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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Grandfather Daniel J. Yoder, A Man Of Sorrows

In one of my last extended conversations with my dad, he talked at length about the intense life of grief his father Dan experienced, having lost three wives and two young children by the time he was 45.

Grandfather Dan, who died before I was born, grew up as the oldest of 11 children in the John and Anna Yoder family in northern Indiana. In his late teens he fell in love with sixteen-year-old Fannie Troyer, and after a rather brief period of dating, proposed to her. Young Fannie, instead of instantly agreeing as he had hoped, asked for some time to think this over before giving him an answer.

Theirs was something of a star crossed relationship in the first place in that Dan was Amish and Fannie a "church house Amish" a less conservative group that later became a part of the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference. In those days, before such inventions as cars, phones and TV's, the differences between the groups were not so obvious, but Dan's parents nevertheless frowned on the relationship.

Girls marrying in their mid teens was not uncommon in those days, but Fannie's less than enthusiastic response may have been one of Dan's first major setbacks, and rather than risk her rejection--and perhaps to please his parents--Dan never went back to Fannie to get her answer, something he felt badly about later.

Fannie, by the way, later moved to Kansas to do housekeeping for an Amish widower, Abraham Nisly, and ended up marrying one of his sons, Eli, who later became an Amish bishop. By a strange twist of fate, Eli and Fannie became my mother Mary's parents. So Fannie, instead of potentially becoming my paternal grandmother, became my maternal grandmother.

Meanwhile, Dan courted and married an Amish girl, Lucy Lehman, and the two moved to a newly forming Amish settlement in Mississippi.

Here is where Dan's troubles really begin.

At age 23, Lucy died of measles, leaving him a heartbroken widower with two very young children, John and Anna, dutifully named after his parents. On the day of Lucy's burial, little Anna also died of measles.

Soon thereafter, Dan married Rebecca Schrock, and the two had five more children together. Then  his beloved Rebecca died of tuberculosis, leaving him a widower with six young ones to care for. Then only months after Rebecca's death, his youngest daughter Mary likewise died of tuberculosis.

Dan then married Elizabeth Miller, and the two moved to Yoder, Kansas, and had three more children together, the youngest of whom was my father, Ben. Then when my father was only three years old, Elizabeth went into labor with what would have been their fourth child, and died of complications in childbirth.

"The next five years were like a blur to me," my father told me. "I would often cry myself to sleep wishing I had a mother like other children did. And my father, a 'man of sorrows', wasn't able to comfort us because he was going through so much grief himself."

When my dad was eight, Dan married again, this time to Miriam Mullet, a widow. Miriam's first marriage had been to a widower who already had nine children when his wife passed away, and the two of them then had four more.

Some of Dan and Miriam's older children had already grown and left home, but their large blended family failed to blend well, and Dan experienced additional grief trying to deal with all of the conflict and stress involved in trying to keep their tribe together and functioning. One of his teen age sons (who slept with the older boys in their farm's tenant house), ran away one night and got married in another state, adding to Dan's feelings of loss and depression that went all the way back to the loss of his first love, Fannie.

Much later in life Dan apologized, not to Fannie, but to her husband Eli, for the way he had treated her years before. Perhaps he felt God was somehow punishing him, in that his first three wives died young and Fannie enjoyed good health and lived to a ripe old age.

Needless to say, my father had anything but a happy childhood. But by some miracle, he became one of the kindest and compassionate persons I have ever known. I'm blessed as I reflect on how my forebears' faith in God and love of family eventually brought them through their most difficult and dark times.
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