Monday, July 18, 2016

My Dad's Memoirs

My dad, Amos Yoder, was with us the past two summers and spent much of his time sitting on the couch and writing his life story, longhand, on notebook paper and the backs of old advertisements for urine-odor removers.

I couldn't find any shots of him writing his book, but here are two photos of him doing other things. We writers go a bit crazier if we don't do anything but write, you know.

He wrote about life as an Amish boy on an Oklahoma farm and how he was called away when World War II came.  What he thought would be a year of Civilian Public Service turned into five.  After that came two years in Paraguay, teaching, college, marriage, a family, and more teaching and farming.

I told Dad I’d take care of getting his writing into a book.

Emily spent many hours typing it all up, then I spent many more hours formatting, proofreading, finding a printer, and taking all the steps on the path from handwritten pages to finished book.

That path is a lot longer and steeper than it looks, starting off, but if it’s the right route for you, you will find people and websites to hold your hand and help you over the rough places and through the blackberry vines.

This week, I finished that project.

I was tempted at times to make the book into my image instead of Dad’s, or to make it more interesting, or to shape the events into how I would tell them, or what I wished they would have been at the time.  But I knew that would destroy the integrity of the telling and the authenticity of the book, so the only edits I made were to standardize the spellings and clarify the date of one event.

The title is Dad’s as well—A Chirp From the Grass Roots--and the cover was based on his ideas.  My friend Ellen Gerig supplied the photo. It's about 200 pages long.

So these are his words, about his life, told in his way.

Dad will be 100 years old in November, God willing.  Later this week he’ll be in Oklahoma at a reunion for his sister’s family.  The book will be available there and he’ll see it for the first time.

In August—God willing, again—Dad will be in Oregon.  I’d like to have a book signing event for anyone who’s interested in meeting him and getting a book.  Not a big splash, since if you read his book you’ll see his horror of making too big a fuss about things, but just an opportunity for people to stop by and get a glimpse of history.

Because really, he is a piece of history.  Think of everything that’s happened and been invented in the last 100 years, from the Korean War to the Depression to Elvis and Scotch tape and floppy disks—he watched it all.  He was ten years old when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic.

If you’d like a physical copy of A Chirp From the Grass Roots, they will be $8 each and available from me.  Email me at for details.

You can also get an ebook on Amazon.  Right here.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Letter from Harrisburg: A Small-town Fourth of July

On the Fourth of July, the feeling is mutual
By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard

JULY 10, 2016

The harvest smell woke me on the Fourth of July, the vibrant dry scent blowing on my face from the windrowed ryegrass field to the north and the open window by our heads.

It was a good day to be from Harrisburg.

“The breakfast crowd is strolling in,” informed the Harrisburg July 4th Celebration Facebook page at 7:34 a.m. “No long lines yet so hurry down to avoid a wait. Mike is at the 1st station selling raffle tickets, ... Hubert & Caroline are at the 3rd station selling breakfast. Volunteer firefighters are making breakfast, bussing tables, selling petunias.”

In Harrisburg, the day is about community, celebration, first names and investing in your own. It’s also about adding new ideas while keeping the traditions that everyone counts on, such as the Knox Brothers singing in the gazebo by the river at 6 p.m. as they have done for more than 30 years.

At 10 a.m., my daughter Jenny and her friends, dressed in carefully coordinated red, white, and blue outfits, went to the annual library book sale, as always overseen by Cheryl, the friendly librarian. They stayed for the parade, which included, Jenny says, “Gigantic farm tractors, dancing horses and a little Amish-style carriage pulled by four huskies!

“There were lots of little kids around us, so I didn’t get much candy,” Jenny added.

The day’s schedule filled a full page. Face painting by Calvary Chapel, a 5K run, a classic car show — “Smith St., between 2nd and 3rd St., Free!” — kids’ races, craft and food booths, and much more, all of it the result of long tradition, community enthusiasm and a lot of hard work from people willing to be anonymous.

Like many rural folks, I couldn’t join the festivities until evening.

Some farmers took a break from harvesting for the holiday, which is why our middle daughter, Emily, had the day off from driving a Massey Ferguson combine and also from cranking the plugged header backwards by propping her feet on the side of the combine and hanging her full weight on the wrench. We celebrated her birthday over dinner, two days early, with a pie adorned with stripes of raspberries and blueberries, dotted with whipped cream stars.

My husband, Paul, left the table to go back to the warehouse, as more seed was arriving. He said he’d join us for the fireworks.

