Welcome to Circle Letters

The Home Place

Oil on canvas by Emma Schrock

  This is the story of an Old Order Mennonite girl. The tale of a girl who grew up exploring the railroad tracks and swamp located on the back corner of their seven acre farm in rural northern Indiana.  Wandering through the neighbors’ woods, wading the creek, boating the pond, climbing the trees and sitting on fallen logs dreaming, contemplating life and writing stories and poems. And always, coming back home to her own back yard to read in the shade of the Maple trees surrounding her house.

A girl who, although now all grown up, still explores the nature in her backyard, pondering life and God and all things wonderful. And it is here on a deck overlooking the St. Joe River that she often rests in the shadows of two ancient Maples. Gazing through their intermingling silvery-lacey and opaque dark green foliage towards the blue cloud scattered sky beyond, listening to the music of nature. Encountering the Creator of the universe. Still dreaming. Still writng.

This blog is a menagerie of her life. The cultures of the past and present intermingling to design a new, whole person, created in the image of God.

 Art is observing the world around you and then recreating it in a form that allows others to not only appreciate your experience, but to subsequently encounter their own world in a deeper, more beautiful and satisfying manner.

I pray you will be blessed as you read the story of my life; that it will inspire you to pursue the unfeigned heart of God and that your mind and spirit will be infused with his joy.

Categories: Childhood, Old Order Mennonite | Leave a comment

Yes, But We Didn’t Have Him

In my Baby Book, six weeks after my dad had passed away, my mom wrote:

On June 8, you said, “Soon will be Dad’s birthday.” Mom told you it was yesterday. Then you said, “Yes, but we didn’t have him.”

Then in July, a month later Mom recorded:

When we passed the graveyard on Sunday you said, “When that pile of dirt goes down, Dad will have stood up.”

On Friday, October 4, 1968, almost six months after my dad’s funeral Emma wrote about me in her diary:

At Nellie’s funeral she stood real close to the grave. I believe she wanted to see what graves were like.”

The funeral has been lost somewhere within my memory. I believe it’s buried somewhere with the memory of the pain attached to it.

My childhood was a happy one. When adults asked me about my dad I remember telling them about the good memories I had and then adding, “I’m glad he died when I was so young that way I was too young to remember any sense of loss. They all believed me. I did too until one day when I was twenty-five.

How can one grieve and release a buried memory? While hypnosis has crossed my mind, it leaves me feeling uncomfortable. There is a reason God created our minds with the amazing ability to block out memories that cause overload. Is that a part of his promise to not allow more than we can handle to come into our lives? (1 Corinthians 10:13)

I believe that eventually, when my emotions are healed enough to handle it, the memory will return. Acknowledging that there was a loss has been the first step in receiving that healing. In His time God will show me the next step along that path.

Categories: Childhood, Emma Schrock, Old Order Mennonite | Leave a comment

Photo Memories: The Final Snapshot

After the funeral there is only one more snapshot. A dream. In this dream my dad has just stepped through the outside door into the kitchen and I am staring up at him. He’s wearing his denim-blue work shirt, suspenders and denim overalls. Our eyes lock. My heart cries, “Why don’t you come home anymore?” But not a word is spoken. There are no tears. I only feel an indescribable longing.

I have frequently questioned the authenticity of this dream-memory. Even though the dream had occurred prior to the time my mom had remodeled our house, in my memory the dream was set in our newly remodeled kitchen. Was my dream-memory superimposed into our new kitchen because I have difficulty remembering how our pre-remodeled house used to look or was it a false memory?

Several years ago I discovered the answer in my Aunt Emma’s diary. On December 19, 1969, one year and eight months after my dad’s death, sandwiched in between a comment about how cute my younger brother Roland could talk and how she had shipped off a box of sugar and creamer sets she had painted, Emma had penned the following words:

“Mother (Grossmommy) said Aleta told her she dreamed her father came in the door. “Do you know why I dreamed that? Because I wish to see him.””

More than forty  years later I could still feel that longing deep inside. My heart crying out for my daddy. This time the tears came.

