Sunday, July 30, 2006


Today we went to Cascadia Park for the Kropf Reunion along with about 200 descendants of Daniel and Anna Kropf. Daniel was Paul's great-grandpa, the guy who built the house we live in.

A few reunion observations:
First cousins are the big reunion pushers. The next generation doesn't show up as much, and the next even less.

Every family needs storytellers. The Kropfs are a bit too blunt and to-the-point to be great storytellers (Nobody beats my Miller relatives IMHO) but I did like two stories especially:

a) Anna was old and dying. In fact, she was having an out-of-body experience, hovering above her bed and also above her daughters Mae and Lena, who were carrying on terribly. So she had to come back to life, because her girls were making such a fuss. The next day she told her son Frank that it's her time to go, and he's to keep the girls at the other end of the house. So he did. And that night she died for good.

b) Daniel's son Frank's boys used to be sent down to the creek to cut wood. But they would spend some of their time teasing the billy goat until he would chase after them, then they'd grab tree branches and pull themselves up out of his way, and the goat would go plunging into the creek. One day Frank didn't show up for a while and the boys found him down by the creek. The story was a bit vague here but I think he was on one side of the woodpile trying to keep the billy goat from coming over or around the woodpile at him. It turned out he had seen the boys try their tricks with the goat and thought it looked fun and tried it himself. But he was less agile than his sons at pulling himself up, and both he and the goat landed in the creek.

No one beats Kropf food. Or Kropf singing.

Every family has people with unusual and interesting lives. The Millers, for instance, have my cousin's son who is an artist first and a football guy second, and a high school in San Antonio, Texas, created an art-teacher position just for him so he'd come and be one of their 12 (!) football coaches. The Kropfs have Daniel's Orie's Larry's Jeff, who is a state legislator and also has a radio program in Portland and who is very amusing to watch because he works the crowd at a Kropf reunion as though this was a Republican fundraiser. Then there's Cody, married to Daniel's Frank's Merle's Clarene's daughter, who is an airline pilot and is moving his family to Dublin soon to fly for Air France.

The descendants who are least Mennonite tend to make the most noise about how much they appreciate their heritage.

Quote of the Day:
"Aunt Lena made the best pickles!"
--one of Lena's nieces; I think it was Arzalea. Lena was Paul's grandma.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Life and Stuff

Joy and sorrow, it is said, come down the same tracks and arrive at about the same time.*

In my case, I am still dealing with my nephew's death and there are some very exciting things happening with my new book.

Grieving now is like walking down the beach, and all is normal for a few hours, and then I trip over a rock, (e.g. I see an advertisement in a farm paper for Western jeans and shirts), and a big rogue wave washes over me.

And meanwhile, the Tri-County News, which I admit is not the New York Times or anything, but it's a nice little local paper, did a very nice article and picture on me and Ordinary Days. And I just got scheduled for a book signing at Barnes and Noble (which means I've officially Made It as an author, I'm told) and the Mennonite Weekly Review is doing a story in their August 7 issue. (I got bumped out of the July 31 issue by Floyd Landis, so at least in the MWR's eyes, if no one else's, I come in second to Floyd.)

It would be nice to get a little more excited about all this but as I told Paul the other day, "I would happily give it all up if it would bring Leonard back." And Paul being a logical Smucker said, "There is no connection between the two."

He's right. I guess I'm in the bargaining phase of grief that I read about. And maybe one small benefit of this tragedy will be to keep me grounded and to keep things in perspective if the book continues to do well.

But I am trying to enjoy my current success, since I've waited for this for years.

*Not sure who first wrote that, but I heard it from Betty Miller. She and I were the speakers at the women's retreat in Georgia in 2003. She knew whereof she spoke.

Quote of the Day:
"It's easier to buy coffee than gas."
--my brother Marcus, on driving through little towns on the West Coast. Harrisburg, for instance, has one gas station that doesn't always have gas, and three little caboose-type espresso stands


Jenny inherited her sister Emily's and her aunt Rosie's compulsion to talk. If any of them have something to say, they just have to say it, never mind that the timing or subject are all wrong.

