Christmas at Promise Lodge

Christmas at Promise Lodge
Zebra (September 27, 2016)
ISBN-13: 9781420139433 •• ISBN-10: 1420139436
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As the year draws to a close, the brand-new colony of Promise Lodge is thriving, a welcoming community that offers three Amish sisters a fresh start. And as Christmas approaches, gifts big and small are given with love…

As Promise Lodge’s first wedding arrives, the evidence of a community building a foundation for the future is a cause for celebration. But the bishop’s narrow-minded wedding sermon doesn’t sit well with the Bender sisters, the town’s courageous founders, especially widowed Mattie Schwartz. She believes marriage and family aren’t the most important of God’s gifts—even if she suspects her tender feelings for Preacher Amos Troyer run deeper than simple friendship.

Amos hasn’t given up hope that stubborn, spirited Mattie will change her mind about taking another husband, but when an accident threatens to change the course of his life forever, he wonders if the Lord has sent him a message. He’ll need faith, hope, and charity to find the right path—and a Christmas blessing to convince Mattie to walk it with him.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Mattie Schwartz slipped into her new navy blue dress earlier than she needed to because today—November fifth—was no ordinary Thursday. In about four hours, her younger son Noah would be marrying Deborah Peterscheim. It was the first wedding to take place in the Promise Lodge colony she and her sisters had founded last spring, and she’d been awake since three o’clock this morning, too excited to sleep. She left her two-room apartment and went downstairs to join the Kuhn sisters, who were overseeing the preparation of the wedding meal in the lodge’s kitchen.

Mattie inhaled deeply. The entire building smelled of roasting chickens, vegetables, and perking coffee. The huge kitchen, which had at provided meals for kids when Promise Lodge had been a church camp, bustled with the ladies who lived here now. As soon as Mattie stepped through the door, however, seventy-year-old Beulah Kuhn pointed at her with a vegetable peeler.

“This is the day the Lord has made for your Noah to marry Deborah,” she paraphrased from the stool where she sat peeling potatoes.

“Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Beulah’s sister Ruby added with a wide smile. “The mother of the groom gets time off from cooking and cleaning up. It’s your day to party, Mattie!”

“We’ve already sent Alma Peterscheim out of here,” Mattie’s sister Christine remarked from the stove, where she stood stirring gravy. “Didn’t want Deborah’s mother sitting through church with food on her new dress, after all.”

“You were here all yesterday afternoon baking pies with us, Mattie,” Frances Lehman, the bishop’s wife, pointed out. “So it’s your day to visit with your family and friends who’ll come to celebrate with you. We’ll allow you a cup of coffee and one of the biscuit sandwiches from the counter, and then you’re to forget all about the kitchen.”

Mattie chuckled. As one of the three original owners of the property, she’d
considered herself more outspoken and independent than most Plain women, but the other ladies who’d made their homes here were proving to be every bit as stubborn and insistent as she and Christine and Rosetta.

“All right, just this once I’ll do as I’m told,” Mattie teased as she picked up a warm breakfast sandwich. “But we’re not making it a habit, understand.”

The kitchen filled with laughter, a sound that lifted Mattie’s spirits. When she’d been widowed in Coldstream and Christine had lost her husband, and Rosetta had been left alone after their parents had passed, they’d each known the lonely silence of roaming around in their separate farmhouses. Living in the lodge together, with Plain ladies who rented apartments from Rosetta, made for a far more cheerful life. Mattie closed her eyes as she bit into a big, soft biscuit filled with ham, a fried egg, and cheese that dribbled down the sides. Eating food someone else had cooked was a treat that made her son’s wedding day even more special.

“We’ve told Rosetta and my girls to stay in the dining hall, setting tables,” Christine remarked, pouring more flour and milk mixture into her gravy. “Phoebe and Laura are so excited to be serving as Deborah’s side-sitters I didn’t want them getting their dresses dirty, either.”

Jah, what with Noah being sweet on Deborah all through school, your girls have waited a long while to sit up front with her,” Mattie said before taking another gratifying bite of her breakfast.

“And what a blessing that Noah and Deborah can hold the wedding in their new home,” Frances put in with a big smile. “It’s truly amazing, how many houses have gone up since Floyd and I moved here with the girls this past summer.”

Jah, what with Preacher Amos’s being a carpenter and Floyd and his brother Lester running a siding and window business, we’ve got one of the nicest-looking Plain communities I’ve ever seen.” Beulah rose from her stool to carry a big pot of peeled potatoes to the stove. “Ruby and I never dreamed we’d have our cheese factory up and running so fast, either, but the fellows here can build anything. And we couldn’t ask for richer milk than we’re getting from Christine’s cows.”

