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.

Party and Torture

At Trachselwald Castle, we found a party. Accordion music, a chocolate fountain with fruit to dip, and a market in the castle square where vendors sold cheeses, handcrafted wares, and wine.  

If I hadn’t known what was in the tower above, all this levity would have seemed like a fairy tale, like what I’d imagined I’d enjoy in Europe. But the tower was up there, and we climbed up and up and up, circling on narrow stone steps, sometimes almost as steep as a ladder.

When we arrived at the top, the mood changed. Steps slowed, voices muted, and faces became guarded. We shivered in the dark, cold stone cells. And I tried to imagine being held prisoner, lying on the hard wooden bed while I wondered if morning would bring torture or death or both.

Across the hall was the torture chamber. Sobered by the ball and chain and a device to swing prisoners in circles, I was most gripped with the hole in on the torture shelf. It was needed for bowels that loosened during twisting tortures. I stood silent, my own insides churning with these thoughts.

In the hall outside the torture chamber were signatures of other Anabaptists who had come to pay honor to those who suffered here for faith. We found the names of people we knew. And we added our names.

But then I noticed other signatures. . These had been carved into stone, not pressed easily into wood with a pen. These signatures took what prisoners had—time.

We wound back down the steep stone steps, back down to the accordion music and chocolate and cheese and wine.

And as we left the castle, I thought about how often I have partied while others mourn.

My Family’s Version of the Hiding Place

“I keep seeing grey-haired women and thinking they’re you,” my son said.

We were in Guggisberg, Switzerland, where we had happened upon a festival. The town was celebrating its 1000th birthday.

I knew what he meant. The cheese maker stoking a wooden fire looked like my cousin. The straight-backed and full-throated people singing Swiss folk songs around a table could have been my aunts and uncles. Two women walked toward us on a path.

“They’ve got to be Brennemans,” I said to my husband.

We drove through the countryside to the Swartzentruber farm. Here my ancestors cultured milk over small fires and pulled the newly-forming cheese into cheesecloth so it could be pressed into molds. Here they cut the meadow grass with scythes, dried it in the sun, and raked it up to store in barns as winter feed for their cows. Here they kept an ear toward the ringing of the cow bells, as their livestock grazed sometimes out of view in the hilly landscape.

I stood still and listened. And from across the meadows flowered by mountain cowslip and heathers and buttercups, came the melodic sounds of cowbells, still chiming 500-some years later. What peace, I thought.

Except that in the barn just up the lane was our family’s version of the hiding place. In the barn that sheltered cows during harsh winters when deep snow covered the pastures from November to April and avalanched down the mountain, was a secret room. And in that room my family hid when they were hunted.

Anabaptists, my family had broken from the state reformed church. So that church and the government of Bern threatened them with expulsion, imprisonment, torture, and death. But sympathetic neighbors lower on the mountain signaled a secret code when Anabaptist hunters came riding. That’s when my family quit turning meadow grasses and pressing cheese, and disappeared through an inconspicuous trap door into the concealed room on the lowest level of the barn.

These were my people, I thought as cowbells chimed and meadow flowers swayed—in such a peaceful place with such danger looming.

Back at the festival in Guggisberg, I bought a cowbell. I’m going to hang it in my house . . . and remember.

A Cascade of Unfortunate Travel Events

Our bumbling—my husband’s and mine—set off a cascade of unfortunate travel events. And as a result, our three-generation family group was separated, finding ourselves in three locations: two in a train headed for Switzerland, one in the Milan train station, and five in a train headed for Milan.

What happened?

All set to board a train, Steve and I remembered we had forgotten to activate our Eurail passes. Since we had ordered old-time paper passes, we had to go to a ticket center with a long line. And our son, likely doubting our capabilities (though he was much too gracious to say so), came to help . . . and we’ll spare you the details from there.

All that day, we wondered when we’d get together again. And if we’d miss riding the Glacier Express through the Alps. All that day we searched for new routes on phones losing their charges, wishing our chargers and our computers and everything else we needed hadn’t been left behind to burden those already managing their own luggage.

That evening when Steve and I watched the last train pull into St. Moritz, we didn’t know if our kids and grandkids were on that train. But they were.

Today, God willing, we plan to ride through the Alps. And together!

People sometimes think it’s brave to travel with kids. But obviously seniors—who do well when they remember they forgot—are the greater liability.

Leavin’ on a Jet Plane

When a plane flew overhead, it marked our day. My brothers and I lived, after all, in the mountains, a hundred miles from the nearest airport, and in a time when many still traveled by rail. So when we spotted a plane, we’d stop naming the clouds, no longer caring one was a ship sailing across the sky and another a face staring down at us—three kids in our yard. We’d watch the plane’s tracks fade into blue and wonder how someone could get lucky enough to fly.

Until I was forty-years old I didn’t. My first flight at the roundtrip cost of $38, was one hour long—from Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago, Illinois. But in that hour, I knew I had been right as a kid. To fly is to be fortunate.

And I haven’t lost the marvel. In the many times I’ve flown since, I want to elbow the people around me—the ones who close their eyes and plug their ears and pull down the shades.

“Look down,” I want to say. “And you’ll see how the world fits together—the checkerboard fields and rivers running down mountains and across the land and into the ocean. From up here, you can look down on clouds.”

I sometimes wonder if there are still wide-eyed kids down there staring up from their yards, hoping a plane will streak across the sky.

In a few minutes, I’ll board a plane. We’re meeting our son and his family in Rome and traveling with them through Switzerland and Germany and the Netherlands. We’re going to see the sights—ride the Glacier Express through the alps, boat through canals, visit art museums, and hike in the Black Forest. We’re also going to trace church history—explore how the reformers broke from the Catholics and how the Anabaptists (including our forebears) broke from the reformers.

We’ll walk through the villages and farms where our long-ago family lived and visit places they hid before they fled from persecution, first in Switzerland and then in Germany. Finally, we’ll tour Rotterdam, the port city in the Netherlands, where they boarded ships to journey to America.

For months we’ve been planning this Rome to Rotterdam trip.

But right now, I’m going to board a plane and be amazed. A 400-hundred-ton metal cylinder, carrying a cabin-load of passengers and all their stuff, will lift off from the ground and soar across the sky.

My Last Lecture; My Last Call To Do Good in the World

After teaching thousands of classes, today I taught my last. At least in a formal sort of way.

Seven years ago, I retired from full-time teaching, but since then I’ve been teaching education classes as an adjunct. Today, I gave my last lecture, led my last student exercise, and issued my last call to do good in the world.

And I received my last teacher gift. Apples, fragrance, candles, pens, paintings, clocks, pads of paper, and packs of pencils—all these gifts and more have filled my desk for decades on the last days of school. Some of these gifts are still scattered around my house.

Today’s gift symbolizes for me what I hope I’ve done at least a few times in my thirty-seven years of teaching. It’s a book, handmade by a student.

And on its cover, my student painted her interpretation of a poem. In “Root Cellar” by Roethke, feisty plants refuse to give up life in a damp, dark cellar filled with mold and manure. In this cellar, Roethke says, even the dirt keeps breathing a small breath.

But my student didn’t stop with Roethke’s imagery. In her dark and gloomy painting, she hung lightbulbs.

“Thanks for giving me hope,” she said when she handed me the book she created.

What she can’t realize is how much hope she and her classmates have given me.

Today I spent a moment of class, just looking at faces.

My grandchildren, I thought, would be in good hands with them.

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.