In a break with tradition, an Amish mother publishes her sorrow A PLAIN GRIEF

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Lititz, Pa. -- Many days, strangers and near-strangers turn up on Esther Smucker's front porch in Lancaster County and tap softly on the screen door. When Esther appears, the visitors act as if they already know her -- or at least know her pain.

One woman brings her a magnificent Easter lily. A man from Virginia stops by for an autograph. A passing acquaintance wants to buy copies of her book, "Good Night, My Son," for her co-workers at a nearby restaurant in Ephrata.

Most of the visitors need to talk. So Esther, dressed as somberly as a priest hearing confessions, stands on the porch of her old stone farmhouse and listens to their stories of loss and grief.

"If somebody comes to the door and relates their experience, I often have a deep urge just to hug that person," she reveals guiltily, as if it's a deep-seated problem. "Sometimes I do."

Nothing in Esther's life has prepared her for this. She is Old Order Amish, a sect of deeply religious Anabaptists whose lives are rooted in the 18th century and who are fiercely protective of their privacy.

Esther, her husband, David, and their four children, keep to the ways of their forefathers, who settled this rich farmland two centuries ago. They plow their fields with a team of horses, light their home with gas lamps, fasten their clothes with snaps and straight pins, and drive to church each week in a horse-drawn buggy.

The stunning simplicity of this life draws thousands of tourists to Pennsylvania Dutch country every year. But the gawkers usually see the Amish only from a distance. The Plain People refuse to pose for pictures or reveal much of themselves to outsiders -- or even to each other.

In this world, loss and suffering are borne privately. The Amish way is to accept tragedy as God's will and quietly go on. Few Plain People would feel comfortable joining a support group or talking to a therapist. Nor would they think of writing a book plumbing the depths of their emotions for public consumption.

Esther never set out to challenge her culture. But her grief was so overwhelming that it had to have an outlet. So she wrote. For months, she poured out her feelings in a journal, mourning what she had lost: her 5-year-old son, David Jr.

She wrote of Junior's viewing and the guilt she felt during the funeral. All his life, he'd worn only hand-me-downs from his older brothers. Now, in death, he wore a new set of white clothing made by the churchwomen.

She wrote of how depression hit her husband that summer; how it nearly incapacitated her the next winter as the family endured its first excruciating Christmas without Junior.

She wrote of her intense desire to see her youngest son again. She longed to hug him, longed to hear him sing, longed to somehow erase the memory of his body sprawled by the side of the road as cars whizzed past.

Some of this pain was familiar terrain for Esther. She had %J suffered before. In 1981, she lost one of her 7-month-old twins, John, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. A year later her beloved aunt, Naomi Huyard, was murdered by a 16-year-old Mennonite boy in New Holland.

But until Junior's death, she had never allowed herself to be so open and honest about her grief, stress and doubts.

A few days after the funeral, I felt I must feel some contact with Junior. I thought of his clothes drawer, the only drawer he could call his own. The other boys had drawers of their own where they stored all kinds of personal objects -- oddities such as seashells, empty gum wrappers, and things that boys collect. I had planned to empty another drawer in the desk for Junior to store his collectibles. But, in the meantime, he kept his little treasures in his clothes drawer. As I thought of that I went to see what treasures I could find. There, neatly tucked under his shirts, was a small pile of treasures. I sat down and wept. There were two balloons, a homemade bookmarker, a pencil, a small stick-on seal and a pack of chewing gum with one piece of gum divided into eighteen small bits.

She wrote for more than a year before sharing her journal, first with her husband, and then with a few trusted friends and family members. Everyone who read it -- her sister, Rebecca; her mother, Levina; and her neighbor, Debbie -- tried to persuade her to circulate it more widely. When they suggested that it might actually help others, Esther began to seriously consider the idea of publishing it.

Still, it took her a full three months, she says, to grant permission to the Olde Springfield Shoppe in Elverson to publish "Good Night, My Son." She agonized about what others' reactions to her effort would be; namely, those of her Old Order Amish community.

Books about the Amish abound; books by them are rare. It is especially unusual for an Amish woman -- prolific though most are in diaries -- to write a book.

Although no church law forbids it, writing isn't regarded as a particularly worthwhile activity for Amish women, most of whom, like Esther, are busy from sunup to sundown sewing their families' clothing, canning food for the year, helping with farm chores and tending to a brood of children. Nor is it considered healthy by the Amish for one of their own to dwell on a traumatic event and publicly expose her innermost feelings about it.

"We really don't like to draw attention to ourselves," explains Esther, whose head is always covered -- even at bedtime -- and whose form is shapeless under layers of long, dark cloth. "I asked the publisher, in fact, if I could use a pen name for the book. I think it was my last attempt to be anonymous."

Instead, she settled for two conditions: Her name would not appear on the book jacket and no photographs of the family would accompany the text.

A Plain life

Esther is talking about the book as she cleans up the remains of noodles, applesauce, peaches and pudding that she's just cleared off the dinner table.

