About: Angie Burkholder never fit into her Old Order Mennonite family or community, and she never understood why. It’s not until she’s excommunicated from her church, divorced from her only-plain-on-the-outside husband, and ostracized from her dysfunctional family does she begin to seek answers. With care from the Best boys, single dad Ty and his disabled son Scotty, she begins to see herself in the worldly-world. She’ll need all the strength she learned as an abused child to survive losses and uncovered family secrets to heal from her past, forgive those who never asked for it, and love in ways she was rarely shown.
Cars were against my family’s religion. Literally.
I left my aging Honda on the side of the road and crunched down the gravel farm lane on foot. Although the air was frosty under a thick gray November sky, sheep still enjoyed bright green grass that hadn’t yet been affected by heavy frost. The friendly brook gurgled its song as I crossed the short cement bridge strong enough to support a huge milk tanker every day. I glanced left, but the sight of the pond forced my gaze ahead where it landed on the line of horse-drawn black buggies.
A decade had passed since I lived on this farm. Strong odors from the barn assaulted my nose that was more used to the smell of city traffic than animal waste and sweet hay. A horse in the barnyard sauntered over to the wall to see if it knew me, but we were strangers.
The number of buggies lined up wondered me. It must be a visiting Sunday. I didn’t know if this was a good thing or not. The presence of people outside my immediate family might have helped to restrain the strong reaction I expected my unannounced return would cause. Or, it could have just meant news of my ostracizing would spread quicker. Identical letters from a bishop had arrived at our first Phoenix address a few months after my husband Earl and I left Lancaster County. They informed us we were excommunicated from the local Old Order Mennonite congregation we had grown up in as well as all such churches in the Groffdale Conference and beyond. It was the prayer of the bishop and our families that we would be reconciled which would involve the humiliating process of confessing our transgressions to the bishop and the congregation.
I hoped nobody was betting their suspenders and cape dresses on that ever happening.
As I approached the house, a dread weakened me; stole my breath and heartbeat. This old white farm house with the generations of dark green trim had never felt like home to me. Maybe I had never even known what home felt like, but in my years away, I rarely yearned to be here. I must have been insane to have imagined those people would want me. The best I hoped for was kindness from Anna, the wife of my oldest brother Samuel. She had risked his wrath by secretly writing to me over the years.
The fear almost made me turn and run back to my car. But that was why I went there, why I packed my possessions in a rented trailer and hauled them across the country. To find out where I stood with my family so I could find a way to move up and away if I had to.
I climbed the two limestone steps to the wraparound porch and faced two doors. The GrossDaadi Haus was on the left. It was where my parents lived. The door on the right led to the parlor of the main house, occupied by Samuel, Anna and those of their children who still lived at home. I was born when Samuel was nineteen. We were practically strangers. He wasted no love on me.
When I turned the corner toward the kitchen door, there were a few men dressed in black church attire standing together on the grass. They looked at me but didn’t acknowledge me with even a nod. I didn’t recognize any of them immediately, but they were probably cousins. I was sure they knew who I was. The urge to flee was stronger than before. They muttered together in Deitsch and walked away toward the barn.
At the kitchen door, I heard the same language from inside. The speech of my youth, Pennsylvania German. Before I knocked, I checked my Englischer clothing. A calf-length dark blue straight skirt, a simple white blouse and a heather pink cardigan that was failing to keep me warm, black opaque tights, black flats. I had a cape dress from this old life in a box in my new apartment. But since I had no intention of being restored to the community, I did not wear it. My dark blond hair, however, was still long and pinned up in the traditional manner, although it lacked the white mesh prayer kapp with its white ribbon ties. I was dressed as Plain as could be without being Plain.
Anna answered my knock on the kitchen door and stepped onto the porch. “Angela, you came!” She embraced me with her strong arms, then stood back and smoothed a hand along my hair. Her light brown hair was grayer than the last I saw her six years ago, and she was a bit plumper. Her smile for me was as warm as ever. “How did you hear?” She whispered everything she said to me. “You poor child. His last words were, ‘Tell Angela I was weak, and I’m sorry.’”
“Yah. He went home to Jesus yesterday.”
“I’m too late?”
“His leaving was peaceful.”
A white wave of disbelief pushed me back toward the edge of the porch as my knees almost gave out. Things tore inside me, and something black climbed out of a hole in my heart.
“I’d like to see Mudder.” I turned to move past Anna and finally realized she had been trying to block my way into the house. I only got a step before I hit the wall that was Samuel.
“Anna, the people need more coffee.” Samuel’s tone was stern and told both of us Anna had stepped out of place.
It took a long moment for my eyes to reach up far enough to find his. “Hello, Samuel. I’m sorry about Daadi. I’m sorry I wasn’t here, but I didn’t know. May I see Mudder?”
“She does not want to see you, Angela.”
Refusing the meaning of those words, I darted around him and through the door into the combined kitchen-dining room. Little had changed. The furniture, the light. The cupboard. Odors from decades past floated in the room like ghosts, released by the seasonal dampness. Roasting meat, baking bread, hard-working bodies of Burkholder kin.
