Something Old for My Birthday

For my birthday this year, my parents gave me something old. And something I’ve long hoped to own. Not because it has monetary value, but because of a magical moment I spent in front of it some sixty-four years ago. Three years old, I had been sitting on a bench in front of it—a small children’s bookcase in our living room in Grantsville, Maryland. My parents had read the books on its shelves so often to me that I had memorized parts of them.

That morning for some reason, a few of those words popped out to me. Unexpectedly, I knew them. And they were on other pages. I tugged on my mom’s skirt as she changed my brother’s diaper.

“Look!” I said. “I know this word. It says ‘jump.’ I’m reading.”

I wanted to know every word in the world. All that day, I followed my mom from the kitchen sink to the ironing board to the rocking chair, always tugging on her skirt.

“What’s this word?” I’d ask her. “Is this word ‘laughed’?”

I can read, I told myself that night in bed.

The next morning before I opened my eyes. I thought something good had happened. And then I remembered—I could read.

I’m not sure where to put this little old bookshelf. In our living room? In my writing room? In a bedroom? And will I fill it again with children’s books? Or poetry? Or my Pearl S. Buck collection? Whichever room and whatever it holds, I’m glad to have it where I can see it often and remember the day when words began popping from pages to widen my world.

Circle of Life

They call him Dr. Miller, so he’s got to be smart. But my nephew Jonathan doesn’t know the history that’s practically under his feet. And I didn’t know either. Not until a recent road trip my dad and I made back to western Maryland so he could pay respects at a funeral.

“Want to see Jonathan’s office?” my dad asked, and he directed me to drive to the last street at the very edge of the town.

We sat in the car, my dad and I, in the parking lot of the medical center where my nephew hangs his shingle.

Inside that office, Jonathan takes medical histories and orders diagnostic tests. He reviews labs and x-rays and writes treatment plans. And he teaches patients about healthy lifestyle choices and disease prevention and helps people take control of their health.

My dad sat silent. He watched the people coming and going from his grandson’s office. Then he turned his head to look over the fields that had come out to meet the town. Finally, he stirred.

“Know what I remember about these fields?” he asked.

And he told me how he’d driven sows across those fields from his father’s farm to the Hershberger farm to get them bred or slaughtered, according to the need.

“Look up through those trees,” he said. “See that barn up the slope? That’s where I took them.”

I tried to picture my dad, a barefoot farm boy in coveralls, who had never dreamed he’d move from the mountains of Maryland. And who decades later never dared to hope that one of his grandchildren might find a partner in back in those mountains and settle there.

This was a circle-of-life moment for my dad, sitting there with the fields of his childhood on one side and the medical office of his grandson on the other.

At the next family reunion, I hope my dad gathers Jonathan’s five children, who now run barefoot in the mountains. I hope he tells them about how he once drove sows to slaughter just outside their father’s office. And I hope that after Jonathan hears this story, he occasionally looks toward the fields as he leaves work at the end of a long day and thinks of the people who toiled there before he was born.

My Cousin Beat Me To It

She got what I had wanted—my younger cousin—a little house on a patch of ground at the curve of the creek near the edge of the lawn of my childhood home.

“When we move in, come visit,” she said. “We’re as close as anyone can get to that bit of land you tried to buy when you were a kid.”

My cousin was referring to a story I tell in my memoir Yoder School. Eight years old and about to move from the mountains of Western Maryland to live in Flint, Michigan, I cast about for a way to find some comfort. And walking up the lane one day after school, I found it. The lane, the creek, and a row of trees formed a triangle around a parcel of land maybe twice as big as my bedroom.

I’ll buy this land, I thought. The land would wait for me while I was gone. And later, after I became a teacher, I’d come back and build a small house on this land and teach at Yoder School.

I sat under the maple tree and looked around. Along the creek, shepherd’s purse plants waved in the breeze. Bees flitted in the daisies.

