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
Jane–I have read this piece again (as I tend to do, on certain blogs), and this time I am struck by what you’ve written about blood. There’s something sacramental in it. I don’t even quite know what I mean by that, except …seriousness; when there is blood there is seriousness..brown at the edges, but still red, and something more than political discussion….:-)
Cynthia – Thank you. You uncover a subtlety which was intended and does extend beyond politics and so I thank you for this additional comment. Yes, I hoped to communicate a sacramental aspect to the blood and to the rinsing into a bowl and final throwing it out onto the plants. Thank you, thank you,
This cameo brought Gandhi to my thoughts and I notice you mentioned him in your replies too, Jane dear.
The Indian succeeded in pacifism because of the British – their deep morality and sense of fair play. Having studied in England, Gandhi recognised these remarkable attributes – remarkable especially for colonialists and all that which colonialism entailed. My sentiments are – only the British exhibited these attributes of morality and fair play. None of the other European and Asian (Japanese) colonialists came close.
The Jew was up against a completely different animal – and I mean animal, both figuratively and literally.
In more contemporary times, we’ve had a front seat view in Mandela – perhaps not pacifism in the Gandhian sense, but cut from the same cloth.
Pacifism is aggression, and as Cynthia pointed out – can be infuriating
The father in this story had the luxury in not having to defend his home and his family on American soil.
Living in a society and enjoying the opportunities, safety and security that society accords – comes with certain obligations and responsibilities.
I for one would rather walk away from a personal insult or worse – but threaten my wife and/or children – and I will surely bite your head off. No matter who you are > http://wp.me/P1YE83-ol
Peace and blessings,
Yes, I agree pacifism is easier to espouse to when the only person affected is oneself but when one’s loved ones, especially those for whom we provide nurture and support, are threatened, it will be a different story. The very nature of love implies a form of protection beyond self. I hope that I shall never be placed in a position in which I would have to make such a terrible choice.
Your comment about the British sense of “fair play” is an interesting one. I wonder whether Gandhi took this into consideration or whether he knew that the weight of numbers in India would ultimately prevail?
I am amazed where this simple story has lured us!
Normally, I don’t reply to a reply as I respect the blog owner should have the last word. Please forgive me in this one instance.
Gandhi, in my opinion took the British sense of fair play (as espoused by their laws and loopholes in those same laws) into consideration, as he surely did the weight of Indian numbers, a growing middle class in India and Great Britain, and the burgeoning number of English educated professionals in India.
He was terrified of the kind of leaders that the ‘usual’ freedom fighting armed revolt would throw up. People who bemoan Partition conveniently ignore what local warlords would have unleashed. He needed to offer a viable alternative and he did.
You’re right, this is a complex topic worthy of a standalone discussion – perhaps for another day and forum.
All good wishes,
P/s I’m glad that the British colonised Singapore – instead of the French, the Dutch, Italians, etc
No truisms for me today, Jane, except to say that such domestic scenes from childhood involving bloodshed do stay in the mind and heart forever. The son was surely conflicted between defense and shame of his father. Pacifism is a form of aggression, and can be most infuriating D.H. Lawrence had this to say:
“I can’t stand Willy Wet-leg
I can’t stand him at any price.
He’s resigned and when you hit him
He let’s you hit him twice.”
(I guess Lawrence must have been a bully…certainly not a sentimentalist!)
This is a most deftly drawn portrait—your usual excellent craft!
Hi Cynthia, the D.H. Lawrence quote is a new one to me and I agree that pacifism may be considered a form of aggression. For Gandhi it turned out to be a very powerful tool but for the Jews during WW II it wasn’t. I suggest that the meekness of the Jewish populace spurred on the Nazis. I don’t know if aggression would have worked better but maybe…
As always thank you for your thoughts,
Extraordinary. As one of the sons of my heart turns 34 today, I read this and consider the journey we have been on, the lessons we have taught each other. Simply extraordinary. Lovely writing.
I like your suggestion that parenting is a mutually instructive process. Even as our children are now parents themselves we can still watch and learn. Perhaps the big truth is that when one stops learning one might as well lie down and die, This is part of what makes blogging, and visits, from folks such as yourself, so enjoyable,
A touching father/son story, exploring the heartbreak of both sides. The Mark Twain quote is still viable. So is the one about teenagers growing up to be as dumb as they think their parents are now.
Hi, I enjoyed a good chuckle as I read your turn on teenagers. It is such a painful age, even with the compensatory vigor of youth I wouldn’t opt to go back.
I like it Jane, a good cameo and an effortless read. There’s a whole book to be written about the pacifists – I guess it has been done but I’d like to see a modern version. I think it is bravery of a high order. Not sure I’m one though.
Hi Wyon, I agree that pacifism is a conundrum so easy to endorse in theory but difficult to practice when put to the test. The most successful large scale pacifistic movement was surely the Gandhi led conflict to obtain Indian independence. Many of Gandhi’s fasts were in protest against Indian violence rather than protesting to the English
He was a leader of great character!
A very moving story Jane. I would never have hit my parents but I do remember going through the terrible teen years when I imagined my parents were out of touch with the realities of life and verbal thrusts are just as painful to parents as a hit on the nose. Of course my many mistakes caused me to realize my parents were wise beyond anything I had achieved and their love, support and nurture of their children was an example I have tried to follow with my own children. My love and respect for them grew from that point in time when I realized I knew nothing and found their counsel wise even as I have matured and moved on.
You call to mind the infamous quote, which may or may not have originated with Mark Twain (his father died when he was eleven):
“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
What you (and M Twain ?) say is so true, I am with you 100%. In your case, I expect that your children will, listen to you and read your blog, nod and say the same thing.
Thank you for your visit.