Cousin Harold, my wife and I affectionately called him, because my mother-in-law remembered getting on the train in Maurice, Iowa, years ago, and coming out to Doon to visit her relatives, including little Harold Aardema, who, she used to say, was always such an interesting little boy.
I met Harold first through an old man who’d come back to Rock Valley to die, a man named Harry Abma, who told me that, more than anything in the world, he wanted to meet Frederick Manfred. I told him I’d take him, and he said we’d have to talk to Harold Aardema, who lived in Doon and edited the Doon Press.
So Harry and I checked in here, in Doon, at Harold’s old house, and Harold handed us off to a druggist in Luverne who called Manfred, and then waved us on.
For years thereafter, Frederick Manfred—Feike Feikema—and his books was the stuff Harold and I talked about. Feike loved Harold, and Harold loved Feike, even when a lot of Doon didn’t, and I just watched.
But Harold loved interesting people, even when they weren’t particularly loveable. Some of you remember, years ago, when a sworn atheist with an ordinary Dutch Calvinist name came to the area and raised cane about prayer in public schools. Harold thought the guy was terribly interesting because, after all, he wasn’t like everyone else, but then neither was Harold, who even as a kid was such an interesting little boy.
No school of journalism ever trained him, but by instinct or DNA or simply by experience, Harold had a nose for news, and in northwest Ioway, an sworn atheist making a scene was instant headlines. But then, no newspaper in the world came out of the mailbox talking and chuckling so much like its editor.
People from far and wide read the Doon Press. Its subscribers were ex-northwest Iowans, who wouldn’t miss it—not just because the Press made mention of every Siouxland snowstorm, but because Harold’s beloved weekly wouldn’t let anybody forget the past, and it gave them a weekly jolt of “Ink Spots,” his own sweet concoction of humor, nostalgia, and curmudgeonliness.
Fred Manfred used to say that once upon a time, years ago, he walked back up to the house after milking and sat on the back porch, and looked out over the open fields behind him. He said he sat there and wondered about history—who walked here and why and how. That moment, he’d say, was a time when he decided to tell stories.
If you want to understand why Doon’s two most famous writers—Feike Feikema and Harold Aardema—were best of friends, just remember how much they both cared about Doon, Iowa. I don’t believe I’ve ever met a man who so treasured the past—and it wasn’t just nostalgia. Harold could be immensely critical; after all, he spent goodly chunks of time in three different churches in this little town, knew and loved people in each of them. Didn’t like some too—after all he was Frisian.
Harold never married. But I’m not sure he could have—his heart was filled with Bonnie Doon.
Often he’d write about his childhood--running around, tearing up the town. Years ago, I found that difficult to read because the only Harold Aardema I knew was in a wheelchair. The stories he used to love to relate about catfishing down by the river and buzzing around town were hard to visualize.
But when I think of him gone now, those treasured memories are what I see again. After all, nobody knows what heaven is like, even those who are, when it comes to religion, most sure they alone have the whole truth, as Harold himself might say. The truth is, nobody knows.
Even though it’s hard to think of Harold not sitting behind his desk writing another column, I’d like to believe that if we could find him somewhere close right now, he’d be down the road about a half mile west, in the shadow of the cemetery, banging around Rock River with a couple of lines in maybe, just looking up at the sky, listening to birds, full to the brim with about as much human joy as a Dutch Calvinist can have, right here at the heart of the land he loved.
Just two weeks ago, we buried my mother-in-law too. The train from Maurice hasn’t run for years, and Harold Aardema hasn’t been an interesting little boy for about three-quarters of a century. But what a gift it was to have Cousin Harold around, telling stories, doing a little scolding now and then, and never letting us forget how much darned beauty God gave him and us, right here in Siouxland.