That longing subconsciously followed me throughout my life. Because of it, unhealed, I made choices that I believe I would not have made otherwise. I spent my teen years searching to fill that empty void in my heart. It was not until I allowed God to fill it that I found peace.

We all have a God-shaped void within us. It is only by daily inviting his presence in to fill it that we maintain that peace.

Categories: Childhood, Emma Schrock, Old Order Mennonite, Photo-Memory | Leave a comment

Photo Memories: Cold Mashed Potatoes

One of my final photo-memories is of Eugene and me sitting at the kitchen table, still eating after all the adults had jumped up and left. I sat staring at all the white mounds of mashed potatoes thinking about how they were going to get cold if everyone didn’t come back and eat them.

That day the mashed potatoes not only grew cold, they remained uneaten. I discovered the reason why almost thirty years later.

My mom and I were discussing Dad’s death. She commented that both of my Grossmommies and several aunts were at our house that day. Emma-Grossmommy was in the bedroom at Dad’s side and as he was taking his final breaths, she cried out and everyone jumped up from the dinner table and rushed in to his side.

I looked at my mom. “That’s why the mashed potatoes grew cold.” While my brother and I sat at the kitchen table finishing our dinner and watching those mounds of creamy white mashed potatoes growing cold, my dad’s body had begun growing cold in my parent’s bedroom.

Later, during that day of the cold mashed potatoes, I stood at the foot of the couch listening to the grown-up’s talk about asking Uncle Raymond to bring my cousin Rosella along down to our house to keep me company.

My Aunt Emma’s diary records that while the adults were waiting for my dad’s body to be embalmed and then returned to the house, I enquired. “Wes duh Dat es er dot ist? Does Dad know that he is dead?” When they replied in the negative, I asked, “Shouldn’t we tell him when he comes home?”

Several days later Dad’s coffin was placed just inside the parlor door. I see a memory snapshot of Grossmommy and some other adults holding Roland, who was eleven months old, up to the casket and urging him to touch Dad’s face. There is no movement and I hear no words. I see them there and I just know that that is what is happening.

In another snapshot the walls are lined with chairs and I sit in one of them with hundreds of people filing by. The only person I recall personally is one little boy, a distant cousin several years older than me. I remember standing outside the barn door once when he and his dad had came to my parent’s shop.

There is no emotion attached to any of these photo memories of my dad’s death. They are all still life prints. But as I write about them the tears come. The memory of being his baby girl is drowned in a sea of abandoned emptiness.

While I am writing my cell phone rings and the pictures fade. “I love you!” I answer as I dry my tears.

My husband, out of town on business is calling to wish me good night, “I love you,” he responds.

“I finally found the inspiration to write,” I told him.

“Oh, good!” He always sounds so excited when I have good news about my writing and storytelling. I feel warm and loved again.

When I had met my husband, Daniel, I wasn’t looking for a husbandly kind of love. I believed I needed to first heal from the feelings of abandonment I was struggling with due to losing my dad at such a young age. But I fell in love and God gave me a peace that Daniel was the right one for me. Even then, I was not expecting to gain any healing through my relationship with Daniel. I was expecting God to heal me. But God chose to extend his love and healing power through the love of my husband.

Culture shock, along with the pain of finally beginning to deal with a sense of loss as a young adult had led me to build walls around my emotions. It sometimes felt as if my heart were made of iron. My natural tendency toward introversion had led me to crawl inside of myself and God knew I needed that human connection. So he sent me Daniel, a gift of love from God.

Categories: Childhood, My Husband, Old Order Mennonite, Today | Leave a comment

Photo Memories: Two Random Snapshots

I remember standing in the shop, located three steps from our house, watching my dad and a customer discuss an engine that sat on the large wooden table. The table wasn’t very tall, because I could see across it. It is a very simple memory of me just standing there in my dress, watching.

