Excerpt: Time and Memory

Author's introduction:

I found her in her husband's estate papers where an "X" indicates she could not write her name in English cursive. Yet she paid off his liens, loans, and doctor bills in the early months of 1871, and had $600 left over to build another life for herself.

A decade earlier her father-in-law deeded a house and subdivision of his land to Sarah M. Moyer, but the tax collector the following year, 1862, drew a line through her name. Perhaps Jacob C. wanted to protect Jacob F. from losing everything should a suit be filed against his son's new stagecoach company. Coaches were tippy, injured parties often brought suit, and Jacob F. was known for crowding his omnibus with as many as 28 people.

My research in an earlier project indicated that until the local Mennonite bishops of the 1890s instituted a dress code that timestamped women's hair and head dress to visualize a supposed purity they must uphold for the entire denomination (which they called separation from the world in these parts for the next sixty years), local women of the Mennonite, Lutheran, Reformed, Dunkard, and Schwenkfelder faiths looked and acted a great deal alike.

Whether it was the work of livelihood or settling the deceased affairs, people of this place responded as neighbors. The men told stories on each other at the local hotel. They owned farm machinery in common. People intermarried across denominations. The women helped each other bring a child into the world.

Could I imagine Sarah M. Moyer in a moment of crisis in her life? I knew how things turned out. John Gardner's dictum for the fiction writer—to give each character their due—appealed to me. I decided to perform a little ecological restoration, squatting in the dirt of facts and forgetfulness. I was not myself as I wrote like this, yet when I walked to the old hotel near where I live, stepped in the grooves of the stairs to her basement cellar kitchen, I felt as though I were living ahead into my own future, working something out that was deeply personal.

It's humbling to know how much we're in this together, this life.

Women's Work
Sarah M. Moyer, January 12, 1871, late

She presses his hand when a rattling moan wells up in him. Ordinary time metes itself out in bleedings, emetics, bloat, and now this sound. Three good doctors said they can do nothing more for stomach cancer except to ease suffering. But that is not happening.

Breathe, she says, inserting herself into the ministrations of the doctor. Breathe with me. She takes in air, holds it, and releases it through her mouth.

Try to follow her breath, says Dr. Groff from the other side of the bed. Encouraged, she does it again and again, until she feels lightheaded. Sounds coming from him are an animal's as it tries to escape a trap. Jacob, listen to her.

She inhales again more slowly and leans in toward her husband. A too sweet smell comes from his mouth. Is the darkness there his blood?

She turns his face to meet her gaze. Breathe with me. The air is sickroom air, too much breathed already. Keeping the room fresh has been difficult.

The doctor stays a little longer, putting a few drops of laudanum on Jacob's tongue and watching to see it take effect. He has another call to make, a patient in Mechanicsville, and night is already upon them.


When she returns to see how Jacob is resting, he stares toward the ceiling as if he sees something there. Is he gone? Sometimes the appearing dead are not dead. She kneels, putting the inside of her wrist near his nostrils.

Why did Dr. Groff not call her aside and tell her? She should have used a chamber pot instead of going to the privy, she should have asked someone else to fetch water. . .

Was she trying to escape? To ask that question and not to answer it is to answer it.

Suddenly she has so many things to do. Emmanuel must be called.

Go get Abraham Pannepacker to come and measure him for a coffin.

See if the doctor is still up the road.

Stop by Henry's and Enos's. Brother and brother-in-law must get together a funeral committee in the morning. People will be needed to ride to Bucks County to tell my family, and to Berks County and all along the stage route to North Wales station.

Emmanuel nods, his shirt collar wet with the water he combed in haste through his hair.

Bring Nance back with you. Anna, her mother-in-law, will help her.

Emmanuel is off, once again proving what a good son-in-law he is.

Mary Ann is beside herself.

You must not stay in the room, she says pushing Mary Ann out. Find coins for his eyes and a wedge of wood like this. She makes a shape with her fingers. She will wrap it in linen to prop his mouth shut.

Mary Ann's violence of grief frightens her. Jacob was steadfast in his faith. Before this last day, he said by memory the passages of Scriptures he loved best, a comfort, he said, on the nights I am restless. She should take her comfort from the same.