Every face of the twenty or more that sat around the long dinner table turned to me. Very old aunts and uncles, cousins, my other three brothers and two sisters and their spouses.
My mother. Her spare face was lined with a stoic grief. Her mouth opened in recognition, then closed in resignation.
I held out my arms to her. She stood and turned her back to me.
One by one, everyone did the same. Even the children in imitation of their elders. Even the elders who could barely straighten up.
A child’s voice asked in Deitsch, “Why don’t we like that lady?”
“Hush, Ruth Ann!” Samuel growled behind me in the same language.
Little Ruth Ann with long golden braids turned to look at me, to smile and curl her chubby fingers in a brave wave.
God, no. I recognized her kindred spirit.
“You must leave, Angela,” Samuel said.
“No, Samuel, please.” The words came out as a whimper. My hands clasped onto his arms.
He shook me off. “I will talk to you in the barn.” His step forced me toward the door.
I dodged him again and dashed toward the crowd. Everyone’s back was still turned, like a retreating army. An ancient great-uncle sank into his chair.
“Leave my house now, Angela.” The quiet rumble of Samuel’s voice and his scarlet face didn’t match. He yanked on my arm all the way to the porch, then down the steps across the gravel parking area to the barn. The men who had gathered there left with a single glance from my brother. I had to run to keep up with him.
“Still the same, you are.” Samuel spoke with controlled anger in resentful English inside the barn. “Still disobedient to the core.”
The stench in the building, while ingrained into my DNA, nonetheless overwhelmed me at first. I panted, almost puked and doubled over.
“You are not welcome here, Angela.”
“You’ve made that clear.” Defiantly, I stood straight and stared him in the face. “Why?”
“I’ll spell it out since you are too stupid to remember.” His grip on my arm tightened. “You divorced your husband. Then you lived in sin with an unbeliever. You drive cars and dress like an outsida. You are excommunicated from the church and no longer a part of this family. You have shamed us!”
“I married Earl like you said I should.” My knees bent as if I wanted to plead with him. “He didn’t love me, Samuel. He wanted the divorce so he could be with someone else. He just used me to—” I’d promised Earl I wouldn’t tell. “And the unbeliever was just a roommate, I rented space in his house. Samuel, I’m still—”
“You have always thought like a worldly outsida, Angela. You never believed God’s word like you should.” He let go of my arm with a push.
“If this is believing, I want nothing to do with it!” I rushed past him.
He grabbed my arm one more time, stinging as he twisted me around to face him once again. “You don’t get to choose! You were born into this family to honor God and live according to His call on your life. You were baptized!”
“I wanted this life, but it doesn’t want me. It let my family and my husband betray me. I tried my best!”
“I doubt that,” he sneered. “God made us all to conform to His ways, no matter what.”
“Not His ways. Some man’s ways. I’m not a bad person, Samuel.” I backed off. Defeat was certain.
“You are an evil person, Angela. Even your Englischer name mocks us all. You are a murderer.”
“What?” The force of his words finally buckled my knees. “I didn’t mean to kill Enoch!”
“But you did.” He pulled me up with tight hands on my upper arms and held me at eye level. My feet barely touched the ground.
“I was six years old!”
“You were told to never take him to the pond.” He shook me.
“Samuel!” A man’s voice commanded its way in. Lester, my second oldest brother. “Take your hands off her. She is no longer ours to worry about.”
Before he obeyed, Samuel squeezed my shoulders, and it hurt like mad. I cowered at the sound of his rapid breath that flared his nostrils in and out like an angry bull. Then he let go and turned his back to me.
“Leave, Angela.” Lester’s voice was calmer but no kinder. “Don’t return.” He stepped away from the barn door. As I walked past him, I stopped and looked at his face. There was little in it I remembered as a child.
Outside, rain mixed with sleet had started falling. I started to trot to my car to escape the cold. My foot hooked something and I fell, arms reaching out to catch myself. Still, my face skidded on the gravel and my knee exploded in pain. A jumpy gold puppy yapped in my ear and tugged at my hair.
“Oh, puppy, puppy! You made the lady fall. Bad puppy!” The little girl that waved to me crouched in front of me, speaking Deitsch. “You have boo-boos. Daadi, the lady is bleeding!”
“Go in the house, child,” Samuel growled from a short distance.
“Who is she, Daadi—”
Samuel gripped the puppy by the scruff of its neck and shoved it at the girl. Slowly, I stood and brushed gravel and grit off my wounds, then began the trek to my car again. I should have been happy to leave, but the walk was like swimming through syrup. I hugged my abdomen and felt like I might throw up. A gust of wind blew little pellets of sleet into the cuts on my face and knee. I got in the car and started it, pulled out. A horn blared and another car made a sharp swerve around mine. The horn screamed again and a hand brandishing the middle finger rose from the window.
The entire world was saying that to me.