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“Act Accordingly”

By June 24, 2022 11 Comments

“You’re going to be someone’s ancestor–act accordingly.” 

A big guy–I didn’t catch his name, but I’m sure he’s someone with standing–held forth at the Hollywood Bowl last Sunday, doing his part at a Juneteenth celebration. He repeated the line over and over and over again in a preacherly way, a kind of mantra he wouldn’t let you miss.

That single line reminded me of someone else’s discussion, something I read somewhere recently, to the effect that we would, as a nation and culture, as groups and individuals, be more responsible if we thought more often about the lives of our grandchildren. Went here with the argument: if people didn’t so much live “for the day,” they might live “for the future,” and the world would be a whole lot better place. Sure, I told myself, makes all kinds of sense.

Meanwhile, this man, a big guy, kept saying it: “You’re going to be someone’s ancestor–act accordingly.” I couldn’t help hearing a reprimand in his tone, and, being white, I couldn’t help thinking of absent fathers in the Black community. I’m sure some conservatives–and the new brand of white nationalist hate squads–would have applauded what the big guy kept repeating.

But the line has resonance in any community, in any neighborhood, mine too, and in my family. Here’s the promise, it seems to me: If I thought more about my grandchildren’s world and less about my own, all our neighborhoods would be kinder places. 

Confession: I haven’t. That’s for sure. 

Over and over, he said it, and I remembered doing a story a couple decades ago on the Robinsons, an African-American couple from Albuquerque, who had chanced upon a Christian radio program called the Back to God Hour (BtGH) years before, and became, thereafter, devoted listeners. I was doing a series of stories for the BtGH, stories that invited readers into the lives of people who were enriched and encouraged by the Word the BtGH was offering on radio waves.

The Robinsons

I’ve always believed that we are, in so many ways, created mightily by the identities of those who’ve come before us. I’ve admitted more than once that while my great-grandfather Hemkes was a Calvin Sem prof, my great-grandpa Hartman was something of a likeable, randy drunk. They both have a place in me.

Anyway, I like to begin an interview, like I did with the Robinsons, with a simple question: “Reach back and tell me about grandparents and great-grandparents. . .” I’ve always found that info useful in understanding character.

The Robinsons of Albuquerque were native-born Southerners whose parents had come north in the Great Migration to escape Jim Crow and find jobs, mid-Depression. “But I don’t know much, and I can’t go back any farther than that,” Mr. Robinson told me. “You know–slavery.”

He knew nothing about his great-grandparents and little more than that about his grandparents. Neither did his wife. “You know, slavery.”

The truth is, I didn’t know slavery. I hadn’t come anywhere close to understanding its fulsome reality. I mean, I knew something of the horrors, but I’d never sat in the living room of a married couple who claimed to know very little about their own sweet kin because, well, “You know, slavery.”

I thought of the Robinsons when that big guy was speaking last Sunday. I thought of how we all should think more about legacies than moments. I thought of my own grandfather, who used to tell my father, or so Dad said, that as a grandpa he’d be able to determine what kind of father he was when he observed his grandkids–for the record, the Rev. Schaap is long gone, but I’m one of his. It’s a line of thought that’s stuck to my soul as if it were actually in my DNA.

Truth be told, last Sunday afternoon I didn’t spend more than fifteen minutes watching that Juneteenth celebration. I didn’t spend much time at all thinking about the Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, none of that because we were busy. We’ve got an anniversary coming up–a big one, our 50th, on Monday, so my wife and I have been putting together a half-million photos of our selves, our kids and grandkids, a job that’s taken us most of last week, a wearying task with gold-leaf reminiscence. Showing them all next week will be a ball. We’ll have the whole bunch around us when we gather tomorrow in Arizona, where Barbara and I, so long go, began our married life. 

Maybe I should have been thinking about Juneteenth more than I was–it’s a holiday, after all, a national holiday. Praise be.

But somehow I felt forgiven because, believe me, I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandkids, riffling through absolutely darling pictures from what was–but doesn’t seem–all that long ago. 

“You’re going to be someone’s ancestors,” the big guy said, over and over, behind him some jazz accompaniment, and then, just as powerfully, time after time, “–act accordingly.”

That line, that mantra, just stuck with me.


Yes, if you’re wondering; those are all Schaaps at the top of the page, plus two more lambs have joined the flock, and they’re just plain gorgeous. I could show pictures.     

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Ed Starkenburg says:

    Thanks for the poignant reminder. Congratulations! Have a wonderful celebration!

  • Tony Vis says:

    Well said, Jim. The faces of my grandchildren were in my mind as I read your piece. With two in college next fall and two more seniors in high school, and then there’s the five behind them, it is rewarding to watch them grow into good, kind, caring, people. Watching their parents parent is likewise rewarding. Oh, and I should say that the fact our son-in-law is a Dordt grad doesn’t seem to have impaired him at all. 😇

    One last and quick thought. Do I recall correctly that your home in Phoenix was just north of Thunderbird Road and east of 35th Avenue? Congrats on your 50th anniversary. As you well know, it should be a hot celebration in Arizona, unless you’re partying up north.

    • James Schaap says:

      Wow! You’ve got it–35th and Thunderbird. It’s going to be hot, but we will be a little north–in Sedona.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thanks, Jim. This challenging piece is going to our offsprings and their offsprings. Happy 50th. The July long weekend we’re finally celebrating ours two years after the date with all the fambly1, D.v. I’m sure we’ll talk a out this evocative theme.

  • Harmina and Tony Jansen says:

    50 years. Congratulations!! Enjoy the celebration!! Just celebrated ours also with our children last month – a bike and barge trip in Holland. God is good


    Thank you

  • June De Wit says:

    Wonderful words. Thanks. How we love you all. From June

  • Dirk Schouten says:

    Congrats, Jim! That is really cool. Hope you have a great celebration.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    On the day Roe was overturned. Our legacy is very much on my mind.
    Yes, how we love you all. Congratulations, Barbara and Jim! We are new grandparents and will assemble pictures for their future as we celebrate 50 years next May. Love from Florida, living the legacy.

  • Cara DeHaan says:

    Congratulations, Jim and Barb!! Your reflections on being an ancestor dovetail nicely with Springsteen’s distinction in this 3-min video between ancestor and ghost. I think you’ll like his story.

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