She was lithe and young and beautiful. Her long navy dress with its spaghetti straps looked out of place at the minimal services roadside rest area. Her hair was flawlessly casual, and she washed perfect hands under the free standing sink beside mine. I halted in my handwashing, my hands suddenly still under my own stream of water.
“Wow,” I said softy. “You are all dressed up!”
She laughed. “Oh. Well. Thank-you!”
I finished washing my hands and went around the corner to the side power blow dryer and held my wet hands under its blast. I watched as the skin on my hands rippled and moved under the powerful stream of air, and the skin looked old and droopy — like my Grandma Yoder’s did when I was a little girl, and I watched her peeling peaches or washing dishes or braiding rugs. The similitude startled me and I felt a sudden sense of strangeness with the hands that have been mine all my life. I finished the drying and went back out into the sunlight where Certain Man was waiting on me. He was in his usual good humor, and he smiled when I walked over to him. The smiley crinkles that I love so much ran along those perfect eyes and deepened as I came towards him.
“Are you ready to go?” He asked in his pleasant voice.
“Sure am!” I replied in an effort to keep my voice light, happy. I couldn’t voice the unrest I was feeling, how old and clumsy and worn out and uninteresting I felt. We both got back into the mini-van and headed on down Interstate 81 towards Delaware and Home.
It had been such a restful weekend for me. We had been planning this Yoder campout for almost a year, and it had been on a whim that I had signed up last November. I had thought that maybe even My Sweet Mama would feel good enough to go along, and I had rented a cabin that would hold six people as soon as it became available. But instead of planning and packing for Mama’s comfort, I had spent the week (before we went to the campout) helping my sister in law, Rose, clean out some cupboards in Mama’s house, and we (mostly Rose) had even made great progress in the room that I had dreaded the most — My Daddy’s study. It was a satisfying week, we accomplished a LOT, but there is still a long way to go, and the reminders of the passing of time and my own mortality were rife in the boxes and files and notes of a lifetime. Where did the years go? How did I get to be almost sixty-two? Am I really ten years older than Grandma Wert was when I was born? I mean, she was old! Am I really only two years younger than Grandma Yoder was when I was born? She was ancient!
I felt the years in the pages of the memories that I packaged and brought home to peruse. I felt the years in my bones as I realized that there were a whole lot of things that weren’t going to get done. I felt the years in these replaced knees as Rose crawled around on the floor, getting into places that were just not accessible to me. I felt the years in the weariness that came from activity that, even ten years ago, would have been remedied by a good night’s rest. And it was with a sense of how mortal we all really are that I packed for the weekend away with my cousins, and knew that we would have even fewer faces than we had only a year ago.
The weekend was wonderful. My cousins are mostly older than me, and I looked at the beloved faces and saw the tears and heard the laughter and felt the joy of belonging to a family who knows they aren’t perfect, but still enjoy the heritage and the memories of being a part of Dave and Savilla Yoder’s expansive family. Most of the weekend, there was only one of the older generation there. Uncle Paul came early and stayed to the end. On Sunday, Uncle Jesse and Aunt Gladys and Aunt Miriam put in brief appearances, and there was a smattering of the next generation, but mostly it was the cousins and their spouses, sitting around, talking and remembering. The thing is, from the youngest of the grandchildren to the oldest, there is only 24 years. When you consider that there were sixty-one of us, that’s pretty impressive! Over the years, we’ve lost some — Rhoda Arlene and Steve (Uncle Monroe and Aunt Naomi) Robert and Joseph (Uncle Jesse and Aunt Gladys) and Eugene (Aunt Miriam and Uncle Elmer) but there were 35 of us born in the 50’s. (15 in the 40’s and 11 in the 60’s.) So what that means is that, as cousins, most of us are growing old around the same time. This weekend, along with the memories and songs and eating and tears and laughter, there was talk of retirement and pensions and aches and pains. There were assistive aids and talk of surgeries. We really are getting older. But in that company, with the people I’ve known and loved from my youth, I didn’t feel old. I just felt typical and familiar and ordinary and comfortable.
But now, at this roadside rest, face to face with this adult and vibrant youth, my age and mortality were sitting uncomfortably in the pit of my stomach. “You don’t mind getting older,” I told myself, chiding the wistful longing for the vitality and opportunity that suddenly seemed long gone. “You have always embraced the passing years, relishing maturity and wisdom and experience and the stages of life as they come and go. What is going on here?” I shook back the tears in the seat beside Certain Man and redirected my attention to the book on tape that we were listening to. The stories of James Herriott filled the car and we went on down the road.
I stole a look at the profile of this man that I love most. His observant eyes were on the road, his strong hands on the steering wheel. I saw his muscular arms, tanned dark from his many hours outside on our farm. His hair is silver, his beard white. The glasses have been a constant since before I knew him, but I never think of him looking old. His face is unwrinkled except for those smiley crinkles, cheekbones still that defined, chiseled look above the beard that he has had without reprieve for forty years. I think about the life that we have had together for over forty two years and everything seems so timeless — yet brief. I think about our children, scattered and making their own lives and I think about My Sweet Mama, now home to Heaven, and how very short everything about this life really is.
It’s an old, old story, and it’s been told to every generation from the beginning of time: Life just goes so swiftly. Time doesn’t stop for anyone. Before we know it, we will be — well, HERE! And it hasn’t taken but a blink of an eyelash to get here. And someday, down the corridors of time, but in that not too distant future, our grandchildren and great grandchildren may gather on a lovely September day and talk about the kind of people we were, the loves and misadventures of our lives, and the implications of the mistakes, the value of the successes and the memories they have of who we were and what we did and how we lived our lives and how we died.
And in all of these things, I pray that they laugh. I pray that they will forgive. I pray that the memories will be encouraging and that there will be understanding granted for our humanity. I pray that they will be able to say, as I did this weekend, that when there was nothing else for Grandma Yoder to do but to hold on through the hard times, that she did what needed doing because it was the right thing to do, and she was committed to doing the right thing.
But if they talk of nothing else, I pray that they will speak of the Faith that held me steady. That the One who died for me is a Redeemer, not only of broken lives, but of broken hearts, and bad situations and mistakes and follies and foibles of a woman whose humanity sometimes causes her to catch her breath with longing at that which is gone and can never be regained.
And I pray that they will think of me There!, in that land where we will be forever young, forever whole, forever healthy, and that they will know beyond all doubt that I am more alive at that moment than any of them are. And that there will not be a single thing There! that will cause me to turn a wistful glance towards a long ago past. It will be forgotten. And what I’ll have there will be far better than what I left behind.
Ah, my friends, my cousins, my siblings and most of all, that Man that I Love Most– hear this, once again one of my favorite quotes from the pen of Robert Browning:
“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made. Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half; Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”
And so, for what has been, what is, and what is yet to come, my heart gives grateful, expectant praise.