My Daddy’s study. Spiral notebooks of my Daddy’s careful sermon notes, reference books, history books, family pictures, boxes and boxes of correspondence, endless files of minutes from various local church and school committees as well as incredible amounts of detailed secretary’s notes that he took from conference committees through the 70’s and 80’s and beyond. There were school yearbooks, conference reports, even private files that held the responses of church members dealing with church problems before Daniel and I were back from Ohio. (I refused to read them, but rather discarded with abandonment and even a sense of having no right to know any of it when I would discover such incriminating evidence. Did he have to keep this??? Was this something that would ever be necessary for posterity???)
When we left for Claytor Lake State Park in Virginia one Thursday afternoon in September, I was to the point of not wanting to go. I was bone weary and soul depleted. There had been incredible amounts of canning, bean picking, laundry, sorting, bill paying, estate work, State reports for OGN and Cecilia to get into the proper persons, and the ordinary household chores that needed doing. I had been determined that I was going to get it all done before we left, and I fell far short of my goal. My sister in law, Rose, had done a lion’s share of the physical work at Mama’s house that week, but I felt the pull of all the essence of my parent’s home and their very lives being drained away by the decisions I was making concerning their “stuff” and nothing felt “right.” It may be possible to read every card ever written to Mark Yoder over the course of his life, (including his teen years) but is that the proper use of time? Do I take a year of my life to organize all the papers, all the files, all the notes, all the sermons, all the tax returns, all the medical and financial records just so they are organized? And then what? Who wants them? I would like to know what is in all those pages and pages of information, but then what? My siblings and I conferred (as well as the in-laws) and they all said the same thing: Unless something is legally important, or specific to your particular family, Don’t Save It! (With the exception of Daddy’s sermon notes — those are in high demand among the grandsons.)
And so, I would run a perfunctory eye over files, riffle through committee notes, check the correspondence for personal letters from or to family members (and that alone was voluminous!) and then turn my head and put them in the large dumpster. Over and over again my siblings would reassure me, “Mary Ann, we just can’t save everything!” And they were right, of course, but it was still one of the hardest things I have ever done.
Late that Wednesday afternoon, I left My Sweet Mama’s house barely able to hold back the tears until I was in my car and out of the driveway. Much of my time that afternoon had been spent going through cards, letters, birth announcements, engagement announcements and wedding invitations that had been sent to my grandparents, Michael and Alma Wert, from Daddy and Mama and my siblings and their families. The years that were marked in that brown manila envelope were full and exciting and so far gone. I had read a letter that I had written to my grandparents while I awaited the birth of our third child, telling about five year old Christina and two year old Deborah and the excitement I felt over the new baby coming. I held the birth announcement for that baby, and thought about Raphael, now older than I was when I wrote that letter. I drove along the familiar road through the small town of Greenwood and tried to see through the tears. I rounded the corner at 16 and 36 and came down the road towards Milford. The brick church by the side of the road with the familiar cemetery was on the right and there were no cars in the parking lot. I pulled my van up beside the steps going into the graveyard and stopped.
I had not been to Mama’s grave since the day we buried her except for the day we buried Uncle Eli. In the days following Daddy’s death, I had stopped often, sometimes going in the dark, sometimes in the rain, usually in the winter cold, but always feeling such a need to somehow be where we had laid his mortal remains to rest. I knew he wasn’t there, but the part of my Daddy that I could see and touch and talk to was down there — somewhere, and I felt like I could talk to him there. And I would! I always ended up with my heart turned toward my Heavenly Father and there was where I found comfort. However, I always felt better after being there. With Mama, it’s been different. To think of her body being there — and knowing how she always wanted to be carefully dressed and combed and smelling good and attractive, and knowing how she hated being alone and cold — well, that has been a huge hurdle for me. It’s just been easier not to go. But on this day, I needed to be there, the place where we had laid her to rest, and I needed to tell her my heart, and to sob out the grief and heart pain and indecision and questioning that was eating away at my resolve to be strong and upbeat and cheerful. I traced her name against the hard stone, and thought about her life and the last weeks that took her away from us. Even as I acknowledged that the Mama we knew had been starting to slip away, it was still this horrible, empty place in that house that was always so cheery and welcoming, and this horrible empty place in my heart where this woman, who gave me life so often gave me comfort or encouragement or just plain took my part — whether I was justified in “my part.” Or not.
