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Veteran Advisor

Poems from a Mennonite Grandson


Me nite Father:




Elmer Suderman Gl/sta~~Audso lphus College

Elmer Suderman is Professor Emeritus of English at Gustavus

Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, where he still teaches part-time.

He is also a dynamic preacher whose services are drawn upon by Mennonite

and non-Mennonite congregations alike. His poetry has been widely published

over many years and, as this selection of his poems richly demonstrates,

he is at his best when evoking the ethnic ambience of his rural

American-Mennonite background. Intensely interested in Mennonite literature,

Elmer Suderman is a sensitive, articulate and discerning critic who was

quick to recognize the early literary promise of Mennonite writers like

Warren Kliewer and Rudy Wiebe. He is also a skilful translator who has

translated, among other German works, the journal kept in 1873 by his

grandfather Leonhard Sudermann, one of the twelve Russian-Mennonite

leaders who came to America to assess settlement sites for the migration of


My Mennonite Father's Eyes

My father's picture hangs on our living room wall.

Not yet thirty, unmarried, he was handsome

with red whiskers, neatly trimmed,

hair carefully parted on the left.

Born one hundred and twenty years ago,

he died, my diary reminds me, when he was

seventy, May 14, 1938 at 10:05 p.m.

I was seventeen. In two short years I'll

be as old as he was when he died.

I look into those eyes that

.Io~rr.r~oafl Merlrlorlite Studies Vol.

7, 1989


hleririoriite Father 9 7

watched thunder storms gather in the west

but never saw Danish rockers or Gogan prints,

never saw or even dreamt of TV or jet planes,

atomic bombs, space ships,

never read Einstein, Darwin or Freud,

Moby **bleep**

or Hlicklebel-l-y Fiiziz.


he ever wanted to know the world's name,


didn't know it.

He was satisfied to know simple names:

weat, woltje, himmel, raajn, kegel, pead.

He wasn't sure what a Ph.D. was:

"title docta" he called them.

I look into his eyes and wonder

how he must feel about his "title docta"

son. Concerned I think.

I look at those eyes follow me now,

and wonder what he's thinking

watching from that long-past photograph

as I read a book or write a poem.

Long nights he sees me here trying

to understand and write about eyes,

his and mine, eyes that seeing see not.

I was, he once told his friend,

who lived across the street, a pest.

His other children, he said, kept quiet,

didn't ask questions.

I wanted to know

what you called the world.

I remember seeing him shiver on cold nights:

sweat under hot sun, pace hard oak floor.

In the hutch next to his picture

the same clock that struck

the midnight hours for him

strikes for me in the middle of my night,

then one and two and some nights four

before I fall fitfully asleep

and wake up weary. He understands.


.lour-nu1 of Met717onite Studies

As I trace our strange story

bound so inextricably together

Yet so far apart, neither hearing

the voice of the other,

our eyes meet, he looking

from the photograph at me

across the silence of fifty years.

I return his look and sometimes

across that silence I still hear him

saying with raspy breath before he died:

"Dee meda kjarpa jeit too ruh."

Then once more

I stand at his death

bed, our eyes sharing the years' long look.

To Know Which Way North Is

Grandfather waited for a clear starry

night to lay the foundation in this

new world for his first house built

from the sod of Kansas prairie

to make sure the walls ran straight

north and south and east and west

using the north star as his plumb line.

He wanted to be sure he always knew

which way north was, just as he always

wanted to lcnow which was right

so he could do the right. That house,

insignificant, on that enormous space

would always steer him right.

I do not always know where

in the slcy to look for that illusive

star to which the compass points.

When I find the north star today

shine through all the smog and glare

of city lights, it often isn't


I was so sure it had to be.

It Was Lilte This

It was like this:

Father and I were

walking on the back eighty

when he said:

"If you look over there,

you'll see it,

that line our prairie makes

when it touches the sky

slicing the sun in half

and then into a quarter.

That line has swallowed up

the sun

and the glow explodes

until the dark will swallow up

the clouds.

The wind will shove

silence and night

over stubble fields.

over buffalo grass.

Over us.

We'll walk home

in the dark."


Grandfather Jacob Becker died

before I was born. But the shoe last

he used then to pound the


into shape to make a meagre living is mine now.


hold that last and that far off

and unknowable time when he held it,

becomes a now. I turn the last

over and over and see the marks

of his nails and grandfather

who left a church, decadent,

he thought, to start a new and

purer he thought Briidergemeinde

is suddenly not long dead

but here witli his flowing beard,

quoting endless Scripture verses

from memory. I hold his last

and he is here, and my mind flits

back and forth between his time

and mine, between his world and my world

so different from his, and the past

is no longer a far away thing

at the faded limits of long gone

past years. Holding this last

in my hands, the past crowds in

on today, my day, to become a powerful

presence witli which I must deal.

Holding this last in my hand, here

in a home, simple, really, but

for him so plush he would never

see one like it, grandfather whose

voice I never heard, speaking

about what I'm told his tongue

tripped over when living

speaks to me now more intimate

than he could ever have spoken

when alive speaks, his tongue

nimble now, of baptism by immersion,

of ecstasy in Jesus Christ, and I, aghast,

embarrassed, repelled at what he says

am quick to judge. I, not wanting to listen now,

to his long-gone voice

I never heard

but hear so clearly now,

stop, think and withhold judgment,

unable at last to judge.