I should clarify that Rosie has outgrown some of this since her school days, and that gives me hope for Emily and Jenny.

So, one day not long ago Jenny was following me around the house talking a blue streak. I needed to do some writing. So I told her she has to be quiet for 15 minutes. Torture, to bottle up all those bubbling words inside her.

So Jenny went out on the porch with a pencil and paper and wrote down all the questions she wanted to ask me but couldn't:

If you sayyou are a crischan then the necst Day you ly, are you a crischan?
Is an oke tree a cind of evergreen tree?
what are nats?
what are sandols made of?
And yes, after the imposed silence was over, I answered all her cweschins.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Yay for Dad

I am very glad my boys have a dad. They frequently come up with some bright idea that makes me blanche with fear, whereupon they try to convince me that their scheme is completely sound and sane.

Two recent examples:
1. Riding down the road on their bikes "no hands"
2. Making grand plans for Ben's birthday party in a few weeks: having half a dozen friends (but no adults) over and camping by the creek behind Arnold Knox's and going swimming and roasting marshmallows over a fire in the evening and cooking breakfast over a fire the next morning, never mind that this is the extreme fire danger season

"Oh, MOM, it's perfectly safe!"

How grateful I was to Paul, who said, "Absolutely not!" in that tone that boys do not argue with.

Quote of the Day:
Jenny: I don't know if I have wisdom teeth or not.
Emily: Jenny, I don't even have wisdom teeth!
Jenny: Girls don't get wisdom teeth?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Dear me

Yesterday Amy and I babysat John and Laura’s two youngest, so when Laura returned she brought with her a sack of goodies from Bath and Body Works. I chose a bottle of hand soap for myself, and since Amy wasn’t here right then, I chose a bottle of blue bath spray for her.

This morning Amy wanted her bath spray and it was nowhere to be found. Finally I called Laura. Yes, she chuckled, I picked it out for Amy and then promptly stuck it back in the bag and Laura found it after she got home.

I am already famous for being absentminded but dealing with grief has made it much worse. Saturday night I made a grilled cheese sandwich without any cheese. Sunday I wore both glasses and contact lenses to church…and wondered why Paul looked so smudged up there in the pulpit.

Thankfully I am surrounded by patient and loving people.

Quote of the Day:
"You know you're a warehouse worker when you take a half-hour nap on a forklift."

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Journey Continues

Last Sunday evening Paul's nephew Byran and his girlfriend Amy sang at church. It was beautiful, but seeing them reminded me of how much I enjoy watching my nieces and nephews date, fall in love, marry, and all that. And I realized I would never get to watch Leonard through this process. The "hot water bottle" in my chest (see July 11 post) got a violent punch and I "lost it" right there.

Yesterday we Smucker ladies made a trek to the Smith Family Bookstore in Eugene, mostly to resupply my SIL Laura who is home briefly from Poland. Laura lost five nieces and nephews in a car accident last November. "When do you stop bursting into tears at odd moments?" I asked her. And she said, "I haven't yet." And then she told me that just recently she and these children's mom had gone through the contents of the diaper bag that had been in the truck, and her nephew's little truck was smashed in just like the truck they had all been riding in. And then Laura, while telling me, promptly burst into tears.

But it was good to talk to her, and we both had a nice time with all the Smucker girls, shopping and talking and eating lunch. So life goes on and there is sunshine breaking through the clouds.

Let me add that the journey for my brother and his family is still just beginning and is still in "deep darkness." We would appreciate your continued prayers for them.

For today's
Quote of the Day
I'll cut and paste from Emily's blog:
Here is the difference between my family and your average American family. In a normal family, you might have a conversation go like this:
Betsy: Hey Sarah, is your refrigerator running?
Sarah: Yeah.
Betsy: You'd better go catch it!
Sarah: Ha Ha!