I finally pulled myself away. There was so much yet to do. The tears ran on and on down my face as I headed my mini-van out onto Shawnee Road and headed towards Shady Acres. The sun was heading down the sky behind me and I felt keenly the weight of sorrow and grief and loss that seemed to be embodied in the discarding of the things that were important to the lives of my Precious Daddy and Sweet Mama.
The weeks have passed. Almost six to be honest. I haven’t been back to my Mama’s house since that day. It’s hard to go without one of my sisters with me and they have both had incredibly unpredictable weeks this last while. And on days when it may have suited them, it didn’t suit me. But this excuse has come to an end with the return of my brother, Nel and his good wife, Rose, for a few days. Tomorrow, it looks like we go back to the fray. And I will be glad to be there with good support and diversion and helping hands.
But I also dread it. I keep thinking about that house — particularly that spot where her chair sat so that she could keep an eye on everything, and be a part of everything that went on in her big room that was so full of light. Her bird that she loved, and that she pampered and talked to, is now here at Shady Acres in the care of Deborah. I come down in the mornings sometimes and take off the polyester wrapping cloth of pale blues and white that Mama always used. He looks up at me and chirps his questioning noise.
“Good morning, Pretty Bird,” I often say to him as he hops about in the cage she bought for him. And then I often find myself saying, “Oh, Pretty Bird! Do you miss her, too? Do you miss her as much as I do?” He’s just a bird, but his morning songs comfort me as I remember that last day, as she was sinking fast, how he burst into song on that long afternoon and sang and sang. He — here at our house. She — there in the sunny corner room at the Country Rest Home. He doesn’t often sing in the afternoon, and Middle Daughter, noting the song, told me later that she felt certain that Grandma was about to head on HOME.
HOME. That’s where she is. She is safe. She is happy. She is with Jesus. She is warm and comfortable and healthy. She is where there is no night. She is not lonely. She has no need to cry. She is never afraid. She has no more pain. She isn’t being bossed around. She is beautiful. She is alive.
The thing I miss most, of course, is the conversations I had with Mama. Last week, I wrote a note to her, briefly touching on a number of subjects — things that I would develop into a longer conversation if she were here to participate. This is what it said:
Ah, Mama. I wish I could talk to you today! The leaves are falling without changing much color this year, and the beans got froze out early. I saw a robin and his mate at the outdoor bird watering station in the cold. Doesn’t he know its time to fly south? The hummingbirds are gone. Aunt Gladys has two new great grandbabies, and they are both Naomi’s sons’ children, born less than forty hours apart. The church building is coming along. This morning, Daniel talked to the person who called 911 for us. That was so interesting. It seems impossible that a year ago, we were waiting for word of Frieda’s homegoing — and now you are there with her. We couldn’t know how soon you would leave us, it’s true, but I’m so glad we didn’t. I don’t know if I could have borne that. Rachel finally found a job, and will be moving to Washington, D.C. next month. She placed third in the Pennsylvania Society of Clinical Social Work’s annual awards for Clinical Excellence. Our chickens are almost ready for market and we want to go to Ohio and see Raph and Gina and the boys. We still aren’t finished cleaning out your house. It’s mostly done, but I think I’m allergic to something in that house. Everytime I go in, my eyes water and my nose runs . . .
So much to tell you, Mama. And no more time.
The thing is, as I looked over this note, I realized something. I was wrong about something. That business about the leaves falling without changing colors. That’s how it looked about ten days ago. The leaves were falling off our trees and they were brown and green and nothing else. But something happened on the way from then to now. I’ve had the chance over the last three days to observe a number of woodlands and ponds and lakes — and the leaves are more beautiful than I have ever seen. it has to be the prettiest display that Delaware has had for — well, maybe forever! And I cannot get this off my mind. I was so wrong about the leaves. Maybe, just maybe I am wrong about this, too. Maybe this grief that right now looks so dark and colorless and even “terminal” is going to surprise me someday with its color and life and beauty.
Maybe. And not just “maybe.”
I have to believe that the word is more like “Probably.”
And for that hope, my heart gives grateful praise.