The moment Viola Keim entered the main parlor of the Day- break Retirement Home, she heard her favorite resident call- ing her name.
“Viola, come here quick,” Mr. Swartz ordered. “I received another letter from Edward this mornin’.”
After straightening her black apron over her purple dress and smoothing a wayward strand of hair under her white kapp, Viola grabbed a carafe of coffee, and did as he bid. She tried to summon a smile. Atle Swartz adored his son. Noth- ing could make his day like a letter from Edward.
Unfortunately, Viola could think of a dozen other things she’d rather do than listen to more news from the wayward Ed Swartz. She privately thought Ed sounded like a jerk.
Mr. Swartz’s eyebrows clamped together as he glared at her. “What’s wrong with your feet? You’re walking so slow, you’d think they were cobbled together.”
“I’m holding a pot of coffee, Mr. Swartz,” she retorted. “I’ve no desire to spill it on the carpet or myself. Or you,” she added with a small smile as she filled his coffee cup.
“It would be a real shame if I stained the carpet. Or burned someone,” she said with a wink.
“You haven’t burned me yet, Viola.”
“There’s still time. I’ve only been working here six months,” she teased.
It did, indeed. Six short months ago, after a series of in- terviews, she’d gotten the job as an assistant at Daybreak, a retirement home for the Mennonite and Amish in the com- munity. Right from the start she’d hit it off with the seventy- four-year-old gentleman. Though he was for the most part confined to a wheelchair, he had lots of energy and a biting wit. Somehow, he’d taken to teasing her, and she’d learned to give as good as she got.
Now she looked forward to visiting with him every day. Though, truth be told, she didn’t think he belonged there.
He was too young to be in a retirement home. In her opin- ion, all Atle Swartz needed was someone to look out for him every once in a while. To do a little cleaning, and to make sure he had his coffee and supper.
Actually, what he really needed was his son. After all, it was a child’s duty to look after his parents in their declin- ing years. Not be off gallivanting in the wilds of Central America.
Not that it was any of her business.
Taking a seat beside him, she poured herself a cup of coffee as well and pretended she was eager to hear every word the illustrious Ed Swartz wrote. “I can’t wait to hear what he has to say,” she lied. “What a wonderful-gut way to start my day.” When Atle narrowed his eyes over the rim of his cup, she felt her cheeks heat. Perhaps she had laid things on a bit thick. “Is the kaffi all right?”
“Jah. It is fine. . . .” Carefully, he folded the letter smooth on the table in front of him. “Viola, are you certain you want to hear the letter? I’m beginning to get the feeling you don’t enjoy them all that much.”
Now she felt terrible. Sharing his only child’s letters wasthe highlight of Atle’s day, and she was ruining it by letting her personal feelings get in the way. “Of course I want to hear it, Mr. Swartz. I always enjoy sitting with you.” Now that was the God’s honest truth.
Two men sitting on a nearby couch cackled.
“You’d best watch it, Viola,” one of them called out, his smile broad over a graying beard.
“Atle’s going to read every single word of Ed’s letter. Might even read it twice, just to make sure you didn’t miss a single thing. You won’t be able to attend to anyone else for at least an hour.”
“I guess I’ll simply have to hope that you won’t need me anytime soon, Mr. Showalter,” she said sweetly, smiling when the men chuckled again.
The camaraderie she’d found with the residents of the retirement home brought joy to her heart. She loved working with the elderly folks in the area, loved feeling like she was making a difference in their lives.
“Girly, you ready to listen?” Two raps on the table with his knuckles brought her back to the present.
“Of course,” she replied mildly. Truly, one day she was going to tell him that she was twenty-two years old. Too old to be called “Girly.” “Ah, what does Edward have to say this time?”
After casting a sideways glance her way he cleared his throat and began. “Dear Daed, greetings from Nicaragua. As usual, the temperature is near ninety degrees, but my heart is warm from all the good works we’ve been doing. Not only have we given out a great amount of food and clothing lately, but we’ve also had some wonderful interactions with the children in the area. . . .”
As Mr. Swartz continued to read about Ed and his mission work, Viola tried to imagine what would possess a man to leave everything he knew and loved to attend to people so far away. Though of course he was doing many good things with the Christian Aid Ministries Association, there was much in Holmes County, Ohio, that he could focus on.
Most especially, his wonderful father.
