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Returning to My Amish Father
By Ira Wagler
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To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth—
—Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending—a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.
The Amish have been around for a long, long time. Hundreds of years. Today, around three hundred and thirty thousand of these incredibly unique people are scattered throughout the United States and Canada. Out of seven-plus billion people in the world. For such a small group, they have a tremendous presence in English society—not only in North America but globally. They are much romanticized, but that’s not their fault.
I was born one of them. Ira Wagler, the ninth of eleven children of David and Ida Mae Wagler, who emerged from the remote and rather despised Amish community in Daviess County, Indiana. I was the fifth son of a fifth son. My parents fled Daviess, as Dad was convinced the place was going bad. He didn’t want to raise his family there. So I grew up among my people in smaller communities. It was a long hard road, to break away. I guess I’m the one who remembers and who talks about things a lot, things that happened long ago. I wrote the story of my journey in my first book, Growing Up Amish, published in 2011.
Until my father and a few of his peers launched Pathway Publishers in the 1960s, the Amish never had much of a voice of their own. With Family Life magazine and the other Pathway publications, that voice was presented in a coherent structure for the first time. It was an extraordinary achievement. Nothing like that had ever been attempted before. My father and his peers had a vision and pursued it. With unceasing labor, at great financial risk, and with potential loss of prestige. The venture succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations.
They published a lot of good, solid stuff, especially on historical subjects, and common-sense articles on farming and other issues of specific interest to the Amish. And yet I have always felt that the fictional writings and op-eds published by my father and others at Pathway were less than honest. Too much gooey mush. Too didactic. Too pat. Too formulaic and predictable. All the same answers, all the time. All the loose ends neatly tied up in a little package for the reader to remember.
Maybe they were projecting a moral ideal they knew was impossible. I think they were trying to live that ideal, too. To present themselves and their community as an example. But it’s impossible to be perfect. You can’t be a shining city on a hill by proclaiming your own greatness and glory. And real life isn’t a nice little list of neatly packaged formulas, either. Never has been. Never will be.
Over the years, I have wondered many times if my father and his contemporaries ever questioned the path they chose. The God they served. Did they ever despair that He exists? Question their faith? Or was it always cut and dried, black and white? When their children left and they cut them off cold, did it not tear at them deep inside? The hard, ruthless laws of shunning, did they ever think twice about them? And wish it were not so? Did they ever struggle with such issues? Or did their harsh, cold facades truly reflect their hearts?
I like to think they struggled sometimes. Weren’t so sure of themselves. It would have been human. But I don’t know that. Because they never told us. Maybe they thought it would show weakness. It wouldn’t have. To the contrary, it would have shown strength. And honesty.
And I think, too, of my grandfather, Joseph K. Wagler. My father’s father, a man I never met. Because he died when my father was young. What kind of man was he? I’ll never know. Nothing was ever told, other than the vacant, shallow depictions of a stern, godly father and deacon in the church. There is so much more I wonder about. How he looked. The man he was in the community. As he labored in the fields among his children. The sound of his voice when he prayed the morning prayer and read Scripture aloud in church. What gave him joy? And what were his quirks?
And my great-grandfather, Christian Wagler, who shot himself in the chest back in 1891 when he was thirty-six years old. His destitute widow remained, and his young sons and daughters. Christian was buried as a lost soul, there in the Stoll graveyard in Daviess County, Indiana. They knew, the Daviess people, that he was damned to burn in the fires of hell for all eternity. They knew, too, that the shameful stain of his suicide would haunt his seed forever.
Who was Christian? There are no photos. How did he look? Tall or short? And the demons he faced, in the dark recesses of his tortured soul, that finally overwhelmed him. Why did he do it? How was his last morning? What were his last words?
I’ll never know. I can only conjecture, because no one ever honestly wrote the details at the time. And I accept that. It’s who they were. Some things were just not done. Some layers not peeled back, the dark secrets carefully guarded. The old way, of the old generations.
But they left us poorer for our lack of knowledge of who they were. And who we are. Every culture and every generation brings forth its giants and its common people. Its common stories. Its tragedies. And its epics. But the characters involved cannot be seen and will not be heard and will be forgotten if no one speaks their names.
