Soundlessly, the long bearded Amish man, hat in hand, clad in dark clothes, closed the door behind cousin Joshua and myself as we stepped into the small room where my deceased grandmother lay. Joshua and I looked at each other and stepped forward toward the freshly stained walnut coffin. Groszmommy, as we knew her, had died. She was gone. Into the shadowy hinterlands forever.
A torrent of feelings ripped through me. Isn’t it crazy how a lifetime can wash over you in one minute? In one second. Her and I had had a tumultuous relationship at best. My mind drifted.
Suddenly it was 1992 and I was with some other little cousins at Groszmommy’s house. We were playing an innocent game , pretending we were driving trucks as all healthy little boys do. We would set up cardboard boxes in front of little chairs for car hoods, and hold round Tupperware lids while we roared in our little voices. “Brrmmmmm. Brmmmmm.” We were really going places. Or so we thought. Then Groszmommy came around the corner and things really went places. Mostly went south.
“Boys,” she scolded with a raised voice, “that is wicked! You know you can’t do that. “Es macht der Herr böse!” (It makes God angry.) God does not want us to drive cars and you know that! All four of us dropped our steering wheels, mindless of the impending crashes that would happen. The youngest one began crying.
I was only 4 years old, but I wasn’t going to let Groszmommy run over us like that. After all, I was practically a man. “Groszmommy, we can do it our home. My mom doesn’t care.”
Silence fell. You just don’t talk back to Groszmommy. She advanced menacingly. One step closer. And closer. Really? Four-year old Jason was going to talk back to her? She raised her voice and glared down at me with icy eyes. “Well, I don’t care. Its wrong and you are not doing it here.”
I took one last stand. “You’re not my boss!” I yelled.
Her eyes flashed and she made a lunge for me. My courage was exhausted. I turned tail and ran, with Groszmommy in hot pursuit. I needed a truck. A real one. To go faster. She followed only a few feet till timeless wisdom dictated she should take care of the other three rebels instead of chasing me. I ran as fast as my legs could take me to my mother, where I hid in her skirts, sobbing that Groszmommy was going to get me. My dear mother wiped my tears and calmed me down. I admire her so to this day for situations like this. She comforted me and helped me understand that while we were on Groszmommy’s turf we played by her rules. And she ruffled Groszmommy’s feathers without disrespecting her in front of me. That day a cautious unspoken truce was formed.
I did not like Groszmommy. I endured her. I did not trust her. I tried to evade her as much as possible. And I was confident she didn’t like me. We never engaged in friendly conversation. I didn’t have a single good memory of her or with her. But now Groszmommy had died. This truce was broken only by her death. A truce that was in place for 25 years. A quarter of a century. Never again could she hurt me. As I looked at her withered face lying serenely in the coffin, my heart went out to her. Now this was a woman of faith. A woman who had given all for what she believed. She had been born and raised in a different Amish community and when she switched affiliations, her family shunned her. With her husband she pioneered a new Amish community. Hopes were high. But then Grandpa died young and she was left with about 15 children. She struggled valiantly and she won.
My mind went back through the years. I realized that every single time we went to her house I cringed. I remembered being at the awkward age of 14 when there was a gathering of all 40 of her grandchildren to sing for her one evening. Of the impassioned speech she gave at the end.
“My dear children, you must stay in this Amish church. We are God’s chosen people. You cannot go into the world. It is wrong. You may be tempted to go to a different church, but remember that is the devil as an angel of light deceiving you. Now I wouldn’t want to judge, but people who are not in our church are wolves in sheep’s clothing. If you want to go to heaven, you must stay here. Don’t leave this community. Or you will burn in hell for all eternity. To forsake the church is condemnation. To even think of leaving this Amish church is sin. Now lets sing the hymn, “Sin Can Never Enter There.” I was torn. This teaching is all I had ever heard. And yet, all I wanted to do was to leave this community and see the world beyond. My desire is sin. I am condemned. There is no hope.
I remembered how the day before I left the Amish community forever, my parents asked me to go visit Groszmommy and tell her about my impending move. Now that was beyond hard. My dear and brave sister Regina went with me. Awkwardly, we entered her small house where she greeted us with warm handshakes and gushed on about how nice and thoughtful it was to come see our aged grandmother. We sat down and began visiting. We talked about the weather. Who got married. Who died. Who had a baby. I cleared my throat. This was hard.
Groszmommy beat me to the punch, “Well Jason, this is so nice of you to come visit me. I have been wanting to talk to you. You know, it is that time of the year when young people can ask to be baptized into the church. Maybe you would like to? Oh, think of how happy your parents would be!” She said it with such hope. Such shining eyes.