Steven, our youngest son, gallantly carried my woven-webbing lawn chair and helped me find a place to set it, near the gazebo. Steven got his start as a firefighter volunteering with the Harrisburg department. This experience, and his captain’s encouragement, propelled him toward the firefighter/EMT program at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, where he is now in his second year. He wandered over to the firetrucks on Moore Street and talked with a few old buddies. “There’s a lot of new volunteers I don’t know,” he told me.

Hundreds of others already had arrived at the riverbank park: retired farmers in billed caps, children on blankets, neighbors and relatives. The Willamette River flowed and the sun shone on our left. Food booths and strolling teenagers filled the street to the right. And in front of us, in the gazebo, the Knox Brothers sang the songs they always sing, “Amazing Grace,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “There's Peace in Knowing.”

Over on Kesling Street, Yvonne Bender displayed her baked goods on tables under a canopy and was “pretty much sold out in an hour and a half,” her son Nate reported.

The Knox Brothers left the stage and were replaced by Cornerstone, also a local family singing group. We stood to join them in singing “God Bless America,” and we meant it.

When my friends Gina and Sharon arrived, I sat with them and learned which sons were working at which warehouse or hay business, who was attending Life Bible, and who moved out of that house and into this one.

Our teenagers asked for money, disappeared and returned, wading through blankets and lawn chairs, with cinnamon-y elephant ears and paper dishes of curly fries, the smells of hot grease drifting behind them. Sharon’s little grandson ate sweet shaved ice and shivered miserably, but kept eating.

In an era of rampant suicide bombings and violence around the world, I couldn’t help but look around the pleasant crowd and think, God forbid, could it happen here?

But everyone within sight looked like they not only belonged there, but knew someone. Two policemen walked by, purposeful but smiling. One drank lemonade.

Safety is not so much in numbers as in people who are mutually invested.

The singing ended and everyone turned their lawn chairs around to the south, strategically avoiding the trees, in preparation for the fireworks to come. A fireman walked by, collecting donations in a tall yellow-trimmed boot.

Paul sent me a text: “Truck had problems unloading. I guess I can’t make it.”

In this community, harvest comes before fireworks.

Glowing plastic wands waved from children’s hands as the dusk and chill grew. And then the sky above the bridge burst out in the first starry cascade.

Just like always.

Afterwards, we groped for our lawn chairs in the dark, walked with the crowd headed north, and admired a friend’s new baby while waiting at Harrisburg’s only stoplight.

The rest of the country could learn from this town, I thought. We are not as homogeneous in politics, beliefs, backgrounds or opinions as it might appear, but here is one day a year when hundreds of people appreciate the place they’re from, celebrate together, offer what they have, and make an enormous daylong project run smoothly.

The Fourth of July is a good day to be from Harrisburg.

Dorcas Smucker is a homemaker and mother of six. She can be reached at 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

What's Been Happening--KLCC and ISC

I'm not sure it's good for introverted writers to speak on the radio.  We do best with a chance to edit, sleep on it, and rewrite before our words get splattered on the world.

On live radio, you have to think fast, ad lib, answer quickly, change directions right in the moment, and other such terrifying challenges.  Worst, your words go flying away from you out into the airwaves and YOU CAN'T GET THEM BACK TO EDIT THEM.

It's best not to think about this, after the fact.

Nonetheless, I agreed to do a 1-hour radio show on KLCC, the local NPR/OPB station, because Pete LaVelle asked, and I had just written an article about saying Yes to new experiences.  I was to share the music of my culture and background.

You can survive anything with a pretty notebook and a thermos of tea, I always say.
So the Eugene community heard lots of John Schmid and Antrim Mennonite Choir.

I had fun and learned a lot, but folks, if you can't give yourself grace for making mistakes, you don't belong in radio.  I handed Pete the host the wrong CD at one point, and got distracted when he asked a question, and so on, but most of the evening went really well and, as I said, I had fun and learned a lot.

Emily went with me and also Kayla Kuepfer, who taught at a church school at Sheridan, Oregon, this past year and sometimes came down for weekends.

They had lots of fun.

KLCC doesn't archive their programs so I can't give you a link.  I confess that's a relief.

Then it was time for ISC.

So Paul has been a school teacher and principal in the ACE system for years and years.  ACE stands for Accelerated Christian Education, and it's a curriculum that is all individualized.  Students learn on their own via booklets called PACES.  The teacher supervises the process and helps individual students as needed.

It's not a perfect system but it works well for small schools with only a handful of students in each grade, where hiring teachers to teach every subject for every grade would be out of reach practically and financially.

Every year, ACE organizes a number of regional conventions for their schools and students.  For example, kids from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and northern California attend a convention in Newberg, Oregon, every March.

Competition is a big part of convention.  The kids can enter some 160 events including all kinds of track and field, music, speaking, needlework, science exhibits, metal- and wood-working, and much more.

