VI – Tragedies -Great and Small

Anna, seated, Alma standing.

Spring came early to Kansas in 1907.  The cherry trees were in full bloom by March 20. By now Daniel was six years old and waiting for school that fall.  He wanted to learn everything.Field and garden work could wait while Gerhard went to town for supplies.  Daniel overheard the plans and rushed to his father.“Papa, Papa, let me get Fanny from the pasture for you,” he shouted.  “No!” was Gerhard’s firm answer.”But, Papa, I’m six now and I can get her.”“No, Son, you are too young for such a big job.”Daniel, though crestfallen, was not defeated.  He stood very straight to say, “Papa, you know I can stand on the gate and put her halter on all by myself.  You let me do it lots of times.  She lets me climb on her back and rider her home.  Papa, I can do it.”Gerhard tried to interrupt but little Daniel pleaded his case earnestly.  “Please, Papa, please, just this once let me do it.”  Against his better judgment Gerhard gave  permission.  “But don’t tie the lines to your arm!” Gerhard shouted after the boy.Daniel ran out before anyone could stop him.  Time was pressing and Gerhard turned to do the chores before he left for town.Suddenly Gerhard and Anna heard hoofs pounding on the driveway.  They dashed into the yard to see Fanny, their tame horse, flying into the yard with Daniel, battered and beaten, beneath Fanny’s hooves.  Their hearts stood still.Gerhard caught the halter as Fanny ran by and untied the limp wrist from the line.  His last words had not been heeded.  Why did he let the boy go?  Gerhard and Anna clung to their precious first-born. …but they only held his lifeless form.What had spooked this gentle horse?  They would never know.  They could only blame themselves for this tragedy.  He had been warned repeatedly about the danger of tying the halter rein to his wrist.  His usual response was, “But Papa, I like my hands free.”  Now his hands were freed forever.Parents and relatives were notified and soon the yard was filled with people.  So many tears.  Arrangements must be made for the funeral.  Words were all about them, but Gerhard and Anna lived in their own grief.After all the people went home, Gerhard did the chores and Anna went into the house to hold her only living child – Alma.  The baby went to sleep and Gerhard, exhausted by grief and emotion fell into a troubled sleep.Anna walked out to the orchard to stand beside the blooming cherry trees.  Here, she literally shook her fist at God as she cried out, “You took my son…so take the cherries, too!”  She sobbed until tears ran dry and wept her “Whys!”  Wearily she walked back into the house and fell into bed.Alma woke them in the morning.  The house was cold.  When Anna looked out toward the orchard, she saw the cherry trees blackened with frost in the morning sun.  The sight gave her a strange peace. God had answered her prayers.There was work to be done before the funeral.  A grave must be dug, a casket bought, and singers selected.  Anna wanted Daniel to wear a white velvet suit as he marched into heaven’s gate to meet Jesus and his Grandpa Suderman.  The thought of their togetherness brought comfort.Once more a small white casket stood before the pulpit at the Ebenfeld church  Once more they walked east of the church in a slow procession – past the horse barns – to lay their oldest son into the earth.  Daniel and little Gerhard now slept side by side – two little brothers waiting in heaven for them.After the funeral, Miss Schutz (Anna’s friend) came to ask her, “Was there any velvet left from Daniel’s white suit?”  Yes, there was.  Miss Schultz asked, “Could I use it for a sampler?  And what was Daniel’s favorite Bible verse?”The last  answer was easy.  Daniel learned Luke 2:14 for the Christmas program at church. He still recited for anyone who would listen.  Miss Schultz (was it Renetta or Liesa?) soon came to call on Anna with a beautiful sampler embroidered in perfect stitches on white velvet.  “Ehre sei Gott in der Hohe, Friede auf Erden, and den Menschen ein Wolgefallen.”  It became a treasured keepsake for Gerhard and Anna.  (It hung in my guest room until it was presented to my grandson, Dan Combs, at his request.)Gerhard’s wheat harvest was finished on July 3 that year.  The binder was cleaned and backed into the shed before the day closed.  Anna had been restless all day and labor pains began after the supper hours.   Mrs. Eitzen, the community midwife, was notified and shortly after midnight a baby daughter was born on July 4.“Julia” was Anna’s selected name for this daughter.  Gerhard soundly vetoed that idea.  “This one will be named after you and your Grandmother Loewen.”  Anna gave in but added a name to her own liking – Daisy.  Grandmother Loewen heard of her namesake before she died on August 11.Life was full and busy with two children.  There was field and garden work.  Little Anna learned to walk when she saw a toy she wanted on another chair.  Two little girls were into everything.  One day Anna took them across the road to the neighbors (Taburins).  While the women visited, little Anna found a drink on a low window sill – kerosene.  She sputtered, coughed, and finally regained consciousness.  However, she suffered through a bout of pneumonia.With spring came warm days and field work again.  Anna wondered what to feed her hard-working husband.  He loved fish and fryers were not ready.  She dug red, fat worms to fill a tin can.  With a fishing pole, supplies and two little girls she started off across the listered field to the creek.The sun was warm as Anna placed her daughters on the high bank.  Alma was told, “Now you take care of your little sister.”  A wiggly worm was pushed on the fish hook and soon Anna tossed her line into the water.  The bobber danced when  Anna heard a loud splash.  She whirled to hear her brown-eyed Alma screaming and pointing wildly toward the water.  No baby in sight.The biting fish were forgotten as Anna jumped into the water.  She soon found the kicking legs of her baby in waist high water and pulled her out.  Little Anna was screaming spite of eyes, ears and nose plastered with mud.  The black Kansas dirt was washed away in the creek.The trek across the listered furrows with a screaming baby in her arms, Alma crying and a wet skirt sloshing at her legs seemed endless.  There would be no fish dinner that day.  At home Anna breathed thanks for the averted tragedy.  Her fishing trip became only a minor episode in the life of the family.When a new invention came on the market, Gerhard felt his family needed it – a telephone.  Lines had to be built to carry the wires to the house.  He installed the poles to hang the wire.  With time the unbelievable contraption hung on the west wall above the red horse-hair sofa.How could a voice be heard over a wire?  But it worked.  All a person had to do was turn a crank on the side of the box and ‘central’ answered with, “Number, please.”  She connected a person to Grandpa, the doctor, the midwife or even the grocery store.  Immediate help was at hand with a telephone in the house.  It seemed like magic.Baby Anna thought so, too.  She wanted to hear those voices others taiked about.  By climbing on the sofa, scaling the carved backrest, and hanging on for dear life, she reached the telephone.  However, the screws were not imbedded to carry a wiggly toddler.Telephone and child crashed down to the floor in front of the sofa.  Anna came running.  She pushed the telephone aside and reached for her screaming baby.  What if that black mouthpiece had gouged out an eye?After washing away the blood, Anna saw it had dug into the flesh below the eye – leaving bits of black substance under the skin.  The doctor suggested Anna wash out the bits of black with the corner of a cloth as long as the wound remained open.  When a larger tragedy occurred, little Anna was destined to wear a smudged left-eye shadow for the rest of her life.It was garden time and Anna took her daughters to work, weeding with her hoe.  While they were busy, Uncle John Penner’s team of horses came racing up the driveway.  From his spring-wagon (a buggy version of a model-T pickup) seat, Uncle John called out to Anna.“Gerhard has had an accident and is at the Salem Home.”  The Salem Home, built to house orphans, also served a a small hospital in the community.  It was located two miles south and a mile east of Hillsboro.Gerhard helped Uncle John for the day with a new-fangled power saw to cut firewood.  The men both new the open blade was dangerous.  When it was time to quit for the day, someone said, “Just one more piece.”  A knothole in the wood jumped and caught  Gerhard’s arm to rip his flesh up to his elbow.“We’ll have to amputate the arm,” was the doctor’s advice.  Grandpa Loewen stood by to say, “No, you don’t.  That harm and hand can be saved.”  So the doctor stitched and stitched…not with the neat surgery stitches of today.  The four finger had to be removed and from there they stitched until they reached the elbow.  Heavy bandages were applied.Weak from loss of blood and the traumatic shock of being a cripple, Gerhard was put into a room with a stiffly starched nurse in attendance.  When Anna came, she wanted to stay, but little girls were not welcome in the hospital.Jacob and Helena Suderman graciously took the girls home with them.  Alma remembers Aunt Helena preparing a cooking hen for the pot.  When a soft egg was found in the chicken, Aunt Helena laid it on the table with, “Don’t touch or pinch the egg.  It might break.”  That warning brought a wild impulse and Alma pinched to see the yellow run out.Meanwhile, in the hospital, Gerhard felt like his life would have to change.  How could he farm without a whole left hand?  How could he shave with an open razor?  He could grow a beard.  What would life be lie….a cripple?As days went by, Gerhard’s whiskers grew.  His left arm was slowly mending, but his face felt terrible.  One moring when Anna came into the room, a smiling, clean-shaven Gerhard greeted her.“Who shaved you” she cried.“I found out I can shave myself with one hand.”  He hated that scruffy beard.  From that day on he decided he could do many things.During his recovery, Gerhard took a course at Tabor College under Doctor Schmutz on how to direct a choir.  Yes, his arm and hand healed.  Although that hand remained very sensitive to heat and cold, it harnessed horses, milked cows, drove cars and turned pages while the right hand was busy directing music.   Grandma Loewen made mittens for the winter cold.  A small mitten for his left hand and a larger glove for his right  hand.  We never thought of our father as a cripple. He could do anything.In the dim recesses of my mind, I can see Uncle John Penner racing into the yard with Mama crying at the garden gate.  One other thing I remember are the brown square jars lined up on a shelf- glass jars with sterile gauze and medication.  Even the smell of chloroform and medications are still there.But I do not remember the story Alma tells of our favorite kitten.  I played with it and she wanted it.  Would I relinquish it?  No!  Alma says, “You whirled and tossed it into the open cistern. “  Screams brought Mama running.  With a calm only mothers can claim, she speedily let the bucket down and the wet, shivering kitty soon was in Alma’s arms.“Did we drink the water?”  was my question.  Alma said, “It was the only water we had.”  And so another little tragedy passed.Gerhard and Anna looked to the future.  Hilda was born on January 24, 1911.  Three daughters.  Alma would soon be ready for school.  She seemed too small to walk almost two miles a day.  Perhaps they could sell this farm and locate closer to school.