Her husband, David, declares the meal over with a silent prayer; he puts on a straw hat and walks to the dairy barn with three sinewy sons following close at his heels. Four-year-old Emma busies herself with a doll while her mother searches for a dish towel, lost apparently among the stacks of gravy-soiled plates piled in the kitchen sink.

Unable to locate it, Esther uses her black apron to dry fingers and forearms that are weathered beyond her 39 years. Her brown hair, tucked carefully under her white prayer cap, is receding from decades of being parted in the middle and pulled into a bun.

She'd look severe if it weren't for her smile, which comes easily and often to her face, especially when she talks about her children. She delights in everything they do: the pigeons they raise, the treehouses they build, the games they make up. She loves gathering them in her lap at the end of a long day to read Bible stories to them. David often sings them to sleep.

The Smuckers live on a dairy farm about 14 miles north of Lancaster on the fringe of the Amish community. Land is so expensive here that they've never been able to buy a farm of their own. So they rent 98 acres from a widow who lives in California.

Their house is a big, rambling place with a manicured lawn and a screen door that bangs incessantly as the children run in and out. Most days laundry flaps from a clothesline on the front porch.

There's nothing fancy inside. Most of the furniture was purchased second-hand at swap meets and yard sales.

From her station at the kitchen sink, Esther looks through wire-rimmed glasses out over the fields where David drives a team of six massive horses pulling a plow; tender pea pods are just starting to appear in her vegetable garden.

Interrupting this scene and dividing the farm is a winding, hilly road, a thoroughfare for hundreds of drivers speeding to work or the mall. Several times a day, Esther's head snaps to the sound of roaring engines and screeching tires.

The sound of screams

She didn't hear the car that killed David Jr.

She was in the stable that evening, May 25, 1992, milking the cows. Her four sons were dashing in and out as she worked. Junior was the youngest of the four, a pudgy, blond boy with trusting, deep-blue eyes and a thoughtful nature. Esther liked to call him "my little puppy."

He was a few steps behind the others as they played treasure hunt. The prize was a scooter she had bought for them that morning at a yard sale.

Esther was milking her last cow when she heard the screams. Seconds later, the boys came running into the stable.

They were crying hysterically. I cannot describe the frightened looks on their faces, or how my heart and mind were jolted or the thoughts of what may have happened that raced through my mind! It was only a matter of seconds, yet I felt numb with shock. At that time, I did not realize that Junior wasn't with them. Something seemed to have clogged in my throat and threatened to choke me.

She calmed her oldest boy, Jacob, enough so he could tell her what had happened.

"Junior was hit by a car," he cried.

Before Esther could move, a young man came running into the stable crying and yelling, "Somebody call an ambulance!"

She dialed 911 from a telephone her landlord had installed in the stable.

In my dazed mind, I'm not sure what I did next. Only I felt I could not go out to the road. I felt I simply couldn't stand to see him struggling or badly mangled.

Finally, I thought I would want to say good-bye to him. I slowly went out the milkhouse door and around the silo. There I stopped, for he was in plain view across the road, lying in the gutter on his back. Even from there, I could see he wasn't moving.

Slowly, I crossed the road and went over to him. I only stroked his one hand and gazed down at him. He looked almost peaceful, with both arms thrown back and his legs crossed as if he were asleep.

The only real sign of injury was the blood gurgling out of his mouth. His eyes were partially open and as I looked into them, I realized he was gone.

Getting to heaven

She remembered a conversation that they had had only three days before. Junior was trailing after her as she hoed the vegetable garden when he suddenly announced that he was going to heaven. He wanted to know what he had to do to get there.

"Believe in Jesus and love everybody," his mother told him.

"Oh, I do," he said. "And everybody loves me."

As Esther looked at his body, his words came back to her.

I was filled with a calm I cannot describe. I felt a presence around me that controlled me. Rather it was a feeling of awe, that this is sacred.

The presence of God was so strongly felt.

She tried to soothe the young driver of the car, who was running up and down the road, crying as he yelled, "Now I'm in trouble. Now I'll go to jail. It's no use, can't you see he's dead!"

Esther walked over and hugged the young man. She assured him that Junior was in heaven and promised that he wouldn't go to jail.

But her sense of tranquillity was shattered by the sight of cars speeding past Junior's body. I felt if Junior had been lying in the middle of the road, they would have driven right over him.

Finally, the police and paramedics arrived, sirens blaring. Esther shuddered as she watched their attempts to revive her son. At the hospital, a doctor explained that David Jr. was "brain dead," though he was still on a respirator. Esther was shocked when her husband agreed to donate Junior's organs, a distinctly un-Amish thing to do.

The Smuckers saw their little boy one last time before his respirator was removed.

David and I both wept as we neared Junior. He was lying on a stretcher, submerged in tubes and machines. It was repulsive to me to see his chest move up and down, yet we knew he had died. His eyes had that same faraway look; his color was ashen, and he was cold to the touch. I hated that feeling of coldness.

