Just over a year ago, I sat by my father’s bed for ten days and nights, watching him die. We connected through touch as I held his weakening hand, swabbed out his mouth, and did all I could to ease his last passage. I stroked his forearms, still so familiar, and recalled everything I’d known about him and done with him, this man who had always been there.
“But what is the measure of a life well lived?” The question, as persistent as it was answerless, kept interrupting – interrogating – the memories that flowed through my mind. After he died I reentered normal life, returning home to the Bruderhof, the Christian community to which I belong, just in time to attend the funeral of an old friend. This loss was quickly followed by two more funerals, for two other old friends. And it seemed, as I remembered their characters and listened to the stories of their lives, that these three women were giving me one last gift, extending an answer to the question that had dogged my vigil at my father’s side.
It seemed that these three women were giving me one last gift, extending an answer to the question that had dogged my vigil at my father’s side.
As a boomer growing up in the relative comfort and prosperity of the fifties, I used to assume that every college-educated, middle-class woman of my parents’ generation aspired to becoming the perfect housewife, patterning herself on Donna Reed or the fictitious Betty Crocker. When I came to the Bruderhof, however, I discovered dozens of women from the “Greatest Generation” who had traded upwardly-mobile comforts and Sunday Christianity for a life of poverty and discipleship. These three friends were among them.
Dotti died first, but she was always first – the first to speak, to laugh, to get up and dance (when her legs still worked). A Detroit native, Dotti talked loud, laughed loud, and, well, dressed loud. You could easily pick her out in a crowd by the clownishly bright clothes she wore to keep the ever-lurking depression at bay. She thrived on excitement, hated routine, and felt it her duty to get those around her to live with the same wholehearted purpose.
Perhaps I was drawn to Dotti because she reminded me of my mother. They were the same age, had attended the same art school (missing one another by a year), and were equally high-maintenance. But in Dotti I found an extra depth, a different perspective, a person who’d seen and experienced the same things that had turned my mother into a jaded cynic, but who’d found a way through the darkness to discover joy.
When Dotti said something, you listened. Her sharply worded observations may have sounded off-the-cuff but they came from deep within, a place of wisdom honed by suffering and repentance.
In her twenties, a self-consciously sophisticated art student, Dotti found her life upended in one short weekend in 1952 when she reluctantly attended the Annual Conference of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In her words:
When I left home on Thursday, I was what I had been brought up to be – a middle class, college-educated young lady. When I returned home on Sunday evening, I was a totally different person. My whole attitude toward war, toward minorities, toward poor people, toward unions, toward everything was completely changed. The focus of my life after that was to work for world peace, for justice, and for reconciliation between people.
It was her Christian faith that gave context to her new commitment. Dotti and her husband Bill (they married in 1953) were churchgoers. Like the other members of the progressive, integrated Methodist church they attended in Detroit, they focused their faith on social justice and racial reconciliation. In the summer of 1962, intrigued by reports about a pacifist Christian community whose members share all things in common, they decided to go see for themselves. And once again, in the course of a few days, the direction of Dotti’s life changed.
Three things they experienced on that first visit to the Bruderhof drew them: the members’ obvious joy despite their impoverished circumstances, the fact that people were able to disagree and yet still come to unity, and the outreaching love that Dotti felt from the gathered community. This love was evident in the community celebrations, but it shone through as well as members honestly and openly confronted each other.
In the car on the way back to Detroit Bill announced, “I’m going back.” Dotti later recalled:
Bill did not say, “We are going back,” or, “Are we going back?” or, “What do you think?” He said, “I am going back.” He was called. That is something I have hung on to. No matter what happens in life, Bill was called to this life by God. I felt the same call, which was more than fortunate: it was God-given. Otherwise, it could have split our family. I had become discouraged, disillusioned, and our marriage was in danger of breaking up. That one weekend turned everything around and gave me a real joy in life.
Ellen died twice. And I am certain that was the key to her joy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Ellen died twice. And I am certain that was the key to her joy.
Ellen would tell you she started out as a “nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn.” She was on a search, but for a cause, not – like many of her post-war peers – for the perfect man. Fueled by vague dissatisfaction with the status quo, with a desire for society to be “turned upside down” and for a “solution” to racial injustice, impulsive Ellen set out alone for Europe in 1953 at twenty. One of eleven passengers on a freighter, she spent the five-day voyage holed up in her cabin reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
During that trip, bored with touring London, Ellen decided to “swing by” a Christian community in Shropshire that she’d heard about from a friend in Manhattan. Swinging by entailed multiple train transfers and a fifteen-mile bicycle ride, since the Wheathill Bruderhof was located in the hills near the Welsh border. But when Ellen arrived, she met far more than she had expected:
On the way down the driveway I had what I can only call a Damascus Road experience. I looked out over the valley towards Birmingham and had this overwhelming sensation that I was on holy ground, that this place I was standing on had been here from the beginning and would be here forever, into all eternity. This was a call from God. I was Jewish, an atheist, and it was as if God put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You belong here; you have come home.” I fell in love with Wheathill from that moment. I never forgot feeling, “This is it. This is home. This is more than home. This is the solution.”
