I can recall a time when I was six – Mom was tucking me into bed, her soft, warm hands brushing my hair away from my face. She kissed me on the forehead, and before she left to turn off the light, I stopped her.
“What did he use?” I asked.
“The man who killed grandma, how did he kill her?”
She paused for several seconds.
“Why don’t we talk about this later, it’s late,” she said.
“Please tell me, I won’t ask anything else.”
Another long pause.
“He used a gun.”
Growing up, I was only given the basic facts.
At five years old, I was told that I would never see my grandmother, she was gone, and had been gone a long time. No one told me that she was murdered. When I was eleven, I learned that my mother was eleven, my age, when her mother died. No one told me she came home from school to find her mother’s body lying on the floor. At fifteen, I knew there was an ongoing investigation to find the killer. No one told me the primary suspect in her murder were members of the Klu Klux Klan. And when I was eighteen, and reading a letter my mother had written, I found out one last thing: Before she was murdered, she was raped.
Over time, I have pieced together parts of the story at the expense of not asking questions. I haven’t brought up her murder since I was six years old. Not because I’m disinterested or don’t care, but because I simply don’t want my mom to have to relive that day; I don’t want her to spend even a second remembering. I can’t bare the idea of letting her see me collapse under the tidal waves of tears and frustration the conversation would inevitably evoke. And I can’t begin to comprehend what it would be like to lose my own mother under any conditions, let alone the brutal circumstances that took Helen, my grandmother.
Goshen, Indiana, the town my mother grew up in, is the kind of town that thrives on midwestern comfort and sociable hospitality. The people are kind, humble, and gracious. The streets are adorned with birch and hickory trees, growing and twisting intertwined with one another, like the people of the tight-knit community. On Sunday, Mennonite churches are filled with people who laugh and pray, and Amish horse and buggies can be seen trotting along dusty roads. When Helen Klassen was murdered on March 14, 1969, the town stood still.
I’ve visited Goshen almost ever summer since I can remember. My memories are good ones – playing with my cousins in my grandparent’s backyard, jumping off the diving board into the nearby lake, eating fresh corn from the farmer’s market, and watching the fireflies disappear and reappear in the night sky. It was in almost all ways, idyllic. Yet there were the abrupt visits of Helen’s memory. She would appear at the dinner table, when a cousin would comment on the dishware – Helen picked them out. She would appear in the living room, when grandpa would tell the story of how they met. Her memory lived where her being could not.
I know relatively little about the details of her murder, but the few things I do know, I’ve learned from reading essays and articles my mother has written about her experience. What I know is this: She wouldn’t let her father or any of her sisters see the body. From that day on, she lived in a house with the permanent fixture of bullet holes in the floor. She was forced to go back to school the following Monday, to show the community they were OK, that everything would be all right. I know that when my mother turned eighteen, she left Goshen, Indiana, for the farthest place she could get. Without looking back, she drove the three-day drive to Eugene, Oregon.
My grandmother had two heros: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. These two men, who by most measures could not be more different, were alike in one way. They both knew they would die fighting for their cause. Helen’s husband, my grandfather, was a doctor who would often help the poor in their community, for little or no cost. He knew the hardship they faced, and he thought it was his obligation to do what he could to help. He offered this in the form of medicine. These poor people were almost all African American, and because of this, because he extended a hand to those who needed it, the KKK is the key suspect in my grandmother’s murder. By beating, raping, strangling and putting four bullets in the one thing my grandfather loved most, they were sending a clear and grave message.
When I was younger, I would envision meeting her killer. He is a tall, dense figure, with broad shoulders and clenched fists. He is faceless, except for his eyes. They are the blackest ebony, and his gaze is bitter and numbing. In my imagination he is tied to a chair in the middle of a dimly lit room. What comes next varies. Sometimes, I’ll tell him what a vile person he is – I’ll scream at him, demand answers and even hurt him. But it always ends with the same question: Do you know what you’ve done to my family?
Three years ago, my mother spent the summer traveling with her sisters, Sister Helen Prejean (Author of Dead Man Walking) and others, in the hopes of outlawing the death penalty, on a mission called “The Journey of Hope.” They traveled to states where the death penalty is legal, and shared their stories with people in churches and town halls. My mother has always been an introvert. Speaking in front of crowds is her biggest fear, but it seems for Helen, she could overcome it. What shocked me most about my mother’s tour was her capacity for forgiveness. Here she was, fighting for the man who killed her mother, fighting for his right to live. As badly as he had torn her up inside, she believed he didn’t deserve the same fate he caused Helen. For despite everything my mom has suffered, she can still look at life with a forgiving faith.
At twenty-one years old, I have yet to know that kind of forgiveness, but I’m getting there. I have come to realize that the man who killed my grandmother, whoever he may be, needs love more than anyone. My mother taught me that. I look to her as a moral guide, as she is the most compassionate, caring, and beautiful woman I know. If she can forgive the man who killed her mother, I owe it to her – to Helen – to try and do the same.
In the words of my grandmother’s hero, who shared with her a parallel passion for doing the right thing, and was taken in a similar demise:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” –Martin Luther King Jr.