Bishop’s Mantle column by Jim Bishop
The pastoral scene replays gently in my mind’s eye.
The Bishop family car makes a slow turn around the bend of George’s Run Road to unveil the panoramic view that this youngster waited impatiently for five long hours to see. The Dayton homestead, nestled in the heart of Fairview Valley in Mineral County, W.Va., looms ahead, with its long red barn with white trim, Holstein cattle, towering silos, rows of electric fence, everything in neat order and inviting.
A similar scenario unfolded as descendants of the late Robert P. and Rhoda Y. Dayton, my maternal grandparents, held another family gathering at this site the weekend of Aug. 4-5, 2007.
A good turnout – 112 out of a possible 147 relatives came from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, the farthest from Colorado. We represented a broad spectrum of ages, occupations, special interests and travel experience as revealed in a family directory assembled by cousin Linda Dayton Thompson.
I regretted that my 85-year-old mom, Ann Dayton Bishop, oldest of the nine Dayton siblings, wasn’t able to attend for physical reasons, but I sensed her presence.
The other lament: For myself, a family reunion is over by the time things really get fired up. I determined to try to talk with every person present, but fell miserably short.
The last Dayton reunion, in 2002, opened with my Uncle Art Dayton presenting a scroll that he had prepared and mounted on a wall. The large parchment was a timeline with photographs of Dayton family members no longer living – 11 in all – including Uncle Art’s son, Artie Jr., who died in a car accident in 1983.
These words, excerpted from an introduction to the scroll’s roster of deceased family members, read: “Grief is sometimes silent – like snowflakes falling on a dark winters’ night . . . When grief is silent, the tears seem to turn to ice, like the snowflakes.
“Grief is sometimes raging – like a monstrous thunderstorm – with all its fury and bolts of lightning striking our hearts at every angle. The tears come in torrents and flood our soul.
“Grief, whether it be silent or raging, hurts.”
The timeline began with the death of Grandpa Robert Parker Dayton, who died in 1953 of an illness that today’s medical advances likely could have treated. He was only 59 years old. His wife, Grandma Rhoda C. Yoder Dayton, died peacefully in her sleep in 1986 at age 84.
Art’s concluding remarks in 2002 went something like this: “Unless the Lord comes in the meantime, each of our names will eventually be added to this scroll, and no one knows whose name will be next.”
Turns out that the next name on the scroll would be Arthur Dale Dayton. He died on Nov. 23, 2003 in Abilene, Kan., at age 65.
On Aug. 14, 2004, Dustin Cessna and cousin Becky Dayton were married at the Pinto (Md.) Mennonite Church. Just two months later, Dustin lost his life in a truck accident at age 25.
And so, at this Dayton reunion, family members Art Dayton and Dustin Cessna were added to the scroll. It was a sobering, memorable reminder, amid much merriment, of the tenuous nature of life.
The group conversed, reminisced over videos and photo albums, we laughed, sang with gusto, savored incredible meals and held our own ourdoor worship service against a scenic backdrop of the West Virginia hills.
Uncle Phil Dayton said at the one point, “Many people can count all their relatives on one hand. They would scarcely know what to make of an assembly like this.”
If another Dayton reunion is held five years from now, by then Anna and I will be retired, the extended family will have experienced more births, marriages … and deaths.
That’s why family and class reunions remain high on my priority list.
I see it this way: Whomever the group, it will never reassemble in quite the same fashion, and, as we were reminded, one never knows what lies ahead that may leave a gaping hole, a void, in the Great Mandella, the wheel of life.
When time arrives for your next reunion, don’t let the circle be unbroken, in this life or the next.
Jim Bishop is the public-information officer at Eastern Mennonite University.