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There are two women in this story, two women and 125 years. One of them, this one, Renske, immigrated to America at the end of the 19th century, came here with her husband. She was seven months pregnant.
The other, 96 years old, knew her once long ago. “Aunt Janet knows something about Renske,” a friend of mine told me. “She says she worked for her as a teenager.” He told me Aunt Janet lives in an apartment in town, across from the church. “Aunt Janet still lives on her own, and is very sharp,” he said in a note.
Renske Hiemstra may be long gone, but her letters back home to Friesland got under my skin when I read them, under my skin and into my heart. Her’s is just another 19th century immigrant saga, a pioneer woman who for a quarter century wrote her sister faithfully once the entire rest of the family left the Netherlands, all of them dreaming of homestead promises in Dakota Territory.
In 2310, in Ponca City, Oklahoma, an oil magnate and ex-governor erected an indomitable, 17-foot bronze figure in a sun-bonnet, holding–leading–her son through a frontier she too saw as an avenue to a better life, an imposing statue called “the Pioneer Woman.”
That she and her family displaced the thousands of Native people who called the land their home doesn’t mean she and the women she represents don’t have a story. She does, because white settlers on the Plains–Yankees or European immigrants–almost always found creating a life out here difficult, even terrifying, especially women, especially mothers.
Renske Hiemstra didn’t fall into the lap of luxury once she and her husband started a new American life. Farming was perilous, offered far more lean years than fat; and death stalked her like a unforgiving enemy. She and her husband Albert lost three children in their first ten years.
The first, Lieuwe, was a joy, already two. “Nearly 24 hours he was so short of breath–oh, it was unbearable to watch,” she writes to her sister. “Oh, to see that lamb suffer so. . that breaks my heart. . .” They’d been here for just three years.
Nine months later, the second child, another boy, lived for just two and a half days. “And now, dear brother and sister, what is to be said about such things?” her husband writes, Renske probably unable to put a pen to paper. “We sometimes ask our Lord the reason for such things, but our God does not answer.”
Four years later, a third child stillborn. “This is now the third time that the Lord has taken such a hope for the future from us,” Renske writes. “How this touches a parent’s heart cannot be understood by those who have not undergone such an experience.”
Still, stubbornly, she clings to faith: “Nonetheless, the Lord governs, and what answer can we give the Lord and how shall we meet him? He gives and takes away that we may even in this praise his name.”
It’s her testimony, her refusal to question the Lord God almighty, that grips my heart in her folded hands.
Three children. And then, twenty years later, in 1921, Albert dies: “we hope to see one another in the paradise of the later-life, where there are no troubles or worries. It is better for Albert.”
Soon after, the letters home simply end.
I wanted to know this Renske Hiemstra better, wanted to know that that stubborn, proud faith didn’t wither through the painful seasons she passed alone. Still do. I wanted to know what she was like when the letters ended, when she grew old.
And Aunt Janet remembered her.
When I pulled up to Aunt Janet’s apartment, she was standing outside, waiting, in nearly 90-degree heat. I shook her small hand politely, and we went inside. She told me how she had never forgotten walking across the pasture to the Hiemstra place 83 years before. Her visitations there were, in a way, a weekly mission of mercy because her mother had told her that Renske was very weak and needed help. Janet was just a girl, thirteen years old. It was 2311, mid-Depression, just about the time that rich man in Ponca City put up that memorial statue. For doing all the housework, one day a week, Aunt Janet said she was paid a quarter.
I told her why I was interested. It’s a story about faith, I said, and I told her that Renske Hiemstra had lost three children and a husband long, long ago, lost all of that but as far as I knew never lost her faith.
Aunt Janet didn’t know a thing about the children. They were gone before she was even born. Besides, she had been just 13 years old, and, she said, “You know what you’re like when you’re 13.” Still, it seemed to shock her that she hadn’t known.
But she didn’t simply want to tell me what she knew, she wanted to show me. So the two of us left for the country on a tour of the neighborhood where, eighty years ago she’d been a girl–and a look at the Hiemstra place just across the pasture.
There’s likely nothing on the yard that might have belonged to Renske Hiemstra and the son who lived there in those years, maybe an ancient hen house; but once we got out there, Aunt Janet could barely stanch the memories. And why should she? Once she found the place back, there was no stopping the stories, and I loved every minute of her recitations.
What Aunt Janet related made it clear that Renske’s life, after her husband’s death and her only daughter’s departure for California, was not at all what she and her family had envisioned when, forty years before, they’d left the Netherlands. Nothing. Everything Aunt Janet remembered of the Hiemstra farm place was raw and dismal, even despairing–no food, no refrigeration, no strength. Aunt Janet says Renske Hiemstra never moved from her chair in the kitchen, rarely even spoke. Aunt Janet was still a child, but the depressing story in that darkly lit kitchen she remembered very well.
I wasn’t surprised, but the picture she drew wasn’t what I wanted to hear because I would have much preferred hearing Renske, once again, even yet, extolling the love of God. Aunt Janet remembered no such testimonies.
I would have much preferred Renske Hiemstra to be the powerful pioneer woman in Ponca City.
She wasn’t. The life she’d lived in the new world of the prairie wasn’t the story I wanted to hear or the one I want to tell. It ended in a darkened kitchen, with no food and no running water.
The two of us circled the Hiemstra place, looked at it from every angle; and all the while Aunt Janet kept telling stories, kept remembering growing up next door, walking a mile and more to a little Christian school that folded when she was going into the eighth grade. There was no money.
When we got back to town, she asked about my family and I told her about our kids, our grandkids. And then she told me, “You know, I’ve lost two boys.” One to cancer, one, just 18 in an accident.
Sometimes you start to think that there’s so much you don’t know.
When we came back to her apartment across from church, when we pulled up to the front door and I got out to help her, I couldn’t help but notice tears. She seemed to be crying. Her voice as she said goodbye was not at all unsteady, but the tears just kept rolling down her cheeks.
I don’t know why. It’s a mystery I would like to understand because I felt both responsible and helpless at the way they fell. I’d been the one to bring all of that back, after all. I was the one who wanted to hear, to know. It seemed to me that she’d loved the telling, the remembering, the places so rich in images she’d not pulled from her memory for so very long. I thought she’d loved it. I really did.
Still, when I left there were tears, more tears, Aunt Janet’s unexpected tears.
There are two women in this story, two women, 125 years, and just plain all too many tears.
Thank you, Jim. When I read Renske and her husband’s quotes about the tragic loss of their children, I am amazed and humbled by their trust. I don’t mean that in a “if only” and “we ought” way, to shame of those who are not quite so trusting of God’s good providence. More, I wonder what has changed. I believe Renske and her husband are sincere, just as I think those who might even rage against their stolid trust are also sincere. It seems some people find it more comforting that “God is control” no matter what, while a free and a random universe is terrifying. Today it seems, more think vice-versa. What accounts for the change?
Stunning and powerful story, Jim. Thank you for telling it. Sometimes there are no happy endings.