I cannot take more fluid from him now, Dr. Groff says when he returns. Wash and dress him before he stiffens.

Mary Ann brings the perfumed soap Emmanuel gave her for a wedding gift. Use this.

No! Ordinary soap. And get a crock with a crack in it filled with water from the stove. A pregnant woman should not be near a corpse. Poor child, nineteen, just married. Poor only child. Poor child big with child.

She dips the rag into warm water, smears soap on it, and rubs his face. Emmanuel will shave him when he returns. The soap leaves its ordinary smell in the air. He has a pallor coming on, but he is like a child, quietly still as she attends to him. His sex, his swollen ankles, and darkening feet are reminders that he is no child. How much life he had in him once. Could it be, she wonders as she drizzles the soapy water over him, that his sickness was why no more children came of their union?

Stomach cancer becomes obvious only in later stages, Dr. Bauman said a few months ago. Did you notice anything?

Jake spent a longer time in the outhouse. And the other secret she thought she should say: the bottles of patent medicine. Slyly, his will leaping past loose and tight bowels, a pain in his side. But she would not speak of a wife's resentment. How she took measure of food she fixed, the hours it had hung in the smokehouse and then the attic, the ache in her back as she rolled out the noodle dough. He did not seem to care anymore for his favorite food. She knew her kitchen, its increase and decrease. The patent medicines he brought in were decrease.


Nance arrives in time to help her with getting Jacob's clothes on him. She fingers Sarah's fine stitches in the serge. Isn't this the suit you just made? she asks, her eyes bright.

Yes, and she wants to send it with him, instead of something they sew for the occasion.

The women discuss how to anticipate the swelling that will occur across the next days. Nance has helped before with dressing the dead. She cuts the waistcoat and shirt, and through holes on both sides in the back, she pulls linen tape she brought with her, a drawstring. Their elder son gone, and she and her husband, Jacob, still so hale. Yet Nance performs all this as though it were normal.

We will let the tape loose, she says.

Before he left, the doctor showed Sarah how to sew his lips to each other with linen thread, as he had seen on a cadaver that he studied in medical college, and she tries, but the mess of doing it so repulses that she is able to get only one knot near the corner of his wide mouth. She retches into the washbasin.

Nance pats her back. We have done enough. This is only his body.

Only his body. In clothes more familiar than he who wears them. Those nights alone, when she sewed while he was in Treichlersville. She would give anything, anything at all to have him here and the suit just an idea he had.

Emmanuel and his workers bring ice from the icehouse and place Jacob on a folded bed sheet over a wide plank until the coffin comes tomorrow. Up the road, Abraham is probably working on it even though it is the middle of the night.

Gottfried and Reuben Erb, who ride the stage officially as postal carriers of the mail, offer to take the first watch. She sets down whiskey, cider, apple pie, and a plate of dried beef. There are enough men who work for Emmanuel, so the watch across the night will tire no one.

There will be so much to do in the morning. Jacob will take charge of selecting the hostlers and re-arrange his barn. He will call on Hoffmans for the same, Nance said. He will see that there is enough stabling for the horses at the funeral.

Yet a doubt nags her. What if Jake is only asleep? What if there is some part of this that is a mistake?

Her throat tightens. In all the sermons, the ones about being a new creature in Christ, has she ever heard how a wife becomes a new creature? To make the example of so profound a change in Christ, has the preacher ever drawn on the life of a woman when her husband dies suddenly?

* * * *

Dressing the Body and Making a Coffin
Branchville, 1871

The dressing of Jacob F. Moyer's body by his wife and mother is a fiction based on circumstantial evidence.

Warren K. Schlotterer, who lived with his Mennonite grandmother Kriebel in Skippack Township, remembered that a widow had the role in that community in the 1870s. It was a way for her to earn money. Perhaps Sarah is apprenticing for a new vocation. The widow came to the house of the dead and would ask for a rag, a crock with a crack in it, and soap. The crock, already marginally useful, was thrown out after it had served this final purpose (Keyser 2017). Sometimes a midwife accustomed to bringing life into the world assisted the family when the mother or child died (Ulrich 63, 69).