And tells of them. As they were. In their struggles. Their triumphs. With their flaws. Their impossible visions. Their failures. And their shining accomplishments. As they marched across the stage on which we now play our own roles.
That’s why I write.
It hovered over us like a dark and looming cloud as the holidays approached. December of 2018. The restless winds stirred, we knew that my father was old and very sick and wasting away. He had been around for a long, long time. Ninety-seven years. There wasn’t a lot we hadn’t seen, not when it came to his health. He had dipped down before, he had drifted to the edge of death’s door more than once. But he had always pulled back somehow. He had always returned to attack life as only my father could. Until now. This time, it was different. This time, he kept sinking lower and receding faster as the days slipped by, and then the weeks. Until it became clear to all of us. Dad had reached the end of the road. This time would be the last time.
Time doesn’t stop. It never has, and it didn’t then. Before we knew it, Christmas was knocking on the door. And I wanted to celebrate with friends, to exult in the great joy of all that Christmas is and all it means. And I also knew my father was on his deathbed and would never rise again. It was a formula that yanked my emotions from one side far away to the other. Rolling and pitching around. I’ve learned over the years. In such a time, just keep walking. It’s the only option that makes sense. If you don’t know what else to do, keep walking. And so I did.
Christmas Day. I always sleep in. I got up late and puttered about. Got my free coffee at Sheetz, a popular chain convenience store not far from my house in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They give away their watery black brew on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. You can just walk in and help yourself and wave at the clerk. Soon after eleven, I was ready to head over to my older brother Stephen’s house for lunch, a ten-minute drive to the other side of Leola. A big old Christmas meal, they always serve there. I parked and walked in, holding a bag with a box of assorted Gertrude Hawk chocolates for Wilma. That’s my usual gift to my brother’s wife. The family, the sons and daughters, had arrived earlier to exchange gifts. And right at noon, we all sat around the large table in the dining room and enjoyed lots of rich good food. We sat around and talked afterward. Of course, Dad came up in the conversation. That and my trip the next day.
“I’m packing tonight,” I said. “Loading my Jeep. Tomorrow, early, I head out, up to Aylmer.” That was where Dad was. Back in the land of my birth. Stephen and Wilma wished me safe travels and told me to keep the family informed. I promised I would.
At home, I took my time. Dragged out my big old suitcase and got started packing. Ellen and I bought a set of bright-red soft-shell roller luggage many years ago. She took the cute little carry-on suitcase with her and left me the big one. It was all pretty laid back, how we divided things like that. My big red suitcase has been beaten around a good bit, from airline abuse and general wear and tear. The zipper gets stuck sometimes. It’s more than fifteen years old, which is probably old for luggage. But it does the job for a trip like this. And for a trip like this, I went with my natural inclinations. Throw in everything you might remotely need, right up to the kitchen sink. Jeans, khakis, T-shirts, socks. The black suit I got married in, that went into the garment bag, along with half a dozen good shirts, both dress and casual, black pants, a black sport coat, and a black vest. It got a little bulky, but no big deal. It would all get loaded into the Jeep in the morning.
And that night, it was on my mind pretty strong where I was going. I thought about it. Here I am, all packed up to hit the road early in the morning. Me and my Jeep are heading up to Aylmer to where Dad is. These things all jumbled around randomly inside my head. But I knew. I was preparing to walk into a place I had never seen before. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. I could see them in my mind, protruding from the mists, the great dark spires of the castle awaiting my approach.
And somehow, the prayer came to me, in my head. I remembered the stirring majesty of responsive chants echoing through the vast cathedral where I’d attended a Catholic service during my wanderings many years ago. I could hear it in my head like I heard the priest reading and the people responding. Except in this chant, in this prayer, the priest and the people were one and the same. Me, talking to God. For a calm heart, a clear head, traveling mercies, and strength for the journey, I pray to the Lord. Oh, Lord, hear my prayer.
I slept fitfully. I usually sleep light when my brain knows there’s a full day’s travel ahead. That night, I barely dozed off. At one point early in the morning, I woke up and thought, Maybe I’ll just get up and go. Get a good start. I must have dozed off again, because the next thing I knew, my phone alarm was buzzing at five forty-five a.m. I wanted to be on the road by seven. I shook the cobwebs from my head and got up and showered and dressed. Comfortable clothes. Jeans, a nice checkered shirt, my Danner hikers, and a decently heavy hooded jacket. I was ready. I carried my stuff outside.
