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.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My story of her story (ii)

In typical Dutch fashion, here they are, on bikes--Diet Eman and Hein Sietsma. They were little more than kids when Hitler decided, the day after he said he wouldn't, to run over the Netherlands, blitzkrieg the entire country and simply take it for his own. 

"I was furious," she told me, time and time again, because there was no cause, no reason for those Nazi jackboots to flatten Rotterdam and march through the streets of every city in the country, including Den Haag, where she worked in a bank. What right had those Germans to to take over the lives of the Dutch? No right whatsoever.

And when the Queen left for England, she was furious again. "Why would 'our mother' just leave us behind?" she told me. She couldn't help wondering why she'd abandoned them.  Many wondered.

But all of that came out in her reminiscence only after that first thoughtfully considered and oh-so-professional question I'd asked her, a question meant not only to reveal character but also to try to establish my credentials as being "a writer," a title I'd hardly earned at that time in my life. I'd brought up the idea of my helping her in the afterglow of a story that had thrilled my heart and soul and mind. I'd asked her almost as if without thinking. I'd never done a book like this could be before. Never. What did I know? Really, nothing.

"What kind of guy is he?" I asked her, then offered some true-to-life options.

"Well," she said, "why don't you just read for yourself?" Matter-of-factly, she said it, as if the question was rhetorical.  "I've got his letters."

I had no idea. "You have his letters to you, letters he wrote?" I said, perfectly slack-jawed.

"And many of mine to him," she told me.

"You're serious?"

"And I have some of his diaries and all of my diaries too."

"You're not kidding?"

She looked at me as if I'd become a stranger. "No," she said, as if wondering why on earth I would doubt her.

Then the story came, the story that became the play. 

After she'd discovered that Hein would never return, after learning he'd died in January of 1945, just months from liberation, she'd taken all those precious notes and letters and locked them up in a metal box because, she told me, she had come to realize that it would be impossible to go on if she didn't try to become another person altogether. 

So she'd taken all those letters and notes and locked them in a cold, metal box because she had to stop seeing them, keep them out of her memory, had to quit reliving what had happened, pull herself away from a time that would never, ever return. She couldn't burn them, but neither could she leave them around. She locked them up.

She'd changed professions, went to nursing school, then determined to take a job that would take her out of the Netherlands altogether. Her painful past had to be abandoned. 

By the end of the 1940s she was working at a nurse in Venezuela at a Shell Oil compound full of European workers. She'd left behind everything that had happened to her during the war, all that adventure and intrigue and grief. She did what she could to clear her life of reference to a past she had to forget but really never could.

Years passed. She was fluent in Spanish, so she went on countless medical mission teams into faraway locales in Latin America, where she acted as a translator for people coming for help at make shift clinics created by North American doctors. Sometimes at night, in jungle compounds lit only by fire, she and other team members would tell stories. Slowly, she started to share what had happened to her--to them, to her and Hein--during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Slowly, the story was told, in bits and pieces.

Eventually, she was asked to tell the story before hundreds of people in a place called Sioux Center, Iowa. Then again, in 1991, at a college conference, same place, before hundreds more, where a man she'd never known before asked her if she'd like someone to help her write it. She told him she'd thought about it, told that man from Sioux Center that he wasn't the first to ask. But she'd always considered it somehow vainglorious or something to talk much about what they did in the war because she was no hero. She didn't do anything that hundreds didn't do. They'd done what they did because the Lord commanded it, didn't he? 

And wasn't it almost a little presumptuous to have your story out there like that, like Corrie? She knew Corrie Ten Boom, even worked for her relief organization, helping children who lost their parents during the war. Everything Corrie Ten Boom said had become scripture after The Hiding Place. That kind of adulation was improper because hundreds--literally, hundreds--had done what Corrie did--and more. And whatever Corrie says now gets almost to be like scripture? Is that right?

But the question that Sioux Center man had raised stuck with her, and one night in church she listened to the voice of the Lord in a line from a hymn, when it struck her that she owed it to her children to tell them, tell them everything, the whole story. That's when she called me. That's why she called me.

"I've got his letters and my letters and my journals and even his," she told me that first night I stayed with her.

I had absolutely no idea.

"And yesterday for the first time, I opened that box and read through them again," she said. For more than forty years those memories were locked up in a metal box she'd just opened the day before. 

For the next week, she talked and I listened. Memories rushed up from her beaten soul as if her mind was a scrapbook with no last page. I listened, as did my little tape recorder. I tried to shape things, to keep her memories clear and chronological. I handed her Kleenex when she cried, which she did often. I laughed when she did--and just as often. I wheedled when she seemed reluctant, when I thought there was more she wasn't telling. 

Her story came tumbling out for an entire week. Some days, just for a break, we'd take walks out in the field behind her house. But she never really stopped talking, ran through emotions that all came out in spades. And I listened.

Her story became Things We Couldn't Say. My story of her story became a readers theater presentation performed dozens and dozens of times twenty years ago, a 90-minute version of her story done in such a bare bones fashion that any church group could do it--that's what I wanted to create. I wanted to find a way to tell this story a thousand times to the glory of God.

It's been in mothballs now for a couple of decades, but Janie Van Dyke, at Unity Christian High, decided to pull it out once more and have a run at it. 

And it's been a joy to hear it again, to go back to an experience unlike anything else in my writing life. I was there the night after she had opened up that box of letters and notes for the first time since the end of the war. I was there when the whole story came out for the first time since she'd learned the painful news that her Hein, her lover, would never return.

That's my story of her story. 

If you're around, you might want to drop by the Knight Center in Orange City this weekend, where it's being done by gifted ordinary people who find it a privilege, just as I have, to tell her marvelous story. 

See Things We Couldn't Say at the Knight Center, Orange City, Iowa, Friday, June 24 or Saturday, June 25, at 7:30. General seating, $5 at the door.

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