Sunday, February 26, 2017

February Column--On Visiting Old Uncles

Like squares of a quilt, family members make up who we are

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
FEB. 12, 2017

You’ll probably come see me when I’m in a box,” Uncle Johnny told me on the phone a few years ago.

At 93 years old, he is a bit melancholy but also funny, loyal and loving, and a slightly off brand of Amish, since he calls me on a cellphone.

I said, “I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I’m coming to see you before you’re in a box.”

I live in Oregon. Uncle Johnny lives in central Kansas, which is not on the route to anywhere I go.

When I was little, my 18 aunts and uncles were fun to visit except when I couldn’t use a hair dryer on my long wet hair or pawed fruitlessly for the light switch in the dark bedroom at Aunt Ennie’s before remembering she was Old Order Amish.

Back then, the relatives were mostly irrelevant, and my grandpa was only a strange old man with dementia and a white beard.

I married and moved far away. Paul and I were busy and sometimes overwhelmed with running a business, raising six children and pastoring a church. Gradually the aunts and uncles grew old and passed on, which was sad but a normal part of life.

Why do we wait until we’re 50 to ask about family history, the past, who your parents and grandparents used to be, and how this connects with you today? This is followed by the shocking truth that your aunts and uncles are the only people with access to this precious stash of information, and most of them are gone.

Why does it take us this long to understand that our forebears’ lives were much like ours — marriage, raising a family, earning a living? Love, laughter, conscience and commitment — all through almost impossible challenges.

Two years ago, I went to visit my one remaining aunt, Vina, Mom’s sister, in Iowa. I listened to her stories, took pages of notes and laughed until I was in tears. And I understood my mom a lot better.

Last month, Paul and I flew to Indiana, where I spoke at a women’s retreat, and then we flew to Wichita and drove over the flat Kansas prairie to Hutchinson and the tidy home of Johnny, my dad’s youngest brother and the only uncle I have left.

“Now you’ll be coming around the west side of the house,” he told me on the phone. “Come in the north garage door and then go in the west door and there’s a door to the basement. Your room is west of the kitchen.”

At 2 a.m. we slipped in the north door, just as he said, past the buggy in the garage, and down to our welcoming bedroom in the basement.

I grew up in Minnesota around farmers who referred to the four points of the compass rather than right and left. But Johnny was probably the most direction-oriented man I’ve ever seen.

“There’s room for that on the west side,” he said when I was putting milk in the refrigerator.

Aunt Bertha has been gone for a couple of years, and Johnny still grieves deeply for her. He was 18 when he asked Bertha for a date, he told us. She turned him down.

Her dad said, “What’d you do that for? You’re 16 now!” Her mom said, “Oh, if he really wants you, he’ll be back.”

He did, and he was.

“We had a good life together,” Johnny says. “I loved her very much.”

My dad was away in Civilian Public Service when Johnny and Bertha were dating. Johnny got the farm deferment, and he and his dad, John A. Senior (not to be confused with the family’s John T. Yoder or John E. Yoder or John C. Yoder or John Earl Yoder or Johnny Junior) did the work of three or four men.

In addition, John A. had been ordained bishop, which meant he had to travel to other churches to hold communion services. One weekend he was gone to eastern Oklahoma. “Meet me at the bus stop in Weatherford at 2 Monday morning,” he told Johnny.

Johnny and Bertha went on a date that night, and Johnny didn’t bother going to bed. He took the horse and buggy to town and waited in front of the grocery store where Bill Evans, the policeman, was parked, leaning back in his seat, with his hat over his eyes, looking sound asleep.

The bus came and it was full of Army boys. “But no Dad.” The second bus was also full of Army boys. And no Dad.

So Johnny untied the horse and went home. The next morning, he got up at 5 to do chores. There was John A. at the kitchen table. “Where were you?” Johnny said. “Where were you?” said his dad.

His dad had been on the third bus.

Bill Evans, still snoozing in his car, woke up and said, “Hop in. I’ll drive you home.”

Suddenly Bill said, “I can’t take you any further. I have just enough gas to get back to town.”

So my grandpa, who had just spend the weekend away at the thankless task of helping a church, and who faced another week of endless physical labor on the farm, gathered his things and walked the three miles home.

“He was all about peace and love,” Johnny said. “Other bishops would lay down the law, but Dad would give people a chance. And Dad let ’em go if they wanted to leave the Amish and go to the Mennonite church.”

Peace and love carried a high price. Mose Yoder, an uncle, was drafted in World War I. Since there were no provisions for conscientious objectors, he was in the camps with the “Army boys.” It was difficult — a few COs died in similar situations. “But then,” Johnny said, “the Army boys started getting sick, one after the other, and pretty soon almost all of them were down, but Mose never got sick. He would go around and take care of the others, bring them water, clean up after them, and even clean up their puke. And he won their respect. Things went much better after that, and he was put in charge of the CO boys.”

Before we caught our flight home, Johnny gave me a packet of letters my dad had sent from Paraguay in the 1940s, the careful writing on fragile, almost weightless paper.

We flew home to Oregon with the priceless letters in my purse, feeling richer and wiser. My strange old grandpa also had known a pastor’s weariness, and yet he left a legacy of kindness, dedication and peace. Surely that was why my dad had always insisted, whenever I was upset at someone, that I figure out why they might feel and act as they did.

It was possible for a marriage to stay loving and joyful for some 70 years. Posting an insightful meme about peace and love online is a very different thing from mopping up your enemies’ vomit. And when you go visit your elderly uncle, you will learn that if you know which way is north, you can always find your way back home.

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