The land belonged to Luella and Meely, two ancient sisters with silver hair who wore ruffled aprons over their plain dresses and bustled around every Wednesday baking cinnamon rolls. They sold these cinnamon rolls for spending money.

If I bought this plot of land, I thought, they’d have even more spending money.

In my bedroom I climbed on my desk to get my piggy bank from the high shelf. The pink pig with a big belly, a red hat, and blue coveralls sat on its hind legs staring out of big black eyes. I’d be willing to give up my entire savings for the land, I decided. My ancestors had lived in these mountains for over a hundred years, and I belonged here, too.

I held the pig in one hand and knocked on Luella’s and Meely’s door with the other. This was Wednesday, and I could smell the cinnamon.

“Come in!” Meely said.

And then I didn’t know how to start. So I stammered around explaining that I needed to own some land and I wanted it to be near my house and the triangle between the creek and the lane and the trees would work fine and I was prepared to give them all the money in my bank for the land.

Meely looked at Luella. Luella set the spatula beside the cinnamon rolls she had been frosting. She squatted down beside me and explained that, no, they didn’t want to sell their land, not even this little part of it, not even for all the money in my piggy bank—not even if I saved for another year.

I swallowed and blinked so I wouldn’t cry and said that, no, I didn’t want a cinnamon roll. And I fled.

This last week, sixty years later, I drove along the curving creek and saw the land I tried to buy. And sure enough, there was my cousin’s small house nestled into the rise of the earth at the outer edge of a retirement village.

I’m looking forward to drinking tea in that little house. And I hope she doesn’t forget to invite me.

Don’t Look Like You’re Lost

My uncle had one piece of advice for his country relatives when we visited New York City—When you go somewhere and you’re lost, don’t look like you’re lost.

As he stood on the city street in pointing us toward the subway, doubt would flicker across his face. And he’d wonder aloud if he should have taken a day off work to show us around.

But he hadn’t. So while he supervised students in an electronic microscope lab at New York University, we’d bumbled our way through a few of the 80 some museums in the city and explore Central Park, our walk never quite brisk enough and our colorful t-shirts too tawdry in the sea of cosmopolitan black.

But we kept going. And when we missed a subway stop and couldn’t find 5th Avenue and couldn’t remember which way was north, we tried to act confident when we weren’t.

A couple years later, I used my uncle’s advice again. Just before walking into class on my first-ever day of teaching, it hit me—I don’t know how to teach. What if no one listened to me? What if a fight broke out? What if my course requirements were too hard? Too easy? What if I opened my mouth and nothing came out?

I wanted to walk out the school door and go home and wrap up in a quilt. But I had to go in there. Students were waiting.

“Don’t look like you’re lost,” my uncle had said.

So I breathed in deeply. And out. I lifted my chin and squared my shoulders. I picked up my books and cleared my throat. I made my steps brisk and walked through the door.

And I taught my first of thousands of classes.

I’m glad we ventured into New York City, even though we bumbled our way through. And even though I bungled lots of classes, I’m glad I walked into that first class on the first day of my first year of teaching.

Funerals are for Finding Old Friends

“I saw you during the funeral, and I’ve been looking for you,” a long-ago school chum from Yoder School said this week. And he dropped into the empty seat beside me at the after-funeral meal.

It was Wayne Beitzel, the funniest guy in my second-grade class, the guy who always had a story.

“You won’t believe what happened,” he said.

With Wayne, something always happened. He made sure.

Take, for example, the time surveyors came to mark the route of the new Interstate 68, which would bisect his family farm. Early one morning he and his kid brothers set up a lemonade stand right in the surveyors’ path.

The surveyors took this in good humor, buying all the lemonade before asking the boys to move their stand. Eminent domain, after all, includes compensation when property is seized. The Beitzel boys didn’t let such opportunity pass them by. The next day, surveyors came back to the Beitzel farm to find the lemonade stand back up, just further down the path. And the day after that.

