Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Bylers in New York

"They say Jamaicans can’t play Hava Nagila but that’s not true,” the man said, spitting out the words in the rolling staccato of a man from the island. My uncle leaned over and whispered a request for a gospel hymn. And the Rastafarian began beating out “How Great Thou Art” on his double-tenor steelpans making the whole subway station ring like a church bell turned inside out. A middle-aged cultural tourist began squeezing off a few potshots at my seven cousins from Northern Minnesota in their homemade dresses and big family ways.

As the next verse began, my uncle Dawson, following the spirit of his father, Smiley Byler, strode up to the musician and with his arm raised in operatic gesture let loose the words all of us old Mennonites have stuffed away in our brains: hymns of love and hope written by men and women who lived through Great Revivals and personal trials. It was good to have Dawson here, to show him where his brother lived and died, where I work and live, and the people I know and love. It was fun to have a whole family of curious people around to soak up anything new and to give you spontaneous hugs when they are ready to leave. It’s good to know that still have family out there even if I don’t see them too much and they love me and what I am.

I like herding a group of little girls and boys onto a train, into a Bangladeshi restaurant, through an art museum, and into a one-bedroom apartment. I didn’t hear one person complain about the strange food or hard floors – though I don’t think Terrill is nuts over Indian spices. I would be crazy not to be proud to call these slightly chilled-rens my cousins and I hope they come back here and take my place when I’m gone. We could use more sincere, good-hearted people around here to show us how to take care of the little ones and smile at us harder ones. And besides, I like little Bylers.


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