The winners at the regional convention can compete at the International Student Convention.

This year it was at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Missouri, and attended by over 2000 students from all over the world.  Paul and I took nine students, stayed in the dorms with them, and had a great time.

First things first: a selfie on the plane.
We flew in the day before and had a few hours free, so we took the kids to Worlds of Fun.  Well...I say "we."  Personally, if I ever swindle the elderly or poison someone's well you can take me here to punish me.  Maybe have them hurtle me down a metal track or spin me around 150 feet in the air.

Since I hadn't earned such punishment, I stayed at the motel across the street.  I could still hear the tortured screams of the unfortunate people over there.

 The next day, we went on to Warrensburg.

There were lots of fun activities while we registered.

And there were people there from many different countries.

The Kenyans wore their traditional clothes for a day.
I enjoyed eating lunch with Rachel, one of the Kenyan sponsors, who helps run
a homeschool co-op in Nairobi and says the number of homeschoolers in Kenya is
increasing fast--50 families joined their co-op in the last year.
I judged quilts, knitting, crochet, and afghans.  All the work was impressive and some was just stunning.

Aubrey ran the 200 meter run.

Jenny recited "The Unbarred Door" in front of the judges.

The students did a lot of mingling and meeting outside in the warm evenings.  Here our girls are getting to know the South Africans.
  The fifth and final day consisted of the awards ceremony.  I was unbelievably proud of Jenny for winning first place in poetry writing out of 76 who entered.

Here's the big screen as Jenny got her medal.

Happily, each girl got a medal--Aubrey and Ashley in photography, Mikala in dressmaking, Janane in web design, and Jenny in poetry writing.
Then we all got back in our borrowed van and headed for Kansas City to the airport, over an hour away.  The sky was looking ominous but the weather wasn't too bad, but then suddenly the kids' phones lit up with weather warnings--Tornadoes! Flash floods!

Oregon kids are not used to wild weather and had no context for this. Except to be very afraid.

We spent about 45 minutes at the Steamboat Arabia museum, wishing it could have been 2 hours more, and then a staff member told us that the Kansas City airport had just been evacuated and everyone sent to the basement because of tornadoes in the area.

The Oregon kids' eyes got really big.

Paul thought we should just go charging on to the airport, because the van's owner was going to be there waiting for us, and because this is how he deals with scary situations.

The kids were not ok with this.

Finally we had a prayer meeting in the museum parking lot.  The worst thing was that it was so hard to just get information--where were these tornadoes going on, exactly?

We started driving.  Soon the sky dropped down further and got 4 shades darker, the wind kicked up, and the kids' eyes got bigger yet.

We stopped at a gas station for gas and snacks.  As we walked toward the station I saw a large yellow-vested employee standing off to the side, hands in his pockets, watching the world go by.

"What do you know about the weather?" I hollered at him, above the wind.

"Weellll, they say there's tornadoes," he drawled calmly, all relaxed and easy.

"So, what do we DO?" I chattered frantically as everything blew sideways.

"Mehh, just keep watchin' it I guess," he shrugged, comfortably.

We holed up in the gas station while the worst of the storm whipped around outside, then we dashed back to the van and went to the airport.

All was well.

Paul and most of the kids flew back to Oregon.  Paul got part of a night's sleep, turned around, and flew with Ben, Steven, and Emily to Chicago the next day.

Jenny and I flew to Chicago, rented a car, spent the night, and went on to Indiana the next day.

Because: WEDDING!!

That story tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

What's Been Happening--Gatos, Girls, Grad, Guitar

The last months have been crazy.  If I tell you what's happened, maybe it'll sort it out in my own head as well.

In May, Peppermint Patty had kittens.  I so appreciate cats who have small litters and who take good care of them.

Amy came home for a visit!  She's been in Thailand for 2 1/2 years now.  The happy truth is that she loves it there, she has lots of friends both Thai and American, she speaks Thai, she's teaching English which she enjoys, and she lives with a lady named Kimberly who sounds like a dream roommate in that she's low-maintenance emotionally but does high maintenance around the house.

The downside of this joyful life is that Amy is just terribly far away, and all the Skype conversations in the world are not like having her slip into the kitchen in the cool early morning and make a pot of coffee.

But, as I said, she came home for a visit.

This is sort of an odd photo but it's beautiful to me because:
1. Three daughters together
2. On one couch
3. Eating popcorn
4. Three daughters together!!
When Amy comes, she brings fabric with her.  That is just icing on the happy cake of life.

Two days later, Jenny graduated from high school.
Mikala and Jenny changed the church sign for the occasion.

