A Trip Down Memory Lane

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I suppose it is a bit impolite, especially in the age of the telephone, to drop in unannounced?

Oh well, I had already made my way down the long drive flanked by soybeans, to the old farmhouse behind the barn, entered through the little gate of the white picket fence, and was currently deciding what to do after ringing the doorbell twice with no response.

Earlier, this bright sunny September day, on my way from Sunday liturgy to coffee hour, I had received a text message from Lilian, my younger sister, inviting me to a fellowship meal at my old church. She told me about a special service to honor two elderly couples, both ordained leaders from my youth, and this presented a bit of a dilemma—do I go or not?

Since becoming an Orthodox Christian I had made as clean a break as I could from my conservative Mennonite past. In fact, the last regular service I’ve attended was several years ago. The circumstances of my leaving were not the most pleasant and I’ve avoided returning for various reasons. But, in this case, my loyalties overruled my trepidation, I had been invited and wanted to show my appreciation.

However, by the time I had arrived only one of the two couples remained. Pastor Sam and his wife Donna had already left for home.

I had missed the opportunity to wish them well.

Or, perhaps not?

My mother suggested what I was already thinking: I could go visit them at their home a few miles away from the church, take a couple of minutes to chat, express my gratitude and then be on my way again. So, after making my rounds, greeting the other couple, I headed down the road.

Anyhow, I’m at the door of the house, waiting, nobody answered the doorbell. So, while being bold, I decided to continue on with boldness. The door was unlocked (not unusual for rural Pennsylvania), I poked my head into the entry, cautiously ventured down the hall, “hello?”

They must’ve heard the doorbell. I was just inside the door when Donna came out from the back of the house and greeted me with a warm smile.

She told me she would get Sam and left me in the living room. I looked around. I debated where to sit. The old wingback chairs or antique couch? The furniture and decor remained largely unchanged from my last visit a few years ago, by appearances, which is comforting for someone like me who is oftentimes overwhelmed by the pace of change.

But one thing was different, that being the whirring sound of a compressor, which was plugged in near the door of the room, with an oxygen tank on top and various air tubes radiating out from the device.

Sam’s health, according to my mother, had declined precipitously since our last interaction.

He has had an ongoing heart issue and, more recently, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a lung ailment that does not come with a good prognosis. I had last seen him a few months earlier in his barbershop of sixty years, “Masters Style Shop,” (where his son and a grandson worked beside him for many years) and didn’t know what to expect.

He was out of breath and labored to talk.

But, despite his difficulties, his good humor and the mischievous smile remained.

I had to think of those times, decades before, where he would turn on the overhead projector, slap down the transparency with lyrics, and confidently, in his distinctive baritone voice, lead the congregation in a familiar song, “I’m so glad to be part of the family of God!” It was a sad day when he had retired. The character of the church, those founding couples, was fading into my childhood.

Sam had a way of speaking, a charisma, that captivated me and reminded me of the late Billy Graham.

Sam had always taken a special interest in everyone, including me. We would always talk about the high school football score in the fall. He knew that I had played, we would chat a little, and something of his demeanor always left me feeling cared about.

He had been born in the very room that we were sitting in. The farm had been in the family that long. Sam, and his wife Donna, are fixtures in the community, the kind of people who can be relied upon. They were Lutheran before finding a place in the Mennonite church, people of devout and sincere faith. Sam also served in the military as a young man.

The short visit Sunday turned into a couple of hours, their home a very hospitable place and there was little doubt that this may be my last chance to spend time with this venerable man. I would have probably stayed later, but could no longer keep Charlotte waiting and knew that it would be selfish to stay much longer. So, after introducing Charlotte (on the other side of the world) through video call, we said our goodbyes.

Wilbur S. “Reds” Corderman, 81, born April 3, 1939, passed into eternity on Monday, September 14, 2020.

Spaghetti in Grandma’s Kitchen

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Every moment spent with someone we love is precious.  But there are also those special and defining moments that stand out from the others.  The places where these memories were forged later become sacred reminders and a reason to reflect on love and life.

Grandma’s Kitchen

One of those significant places is my grandma’s kitchen.  Her kitchen table was once the hub that the family farm revolved around.  It was what met you walking through the front door, and was the central space of the home where my mother and her siblings were raised.

In years past, there was a fierce-eyed matriarch (the perfect complement and companion to the strong-willed patriarch) pacing about her domain.  Grandpa and the boys would come in for a break from their work and Grandma would be ready with a hot meal.

It was not an extravagant kitchen.  The decor, updated last in the 1980s as I recall, was nothing like those glossy magazine showplaces; it was a functional workspace and guarded by an extraordinary woman…the cooking area virtually off-limits to everyone (including my mom) at one time.

Nevertheless, it was a welcoming and warm place.  I remember many good meals, lively conversations, and happy moments around Grandma’s kitchen table.

Spaghetti with Mashed Potatoes

In recent years, I typically planned my visits with the intent to avoid mealtimes.  I knew my grandma would never let me leave without at least offering me something to eat, and I wanted her to relax rather than worry about preparing food for me.  But I would occasionally stopover before dinner because what bachelor can resist a home-cooked meal?

It was one of those occasional times when I stopped in around dinnertime.  Grandpa and I were talking at the table.  Grandma offered to cook a meal and as soon as she got the answer she was looking for there was no stopping her.  Promptly commenced sounds of steaming pots, frying ground beef, and clanking spoons, and an aroma of smells that would soon lead to a hearty meal.

That evening, an old standby recipe was served: spaghetti along with mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.  Spaghetti and mashed potatoes, strange as it might sound, is an absolutely wonderful amalgamation.  Served with Coke, provided as a special treat for us grandchildren.

