Mum’s Story

Decades ago, my mom wrote a memoir that she titled Rags to Real Estate. It described her life from childhood to middle-age and though her writing was anything but professional, everyone who read it clamored for more. Friends and family who read it each found something different to appreciate; but for me, it allowed me to see my mother as a woman independent of her role as mom. I was staggered by her courage, her innate intelligence, and her confidence, in an age and culture where women were expected to raise kids and keep house, period. She managed those expectations as well as could be expected, given the opportunities she was shown, and grew beyond all expectations.

Recently, a cousin prodded me to “finish” Mum’s memoir. I’m now older than she was when she began the saga and I’m not sure my memory is up to the task. That said, I’m thinking that some parts of her writing could be of interest in this venue. I admit that Michele’s last post made me realize how interesting the recent past is to those of us who grew up with modern conveniences.

So, I’m going to post a few chapters to see if anyone finds them interesting. It starts out with the groundwork of her family history but quickly becomes a snapshot of life on a Michigan farm in the 1920s.

Rags to Real Estate

By Joan Elzinga Hossink

Chapter 1

My birth, on December 3, 1924, during a raging snow storm that prevented the arrival of Doctor Maaselink, was attended by my father and my grandma Lamer.  One of my earliest memories is of my third birthday.  My older sister, Marjorie, had told me that you had one golden birthday in your life.  It was the birthday when you became the same age as the date of your birth, which in my case was the third.                                                  

I also had an older brother named James.  As the custom was in those days, Marjorie was named after our paternal grandmother whose name was Martje.  James was named after our maternal grandfather whose name was John.  My brother’s full name was John James Elzinga.  But because there were several other Johns in the extended family, we called him James or later, Jim.  I was named after our maternal grandmother whose name was Johanna.  They named me Joan and pronounced it Jo-Ann. 

The young family, Mama, Marge, Papa, Joan, and Jim (Louis was probably already in utero)

My father was born in the Netherlands, arriving in this country at the age of six.  Since he spoke Dutch only, when they tried to enroll him in the local school he was told to go home and come back when he had learned to speak English.  He went back the next year and they accepted him.  He went on to High School but did not graduate.  He was not a citizen yet when he married my mother.  And even though she was a native-born citizen, she lost her citizenship by marrying a resident alien.  Though I don’t remember the date, I do remember the occasion when they both became naturalized citizens.  I was 11 or 12 at the time.

My mother was also of Dutch descent and spoke the language fluently.  We children were never taught to speak Dutch.  The only time Dutch was spoken in our home was when we had visitors who spoke Dutch or when our parents did not want us to know what they were saying.

There was a Christian Reformed Church in Borculo about three miles from the farm.  I was baptized there by Reverend Fortuin.  My father was involved in a controversy with the Church at the time and in 1925 they kicked him out.  He was one of a segment of that denomination that disagreed with a recently adopted doctrine of “Common Grace” and formed a splinter group, calling themselves Protestant Reformed.  The nearest Protestant Reformed church was forming in Hudsonville which was ten miles east of our farm, and we began going there.  They had two services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. 

(This was not to be the last time my very contentious and opinionated grandfather was to be involved in an excommunication. His religious fervor would later have a significant influence on the trajectory of my own life.)

My parents went to both services every Sunday, one of which was in English and the other in Dutch.  I remember being bored when the sermon was in Dutch, but being a well-behaved child, I sat quietly through the service making little animals out of my mother’s handkerchief by folding and knotting it in certain ways.

(My sister and I have trouble envisioning our mother as a “well-behaved” child as she was anything but as an adult. As a matter of fact, I credit her with my own “you’re not the boss of me” attitude.)

The drive to church, in a Model T Ford over gravel roads, took about one-half hour.  We had to leave early enough to allow time for changing tires or fixing minor break-downs.  My father was a fun-loving risk-taker and his driving showed it.  My mother was a back seat driver.  And although she was never willing to learn to drive, she didn’t hesitate to try to improve my father’s driving.

Rather than drive the entire ten miles for each of the two services, we stayed at Vander Walls for Sunday dinner.  They were fellow church members and welcomed us each week for a hearty noon meal.  We were poor and the long drive on Sundays was a hardship.  But my father was staunch in his religious convictions so church and church functions were given the highest priority.  Discussing his beliefs with consenters and dissenters alike was his favorite pastime.  We grew up believing Calvinism was the only true religion. 

Music was also a big part of our life.  My father gathered a group of adults from the congregation and led them in singing as a chorus.  My mother could play the old pump organ but only played from the Psalter which we used in church, or from books of hymns. My dad had given Marjorie some rudimentary instruction in reading notes and she in turn passed it on to me.  He taught her by showing her where the lines of the staff were on the keyboard rather than by assigning letters to the notes.  And that’s how I learned. 

Very little written music was available to us so we learned to read notes from the hymn books.  At first we practiced the melody, played with one finger until it was almost memorized, then we would add the other note which was written to be played with the right hand.  After that we added first one note with the left hand and ultimately the fourth note which made it a complete chord.  One by one I learned the simplest hymns.  Because there was a dearth of talent in our small community, by the time I was eight, I was asked to play the piano to accompany the singing both in school and for catechism classes.

