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I was walking down the concourse at the Fresno, California Airport when I spotted several of my books. I admit, as humbly as possible, that never gets old. Two little miracles I called them. Oh yes, I’ve dragged my already jet-lagged body from six time zones in one direction to three in the opposite direction. I returned from the hike in Spain Saturday night. I ended up hiking 569 miles.

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I’m doing some events for Choice Books California. I was walking down the street a few minutes ago in search of food and saw this monument to a Turkish tobacco growing failure. That’s when you know you landed where not much of significance has happened.

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Here are a few photos of three grandkids to show you what I was looking forward to returning to. There are four more.

I’m not sure how appropriate it is to post photos of a burial and funeral, but I do so to make a point. You might recall during my hike that a sunflower field turned me into a quivering, weeping mush pot. The thought of my aunts and uncles and extended family and what they meant to me was what did it. I determined to make an effort to thank them when I returned. Sadly two passed away before I returned. An aunt, the spouse of my uncle Andrew Stutzman, had passed away. Later that same day, an uncle, John Stutzman, also passed on. The irony is that they both were 91 years old, lived a scant quarter mile apart, and attended the same church. This is also the church my parents attend and where I attended before rules and regulations became to stifling. Well, that and a more liberal Mennonite girlfriend. I have many fond memories of growing up there.

I did make it back for my uncle’s funeral. My aunt had been buried the previous day while I was flying home. I took the photos to show you why I got so emotional that day by that sunflower field. It can only be described in one word–love. My extended family rallies around the grieving family and carries them along with love. You would think that, by age 91, there wouldn’t be many folks left to care. I waited one and a half hours in line at the viewing. The photo at the burial site is of my parents on the left. Mary, the spouse of uncle John, and my uncle David on the right. My uncle Andy at age 99 remained back at the church during the burial.

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I should tell you a bit about conservative Mennonite funerals. They wring every bit of emotion out of a person possible. They do not sugarcoat death. The audience gets to watch as the family views their loved one for the final time, then, in full view of everyone, they close the coffin, wringing the final gasps of emotion from an already exhausted body.

To me, it was a walk down memory lane watching folks I had grown up with during my time at that church 50 years ago. Perhaps even an old crush or two passed by.

At the cemetery, I marveled at how the lawn I had mowed as a lad was now a cemetery with numerous gravestones. The names were familiar, and, again, I was reminded how so many of those that had gone on to their reward had impacted my life.

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Upon my return to the church for lunch, I set out to do what I had determined to do that day by that sunflower field.

I was told my uncle Andy at 99 was hard of hearing and might not know me. I at least needed to try. I sat in front of that man, a minister of the Gospel who had literally scared the hell right out of me. I mean that sincerely. Perhaps more appropriate to say he scared me out of hell and into Heaven. We don’t hear much about that awful place anymore, but uncle Andy from the pulpit made sure we knew the options.

Uncle Andy grasped my hands and thought a while. “Yes, I know who you are,” he said. “When you returned from your hike six years ago, Esther and I saw you in Berlin by the store.”

Indeed he had, and so much for memory loss from a 99-year-old man. I thanked him profusely for all his teachings and influence. Uncle Andrew Stutzman, the most dynamic speaker and minister I have ever heard, one of the most influential men in my lifetime, then did something special. He grasped my hands in his and prayed a blessing over my life. Oh yes, I had reason to weep that day in Spain. My question then had been, “Why, God, am I so special to have been born into such a rich heritage?” I still don’t have that answer and may never know. I do know that whatever talents God gave me, he gave to my grandfather, dad, aunts and uncles first. I now also have a blessing from a man who received a blessing from a Godly father. Will I have anything worthy of passing on as a blessing to my offspring? I wondered. I’m walking in footprints left by giants. It’s a hard act to follow.

Andrew’s son saw me speaking with his dad. He grabbed me and said, “I need to thank you.”

“For what?” I wondered.

He hugged me and sobbed on my shoulder. “You will never know how much you meant to my mom,” he said.

‘Wait, what are you talking about?’

His mom, Esther, was the aunt that had passed away the same day as uncle John.

“Next to the Bible, her favorite book was your book, Hiking Through. She read it through six times. I want to thank you for the joy you brought to my mother.”

Imagine my surprise to know that I, who had gained so much from them, had actually given a bit back. Yes, that surprises me as well.

Again thanks to everyone who has followed my hike in Spain. It meant so much to hear comments from folks following me. Words do have so much power. The power to hurt or the power to heal. The power to put down or the power to lift up. Use your words to make someone’s day. You’ll be making your own better as well.

  • Jamie Page

    These pictures flood my mind with memories. The images are very familiar and to this day, bread and butter sliced pickles are known to me as ‘funeral pickles’ since we always had them at the dinners after a funeral in the local community center.

  • Rick Shepherd

    Thank you, Paul, for this look into your family life….. I worked with Dad and Mom in their family tree service growing up but we did not have a close extended family such as yours…..Dad’s folks passed on before I could meet them and Mom’s people lived in California…..I was raised on the Ohio River in southwestern Indiana…..Then when I could I followed a career in aviation and left home for, eventually, Ohio where I now live east of Columbus…..My children all live throughout Indiana, so reading about your family here on your blog and from reading your great books is a special blessing to me……We recently bought some deck furniture from Dan Yoder this past summer and I was hoping to get to meet you when we picked it up but was told by the ladies at the book store that you were hiking in Spain….. Maybe some day if you lead a 20 mile stroll, I would be proud to be a part of that group!