by Reta Halteman Finger
June 20, 2010, will be my first Father’s Day without a father. My father, Wilmer Moyer Halteman, died on April 28, at the age of 93.
How does one deal with the loss of someone you have literally known your whole life, and whose genes you carry?
Someone who was alert and lucid until the day he died, who remained the repository of family and community history?
Someone whose memories stretched back to horse-and-wagon days, back to the great-uncle living in their household who had been drafted during the Civil War?
Without him, how can his five far-flung children find an excuse to come back to visit the community of their birth?
Wilmer was born in 1916 in Upper Salford Township in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, the area in which he lived his entire life. His family belonged to Salford Mennonite Church, and their lives had a double center: the farm which sustained their earthly lives, and their church which taught them to live in peace and simplicity and to prepare for the next life.
He and his wife Perle had five children, all of whom now live in different parts of the country or world: Reta in Virginia, Jim in Illinois, Mary Ann in Arizona, Betsy in Lithuania, and Jennifer in Indiana.
How is greatness measured?
He was not a great man, as great men are counted today. His only “15 minutes of fame” were the tributes his children and other relatives and friends gave at his funeral. He had no formal education beyond the 8th grade and grew up in a deeply anti-intellectual family without a mother, who had died when he was four years old. Though he wrote letters and essays for his children, his writings were never published. Many people at his church thought he was eccentric and quirky, for he did not think like they did. They were practical; he was a reader and a dreamer. They were successful farmers and small businessmen; he was an introvert content with little.
As a child he could sit by the hour and watch birds. His Pop thought he was wasting his time watching for the jenny wren to come back in the spring to lay her eggs. At 14 he trapped muskrats to sell their pelts for money, and he bought a bird book for $2.00. Pop castigated him for throwing away all that money that could have been spent on something useful. Afraid of more criticism, he hid the book in his little bedspace in the uninsulated attic and would only look at it by himself.
When he married my extroverted, emotionally expressive mother, he bought a farm with his inheritance from his own dead mother and began raising chickens and growing corn and wheat. But making a profit by selling eggs to the local egg man was not his passion. It was more fun to create an elevator hooked up to the garden tractor whereby, with far less effort, he could carry feed to the chickens on the upper levels of the barn and bring down their eggs.
While plowing the fields or cultivating the corn, he had time to think about stars and planets and birds and telescopes and theology. If he needed to look something up, he would stop the tractor, go into the house and haul out his Bible or atlas, the Encyclopedia Brittanica or the National Geographic magazine. The corn could wait; ideas could not. Thankfully, he eventually took a correspondence course to become a certified electrician, a vocation to which he was far better suited.
When I was seven, Daddy hung a three-seat swing between two maple trees in our front yard, with space for me, my brother, and the neighbor girl. When I was 10 or 11, he attached chains high up in the huge silver maples behind the garage to create a swing that flew so high and so far I had to climb up on an oil barrel for taking off and landing. Hanging between earth and heaven on that swing became my earliest site of meditation.
Unknowingly planting the seeds of feminism
My father was not exactly a feminist. Through my years of Christian feminist exploration in Daughters of Sarah magazine, he would insist that God should not be called She. God is like a mother, but the Bible never calls God Mother. God IS Father. Yet he did a better job planting the seeds of biblical feminism than he ever did planting corn. For one thing, he had resolved as an intellectually-repressed teenager that if he ever had children, he would encourage their education.
And before the children, he had a wife, my mother, who was not only outspoken and expressive, but who turned out to be much better than he was at household management, at gardening, canning, freezing, sewing clothes, and stretching every penny twice over. And when the children came, there were four daughters and only one son—each with a mind that thought just as independently as his own.
My mother was the social and emotional center of our family, the Energizer Bunny full of stories and poems and songs from her childhood, laughing at our silly jokes, and glued to her favorite radio shows of “Father Knows Best” or “The Great Gildersleeve” while she cleaned or sewed. But my father was the serious teacher who often didn’t “get” the jokes or cartoons that doubled over the rest of us.
But at Sunday dinners Daddy shone. Besides the occasional roast my mother served, we enjoyed roast preacher. In my early years, Salford Mennonite had three “preachers,” as we called them then—men ordained by lot from the congregation with no more formal education than my parents had, and whose idiosyncratic speaking styles were easy to imitate. When the good-natured laughter subsided, my father would drag out his Bible and other reference books and painstakingly correct the errors of Elias or Ryan or Henry (Mennonites never used “Reverend”).
