"No, I don't know him," said Teacher Harder, who was also a bishop. "Let's go," and then he took his wife by the arm and dragged her off.
The occasion was Mrs. Niedarp's funeral in the Mennonite Brethren church in Winnipeg. I was standing next to my friend, Niedarp's Peter, their only child, and with old man Niedarp, by the coffin after the service in church.
Peter and I were school buddies in the MCI; he was a tall, ungainly fellow with lonely eyes. Peter always looked a bit lost, also he seemed not to know what to do with his hands; his hands were never still. Today they were again furiously bent on finding something.
After a funeral everyone looks lonely; the fact that it was a very mild day late in fall didn't exactly help matters either. Nature was trying to fool everyone but we knew it. "I will never leave thee nor forsake thee" had been the biblical text, and those present tried hard to believe it. Niedarp's Peter looked as if he had been hit on the head with a mallet and all he had left to do was to fall over. Old Man Niedarp looked stunned as if he wanted to say, "He didn't really mean it, give him another chance." The motto attributed to him by many people over a long period of time was, `I have sawed it off already twice and it's still too short."
How could a bishop and teacher say, "No, I don't know him," particularly when everyone knew that he knew Peter as well as the devil knows sin and Jesus knows sinners? Mrs. Harder had extended her hand to Peter and was just on the point of expressing her condolences when her husband had pronounced an abrupt Schluß and dragged her away. But his words were still suspended in the air and a little too high to be plucked down.
The village of Gnadenthal is deserted, and the Niedarp place has long since been levelled and is over-grown with thistles and weeds. Teacher Harder has rested underneath a gravestone for almost thirty years as has his wife. Old Man Niedarp, too, is long since gone while Peter is still dizzy from the blow.
One might consider going to the churchyard and letting the dead speak when all else fails. The snow was gone, the flowers had started blooming, but dreary loneliness still pervaded. And yet the cemetery spoke. There to the back and left lies Bishop Harder. And to his right lay his wife. I scrutinized the plots; then, suddenly, I got a shock, yet again. To his left lay another woman, also bearing his name.
When the Niedarps had been married for five years, they had already buried three children. Not one of the babies lived longer than a week and one after another, they took a deep final breath, smiled a faint farewell, and simply fell asleep.
When Mrs. Niedarp was again with child, her angst became so powerful that it overcame her pride and Niedarps spoke the previously unspeakable: that Mrs. Niedarp had never had any milk to nurse her children and they had all starved to death. But now hope flickered over another growing belly. Mrs. Harder was also with child and she had always had enough milk to feed not only the baby but a cupful or so for the other young siblings now and then. Maybe Mrs. Harder would help Mrs. Niedarp? But there was another consideration: the Niedarps were Mennonite Brethren and had looked down on Harders and everyone else belonging to the Blumenorter congregation. Teacher Harder was invariably very busy and today he was teaching, as usual; later church work demanded hours of his time. Old Man Niedarp was also busy, as usual, building some church or other and so Mrs. Niedarp threw an old Russian fur over her shoulders, tied a winter scarf over her head and went off to visit Mrs. Harder. The road there was almost a quarter mile distant but the walk through heavy snow was nothing compared to the inner battle won. They met and talked and cried and made up and when they parted, Mrs. Harder promised her help in the impending dilemma.
Fortunately the Harders' Theophilus arrived almost a week before the Niedarp's baby. When the Niedarp baby was born on March 21 at ten in the morning, Mrs. Harder went over and helped first with the birthing and then with her milk. The baby was called Peter and he sucked "till it foamed and smacked and squirted" announced Old Peter Niedarp happily.
There was a regular back and forth but mainly during the day. Then when Niedarp's only cow finally freshened in June, little Peterkin was strong enough to digest this new supply. He was a chubby-cheeked rascal but only because of Mrs. Harder and her love through milk.
Two years later Mrs. Harder had another baby, her fourth and last. Two weeks later she was dead, but not before confessing to her husband that Niedarp's Peterkin was alive only because of her mercy. She asked her husband, Paul, to please forgive her for having been secretive about her love and milk. Also, Paul was to promise her that he would marry her sister, a recent widow, ensuring their children a mother. Before the Bishop could answer her, she had departed. Bishop Harder married his sister-in-law, the widow Regina Willms, within a year and the four Harder children, true to promise, had a mother.