My next memory is in the house, newspapers had replaced the little tin dishes on my wooden play table. The snapshot is of Dad sitting on a chair with his back to the oil stove in the dining room and in front of him a chainsaw sat on top of my newspaper covered table. Mom was standing there waiting for his advice.

Strangely these two pictures are void of emotion. I am merely an observer.

Memory pockets are fascinating. I understand that things of greatest import or shock implant themselves most securely in our memory. But what was the import of that moment in the shop with dad and a customer when I must have done that same thing hundreds of times. Mom said she frequently brought things into the house for his advice when he was not able to go outside anymore. Why did those two particular moments leave such a vivid impression? Or are these last two memories actually composites of all the times I had seen those particular actions take place? A collage of photos superimposed into one.

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Photo Memories: A Lego Nap

We are three quarters of the way down the stairs, our Legos balanced carefully in our hands. I am in the lead with my older brother by two years a few steps behind. We had supposedly been napping but our Lego creations tell otherwise.

Dad is waiting at the bottom. His expression attempting to chastise us for not having taken that nap, but the amusement shining from his eyes softens the reprimand.

It’s the memory of the delight with which I showed off my Lego design along with that twinkle shining through my dad’s disapproving expression that has stayed with me all these years. It’s as if he understood and complimented us on our creativity, while frowning ever so slightly about the missed nap.

Several years ago I mentioned this incident to my older brother, Eugene, and was surprised to discover that he had also remembered it. But his memory had recorded the incident otherwise. According to Eugene, Dad was not happy at all and we got a severe scolding for not having taken our naps.

How could two people have opposite memories about the exact same incident? Were the photos taken from different angles? Did he get scolded more because he was the big brother or did he just cling to the negative portion of the response?

When I told my mom about the incident, she said, “Eugene was a typical little boy who loved following his dad around in the shop and he would try to use Dad’s tools. Your Dad was often tired from the cancer and did not always have the patience with Eugene that he might have had otherwise. He and Eugene’s personalities sometimes clashed.”

I felt saddened. Because of Eugene’s conflict with Dad and his tools, he experienced a sterner side of Dad and that is the portion of the Lego memory he has carried with him all these years. I, on the other hand, was a little girl with no interest in my father’s tools. He had no cause for impatience with me. Therefore, my photo was taken from an angle that revealed my dad’s face and I caught the twinkle of understanding that came along with the reprimand. The angle of Eugene’s photo, conversely, must have concealed the smile that accompanied the words and negatively affected his memory of the incident.

Memories of feeling loved and understood have colored my life’s story through the years, even into adulthood. It has shaped who I am. It has given me a confidence that might otherwise have been missing. The confidence that I am lovable. That the God who created me did so with love.

Categories: Childhood, Old Order Mennonite, Photo-Memory | 2 Comments

Photo Memories: A God of Love

I was on the phone with my mom, listening to her reminisce. “At church you always sat with me on the women’s side and Eugene (my older brother by two years) sat with Dad on the men’s side. Then one Sunday your dad said, ‘I’d like to have Aleta sit with me today.’ But then I won’t have anyone with me,” I told him. And his response was, ‘Someday you’ll have them all the time.’” (He was referring to the ravages Hodgkin’s disease was leaving on his body.)

Mom’s thoughts continued, “I think he just wanted that experience of having you, his little girl, sit with him. He might also have wanted to ensure that you remember him.”

 A hazy memory-photo flashed through my mind and I interrupted her thoughts. “Did we go to Yellow Creek Church that Sunday?”

She paused for a second, “Yeah, church was at Yellow Creek that Sunday,”

I smiled to myself. Another memory confirmed. Although I don’t remember sitting with my dad, I do have this obscure photo-memory of being surrounded by a sea of men sitting on gray church pews. Those are the pews at Yellow Creek Church: gray painted, box-like benches that only come up to the middle of an adult’s back. Blossers, the only other Old Order Mennonite church building in Indiana at that time, has more comfortable pews that are stained dark brown. They curve up past the mid-back into a thick swirl at the top.