Regina looked at the floor helplessly. I looked at the floor helplessly. Time stood still. I wished a hole would open up and I could drop in. I wished for wings. I for sure wished for a truck. A very fast truck. The old clock on the mantle ticked each second of eternity into the deathly quietness of the room. I wanted to scream. You could hear a pin drop. The sound of three people breathing. “Tick. Tock. Tick Tock.” Every second was like an hour.
Finally I looked up. I looked my grandmother square in the eye. “Groszmommy, I am leaving. Tomorrow I am moving to Pennsylvania. I am sorry for disappointing you.” The silence became deafening. I felt pressure around my head, around my body as if I were a hundred meters under the sea. The silence was shattered only by Groszmommy’s helpless sobbing as she burst into tears. And did she ever cry. Now I really wanted to leave. Gradually her sobs subsided and she began talking. She reached for her worn German Bible.
“Jason,” said Groszmommy, ” I want to read to you from die Schrift. She opened her Bible to Ephesians 6:2 and began reading, “Ihr Kinder, seid gehorsam euren Eltern in dem HERRN; denn das ist billig .Ehre Vater und Mutter; das ist das erste Gebot, das Verheißung hat, Auf daß dir’s wohl gehe, und du lange lebest auf Erden.”
Translation: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honor thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.”
She continued, “So as the Bible says you have to obey your parents. To do otherwise is not right. It is sin. Sinners can never enter heaven.” She looked at me triumphantly. She had won.
In a voice thick with emotion, humiliation, sadness, and anger I replied, “Groszmommy, I did not come here to discuss this. I came here only to tell you of my decision. It’s final. And I need to go now.” As she gripped my hand in a goodbye, her gaze alternated between icy anger at a crazy grandson and deep love while salty tears fell onto my hands in an eerie promise of widening the unspoken chasm between us.
I came back to the present. Cousin Joshua and I looked at each other. Large tears stood in his eyes. I felt my heart begin to soften. I knew this dear old lady loved me. But she didn’t know how to show it. How to bridge that gap. Now as she lay in front of me, my heart went out to her. I felt a love for her such as I never felt before. How foolish it was, the quarter century of distrust. And yet how completely unable were we to change anything. Then or now. Unbidden tears slipped out of my eyes. I looked at Joshua and in a tremulous voice I whispered, ” I want to follow the good in her life and forget the bad.” With full eyes he nodded. And we wept together. We wept for her. For her miserable life. We wept for her hurts. We wept for the hurt we gave her. And we wept for a hope that she might be in a better place. Finally he whispered, “We should probably go out.” With a last look at Groszmommy we left the little room. But I left every piece of bitterness there. Every hurt was washed away. Forgiveness was in my heart. I gave her the roses when she died.
The funeral was large. About 800 people showed up to pay their last respects. A graveside service was held. With the large group of relatives, I stood next to the open coffin and took a last look at her. Then it was sealed. Sealed forever. As the coffin was lowered into the ground the entire group began singing a German song:
Gute Nacht. Gute Nacht. (Good night. Good night)
Nochmal sei dir Dank gebracht. (Again, we bring you thanks.)
Und nun schlaf Ich ohne Sorgen. (And now I will sleep without worries.)
Ohne Furcht bis an den Morgen. (Without fear until the morning.)
Weil mein Vater ob mir wacht. (While my father watches over me.)
Gute Nacht, Gute Nacht. (Goodnight. Goodnight.)
I cried all through the song and wished with my whole heart that every word was true for her. It was such a beautiful way of letting go of her.
When the singing finished the officiating Amish preacher had a word of encouragement for the family. He told of her faithfulness, her selflessness and mentioned that her greatest sorrow in life was when her children and grandchildren left the faith. That was me. 800 people were present and in that moment I could feel all 1,600 eyes turn in my direction and bore right through me. But I didn’t mind.
As a final act of respect, I along with the other grandsons took my turn shoveling dirt into the grave. And I whispered ‘”Good bye Groszmommy. See you on the other side.”
Her last words to me had been simple. She asked ,”Jason, what are you going to tell God when you stand before him on Judgment Day and he asks you why you dishonored your parents by leaving the Amish?”
I replied, “I am going to tell Him I did the best I knew.”
She replied, “It won’t be enough.”
So today my dear Groszmommy, as you look down from the skies on high, I promise you that I will truly do the best I know, and under the blood of Jesus, that will be enough. I will make every attempt to live my life in such away that when I stand before God, you will poke the grandfather I never knew, the grandfather who died before I was born and whisper to angel Grandpa, “That’s our grandson! Can you believe it?”
And I also promise you that I will give the roses to those who are living. I will not wait till my friends die.