Prologue: Buried Dreams
Anna Stutzman sank into her rocking chair as the last rays of the midsummer sun dimmed on the Kansas horizon. Her bentwood hickory rocker soon moved in rhythm to the ticking of the Seth Thomas mantel clock. It had just turned dark outside when the West?minster chimes announced her bedtime—9:30 p.m.
Anna made no move to get out of her chair, glancing instead toward the bedroom where her son’s body had lain for the funeral wake last night. These twenty-four hours later, he lay buried under the Kansas loam.
A caravan of mourners had threaded its way toward the Amish cemetery. The horse-drawn rig in front of her set the pace, pressed into Sunday service as a hearse. The early June sun beat down mercilessly on the carriages moving west on the sandy road. Waves of shimmering heat blurred the horizon under a cloudless prairie sky. Here and there in the procession a few cars with overheated radiators belched out steam. The fragrance of newly mown alfalfa hovered in the dry air, wafted on an occasional puff of the south wind. This scent blended with the rich aroma of nearly ripe grain in a nearby wheat field. It was occasionally spoiled by the odor of fresh dung, falling to the roadway in the wake of a flagging horse tail. The lead wagon paused, then crossed Route 61, the hard-surfaced road that angled southwest out of Hutchinson through a grid of country roads. A mile away in the village of Partridge, a tall wheat elevator stood like a sentry on the horizon.
As they approached the burial ground, Anna looked beyond it to the next intersection. An old windmill stood among several ruined buildings surrounded by trees. It was the place where her son Tobe (one syllable, long “o”) and his wife Emma had started housekeeping sixteen years earlier.
She glanced over at her daughter-in-law, whose face was etched with grief. The driver slowed and stopped the horse at the gate to the West Center Amish cemetery. White foam flecked the corners of the horse’s bridle and dropped to the browning grass. An attendant slid off the wagon to open the gates. He uncoupled the short chain and swung open the two hinged gates made of woven wire that were stretched over metal-pipe frames. The horse stood still as the pallbearers slid the casket off the back of the wagon and carried it through the gate.
Dry prairie sod mixed with clay lay beside the yawning hole, hand-dug by volunteers the day before. A pair of garden spades angled out of the earthen pile. Three wooden boards spanned the top of the grave. The pallbearers gently laid the bier onto the boards as the family arrived at the grave. John D. Yoder, the white-bearded Old Order Amish bishop, motioned the family members toward one side of the hand-hewn vault. Anna stood silently alongside daughter-in-law Emma and her extended family.
Several dozen small grave markers lined the yard around them. Nearly all the monuments looked alike—round-topped slabs made of concrete. Some engravings were badly faded, the words rendered illegible by overexposure to the elements. A larger monument designated the place where sixteen bodies had been brought from *nearby Ford County, Kansas. The Amish who abandoned that settlement for Hutchinson and Partridge dug up the remains of their dead to bury them close at hand. A few gravestones kept vigil at the head of shrinking mounds, evidence of recent burials. Without the benefit of concrete vaults or waterproof caskets, the soil piled on the graves gradually sank until it was level with its surroundings.
Knotted ropes choked the rusty hitching rail that bordered the burial ground. The horses drew up quickly, eager to stand in the shade of the hedge trees planted by early settlers along the fence row. Buggies tipped sharply as passengers disembarked. Cars pulled off into the shallow ditches on both sides of the gravel road. Anna wrung her hands as the crowd of mourners swelled around her. Soon there were more than a hundred.
Anna watched as her three-year-old grandson, Ervin Ray, squirmed noisily in Cora Yoder’s arms. As a minister’s wife, Cora had special compassion for Emma’s children. The young boy wiggled as he pointed toward the grave. Just then Noah Nisly, Emma’s stepfather, admonished the woman, “Du kannscht ihn anne stellah, Er kann selvat schteh. You can let him down, he can stand by himself.” Cora nodded and released the wiggling toddler. The young boy slipped out of her arms and onto the ground. He edged toward the wooden box that held his father’s still body.
The assembly listened reverently as a small group raised their voices in song. Then the bishop stepped forward, perspiration beading his broad forehead. Dressed in black trousers, a long-sleeved white shirt, and a black suit coat fastened with small hooks and eyes, he opened a tiny black minister’s manual and comforted the mourners with several passages of Scripture. Then came the familiar words of the committal:
The men removed their hats as the minister bowed his head to pray. A meadowlark sang from the fence at the edge of the yard. A whirlwind raised a flurry of dust on the road and flattened the grass in its path. Anna reached up to hold her bonnet as the dust devil swept through the crowd. The preacher’s “Amen” was accented by the whistle of an approaching train on the tracks that ran along the highway.
Everyone stepped back as the attendants prepared for the burial. Grasping opposite ends of two braided hemp ropes, four men swung the loops under the wooden coffin. As they hoisted it off its wooden supports, two assistants drew away the boards that spanned the grave. The men lowered the coffin into the rough wooden box, releasing the ropes hand over hand. The bier sank unevenly into the rough box, then leveled as the ropes slackened against the bottom. On silent cue, the men on one side dropped their end of the ropes. The other pair tugged on the remaining ends, dragging the ropes out of the hole. Two-by-six-inch planks were laid over the box to keep out the soil, and several men picked up spades and began shoveling sod into the hole. Others stepped forward to relieve them. Soon a large mound marked Tobe Stutzman’s resting place.
Anna walked away from the grave in silence. The pall of death pressed in like the summer heat.
Caught in her reverie, Anna paused her rocking as her husband John called from the bedroom. “Aren’t you coming to bed?”
“Before long.” She fanned herself vigorously with the newspaper that held her son’s obituary. The clock struck ten as she picked up her glasses to read the obituary for the third time that evening.
Fresh tears coursed onto her cheeks as she again read the poem at the end:
Anna had overheard a few people talking in hushed tones about the way her son had died. Was it God’s punishment for breaking the church’s rules about owning a car? There were whispered questions about other things too. Tobe worked fast and hard but couldn’t always keep pace with his ambitious promises. To advance his innovative business ventures, he freely borrowed money from members of the church. Had they ever been repaid? What motivated him to act that way in the first place? What was he trying to accomplish?
Anna and John weren’t likely to talk about these questions. What good would it do? It was time to move on. To pick up the pieces. To help Emma find a way to make a living for her family.
Anna put down the newspaper and began to hum a gospel tune. Then she sang the verses aloud: “What a friend we have in Jesus. . . .Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.” As she finished the last notes of the song, she lifted herself out of the chair and went to bed.
Had anyone ventured to ask Anna, she would likely have had plenty to say about her son’s ambitious dreams. She, more than anyone except Tobe himself, witnessed the tangled strands of Tobe’s life, from the time of his birth to the awful moment when it was cut short by the grim reaper. Along with Tobe’s father, John, Anna wove the first strands in Tobe’s life.
© 2001 by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA, 15683. All rights reserved.