part of the Conservative movement – I never knew anything about the last part of his life either so your last installment was most fascinating. I really hope you keep working on your story and that you publish it in a book – to do it well would be a huge amount of work, but I really think you have what it takes with a bit of supervision.

    There is much more I could say, but I hope we meet someday, I think we have much in common – but of course you wouldn’t know that as well as I because you have not heard my story yet. Keep on writing – I would love to hear more of the adventures of the little Amish boy Ira and all the everyday little details about the Amish (i.e. pond hockey, sermons, tastes and smells) – plus I am intrigued about your transformation from Amish boy to what you are today and how you carry your Amish genes today. I think it is awesome that you have not simply tried to bury it all like so many who have left sectarian groups. It is a big part of who you are and in spite of your transformation you have been indelibly shaped by it. Great story telling – I love your heart and passion. Thanks again.


    Andy Martin

    Comment by Andy Martin — February 15, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

  10. There’s real beauty in that old sing-song preaching style. I would love to hear Roy Miller preach again (having heard him years ago in Shipshe). Thanks for writing another beautiful tribute.

    Comment by Monica — February 16, 2009 @ 10:03 am

  11. Ira, thank you for covering Abner Wagler’s funeral. Abners were our closest Amish neighbors when we lived in Aylmer, so I have many memories of them as very good neighbors. I remember Abner and Katie as always kind to us. Four of their children, Fannie Mae, Linda, Ezra, and Daniel were all my school teachers at one time or another.

    My parents are Sam and Katie Yoder. We enjoy your writings, especially memories from Aylmer and your childhood days. Keep up the good writing.

    Ida Miller from South Dakota

    Comment by Ida Miller — February 16, 2009 @ 10:51 am

  12. The Elmo Stoll Andy Martin is asking about was Elmo’s uncle. This Uncle Elmo asked Nephew Elmo of Cookeville to come to Daviess County and preach at their meetings. Elmo’s reply was he will gladly come and hold meetings providing he is allowed to preach whatever he chooses to preach. Well, Elmo from Cookeville was given a “NO”, they don’t want him to preach after all in Daviess County and so he didn’t preach to the worldly Mennonites, much to his disappointment.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — February 16, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

  13. Ira,

    Just when I think a certain post can’t be topped, you do it! Tears sprang uninvited as I read your portrayal of your father at his brother’s coffin. I had to take a break until my eyes cleared when little sister Rachel meets her only living sibling. Especially when I remember that she had to miss her brother Noah’s funeral in Daviess County because of her leg injury you mentioned.

    As we often heard in Amish church services as youngsters, one generation fades away; another springs forward. And so life goes. Ere long nothing remains of the previous generations except for what writers like yourself document for our “nachkommenschaft”.:) Keep the writings of your childhood days coming- my Dad reads those as fast as I can get the hard copies to him!!
    Write on, friend, write on!!

    Comment by HENRY — February 16, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

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