“My bees love the orchard, too,” Ruby said happily. “Every morning when I get up and look out the window, I see their white hives amongst the apple trees and tell myself we’ve found the Garden of Eden.”

“The produce stand’s open later in the season than I’d figured on, too,” Mattie said with a nod. “Local folks are snapping up the last of our pumpkins and squash now, and I suspect they’d keep coming all winter if Deborah kept selling her baked goodies there.”

“Maybe she could sell them from the cheese factory,” Beulah mused aloud. She turned on the gas burner and put the potatoes on to boil. “Truth be told, Ruby and I could use her help running the counter out front while we stir up batches of cheese. But she might change her mind about working now that she’s getting married.”

“Last I heard, Deborah was excited about having a new kitchen to bake in, especially while Noah’s out on his welding jobs,” Mattie said. “At least until she’s got wee ones to watch after.”

“Or I’d be happy to have Deborah’s goodies in my gift shop, too,” Rosetta called from the large dining room. “I figure to open it one of these days to sell my homemade soaps, and anything else the rest of you ladies might want to offer for sale.”

“Deborah was amazed at how well her breads and bars sold over the summer,” Christine said. She smiled at Mattie. “I suspect she sees the three of us Bender sisters running businesses and understands what an advantage it is for a woman to have some income. For us unattached gals it’s our living, but for a wife it means a little more leverage when things around the house wear out or need fixing.”

Frances was listening to this thread of conversation as though Mattie, Christine, and the Kuhn sisters were speaking a dialect she didn’t understand. “Where I come from, the menfolk have always brought home the bacon and the women have cooked it up,” she said softly. “Married women are homemakers without any businesses, and widows and maidels depend upon the men in their families to support them.”

“That’s how it was for Beulah and me before we ran away from home,” Ruby said. “Once we maidel schoolteachers retired, our brother Delbert took us in—”

“But we felt he and his wife should be raising their five kids without having to support us, as well,” Beulah continued. “Delbert was against us living here—”

Jah, he came in his truck and hauled us back home,” Ruby recounted.

“—but when his mother-in-law had to move in after Carol’s dat died, we decided that was just too many folks in a one-bathroom house. So here we are,” Beulah said, raising her arms victoriously. “We’re making our own way with our cheese and our bees, living in Rosetta’s lodge. Life is fun again!”

“We’re too young to get old any time soon,” Ruby chimed in matter-of-factly. “God is gut, and so’s the life He’s led us to here.”

Frances smiled despite her misgivings. “It’s invigorating to come to this new colony where everyone’s starting fresh—and I’m grateful to everyone for being so accepting of my Mary Kate,” she said in a voice that quivered a bit. “With Floyd’s being the bishop in our previous settlement, and Mary Kate’s being in the family way after that English fellow took advantage of her, we prayed that Promise Lodge would be a safe haven for her and the baby.”

“I think she’s very brave, wantint to raise the baby rather than giving it up for adoption,” Mattie remarked. She placed three biscuit sandwiches on a paper plate and covered them with a napkin. “If I don’t take these to Preacher Amos and my two boys, they might not eat anything before church and the wedding. Denki to you ladies for cooking on our special day, and for seeing to our breakfast, too.”

As Mattie passed through the large dining room, she smiled at the way white tablecloths had transformed the old, careworn wooden tables into the perfect setting for their celebration. Her younger sister, Rosetta, was setting a glass to the right of each plate. Christine’s girls, Laura and Phoebe, were going down the sides of the tables with forks and knives while Mary Kate Lehman followed them with the spoons.

“Looks like you’ve got a gut system going, girls,” Mattie said brightly. “How many folks can we seat at once? Today will be the first time we’ve filled this room.”

“A hundred and fifty—which includes the wedding party up on the eck,” Rosetta replied, gesturing toward the raised table in the far corner. “We figure most of the guests will fill up the first sitting, and then we worker bees can eat during the second sitting.”

“It’ll be gut to see our friends from Coldstream, along with our cousins, aunts, and uncles who’re scattered around Missouri,” Phoebe said. She turned toward Mary Kate with a smile. “We used to live about three hours from here, but the bishop’s son Isaac was causing so much trouble—”

“Setting barns afire and drinking with his English friends,” Laura put in with a shake of her head.

“—that our mamm and aunts decided to move away,” Phoebe continued. “And as if that weren’t enough, Isaac came here with one of his buddies thinking to get back at Deborah for calling the sheriff.”