In my family, however, it goes like this:
Amy: Hey Jenny, is your refrigerator running?
Jenny: Yeah
Amy: You'd better go catch it!
Jenny: Ha Ha! Hey Emily, is your refrigerator running?
Me: Yeah, but I don't feel like catching it so you should.
Jenny: But I can't run all the way home and chase after the refrigerator!
Me: Well, maybe it's running this way.
Jenny: Here, refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator.
Amy: I think you'd better just stick with fridge.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

How Are You?

I remember my SIL Laura saying how hard it was, after her mom passed away, to answer people who asked, "How are you?" The correct answer would have been "horrible" but of course that wasn't what people wanted to hear.

Today I went garage saling in Brownsville. For my birthday gift, Amy said she'd keep the house running smoothly and clean and make meals while I went garage saling. It was great therapy, walking in the sunshine and finding two crock-pots and a travel bag for shampoo and such. But I was still an inch away from bursting into tears every half hour or so which was rather awkward.

At every turn there were cheerful garage sale ladies saying, "Good morning! How are you?"
My options were:
a) ignore them (rude)
b) "fine" (a lie)
c) "rejoicing in the Lord" (reasonably true but not my style)
d) "Okay" (more accurate but sounds grumpy)
e) "Actually, I am still deeply grieving for my nephew who passed away two weeks ago and it has been very very hard and I wonder if it's always going to hurt and there are just so many questions that I'll never have answers for and [serious waterfall of tears]"

I vote that we don't say "How are you?" to people unless we really want to hear the answer.

Meanwhile, applause to two women I saw today: FV, who listened to my weepy story and said I can call her any time I want, and who shared her own struggles with suicidal depression. And to MB, who very unexpectedly gave me a hug and expressed her sympathies.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Touches of Grace

One of the ways that God gave grace in our grief was through unexpected acts of kindness.

Thursday, July 6, was an especially difficult day for Emily because it was her 16th birthday and also the day of Leonard's viewing in Minnesota.

My SIL Geneva, her daughter Hillary, Matt, Emily, and I all went to the viewing early and then left to buy a gift for Emily and eat ice cream. As we started walking to the store, Geneva stopped us, pointed to a line on the sidewalk, and said, "Ok, this side of the line, we're sad. Once we cross the line, it's Emily's party time."

So we crossed the line and sang a forced "Happy Birthday" and tried to be happy. But Emily couldn't manage to find something she wanted for a gift, and we were all feeling too heavy to celebrate. But we got ice cream and had a very good talk around the picnic table at the old-fashioned Dairy Queen.

Meanwhile, three of my niece Annette's friends came from Pennsylvania for the funeral. They heard that this was Emily's birthday, and all three of them, at different times, made a point of giving Emily a hug and wishing her a happy birthday.

These were girls Emily had never seen before, and that gesture was more meaningful than all the gifts and ice cream we could have bought her and helped to take the sting from a very difficult day.

Since I am finally able to take note of such things again, here's a
Quote of the Day:
Ben: (who is trying to read through the Bible in a year) Do you know why I like to read Psalms?
Me: No. (Thinks: because they speak to your heart with their worship and beauty?)
Ben: Because I read three chapters a day and the Psalms are really short.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

South Dakota

(Note—I realize I’m going on and on about my nephew’s death, but writing it all out is great therapy and for that matter, I guess you can always go visit someone else’s blog if you’ve had enough.)

My evening in South Dakota was terribly sad, healing, and enlightening, all at the same time.

About four years ago, Leonard moved away from his home in Minnesota to a small town two hours away, just into South Dakota. It was there that he died, so his family decided to have a viewing/visitation there before bringing his body back to Minnesota for the funeral and burial.

To save costs, they chose to bring the body back in Marcus’s van, and one of the enduring images of that week is of stopping by my brother’s place on Wednesday afternoon and seeing him outside carefully washing his van in preparation for bringing his son’s body home.

