I have a dear Hutterite friend who is a gifted story teller. Her name is Mary Wipf. She grew up at the New Elm Colony in South Dakota and is in the process of compiling a book of short stories. She was good enough to allow me to share this one with you. It has a thought provoking message for the Christmas season.
My grandfather’s name was Michael Hofer but on the colony, everyone called him Yahm Vetter (Uncle Yahm) on account of the fact that he used the expression “Yahm” so often he came to be defined by it. Its more an utterance than a word, really. Grandpa lived across the hall from our family at the New Elm Hutterite Colony, near Sioux Falls, South Dakota. My mother was his youngest child.
Grandpa was the community cobbler and spent his days making and fixing shoes. In the evenings he liked to sit outside in the cool air and as a young girl of about 10 I would often sit on the ground near his feet and doodle. Sporadically he would raise his right hand, clap it down on his right knee and emit, “Yahm.” It was so Grandpa and in an odd way I found it comforting.
In late August, 1940 I was tracing the sand with my fingers when I looked up and saw Johann Vetter making his way towards us from the north end of the colony. Johann Vetter was the colony broom maker and us colony kids were not particularly fond of him. We called him Olta Feuer, Old Fire, because we never worked fast enough as far as he was concerned when harvesting the broom corn he needed to make his brooms. He would take a whisk from the broom corn and strike us as we sat in a circle making bundles. “Get afire! get afire!” he’d yell to make us work faster.
Johann Vetter was wearing his Sunday clothes even though it was a weekday. As he approached I moved away from Grandpa’s feet to make room for him.
Johann Vetter sat down on the bench next to Grandpa and in a soft voice he said, “Bruder Brother, its time we set our house in order. We have not spoken to each other for 30 years and it’s a shame; we are brothers, we need to forgive each other. I am not long for this world. I have come to ask for your forgiveness.”
I was shocked to hear Johann Vetter call my Grandpa, brother. I never knew my Grandpa had a brother much less one living on the same colony!
Grandpa did not say a word. He sat with his legs crossed one over the other, like he always did. Johann Vetter sat with his head bowed and waited for Grandpa to respond. After several minutes, Johann Vetter lifted his head and turned his face expectantly toward Grandpa. Grandpa raised his right hand, slapped it down on his knee and said, “Yahm.”
Johann Vetter stood up and said, “Well brother, I have done my part to make things right between us. What you do is up to you and God. We must forgive to be forgiven”.
Grandpa’s expression never changed. He raised his right hand, slapped it down on his knee again and said, “Yahm.”
I watched Johann Vetter slowly walk away. He turned north toward the horse barn, then west toward the power house and on past the cow barn. He seemed to be taking in the panorama of the whole colony as if saying goodbye. He turned south past the rickety old garage, the brick blacksmith shop and at the carpenter shop I lost sight of him.
Johann Vetter died that night. He had been suffering from bladder cancer but had got himself out of his sickbed, dressed in his best cloths and walked to the other end of the colony to set things right with his brother. Word of his death was carried throughout the colony at daybreak.
I asked my mom if Johann Vetter really was Grandpa’s brother and for what he was apologizing. My mom said, “Yes, Johann Vetter really is Grandpa’s brother,” and she told me what led to the breach.
“Three decades ago when they were both newly married men, they had a quarrel. What it was about they probably don’t even remember but in the course of the argument Johann Vetter said to Grandpa, “Michael, du host a zurn wie Tiger! Michael, you have a temper like a tiger!” This was interpreted by my Grandfather as the equivalent of being called a Menschen-fresser (a man eater) which in Hutterite terms was a deep insult because it suggests that one has the temperament of a wild animal. It tore the two men apart and they never spoke to each other again although they lived the rest of their lives on the same colony.
My heart felt heavy at the time for both my Grandpa and Old Fire, who turned out to be my Uncle.
I grew into an inquisitive and curious teenager who loved to read. In the 1930’s and early 40’s none of the colony homes had indoor plumbing but I found the community outhouses comfortable and friendly little places because in lieu of toilet paper, discarded books and magazines doubled as great sources of reading material. They ran the gamut from Sears Roebuck calendars to love stories, detective stories and even classics like Dante’s Inferno and Goethe’s, Faust. I certainly didn’t understand everything I read but I devoured them all voraciously and even visited outhouses of other families on the colony in search of new material.
I am an old woman now, but something I read in those outhouses has stayed with me all these years. It is the last line of Lord Chesterfield’s Epitaph on Queen Caroline who died in 1737. She was the haughty and unforgiving wife of King George the II. On her deathbed she is said to have refused to pardon her son though he pleaded for forgiveness. The last line of the Epitaph reads:
To her own offspring she denied,
And unforgiving, unforgiven died.
Grandpa lived 4 more years before he also died. I am haunted by whether Grandpa ever forgave his brother, Old Fire. No one knows the heart of a person so I hope that he did. After all they both wanted to go to the same heaven.
Mary-Ann Kirkby is a Hutterite Author and Professional Speaker. Her national best-selling books, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen, and I Am Hutterite, are available at www.polkadotpress.ca. Contact Mary-Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook @ www.facebook.com/maryannkirkbyhutterite