I wanted to sell everything I had and buy the whole field for joy.
And so she stayed. At Wheathill, living conditions were bleak – penetrating cold, very little food or warm clothes, no indoor plumbing. Yet Ellen responded with her whole heart when she heard that call. Years later she would write to a grandson: “When I first came to Wheathill I remember going down the driveway and looking out over the view and thinking, ‘There must be a God after all.’ I always remember the joy that filled me like I had never experienced before. I wanted to sell everything I had and buy the whole field for joy. About finding faith: I think faith finds you.”
Doris was the third to die that spring. Doris, who had grown up as a Quaker in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, was Dotti’s complete opposite, and was none too similar to Ellen either. Where the other two women seemed to blurt out their feelings without editing, Doris rarely voiced her thoughts. Getting to know her took time and patience. Small talk got you nowhere. Remaining fully present during what felt like long, full silences was a must.
Although Doris was quiet, she was never self-absorbed. Her greatest pleasures were making crafts from natural materials she’d collected, or sitting outdoors and observing or drawing. Whatever she made, she gave away. Hers was an interior life of reflection and concern for those who didn’t “have it all together.” Doris was someone you could trust, an oasis of calm and solidity. And so I was surprised to learn, after she passed away, of her own long struggle with feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness.
Doris had experienced something like communal life growing up – her parents taught in a boarding school, where her father was farm manager. She went on to study botany at Cornell. After graduating, she married Bud, who like her had had a taste of intentional community in the Civilian Public Service camp in which he had spent much of World War II as a conscientious objector. After the war, the couple explored a range of communitarian experiments. Then a friend shared with them a letter from a fellow Quaker explaining why he had become a member of the Bruderhof:
We have for so many years sought for an answer to the causes of the terrible wars, the inequality and injustice among men that now it is a great joy to throw ourselves completely into this positive effort to demonstrate the possibility of a brotherly way of life.
Bud and Doris went to visit the community a few months later, and soon decided to stay.
Each of these women chose early to live for an ideal, and each gladly gave up her personal freedom and the conventional ingredients of the good life to live a life of meaning and purpose when they joined the community. But not one of them, after making this commitment, “lived happily ever after.” It doesn’t work that way.
“It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Dorothy Day
Each of them endured physical, mental, or emotional suffering that put their faith, and their commitment, to the test. That is where each of them found an all-powerful love that sustained them and gave them a purpose to endure their darkest hours. Each, in her own way and words, would have told you she encountered this love in the person of Jesus. “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, once wrote. “It is not anything that we can take except with the utmost seriousness and yet it is of course the greatest joy in the world.”
In 1967, just five years after Dotti and her family had come to the Bruderhof, her husband Bill abruptly left. The reasons were complicated – decades later, Bill would simply say that he’d had a “heartless mind and a lot of stubborn pride.” He’d fully intended to take his wife and children with him, but Dotti refused to go. Instead, she stayed true to the conviction that they’d been called to follow God in community. Over the next five years she single-handedly raised their six children (ranging in age from three months to fifteen when he left), never knowing if Bill would return.
It was like a miracle when he finally did. Still, it was painful to make room in the family for the prodigal father. Dotti, who had managed years of single parenting, now had to reaccept a husband who doubted his faith and himself, and depended on her support. It took years for Bill to get back on solid ground spiritually and emotionally, and more years for his children to once again respect and love their father. That it was even possible says volumes about Dotti’s profound faith and her willingness to forgive.
Although her personality was strong, Dotti’s health was fragile. Since young adulthood, she’d borne up under countless infirmities resulting in numerous hospitalizations. The arthritis Dotti had been diagnosed with in her teens finally slowed her down in her sixties. Two painful knee replacements were immediately followed by a freak accident in a parking lot, when a car ran over Dotti’s foot, crushing her ankle. Reconstructive surgery with lots of hardware followed. After some healing, the metal screws and plates were surgically removed. Dotti proudly displayed them in an empty peanut butter jar on a window sill in her living room. Following the accident, Dotti never really recovered the ability to walk any distance and often had to submit to being pushed in a wheelchair, or to using her preferred mode of mobility – her camo-painted scooter.
Decades of unrelenting pain have a way of making one intolerant of small talk or social niceties. Never one to engage in trivialities, Dotti became downright intense and would deliver shocking one-liners to those who she felt needed a jolt to inwardly wake up. One young father got a lesson in parenting when Dotti brought him up short by yelling, “Say it like you mean it when you call your children in from play. Otherwise they’ll know you don’t expect them to obey!”