Only a few of us went—Leonard’s immediate family, myself, and 5 of Anna’s family.

To be living my normal life on Sunday and then three days later find myself in a small South Dakota town at my nephew’s viewing was downright surreal. So was the glimpse into Leonard’s world of farmers and cowboys and warm, down-home people with pronounced South Dakota accents.

The funeral home was beautiful, an old renovated house. We sat in a hushed, dim room as dozens of young men came through, all of them clean-cut and dressed in almost identical uniforms of long-sleeved shirts, cowboy boots, and tight jeans with big belt buckles. All of them were polite and respectful, all were silent. They placed their black hats on a shelf at the entry, greeted the family, stood with bowed heads at the casket, and then gathered in a little anteroom, where they sat in silence for almost two hours.

One young man stood near the casket for an hour and a half. He was from Wyoming, it turned out, and had come all that way because he and Leonard were friends.

Families came together, groups of young women came, and toughened farmers came.

I knew this was the only chance I would ever have to get a glimpse of Leonard’s life, so I forced myself to talk to a few people. "How did you know Lenny?" I would ask, and out would pour their story. "Lenny took me hunting. I didn’t have a big brother, so he said he would be my big brother." "Lenny was my friend." "Lenny and I baled hay together." "Lenny was in my Bible study." "Lenny was like a son to me."

There were many stories told that evening besides the ones I heard first-hand. One young man came in a wheelchair. He had been badly hurt in a house-moving accident and it hurt terribly to be transported, but he insisted on coming. "Lenny had a huge impact on my son’s life," his mother said.

Then there was the beautiful blond girl that Lenny had liked who couldn’t seem to stop crying. She had just turned 18 not too long ago, and wasn’t interested in dating just yet, Lenny had told his sister, but she was still a good friend.

"We worked long hours together, and I never saw him get angry," said one co-worker. "And if one of us had the flu, we knew pretty soon Lenny would show up to do the milking for him."

The girls wept, the guys were silent, the moms and dads hugged Marcus and Anna and cried with them.

I thought, over and over and over, "Oh, Leonard, how could you not know how loved you were?"

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

This Strange Journey

I have grieved before, for friends and Paul's dad and others. But never like this, with an out-of-the-blue death of someone this close. So it has been an interesting journey, full of who-would-ever-have-thought moments that increase the surreal sense that this is all happening to someone else.

A few surprises: the shock. We all had stories of those first days, when we wandered around in a daze and couldn't make the smallest decision. Making a pot of tea took enormous effort and concentration. Getting ready to leave was nearly impossible. Thankfully I had Amy, who went to my closet, picked out all my clothes, and packed my suitcase.

The sudden tears: it was like I had a hot-water-bottle in my chest with tubes leading to my eyes. And every so often, like in the middle of the Denver airport, something would punch the water bottle and I'd spill over in tears.

The lack of sleep: I had maybe two nights' worth of sleep in a week's time. Mom had one night where she didn't sleep a wink. Now, back home, I am sleeping long and deep.

The lack of appetite: Normally I can put away some serious calories and feel close to collapse if I don't eat every few hours. This week I hardly ate unless Emily set something in front of me and made me eat it.

The laughter: somehow I had always thought I wouldn't laugh for a month if something like this happened. Yet we found ourselves laughing hysterically at the oddest things, especially with my SIL Geneva, who slept in Mom and Dad's basement with me. I think the lack of sleep had something to do with this.

The lack of tears: sometimes I'd be talking with someone who was weeping on my shoulder, and I had no tears. And I didn't cry much at the burial. I thought, "What? I'm done crying?" I wasn't done crying, it turned out, but tears can't be summoned at will; they come and go randomly.

The need for contact: most of us shy away from picking up the phone and calling someone who's mourning. But it's vital to make that connection.

"I continue to have a deep sense of peace," my brother told me this morning. And so do I. This is the most surprising thing of all.