In 1929, while I was still four years old, I started going to Eagle school.  It was a one-room school with kindergarten through eighth grade and only one teacher, Mrs. Plant, who had a daughter, Betty.  They lived with a family of the school district who charged her for room and board.  We respected her because she was the teacher and also because she was richer than we were. 

The one large classroom had a coal-burning space heater.  Four or five large windows were on the east wall.  The students sat at double desks in rows arranged so that the lowest grade was on the west wall and the eighth grade was nearest the windows and farthest from the heater.  In the coldest part of winter there were not many comfortable seats, those near the heater were too hot and near the windows were too cold.

On the north wall near the entry were rows of hooks on which we hung our outer clothing and beneath which we set our boots in snowy weather or our rubbers when it was rainy.  Rubbers were rain-wear that protected only the shoes.  They had no fasteners, therefore, they had a tendency to get sucked off your feet when walking in mud.  During the five and a half years that I attended Eagle school it was remodeled, adding an entry which became a cloak room and a basement which housed a furnace.  There were separate outhouses for the boys and girls.

At home we had an old pump organ but in school we had a piano.  My sister Marge, I and two other girls could each play a few hymns.  The teacher would call on one of us to accompany the singing of the morning hymn.  And the song she chose would be one of the repertoire of that pianist.  None of us had any formal instruction in piano playing and each of us had our own style.  One of the older girls played only on the black keys and strictly by ear. Her own ear, at that.  Sometimes it did not suit our ears but if we were inclined to snicker we stifled it. 

My interest in music exceeded that of my sister Marge’s.  I enjoyed reading notes like an avid reader enjoys reading words.  I practiced for hours out of the sheer enjoyment of it.  Eventually my skills allowed me to play better than my sister, who had taught me. She was almost five years older than I and I looked up to her, even idolized her.  I saw her as a hard worker, good at sports, pretty and sophisticated.

My parents dearly loved all their children but Marge was the first-born and probably was favored.  At least brother Jim thought so.  My father had an explosive temper and Jim inherited this trait. Marge, being bigger than Jim, enjoyed taunting him until he exploded, especially when our parents went somewhere and left Marge in charge.

Once when she had pushed him to fury he began chasing her around the kitchen table.  When he saw it was impossible to catch her, he picked up a chair and threw it over the table at her.  She managed to duck and avoid being hit.  Her laughter made him more angry and he continued the chase.  This time she grabbed me and held me like a hostage between them.  I was so terrified at the ruckus that I found it difficult to breathe.  I was beginning to lose consciousness.  When they noticed my dilemma they were distracted enough to discontinue the fight for the time being.  Their physical fights became a thing of legend in our family and left psychological scars on Jim, that remained for years, and maybe even to this day. 

The root of the problem was probably cultural.  We were taught that women should be subservient to men.  Men were the heads of families, they had a place of dominance.  Ideally the first-born was a boy, who would take his place as leader and protector of the rest of the brood.  My sister was not entitled to be leader and protector of the brood, but became so by reason of size. She was not willing to defer to a younger brother simply because he was male and she female.  When he grew up, my brother Jim often voiced his preference for a first-born male, and he got it.  In fact, his first two children were sons. 

Our small farm house had two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen.  In one of the back corners of the house was an enclosed porch.  In this area were nails sticking out to form hooks on which to hang outdoor clothing.  And beneath these we would set our footwear that was too muddy to be allowed into the house.  On one of the nails hung a scale that was used for weighing small things.  You held it by a ring on the top and hung the item to be weighed from the hook on the bottom.  With the ring on a nail, I decided to weigh myself.  Holding tightly to the hook on the bottom I carefully put more and more of my weight on the scale.  Just as I managed to get my feet off the floor the nail holding the scale let go and I fell.  On the way down, another protruding nail caught my left nostril and ripped it.  I still have the scar.

(What Mum doesn’t mention is that it never occurred to her parents to have a doctor stitch the torn nostril. Doctors cost money and that was always in short supply)

8 thoughts on “Mum’s Story

  1. I enjoyed reading this early memoir from your mother, Judy.
    Do you know she was only 9 years older than me. So there are aspects of life at that time that I knew, school for example and also the mentality
    The difference is in the composition of the family and in the living environment (the farm )
    Love ❤
    Michel

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Farm life was difficult to be sure, and I don’t think my grandfather was a particularly good farmer. But Mum said they never went hungry. Her older sister said that she remembered wishing for more to eat but I don’t think they ever suffered real food insecurity, certainly nothing like Europeans during and after the war.

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    1. It seems like our grandparents were so eager to assimilate that they didn’t teach their children to speak the language of their mother country. What a shame! I wish I could understand Dutch and you would be the richer for having learned Mandarin (or any of the Chinese languages).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Does it inspire you to write your own memoir? I think my own life is too mundane to put down on paper. But then when you think about the things David Sedaris writes, you realize it’s all in your perspective.

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