Old Order Mennonite communities build churches as their population increases and then they alternate services between the church buildings. That way everyone gets the opportunity to attend a church closer to their house on alternating Sundays. It’s a welcome break when you clip-clop to church in a horse and buggy. Once a community expands even more they hold services at each church house every Sunday. It’s their version of having one large building with an eight o’clock and a ten fifteen service.

The fact that this hazy photo filled with gray church pews had been confirmed helped, in my mind, to give authenticity to the others still waiting for confirmation.

My mom continued with her reminiscing, “Dad said that as everyone knelt to pray he was surprised when you also knelt down beside him, leaned your arms on the bench, folded your hands and bowed your head like the grown-ups. He hadn’t thought about teaching Eugene that.”

I can picture my mom in church leaning down and whispering: Her large hands enveloping my small ones. “Fold your hands like this.” Gently folding my fingers, she places them on the bench in front of me. “Then close your eyes and bow your head so you can pray.” I imagine myself peeking up at how she was doing it and following suit. It’s how she lives her life: demonstrating Godliness through the little everyday occasions.

I grew up envisioning God as love. The love of my mother teaching me how to live. The love of my dad’s cherishing embrace. The connection between our view of God and our parents is a powerful subconscious force within our minds and lives. I thank God for placing these memory-photos inside of my heart as a little child.

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Photo-Memories: Schnavel Kapp (Baseball Cap)

Where there is relationship there is love. Where there is love there is joy. Where there is joy there is delight. My dad took delight in me as a child and I adored him.

He was coming home from work one day, walking up the sidewalks. I close my eyes and smile as I reminisce. There are two snapshots my heart remembers from that day. Both are bathed in pure unadulterated delight.

In the first photo-memory I am running towards the door to greet him, paused momentarily by inspiration. An Old Order Mennonite girl does not wear a baseball cap, un schnovel kapp, but my brother’s was hanging on that hook by the door. It was at the perfect height for my two year old frame to reach for as I went scurrying by. I remember being poised mid air. That momentary second in which life changing decisions are made. Do I grab it and smash it onto my braided head or do I not? It would be so silly. It would give my daddy cause for a chuckle, a tease. Cause to take delight in me.

I must have decided “yes”, because in the next memory-frame I am suspended in mid air, leaping, bounding, weightless. Sheer joy. Flying into my daddy’s arms..

I have no memory of what happened next. Just this skipping in mid air, legs outstretched, heart exploding with joy feeling as my dad walked up the sidewalk. Home.

My dad only lived another two or three years after that memory. I have longed for those loving, accepting arms reaching out for me. Holding me. Not letting me fall.

It has taken years, decades, amidst a rubble of broken, flailing arms, for me to find them once again. The security of those Eternal Arms of Love. The ones that never die, never abandon. Those arms that have been poised, waiting with sheer delight for me to come leaping, bounding, flying. Home.

“Then, gathering the children up in his arms, he laid his hands of blessing on them.”   Mark 10:16, The Message

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Photo-Memories: The 1965 Palm Sunday Tornado

One of my early photo-memories is as a young toddler standing in the front section of our black cab-buggy holding onto the metal hand railing under the windshield. The memory is so vivid because of the sensation pulsing through my being. A sensation like a state of shock or fear, although not for myself. We had just passed Mart Ramer’s lane and were almost at the corner where we would turn onto county road nine and into our driveway. My mom was sitting behind me on my right and my dad on the left.

I have often wondered what could have caused an emotion so powerful that I would still remember the exact moment and the place where I was standing decades later. Also, as an adult I realized that Mom’s position on my right placed her in the driver’s seat and I questioned the accuracy of the memory, because a woman wouldn’t typically drive the horse when her husband is along? I wondered if that was perhaps the moment my Dad had told my mom he had cancer? For years I suspected that was the scenario that had most likely occurred. Recently I stumbled upon the truth.

I had asked my mom about the Palm Sunday Tornado. She told how we were at Emma-Grossdaudy’s and she and Grossmommy had driven up to Wakarusa to visit my great aunts, Nora and Martha.”

