I’ve spent the last two weeks or so thinking about my personal history and dwelling on my past – a natural response to sitting with my ninety year old mother, who is dying of dementia. On what was probably our farewell visit, I sat with her for hours at a time as she dozed, moved restlessly, cried, and occasionally became conscious enough to form a short sentence.
There was plenty of time to reflect on her influence on my life, and to thank her for the lessons she taught me – even if the lessons I learned were not the ones she intended to teach. It was my mother who told me to read the New Testament and do what it said; that’s what led me to the Catholic Worker movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the peace movement. She disagreed profoundly with the Worker and the peace movement, and she disagreed strongly with the tactics of the Civil Rights movement. Ironically, I’ve always believed that my pacifist stance and activist attitude was not rebellion against parental teaching, but obedience to it. My mother set examples of nonviolent action for me, although at the time neither of us had ever heard of such a thing.
My father, an OSS man during the war, remained with that entity when it became the CIA. As a result, from 1953 (when I was in 3rd grade) to 1962, when I finished high school, we lived abroad for a total of seven years. I found the experience very difficult, especially our first posting in Bern, Switzerland.
In Bern we lived “on the economy”, which meant that I was taken from my third grade classroom in Lanham, Maryland, directly into a Swiss school where Swiss-German was the only language among the students. It was a total immersion experience, and not a happy one. I began in the first grade, and as I learned the language, I eventually advanced to my normal academic level. Learning the language was stressful, being homesick was stressful, adjusting to a different culture and country was stressful. School was not, on the whole, a happy place for me, although I learned to love the country and made friends among my peers.
I don’t remember which year was the year of Herr Grütter. Herr Grütter was a crusty old man (at least to me). He taught us history and math, among other things. I loved his history classes because we were studying the prehistory of Switzerland. There were wonderful sand tables with models of lake-dweller homes sitting on glass sheets to simulate water. Herr Grütter talked about how the early inhabitants had built homes on stilts over the water, how they had fished, how they carried on living. He was a fascinating teacher.
Herr Grütter also taught arithmetic, and here he was terrifying. He would line us up against the wall and fire arithmetic problems at us, each new exercise capping the last – Rosemarie might get “three times four” and then Ginette “plus thirteen” and Hans “divided by seven” and so on, through all thirty of us. If you missed, you had to sit down. I was indeed terrified. And writing – we wrote in German, of course, in books like university blue-books, and we wrote with straight pens that we dipped into inkwells. It was a fine art to complete a sentence without blots, and it was harder because Herr Grütter had a habit of throwing pens at pupils who didn’t work diligently enough. I was always afraid that one of those pens would stick, quivering, in my desk.
The most difficult thing for me, though, was Herr Grütter’s attitude toward me, an American student at his mercy in his class. In the mid-fifties, America was generally popular in Europe, and we met with smiles and welcomes nearly everywhere we went. Herr Grütter did not share that attitude. His family had lived in a small town or village on the Swiss side of the Rhine river. I remember him telling us once that his whole family had been wiped out in a bombing raid – by the Americans. Evidently there had been a mistake and the planes had dropped bombs meant for Germany on his undefended town, killing most of the inhabitants in their beds. His anguish and anger overwhelmed our class, and he seemed to blame me, personally. His students followed his lead, and my life out of class became a nightmare of name-calling chases in which I ran from school to home after morning class, and back again for afternoon class, and then home again at last. I remember one especially scary chase when the other kids began throwing stones as they ran; it’s the only time I remember resisting, turning at bay when they had almost caught me up, and brandishing my umbrella, of all things, to defend myself. As I recall, they stopped chasing me for that day at least.
I don’t know if my mother was aware of all this – I don’t think I told her. She knew I hated school, but I also hated oatmeal and bedtime, and I had to accept those things. I do know that it was my mother who transformed Herr Grütter’s attitude. She did it easily, almost unconsciously, and she modeled nonviolent action for me forever.
Herr Grütter was ill. He had some nameless surgery which required him to be in the hospital for weeks. (I was probably ecstatic, since it took him out of the classroom.) While he was hospitalized, my mother went to visit him. She took flowers. She didn’t go to confront him, or to lecture him – she just went out of kindness, because he was hurting and she thought he might not have many visitors. I think she went to comfort him.
My mother’s action brought about a revolution in Herr Grütter’s attitude, and thus in my life. When he returned to class, he told the class about her visit, and he said that he had been wrong to judge all Americans by what had happened to his village. He stopped his classroom rants, and treated me like any other student. Eventually the harassment ceased. My life was transformed by Mom’s initiative. I was awestruck.
My mother was no conscious practitioner of nonviolence, yet her care for Herr Grütter was a deeply nonviolent act. She had loved my enemy and disarmed him. Years later, when I read King and Gandhi and others advocating nonviolence, they named a truth I had already experienced for myself. Love had indeed conquered hate and fear.
When, as a student at the University of Wisconsin, I was preparing to join the Selma march, my mother was adamantly opposed. She believed I was joining the forces of evil working against the United States. I believed that I was living out what she taught me by word and example, trying to overcome hatred with love.
We never resolved that disagreement, though we did come to a place of acceptance. I sat by her wheelchair this last week and thoughtA about the gifts she gave me, offering deepest gratitude for her instinctive nonviolence that affected me so strongly.
Shelley Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. She is the hospitaller at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, a member of Holy Family Parish, and active especially against war and the death penalty.