I grumbled a good bit at Amish Black, my Jeep, that morning. Those things just don’t have a lot of room. And they’re hard to load. Why, oh why, didn’t I get a four-door while I was at it? Next time, I’ll know better. I slid the seat up and swung the heavy suitcase onto the back seat. I had to squash it in back there. Then the garment bag on top, then boxes of this and that. A couple of winter coats, including my Burberry trench. If I was going to a funeral in Canada in late December, there would be some elements of style involved. Didn’t matter how full the Jeep got. I may or may not have skinned a knuckle getting everything fitted in. I grumbled some more as I pulled out and headed over to Sheetz for my obligatory coffee. I gassed up, too. And a few minutes before seven, me and Amish Black were heading west on Route 23, on the way out. The little Jeep jitters in and out of traffic like a frightened bug, I’ll give it that.
I sipped my Sheetz coffee as we bucketed around Harrisburg and north toward Route 15. And I thought about things as me and my Jeep cruised with the traffic. I had made this trip a lot of times before. Way back in 2012, I think, was one of the first times I drove up to Aylmer to see my parents. Mostly, I went for Mom. She was pretty much out of it with Alzheimer’s, and I remembered how it was. How I recoiled from going to see her, or being around her, for a few years there. I turned my face away. But eventually I went. Walked in. Absorbed that what I had been told was true. I was a total stranger to my own mother. There wasn’t a glimmer of anything that remotely hinted she knew who I was. It doesn’t get much more brutal than that. And I went to see her again the next summer. And then again, before another summer came, this time to her funeral. And then only Dad remained alone.
I thought back through the years and how it felt, driving right down this same road, heading for the same place. And I remembered how I had so desperately longed to reach my father’s heart after I left the Amish all those years ago. How I had tried again and again and again. How we simply could not communicate, not outside the boundaries of his world. And it’s probably not that he didn’t want to, at least I can think that from where I am today. He just didn’t know how. I didn’t know how, either.
It’s a universally powerful thing, the yearning of a child for his father’s acceptance and blessing. The heart can be rejected and crushed and rejected and crushed, over and over, year after year, until that yearning sinks down, somewhere deep inside, and you think it went away. And you give up. But the seed of that yearning never dies. Not in the heart. It never dies.
They remain intense in my memories, all those hurts, the frustrations and bitterness and rage at how it was for all those long years. And now, this late in Dad’s life, something had changed. My father was old, back in those days. And he had been tired for a long time, really, when I look back and remember. Sure, he held on to the fire of who he was for as long as he could grasp it. But with age, a certain mellowness came seeping in. That’s what age does, a lot. It grinds things down. All the way down to where I went to see Dad because he wanted me to come. And that was a strange and wondrous thing, all on its own. That little fact, right there.
There was a wall there once, a wall of solid rock my father could never reach through. Now, so late along, now he wanted me to come, he wanted all of us to come. Now he wanted to see his children, even the ones who had left the Amish. Now. And I thought back through all those years and wondered what it would have been like, had it always been this way. A lot of turmoil could have been avoided, and a lot of pain, too. The thing is, it couldn’t have always been this way.
Because it wasn’t. Because it all happened as it did. That’s circular reasoning, I know. You hold on to what you can grasp, when you look back at things that were, things that can never be changed. It couldn’t have been different, because it wasn’t. The wall was what it was. There are a lot of old wounds buried in the rubble of that wall. And not just mine. They are the wounds of all his children. But that wall couldn’t have come down any other way, I don’t think. No other way than age and time. That’s how I look at it. It couldn’t have, because it didn’t.
And it’s hard sometimes, in your heart, to let the hard things go. But when there’s no other better choice, you have to. For your own sanity, you have to.
Such were my thoughts as I drove this same road many times over the years to see Dad. That was my reason for going, each time. And we went to a few places we hadn’t been before, me and my father. We got some things hashed out, or at least discussed. As old as he was, I figured he probably wouldn’t remember much of what we had talked about for long. But we talked about those things, such as they were, in the moment. I told him some stuff I never figured could ever be said. And he talked to me honestly, like he never had back when I was growing up around him. I am beyond grateful that the opportunity came and that we both took it. And every time I left, I thought this might well be the last trip like this. It never was. He always fought hard to stay alive and stay alert. It was a matter of some pride to him that he had lasted more years than any of his siblings. Not that it makes any difference in the end. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust, like the preacher says. All that is true.