“But we sent him packing!” Rosetta recalled with a chuckle. “I doubt the Chupps will come today, what with the three of our households plus Preacher Amos and the Peterscheims moving here to get away from them.”

Mary Kate stopped placing spoons on the tables. Her hand slid over the swell of her belly as her eyes widened. “You—you’re sure Isaac won’t be coming?” she murmured fearfully. “After that English fellow pulled off the road and—and tackled me in the ditch, I don’t ever want a man getting that close to me again, or even looking at me.”

Mattie hurried over to the bishop’s daughter. “Mary Kate, don’t you worry about a thing,” she murmured as she slung her arm around the girl’s slender shoulders. “If my boys or Preacher Amos spots Isaac Chupp, they’ll be swarming around him like Ruby’s bees. Here at Promise Lodge we don’t tolerate men who bully women.”

Mary Kate was breathing rapidly, sucking in air to settle her nerves. “Maybe when we’re finished setting up here, I should go home instead of attending the wedding. Dat says that in my condition, I shouldn’t be showing myself in public anyway.”

Mattie chose her words carefully, not wanting to contradict the bishop—yet hoping Mary Kate would feel comfortable enough to enjoy today’s wedding festivities. At eight months along she was obviously pregnant, but her guilt and shame bothered Mattie more than Mary Kate’s appearance. It wasn’t as if this shy eighteen-year-old girl had gone looking for trouble the day she’d been raped while walking home from a neighbor’s.

“I don’t see the harm of sitting with your mamm during church and the wedding,” Mattie said gently. “What with Laura, Phoebe, and Deborah—and your dat—all sitting up front, you and your mother could keep one another company. There’ll be a lot of folks here that neither one of you knows.”

Mary Kate looked down at her clasped hands. “Jah, there’s that, but—”

“And it might be a long while before we have another big event—unless Rosetta and Truman Wickey decide to get hitched,” Phoebe said with a teasing glance at her aunt.

Rosetta waved them off, but she was smiling. “Don’t hold your breath for that wedding, seeing’s how Truman’s Mennonite and I’m Old Order Amish.”

Laura let out a frustrated sigh. “I don’t see why that’s such a big deal,” she protested. “Everybody knows you and Truman are sweet on each other. In some Plain settlements, folks are fine with interfaith marriages.”

“Well, that’s an issue to take up on another day,” Mattie remarked in a purposeful tone. Her nieces meant well, but their romantic notions about Truman and Rosetta would get Bishop Floyd going on another one of his lectures. As bishops went, he was very conservative and insisted on following traditional Old Order ways. “Our concern now is for Mary Kate, and we want her to enjoy our special day instead of feeling she has to hide herself away. Think about it, all right?” she asked softly.

Mary Kate nodded. “You and your sisters keep telling me I should have some fun before the baby gets here. I’ll give it my best shot—unless I chicken out, come time for church.”

Squeezing the girl’s shoulder, Mattie left her sister and the girls and strode through the lobby to the front door. When she stepped out onto the lodge’s big front porch, she stopped for a moment to take in the plowed plots where they’d grown vegetables all summer for their roadside produce stand . . . the small white structure alongside Christine’s red dairy barn, where the Kuhn sisters made several varieties of cheese . . . the new road that wound between homes and barns belonging to Noah and Deborah, Preacher Amos, the Peterscheim family, and the Lehmans—as well as the two partly completed homes, one for their newest residents, Preacher Marlin Kurtz and his kids and the other for her older son, Roman. Every morning she stood here gazing toward the orchard, Rainbow Lake, and the tree-covered hills that provided such a rustic, lovely setting, amazed at how their colony had progressed since spring.

Denki, Lord, for Your providential care, Mattie prayed. We ask Your blessings on Noah and Deborah today as they become man and wife. If You’d bless Mary Kate with health and healing and more confidence, that would be a gift, as well.

When she saw Amos Troyer stepping out onto his porch, Mattie waved and started walking toward him. His new home was modest and small compared to the others, because as a widower he wasn’t going to raise another family—although it was no secret that he hoped Mattie would marry him someday soon. Truth be told, she savored her independence after enduring a husband who’d mistreated her, but she enjoyed Preacher Amos’s company.

“I’ve got a surprise for your breakfast,” she called out as she approached his tidy white house. “The Kuhn sisters were kind enough to make us some biscuit sandwiches—”

“Did somebody say biscuits?” Roman hollered as he came out of Noah’s house, which was next door to Amos’s. Queenie, Noah’s black-and-white border collie, rushed out into the yard, barking excitedly.