Jenny's senior portrait.
Taken by Kristi Smucker
All of us but Matt were here for graduation.
The graduates sang a song, a BMS custom.
Deana, Mikala, Janane, Jenny

Cousin Allison helped exclaim over the gifts.
Another portrait

We gave Jenny a guitar for graduation.  My inner 10-year-old gets a big kick
out of posing this bear in all kinds of situations. Silly, yes, but it was way more fun
to have Jenny come downstairs and discover her gift this way than just
GIVING it to her.
All of a sudden my babies are all grown up.  And I'm only...let's see...54, as of today!  My dad is still traveling, writing, and reading Tolstoy at age 99. His mom lived to be almost 104.

So I'm making lists of things to undertake and learn in the next 50 years.  A fun exercise, really:
Learn woodworking
Study watercolor painting
Study depression and gut health
Teach sewing
Climb mountains
Or at least hills
Take just enough counseling classes to learn the magic question to ask to make people figure out how to fix their problems, right away and of their own volition.

[More "what's been happening" posts to come.]

Quote of the Day:
Emily: Hey Jenny, do you think you'd like to marry "Nathan."
Jenny: I've never met him and I've barely stalked him so I have no idea.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

My Life, These Days, At Home

After three months of travel, deadlines, celebrations, more travel, graduations, and other wonderful but completely exhausting things, I have been at home for a long time, like three whole days.

I love being at home.

And I love how being at home isn't boring because all these little stories happen when I'm at home, especially if I have some of my wonderful children around, such as Amy, who is home from Thailand for a far-too-brief time.

Anyway.  These are the sort of things that are happening to me these days:

We used to have chickens, and then they got old, and we didn't have chickens any more for I forget how many years.

But now I have chickens again, since Coastal Farms was giving away chicks on Easter Eve, and Paul got me fifteen.

I love having chickens again.

The nests have sat empty for all these years and needed to be cleaned out before this batch of hens decides to start laying.  They weren't that terrible, with just a few years-old dried up literary awards, as my sister Margaret used to call them.  [Pullet Surprises]

What I needed to clean out the nests was a scheifly, otherwise known as a pancake turner.  But one doesn't just grab a pancake turner out of the drawer to clean nests.

My girls always think I need to declutter and downsize, so I had a bright idea.  I would see if there were any scheiflen way in the back of the drawer.  If so, I'd know that I hadn't used them in a while, and I could safely relegate them to henhouse duty.

Win, win.

So I riffled in the back of the drawer and sure enough, there was a big stainless steel scheifly.

I took it to the shed, cleaned the nests, and laid it by the feed sack to use in the future.

Meanwhile, the girls were getting ready to go camping.

About two hours after I'd taken the scheifly outside, Amy was riffling through the drawer.  "Do we have any long-handled, metal pancake turner we could use for cooking over a fire?"


*     *     *

This evening I went on a walk in the lovely summer eveningness.

My brother-in-law Kenneth's field, just to the north of us, is all windrowed, a lovely golden sight in the fading daylight.


What was that, right by the third row in?

A black shape, still and furry.

No no no, surely not a dead cat.

I walked over to Powerline Road and then turned in the field approach.  Over the bare dirt, through the trees, up to the cut grass, and then I could see it better.  Yes, definitely a cat.

Oh NO.  We've lost a cat to a windrower both of the last two harvests.  It's no fun to lose cats in any way, but dying by windrower is especially nasty, not that I have experienced it, but just from observing.

I hesitated before I crossed the windrow, which is basically a three-foot-wide line of cut, piled stalks of grass, because I wanted to give any snakes underneath a chance to go elsewhere.  And while I paused I looked at the cat, still about 20 feet away, to see if it was breathing.  No, mercifully, no sign of life, so at least it wasn't lying there suffering.

I don't have long enough legs to straddle the windrow, so I stepped right in the middle of it with a very loud dry-stalksy CRUNCH.

The dead cat leaped in the air and ran for the house in a black blur.

I also leaped in the air and felt like I might be having a heart attack, which would still be a nicer way to go than being caught in a windrower.

Happily, the cat and I are both very much alive.

*     *     *

On the way back to the house, I picked up the broom that I'd been cleaning the playhouse with, before I cleaned the chicken coop, and I carried the broom into the kitchen.  Paul was working on his computer.  He looked up and asked, casually,

Quote of the Day:

"So, how far did you fly?"

[Did I mention that I love being at home? And clever husbands.]

Monday, June 13, 2016

Sunday's Column: "They Grow Up So Fast"


Graduation brings mist of wistfulness

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
JUNE 12, 2016

I have become that well-meaning but annoying older woman who looks wistfully at babies in church or the grocery store and comments, uninvited, “Make sure you enjoy them while they’re little. They grow up so fast.”

