I parked the car in the rutted grass whose green had bled dry and colorless to the roughly hewn tracks of an Amish plow, leaving dirt and gravel in its place. The cold temperatures made this patch of earth on the side of a tobacco barn appear stillborn to the fates.
The air smelled of burnt pine and it was delivered in hearty bursts of an icy wind full of proverbs, whose lessons proved elusive in its whistling rush to death. I moved from the car with my Christmas gift basket and walked the stone path to Mary’s front door. She had been a neighbor of mine for years before I moved away, and I still paid a visit to her every now and then.
The two story brick farmhouse was dark and empty looking. I guessed the old building to be a century old, give or take. The intrusion of all those years had been mostly kind to it, excepting in this instance when it took on a haunting snow-globe feeling. Maybe it was the years talking back to me, I don’t know.
I knocked on the door but there was no answer. I gave it one more try as I examined the spartan qualities of her front porch. From the looks of it, the floorboards had received a fresh coat of gray paint fairly recently. A porch swing dressed in white crackled paint held court to the right hand side of the porch with a rusted milk can placed beside it. To the left side of the porch sat a couple of old wicker chairs whose age was told by the splintery explosions that were breaking out across them.
Sunday is ‘visiting day’ for the Amish. After church services, they drop in on neighbors and family. I didn’t expect that Mary would be returning any time soon so I lay the Christmas basket at the front door.
I moved back into my car and I thought about the conversation I’d had with Mary many years ago. It had come after the Nickel Mines shooting in which ten Amish girls were shot inside a one room schoolhouse on a fall day in 2006. Five of those girls died-Naomi, Marian, Anna, Lena, Mary. They ranged in age from seven to thirteen years old, and I cry every time I think about those little girls being taken from the world before they ever got a chance to live their lives.
Mary gave me an early Christmas present inside that horrible month, and it came in the form of a lesson on forgiveness. There I was, railing on about the animal who had destroyed the lives of so many when Mary politely intruded on my runaway thoughts.
“We forgive him,” She said simply.
“How do you forgive?” I asked.
“Because it’s what God asks of me,” She replied. The tone in her voice let me know that she was having a hard time talking herself into it. But she was really doing it, she was forgiving this monster in spite of her inner turmoil. I didn’t press her on it, even though I had plenty of questions where that one came from.
“Every person has a soul. Everyone will stand in front of God one day and they will be judged by Him. It isn’t our place to judge another living soul.”
Eleven years later, I am still humbled by that conversation. It still makes me tremble and ponder and it still makes me cry. But more than any of that, it does provide a light to follow, a reason to believe. I derive comfort from her strength. It makes me think that maybe there is something beyond all of this. Maybe the world is like that dark two story brick farm house, seemingly devoid of life but full of the restorative powers of love and faith when you look closer.
They razed the one room schoolhouse where those girls were taken from the world. It’s now a quiet pasture whose sacred whispers have become a lesson. The New Hope School was built close by and it is a living testament to the very best of the human spirit, an answer to the darkest of days.
I don’t think I will ever possess the quiet resolve of Mary and her Amish neighbors. But I’ve come to learn that you can find virtue in the trying, you can find answers in the dark, you can find reason inside the meanest of seasons.