They put on their coats and left the house. It was a cold winter morning, just above freezing, but there was no frost or snow on the pavement. The family walked through the quiet Sunday morning streets of the city: The girl, her mother, her father and her little brother. The mood was sombre, but she wasn’t surprised by this as she knew where they were going, as they had done many times before.
They arrived at the wrought iron gates of the municipal cemetery and walked past many graves with old and new gravestones. The girl looked at the writing on the headstones, but she had only just started reading and writing in school and couldn’t decipher most of what was written. She also noticed some graves that were covered in lots of flowers and wreaths.
“They are the new graves”, her mother told her. “Someone died and was buried here yesterday or the day before.”
Soon after, they arrived at their destination, a small grave among other small graves. As always, her mother and father went very quiet and tears started rolling down her mother’s face. She took the girl’s hand and squeezed it before asking her and her brother to fold their hands and pray for their older brother whose grave they had come to visit.
Her mother had told the girl that her older brother had died when he was only a few weeks old. Choked up by tears, she had once shown her some pictures of her baby brother in his crib. The girl always felt very sad when they came to the cemetery as she pictured her little brother lying motionless in his grave.
Then the girl’s mother removed some weeds from the grave and fetched some water from the freestanding tap with one of the old zinc watering cans belonging to the cemetery. After watering the flowers on her sibling’s grave, they quietly said some more prayers before returning home.
The girl enjoyed school. She was about to turn seven and was in her first year in primary school. As opposed to her kindergarten, the school she attended was non-denominational which meant that the school was attended by Protestant as well as Catholic children in the early 1960s.
Her teacher, Fräulein Thiemann, was a Catholic and would occasionally talk about religious matters in class. One morning, she told the children that she wanted them to paint a picture. The girl got excited, drawing and painting were some of her favourite activities and she spent many a rainy afternoon painting pictures for her mother with watercolours, crayons and coloured pencils.
The teacher then turned to the class and asked them to do a drawing of a cemetery. The girl stiffened – a cemetery? But why paint a picture of a cemetery? She sat and stared at her drawing pad without putting pen to paper. The girl knew that she was supposed to follow her teacher’s instructions, but she just couldn’t bring herself to draw a picture of a graveyard.
Fräulein Thiemann did the rounds and looked at the children’s progress. When she stopped at the girl’s desk and saw the empty canvas, the asked:
“And why aren’t you drawing a picture of a cemetery?”
The girl blushed as the whole class looked up from their drawings and stared at her.
“I don’t want to paint a picture of a cemetery”.
“And why not?” her teacher asked her.
“Because it makes me sad”, the girl said and refused to do as she was told.
The next day, the girl’s parents received a letter asking them to come to the school and speak to the teacher. When they did, Fräulein Thiemann told her parents what had happened and inquired if they were atheists. Her parents explained about the regular family visits to the cemetery and the matter wasn’t mentioned again.
But her teacher treated the girl differently from that day onwards – realising perhaps that she was dealing with a child who had a – possibly rebellious – mind of her own.