I wasn’t ever going to say that. In the swamp of exhausted young motherhood, those intrusive words were accusing mosquitoes buzzing around my head, a dank whiff of guilt, a splash of worry that everyone else had just loved this stage and I was the only one who didn’t.

Of course I adored my children and delighted in kissing their exquisite baby cheeks and writing down the brilliant questions they asked at age 4. But the enjoyment was an intermittent thing, slotted between the realities of chiseling off the mashed potatoes super-glued to the high chair tray, 2-year-olds bent on destruction, overly verbal preschool sisters putting each other down with subtle nastiness, and, in those pre-Google days, trying to find out if the English ivy leaf the baby had just eaten was poisonous.

“Mine are all grown up now,” the older women always said, there in the McDonald’s restroom as I jostled the fussy baby and shooed the toddler into the stall, or in the foyer after a church service in which our kids wrote in the hymnals or shot a rubber band across the aisle or asked in loud voices if the lady in front of us was pregnant.

“This too shall pass,” people told me during the weeks of chicken pox, the months of morning sickness and colic, the reckless insanity of small boys pulling Crock Pots or hot coffee on their heads.

It didn’t help.

I found the chicken pox photos when I was hunting for pictures for the slide show at Jenny’s graduation. April, 1994: four miserable little children covered in pox. Amy looked like she’d been dunked in boiling water. Emily was blotched with big oozy spots. The boys were thickly polka-dotted in red. I recall blurred weeks of exhausted days and frightening fevers turning into long impossible nights, crying with weariness.

Incredibly, I found myself examining the chicken-pox photos with just a bit of nostalgia. Look at what we survived! I was so needed, so indispensable, and we were all a lot tougher than we knew.

I made sure Jenny, our youngest, got the vaccination. Jenny is 17 now, taller than me, lively, energetic, gracious, freckled, ambitious and funny.

And grown up, so suddenly it stuns me.

As I knelt in the attic and sat at the computer, sorting through hundreds of old photographs in a hunt for 50 to represent Jenny’s life, the wonder of her childhood, of all their childhoods, of any childhood, plunged me into nostalgia.

“Oh my word! Look at her. She was just so CUTE! So alert, looking right in your eyes at 3 months old! And that curly red hair. Unbelievable.”

In stacks of photos, she was watering flowers, playing with the dog, running, climbing, painting, writing, exploring, dressing up, making terrible happy messes.

Later, in digital photos, she was shooting a homemade bow and arrow, posing on the shed roof, holding a pink basketball, biking, celebrating with friends.

And always grinning.

How did it vanish so fast?
Jenny at 3 months old and as a 17-year-old graduate.
[Grad photo by Janane Nguyen Photography]
In some ways I enjoyed Jenny more than the others, not only because she was less defiant and got only a mild case of chicken pox at 10 years old, but also because by child number six a mom knows what to expect, what to freak out about (not much), and what to let go (most things.)

We know how quickly each phase will pass.

Today Jenny has a driver’s license, a high school diploma and a college student aid application. With her sights fixed on community college and Oregon State University, she wants to be a mechanical engineer like her big brothers. She likes to sing, write and skateboard with her friends.

God help me, when did this happen? I want her back, just for a little bit, that wild red-headed little girl that giggled during her bedtime prayers and studied bugs and leaped fearlessly off the porch rail onto the trampoline.

Her graduation means that all of my six are adults. I’m finished with braiding hair in the morning, replacing boys’ jeans, and conducting lizard and cat funerals. My 22 years as a church-school mom are over as well — no more signing off on homework or sewing angel costumes at Christmas or rooting for both teams at the student vs. alumni softball game.

In fact, I want all six back for a day or a month, noisy and dirty and full of questions, arguing about turns and front seats and whether a horse or a helicopter would be better for going to work at our grass-seed warehouse.

Maybe it’s the unknown that scares me, moving into this vague new phase.

“Your life is so defined,” a single and childless friend told me, enviously, when the kids ranged from 1 year old to 14. “You know your purpose. You know every day exactly what you’re supposed to do.”

If I’m like my grandma, I have 50 years ahead of me, full of possibility but forcing me to define my own roles, my own avenues of ministry, my own investments of time.

A good and exciting stage, but it lacks the crucial essence and purpose of the past.

I look at the young moms around me and see their bulging diaper bags and exhausted eyes. But more than that, I see the fleeting moment of that baby in their arms and his or her smooth plump squishable kicking legs, the endlessly curious eyes and grasping hands — and the words come out of my mouth, unstoppable. “Enjoy them while they’re little. They grow up so fast.”

