Something Rotten in the State of Denmark

The evening was beautiful, but the killing didn’t stop, not for hours. Under stars that hung low and a moon that rose white and silent over the park, people kept dying—by stabbings and poisonings and drownings and execution. By the end of the play, nine of eleven main characters in Hamlet had died, one perhaps at her own hands and the rest at the hands of brothers and lovers and in-laws and erstwhile friends.

Something, for sure, was rotten in the state of Denmark.

My husband shifted in his lawn chair.

“The more they kill, the easier it gets,” he whispered to me.

But I didn’t answer; the last act was beginning.

In a cemetery, Hamlet and Horatio happen upon a jovial gravedigger.

“Has this fellow no feeling of his business,” Hamlet asks about the gravedigger, “that he sings at grave-making?”

Horatio answers: “Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.”

The gravedigger may be easy, but Hamlet isn’t. Especially when the gravedigger uncovers a skull and tells him it belonged to Yorick, the court jester.

“Alas, poor Yorick!” Hamlet says. “I knew him.”

Hamlet mourns that Yorick’s lips are rotted away. And with them have gone Yorick’s jokes and pranks and songs.

And Hamlet, who has been surrounded by death, suddenly feels sickened. He sees the loss death brings.

I confess that I missed a few scenes after that, thinking about students I have known, who are no longer with us, dying at their own or someone else’s hands. Students who once joked and pranked and are now silenced, by death or by despair.

Sitting there with the stage lights up and the moon and stars shining down, I wished I could redo times I taught with a “property of easiness,” accepting sad and defiant looks as the middle school way rather than as a plea for help.

She Kept Showing Up

She didn’t come to the reunion. Even though we had gathered from across the Midwest and New England and Nicaragua and Hawaii, my ninety-eight-year-old mother-in-law stayed in her hospital bed, breathing along with her oxygen machine and dozing off when her eyes felt heavy. It was the first time ever that she didn’t make it to a Swartz gathering.

Except that she kept showing up.

Saturday morning, we rotated through mini workshops, learning from each other how to decorate cookies, how to manage finances, how to add Latin flavors to everyday foods, and how to garden with native plants.

“Grandma would have loved this,” we said to each other.

While Uncle Tim led a workshop on how to cut your trash in half, I thought of how Grandma had recycled and repurposed long before today’s trend.

And when the family branch from Hawaii taught us how to make Polynesian flower crowns, someone said, “I’m making mine for Grandma.”

For a couple hours at a time, a few of us would go missing. Our names were on the time slot to visit Grandma. And when we showed back up at the reunion, it was often with tears in our eyes and smiles on our faces.

“She’s hanging on to her life, asking about mine,” someone said.

We ended the reunion talking about Grandma—how her definition of family extends beyond us. All of us having been born or adopted into her family might be in the inner circle. But we aren’t the only circle. She is a mother to us, but she has also been a mother to inmates in prison and a lonely neighbor down the street and folks in a homeless shelter.

And acknowledging this about Grandma’s life, makes us think about how we live.

From her hospital bed, Grandma keeps showing up.

A Fetal Position and Claude Debussy

This week a lecture on music helped me understand Charlie.

“Don’t talk to me,” he said, as he came in my classroom door. “I just want to be here.”

And he curled in a fetal position on an oversized ottoman in the far corner of the classroom. The next day in the quiet, after-school hour, I heard the door creak again. This time, Charlie didn’t say a word, just stopped my words with a gesture. He stayed on the ottoman twenty minutes before he walked out . . . without a word, like he was evaporating into thin air. Again and again Charlie did this, until the end of the year.

He was cared for, I knew, by his parents and a counselor. And he participated in gifted class, right along with the other students. But I knew from his writing that he was angsty, that what he knew about the world was too heavy for him to bear.

So keeping silent while his nearly man-sized body curled in a fetal position on the ottoman felt impossible to me. But with sheer grit, I managed to hold my words. I somehow sensed I should follow Charlie’s cues.

The music lecture I heard this week showed me what Charlie asked of me back then—to quit being like German composers, Brahms, for example, who march people right along with harmonic progression and resolve every dissonant chord.