Behind Roman, Noah was stepping outside, buttoning his black vest over his white shirt. “Hope you’ve got more than one of those sandwiches, Mamm,” he said with a laugh. “The pizza Deborah made for us last night is long gone—and she’s not showing her face until church starts.”

“You poor starving things,” Mattie teased as she started up the walk toward her sons. “Deborah deserves a wedding day away from the stove.”

“Or you could get by on bacon, eggs, and toast like I do,” Preacher Amos teased as he strode across his small, leaf-covered yard. He stopped a few feet away from Mattie to take in her new dress—and the plate in her hand—with an appreciative smile. He lowered his voice before Roman and Noah reached them. “Of course, if you married me, Mattie, I wouldn’t be threatened by starvation or depression or any of those other maladies a man alone endures.”

Jah, so you’ve told me,” Mattie teased as she removed the napkin that covered her plate. “Maybe someday I’ll feel sorry enough for you to give up my cozy apartment in the lodge.”

The moment her sons joined them, the three sandwiches were snatched up. With a welling-up of love, Mattie watched Noah eat. Although he was twenty-one, it seemed like only yesterday when he’d been born. He and Deborah had known each other all their lives, had become sweethearts in school, had gotten engaged—until Deborah broke off their relationship, claiming Noah didn’t communicate with her or have a concrete plan for their future. The nasty incident involving Isaac Chupp had brought Noah out of his shell, awakening his protective feelings for Deborah, and all of them at Promise Lodge had breathed a sigh of relief when the young couple reconciled this past summer.

“I’m proud of you, Noah,” Mattie murmured as she stroked his unruly brown waves. “I wish you all the happiness that marriage and your faith in God can offer.”

Blushing, Noah eased away from her touch. “Denki, Mamm. I think Deborah and I have figured out how to stay together now,” he said as he offered his dog the last bite of his biscuit.

Mattie shared a smile with Preacher Amos. “When you’re my age, son, you’ll look back to this day and realize how young and innocent you were,” she murmured.

“And clueless.” Amos laughed. “We fellows like to believe we’ve got everything figured out and under control—until life starts tossing monkey wrenches into our well-laid plans. I’m a different kind of man than I imagined I’d be when I was your age.”

“Did folks hitch their rigs to dinosaurs back then?” Roman teased. He, too, fed the last bite of his sandwich to Queenie and then rubbed between her black ears.

“Puh! I didn’t have much money when I married,” the preacher reminisced, “but I drove fine-looking retired racehorses. Not that my bride always appreciated my priorities,” he admitted. “I hope you’ll give a thought to Deborah’s needs before you devote the household budget to your own whims, Noah. I had a spendy streak—”

“But all the girls liked what they saw and thought you’d be a fine catch back in the day, Amos,” Mattie cut in with a chuckle.

“Back in the day?” he challenged. The way he held her gaze made Mattie’s cheeks prickle. “Might be a little snow on the roof, but there’s still a fire down below.”

“And with that, I’m going to finish getting dressed,” Roman announced, pointing toward the rigs coming through the camp entrance. “We’ve got guests arriving. I hope you two won’t be gawking at each other all during the service, embarrassing us all.”

Mattie smiled, watching her two sons and the dog enter Noah’s white frame house. “I’m so glad we came to Promise Lodge,” she murmured to Amos. “So glad we risked buying this property so we’re no longer living in Obadiah Chupp’s shadow. If I’d still been shackled to that farmhouse in Coldstream, I couldn’t have given my boys plots of land where they could lead lives of their own.”

“You’re an innovator, for sure and for certain,” Amos agreed. “And the best thing I ever did was sell my place and come to Promise with you and your sisters. I feel like my life and my efforts matter now, as we build houses for our new neighbors. The land is like a paradise and the air smells cleaner—”

“That’s because I showered this morning,” Mattie teased.

She faced Amos, loving the way his laughter eased the lines time had carved into a masculine face weathered by the elements and life experiences. Her life would’ve been entirely different had her dat allowed her to marry Amos Troyer when she was young instead of insisting she take up with Marvin Schwartz, who’d come into a farm with a house on it. Amos had been a fledgling carpenter without two nickels to rub together.

At fifty, Amos was five years older than she but his strong, sturdy body showed no signs of softening with age or heath issues. He was a man in his prime, and he’d made no bones about wanting to marry her now that both of their spouses had passed. Sometimes Mattie was on the verge of blurting out a yes when Amos talked of getting hitched—and then memories of Marvin’s abuse would come rushing back to her.