The intrusive grandmas were right: It’s a miraculous time of life, it all goes by in a flash, you never get it back again, and you miss it like crazy once it’s gone.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Just a Few Thoughts

I am always signing up for things because they need to be done or because I'm hungry for fellowship, then I get overwhelmed, and I think, "I don't think I prayed enough before I said yes." So then I pray more deliberately and still feel like I ought to say Yes to events and people, because I know I'll regret it later if I don't. Maybe God knows I'd never get anything done if I didn't feel overwhelmed.

So I didn't have time for that Smucker-Sisters-In-Law coffee time today, what with planning for a ladies' retreat, a trip to the coast, a girls' trip while Amy's home, and Ben's graduation open house. But what a delicious time of chatting and catching up and planning it was with the Smucker ladies, as always, and I would have been sad if I missed it.

Sometimes I wonder what scale of life would be manageable. Maybe living alone in a 1-bedroom house with 1 cat. Two flower beds. A bike. No writing or teaching. Meeting people for coffee once a week. Living off of tea and Cheerios and fresh berries and peanut butter.

I think I could manage such a life efficiently, and feel organized and PUT TOGETHER which would be glorious. And I could also feel terrifically bored and lonely and pointless.

On Sunday we had a college friend of Emily's here for lunch even though I was as overwhelmed and overcommitted as always and so exhausted I kept falling asleep during Paul's sermon which I almost never do. The friend is from Korea. Before he left, Emily showed him the newest kitties in the banana box on the porch. He was thrilled.

Later I learned that this was the first time in his life that he had held a baby kitten. It was almost a spiritual experience for him.

Well. If I had waited to have company until I felt ready and the hedge was trimmed, JB from Korea might have gone his whole life without holding a 3-week-old kitten.

I averted a great tragedy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Letter from Harrisburg--Orpha, Moms, and Other Unselfish People

Uncle James and Aunt Orpha, at their house, last Christmas

The quiet heroism of motherhood
By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
MAY 8, 2016

I knew Aunt Orpha’s phone number by heart.

She and Uncle James lived less than half a mile south of us in the brick house that my husband’s grandpa built, back in the 1930s.

“I suppose most of you know that Nadine and Luella are coming out for the Kropf reunion,” she wrote in an email last summer. “Some of us thought we should have a Smucker get-together while they are here. You are welcome to meet here in our yard. I feel rather busy with five grandchildren here and would be glad if someone else would go ahead with the planning.”

She never used the prefix “step.” I notice that now.

I organized that “Smucker get-together,” as it turned out. While two of the nephews grilled, Orpha and I consulted in the background, her teenage grandchildren ran inside for more serving spoons, and we had a lovely picnic, despite the wind, out under the big tree in the front yard.

She and I also organized Thanksgiving dinners at church for friends and relatives who didn’t have any place to go, and I always asked her to bring her famous spicy marinated Caribbean turkey.

Orpha and I borrowed ingredients from each other, and they used our van when the family came to visit. She always offered me the last picking of green beans, and the children and I would pick them from vines twining up the carefully stretched strings in her prosperous and capably cared for garden.

It was easy to forget that Orpha hadn’t always been there. The most selfless people are often the easiest to ignore, and we don’t realize their remarkable influence and value until they’re gone.

We got the news from a deputy on the front porch, late on Good Friday evening. James and Orpha, on a long road trip to visit friends and relatives, had been in a car crash in Wisconsin. James was killed, Orpha seriously injured. The sheriff there traced the license plate information and called the local police, who went to James and Orpha’s house first, found no one there and came to tell us.

Despite desperate measures and the care of the children who flew in to stay with her in that Wisconsin hospital, Orpha did not recover from her injuries.

We read novels of people who reinvent their lives, stepping from one life into a completely different one. Orpha actually did it in real life. It wasn’t until the funeral that I realized how drastically her life had changed at 50 years old.

Before that, she helped raise seven younger brothers, graduated from a Mennonite college in Virginia and worked as a teacher in this country and as a missionary and teacher in Puerto Rico. She wrote elementary-level curriculum in both English and Spanish.

Uncle James had lost his wife to cancer in 1992. Some years later, a mutual friend introduced him to Orpha. Her brother quoted her as saying to James, “You’re as dedicated to farming in Oregon as I am to teaching in Puerto Rico. I don’t think this will work.”

No one knows exactly how it happened, but she soon closed the door to that part of her life and became a farmer’s wife, a mom and a grandma in Oregon.

She took on her husband’s life — his five grown children, the farm, friends, church, history and extended family. She even wrote for the family circle letter, a round-robin letter that’s been circulating among James’ siblings every week for over 50 years.