In urban areas like Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century, the carpenter began to take over the dresser's role and to use the word undertaker for the tasks he performed. By 1860, McElroy's Directory of Philadelphia listed over one hundred male undertakers and only four female Layers Out of the Dead (Zlomke 20).

What did Jacob wear in his coffin? The account books of Charles Daub, originally of Upper Salford Township, provide clues to the possibilities. Listed as a carpenter in census documents, he made well pumps, furniture, and coffins. From 1837 to 1879 he made coffins for 531 funerals; his son Washington continued the business until 1898; collectively they were involved in 3,400 funerals in surrounding townships and Souderton.

Their records for the decade between May 11, 1862, and May 12, 1871, indicate how Jacob might have been dressed for his burial. In those years Charles supplied clothing for 63 percent (149) of the 236 individuals for whom he made coffins. Sometimes he made pants (hosen gemacht) or a dress. A schoolteacher in May 1870 got pants and three yards of muslin, the use of which is not explained. Charles also provided accessories. Two women went to their graves with a pair of gloves (ein par hensching). A man on November 13, 1871, received a tie and buttons (schlub und kneb). Perhaps these were elements added to an article of clothing meant to look like, but was not, clothing worn by the living. Only two individuals during that time were dressed in shrouds. In 1890, a shroud became more common, with charges for it varying from $1.50 to $14.

A century earlier, clothing was among the most valuable property assessed in an estate because labor from the planting of flax to the sewing of the fabric was an immense investment of time. Imagining Jacob's burial in a new suit is an indulgence.

During the decade in which Jacob's death falls, however, Charles notes the dressing of only 16 of 236 bodies. This record suggests the strong possibility of family members dressing the body.

Jacob Moyer's coffin was custom made to fit the body, so shortly after a death the carpenter came to the house to measure for length and depth, along with width at the shoulders and feet. Size of the individual, wood type, and finish affected the price of the tapered box called Ein Lat. As early as 1845 Charles also made an outer coffin, and by 1862 was often making them. Occasionally, he supplied planks on the grave (blanken auf dem grab) to stave off slumping of the soil.

Jacob Moyer's body was not embalmed. The Charles/Washington Daub account books first indicate a $10 charge for embalming on January 22, 1887. Embalming, however, had begun to be used during the Civil War in response to the horror of the bodies of soldiers arriving home as black, bloated corpses. A triumph of the practice occurred in Spring 1865 when Lincoln's body made its majestically slow 14-day train ride from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois.

Sources used:

Der Neutralist of Skippackville; Franconia Mennonite Cemetery; Jacob F. Moyer estate papers; 1850 and 1870 federal census; Raymond E. Hollenbach, trans, and Trudy Wubbels and Harry C. Adams, eds, Records of the Lutheran Congregation at Old Goshenhoppen, Upper Salford Township, Montgomery County, PA 1751-1937 (Bedminister, PA: Adams Apple Press, 1996); Account Books of Charles and Washington Daub, translated by Raymond E. Hollenbach (1971); Alan G. Keyser, personal communication (September 2017); Briony D. Zlomke, M.A. thesis: Death Became Them: The Defeminization of the American Death Culture, 1609-1899 (2013); Laura Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (NY: Vintage, 1990); Margaret M. Coffin, Death in Early America: The History and Folklore of Customs and Superstitions of Early Medicine, Funerals, Burials, and Mourning (New York: Elsevier/Nelson, 1976); Gary Laderman, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America (NY: Oxford Univ, 2003).

* * *

Mourning Morning
Sarah M. Moyer: January 16, 1871, early

She will not turn on the patented gaslight he is so proud of. Truth is, she wants no other light than slow dawn of January cold. And a single candle. She draws in her shawl more tightly. She is taking this time from no one but herself. The thought is most peculiar. Perhaps if she puts it ahead of what comes next she can feel more comfortable just sitting here.

What comes next? The household arising to be supervised by the funeral managers, as they cut the bread and cheese and boil the veal. The tables have already been set for the first seating. The candle flickers as she seats herself near its light, one hand between her dress and the chair. It is so chill in this room. If she can make herself smaller. . . she bows her head, breathes out through her mouth into the shawl to feel momentarily a rush of warmth on her face. At least she is wearing an extra petticoat, the wool next to the flannel one next to . . .

