Tragedy has frequently given me great insight into the choices I’ve made in my life.
When my father passed away, I was forced to reckon with my present.
And then, when my little sister died, I was forced to reckon with my past.
Finally, there was a tragedy that forced me to reckon with my future.
It concerned a family I loved dearly, a family who’d helped me weather many storms.
I was sitting in my van outside my son, Tyler’s, school in early 2010 when I first heard the news. Something seemed wrong the second he emerged from the building with his head down.
“What’s the matter?”
“Well, . . . some of your friends died today.”
“John and Sadie,” he said. “And Rachel too.”
“R-Rachel’s boyfriend, Joel . . . ,” I stammered, “he must be. . .”
“Mom, he died too.”
It seems the Esh family was traveling to a wedding when Kenneth Layman, who was talking to his wife on his cell phone, and who had driven far too many hours without sleep, suddenly swerved from the southbound lane on I-65. His semi barreled through the median and hit the Eshes’ van straight on, splitting their vehicle and dismembering everyone inside but two young boys. Kenneth Layman died instantly.
Five thousand people traveled to Marrowbone to lay the Esh family to rest — quite possibly the largest mass movement of Plain people in American history. Coroners from five surrounding counties worked in shifts for three days to prepare so many bodies, eight caskets in all. For me, seeing the face of John Esh was the worst. I could just tell that he knew — at the moment of the crash, he had understood what was happening.
It gave me the same thought I’d had when I first saw my father’s body lying on a gurney: “A man lives for so long, and this is what is left?”
It seemed so arbitrary, so vacant.
But as the funeral began, as John Henry Smucker sent his booming voice over the enormous crowd in eulogy for his dear friends, I saw that there was nothing vacant about this death at all. It was clear the Eshes, who so loved my family, who brought nothing but light into my world, would leave nothing but devotedness in their wake.
We took turns shoveling fresh dirt over the graves, an Amish tradition, and when it was my turn, I tossed my shovelful upon John and Sadie, who were buried together. Then I found the arms of my friend Sarah Gingerich.
As it happened, a photographer snapped a picture of our shared sorrow, and that picture flashed through the news cycle for weeks and weeks — across the world — telling the tragic story of the simple Amish community.
That photograph represents so much more to me than our grief. It symbolizes how the Plain community holds all of us close.
We are a strong people. Our strength comes from the way we care for one another and in the way we continue, even in tragedy, to have faith in God and the hope He provides.
My past tells the story of a troubled girl.
My future is the ongoing story of an Amish-Mennonite woman, of a Christian, of a mother, and of a friend.
My place is here, in Pinecraft, Florida with my people.
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Sherry Gore is editor-in-chief of Cooking & Such magazine, the author of Simply Delicious Amish Cooking, Me, Myself and Pie, and a weekly scribe for the national edition of the Amish newspaper, The Budget, established in 1890. The National Geographic Channel featured Sherry prominently their documentary series, Amish: Out of Order. Sherry’s culinary adventures have been seen on NBC Daytime, the Today Show, Mr. Food Test Kitchen, and Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC affiliates across the country. Sherry is a year-round resident of beautiful, sun-kissed Sarasota, Florida, the vacation paradise of the Plain People. She has three children and is a member of a Beachy Amish Mennonite church. When not spending time with her family, writing, or eating, Sherry is a cooking show host, and an official pie contest judge.