Questioning traditional biblical interpretations
In a church congregation dependent on traditional interpretations, Dad formulated his own. They worried about assurance of salvation; he had it figured out. They had little interest in prophecy; he was pre-millennial and rejoiced in 1948 when Israel became a state. Church leaders insisted on plain dress—a plain coat and no ties for men and modest clothing, long hair, and a prayer covering for women. Dad thought Paul’s instructions to women in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 were cultural and no longer necessary, but it was best to adapt to our Mennonite culture as long as we lived in it.
Because of his interest in both biblical theology and science, Dad could not accept mystery and miracle in Christian faith. He had to figure it out. In those days, UFO sightings were not uncommon. If some of those UFOs were manned by angels sent from heaven, that solved a lot of problems, such as the “heavenly host” appearing to shepherds in Luke 2 or the star standing over the house to show the wise men where Jesus was in Matthew 2. Likewise, the “cloud” that received the risen and ascending Jesus in Acts 1:9-11 was no doubt a great company of UFOs full of angels welcoming him back to heaven—to the literal New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21.
I suspect the neighbors or church members Daddy collared to discuss his ideas with thought he was kooky or, at best, simply living in another dimension. They had no time to listen to the Jehovah’s Witnesses that came to the door and insisted that Jesus was important but he was not divine. But Dad would stand in the front yard and argue with them by the hour, to my mother’s frustration. Were they right—that regular Christians have three Gods? How could the Son have existed eternally with the Father, when fathers always precede sons? Dad wrestled mightily with that mystery and produced a paper which he made me read and understand before I could get my driver’s license at 16.
In college and as an adult, I made many friends who struggled against the rules handed down by their fathers or the fathers of their churches. For some it was fundamentalist threats of going to hell if you played cards or went to movies or got pregnant before you were married. For some in more conservative Mennonite churches, it was dress restrictions. I never knew that fear, for my father was never judgmental. For example, writing home from Eastern Mennonite College in 1960, I commented that I had seen the wife of my theology professor wearing shoes with the toes out (something heretofore perceived by my church community as “worldly”). My mother commented in her next letter, “We were a little surprised that Mrs. Don Augsburger wore shoes with the toes out. But you know Daddy. He always gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she had foot trouble.”
It was only a few years ago that John Ruth, a local historian and writer and longtime friend of our family, commented to me about my dad. “No matter how much you disagreed with Wilmer on any issue,” he said, “it never affected his relationship with you. He bore no hostility. He always accepted people regardless of what they believed.”
What I learned from my father
These, then, are a few of the gifts I received from my father:
- unconditional acceptance and the ability to accept others on their own terms;
- encouragement to get formal education far beyond his;
- independent thought that was not afraid to run down unusual channels;
- a passion for God and the revelation of God through the written Word as well as the natural and scientific world.
I think, however, that this would not have been sufficient for my passion for feminism and gender equality. That must have come from my mother. Perle had a finely-tuned sense of justice—who had more or less power, who used it for good or evil. Abstract philosophy or theology bored her, but her compassion for a child in distress, an abused wife, or for those who were “truly poor” was instinctive.
Though my father would defend God’s sometimes violent behavior in the Old Testament on the grounds that God was free to do what he wanted, Mom thought otherwise. In the tribute my sister Mary Ann gave at my mother’s funeral, she observed: “…speaking of the Bible, there were some stories in THAT book that she did not approve of ….the near sacrifice of Isaac, the killing of the babies in Bethlehem… oh, she believed in God and Daddy, but she was not afraid to challenge both.”
The Apostle Paul calls death the “last enemy” that eventually will itself be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26). I affirm that description, especially when tragedy cuts short a life that should be lived to old age. In Paul’s day, few lived to be old. But in the years of my mother’s increasing Alzheimer’s and in my father’s heroic suffering through arthritis and broken bones, death can be a mercy. Two days before he died, I visited my father, his body now thin and wasted, every movement painful. I did not want him to live like that.
Such a death also brings closure. If Sophia-God is truly Love, as we proclaim, all Daddy’s unique DNA, his 93 years of memories once locked in brain cells and neurons, are now held in Her memory, awaiting the resurrection. For those left behind, death provides a view of an entire Life, from beginning to end.
This June, in this lovely season of the year when we especially remember our fathers, I am allowing myself space for grief and remembrance—both tears and laughter—for new insights and new questions about the mystery of life and death, time and eternity. One sympathy card I received from a friend said, “What a beautiful difference one single life made!” Yes!
Happy Father’s Day, Dad—wherever you are!
© 2010 by Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. Originally published as web exclusive feature for Father’s Day, June 2010.