His skin. Like India rubber when she washed it on Friday. It could have been a stranger's gray face that she rubbed to get some color into the cheeks. She shields her face from the glare of the candle to look at him. Dark smudges, like bruises on his cheeks. It cannot be. It is.

There is the familiar in the scent. Ripe apples, monthly rags, the smear of conjugal relations. She exhales. Under her fingers. . . she felt sinful trying to keep him here. His body, hers. His flesh with the light in it. A package she had to wrap so it could be returned. A person asleep. His mouth. Her mouth. He is only 47 years old. Is? Was. She is only 45 years old. Is? Who is she now? Is only. . . It is as though she is only when he is. And now. . .was.

This is not the time for petulance.

His hands are folded over his waistcoat like a man taking a rest on a Sunday afternoon. He never rested. She shudders. A strong man is the last to entertain last thoughts. Every pain is to be gone by morning. He supports his assumptions by demanding silence from those around him. Was demanding, was strong. She must correct herself until she gets it right if she is to live without expecting him to come through every door that opens.

Sarah, I need a new suit, you said to me one evening. Could you. . .?

She is forgetting herself and talking aloud to him, what he and she would say to each other.

Can you hear me?

I cannot hear you.

I must talk, do you understand? I made the coats and silenced myself with the sewing. But what if I had asked, Can I wait until winter to make the suit? (The obvious, about the season for sewing clothes.) Using ordinary time as an excuse we might have invited this strange thing into our household management. Then perhaps we could have entered the coming season together.

The waistcoat looks tight. . . Should she call for help to turn him and loose the tape drawstrings? Impossible in the coffin.

I was a fool to hold with silence.

His lips are parted a little, his jaw has lapsed. This is not the same person he was days ago. And the smell is like. . . she craves an ordinary disgust like bed sheets at the end of winter, the chamber pot in the morning, and stinky feet any time. But this is not those.

This is. . . her stomach roils as she remembers a muskrat swelled in its creekside hole that, curious child with a stick, she poked at and saw it ooze maggots. Even a child knows putrescence. It is the smell of . . .something busy, very busy. She swallows down the bile and coughs into her shawl. The preacher will say over his coffin at the burying ground that this is his earthly shell. But this is not yet shell.

Take me. Take me with you. She cannot mean this. It is sin to want this. She must not think like this. Take me, Jake.

A door slams somewhere in the house. No doubt Mary Ann and Emmanuel are awake.

What will happen to Emmanuel's cigar making business here? Set up tables so that all can work comfortably, with light from the windows. That spaciousness in his voice. It is a very agreeable arrangement. They rent rooms to his workers. And when the child comes soon. . . She catches herself.

You will not know your grandchild. She wants to shrill at him, but she wills herself to whisper, the effort bringing tears to her eyes.

Could she run the hotel by herself? Women can be innkeepers. She knows her part in Jacob's hotel.

What are the accounts like? She leaves her chair to find the account book he keeps in a drawer of the counter. Paging through it, she sees the left page with peoples' debts and against them on the right page, page after page, too much blank space. The next time, you probably said.

She closes the account book. What will happen now? The stagecoach line is without its owner. In the hotel venture, they are carrying the former owner's mortgage as well as their own to Henry Kolb. She begins to pace, a wide circle in the dawning light. All this time she has tried to trust his impulses, and now he is lying here, unperturbed.

What happens next? The estate assessors will come to count and value the things they have. One, two. . . eight chairs including the one beside the coffin. To an assessor, what is the value of a chair?

At the end of the day, I know what my chair is worth! What is the value of the kitchen sink in the cellar? The beds upstairs? The looking glass?

He is too fresh in the hotel business. He has debts. He left no will. He didn't expect to die so soon.

She feels herself crumble as she whispers her names for him. As though words could wrap her against this cold when the other thought touches her, harsh as the cutting leaves of corn as it scratches your face, your hands, your arms while your harvest knife mows it down. I. Will. Have. Nothing.

