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There isn’t much we know about Aunt Gertie’s death. It happened on a foggy night in November, 1949, along a lakeshore cloaked in a mist that makes travel so tough her mom and dad–my grandparents–had warned their daughter it would be prudent to stay home rather than travel all the way to Milwaukee. But they didn’t listen–the four of them. And there was an accident. And Aunt Gertie was killed. No one else was hurt.
Aunt Gertie was 24, a teacher at the brand new Christian school a block east from our house. But to Grandpa and Grandma she was still a child, their child.
“And because [the believer] knows, partly through revelation, and partly through experience, the boundless extent of the divine love, he does not doubt whether things which, as yet, seem too great or too dark for his feeble understanding, are indeed part of the pattern that God is weaving for him in unfailing divine love. The Christian says, ‘We know!’”
There few exclamation points in J. K Van Baalen’s Comfort to Spare (Eerdmans, 1946), but right there is one of them. Van Baalen’s thin collection of meditations was a gift to me from my mother, Aunt Gertie’s sister. I didn’t know I had it really because it came to me with other books when Mom was cleaning up before moving to the Home. About her intentions, she was clear; she left a sticky note in the inside cover.
She’s been gone for close to a decade, so I’ve lost any opportunity to decipher what she was saying, but the handwriting is hers. I honestly don’t remember her with a book in her hand, She wasn’t a reader, but she so deeply valued her, and my, spirituality, it would be like her to recommend the book the way she does here, even if she hadn’t read it herself.
Her note is stuck inside the front cover, which contains other inside information in my grandma’s handwriting.
Mr. and Mrs. Harry Dirkse are my grandparents, the parents who lost Aunt Gertie. Rev. John Piersma was their young, dynamic preacher. The date suggests that Van Baalen’s book was a Christmas gift, but Aunt Gertie died in that freakish accident only a month before. What’s more, Van Baalen’s book’s mission is in its title.
In its pages there are few references to a war that took the lives of just over 415,000 American troops, including Van Baalen’s own 20-year-old son. Comfort to Spare was no best-seller, but hundreds of thousands of parents were, like him, suffering through horrible losses when it was published in 1946.
A week or so ago, I went to our library to pick out some new devotional and came back with this little book. I toted it back to the kitchen and opened the cover to all of this info from the grave.
Aunt Gertie’s death wasn’t spoken of much in our house when we were growing up. My sisters, three and five years older than I am, have only the slightest of memories of the days after the accident. My youngest sister, who was five, remembers how Mom tied her daughter’s shoestrings with an intensity her daughter never forgot. My oldest sister remembers the thin cloth draping the open coffin in the dining room of the house downtown where Grandpa and Grandma lived. I have no memories; I wasn’t quite two.
My mother told me more than once how Aunt Gertie had stopped at our house after school to play with me, the baby of the family. What kind of mood I’d been in, I don’t know, but it must have been contrary because Mom told me more than once that I’d told Gertie in no uncertain terms, “Go home.” Mom didn’t cry when she remembered that unkind send-off. She said her sister couldn’t help but think it was cute, childish.
But the book’s twin inscriptions inside the front cover reminded me of the scarcity of memory surrounding that fatal accident and how her sister’s death affected the family–even us, the kids. That it wasn’t talked about doesn’t mean it didn’t shape our lives. In many ways, it had to.
Rev. Van Baalen ends his series of meditations with what is for me a very familiar little proverb: “Only one life ‘t’will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” And then, “To me, to live is Christ.”
I know that line because I saw it every day of my childhood, even when I wasn’t looking for it. An old plaque in some baroque calligraphy featured that line and hung from the wall beside an upstairs library.
What’s scribbled in beside it makes this thin, old volume of Van Baalen meds perfectly priceless. “Plaque on her wall selected by her.” I’m thinking that’s in Grandpa’s handwriting.
I came heir to a ton of my parents’ things from their succession of slimdowns, sepia-toned pictures of great-grandparents no one else in the family have, I’m sure. I had my dad’s wedding ring, but gave it to my son when, at the wedding, his ring-bearer couldn’t find the one his wife had planned to put on his finger. A triangular box right in front of me holds the American flag given to us, his family, at his graveside.
I don’t have the plaque. I’m thinking that one of my sisters does because I doubt my mother would have tossed it. One of us has it—and it’s not me. When I read what Grandpa scribbled on the Van Baalen book’s last page, right there beside that old proverb, it occurred to me the plaque upstairs may well have been the very one Grandpa is pointing out, one that Aunt Gertie chose for her very own.
I do so wish I had known all of that when I was a kid, but I didn’t. It took me three-quarters of a century to identify what was all being said in those fancy raised lines on chunk of plaster paris.
Then again, maybe neither of my sisters has it. Maybe it’s gone, broken and tossed. Wouldn’t have been worth a dime.
Still, I can’t help wishing I had it.
Silly of me really because I do. I own it, and it owns me. Somewhere close, I believe, it will always be there.
Beautiful and heartbreaking. Thank you for this.
Our family had a similar plaque to yours – it read, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who are in Christ Jesus.” The old script was rather hard to read, and as a child I always thought the first word was not “And,” but “Find”. It never made sense to me.
I know of at least one other person whose family also had a plaque like that. I have a feeling that the Christian bookstores of the day sold them.
My sister still has that plaque.
One other connection to your story: Rev. J.K. VanBaalen lived in the town I grew up in after he was retired. I remember his stern look and long, rather boring (to this young girl) sermons. But he had a great influence on my dad, who was an eighth-grade-educated, self-taught “theologian” in his own right. Oh, the memories!
Thank you, Eleanor. This short essay is a tiny part of a much longer essay I’m working on, and that essay features the book and my grandparents in much greater detail–and Van Baalen, although I don’t know much about him. I would enjoy hearing more–such as, how he influenced your dad, and why? I had decided that I wouldn’t like the book, but the longer I stayed with it, the more I thought that it would have been of great comfort to my grandparents, in great part because of who they were. If you can tell me any more, I’d be grateful! Jim
There are so many pieces of the past that shape our lives of which we are unaware. Putting the pieces back together seems sacramental to me. We begin to sense the elusive present of God, we come to a fuller and more authentic sense of ourselves. Thank you, Jim, for sharing this with us.
This is the old Dutch Reformed faith as I inherited it. Comfort. Als g’in nood gezeten, geen uitkomst ziet, wilt dan nooit vergeten God verlaat u niet. I sing it with my 95 year old mom, for whom I learned it. She sang it with her dad, though she was born in Paterson.
We had a similar plaque on our wall at home: Behold, I stand at the door and knock …. I haven’t thought of it in years, but it is etched in my memory. It just came out.
Thanks James, it’s been quite a while since we last had contact. Glad that you’re still doing what you do best.
Henry K. Bergsma
One memory of life in Oostburg I will never forget! Not that I witnessed your Aunt’s death, but heard about it often. My father would remind us of the place the accident took place everytime we traveled to Milwaukee. Your grandfather, whom he greatly admired, had taken him there once to show the new pastor the the place of great grief. It was also the source of much conversation between them which I clearly remember.