And now. Now I was going to see him again. Maybe this would be the last such drive north. I didn’t know, that day. And I didn’t fret about it. I did think about it, driving along. What should I be focused on as I’m going up to see my dying father? I mean, surely there are profound things a son would naturally mull over in a time like that. I remember thinking, The primary thing you focus on right now is the road. Keep your mind sharp on that. It won’t do you any good to go see Dad if you don’t get there. And I thought, too, God, I know Dad’s suffering. I ask you to take him, even right now, this minute. I’m completely at peace if he leaves before I get there. So feel free. I mean, you are God. Take my father home.
I left the Amish a long time ago. More than half my lifetime. I was twenty-six, going on twenty-seven. And this is how it was, how I felt. They were my people, the Amish, and they would always be, but I could not abide with them. I could not live that way. It was too hard, too maddening. And there had been a long slog over a lot of broken roads before I figured out that I could leave and not be lost. When that truth sank in, I was done. Never again would I wander as lonely or as far as I did back in those years of running and searching. I could almost get nostalgic about it. But nah. I was tired, and I was done.
I thought back on it a lot of times. Now and then, I tried to see it all from the perspective of my parents. How did they feel when I walked away? After all those years and times I returned once more? Then I settled in again and walked right up to the door of marrying Sarah, the beautiful Amish girl. After all that, I turned my back and threw it all away? How did they feel, watching that happen? It had to be hard on them. Both Dad and Mom. It had to be. And looking back at it from here, it seemed like Dad was always opining and admonishing. Mom was quiet. Her silence spoke her pain. She smiled, real enough. But she knew what suffering was. And she knew what loss was, too. The men in her family saw to that, her husband and her sons.
So there they were, my parents, back there when I left for good. There they were, in an awkward place. Wherever he lived, Dad was always a pillar of the Amish community. He was a pillar in the larger Amish world, too. So well known, so widely read, so hugely respected. And here one more of his whacked-out sons went haywire. Threw everything to the winds and ran. People clucked and said what they had said for years: “David Wagler has wild sons. Can’t control them.” It had to be a bitter pill. He kept walking, though, as he knew how.
I remember him talking about Sarah, the beautiful Amish girl I had left behind. Dad had always liked Sarah a lot. He had a special place in his heart for her. Mom did, too. They both looked on her almost as a daughter. Which she came pretty close to being at one point there, I guess. They never could quite let it go, my parents, their visions of what might have been. This is simply an observation, not a judgment. It was what it was. As life mostly is.
I remember Dad telling me, “You wronged that woman. And you will pay for it one day. You can’t treat someone like that, so it doesn’t come back at you. You will pay.” I just stared at him. Outwardly, of course, I shrugged. So what if I had to pay? I probably needed to, in some way. But that’s still better than it would have been, had I stayed. That would have been disaster. I’m glad I didn’t see the mess life would have been, had I not left when I did.
Still. I never forgot my father’s warning, so flatly spoken. What goes around comes around. And I think Dad might have smiled secretly to himself a few times in the years that followed. His words turned out to be prophetic, probably way sooner than he’d ever expected. Straight and true like an arrow, his words were. I did pay for how I treated Sarah. Multiple times on multiple levels, I’d say. The old man knew what he was talking about on that one. Of course, those things always look a lot bigger in the moment, when they’re coming at you. In retrospect, after the passing of years, it all levels out a little. And you realize a lot of that hard stuff from way back when, a lot of that was just life. Other people go through things like that, too, maybe way harder things than you did. It’s a little unsettling when that raw little truth comes knocking on the door.
It took long enough to hit me. I certainly had little grasp of what it all meant back when Dad warned me I would pay for how I had treated Sarah. This was right at the time I was settling into my post-Amish world. Back in Daviess. That was where I headed instinctively. I didn’t have a lot of connections anywhere. No real network of any kind. So I went to the land that harbored the roots of my family from both sides. And Daviess welcomed me.
