August 2006 - Volume 11, Issue 1

Sister Ehrentrud

By H.M. Gruendler-Schierloh

Photo of white daisies with yellow centersAs we relate so many things in life to our experiences, I will always cherish the subtle glamour of wild daisies.

The stark whiteness of their petals drawn into a circle of purity around a bright center of yellow warmth is my lasting connection to a wonderful person who loved these flowers very much. Ehrentrud, a Catholic nun.

Sister Ehrentrud viewed the world and all its little sinners in a way few people come close to comprehending.

She embraced her holy calling, and along with it the often not quite savory examples of humanity, with an open and unbiased acceptance that seemed deeply rooted in her faith.

At the end of WWII, my mother fled with me from the war zone to the relative safety of the German countryside. As we resettled in a Bavarian village, we met Sister Ehrentrud, who was caring for a group of senior citizens in a castle.

A castle? Yes, there was a beautiful old stone castle with window shutters and vines climbing allover them, but it housed no Cinderella and no fairy tale far from it. The residence of a Duke and Duchess had been turned into a safe haven for older people, with nuns looking after them.

I wasn't very old then - about four, going on forty.

My mother tried hard to provide for us by helping the farmers in the fields, hoping for small handouts from the harvests. But somehow it was never quite enough and often she had to resort to begging. That's where I could help.

In contrast to my mother who felt the deep humiliation of being "a refugee", which somehow seemed synonymous with "second class citizen" or worse, I was immune to such insults. Unencumbered by adult pride and misgivings, I quickly picked up the regional dialect and with it instant "native" status.

Feeling like "one of them", I went cheerfully from door to door and sang my tale of an "Edelweiss" flower blooming in the mountains, and a love struck young man climbing into treacherous terrain to fetch the rare blossom for his maiden.

I still don't know if the farmers' hearts melted because of my naive delivery of the romantically gut-wrenching lyrics, or because they felt sorry for that lad risking his life for a girl who felt so entitled she hardly deserved his sacrifice.

Whatever it was, it worked. I left many a farm kitchen with my arms weighted down by bread and other goodies.

I learned a few other tricks of survival.

Since the fruit falling from the trees in the farmyards was considered common property if it dropped into the street, my mother concluded that "it didn't hurt to lean a little."

And once in a while, I pushed my skinny arm far through a gap in a fence to snatch a juicy treat straight from its branch.

Although harvesting "that way" felt a bit sinful, munching on those apples never provided me with the biblical awareness of "eating from the forbidden tree of wisdom." It merely resulted in the utterly blissful sensation of having a full stomach.

When all else failed, I roamed the surrounding fields in search of wild daisies. Then, clutching a bouquet of white petals in one hand, while gripping an empty soup bucket with the other, I went up the hill to the backdoor of the castle.

Giving me a broad smile, Sister Ehrenturd tucked the daisies into one of those billowing sleeves of her habit, took my pail and placed her index finger over her lips. I nodded Of course, I would be quite. Nervously fidgeting with the strings of the apron attached to my dirndl dress, I waited.

Photo of a German castleMinutes later, I was rewarded with a bucket full of soup. Bathing in the wonderful aroma seeping from the metal can dangling from my hand, I felt like running home - but I knew better. I carefully put one small foot in front of the other, ever so cautious not to spill one drop of what represented several delicious meals for my small family.

Maybe Sister Ehrentrud wasn't supposed to do what she did. Maybe I wasn't supposed to grow up the way I did. Then again, maybe humanity will forever wrestle with the idea of man-made laws versus moral laws? How come they are not always the same? Shouldn't they be? Or is this one of those enduring challenges, like human misery and deprivation, destined to shift from one place to another without ever getting resolved?

Germany recovered from the war, the Duke and Duchess reclaimed their castle, my dad returned from prisoner-of-war camp, my baby sister arrived, and our family left the village.

Many years later, I went to see Sister Ehrentrude in a convent in a nearby city. I brought her a bouquet of daisies - my special way to pay tribute to a saint.

I don't remember when, or if, I saw her again after that visit. I grew up, moved far away, and lost touch.

Some time, now so many years ago, she must have died; somewhere, now a very long distance away, they must have buried her. Wherever that blessed nun may be resting, I hope her gravestone reflects just how wonderful she was.

I pray that God Almighty always understood, or, at the very least, benevolently looked the other way, whenever his devoted servant decided to "lean a little" and stretched her black-robed arm as far as it would reach to snatch a bit of heaven from the other side of the pearly gate - for me, my mother, and God only knows, how many others.

This story copyright H.M. Gruendler-Schierloh