No, she wasn’t in a hurry to take on another husband, another household. But if she ever did, it would be with Amos.

“I hope you’ll allow me the honor of sitting with you at dinner as we celebrate your son’s big day,” he murmured, squeezing her hand.

Mattie smiled up at him, gripping his fingers before releasing them. His silver-shot hair and beard shimmered in the morning light, and he cut a fine figure in his black suit and white shirt. “I’ll be happy to, Amos. God be with you as you find the words for your sermon this morning.”

Amos flashed her a boyish grin. “It’ll be God I’m listening to as I speak,” he said, “but it’ll be you I’m looking to for inspiration, Mattie. I hope today’s celebration turns out to be every bit as wonderful as you are.”

Mattie flushed with pleasure, watching him walk to Noah’s new house to prepare for the service—the home Amos had designed and then built with the help of the other local fellows. Amos’s hands were calloused from years of carpentry, but there was no softer, more loving heart on God’s green earth.

* * * * *

A few hours later, Amos sat on the preacher’s bench trying not to scowl. After a full-length church service they had progressed into the wedding, and he had preached the first sermon on the thirteenth chapter of Corinthians—about how love was patient and kind, an example of the humility Plain folks were to strive for. Bishop Floyd Lehman was now delivering the second, longer sermon before he would lead Noah and Deborah in their marriage vows, and his tone was becoming more strident as he discussed the duties of husband and wife to each other and to God. It was an appropriate topic, but some of the folks in the congregation appeared to be shrinking into themselves like turtles retreating into their shells, probably because the bishop’s resonant voice had risen to fever pitch.

“As we consecrate the union of this young Amish couple, I must insist that the single and widowed men and women among us find mates immediately,” he exhorted. “Before the snow flies, I expect to see you—Matilda Schwartz, Christine Hershberger, Rosetta Bender, Amos Troyer, and Marlin Kurtz—standing before me to take your wedding vows! It’s unnatural for God’s children to live alone, or for women to engage in any business other than making a home for their families. Moreover,” he continued, gesticulating dramatically, “our colony cannot condone the intermarriages of Old Order members with those of more liberal Plain faiths. When we take on the ways of a lesser faith, we weaken the very foundation of our colony—and we risk losing our salvation in our Lord.”

Amos gripped the edge of the preacher’s bench until his hands hurt. This was not the proper time to challenge folks by name, telling them to find mates. He couldn’t miss the way Truman Wickey, their Mennonite neighbor, had also tensed. Truman sat on the front pew bench of the men’s side, serving as one of Noah’s newehockers along with Roman, so his reaction was easy to see. Amos suspected that on the women’s side, Rosetta, Mattie and Christine appeared equally perturbed.

To Amos’s right, Preacher Eli Peterscheim shifted on the wooden bench as the bishop continued preaching. “That’s just wrong,” he muttered under his breath. “You can’t tell me God instructed Floyd to name names and set a deadline for marrying.”

Amos agreed with Eli’s assessment. Why on earth had Bishop Floyd used this wedding sermon to single out the three women who’d founded their colony—and then named him and Marlin, as well? Why was Floyd so set on following the very strictest formula of the Old Order faith, when other communities allowed intermarriage and home-based businesses run by married women?

On Amos’s other side, Marlin Kurtz, the colony’s new preacher, leaned closer. “That’s outrageous—I’ve only lived here a couple months,” he whispered. “I’ve had no time to court anyone while building a house and getting my kids settled in. Is Floyd always this intense?”

Amos stifled a cough. “If the bishop thinks the unattached folks here are going to bang his door down, asking him to officiate at their weddings in the next few weeks, he’s in for a rude awakening.”

And I probably am, too. Mattie will most likely dig in her heels and refuse to marry me now, just to spite the bishop.

Sure enough, when Amos peered toward the side of the expanded front room where the women sat, he saw that Mattie’s lips were pressed into a tight line as though she might explode from suppressing her irritation with Bishop Floyd. Rosetta’s face was as red as an apple from the orchard and Christine’s scowl could’ve curdled milk. Amos suspected the three sisters would express their opinions openly once they were out of church, and he prayed the bishop wouldn’t spoil this festive occasion by lashing out or ordering them to pay some sort of penance for challenging his decree. Amos predicted that Mattie’s frustration would get her into hot water one of these days, and unfortunately, Floyd Lehman would always have the upper hand and the last word.

Help us serve You, Jesus, even when our passions and loyalty blind us, Amos prayed. And help me walk in Your way if push comes to shove between Bishop Floyd and the Bender sisters.