It’s hard, remembering after all these years. What it felt like to walk from my Amish world into an English one. Well, at the beginning of my new life, there were some remnants of Plainness among the Mennonites. The Plain Mennonites were a stepping stone, pretty much. But they treated me with kindness and respect. Overall, I have good memories of the Mennonites and Daviess. It was a new place with new dimensions, my post-Amish world.
In such a world, you get to go buy yourself a car.
The year was 1988. I had saved a decent stake from working in the factories in northern Indiana, a stash of $9,000. It seemed like a small fortune, more money than I had ever seen before at one time. I took half of that and bought an ugly tan-gold T-Bird, a 1984 model, if I remember the year right. Me and that old T-Bird traveled tens of thousands of miles on the open road and saw a lot of life together over the next few years.
I worked construction in Daviess right after I got there. That was about the only real marketable skill I had. My pay was next to nothing. I boarded in a little trailer house owned by my Wagler friends, the family that had taken me in years ago when a lot of turmoil was going on around me. They were distant relatives, Dean and his brothers. The trailer house was set up nicely on one of their turkey farms. And I settled into my move from the Amish world into a modern world.
On Sundays I went to Mount Olive Mennonite Church. They had a few habits that I wasn’t used to. Most notably, they had church services on Wednesday nights as well as Sunday mornings. Wednesday-night prayer meeting. Sitting in church had never been on my list of favorite activities. Attending an Amish church service meant sitting on a hard bench for a long time. Your back got tired, and you might or might not hear something you would actually remember from the sermon.
Mount Olive is a pretty strict place. Lots of grim-faced men peered around suspiciously to make sure nobody was having too much fun. Life was serious. Our somber faces must always reflect some degree of awareness of that fact. Too much smiling was unseemly and ultimately sinful. It reminded me a little bit of the old Aylmer people, way back in my childhood, how humorless they had been.
I remember my first Wednesday-night service at Mount Olive. I wasn’t used to going to church during the week. But I was told that was how the Mennonites did it. And seeing how I was fixing to join the Mennonites, I might as well get used to it. (I never did.) The prayer meeting was kind of like a Bible study, really, except it was the whole church. Someone had a topic of some sort. The topics were short sermons and were usually dry as a bone. There was a lot of admonishing going on, about what it meant to live right. And lots of Amens. After the topic that first night, we split off into small groups. I tagged along with the little group of youth as we walked down to the basement. We sat in a circle, and someone asked for prayer requests. People said things like “We need rain. Crops are real dry.” Or “Let’s pray for so-and-so, that he’ll get saved.” I can’t remember a personal, vulnerable request ever coming from anyone. Judgment would have been too harsh.
That Wednesday, after the requests were gathered, someone started praying. A short prayer, maybe a minute or two. Then the next person in the circle prayed. I stirred and looked around in panic. The prayers were creeping right around the circle, and soon it would be my turn. I had never prayed aloud in public. I didn’t know how. What should I say? The guy next to me was taking his turn. He prayed, and then it was my turn.
I remember that time only because of that frozen moment. I sat there, silent and paralyzed. I couldn’t speak. After an agonizing five or ten seconds, I waved my hand. I pass. And mercifully, the guy on the other side of me didn’t hesitate. He prayed his little prayer. And it went on around the circle until it was finished. Nobody mentioned anything about how I had not prayed. But I felt pretty ashamed. At the next prayer meeting, I managed to squeak out a few words. It was hard to force myself. I just didn’t come from a place like that. In time, I got to be decently fluent in speaking aloud to the Lord. But my spoken prayers were never long. They still aren’t. Not anything like the unspoken prayers in my heart. Those prayers go on and on, every day, like a preacher who doesn’t know when it’s time to shut up and sit down. I’m OK with that, though. I think the Lord is OK with that, too.
A nuanced account...[Ira's] tale of restlessness looks acutely at the clash of family ties with love of freedom. The memoir is worthwhile as much for its Amish insights as for its exploration of one man's emotional turmoil, regret, and shame."
—Publishers Weekly on Growing Up Amish
- In this wonderful sequel to Growing up Amish, Wagler repairs the broken roads-the endless rifts with his father and others.
- On Sale
- May 12, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages