Sunday, September 30, 2007
The boy on this picture is my grandfather, who lived with his immigrant parents on a farm in the middle of South Dakota Dutch settlement. His father and mother didn't stay out there very long; there were hard years, and many who'd come, seeking a new life on cheap land, eventually pulled up stakes and departed back east after successive droughts, hungry hoppers, and intense heat and cold successfully killed off the dreams that brought them there.
My grandfather graduated from high school in Parkersburg, Iowa, in 1898, and left for Michigan, where he graduated from the Theologische School of the Hollandsche Christielijke Gereformeerde Kerk in June, 1900 (his diploma is on the wall beside me); and from seminary a few years later.
Somewhere along the line, he got married to a sweet woman--or so I've always heard--who was also a distinguished seminary professor's daughter.
They're all long dead now, of course, so I can only speculate; but I'm quite sure the homesteader's son "married up." After all, the Professor was a Professor from Holland, from the old country.
Grandpa's first church was, oddly enough, back in rural South Dakota--not Harrison, the place he'd left as a boy, but Bemis, farther east, but just as rural.
We have letters from the Professor to his son-in-law and daughter, telling them that he's doing all he can in Michigan to get them out of there--and soon. It's very clear the distinguished Professor assumed Bemis, South Dakota, was the end of the world.
The Rev. John C. Schaap, my grandfather, and his wife stayed in South Dakota less than two years before taking another church back in Michigan, back in civilization.
I would love to know what went on in Bemis, South Dakota, for those two years. Was my grandma homesick? Was is tough for her to adjust to being married? Did she really despise South Dakota? Did the Professor miss his darling daughter?--did his wife miss her? Did they really believe their sweet girl wouldn't survive the west?
There's an additional irony. When the Rev. Schaap decided on Bemis for that first call, he knew he had a sister there because one of the women in the picture above had married earlier and moved, with her husband and family, to the neighborhood of the church he left Michigan to pastor. So, while South Dakota may have been prairie, and rural, and maybe even (by his father-in-law's standards) backward, the young marrieds weren't going somewhere completely foreign.
My grandmother--the Professor's wife--died during WWII, when she and my grandfather had five stars on their front window, five kids in the war effort. She was not healthy, my father used to tell me. Every single child--she bore ten--used to talk about my grandma's grace, her loving nature, her goodness. I believe them because they all had her grace herself. The Schaaps were warm and wonderful people.
Last night at a dinner for scholarship donors and recipients, I sat beside a distant relative, a descendent of that sister of the preacher, one of those in the picture above, the one who lived in Bemis, South Dakota, when Grandpa Schaap and his new, young wife made their short stay at that rural church.
When I mentioned my grandfather, he smiled. "You mean the one with that uppity wife?" he said, chuckling.
It's now an entire century since the Rev. Schaap went to Bemis, SD, and then left, the horses hardly rested. But the spin that this distant relative puts on a story I know from an entirely different side makes me marvel and even rejoice at the sheer power of story, the power of myth.
Hardly anyone else in the entire world could have that conversation--most of my relatives know nothing about my grandpa's whirlwind first charge. Few relatives of this distant cousin of mine, sitting next to me at the table, know a thing--or care--about what their great-grandmother thought of her little brother's wife or their quickly aborted stay out on the frontier.
But the story--and the spin--still exist and will be told, as it is here, one more time.
A couple of my students are writing papers on the powers of myth in Native culture and religion. I should really tell them this story. Others should know :).