“Did I go with you?” I asked.

“No, Dad wasn’t feeling well. He was tired because of the cancer and you and Eugene stayed with him at Grossdaudy’s house.”

“I remember it was eighty degrees which was unusual for April 11,” she continued. “I tied our horse, Nick, to a telephone pole behind Nora and Martha’s house. They had some more company that afternoon and Grossmommy and I went inside and visited with everyone. While we were visiting a storm blew in and we were all peering out the windows at the dark clouds rolling overhead.”

Once the storm blew over and the sky cleared Mom said she ventured outside. She noticed the hazy, pale, yellow sky the storm had left behind as she walked over to where Dick Metzler, Nora and Martha’s neighbor from across the street, was picking twigs out of his yard.

 “It was a tornado,” Dick informed her. Wyatt is flat and a trailer park in Elkhart has been wiped out.”

Wyatt is a small town located ten miles southwest of Wakarusa and Elkhart is ten miles northeast. In shock Mom returned to Nora and Martha’s house.

The Old Order Mennonite Church does not allow many of the world’s technological conveniences. Therefore they did not have a radio or a television to hear the news and weather reports. The rest of the family was, as yet, oblivious about their narrow escape from the tornado.

Mom continued her story, “After returning to Nora and Martha’s house I told Grossmommy I was ready to go home. I untied Nick and on the way home I must have been subconsciously sticking my head out the buggy door to look behind us. I didn’t realize I was doing it until Grossmommy asked if everything was all right.”

Unable to voice her fears, Mom mumbled, “Everything’s fine.”

Shortly after Mom and Grossmommy returned, our family headed for home.

“We were almost at home,” Mom said. “When turned to your dad and blurted out, “There was a tornado and Wyatt is flat. Your dad looked at me in disbelief.”

“Why didn’t you say something earlier?” he asked.

 “I didn’t think about it,” Mom responded.

“Mom, were you driving?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t remember,” was her quick response, than she paused for a moment. “I probably was.” After another moment of reflection she reiterated, “I think I was driving, because I frequently did during those times. The cancer had already started to weaken your dad and I would drive so he could conserve his energy.”

I stared at my mom in disbelief. “I remember that moment! I was standing in the front end of the buggy, holding onto the railing when you told Dad that Wyatt was flat.”

That strange sensation was caused by the anxiety I sensed in their voices. I was only twenty months old in that Palm Sunday Tornado memory-photo. The entire memory was real; it was only cropped too closely within my memory and Mom’s story added the outlaying sections of the picture.

An overwhelming sensation of wowness! pulsed through my veins. Another memory confirmed. Another portion of my life, of my dad’s life substantiated.

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Photo-Memories: Daddy’s Baby Girl

Throughout my childhood years, and even now as an adult, I have carried with me the feeling of being loved and special. This feeling may, in part, be due to a particular photo-memory of my dad. I have no timeline with which to gage this memory, except for the feeling of being the size of a little one or two year old girl enveloped in my daddy’s arms.

He is sitting on a kitchen chair leaning slightly forward, my back leaning against his chest, my legs following his as they form his lap, his arms snuggling me into his embrace. We sit there with our backs to the kitchen table, facing the area where the large white granite sink would have been inside the back door: Our hearts connected; a knowing that I am his baby girl.

Even though it is a still-life shot with no words spoken in the photo-memory, my feeling has always been that he spoke them. That he actually called me his Baby girl.

Over the years I have often questioned the accuracy of this memory, while hopefully clinging to it. My first language is Pennsylvania Dutch, but my memory consists of the English phrase “Baby Girl.” In Pennsylvania Dutch we frequently use English/Dutch combinations, so I thought that he would more likely have said something like “Baby Madle”  which is Baby Girl or perhaps “Glae Madle,” Little Girl or possibly even “Glae Buple”  Little Baby, but none of those phrases felt quite right. My feelings register the phrase “Baby Girl”. If my dad would not have used that phrase perhaps the entire memory-photo was off. Had my emotions left a thick layer of smoky residue across this picture?