Her grief is a rabbit scrabbling here, there, its little heart throbbing, it never thinks, it only runs, while her mind takes a cool dive its talons unsheathed. It has her, draining lifeblood: Who will take care of me? What widower, what bachelor will have me?


Her daughter stands in the doorway. She knows all too well what comes next, the custom in these parts. She and Mary Ann review the details. The invited guests will be here by eight o'clock for a brief repast, whiskey, and words from the minister. Then they'll process to the meetinghouse for the funeral and burial.

The hostlers no doubt are already assembling at Jacob's and Hoffman's, Mary Ann says helpfully.

The hostlers will take their meal while we are at the church, and then everyone will return for the funeral dinner. She forces herself to repeat these things as though the pattern were being invented for the first time. The smell of meat boiling fills the air. The demijohn is full. All the space here will be glad with visiting.

Throughout the remaining day, windows cloud with their moist breath, their murmurings ring in her ears. It is too soon much too soon that they are gone into the wintering sky, leaving her to be the widow now.

* * * *

What happens next

The widow's household welcomes new life! Elwood M. Bernd (Barndt) is born ten days later on January 27, 1871. Mother Mary Ann and infant exhibit health. It is an easy thing to imagine the grandmother's joy, a seepage into the well of grief that is Sarah Moyer.

On February 6, neighbors Abraham L. Kulp, a 24-year-old carriage manufacturer, and Henry P. Garges, a 28-year-old farmer, sign off on their assessment of Jacob F.'s property. In the till of the hotel they count $16.35. Even with uncollectable book accounts of almost $264, Sarah manages to pay off Jacob's debts. The hotel is sold back to the previous owner. Jacob's Branchville stageline runs intermittently and then folds.

For the next year or two, son-in-law Emmanuel Bernd rents space elsewhere for his cigar manufacturing business and his workers. By 1880, he will have a sewing factory and a houseful of female seamstresses. He and his wife, Mary Ann, will have eight children.

By the end of September 1873, Sarah has remarried, this time to innkeeper Zeno F. Gerhart. She knows how to run a hotel kitchen. Zeno's wife, Sarah Ann, died in 1870, leaving behind several children including an infant named Mary Ann. In her remarriage, Sarah has the consolation that Zeno will never make a mistake in calling out his wife's name. And she can hope that her four-year-old stepdaughter will never know whether the speaking of her name opens a little bit an old wound.

Zeno F. dies ahead of Sarah, joining his first wife in the graveyard of Indian Creek Reformed church. Sarah ends her last days in her son-in-law's house and there outlives her daughter. She returns in 1909 to Franconia Mennonite burying ground; however, not all genealogists connect her presence next to her former husband as a signifier of her earlier life, for her tombstone notes only the surname of her second marriage.

Sources used:

Local funeral practices here come from the recollection of hostler Henry D. Hagey, and Joyce Clemmer Munro, Ed., Some Local History of Franconia Township (Indian Valley Printing, 1979); other sources: Jacob F. Moyer estate papers and deeds; 1860-1862, 1871-72 Upper Salford Township tax records; 1880-1920 federal censuses in numerous townships; marriage and cemetery records, death certificates; Franconia Mennonite church burial report, Souderton News, 1910; A. J. Fretz, A Genealogical Record of the Descendants of Christian and Hans Meyer and Other Pioneers, reprint (Fretz Family Association, 1987); Charles H. Price, Jr., A History of Christ Reformed Church at Indian Creek (Indianfield) (privately printed, 1966).

About the Author

Joyce C. Munro spent 20 years as a freelance writer. In 2014 she retired as professor emeritus after 20 years in the English creative writing program at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. Fifth and seventh cousin to herself several times over and with almost a lifetime in one place, she inherited generations of Mennonite perspective that she has been slowly transmuting. Currently she is interested in the interstices between primary sources and imagination. The excerpt here is from her just published book: Time and Memory: Life in a Small Place along the Chalfont fault, Newark Basin, along and near the Pahkehoma (the Perkiomen Creek), East Branch, called Branchville, then Bergey, now nameless, in Upper Salford Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (Masthof 2018). For more information or to order a copy of Time and Memory, email timeandmemory18@gmail.com.