Merlr~or~iFtea ther. 101

Father Husbanded His Words

Father husbanded his words

as carefully as he cut straight furrows

plowing wheat stubble,

spoke eloquently in the silence

among the waving wheat we walked through

or in harvest-shared

summer-scorched drink

from wet burlap-wrapped jug.

Fifty years later


hear his tenor voice singing

in a land where few streams flowed

"Iclz weiss eilzeiz Stl-om

desseil llel-l-liche Flut

Fliesst wunderbal- stille durch's Laizcl"

accompanied by the squeak of chains

and gentle motion of porch swing

he rocked on every summer evening

after he retired.

Did He

Know His Own Story?

Did he know his own story?

What dreams did he dream

as he sat there looking

out the window at Bermuda grass

he planted when he moved to town

and watered faithfully and protected

from irksome sandburrs? Did he know

that his past told a story?

When he owned a half section

of land, he said it would do.

It was enough to keep mother

comfortable after he died.

He was right. He retired a few

months before Black Friday

tumbled wheat prices

to twenty-five cents a bushel.


Jollr~ml of Meririoriite Srlrdies

Frugal all his life, he didn't

mind living on $400 a year,

his only extravagance an occasional

bunch of bananas once a month

from Wedel's grocery where mother

sent him to get a loaf of bread

and quart of milk. He was satisfied

to rock the past awake:

coming to Kansas from the Ukraine,

age eleven, working from sunrise

to sunset busting sod for others

to help his parents build their

first sod house;

homestead a quarter section

for himself when the Cherokee Strip

opened; buying in 1910 his first

model T and later a long line

of chevrolets. Did he know, sitting

there at that window that window

rocking and humming

"Die Zeit ist kurz


Mensch sei weise"

that his past told a story?

If he did he never told me.

And I asked.

I think about him often, wondering

about the stories he did not tell

so I might tell for him

stories that might be true.

6 Replies
Veteran Advisor

My favorite English Teacher

Just a little tribute to Professor Elmer Suderman, deceased for many years now, but still remembered.


Anyone else ever have a professor tell them to ignore their assignments if necessary, and read what you chose because what you read by choice was going to teach you a whole lot more than any thing the professor was going to impart on you?


If they ever do a Rick Perry on me, and go back and look at my college transcripts, they will find that in all the liberal arts courses I took, the  other English classes, Speech, Fine Arts, and yes, even Organic Chemistry, I had low grades. All except for one English course, the one taught by a fellow farm boy...Elmer Suderman.


Suderman gave an objective type test, early on, with only right or wrong answers. Since I do know how to take tests, I naturally did quite well. After that we had a conversation, and I told him how the subjective type teachers, the ones that can read your essay and give you whatever type of grade they choose to, evidently did not like what I wrote. I named the teachers, and Suderman told me that those guys were a bunch of jerks and he did not care much for them either.  The conversation did not make me want to take any more English courses, but it did make me feel better about Liberal Arts in general....that there was some hope for people outside of the business and math side of the campus.


Elmer gave a talk one day about the elites in education that he had encountered, and how difficult they had made his life, as he made his journey from Kansas farm boy to a professorship at a private college in Minnesota. I googled him just now and found that a college in Iowa has a scholarship in his honor...he must have attended higher education in Iowa on his way to Minnesota. A very common and genuinely nice man.


All this talk about how ordinary Rick Perry is makes me think of some other presidents that were not intellectuals. At least not pompous professors like the Zero. Abraham Lincoln...self schooled. Andrew Jackson, frontiersman. Dwight Eisenhower, military leader. Ronald Reagan, hollywood star turned democratic politician turned republican icon.


No clue if Rick Perry ever becomes president or if he would be a good one, but I think the liberals that are bashing him so much must see that the guy is very electable. Otherwise, why would there be any fuss?





Honored Advisor

Re: My favorite English Teacher

Great story Red, I`ve only had great teachers, some, it took 20 years to stop hating  Smiley Happy  but they all had my best interests at heart. A 5th grade math teacher seemed only to be extremely tough on me, she seemed to coddle everyone else, even though I was pretty good at math.  She passed away this summer, one of the very few that thought that I might excel at something other than sows and plows.  God Bless you, Ruth.

Veteran Advisor

Re: My favorite English Teacher

Did you?

Veteran Advisor

Re: My favorite English Teacher

Professor Suderman asked me to come back some time after graduation and visit him and let him see what became of me...I wish I had taken the time to go see him but I never did. He was a geniune teacher, one that really cared about his students.


I think almost all of my math teachers were good teachers, from high school through college. It takes a special type of person to teach math, and the skills required seem to eliminate the flakes and slackers.

Honored Advisor

Re: My favorite English Teacher

Well, I survived some very tough times, there are many bigger, a few smaller.  I sleep like a baby at night, look forward to each day.  Love what I do, if I meet a stranger who`s wearing a seedcorn cap I can easily talk for an hour to them about farming.  I`ve spoiled my Wife and Kids, all I can say is I`m happy. 


Re: Poems from a Mennonite Grandson

I enjoyed the reading, thanks. My favorite classes in college were in the humanities. I wish I had taken more, but the bucks were in math, science and technology.