The Wisdom of Age Project—Hampton Roads, Va. Spring 2012
Documenting Life Stories & How We Get By
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"Couldn't Stand Being Lonely Anymore"

by Darryl Fetz

The senior men of Mennowood Retirement Community sat around a table and reminisced about cars. One man responded “my first car was a Model-T Ford.” “I had the Model-A Ford,” replied another.

John Yoder sat in his wheelchair casually munching on a toothpick. His wispy white hair poking up from head atop his hunched body. His rugged face and hands suggested that he worked manual labor, and this guess is confirmed when he talks about his first car. “The first automobile I drove was a tractor,” he replied. “I didn't have no age I started driving, I just grew up on the farm and did it.”

John grew up on Yoder farms, a Newport News institution that delivered fresh milk every morning to the community. A 400-acre farm, Yoder farms was the heartbeat of the Newport News Mennonite community.

“My dad and uncle started the business. My dad was in charge of farming and milking the cows, while my uncle was in charge of the processing and delivery of the milk. We had over 100 cows, and we milked them twice a day. There was one group of people that would just milk cows all the time, one group who would process and deliver the milk and another who would farm crops so that we could feed the cows.” “I mostly farmed the crops instead of working with the cows. I farmed hay, oats and barley for the cows to eat themselves. I liked it better than working with the cows, and I got to drive the tractor and truck up and down the fields during the day.”

Working in the fields all day on the farm gave him the experience needed to take over his father and uncles spot after they retired from the business. While his father and uncle had split up the managerial duties, John took them on all by himself. He was the overseer of the entire 400-acre farm, and looked after milking the cows, processing and distributing the milk and growing the crops. “It wasn't that much pressure, because I had been helping with a lot of the work anyways. After a while it became a stressful job, but I never felt like it was too much or anything like that, because I always had many workers there helping me every step of the way.”

All Alone

At the Mennowood Retirement Community, many of the patrons keep to themselves, shuffling along and maybe saying hello as they pass by. John Yoder is not one of these people. Living on the farm in the Mennonite community, John always had people around. Once he was married, he had a companion for life in Esther Mable Yoder. Esther Mable was incorporated into the family business, and John always felt at home. However, after decades of farming the same land, the Yoder's sold their farm. Jefferson avenue and Oyster Point road had cut the farm into pieces, but it did not have a big impact until the newly formed Interstate came and cut through the farmland.

“I-64 came and cut off the land, and traffic was so bad we couldn't get out their anymore. So many things had changed, it became impossible to keep things the same as they were.”

Several years after the Yoders stopped producing milk, they still held plays and programs in their barn, but eventually it was given to Christopher Newport University. The LifeLong Learning Society at Christopher Newport University now calls the old Yoder barn its home.

“We had plays and stuff like that for awhile, but couldn't keep it going forever so we gave it to Christopher Newport.”

Once the land was sold, he found himself without a job for the first time in his life. After Esther Mable passed away, he found himself without a partner for the first time in many years. Those first times were tough, and John found a feeling he had never known; he was lonely.

“I just found that I didn't feel secure living by myself. I wanted to be around other people. I came here (to Mennowood) a few weeks ago and I like it here. Growing older is a part of life, so at least here I get to be around people going through it with me.”

He is very friendly to the other residents and staff, and enjoys their company. One particular thing about John is that he is impossible to get a hold of. That is because he attends every activity that the retirement community puts on. Many residents pick and choose which activities and programs to attend. John just attends them all.

After the activities are done, most residents go to bed at around six at night. John stays up watching TV in his room or reading the newspaper well past that time. “When I worked on the farm I didn't have no time to do anything else besides work. That was my only job, and I did it everyday.”

Keeping the Faith

While John has been feeling loneliness lately, there has always been one thing inside of him that has kept him both optimistic and humble. His faith. “I was raised in the Mennonite Church, and I practiced it all my life. Right now I go to Huntington Mennonite Church, and for the majority of my life I went to Warwick River Mennonite Church.”

While I question John on his upbringing, he all of a sudden loses his thought process and comes back with something completely different. “A man your age is in the age of opportunities. Make sure you take advantage of all the opportunities that are given to you. Create the life that you want to live by the relationships with other people and the lord god.”

It hits me at this point that John is not talking about my young life, but of his own. His next sentence hangs in the air for what seem like an eternity. “These are the things that will carry you through when troubles come.”

When I ask him if he ever taught the Mennonite beliefs, he slowly shakes his head and says “no. I never was no preacher, but I did teach Sunday school.” The thought teaching Sunday school brightens him up, and he goes on to tell me how he used to teach when he was just a little older than I am now.

“Somebody had to do it, and I had some talent in that area. It was a good opportunity within the church.” While he has a hard time remembering exactly what he taught, he does remember what influenced him to do it. “My father taught sunday school all of his life. He was not a speaker, I don't ever remember him ever giving a speech, he would just always start discussions with contrasting point of views, and everyone else would talk. What I remember most about him is that he would study his Sunday school lesson every day when he got off work in the evening.”

“He had the wonderful ability to get a group of people to talk. He never gave any speeches, he just had different viewpoints that he would give to the audience.” When asked to recall his father, John mostly recalls things from the farm, and about how is father was “the boss.” John always has his faith with him at all times, but now he is surrounded by fewer people he has known his whole life. Staying at Mennowood Retirement Community was a step in the right direction though, and the interaction that he goes through on a daily basis has helped him. “I just couldn't stand being so lonely anymore,” he replies. “Plus, I needed someone to cook dinner for me.” ◊