Like Dorothy Day, whom she admired, Dotti’s social radicalism was combined with a solidly orthodox faith. She had a “take no prisoners” approach to what she knew was true, and yet she retained an irrepressible love for all people and a desire for every one of them to find God. Her last job in the community was self-appointed. She loved to work over the stiff English translations of German sermons to make them interesting and understandable by “high school boys” – her favorite audience.
Dotti could smell a fake a mile away. She would have nothing to do with an empty, pious, or hypocritical religion. For Dotti, there was only one thing worse than politics and politicians – religious hypocrites. Her obvious love of Jesus and of the community confirmed my own decision to give myself to the same calling: to commit to a life holding all things in common, a life in full Christian community.
Ellen made a farewell visit to her parents in Brooklyn to tell them she was now a Christian – and that her new faith was calling her to move to what in their eyes was a highly dubious commune off in England. (“What did we do wrong?” her father asked.) Then she returned to Wheathill, where after two years she married Ulrich Keiderling, a German craftsman. Together they had seven children. Then came 1977, a year that the family would always remember as a crucible of suffering and redemption. In February, three-year-old Mark John, the youngest and the apple of his parents’ eye, was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive brain cancer. His parents and six older siblings spent the next three months caring for Mark John, preparing him for his inevitable death. They spared no effort to comfort him as he wasted away, became blind, and finally died in his parents’ arms, fully trusting in Jesus to take him to heaven.
Then came 1977, a year that the family would always remember as a crucible of suffering and redemption.
Just five months later, Ellen, now forty-five, went into labor with their eighth child. During delivery, Ellen was unconscious with no palpable pulse or blood pressure, taking both herself and her unborn daughter to the edge of death. During those hours, she experienced being irresistibly drawn toward the beauty of heaven. She always remembered smelling lilies and roses just before she was brought back to consciousness.
When Ellen awoke, though, she remembered little else. She did not recognize her own children, had no memory of Mark John’s suffering and death, and did not know she had a new daughter. As she slowly regained her memory, she was forced to experience again the pain of losing Mark John and the dawning realization that she now needed to care for another child who would not survive. Marie Johanna looked perfect, but was deemed “brain dead and incompatible with life.” Throughout the two months she lived, she never opened her eyes and only cried twice. Ellen wrote:
Marie Johanna’s delicate, tender little body was with us, but her soul, right from the beginning, was stretched out between heaven and earth. We always thought of her as a messenger who would one day have to go back where she came from.
On Christmas Eve her children gathered around Ellen as she held Marie Johanna. One of her daughters held a candle next to the baby’s face. Marie Johanna looked especially beautiful, Ellen remembered later. Then, for the first time, she opened her eyes. They were wide open and focused. She was looking into the corner of the room. At that moment, Ellen said:
I felt our baby’s soul leaving her. Her little soul rose from her body and passed in front of my face like a gentle, sweet breath. I was as certain of it as a blind person is sure when someone or something passes right by him. I felt wings brushing by my face – they were not soft, but stiff and strong, like the tips of birds’ wings, but large – and with it a fragrance. This is hard to put into words, but I felt this spiritual presence as surely as if it had been a physical presence. I stood transfixed for a moment, unable to move my head to look down at my baby. And when I did, what I saw only confirmed what I knew: her face was waxen, and she was no longer breathing.
Ellen had endured the most difficult experience a mother ever has to suffer – the death of a child. And she had been through it twice in less than a year. She later described that year as a time when “God had to shake us until our teeth rattled.” But she and Ulrich let that unprecedented suffering soften and change them, and it guided the rest of their lives together. The change didn’t happen overnight. Their children remember what felt like a long, dark time: days that turned into weeks when Ellen would retreat to her darkened bedroom to grieve and was not to be disturbed, years when Ulrich was away from the family working through his pain and finding his way back though his own inner wilderness.
“Where your treasure is,” we are told, “There your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Her children had gone ahead of her to the kingdom of heaven, and, as Ellen offered her pain to God, she found that she was able to cry out with great fervor for this kingdom to come. After 1977, Ellen refused novocaine at the dentist, celebrated being outside in cold weather, and embraced other discomforts in solidarity with her little boy who had gone through such pain. She emerged from that season of suffering as almost a new person.
The old originality was still there, now unleashed and deepened, setting her free to say and do whatever her heart said was true and right. Ulrich was back at her side, constant in his quiet love, cheering her on, occasionally reining in her excesses, and wordlessly giving her permission to speak from that place of pain and joy they’d gone through together.
That’s the Ellen I met twenty years later. There was nothing grim about her. Like Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, she dearly loved to laugh – at the absurdities of daily life, at a story by James Thurber, often at herself. She was exuberant in her love for individual people, for humanity, and for the church community that had carried her through those dark years. As Ellen once expressed:
That’s why each one of us is here, because we feel that here we can most closely and nearly live for that kingdom and give our lives for it, because we long for God’s kingdom to come to the world. And we have this wonderful and precious task: that we can live for it and witness to it in every aspect of our lives, in every relationship – between husband and wife and between parents and children and brothers and sisters.