The house phone rang into the evening quiet of the farmhouse at Shady Acres. It was my cousin, Julia. I listened to her voice carry over the miles from Virginia. It was tentative with uncertainty underlying the pleasant tenor of her familiar voice. I wondered what was in her heart.
We were planning a family reunion together, and the time was getting closer. The details had come together in usual Yoder fashion, with lots of last minute questions and glitches, and we were drawing a sympathetic sigh of relief that things were finally pretty well finalized, and it looked like everything was going to be okay. Shew!
For Julia, though, the weekend was carrying a significant weight of an unfinished task, left to her nearly two years ago when her mother, my Aunt Mimmie had passed away.
Aunt Mimmie. The youngest of the family of David and Savilla Yoder. Growing up was hard for her, and the deficits that she experienced before coming to Grandpa and Grandma’s house were probably not really understood. She had severe malnutrition resulting in Rickets and she suffered long term effects from the care she hadn’t received as an infant. In spite of being a slow learner in school, she learned how to keep house, cook and was probably the best “ironer” there ever was. She married when she was 20, gave birth to three children in the first five years and then abandoned them and her husband about five years later for a new life in Virginia. D was 9, Julia 7 and E was almost 6. In the chaotic and confusing years that followed, her three children paid dearly for the choices that she made. Their Daddy and other family members tried hard to pick up the slack and fill in the gaps, but nothing was really good enough to compensate for the lack of a loving, present mother in their lives.
Each of the three children have their stories, but Julia is the one that is in my heart. We were not close as children, and there is much that she has chosen to forgive me from our past. Never feeling quite accepted by either her mother’s family nor the church community, Julia stumbled through some devastating adolescent and early adult years searching for resolution of the inner pain and for someone to love her. She moved to Virginia, to her mother’s area, in her twenties, hoping to find a safe place for herself, and also searching for that “someone” who would help her make a stable and nurturing home for herself and her young daughter.
It was also, in all probability, an attempt to mend the relationship with the mother who had traded so much for so little; a mother who would live the rest of her almost 83 years in those Virginia hills, living in a marginal mountain house with an abusive and alcoholic man for over 30 years, working in a local hospital in Environmental Services for 27 years, then divorcing her second husband to marry someone she met at work. I am certain that Aunt Mimmie loved her third husband, and that he loved her, but the relationship was complicated and muddled, and frequently there was not enough money.
While there was, of course, increased contact between Julia and Aunt Mimmie, the relationship was anything but satisfactory. Julia, her life back on track, successful in a job, her daughter grown, tried hard to understand her mother, providing groceries and essentials in those last years, but always feeling like there was so much more needed. The animosity between them was almost tangible, leaving both of them on edge and caustic. There were times when Julia brought her mother along to Delaware for a family reunion or the death of a sibling, and they would stay with us. My heart often broke for Julia as I observed her mother’s unkindness towards her. I remember saying to someone following one of those visits, “I just do not understand why Aunt Mimmie is so resentful of Julia! It’s almost as if she is hoping that Julia will fail. And not just hoping, but trying to make it happen. It doesn’t make any sense to me. She should be so proud of how Julia has redeemed the wasted years of her life!” But it appeared that she wasn’t, and I watched with deep sadness how Julia gave up hope of ever having a relationship with this highly irregular person who had given her birth. She formed a protective shell that kept the hurt at bay, and invested in her husband and daughter and grandson, even while doing what she felt was her duty– picking up groceries, sometimes paying bills, checking up on her well-being. And Aunt Mimmie kept getting older and older.
Then, in 2019, Aunt Mimmie fell ill and in late December, less than two weeks shy her 83rd birthday, she passed away, leaving a final instruction for Julia. “Scatter my ashes on the old home place in Delaware where I grew up,” she insisted on more than one occasion, “I want to be back home.”
So after the memorial service, the attractive box came to Julia, who had promised. She promptly wrapped it up and stuck it on a closet shelf. “Every time I open that closet door,” she confided to me one time, “I say, ‘I know you’re in here, Mama!!!” She said it with a self conscious little laugh, but it actually weighed heavily on her. Our extended family was supposed to have a gathering at the old home place in September of 2020, and early on, Julia expressed a desire to have a bit of a memorial and scatter the ashes at that time. Bit COVID happened, and the reunion got rescheduled for a year later. This was where we were at last. September, 2021. The reunion was held in Dover, 30 miles north of the farm, with no plans to do a memorial and scatter the ashes. However, Julia needed to finish this chore, and she said that she was going to bring them along.