Be less like Brahms and more like the French Debussy, Charlie was telling me. Debussy’s music doesn’t have a steady forward beat. Dubussy’s music stays put in an almost stationary environment, soaking up the color and hanging with the dissonance. With Debussy, the lecturer said, music simply evaporates. It doesn’t end. There’s no need to resolve.

When Debussy wrote his music, he was breaking with the move-right-along harmonics that had been working since the Renaissance. And when I kept silent with Charlie, I was breaking with all my teacherly instincts to propel Charlie into next steps.

“With Debussy,” the lecturer said, “you have to listen differently. If you try to listen to Debussy the same way you listen to Brahms, you won’t appreciate the music.”

I have a regret about those afternoons with Charlie. Though I was silent with my mouth, I wish I had managed an inner stillness. I hope my anxiety didn’t float across the room toward that ottoman.

Grandma-Style Date Night

We slipped out for a date night on our family vacation. We were in Michigan, after all, where we started dating fifty-plus years ago. And we knew exactly where we were going to eat. Although cowboy-style food is not our first choice, we remember the gift Ponderosa Steakhouse once gave us.

We were poor then—college students and parents of two toddlers with one part-time job between us. Each week we spent ten dollars at Meijer Thrifty Acres, buying milk and eggs and beans and cornmeal and very little else, except for 25-cents-a-pound chicken livers.

But one day, Steve came home from scrubbing floors at a car dealership with a spring in his step.

“I found a way for us to splurge,” he said.

And Saturday lunch found us at Ponderosa Steakhouse, where for 49 cents we ate chopped-sirloin steaks, dinner rolls, baked potatoes, and an endless salad bar. Every Saturday we did this—even when the price went to 99 cents. Cornbread and beans were fine on weekdays when we knew Saturday was coming.

Our date-night meal last week tasted just like those long-ago meals, but what cost us one dollar then, now put us out thirty. And when we stopped by Meijer to replenish the milk and eggs and cereal for our family of fourteen, we spent much more than ten dollars.

But at the end of the check-out counter, I found what hadn’t changed.

Our children had loved Meijer Thrifty Acres, not for the groceries, but for the “penny pony” named Sandy.

2011.11.2 – Sandy the Penny Pony

Riding this bucking pony was the reward for not grabbing candy or begging for sugar cereal.

And after all these years, the cost to ride Sandy was still one penny. I felt like going back to the beach house and grabbing grandkids.

“Come ride, Sandy,” I wanted to say.

But didn’t. Being a grandma of teens and tweens, I know about eye rolling!

Full Freezers and Well-Laid Plans

I’m spending the next two weeks with these folks, first at our house for cousin week and then at the lake, where their parents will join us.

We’ve got three freezers filled with taco meat and sausage quiche and chili and chicken casseroles and Yum-e-setti and cookies and cakes, and I’m not sure what all is down near the bottom. We’ve got plans to swim and fish and camp and ride bikes and study the Bible and play games and hike and go on an architectural hunt.

My hands (and theirs) will be in the dishwater and in oven mitts and on fishing rods and scooter bars. So for these two weeks, my fingers will be off the keyboard. I’m going to forget about research and plot structure and chapter orders and blogging and finding just the right word to type.

But I’m sure I’ll be hearing and telling plenty of stories. And I’m sure I’ll be searching for just the right words for plenty of conversations—you never know what tweens and teens might say.

If I Could Do It Again

It’s good to be home. We make popcorn, huge bowlsful. We sleep as we like it—windows open and a fan moving air across our bay-window bed. I have ice in my drinks and drawers for my clothes and bubbles for my bath. And I hold in my mind the ringing of cow bells, the dampness of dungeons, and the faces of people who look like they’d show up at my family reunion.

Traveling, I found, isn’t always pretty or comfortable or even safe. Pilgrimage hurts. And it heals. It brings nightmare and wonder. It transforms, and it teaches.

I’ve learned a few things on this trip. And if I could do it again, here’s what I’d do:

I’d talk with more people. Reluctant to make mistakes, I avoided using my Duolingo German. Until Langendorf. As we walked through the sleepy village of my long-ago family, I saw two women sitting on a stone wall. They looked to be my age. Suddenly, I was willing to play the fool.

With the help of Google translate, we cobbled together some understanding, these German women and I.

“Daniel Bender?” they said. “The Amish?”

Yes, they knew where his house had stood. They knew he had migrated to America. One woman’s great-something grandparents had lived in the house right beside Daniel Bender. She served us sparkling water on her patio while we waited for her daughter to bike twenty minutes into the village to translate. Before we left town that day, we had toured the village church house, eaten chocolate on yet another patio, and been invited to a party.

And I almost hadn’t had the courage to begin a conversation.

I’d pack even lighter. We’ve long been carry-on travelers. And our airlines had more stringent size requirements than most. So I knew I couldn’t take much. I packed my suitcase and thinned out my clothes . . . twice. Even so, I had a hard time keeping up in long walks from train stations to our lodgings.

“Grandma,” I heard a hundred times, “I’ll trade you luggage.”

And I’d pull their light bags while they hauled my heavy one.

I didn’t need those white jeans, I’d think, or that acrostic book or that history timeline.

I’d travel with greater savvy. For one thing, I’ll never again trust my memory to activate a Eurail pass. That mistake was costly and gave us 12 anxious hours. Next time, I’ll find a way to jog my memory—snooze an email, ask my grandchildren to help me remember . . . something.

And then there was the return-to-the-US Covid test email we didn’t think to download. The testing center wouldn’t give us results on paper, but we made sure our phones were charged. We showed our negative results on email as we left the Amsterdam airport and as we entered the airport in Lisbon. But as we tried to board for our last leg home, the internet icon spun and spun and spun. Part of the email loaded, but not far enough.

“We can’t let you board,” they told us. “Until we see the word negative.”

Three techy airline people tried to help. No one could make it work. And they closed the gate.

That’s when the youngest of the three, still holding the phone, yelled, “I got it! I see negative.”

It seemed too late. But they called the pilot who told them to open the door.

In Shakespeare’s famous “All the World’s a Stage” soliloquy, he describes an old man.

The world is too wide, Shakespeare says, for his shrunk shank.

Nothing is wrong with my leg, but I know exactly what Shakespeare means—for someone old, the world is too big, too fast, too full of changing technology. At that moment, I had a shrinking brain, for sure.

So, yes, I’m looking forward to my own bed again tonight.

But you know what? I’d do it again.

A Jet Plane and the Charming Nancy

Our last day in Europe, Steve and I toured the Port of Rotterdam. At this port, my family boarded the Charming Nancy to begin the journey to America. Having fled persecution in Switzerland and Germany, they rafted with other Amish up the Rhine River through the Netherlands to reach the port. At each of the twenty-six custom houses along the way, they had to dock for inspection. So a passage that could have taken a week, took more than a month.

In Holland, they were delayed another month, spending more of their money to survive. And there was yet one more stop—Cowes port in England. There my family and other passengers received clearance to go to America, still a British colony.

But this is when the real misery began. Packed like herring in a barrel, passengers endured storms, filthy food, thirst, scurvy, lice, the constant stench of human waste, and death after death.

An account of this journey survives. It was written by Hans Jacob, a bishop traveling with the Amish group. He wrote it on an old Swiss calendar, and saved it in the back of a Bible:

The 28th of June while in Rotterdam getting ready to start, my Zernbli died and was buried in Rotterdam. The 29th we got under sail and enjoyed only 1-1/2 days of favorable wind. The 7th day of July, early in the morning, died Hans Zimmerman’s son-in-law. We landed in England the 8th of July, remaining nine days in port during which five children died.

Went under sail the 17th of July. The 21st of July my own Lisbetli died. Seven days before Michael’s Georgli had died. On the 29th of July three children died. On the 1st of August my Hansli died and Tuesday previous five children died. On the 3rd of August contrary winds beset the vessel from the first to the 7th of the month, three more children died. On the 8th of August Shambien’s Lizzie died and on the 9th died Hans Zimmerman’s Jacobi. On the 19th Christian Burgli’s child died. Passed a ship on the 21st. A favorable wind sprang up. On the 28th Hans Gasi’s wife died.

Passed a ship 13th of September. Landed in Philadelphia on the 18th, and my wife and I left the ship on the 19th. A child was born to us on the 20th – died – wife recovered. A voyage of 83 days.