“I always read Orpha’s letter first; it was so interesting,” one of the aunts told me. “I hope it’s OK to admit that.”

It was easy to see Orpha’s devotion to her family as she embroidered pillowcases for the granddaughters’ birthday gifts and spoke in almost every conversation of “the children” and plans for a visit either to or from.

In more recent years, the older grandchildren descended on her house — six one summer, five in another — making it their home base while they worked in the grass seed harvest.

“She was just this bubble of love that took in everyone around her,” says Simone, a daughter-in-law.

Most of us take on motherhood and its requirements gradually, such as my young friend Esta who is expecting her second child. “When you’re single and you choose to do something unselfish, it’s kind of a big deal,” she says. “But when you’re a mom, it’s just what’s expected of you.”

Orpha took on marriage and motherhood all at once, excelled at it, seldom referenced her old life and saw no need to impress us with her past accomplishments.

I took her for granted, which is, unfortunately, what we often do to the mothers of our lives — all those unselfish givers who discard their own ambitions to nurture us and ensure our success. And afterwards we think, “Wow. That was really amazing, what she did.”

Immersing your own life in another’s isn’t especially valued or paid well or honored in our society. No teenager nervously asks permission to pose with a neighborhood mom and then posts a proud selfie on Instagram.

On the other hand, no mom that I know seeks to collect the recognition or gratitude she deserves.

The evening before the funeral, while the family was still at the visitation, I went to the house at a daughter-in-law’s request to pick up a load of towels and sheets because the washer had quit working at the worst time.

I found the house full, not only of the family’s suitcases and belongings but also of a strange, heavy emptiness.

I still feel it today — the loss, the sense of something special once there and now gone, when I work in the yard and glance at the brick house to the south or think about calling to borrow a dozen eggs.

We are not all called to be mothers, but we can all choose that essential selflessness of motherhood, the giving, the self-forgetful investing of our lives in others. The maturity this choice requires reconciles us to the truth that much of our sacrifice won’t be appreciated until long after we’re gone. But after we’ve received that kind of loving involvement ourselves, we realize how immeasurably it mattered.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

MOP April 26--In Spirit and Truth

One goal I had for our two days in Washington, DC, was to attend a service at the National Cathedral.

So we did, Paul and Matt and I.

It made me wonder if I was born for liturgy and pipe organs and high stained-glass windows instead of long sermons from lay ministers, a capella congregational singing, and CLP quarterlies.

Sitting there in the marble vastness of the cathedral, following the printed bulletin, responding half a beat behind the right time [Mennonites aren't made for liturgy, says my sister-in-law Rosie], and gazing up at those high soaring pointed arches in all directions,  I felt my soul lifting up up UP in a deep sense of worship that I had previously experienced only in nature, such as the time I walked home in the dark from a women's prayer group meeting in Canada and stood still in the snow, gazing upward, as a phenomenal display of Northern lights swirled and swooped with joy.

The post-Easter liturgy, with its carefully chosen Scriptures and prayers, and our responsive Amens, fit perfectly with the formal and ornate setting.

The homily was a nice little speech, but it lacked the specific exposition of Scripture that we get at our home church, and the congregational singing was such that I was singing louder and better than anyone around me, which is never the case back at Brownsville.

So I've thought a lot, since, about the different ways we worship, and what is meaningful for us, and how much we ought to deliberately combine beauty and worship.

Before we went to DC, we spent a few days in Virginia, staying at my sister's place with my nephew, Jason, who grew up a solid Presbyterian but has chosen as an adult to attend an Anglican church.  Normally the Anglican church in America is called Episcopalian, but due to doctrinal differences with the American headquarters, some churches have pulled away, and his at least is a daughter church of the Anglican church in Africa.

Jason says that someone studied the demographics of his church--and I don't recall if it was his congregation only or the entire denomination--and the third-highest-represented group was artists.

Which tells me that maybe the practical farmer types respond to an unadorned service and building, and we creative types feel drawn to something more elaborate and visually and verbally pleasing.

Never fear, I don't plan to leave Brownsville Mennonite for more liturgical pastures.

But I'm thinking I could incorporate elements of it into my private worship times.  Maybe some deliberate beauty in a vase of flowers nearby and the Book of Common Prayer.

As you can see, the Cathedral is beautiful.

It is also huge--one of the ten largest in the world, I'm told.  The Washington Monument could lie down in the center aisle.

After the service, Matt took us through doors and down stairs and around columns and past little rabbit-warren hallways, into smaller chapels the size of our sanctuary at home, past crypts in the basement walls, and Helen Keller buried in a column.

I found the crypts somewhat disturbing.
It was fascinating.

You should go see it.

In one of the rabbit warrens down below, I saw this
mysterious little door, with a glow behind it.
What ever could it be?

