She didn't look away this time. "The explosion blew up the middle of the ship. Fire went shooting up behind us. It made my back so hot. But the air was cold, Andrew--November, the twenty-first, Sunday morning--ja, that's something, the Sabbath, the Lord's Day.
"My mother cried then. She tried to stop, but she cried. We knew too.
She pushed us tighter against the rail. There was much more shouting--no, screaming. People ran like animals. They just had on nightclothes. And the fire grew. It was so hot. I cried too, Andrew. We all did.
"Wooden shoes banged on the deck. Men shouted and screamed. Mother understood no English. Some women went crazy, Andrew. They screamed so hard I couldn't stand it. Some laughed like witches. And everywhere there were children, Dutch children, my friends, separated from mothers and fathers. It was terrible, Andrew. No one should ever--" Grandma Roerdink began to cry.
I wanted it all to stop, and yet a strange fascination lured me. I knew there was more, but I tried to quit her, to give her some peace. "Please, Grandma, you shouldn't anymore. You are not strong." I squeezed hard on her elbow.
"There is more." She breathed deeply and smiled again. "You always liked the stories, Andrew. I remember.. 'Tell me more~ Grandma,’ you would say. There is more.
"There was an American.. A good man, like my father.. He was handsome. A rich man. He played with us often on the ship. His name was Mr. Blish. He was there, suddenly, by mother. 'Vrouw,' he said, 'your man?'
Mother took her hand from behind my neck and pointed to the fire. ‘Come,' he said.
"Mother made us all hold hands. It was nard to walk--to stay together. People rushed all around us. I saw a woman with only a wool skirt on. She jumped over the side of the ship, screaming. Mr. Blish led us through. I had hold of mother's hand. She squeezed it so tight. I cried because it hurt so. I can feel it yet, after these many years."
She raised her elbow slightly. I felt it beneath the: quilt.
“The' flames grew behind us. You could hear them. They made a loud snapping noise. Then Mr. Blish stopped. 'Here,' he said--but Emma—she was the oldest—Emma was gone. My mother screamed out her name, but her voice. Emma was gone. Blish grabbed my mother’s arms and shook her hard. I remember hating him for that. I tried to kick him, to make him stop hurting her. He picked me up, above his head, and held me there. He pushed through the crowd. In a moment I was in a boat. There was a strange lady next to me. She took me in her arms. Suddenly I was cold, so cold. The boat was in the lake, away from the f1ames.”
"Your sisters?" I asked.
"Mother stayed to look for Emma. I saw them never again. "
"But your youngest sister?" I knew something of the story. ..
"Ja, Jenny. Mr. Blish put Jenny on another boat. I didn't know it then. I was alone. I was just a little girl, Andrew, and I was alone. I cried for my mother. I pounded on the strange woman's breast. She held me still tighter. 'Wees still, kleintje,’ she said.
"The little boat was filled with people.. We could hold no more, and water was already coming in. Some men used their wooden shoes to scoop it out. A woman came up from the water and pulled herself up on the side. Her eyes were big, Andrew. But we could hold no more. A man pushed her away. She held to the side. I remember seeing the hand holding to the edge. Then, it was gone. My feet were in the water. It was so cold."
"And I can still see the ship, Andrew. It is so clear in my mind. The fire flew high from the water. So high. Another explosion. I saw bodies in the air. I saw them splash into the water. The flames were louder than the screaming, but I heard Dutch words, American words. Prayers. Curses. It was--I think of this often--it was something of hell, Andrew. I'm sure of it."
"It must have been, Grandma." I wanted to change it now, to remind her of her children, her life, the good things, but she continued quickly.
"We finally came to shore. Someone started a fire, another fire, to warm us. It raged upon the sand. I was still cold, so cold. The frost made the beach hard like clay. It was November, Andrew, late in November—close to Thanksgiving, a Sunday, a Sabbath morning.
"Still I watched the flames from the ship. They jumped up high in the darkness. I could cry no more, it seemed. The strange lady held me close, like I was her own. Could I have a drink, Andrew?"
"Ja, ja, I will get it." I stood at her bedside for a moment. Her eyes were closed. Perhaps she would sleep. I poured a glass of water from the pitcher on the commode and walked back to her bed.
"Grandma, " I whispered, hoping that she was asleep.
"Ja, can you help me?"
I slid my fingers beneath her thin, gray hair and raised her head slightly.
She drank just one swallow.
"Thank you, Andrew."
I put the glass back on the dresser.
"You are in college now, Andrew?"
"Ja, I'm through--"
?" Hope College
. " Hope College
"You are the first. Your grandfather was so happy. 'The first, ' he said. We were both so proud.”
I sat again at her side.
"I told your grandfather. He knew about the
. But no
one else. Not even your father.” Phoenix
"Ja, Grandma. I will remember."
"Good. There's more though. The people from
saw the flames on the lake. They came up the beach to get us in the wagons. The
woman held me in her arms in the wagon. We moved slowly over the frozen sand.
The light from the fires lit the way. I remember the hospital. It was warm and
dry. Some time later Jenny found me. A
long time. Three, maybe four months. We
were the only ones saved. Everyone else, brother Pieter, sister Emma and
Geertje, Mother and Father--all dead. Some families were all lost. Everyone.
The Lord spared us.” Sheboygan
"It’s a terrible story, Grandma."
"Ja, it is. More than 200 of our people dead. It was horrible. For these many years I have tried to understand it, Andrew. So close. On the Sabbath. Why does our Lord take them like that? For years I have asked myself such things. And never can' I hear the answer!"
“Ja, Grandma.” I could offer nothing.
She closed her wrinkled mouth, high beneath her nose, shut her eyes, and smiled once 'more. "Soon I will know, Andrew. Then I will understand. I will be with Him.
Five days later, Grandma Roerdink died. To the end her mind was clear, and I took my regular turn with her. Usually she would sleep, but occasionally she would tell me other stories of how it was years ago. Not once, however, did she mention the burning of the ship.
After the funeral I walked alone into the darkened bedroom and stood beside her bed. There were no wrinkles in her quilt, as if she had made the bed herself.
I wondered right then what she would know.
I looked again at the ancient faces on the walls, and the oval portrait above the headboard. I studied it closely, trying to see Grandma's parents as clearly as she had the last night she'd seen them alive, but my great-grandfather's eyes still looked strangely mysterious, penciled in by some long-forgotten photographer.
I would never really know because I couldn't, but at least I could try to remember.