My long-ago family would not have recognized the Port of Rotterdam I saw yesterday. Now the largest port in Europe, our tour captain navigated past massive ships with arms stretching into the sky and reaching down to pluck shipping containers from docks and set them on ships, stacking them, one atop the other, like so many building blocks. With its 22 ship-to-shore cranes and 25 floating cranes and 165 container cranes, the port processed 15.3 million containers last year.

Neither could my family have imagined my journey over the same Atlantic waters they crossed at such cost. As I write, I’m flying high above the waves that battered them. In this jet plane, a steward offers me iced drinks and chicken salad and chocolate mousse. I’m breathing purified air and offered a pillow and blanket. No one around me is retching or dying.  What took my family 83 days is taking me eight hours.

The end of any journey brings fatigue and the chance to be cranky. But you can be sure that as I’ve been tempted to complain about a five-second Covid test and a five-row security line and a half-hour delay, I’ve been clamping my mouth shut.

Those Who Stayed and We Who Left

I stepped outside Amsterdam Centraal to find my seatmate on the train had told the truth.

“Look out for the bikes,” she had said. “In Amsterdam, they rule. And they’ll run you down.”

The streets were full of bikes. And in triple-level racks, rows of bikes waited for more riders.

After escaping a few near hits as we dodged trams and cars and motorcycles, but mostly bikes, we were glad to check into our hotel.

Until we looked out the window.

Just a few yards away was a train, on the other side of the tracks boats carried cargo, and just beyond the river, people swung over the edge of a skyscraper on the highest swing in Europe, Amsterdam with all its nightlife at their feet.

But the next morning, we found a quiet place.

On a crowded canal street, we found the nondescript door of Doopsgezind Amsterdam, a Mennonite church that has been meeting in the same building for 400 years. For many of these years, they were a “hidden” church, tolerated as long as no steeples or signs marked their presence.

I can’t understand Dutch. But during the service, I understood plenty—why heads bowed and faces lifted, why we stood to hear scripture, and why they baptized two—one young and one old. I listened to tunes I knew with words I didn’t, except that the English for some songs kept coming to me.

One song I had never heard. But I used Google translate to read its lyrics in the order of service:

What can harm us?

Whatever we suffer,

You hold us by the hand.

As the pipe organ played, I thought of the Anabaptists who had been flayed and drowned in Switzerland and beheaded and burned in Germany. I thought of those who had fled, some to Holland and some even further to America.

And it struck me.

In this hidden spot, just off the Amsterdam streets, we were together again—those who stayed and we who left.

After the service, a man came to me. He had heard of our pilgrimage. And he had something to say.

“A family history,” he said, “can weigh heavily.”

And he is right.

But one hour in that sacred spot lightened the weight.

A Place of Reprieve

After places of torture and death, the small German town of Mengeringhausen, known for its church with a crooked steeple was a delightful reprieve. We walked around the sleepy town where trailing geraniums spilled from the window boxes of timber-framed houses.

But I didn’t think this picturesque town had anything to do with me. ­­­Not until I emailed my father.

“Can you tell me anything about the town of Mengeringhausen?” I asked.

And he could. I don’t know where he found the information. Maybe he ran his fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair as he consulted his mind. Maybe he swiveled his chair and pulled a genealogy book from his shelf. Maybe he used a search bar on his computer.

But his email wasn’t long in coming.

My great-great grandparents, Jacob and Elizabeth Swartzentruber, had lived in Mengeringhausen. Before they immigrated to America, Jacob worked at the town mill.

In his email, my dad told me that Jacob’s step-son Daniel kept a diary of their family’s trans-Atlantic voyage. Here’s how he described the departure:

“On the 9th of May 1833 we started on the great journey. We wanted to start in the morning at 8 o’clock, but on account of bidding so many goodbye [sic] . . . our departure was delayed until 2 o’clock in the afternoonn. . . . The wagon . . . drove off and went through ‘Mengeringhausen,’ where the curious crowd which stood and looked out of the windows, wished them an obliging farewell and a happy journey.

Likely Elizabeth and Jacob and Daniel looked back on their ride out of town, perhaps getting one last glimpse of the crooked steeple. When the Swartzentrubers left Trub, more than a hundred years before, they had fled. This time town folk gave them a sendoff.

I went to bed, glad my father in his study across the Atlantic had sent me a happy story about what happened to our family on this side.