Oh.  This.
For more MOP posts go to Emily's blog here and Jenny's here.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

MOP April 20--Finding My Great-Grandpa's Grave

The last few years, I've been intrigued with family stories, and this sad tale of my great-grandpa in particular.  Here's the brief version:

Aaron Miller was a fine young man living near Charm in Holmes County, Ohio.  At 28 years old, he was married to Mary and had two little boys, Enos and Adam.  Mary was pregnant with a third boy. Aaron was known to be a capable and hardworking farmer.

No doubt all these things factored into the church ordaining him to the ministry in the spring of that year.  Unfortunately, the church was having serious problems.

One day, at about noon, Aaron told his brother he's going out to see if the clover was ready to harvest.   The afternoon wore on and he didn't return, so the family went looking for him.

He had taken his own life, hanging himself in a tree.

Such a death carried such terrible shame in the Amish culture that he was buried outside the cemetery, on the other side of the fence.

We heard the story from Mom, never in a lot of detail, but at least it was honestly told.  I thought about it a lot more after I lost a nephew, Leonard, to suicide almost ten years ago.

What are these dark threads weaving through our lineage, I wondered, wreaking such unspeakable pain?  Was there hope for our children?  Did our story go on?  Were we doomed to terrible secrets and continual shame?

The reason for our trip to Ohio last month was to speak at a women's retreat.  But what a great opportunity to take a side trip into our family history.

A few years ago, I heard a hint that maybe the fence had been moved to include Aaron's grave inside the cemetery.  Strange how that news gave me a lift of hope, for myself now, for the future, and even back into the past.  I was determined to find his grave and see for myself.

I emailed my brother Marcus who contacted our second cousin Marvin for directions, and in the morning, before the retreat started that afternoon, we followed the directions out of Berlin and down ever-narrower back roads until we were back in the hills creeping along a one-lane dirt road, looking for a lane to the north.

Finally we asked an Amish girl on a bike, and she pointed us to the lane we had passed twice.  "Follow it on back," she said, "Past the house."

So we did.  It went from gravel to mud to a grassy track, and there on a bit of a rise was the little cemetery, beautiful and old and quiet and looking out over a valley with fields and a sawmill.

We opened the gate and went in, and within minutes we found it, a small, tilted gravestone for Aaron Miller.

Suddenly I was in tears, thinking of that terrible terrible day, the horse-drawn hearse slowly trundling back that long lane, the long line of silent people, that desolate little widow, 25 years old, rounded with child, holding the hands of two frightened little boys, and the overwhelming sense of disaster, of darkness, of abandonment, of condemnation, of loss.

Then, in a final twist of pain, her young husband that she loved and desperately needed was buried outside the fence, because his deed was too bad to ever be atoned for, and the whole community saw her and her boys as the tainted leftovers of his sinful choice.

So I cried for her, and for all of us since who have lived under any cloud of shame and rejection, and did not know that there are words for this, and truth, and hope, and help, and even, impossibly, redemption.

I don't know how or why the decision was made, but at some point in the fairly-recent past, the cemetery needed to be enlarged, and they moved the fence so that it now encloses Aaron's grave, and he is now buried with his community and his people.
At the far end, on the right, you can see where the new part of the fence begins.
I wished I could tell my great-grandma about it.

Later that day, I found a genealogy book about my ancestors in the Anabaptist  Heritage Center. Several pages were devoted to Aaron's death.  An old account reads, "The deceased . . . left a wife and 2 children, father, mother, brothers, and sisters, who are deeply sorrowing over this rash deplorable act."

This is a broken world, and we are broken people.  Depression is genetic and really awful, and sometimes it overpowers a person and wins.

But it isn't the end of the story. I am sure of that. Here we are, Aaron's descendants, and there are lots of us, and we are survivors and storytellers and moms and dads and students and singers, and we get to see sunsets, and we fight hard.

We still grieve for Leonard, but we know that Jesus takes away not only guilt but also shame, and He heals.  We have moved on, and we have redeemed his death by talking about depression in honest words, by asking for help, and by a deep and continuing compassion for hurting people.  We are not ok with "fine" when we ask "How are you?"  We are adamant about wanting the truth.

We believe that the story goes on.

I wish I could go back and tell my great-grandparents that the word is depression, it isn't their fault,  there are things you can do for it, and it's ok to ask for help.  I'd like to tell them that the shame their community placed on them was not from God, and that Jesus takes our shame and gives back His glory.  I want to tell them that silence is wrong and unnecessary, the truth will set them free, and they are unimaginably loved.  And they have a hope and a future.

Since I can't tell them, I am telling you instead.