Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Sister, Please Come Over (continued from yesterday)


When she says it, she's been in America for only a year or so, and one can tell it's yet another strange and frightfully scary phenomenon--a tornado. She describes it in a letter to her sister Baaye, the only child who didn't immigrate with the deJong family in 1894, but stayed behind in Friesland with her husband Gerrit Bakker. Renske and her husband Albert Hiemstra, sister Nell, brother Peter and both parents can get almost frantic about Baarte not being left behind. They so badly wanted her with, and the letters suggest Baarte herself would like to be in Dakota too. It's her husband Gerrit who's reluctant.

Almost 200 letters in Sister, Please Come Over tell the story, letters mercifully offered in English as well as their original Dutch--even one or two in Frisian. It's a marvelous read.

Renske's heart simply trembles at first at what she is experiencing in this unimagined new world. She has a spiritual sensibility that measures almost everything she sees and experiences in terms of the mysteries of God's favor, a redolent religiosity she inherited from her parents, her father especially. Renske's letters, like his, are as benevolent as the psalms, sometimes gorgeous, almost baroque intonations of God's eternal love despite our infernal humanness. Soon enough that reliance will be sorely tested; she will bury three babies in the dry soil of a strange new world. 

Before all of that, however, she quite amazed at this new world. She's something of an upper-class girl in a region where old country ways mean nothing. After all, she's in the wild west of rattle snakes, skunks, wolves, and cyclones--tornadoes. "We have seen it in the Eastern side of Dakota," she says, "some 80 miles from here and in Iowa."

She could not have seen this particular tornado herself, but what she envisioned registered in sufficient horror to prompt her to tell her sister back home. But the story isn't told on its own; it arises from a sermon she herself quite handily delivers:

"I hope dear sister that in all your ways your refuge may above all be with the Lord. He is the only one who can give consolation and salvation and with Him you can find answers even to death," she says. That very precept will be tried in her life very soon. "It is so much that He offers us. But we do not want to go to Him. We would rather find excuses until we have nothing left and yet, dear sister, we can not do without the Lord because what do all these worldly goods, which we shall lose one day, bring us?"

And now, case in point--a tornado.

Consider a whirlwind, Renske says, "how a whirlwind or hurricane as they call it here, has taken so many lives and brought so much devastation. It is a beautiful country there and all of them were rich folks, and May 3 the sky turned dark and this terrible storm came blowing up." Renske's tender and edgy emotions can barely be contained. Imagine her sitting there with a rolled-up hanky in her left hand.

"Fields were destroyed of some 100 farmers and schoolhouses were shattered," she says. "Buildings were lifted up into the air just like that, the people in them killed, schoolhouses with teachers and children lifted into the air and a bit further broken into pieces, completely smashed to matchwood." She just have been biting her lip just narrating the tale. "A child could easily carry the largest splinter, and of some of these buildings the living quarters alone had cost ten thousand dollars."

The deJongs came to Douglas County with nothing but the clothes on their back, and then experienced several years of choking drought. No crops to speak of, barely enough to pay the rent. 

"The machinery, all made of iron, which stood in the farmyard had been ruined in such a way that it seemed to have been ground. Not one piece was left of them." This isn't news, it's horror. "Entire patches of land cut out from the earth."

Sister Baaya has little sense of what this "hurricane" looks like, so Renske helps:  "It is a cloud with form of a funnel and it moves low over the land. Everything that is in its way will be destroyed. People who saw the cloud coming could flee into the basement and could thus save their lives because the basements are very deep here." Still, horror abounds.  "But it happens so fast that when they see the cloud there is hardly enough time to get into the basement." And then this: "The hurricane is about a mile wide."

Not long ago I stood on a windy hill in central Nebraska with another man named Bakker, another Dutchman, who was at the heart of a story a Dutch TV network was doing for a series titled Brieven Boven Water. The producers had brought another Bakker to Nebraska because he had no idea he had ancestors who'd immigrated to America in the 1880s, to a town called Holland, just south of Lincoln. This Bakker didn't know Nebraska from New Jersey. 

It was my job to tell him what his immigrant family experienced out there on land that even he thought, 150 years later, went on forever.  When I told the producer I would drive out to Nebraska to meet them. "How far?" she said. "Oh, not bad--four hours maybe," I told her.  "I could be in Paris," she told me, astonished.

Standing in open grassland in a cold wind that Saturday and telling that Mr. Bakker the story of immigrant people with nothing in their pockets but minds and hearts full of dreams as big as the prairie, all of that made me remember reading other such tales years ago, an American epic.  

The letters in Zuster, Kom Toch Over, the story of the American deJongs is just one story, but we do well to remember that life out here wasn't always the way it is, either for the immigrants or the Native people they dispossessed.

In May, 1895, Renske sits down on a Sabbath afternoon and tells her sister about the tornado in eastern Dakota and Iowa.  Out there in New Holland, immigrant families, my own great-grandparents among them, had strong family ties with people here, just across the state line in northwest Iowa. 

So I looked around. The story Renske tells her sister in that May letter happened right here in the neighborhood on May 3, 1895; and that story, an unforgettable chapter of Sioux County history most of us have forgotten, I'll tell tomorrow. 

1 comment:

jfschuu said...

Giants in the earth.
The stories from the prairie and of trying to live there remind me of Joseph Heller's follow up to Cathch-22, "Something Happened": nothing ever happens and nothing ever happens until all at once everything happens at the same time all is changed.