Food for the spirit

Junior's funeral was held in the Smuckers' barn on a sunny day in May. Several hundred people -- family and friends, Amish and non-Amish -- came to say goodbye. The minister told a Bible story about a young boy with a small basket of food. After the food was blessed by Jesus, it fed a multitude of 5,000 who had come to hear Jesus speak. Junior, the minister said, had fed many, many people spiritually by his death.

Esther was deeply moved by the comparison. She thought it fitting that her little boy had touched so many lives.

A team of horses carried the casket to the cemetery, and Junior was buried alongside his infant brother, Johnnie.

For Esther, the months after the funeral were almost unbearable. Each time she thought of Junior coloring or sitting in his rocking chair, she'd push the memories away. When people asked how many children she had, she struggled with what to say. Shall I answer "We have four children" or "We had five" or "We would have six if all were living?"

Unable to sleep at night, Esther slogged through each day by drinking cup after cup of coffee. She felt tired all the time, a weariness that no amount of sleep seemed to change.

Then in November, almost six months after Junior's death, Esther heard the screech of tires, looked out her kitchen window and saw the body of her oldest son lying next to the road. Oh God, NO! Please, not again!

In a bizarre accident, Jacob had fallen off a piece of farm equipment, somehow landing on the hood of a passing car. The car had saved his life, Esther believed, by breaking his fall. He suffered only a concussion and bruises to his forehead and knee. But the incident left Esther and David deeply shaken. They couldn't take much more.

December was the hardest month. I believe David and I were both in a stage of utter loneliness; grief had reached a climax. The past half-year was taking its toll. Or perhaps it was the approaching of the bleak winter months, before which we seemed defenseless.

An amazing response

Esther's journal served as a sounding board for her grief, a private means to ease her pain. She never imagined it would be anything more. And when her family and friends urged her to publish it, she agonized that she might offend her community by making it more.

The 88-page paperback contains not only Esther's tale of her son's death, but short, first-person accounts from her husband and three sons about what they saw and felt. Even the state trooper who investigated the accident tells how Junior's death and his relationship with the Smuckers changed his life.

The book hasn't provoked any consternation among the Amish. Instead, "Good Night, My Son" sold 1,000 copies, mainly to Amish readers, in its first three weeks on the shelves at the Olde Springfield Shoppe, according to publisher Lois Ann Mast.

Though no Amish have asked for Esther's autograph, neither have any publicly protested the book. In fact, one Amish bishop reviewed the book for a secular, Lancaster-area newsletter called Bereaved Parents Share Magazine -- an extraordinary show of support.

The bishop, David B. King, called the book "a valuable tool for those who feel isolated or discouraged by a grief experience, giving strong emphasis on healing."

Esther has filled two shoe boxes with encouraging cards and letters from grateful readers: an Amish mother who experienced a similar loss; an elderly Mennonite woman grieving for her dead husband; a hospice worker in Lancaster.

And visitors continue to show up unannounced at her door, anxious to meet the Amish farm wife who shared her grief so openly with them. They find a woman who is still healing.

A picture of peace

One year after Junior's death, Esther found herself wondering how he would look, how he would play with his brothers, how he would fit in. Then she had a dream about her son.

In my dream, it was a beautiful, sunny, warm day. I looked out the window and saw Junior peacefully lying on the green grass, taking a nap. A light breeze was gently blowing his white hair across his face. He was the picture of tranquil peace as he lay on his back, his arms thrown back sound asleep. The dream was so vivid, I felt I could touch him. I awoke with tears on my pillow.

The next month, a close friend of the Smuckers gave them a white rose bush in Junior's memory. Esther's sister planted it by the front gate of the house, not far from the spot where Junior was hit by the car. The bush will bloom again this summer, bearing fragrant, white roses until the first frost.

FINDING WORDS FOR THE PAIN

If I sat down and concentrated on thinking of him, the longing to see him became so great and the pain so intense that it was more than I could endure. I felt I could escape the pain by not thinking of him. . . . Only the following winter did I realize and understand some of my feelings. Instead of going through grief, I tried to go around it. Eventually, I needed to go through it, and the longer I waited, the harder it became.

As Christmas approached it seemed that tension mounted in our family. Where was the usual enthusiasm, the singing of carols, the joy of telling the children the story of Christ's birth? It was all a forced ordeal. I thought of a year ago and how Junior had enjoyed all those things so much. One memory is especially clear to me and always brings tears when I think of it. Some of my brothers and sisters and their children were here the day after Christmas. Some gifts were exchanged, and my sister-in-law gave Junior a pack of magic markers as a gift. His face just beamed as he exclaimed, "Is this for me? You mean for me?" He could hardly believe his good fortune.

From "Good Night, My Son"

* "Good Night, My Son" by Esther F. Smucker is available from the Olde Springfield Shoppe, 10 W. Main St., Elverson, Pa. 19520; (610) 286-0258. The cost is $6.50, plus $2 for shipping and handling.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
54°