As Atle continued to read, stopping every now and then to repeat what his son said—just to make sure Viola didn’t miss a single word—she felt her attention drift. Edward’s stories, while impressive and heartfelt, simply didn’t mean that much to her. Not when she had plenty of concerns right here in Berlin.
She couldn’t imagine walking away from her family, it was so tight-knit and demanding. At home, she was surrounded by all things familiar, and found comfort embracing traditions that had continued for many generations. Though her family was New Order Amish, not Old Order like many of the other Amish in the area, or Mennonite like some of the residents of the home, she’d found that her traditions and values weren’t any different from the folks she helped.
She was grateful for the many blessings God had graced her with. She’d grown up in a beautiful white house, part of the newest addition to their already sprawling property that had first been built in the 1920s. She was close to her grandparents, who lived in the dawdi haus behind them, and close to her parents, and to the few of her aunts and uncles who hadn’t moved far away.
She’d always gotten along fine with her brother Roman and her twin sister Elsie as well.
Of course, things would likely start changing soon. After all, she and her siblings were all of marriageable age. One day, she and Roman would get married and move on.
But no matter what happened, she intended to live close and continue to help Elsie. Her sister was always going to need a lot of help. Born with a degenerative eye disease, Elsie would need at least one of her siblings to look out for her for the rest of her life.
Just imagining the idea of leaving Elsie in the care of strangers made her heart clench.
Thank goodness neither she nor Roman was like Ed Swartz!
“. . . and so, Daed, I must let you go. The children are about to open their shoe boxes and I don’t want to miss a minute.”
That caught her attention. “Shoe boxes?” she blurted. “Why in the world does he need to hurry to open a shoe box?”
“It was Christmas, Viola,” Atle said with more than a touch of exaggerated patience. “Weren’t you listening?”
“There’s only one right answer, Viola!” Mr. Showalter called out. “Otherwise, you’ll be hearing that there letter again, mark my words.”
After giving her heckler a disapproving frown, she got to her feet. “Of course I was listening, Mr. Swartz. Once again, your son Edward seems to be having a mighty fulfilling and charitable life. I just was caught off guard by the mention of the shoe boxes. That’s all.”
But Atle didn’t buy her words for even a minute. “It was Christmas, Girly. This was his Christmas letter. Those boxes were from us! Our shoe-box ministry! Don’tcha remember?”
“Sorry. I had forgotten.” “I didn’t.”
With more patience than her parents would have ever guessed she had, she smiled tightly. “I’m sorry, Mr. Swartz.
It’s simply that, uh, I thought he would have been talking about something else by now. It is the middle of January, you know.”
“He’s far away. All the way in Nicaragua,” he said slowly. Pulling out the country’s name like she had trouble understanding things. “The letters take a long time to get here.”
Feeling her cheeks heat all over again, she tucked her chin. “Oh. Jah. I mean, yes, of course. Thank you for reading it to me.”
“But don’t you want to talk about the note? I’m sure you have questions. . . .”
The only question she ever had was “why?” As in why did Ed never ask his father how he was doing? As in why didn’t he ever come back to visit? Why didn’t he care enough to stay close to home?
But of course it was best to keep those things to herself. She didn’t want to hurt Mr. Swartz’s feelings. “The letter was so thoughtful, so detailed . . . I, um, I don’t have a single question. And I had better deliver more of this coffee before it all runs cold. You know that Mrs. Ames expects me to visit with several people this morning. Have a good day, now.”
The spark in his blue eyes faded. “You’re certain you can’t stay for a bit longer? I have some more news to share.”
Oh, he was lonely. It broke her heart. “I’m so sorry, I can’t stay today.” She just wasn’t up to hearing one more story about his perfect child. “I’ve got quite a bit to do before I leave this afternoon.”
“Well, all right, then. Have a good day, Viola.” “You too, Mr. Swartz.”
After topping off his cup, and refilling the other two men’s mugs, she rushed out of the room and went to the kitchen, where she put coffee and snacks on a tray for the ladies in the craft room. Balancing too much on the white wooden tray, she hurried out of the kitchen, turned left, and then headed toward the back of the building.
When two cups started to wobble, she abruptly stopped and set them to rights. Then rushed forward, and promptly ran into a man leaving the office.
When their bodies collided, the plastic bowls of snack mix fell to the ground. And the coffee carafe began to wobble.
“Watch out!” she said as she tried to gain control of the tray.