Monday, July 10, 2006


Leonard was special to me in that way that the first nieces and nephews get extra doting-on from the single aunts until they have children of their own.

During his teenage years he pulled away from his immediate and extended family. At Christmas dinners he would stay around long enough to eat the pie and then take off to go snowmobiling with his friends rather than stay around to chat with his old aunts. I found this annoying.

A few years ago, Leonard moved two hours away to Millbank, South Dakota. Then, in a rather dramatic series of events, he made things right with God, was baptized, and started turning his heart back to his family.

Two years ago at Mom and Dad's 50th anniversary party, and again last year at Christmas, I noticed a huge change in Leonard. He hung around and talked with all the relatives, took an interest in people, and seemed involved and engaged. He and I talked about how much we liked James Herriot.

In South Dakota, he went to church and also to a Bible study that really touched his heart, resulting in a visit home in the spring in which he and his family had a phenomenal reconciliation--talking, apologizing, hugging, praying.

At that time, he also admitted to having symptoms of depression, including difficulty eating and sleeping. Marcus, his dad, helped him set up a plan to find and meet with a mentor.

Lately, Leonard seemed to be much happier. He came home on Mother's and Father's Days and had a number of people that he regularly called and talked with at length.

And then, early one morning, he took his own life. He did not leave a note or a journal or any other clue, only an infinitely large question mark branded into our minds.

I have known at least five people who ended their own lives, almost always after a long history of self-destructive behavior. The one exception was a young teenager, also from my home church, who died 20 years ago. I have never, never seen anything like this.

To think of his silent suffering that last night is horrible, to see his parents' suffering is much worse. And yet, I can honestly say that the peace of God, which passes all understanding, has been guarding my heart and mind through Christ Jesus.

Taking the Ring

We are back in the Shire.

We got the horrible news about my nephew’s death last Monday morning. Less than 24 hours later Matt, Emily, and I were on our way to the airport. With Mom’s iffy heart, it was important to all of us to get one of the daughters home quickly to be with her and Dad; thankfully it worked out for us.

Flying to Minnesota and driving out to the farm was one of the hardest things I have ever done. In Minneapolis, all three of us would have loved nothing better than to cut and run.

"We are Frodo, taking the ring to the Mountain," said Matt, "and it gets heavier the closer we get."

All day my stunned and feverish mind had been searching vaguely for an analogy, for words to explain what this journey was like. And suddenly my bristly son provided just what I needed.

Frodo, you see, was the Hobbit in Lord of the Rings who was given the commission to take the One Ring to Mt. Doom to throw it back in and destroy it. The closer he got to the mountain, the heavier it got. Yet this was his destiny and his calling, to finish this particular task. And with the help of his friend, he did it.

That story gave me an odd stability all week. "I am taking the ring to the mountain," I kept telling myself, before seeing the family first, before each viewing, before the funeral and burial.

And now, as I said, we are safely back in the Shire.

LFH 'n' Stuff

We came home from MN at 1:00 this morning. Lots and lots of stories to tell and events to process, all in good time.

Paul told me my Letter from Harrisburg was in the paper yesterday.

Your prayers and support mean so much and I can't express my gratitude enough.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

It's 5:30 in the morning. I just got back from taking Mom, Matt, and Emily to the airport. They will be gone until late Sunday night.

Some of you are wondering why Emily and not me. It's mostly because I never really spent much time with Leonard and didn't know him. Last Christmas my family was in MN, and he spent a lot of time with Matt and Emily, but I was in the Emirates.

Anyway, so I have the job of holding down the fort here, taking care of Dad and my younger siblings and also working. Many thanks to all who have volunteered to help with babysitting Jenny and stuff.

Thanks so much for your comments, and please keep praying for us.


Monday, July 03, 2006

No Words for This

As Emily says, tell me this is a bad dream and I'll wake up soon.

My brother called me this morning and told me his son, my 23-year-old nephew, took his own life last evening.

This can't be real.