Living in the "Right"
Updated: Feb 27
I grew up on an 80-acre farm near the tiny town of Burnips in Allegan County, Michigan. For the longest while there were six of us kids at home, and we share a host of memories. We had a barn to play in and outbuildings perfect for games of Eenie Ienie Over. You can still see a description of this game online - really! As the baby in the picture, I wasn’t thinking much. As a child, I thought it would be wonderful to live in one of the ranch houses in nearby Hudsonville, but now that our beautiful, old farmhouse is gone, the victim of a fire, I can look back at that 19th century classic through rose colored glasses. Clad in Chicago common brick, it had a big front porch that was perfect for viewing summer thunder storms. Overgrown lilac bushes sent their perfume through open windows and our wide yard had ditches and shrubs perfect for twilight games of Hide and Seek, Wolf, Kick the Can, and Midnight. And, yes, we mowed the whole yard with a push mower.
I also learned how to work hard and well. Though it probably annoyed me as a child, the maxim, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” has stuck. I guess practice makes perfect. Working under my mom’s direction, every year we transformed the produce of our garden and fruit from local orchards into hundreds of gleaming jars of goodness that would last all winter long. And we loved the sticky sweetness of hot maple syrup on fresh snow.
It was more than Mom’s energy that shaped me; she also reached out to those on the margins, not the leaders of our small, rural Christian Reformed church. After Mom died, a woman walked into the visitation room with three young children in tow. She quietly said that my mother was her real mother. She explained that Mom had come to her home for more than a year and taught her how to cook, how to clean, and how to nurture her young children. My mother also taught me about money and poverty. Once, during a lean time, I complained that I had to wear a boy’s jacket to school and asked why we were so poor. She simply said, “Are you ever cold or hungry?” After I sheepishly replied in the negative, she said, “We’re not poor; we just don’t have much money.”
Many of my farm memories are still sweet. But there are other memories: of money worries, illness, frustration, and anger. If my mother embodied warmth and the fragrance of freshly baked bread, my father had a different impact. He worked hard to clothe and feed us, and I know he loved us, but he also carried with him a restlessness and a certain driven quality that seemed so at odds with my mother’s energy. After a long hard day of work, he loved to settle down with the newspaper, but it didn’t always result in peaceful dinner table conversation. Though he never earned a college degree, he remained intensely interested in politics all his life. I can only imagine what he would be saying if he were here today. I still love to read the newspaper.
As children we often learned Dad’s views at dinner after he had digested that day’s news. But our house allowed for another, most frightening learning experience. Here’s why. Our house had no insulation to keep the cold from seeping in through the old mortar. When properly stoked, our giant coal furnace poured heat into the first floor, but the second floor was a different story. It was so cold that we scrambled up the stairs, jumped shivering into bed, and stayed there without moving, careful to preserve the heat our bare feet transferred to the icy sheets. The only other warmth to make its way upstairs floated through small registers cut in the floor.
Besides allowing a faint trace of heat through, the registers sometimes leaked information. I must have been about eight or nine when we would occasionally lie with our faces on the registers to hear the conversations and see bits of what was happening below. I don’t think we did it regularly because we lived way out in the country and seldom had visitors during the week. But one night, we heard unfamiliar voices below and crept out of bed to investigate. We did not have a television, so it was mightily intriguing when we saw flickering images on the dining room wall.
That black and white 8 mm movie was the stuff of nightmares. We saw Chinese Christians losing their fingernails to interrogators. Another time we heard the visitors discuss the fate of the Hungarians and learned that my father was angry and ashamed that the West had abandoned Hungary and passively observed while Soviet tanks crushed their 1956 revolution. From that time on, my father’s intense opposition to communism only heightened my nightmare images of fingernail torture, enemy paratroopers hiding in our cornfields, and giant tanks crushing our house. “Godless communism” was my introduction to issues of church and state, and that’s how the cold war became frighteningly real for me.