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.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred -- 1912-1994 (iv)


In graduate school, in addition to everything else, I read texts that helped me identify who I was and the ethnic and religious ethos that was my birthright—Calvin’s Institutes, and the novels of Peter De Vries and Frederick Manfred. So when I returned to Siouxland in 1976 to become an instructor in English at Dordt College, I knew much more about this man Feikema, this presence, and I remembered that he lived only an hour north. But it took the dying wish of an old man to get me back to his home.

That dying man was Mr. Harry Abma, a man I’d met him in Arizona, a retired postal worker, an eccentric little man in a beret, who scooted about the Valley of the Sun in a VW bug. In Arizona churches full of retirees in the mid-70s, Harry was unique—single, literary, often very lonely, and guilt-ridden. In our quiet talks after church on Sunday mornings, sometimes he’d cry, hair-trigger, profoundly saddened, he told me, by the life he’d lived, a life that had begun in Siouxland, where he was born. I never asked much about what kind of mess had piled up in the wake of his years, but in his Arizona retirement he was very much alone; whatever family he had seemed to care very little about him or his circumstance, perhaps with good reason.

I was studying Thoreau and Emerson, and he was reader—and a poet, mostly a devotional poet, but sometimes a little racy too, an untrained, Dutch Reformed John Donne maybe. Profound spirituality in the Dutch Calvinist character, at least historically, has never seemed to eradicate a sometimes profligate earthiness quite unknown to contemporary evangelicals, and that inelegant mixture was especially evidenced in farm folks I met in Siouxland—especially men, who brandished a hybrid spirituality, as much a part of this earth as it is and was a part heaven to come. Mr. Abma was a Frisian and he was a Christian: my guess is that Fred Manfred would have liked that wording.

Abma had but one-quarter of a lung, and wherever he went his oxygen tank was never far behind. He knew his life was ending, he told me, and he wanted to go home to Rock Valley, Iowa, his birthplace. He wanted to die in his native Siouxland.

Even before my wife and family moved back to Iowa, Mr. Abma did—he got a room in the Manor, showed me his letter of acceptance in fact. When, a year later, we moved to Siouxland too, he used to call me occasionally, tell me about the Bible studies he’d set up at the home, then reminisce a bit about Manfred because he’d read ‘em all, he told me, every last word of Feik’s work—life-long reader and admirer.

I knew Harry was dying. So one day I told him I’d see if the two of us could drive up to Luverne and visit the man whose work he’d always loved. Mr. Abma was older than Feike, he said, but the two of them had grown up in the same world.

Fred had some healthy years as a writer, and some wearisome droughts. Somewhere along the line, with few royalty checks coming in, he’d lost the big house he’d built into the Sioux quartzite of Blue Mound, and was then, 1977 or so, building another big-shouldered, very male, home quarters on the edge of a hill north of the Rock River, east of town.

I did some research to determine the protocol—one didn’t simply drop in on the novelist Frederick Manfred. I checked with the Doon Press editor, Harold Aardema, probably his closest friend in his home town, and Harold pointed the way, told me to stop in at the drug store in Luverne and talk to the druggist, who was, in a way, Manfred’s neighborly gate-keeper. As I remember, that drug store carried every novel Manfred had ever written, even those out of print.

All the way through my research, I got green lights when I made it clear that I wanted to bring a dying man up to meet another Frisian Siouxlander, something of a Make-a-Wish project, I suppose. That’ll be fine, the druggist said after phoning and checking with the novelist.

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Tomorrow:  Harry Abma meets Feike Feikema



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