These daily lemonade sales were making the Beitzel boys a fortune. But the path of poles and flags were reaching the edge of the farm. So one evening, the boys found a way to prolong sales. They complicated the next day’s work by moving poles and flags.

“That’s why there’s still a curve in Route 68,” they like to tell people.

This was a story from long ago, but Wayne had a new story.

“The other day,” he said. “I was browsing for books on Amazon, and I saw Yoder School.”

Was this his Yoder School, he wondered, and clicked on the link.

“When the book came,” Wayne said, “I opened it to a random page. And the first words I saw were Wayne Beitzel was a Mennonite, and his dad owned the Springs Store.

Wayne and I chuckled over this 58-year-old memory—how Amish Lizzie thought Wayne was lucky because in his packed lunch were fancy cookies from his dad’s store but how Wayne thought Lizzie was lucky with her wonderful homemade cookies. But they found a way to both feel lucky, trading cookies each day at lunch.

It was fun, sitting there over funeral food with Wayne Beitzel. Funerals, I’ve found as I’m getting older, are for mourning. But funeral feasts are for finding old friends.

My 89-Year-Old Father Gets Himself a Bedside Manner

I’ve got something to say about my 89-year-old father.

This is the father who spent decades writing organizational policy and writing sermons, who reads and writes history for pleasure and because history matters, who would rather sit in a committee meeting with goals to reach than go to a party, where it’s hard to know what to say.

This is the father who brought me up to do deskwork—to balance household ledgers and pay bills and type letters from his dictation. He oriented me to his elaborately subdivided four-drawer subject file. He taught me to scan articles in periodicals to determine their foci. And if it was an article, for example, about what amillennialists believed about the Great Tribulation, to file it under ES-AM-GT. This is the father whose idea of having fun with me was to help me trace my ancestry to the other side of the ocean.

This is also the father who has been known to faint at the sights of needles and blood and who avoided diaper changes when he could and gagged through them when he couldn’t. Although I’ve heard lots of people say nice things about my dad, I’ve never once heard anyone rave about his bedside manner or say he is a natural caregiver.

But these people haven’t seen my dad lately.

My mom’s been through some tough times—a series of falls and fevers and digestive disturbances.

When I checked in by phone this morning, her voice broke.

“Your dad has been so good to me,” she said. “I feel sorry for what he’s had to clean up after me.”

“You should have called me,” I told my dad.

But he had another view.

“Sixty-eight years ago,” he said, “I made a promise that I intend to keep.”

I’ve long admired my policy-writing dad. But never as much as I do now when I watch him count pills and fix sitz baths and tuck my mom safely into bed.

It’s only then that he goes back to his study to write some more history.

Someone Else’s Grandkids

We took our grandkids to prison today. And this right after they visited their saintly 98-year-old great-grandma. We thought the contrast would provide an interesting day. And besides, the old Ohio State Reformatory was on our way home.

The kids were incredulous when we drove up to the reformatory.

“This looks like a castle,” one of them said.

And from the outside, it did. The architect used three styles—Victorian Gothic, Romanesque and Queen Anne—to inspire inmates, to help them become ready to re-enter society. But once inside, life was anything but uplifting.

The prison, built to hold 1,500 people became quickly overcrowded and notorious for poor conditions. Kitchens were overrun with rats and their droppings visible in food. Punishment involved water hoses, sweatboxes (for non-white inmates), electroshock, and confinement in a hole in the ground.

A federal court finally closed the prison because of inhumane conditions, but not before the deadliest prison fire in United States history broke out. As smoke filled a block of 600 cells stacked six tiers high, inmates begged to be let out. But most guards refused to unlock doors. When the roof collapsed on the upper level of cells, 160 inmates burned to death. And by the time the fire was under control, 320 people had died and another 130 were seriously injured.

I had learned these stories while teaching at a state prison decades ago. But I had never seen what touched me most on this tour—the writing on basement walls, where overcrowding had turned storage areas into dormitories.

“Use the flashlight on your cell phones,” our tour leader said. “And find the writing on the walls.”