The last several years I have been reading my Aunt Emma’s diaries. She is my dad’s sister. The oldest in the family. Her diaries span fifty-two years from 1939, the year that my dad was born, until 1991 when she passed away. She wrote in her diaries that after Dad learned he had cancer, he would just sit and hold me and play with me for hours at a time. As I read I experienced a renewed hope that my memory of snuggling on his lap and being called his baby girl might actually be real.

After reading Emma’s diaries, I initially wanted to tell her story, but even though her brief diary entries brought her to life in my mind, I struggled with putting who she was on paper. I finally came to the realization that her story touched some deep places within my story and I needed to first tell mine. So I called my mom and began to relate my earliest memories. This was the first time I had shared many of them with her or with anyone for that matter.

My mom and I talked about which of the “Baby Girl” phrases Dad might have used. “He might have said “Baby Girl,” Mom said. “Either that or “Baby Madle.” But I doubt that he would have used the word buple, it holds a more negative connotation.”

As I thought about these things my mom started talking again. “When I was expecting for the second time,” she mused. “Your dad asked if I thought it might be a girl this time and I responded that it was probably another boy.”

“But wouldn’t it be nice to have a girl since we already have a boy?” he asked.

Wow! He really wanted me! My heart thrilled at the thought.

Since that time I have come to realize that possibly the reason the words were not a part of my photo-memory is because he may not have spoken them. They may merely be the memory-expression of what we both felt at that moment. But no matter what the words were that he had spoken or not spoken, the one thing I know for sure is that I had heard his heart. He wanted me, a baby girl. I was and I am his Baby Girl.

That feeling of being loved has stayed with me throughout my entire life… with both family and friends… and when in my late teens I came to Christ as a broken, hurting child, it was easy to receive the love and forgiveness of my Heavenly Father.

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Photo vs Movie Memories: Aunt Emma

All of my earliest childhood memories are merely snapshots in my head. The Old Order Mennonite Church I grew up in does not allow cameras and discourages its members from having their pictures taken. My dad’s family religiously observed this ordnung or rule; therefore, I have no tangible photo album of my early childhood.

The only album I posses is the perceptions within my mind, taken as snapshots void of conversation, yet poignant with emotion. Through these emotions connected with each memory-photo, I have a knowing of what is being said even though I cannot remember actually hearing the words being spoken. I have wondered if,  just like faces fade within our memory, the voices fade too, and therefore I am left with only the knowing and not the sound.

These photo-memories have aged and become somewhat fuzzy and since they may not have been taken in the best lighting, I have questioned their authenticity. Yet, through the years I have clung to the hope that they are genuine, because their contents are all the memories I have of my dad.

There is only one early childhood memory alive with movement. It’s a memory of my dad’s oldest sister, my Aunt Emma. Emma was a favorite with all of us grandchildren. In this action filled movie-memory Emma is sitting in the dining room on her white high-chair, her outstretched arm waving a straight, dark-walnut stained cane, her voice filled with laughter. I can still feel the sheer joy of darting back and forth between the kitchen and dining room; dodging sideways, evading her cane, peals of laughter bouncing against the white painted walls.

Over the years I have been curious why all the memories of my dad are contained in these still shot photos. Why Emma’s is the only early childhood memory with live action. Then, as I read my Aunt Emma’s journal and also began to record my memories, I stumbled upon what I believe to be the why.

My dad passed away from Hodgkin’s Disease when I was four and a half years old. My four year old mind was not capable of comprehending death: It could only perceive it as an abandonment of hellish proportions. My memories of him froze in action along with the grief of losing him. I still remember the feeling of being Daddy’s Baby Girl, but there is no sense of loss connected to those memories. My mind freeze-framed the memories before it got to the painful emotions. My aunt Emma, on the other hand, remained a source of joy well beyond my childhood. My memory of her is not merely a freeze-framed photo; it is a part of my life-movie.

Categories: Childhood, Emma Schrock, Old Order Mennonite, Photo-Memory | Leave a comment

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