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Thanksgiving Queen

By November 18, 2022 14 Comments

Three things about my grandparents’ grave you may miss unless I point them out. The first is my bottom half, in white shorts, so telling on the smooth granite. Very professional.

Then, moving from pitiful to profound, note three names etched on the stone. My Dirkse grandparents had a son who took over Grandpa’s Mobil station; a daughter, my mother; and the baby of the family, Gertrude, who was killed in a freakish car accident on a foggy night along the western shore of Lake Michigan. Gertie was a school teacher in the brand new Oostburg Christian School. Her name is at left.

That night Grandma Dirkse lost a daughter and heard the news from county cops who rang the doorbell very, very late. It was 1949. The stone doesn’t say all of that, and most anyone old enough to remember Gertie or her death probably can’t. 

Then there’s that ornament to the right announcing Grandma Dirkse to have been a member of the American Legion Auxiliary. She would not allow her only brother’s death, in France, August, 1918, to be forgotten. My grandma Dirkse suffered two dreadful losses, a daughter and a brother.

Mabel Hartman Dirkse was the only grandparent I knew. Both grandfathers never reached my age and passed away before I was ten. Grandma Schaap died three years before I was born. But during my life I came to see Grandma Dirkse having grown from a singular and unique root. Her people, the Hartmans came to the new land in 1845, the Wisconsin shoreline all frontier. They were not seceders, not afscheiding. I’m not sure they were even all that religious. The new land was wonderful, but it was only new land.

Mabel Hartman, 1910

Years ago, with a giggle, Grandma told me that just after the turn of the century, as a school girl, she had to recite the Heidelberg Catechism in Holland language, even though she couldn’t speak Dutch herself. Grandma chuckled easily and was always was more “flexible” than the other grandparents, less theologically acute or precise. When she’d married Grandpa, she tied the knot with a man so old-country pious that he found it somewhat pleasing to relish the depth of his sin. You read that right. To Grandma, or so relatives told me, fell the arduous task of trying to simmer away the dreariness when it edged into darkness. She wouldn’t let things get too spiritual.

When my sisters went off to high school and wanted to go to the homecoming dance, Dad, a CRC preacher’s son, wasn’t taken with the amusement. Grandma told him, sweetly I’m sure, that it wouldn’t hurt for him to loosen things up a notch.

My mother’s only memory of her Grandpa Hartman is the time Grandma Dirkse, then a young mom, hauled her daughter along to a tavern on Sheboygan’s Indiana Avenue, where a young Mabel, her daughter in one arm, her father in the other to haul him home.

Grandma Dirkse was not a bit radical, but she was the first to wear a pantsuit to church. “Why Mabel,” another woman said, “I never thought I’d see you wear a pants in church.” She turned the other cheek, so to speak: “I never yet went without one.”

Sometime before our daughter was born, a letter arrived. Grandma, 80+ by then, said the whole family awaited our daughter’s birth because that little girl would be the first woman preacher in the CRC. That was a joke. Grandma Dirkse was a comic, not a crusader. When she was well on in years, she told my sister fearfully that one late night she had been sure there was a man under her bed. But then, she took a breath. “Of course, that might have been interesting too.”

Grandma liked an occasional Old Fashioned, and her requests allowed my dad to have one too. She was a joy, her own kind of free spirit, and when I rehearse what I know of the other grandparents–sincere, pious, deeply religious, it’s Grandma Dirkse I can’t help documenting as, well, my own kind of patron saint. 

Still, when I remember her as I do every Thanksgiving, the effect is more serious than playful. Once, when I was a boy, she was the one who set her whole family’s holiday table, the memorable Thanksgiving queen.

I wasn’t home for her last one. My sister’s family had her over, along with my parents. But I can imagine the scene–the table drawn out into the living room, the unmistakable aroma of turkey and stuffing wafting bountifully, forks tinkling against my sister’s holiday china, and, back then, Grandma being the last to finish.

When it was over, she slowly leaned into the car and sat be­side my parents for the trip home. She told them, clear and simple, it had been a grand Thanksgiving. Then, even before my dad pulled away from the curb, her head fell sideways, and, sensing seriousness, Dad sped to Memorial Hospital, just a few blocks away, where she died. May I say it?–it was a wonderful death.

I can’t help thinking she played this last little joke on us, dying when she did, so that every Thanksgiving she shows up, smiling, in my imagination. And that’s okay. Somehow, Grandma’s holiday death reminds me of what God gave her–joy in a life rife with sorrows, through a quiet, even silent faith not earned or strained but given freely.

Gratitude doesn’t require turkey or pumpkin pie, but on Thanksgiving I like to think Grandma is up there on the right hand, where she’s got her place at the table, still chuckling about that last fast one. On Thursday, somewhere close to her earnest husband, her beloved daughter, and her brother the hero, lined up together like the graves out there in the Hartman Cemetery, she’ll somehow be watching, maybe cracking a joke, smiling all the while, still, for me, Thanksgiving queen.

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.


  • RZ says:

    So much of your grandmother lives on in you! What a gift. Thank You and please continue!

  • Lynn Setsma says:

    Thanks, Jim. You made me laugh and cry this morning. What a delightful woman!

  • Ken Sampson says:

    Wow! Many thanks.

  • Steve Van't Hof says:

    Another good one. Thanks.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Oh gosh, what a delightful woman she must have been … hardship and all … and what a picture … I imagine her saying, “I’m Mable, so there!”

    Thank you for this piece … a good reminder that faith and light heartedness make good partners … life wasn’t easy for her, that’s for sure, but somehow or other she maintained a spirit of adventure. A real gift from God.

    And being from Sheboygan, I know Indiana Avenue and the taverns there – such a part of the Sheboygan experience. what with perch fish-fries on Friday nights.

  • Diana Walker says:

    Just lovely.
    Thanks to you.

  • Loren Veldhuizen says:

    This confirms it. I knew your playful/pious grin had to come from someone close. Thanks for sharing her life with us. Refreshing.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    My mother’s mother was serious in her faith, though she did no piety signaling, although she was also “ondeugd,” which is hard to translate, but means kind of mischievous or naughty. She’d been baptized into the State Church, but became CRC with her parents in Paterson NJ. For her, the church was as laughable as it was holy, and both were true. She also taught me some of off-colour Dutch rhymes (De koning van Egypte, die had een ding dat wipte, etc.) that my mother never learned, and my mom said, “Where did you learn that!”). She was my favourite person in the world.

    • Henry Baron says:

      Ah ja – the rhyme words come back now after eons of lapsed time: de koning wipte niet, zo ontfatsoenlijk was hij niet, en doch had hij een ding dat wipte.
      I had an ontdeugend older sister who taught me that when I was hardly old enough to appreciate it.

  • Lois Roelofs says:

    Good to hear that one of our heritage could be both saintly and a bit mischievous. That’s the way I hope my offspring remember me.

  • Henk Ottens says:

    From Sharon Ottens:
    Memories, memories. I remember, while a student in Oostburg Christian School, the day your Aunt Gertrude died. So sad.
    You showed the Hartman Cemetery sign, but not the one at the entrance, that read “DEAD END,” nor the one that replaced it: NO OUTLET.

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