It’s mid-September, 2002, I’m moving among tombstones in a Minnesota cemetery. The wind blows prairie-strong, snapping my pant-legs. The sun is both high and hot. The white church and its cemetery are surrounded by cornfields. My wife is knocking on church doors.
We just dropped by, she wants to say; and can we look?
I’m seeking the stone that says Johann Weiss. Beneath it lies Thanne’s grandfather. She never met him. He died at 34, when her mother, Gertrude, was no older than six or seven.
But I know something of this Johann. It’s the reason I seek him. In a grief that never did leave her, my mother-in-law told me the story of her daddy’s dying. Now I share that grief. And it is my duty to save the tale alive, for Gertrude died in 2000, just shy of her 95th birthday.
German graves are set in perfect rows. I’ve gone halfway through when I glance back. Here comes Thanne, smiling. Another woman walks beside her, their clothing whipping their knees.
“What a coincidence!” Thanne laughs aloud. “Wally, it’s my cousin Phyllis!”
Well, of course: this is the church where Thanne’s mother was baptized, confirmed, wooed and won and married.
“Ah, yes,” Phyllis says softly: “Johann. Right over there.”
And so I stand very still in an autumn wind, stroking my moustache. Remembering.
These my feet, on an ancient earth…
In the winter of 1912, three weeks after a terrific blizzard, Gertie stood right here, beside her mother on a blinding snow. Shivering. Chewing her lip raw for the iniquity she’d committed.
An uncle had brought them in a boxed sleigh from home to the open grave. Hot rocks under heavy quilts kept their toes from freezing, the hoofs of the plow horses broad upon the snow.
And the casket was between them as they came.
Because there were no funeral homes in those days. Not in the country. There was the farmhouse parlor wherein to sit vigil by the body boxed and laid on trestle tables. There was the farmhouse kitchen in which the body had first to be washed and prepared for burial; and maybe a mortician could travel by train from some big city. Not always. Not in every blizzard.
Phyllis sweeps her hair back and says, “You know–that farmhouse where our mothers grew up? It’s a quarter mile up the road. I bet Arlene’ll be glad to let you in.”
Arlene receives us graciously. And when we tell her who we are, she raises her two hands and shapes a room whose walls no longer define it.
“Here,” she tells Thanne. “Your grandparents slept right here.”
It was here, I think to myself, where poor Johann screamed, and little Gertie broke her heart.
She was in the first grade that year. The winter holidays were upon them. Perhaps the child hadn’t taken her warmest coat. Perhaps it was her father’s guilt that drove him out in the snow when it may not have been necessary. But all that morning drifts were growing. A wind got up. What had begun as a pretty, flaky snow now blew straight and hard. Gertie had friends who could drive her home in horse-drawn wagons; but Johann feared to wait. Before noon the man set out in a walking shoe for the schoolhouse. The moist snow wet his hair and his pants.
Johann entered the school room, nodded toward the teacher, dressed his daughter, and stepped out into the snow with Gertie in tow.
At supper he was quieter than usual. He ate little, rose early and went straight to bed. Gertrude felt the weight of his changing and kept as quiet as her father.
“It wasn’t midnight,” Gertrude told me, “because my mother hadn’t yet sent me to bed. We huddled and listened to the wind in the eaves. The house shook. It made cracking sounds–and so I didn’t hear him at first.
“Mother looked at me, tipping her head sideways. ‘Oh, Gertie,’ she whispered, and she rushed to their bedroom.
“I came right behind.”
The child was shocked. She clapped her hands to her eyes, then tore them away because she had to see, then gaped. She gaped.
Her father was up on the bed. He was jumping and jumping like a madman–his face swollen purple, his language ruddy foul.
When her mother drew close in order to soothe him, Johann cocked an arm and whacked her ‘cross the jaw.
“Gertie! Gertie, get the neighbors!”
How far could a six-year old go in that furious weather? She never spoke of that feat. Her mind was on other things.
It took four men to subdue Johann Weiss.
Next morning his temper was as sweet as it usually was. He touched his little girl lightly, memory of the previous night wiped away.
Gertrude, the woman at ninety, repeated this story to me. Always at this point the tale divided into two separate explanations.
“Do you think,” she’d ask me, “do you think it was brain fever? You think he was just going to get sick?”
Vigorously I argued for that explanation.
But then she would sigh and drop her head; and I knew the explanation which raised such dread in my mother’s benevolent heart: that she was responsible. That something in her behavior had brought her father out into his weathery ailment.
Three days later, Johann Weiss slipped silently from this world, to the place where the daughter has finally found him, and where he has with Jesus assured her: Child it wasn’t you. It never could have been you.
Woodworth, Illinois, in the graveyard of St. John’s Lutheran Church where Gertrude lived the rest of her life, where all her children were baptized and confirmed and most of them married: I stand beside the mound under which my mother-in-law’s body was laid to rest.
I murmur to her, to me–to you and all who think a thing was poorly done and still bears guilty fruit–
“This is the grace of the kingdom of God: finally to know a complete and everlasting comfort. For you bear no guilt in heaven. All loves are loveliest under the hands of the Savior, and none are troubled by doubt.
Gertrude, if it is true that your father died because of you, know this: it was only because of his love for you.
Which is the love of Jesus.