For three days my computer has been in the shop having “junk” removed. In these days of non-computing I’ve been thinking about my brother. One friend observed that he must have had an exciting life. I here offer some insights that may or may not be said in a memorial service. John was the oldest son of our father and mother. Many hopes were lodged in him. I was six years younger and was always in his shadow scholastically. He and our parents are deceased, so there is no one to contest or add to much of what I say here.
He accepted the need to taking care of me. When someone asked in broken Pennsylvania Dutch, “Whose bublich bist du?” (Whose baby are you?) John is reported to have protested, “He ain’t no“bublich” and he ain’t no “bist du” either. John was a big seventh grader when I entered the first year of grade school. I remember one snowy morning that he literally dragged me up the hill through the snow to Uncle Walters, to walk out the lane to the school bus.
In the last few days I happened on an article written by cousin Paul Martin about the Marion Mennonite Church.In the last paragraph he recalled that when he was 12 years old, he and his cousin, John Lehman, were baptized. Since Bishop John Burkholder was ill, John and cousin Paul were baptized by the oldest preacher, George Ernst. John was thirteen when he was baptized. Not yet eighteen, he was named to a class of candidates for minister at Marion church. He told me years later that he was not meant to be a minister and wished to be excused from the lot, but was persuaded to trust God. He told me he knew that if there was a God he would not have him ordained. The lot was cast in traditional style and Norman Martin was chosen for ordination.
Spared from being a minister, John was active in the Marion Congregation. He led congregational singing and taught Sunday School classes. He was employed by J. Ira Eshleman, managed a chicken farm for Dr. Himmelfarb east of the Pleasant View Mennonite Church, owned and managed a chick hatchery and an egg business in Chambersburg. He was married and he and his wife became the parents of John Dennis and Ruth Ann.
The circumstances surrounding his move to the Washington D.C. area, his divorce, and departure from the Mennonite Church are not fully known to me. I was in CPS and later in Florida pursuing interests of my own. However, in later years John told me of inconsistencies he saw in the lives of some Mennonites that made him doubt.
My father told me that at the time of John’s divorce from his first wife our mother became ill. A doctor asked her
what troubled her. She told him of her concerns for her son, and by telling it she became well again.
John usually visited our parents regularly, but around the time of his second marriage they sensed that his visits to them were not as frequent as they expected and they wondered why. Father told me that he assured John that if he was smoking cigarettes, he should come home anyway. He told John to bring any friend with him at any time, for “any friend of yours is a friend of mine.” He told him they did not want anything he was doing or who he was with to keep him from coming home. I haven’t checked John’s side of this story, but it sounds very like the father I knew who gave grace upon grace upon grace to many.
As father and mother grew older, John called home from New England and I from Florida every Saturday. We scheduled our visits home at different times.
We really did not get to know each other as adults until John and Sally, his third wife, (John often said that a third wife is the “charm”) and Rhoda and I spent a day together sorting through Father and Mother’s “things” that were left behind when they moved from their cottage at Menno Haven to assisted living. We discovered that we remembered different parents. Six years can make a big difference, especially in the first years of one’s life.
From that time in the cottage John and I kept in closer contact. We went with our parents to the funeral director for them to choose and pay for their caskets in advance of need.
John was with our father and I was with our mother at the times of their passing which happened to be only two months a part. We were standing beside our father’s casket when I asked, “Do you think father knows we are here?” “Of course he knows,” was John’s prompt reply.
When he and Sally retired in Florida, my work for the churches often allowed me to travel I-75 which passed within a few mile of their home in Maple Leaf Estates. Rhoda and I often visited them. When we moved to Indiana to be with our daughter, Rachel, we again had a major distance between us. Regular calls by telephone kept us in touch.
I happened to be in Florida when John Dennis’s wife Mary passed away and John asked that I come for a brief memorial service in their home. John and Sally, John Dennis and Ruth Ann gathered for my coming. We visited for a while and then John nodded to me that it was time for the service to begin. I suggested that we first tell our memories of Mary. Then we sang a hymn from memory, and recited the twenty-third psalm. Then I suggested that we pray, and added that I would wait for anyone to volunteer a prayer before I prayed. John said, “Me first.” I peeked! John looked to heaven and said, “God, you don’t hear from me very often. But it’s me, John.” And then he offered a brief prayer of gratitude for Mary’s life.
We may wonder about John’s eternal destiny.Whatever we believe or think we know, no one really knows what happens after death. When questioned by our mother John said he identified himself as being, “Mennonite.” Later, when I asked if he was an atheist he seemed almost insulted. He said “I just don’t want to be labeled.”
We know that Sally, is a devoted Catholic. John went with her to mass. When he could no longer drive, a catholic deaconess came to their apartment for a weekly mass. John and I disagreed about many things and often argued vehemently. But we were friends and brothers and had much in common.
He was a better gardener than I. I told him that if he had become a minister and applied himself to study he would have become a better preacher than our father or I. I don’t think he believed that. I tried to tell him that I needed as much grace as he. When I protested the title of his book, “ME: Musings of a Dirty Old Man” he said, “But I have to be honest!”
John enjoyed talking with Eldon, my son in law. He knew Eldon is a Hospice Chaplain. Eldon told me he was asking “end of life” questions. When I told him of the coming of “My Joy” into my life and that we were not going to get married, he said he never thought his little brother would be “living in sin.” When I told him I was not living in sin, he said “I would if I could.” He almost always ended a telephone conversation by asking about My Joy. That was my brother, and I loved him.