“I think,” she told my younger sister, Alma (who, along with her husband Jerrel, has lived on the home place for over 35 years) “that I’m just going to drive by and throw them out as I go past.”
Alma did not think this was the greatest idea. “It’s kinda creepy to me,” she told me later, “to think that Aunt Mimmie’s ashes might be anywhere, blowing around the property.” I was pretty sure that Julia had no intentions of actually doing that, but I also thought that something wasn’t right. I decided to talk to her about it the next time that we talked and ask her if she wanted me to go with her after the reunion to spread her mother’s ashes. It didn’t seem like it was the sort of thing anyone should have to do alone. This is what was feeding the uncertainty in her voice when she called me. I brought it up and made my offer, she readily accepted, and we began to plan.
The reunion was a wonderful time! There was incredible food, a rousing outdoor auction, good fellowship and wonderfully reminiscent singing. All the stuff that good family reunions are made of. It was over at noon on Sunday, and Julia and I planned to go in the later afternoon to honor Aunt Mimmie’s last request. We came home, Julia took a short rest, but she was restless, and I sensed that she was “dreading the doing, but anxious to have it done.” There didn’t seem any good reason to delay. We had agreed that we wanted “Amazing Grace” piped in from the car stereo and that a prayer would be said.
We collected gloves, the box and and set out. I was scarcely down the road when I heard Julia weeping in the passenger’s seat. The heartbroken words came tumbling over each other so interspersed with the sobs that I could barely understand them. I looked over at my cousin and thought about what it would be like to be doing this one final chore for someone so significant as a mother with so many bad memories and nearly alone. I heard the anguish in her voice and it sounded to me like the voice of her little brother, sitting under the open window of a classroom at Greenwood Mennonite School, some 50 years ago. “I want my mommy,” sobbed the confused, abandoned little boy. “I want my mommy!” But that mommy was never there for him again. She came to his funeral when he drowned at 17, but it was too late.
I looked at my beautiful cousin, weeping, crumpled on the seat beside me, and thought of a song that had been rattling around in my head so often in recent weeks and I asked her if I could put it on. I said to her, “This may apply more for your Daddy than your Mama, but it’s also for you . . . “
(Excerpt) “ . . . ‘Cause there’s a wound here in my heart where something’s missing
And they tell me that it’s gonna heal with time
But I know you’re in a place where all your wounds have been erased
And knowing yours are healed is healing mine
The only scars in heaven, they won’t belong to me and you
There’ll be no such thing as broken, and all the old will be made new
And the thought that makes me smile now, even as the tears fall down
Is that the only scars in heaven are on the hands that hold you now
I know the road you walked was anything but easy
You picked up your share of scars along the way
Oh, but now you’re standing in the sun, you’ve fought your fight and your race is run
The pain is all a million miles away . . .”
She listened and sobbed quietly and then the song finished and the sobbing settled into an occasional sniffle. She talked about life with her Mama the last few miles, then we pulled in to the long farm lane leading back to the ditch bank at the edge of the first farm field of the old home place.
I parked the minivan, started Amazing Grace on the speakers, turned them up high, and together we went to the back of the van, donned gloves, carried the decorative box across the autumn weeds to a rise in the ditch bank, and surveyed the area. I looked questioningly at my red-eyed cousin.
“I think this is far enough,” she said simply, and I agreed. I pulled the surprisingly heavy bag from the box and looked at Julia. Neither of us quite knew what to do next. Untie the ribbon? Who should do what? The bag that held the earthly remains of a person we knew and loved weighed like dark wet sand in my hands.
“Do you want to hug her one more time?” I asked impulsively, and held it out to her.
“Oh, Mama!” Cried Julia, and wrapped it to her chest and wept again. Then we opened the bag and together, broadcasted handfuls of ashes into the quiet September evening until the bag was nearly empty. Somewhere behind us the strains of “Amazing Grace” were echoing sweetly. We emptied the remaining ashes into the weeds at our feet, a prayer was said, and Julia said, “Rest in peace, Mama. I’ve done what I promised you I’d do . . .”
And she had! The relief was tangible, the freedom was remarkable. The spot in the closet was empty and the cloud was gone. It took courage and commitment and determination . . . And she wrapped it up in forgiveness and put it away, somewhere in the corner of her memory and heart, and when she takes it all out to remember, it is my prayer that she could hear her Mama say in her heart, the words she never heard in her life, “You done good, Julia-girl. I surely do love you!”