I know I had seconds and probably even heaping even a third portion, in an awareness that this was an experience that might not continue much longer.  Perhaps my awareness was due to my consciousness of the frailty of life heightened by the suspicious lumps (swollen lymph nodes on her neck) she showed me that night.

It was, in fact, the last meal my grandma would ever serve me.  After that, tests revealed the lymphoma, ushering in a new chapter of chemotherapy and a precipitous decline.

My Opportunity to Serve

Grandma quit cooking while being treated, and; despite eventually winning the battle against cancer, she never did return fully to her former strength.  A mix of dementia and Parkinson’s disease began to erode her abilities.  Her process memory faded away, making her once nearly-unconscious routines into an impossible task.

It was during this time that I stopped in one day to chat around the table.  Before heading out the door, I jokingly made an offer to provide a meal and then quickly added with a smile, “it will need to be spaghetti; that is the only thing I’m good at making…”

“Nobody has brought us spaghetti,” they responded with pleading eyes.

To my surprise, none of the children (who took turns providing meals) had brought them spaghetti.  So I decided immediately, then and there, to return the favor of that last spaghetti meal Grandma cooked for me.

A week or two later, I returned with a pack of spaghetti noodles, a pound of hamburger, a jar of chunky tomato sauce and determination to not fail at my mission.  It is one thing to cook for yourself in your own kitchen, but quite another thing to cook in your grandma’s kitchen as your grandparents wait in expectation.

There were a few tense moments when Grandma attempted to help.  But Grandpa intervened, assuring her that I could handle the task, and ushered her into the other room.

Given a half hour and some ingredients, including my prayers, the meal was ready to serve.

We again ate spaghetti together at Grandma’s kitchen table.

The Strength of My Grandparents

It seems many people think of “strength” as being the ability to impose one’s will.  The brute force of a weight lifter hoisting a barbell comes to mind.  We might also envision a political movement that sweeps through and brings about dramatic change or at least garners a great amount of attention.

It is easy to believe that you’re strong when young and healthy.  It is not easy to be strong when your body and mind decline.  Nor is it easy to be strong for those watching the decline of a loved one to be strong.  That requires strength of character.

Grandpa, Grandma, and I

I have great admiration for my grandparents and their strength of character.  They worked day in and day out—with a commitment to love that has spanned over sixty years—they raised seven children together, and they did it all without much fanfare.

It has been difficult for me to see this incredible strength of my grandparents put to the test over the past few years.  There is no way to prepare.  No words of comfort or encouragement sufficient to take away the pall of inevitability.  The strong woman we had known, was fading.  There was nothing more to be done besides love her as best we could.

Grandma was provided with the best care possible by her loving husband and children.  She had given them many years of dedicated service, and they returned the favor with meals, medical care and attending to her needs.  Their resolve to repay her love to them mirrored the resolve she had shown in loving them.

Her strength became theirs.

A Loving Goodbye

Friday, three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit my grandparents again.  Grandma had been bedfast for weeks and was increasingly unresponsive.  But she was awake during my visit and still able to answer “yes” or “no” to my aunt’s questions.

She has not been able to recognize me over the past few months.  I wondered what was on her mind as she stared at me.  Maybe there was a vague memory of a familiar face?

I held her hand for a few moments hoping she could feel my love in the warmth of my touch and thought later how that hand that had touched and nurtured so many lives, including mine.

Her life was a life well-lived.

A couple of days later, I was again at Grandma’s house.  This time she was surrounded by her children, with my grandpa at her side.  The dreaded hour had arrived.  I wept and prayed for God to take my precious grandma into his loving hands.

The anguished silence was broken when we sang a verse of an old hymn together:

God be with you till we meet again;

By His councils guide, uphold you,

With His sheep securely fold you;

God be with you till we meet again.

Till we meet, till we meet,

Till we meet at Jesus’ feet;

Till we meet, till we meet,

God be with you till we meet again.

As we sang, Grandma took her last breath and entered into eternity.  The eighty years of her life remain written in the hearts of those gathered together at that moment as a clear testimony of Christian love.

Grandma’s kitchen was still full of love, but Grandma was now in a better place.

Mildred G. Moyer

Oct 8th, 1935 — March 19, 2017

Married May 12th, 1956 to Joseph Laverne Moyer

“Threescore Years and Ten”

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Last Saturday I stood reflecting in the autumn foliage at the place where my uncle Fred drew his last breath.

I looked at the nondescript patch of dirt where he had been found the day before. I looked up towards the forest canopy and felt the warmth of the sun on my face.  I breathed in the crisp fall air.  I pondered the beauty for a moment.

Like dried leaves blowing, my mind swirled with thoughts about what happened and what it meant—Fred was dead and with that a jarring reminder of the incessant march of time.  The season was changing whether I was ready for it or not.

The words of Psalm 90:10 were not forgotten:

“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”

I was not alone contemplating.  I was surrounded by a crowd that had gathered.  We were together in our somber reflection about the events a day before.  Fred was struck down in the very spot where we—his friends, family, wife, and children—stood.

I thought about my dad who I had accompanied on the journey back the trail through the woods.  His hair seemed grayer today than my memories of that wiry hammer swinging construction worker who was once as invincible to me as the mountain under our feet.

I thought about my aunt Rhoda who would grieve this long after most of us by necessity moved forward.  I thought of Fred’s children, his sons in particular, who now carried the legacy of their father and spiritual mentor.  I felt their tears.

We surveyed the scene together—connected by our faith and love for each other.  We remembered a man with an angular face, a rugged frame, and gentle spirit.  He was a man who loved his family, was loyal to his wife and enjoyed his work.

He died with his boots on as I would imagine would suit him—he was seventy years old.

Fred F. Stoltzfus

May 21, 1945 — Oct. 31, 2015.