Elegy for Emma

A few nights ago, there was an unexpected knock at the door. At first, I assumed that Paul had been on Amazon again. I thought it was odd for a delivery to be made so long past dark, but I opened the door fully expecting to sign for something.

It wasn’t a deliveryman, though; it was Lydia Miller, an Amish lady from down the road. She told me that our neighbor Emma had passed away the night before. It wasn’t a surprise since Emma had been diagnosed with cancer several months ago. But preparation for a loss doesn’t make it hurt any less.

I’d seen her husband Jonas just a few days before. He’d stopped me as I was walking Court to give me a bag of apples, a gift in return for the glass pie plates I’d brought to him and Emma. (I’d explained to them that I had more pie plates than I would ever use, and that they would be doing ME a favor if they gave these plates a home. Still, Emma and Jonas are—were–devoted to the idea of reciprocity and would always give me a gift in return for anything I brought them.)

Jonas had said Emma wasn’t doing too well. He’d noted, in a manner half stoic and half melancholy, that they’d been married 52 years. “It doesn’t seem that long,” he’d said. Then, lest I perceive him as being self-pitying, he’d added, “But that’s life. It is what it is.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to do when Lydia brought the news of Emma’s passing. Their house was already teeming with vans and buggies, and I hesitated to interrupt whatever funeral rites were going on. Still, I hesitated even more to have them think we didn’t care. Paul, Sage, and I walked through the darkness to the glowing windows of their nephew’s adjoining house. We could see bonneted heads and dark-suited forms through the windows; their hymns drifted out into the night.

We hesitated. Which door should we enter? What should we expect when we did? Fortunately, a group of young men was arriving, and I asked them for help. They pointed me to a door. Another helpful but unfamiliar man asked me what our intentions were as he tried to figure out the best advice to give me.

“We’d like to pay our respects,” I said. “We’re the next door neighbors.”

Since the guests were in the middle of singing hymns, and since my discomfort was fully apparent, he suggested that we bring Jonas the card I was clutching the next day, when the crowd might be smaller. Relieved at being dismissed after having done our duty, we returned home.

The crowds lasted for several days, including the day of the funeral—a snowy Thursday when the rented vans lining the road in front of their house and the buggies parked in the yard gradually faded into a white sorrowful dream.

Then they were gone. Sage and I went on Saturday to the now silent house. Jonas let us in; Emma’s absence loomed large in the almost-empty front room.  “We were married 52 years, 5 months, and 14 days,” he said sadly. “But she’s only a memory now.”

He was right; faithful to their Amish heritage, there were no photographs of Emma, nothing to keep her face from fading like the snow-covered buggies.

But the memories won’t. I’ll always remember how she’d ask Sage about his school day and listen patiently to his response; how we could always count on a return gift whenever we brought her extra eggs, including her giant German Pink tomatoes; how we exchanged greetings whenever I passed by as she was working in her garden.

Mostly, though, I’ll remember the day she came for fallen apples from our trees; Jonas had gotten a new cider press, and she saw the value in our mounds of half-bruised windfalls. We loaded some into a bushel basket, others into a bucket, and she tucked yet others into her apron.

We carried the apples to her house together, her left hand holding her apple-filled apron, my right hand clutching the bucket, and the basket suspended between us— united by the timeless reciprocity of neighbors.

Jonas brought us some cider a few days later. It’s only a memory now, just like Emma.

But the sweetness remains.


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