Two of my grandsons, both of them towering over me, one of them the age of the youngest inmates I had taught, joined me in reading name after name. Important dates were listed under some names and inmate numbers under others. Under still others were numbers counting the years since sentencings.

“I’m here,” these markings seemed to say. “I’m a person. I matter.”

Standing In that dim dungeon of a room with my grown-tall grandsons, I caught a new sight of those young inmates I had taught so long ago. They were someone’s grandchildren, someone’s great-grandchildren. If I could teach them again, I’d try to keep this firmly in mind.

In the Company of Clocks

“You know what I remember most about you?” a former student asked me yesterday as she checked out my book at the library.

I was hoping for something like you taught me to love learning.

“Your clocks,” she said, “especially that melting one.”

When I retired, I brought home my classroom clocks—the Salvador Dali melting clock, for example, and the counterclockwise clock and the math-quiz clock.

And these clocks merged with my home collection—the light-up word clock and the days-of-the-week clock and the binary-time clock and the moonlight clock and the marble-rolling clock. And I could go on. Just ask my husband, who heroically made his rounds last weekend in what is hopefully one of the last time changes.

I like the company of clocks. I like the chiming and donging and whirring and how clocks steadfastly tick away the time. There’s something about their circling hands that mimics the sun rising and setting and the stars swinging slowly across the sky and the moon being born and dying and returning to life again. This going around and around brings the night and the day. It ends the months and the years and the decades.

You can’t touch time or smell it or see it. Not really. It’s an abstract idea. But clocks make the concept of time visible. And some clocks show this in fascinating ways.

I liked to watch students consider my clocks. When they stood in front of Salvador Dali’s melting clock, I hoped they would think about how time can feel distorted—how a minute on a dentist’s chair feels eternal while an afternoon skateboarding passes in a flash.

I hoped my counterclockwise clock made them curious about how the movement from left to right became standard for clocks, how many things became standard.

Now that I’m retired, all these clocks under one roof keep me strangely alert, as if messages are afloat in the air. And they keep me wondering—what if . . .

Come to think of it. Getting remembered for clocks? This is fine with me.

A Tribute to Martha Stoltzfus

Last week, my friend died.

Martha Stolztfus was a character. To me, at least, she felt like a person you could lift from life and set in a book and people would want to read it. Or maybe it was the other way around—she stepped out of a book to become a real-life character.

With Martha, I kept seeing different sides and wanting to know more. The demure side, for example. She was a great-grandma, after all, and a preacher’s wife. Sitting in a church pew with her hair tucked neatly under her prayer cap, a Bible in her hands, and her face carefully composed, she was the model of piety.

But she also had a tongue with some spice, spice that flavored up a conversation and made it something to remember. Once at a writers’ retreat, she took on a bunch of young’uns, as she called us since we were all a generation or more below her. We were sitting around coffee, using big words to talk about abstract concepts.

Martha, who probably had a greater readership than any of the rest of us, hadn’t said a word, just kept moving her eyes from one speaker to the next.

“What do you think, Martha?” someone asked.

“Only this,” she said, “that if you all knew what you were talking about, you could say it plain out.”

And she had us there.

Seeing Martha, as quick and light and diminutive as the birds she fed outside her window, you might not guess that she had forded rivers and waddled across a swinging bridge on her way to give birth, that she had fought coal soot and mud and copperheads, once taking a .22 rifle after a snake in her martin box.

Martha crossed cultures, leaving Pennsylvania’s Amish country to live in an Appalachian hollow, a deep chasm with high, close-in hills. She learned to love this hollow, where the sun shone late and left early, where each spring, she counted off the cold snaps—Redbud Winter, Dogwood Winter, and then Blackberry Winter, one after the other as they first dotted the dark, bare hills with their blooms and then turned impish, and blasted them with polar air.

Impish, that was Martha. Anyone could see her sincere faith, but running through it was a saucy sense of humor that kept me curious. What would she say next?