Last Friday morning we said goodbye to my great aunt Betty Lehman, who passed away at the age of 82 after a bout with cancer.
Throughout most of my life growing up in McMinnville, I remember visiting Betty and Bob at their farm outside Amity. She offered an invariably warm, quietly affectionate presence. Not once in my first 18 years did she forget to send me a birthday card. The Yamhill River runs along their property, and we’d often gather there in summertime along a small beach for swimming and barbecues. As we’d arrive at the farm Aunt Betty would often be tending her garden outside the old farmhouse. Roses were her favorite.
And perhaps those roses were her greatest extravagance. Born in Birch Tree, Missouri in 1923, Betty was throughout her life a practicing Mennonite. Although I don’t know a lot about that denomination, the Mennonites are loosely related to the Amish and share some like-minded views about shunning technology. Betty rode in cars, for example, but there wasn’t a television in her house. Life on a small family farm is tough, and she toiled just as hard as Bob or their three sons.
In addition to her work on the farm and taking care of the family, Betty also was a school bus driver for 26 years. My favorite anecdote from the memorial service was how, if the kids on her route got too raucous and loud on the way to or from school, Betty would simply pull over to the side of the road, take out a book, and start reading. She never scolded them. Sooner or later the kids realized they were supposed to pipe down, and then Betty simply put the book away and resumed driving.
Aunt Betty’s funeral was held at a Mennonite church in the small town of Sheridan, about 15 miles southwest of where I grew up. The low-angled winter sun was shining brightly on Friday morning as I drove south into the Willamette Valley from Portland. Aside from a grain elevator in the middle of town, the bell tower of the church seemed the tallest point in Sheridan.
Inside, the church was strikingly unadorned. There was no stained glass and no iconography, just wood walls painted white. How funny that I've become such a fan of Scandinavian design and its pristine unadorned manner, only to find something very similar here in the land of pickup trucks.
The funeral service included several songs by the church’s choir, billed in the program as the Sheridan Mennonite Mixed Octet. They sang numerous hymns—“Rock of Ages”, “Shall We Gather at the River”, “Amazing Grace”—without any organ or piano accompaniment. I really love both those instruments, but hearing these old prayer book standards a capella made them, at least for me, more compelling.
I’m not a churchgoer, and if I was shopping for a religion I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be Mennonite. (Although I must say I’m impressed by their commitment to nonviolence and pacifism. These days that kind of sentiment seems rare for such a rural, conservative people.) But I found their simplicity--in physical form and in their way of life--refreshing.
Afterward we gathered in the church basement for a simple lunch of potato cheese casserole, green beans, and bread & butter, with lemon meringue pie for dessert. Some members of the Mixed Octet did double duty in the kitchen. At one of the long tables, I talked with Betty and Bob’s son Arlan, my second cousin, who built from a tiny shack on the Lehman farm a motorcycle company that’s won over 40 international racing championships.
I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to Uncle Bob. He seemed to be valiantly fighting back tears before, during and after the ceremony. I just gave him a hug. Yet somehow the entire experience of driving down to Sheridan for Aunt Betty’s funeral was an inspiring one.