The father was a wiry slender man who was frugal, hard-working, and asked for few comforts in life. He was a staunch South Dakota Mennonite and, during World War II, resolutely supported their belief that the fifth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill”, means exactly what it says. He could not join a war effort whose goal was to defeat an enemy though violence and the destruction of human life. He had quietly suffered for this belief. During the long war years after Pearl Harbor he never complained but accepted menial home front tasks to which he was assigned. When the war was over he took a position teaching elementary school. Over the period of a few years he managed to save up enough to purchase a car and drove to town to date his sweetheart. After they were married they took a mortgage and set up to farm a quarter (one hundred sixty acres). Their tiny homestead consisted of two rooms on the main level topped by two small attic bedrooms accessed by ship’s ladder. There was a lean to add-on kitchen. They had a two hole outside toilet and no bathroom.
Over the years their union was blessed with three sons who arrived into the world in regular three year intervals. The boys ran the farmyard in bare feet and made dens in the hay bales in the barn. The South Dakota weather kept the little family one step away from destitution as each year the winds, lack of rain, or too much rain, tested the father’s farming skills and jeopardized his crops. He was constantly worrying and scribbling sums on scraps of paper as he attempted to allocate their meager funds and keep the little family solvent and fed. His wife, a motherly sort, prayed constantly and did all she could to help make her husband’s life easier.
One day their oldest son was sent home from school for fighting. The boy was generally obedient and well behaved, but, on this occasion, he came home pouting and belligerent. He appeared hurt and angry. Both his parents attempted to get him to tell them what worried him, but he remained taciturn. How could he explain the teasing at school when it related to his own father’s role in the war before he was even born? How could he justify fighting about the very thing for which his father had so bravely suffered? He was not a violent child, but there came a moment when he had to defend his father, and so he had lashed out. His punch had been unexpected and effective, and astonished the bullying boys. They had responded with equal violence, which might have resulted in more than a few bruises had not a teacher heard the commotion, and intervened by separating the boys. She sent them all home in disgrace.
Both parents could see that their son was distressed and did their best to try to coax the boy into telling them what prompted the fight. But, he remained uncommunicative. Eventually the quiet father sat down and drew his son towards him to stand him between his knees.
“Son, what was the problem? The note which the teacher sent says that you were fighting. Son, haven’t you learned anything. You know that we don’t fight? Isn’t there something which you need to tell us, something we could pray about?” He was gentle, calm, and loving.
The boy looked into his father’s kind grey eyes, felt his father’s strong thin fingers on his waist and experienced a surge of anger. There was something to talk about but he couldn’t explain his pain. He couldn’t explain the constant teasing which was a direct result of who his father was. At that moment he blamed his father for his passivism, he blamed his father for his quiet love, and he blamed him for the bullies at school. He drew back his arm, formed a fist and punched his father’s nose. The impact made a thud and blood began to flow. The father let go of the boy’s waist and cupped his hands. He quietly held them up to his face to catch the blood. The son drew back; his eyes were wide with terror. Had he done this? Had he killed his father? He ran to his mother in the lean-to kitchen.
“Mama, Mama, come quickly Daddy is bleeding.”
She came into the room, but the father did not speak he continued to sit, immobile, quietly letting the blood drip from his nose into his cupped hands. The son urged his mother.
“Do something Mama, do something.”
But the father was gently shaking his head. His wife understood him and did nothing. The dripping continued and gradually a small reservoir of blood accumulated in the father’s cupped hands. It seemed an eternity before the bleeding stopped, and the father got up. The mother drew water and poured it into a basin. The son silently watched him wash away the blood. He hoped that the cleansing washed away his guilt. A little blood goes a long way and, in this case, the watching boy saw more than he believed possible. Some of it had browned where it had begun to dry on the edges of the father’s hands but most of it was still bright red. The father scrubbed his hands clean and wiped the blood stains off his face. Then he took the basin and tossed the reddened water onto the plants outside their kitchen door. He didn’t say a word. His watching son never forgot that image of his father’s blood flowing, drip by painful drip, into his cupped hands.
© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, April 2014