Essays and Sermons

“He didn’t mean it,” my father said. And he blushed. The red rising from his neck, a tide of shame rolling upward to those high, prominent cheekbones. It was something I had never seen before – my father, embarrassed, looking away uneasily.

We were out for lunch, something I’d been trying to do weekly since the diagnosis. Alzheimer’s they had told us. The reason he could no longer remember the right numbers for the keypad that opened his garage door. The reason why lately, he had gotten lost in his subdivision, not remembering where to turn to find his street, his house. The reason why at night, unable to sleep, he left his bed to check the doors, afraid he had forgotten to lock them. And then lock and unlock them, over and over – to be sure.

Who knew how much time we had left to talk? How long I had to understand.

That day, over lunch, I’d been telling him about the time Dominique (my son, his grandson) had chased his sister around the house with an open jack knife. It was an old story. Six or seven at the time, Dominique was in high school now. But it occurred to me that I might never have told my father that story. Or if I had it might be important for him to hear again, before it was too late.

I had written curriculum for a religious education program I’d developed called Worship Center. Summers I often led trainings for Worship Center teachers, and was doing one at a local church when the secretary called me to the phone. The young girl staying with Dominique and Nicole while I was working was frantic. She couldn’t get Dominique to put down the jackknife. She was in tears, afraid that someone was going to be hurt and she held responsible. I had her put Dominique on the phone, talked him into closing the knife, handing it to the sitter and then going to his bedroom until I got home. He could lock the door of his room I told him, but he wasn’t to come out until I got back and knocked on his door.

I sensed he was almost relieved to have a way to back down, save face. When, later, I knocked on his door and he opened it, I knew his temper fit had past. I told him I would not give the knife back until he knew how to use it properly. Though I never did give it back to him. I had no intention of giving it back soon, wanting him to experience the consequences of his actions. And then after awhile, I almost forgot I had it, hidden away as it was.

That day at the restaurant, I hoped my father would see was how uncannily alike this story was to the story I’d heard many times. The story of how one Saturday morning he had chased his sister around the farm kitchen, raised butcher knife in hand. I think I hoped he might be comforted, seeing himself live on through this grandson who resembled him in so many ways. Physically, the same jet dark hair, as my father once had, same lanky frame, same natural athletic gait when he walked. And both were handsome, though my husband’s genes and maybe mine had softened the cragginess of my father’s face, and so Dominique was even more handsome than my father had been.

Emotionally too they resembled each other. They both reasoned logically through a problem and were philosophers at heart, reflective, intrigued by the larger patterns of life, broad encompassing explanations. And both had a “centeredness” about them that made them seem wise, early on, which gave them a certain charisma.

But they also shared a Dutch, Fries temper. Slow to boil, but when it erupted, explosive and often violent. Friesland is one of the northern Dutch provinces, closer to Germany, and the Fries (as they were called) were more often dark haired than blonde. Renowned for their fierceness in battles, it was said they preferred death to surrender. I’d worked intentionally to help Dominique curb that Fries temper – sometimes with the aid of blunt verbal instruments. Like the time when, not long after knife incident, furious again at his sister and the sitter, he locked himself into the bathroom and proceeded to kick the daylights out of the door. When we returned home and got the door unlocked, we found him asleep on the floor, exhausted by his own anger. The next morning, I sat down next to him on the bed and said, “Do you know what they do to people who don’t control their tempers, who are violent and hurt others? They put them in jail, and send them to the electric chair to die.”

He didn’t respond. But I sensed him thinking it through, deciding to change. I never saw him violent with his sister again.

That lunch with my father was years ago now. He has been dead almost a decade. But it stays with me, the memory of that flush spreading across his face. The way he looked down and then up again, saying with almost childlike earnestness, “He didn’t mean it you know. He wasn’t going to hurt her.”

Russell Harry Volkema, my father, was born in 1920, the fourth of five children and just eighteen months prior to the birth of his brother, Andrew. As an infant, Andrew had been diagnosed with, “some glandular dysfunction” because he was failing to grow normally. Though he lived to be fourteen, he never grew taller three and a half feet, with hands and a head that looked outsized for his frail childlike body, the stick thin legs. He couldn’t walk more than a few steps, and his speech was halting, full of sounds only the family could interpret. They called him “B.” My father told us he had been the one trying to teach his brother to spell and say his name – “Andrew. But his brother couldn’t utter “A ” so he tried the next alphabetical letter to see if he could say that one: “B.” That letter was easier for him, took shape in his brother’s mouth and came out perfectly. They didn’t bother going any farther. “B” became what they called him. What he called himself.

He grew up untended and wild, my father. Maybe even unloved. In part because his mother had little time for her other children, needing to feed and dress and tend B daily. But also because she and my grandfather were consumed by their continual financial struggles. When my father was around fourteen, his parents lost their farm during the Depression years. The tools, the machinery, the house and much of the furniture, were hawked to the neighbors in a public auction. My father told us he remembered the look in his parent’s eyes, once the auctioneer, sitting across from them at the kitchen table, counted the “take.” It wasn’t enough.

They were able to rent an old house in the nearby four-corner town of Dutton for a couple of months, hoping his father could get back on his feet somehow, bring in money enough to stay on, or find something affordable. It was the memory of the wall paper in the house, that stayed with my father. Peeling in any number of places, the layers beneath recalling those transient renters who had lived there before them. My mother said for years he never allowed her to put anything on our walls except paint – because he equated wallpaper with poverty.

And then, two years later, B died, on the 2nd of July, 1936. He was fourteen. My father remembers his mother, sitting with the casket on the night of the 4th of July, and hearing fireworks coming from the local park.

After B’s death, his mother went slowly crazy. The doctors called it hardening of the arteries. It may well have been Alzheimer’s. But it could also have been the consequence of having nothing left to give. Hazel Volkema would live another fifteen years, dying at 57, but the few pictures of her taken during that time are haunting – she looks closer to 80 than 60. Her eyes are vacant, wandering away from the camera. She never smiles.

If my father never had much motherly love and attention, he had even less fatherly affection. He only remembered being touched once by his father. “Gave me a kick in the rear because I wasn’t picking beets fast enough.”

Andrew Volkema Sr. failed at everything he tried. He married because his girlfriend Hazel was pregnant. And though he may have loved her, might have intended to marry her anyway, none of his children ever remember the two of them being affectionate with each other. Not long after they were married he left a decent paying factory job to buy the farm, wanting to own his own place, be his own boss. Can’t blame him for that. But his timing was lousy – the Depression coming as soon after, as it did.

When he lost the farm, Andy (which is what everyone called him) did odd jobs and traded horses. And then, to give him some credit, he hit upon the idea of starting a small milk delivery operation with his oldest son Chic. They bought raw milk from local farmers, processed it, bottled and delivered it. Not a bad idea. But he didn’t like to work very hard, my grandfather, preferring sitting to moving, talking to doing. So in the end, that idea failed too.

He kept a little money coming in continuing to trade horses and livestock at local auctions. Cousins, who grew up down the street from my grandparents, tell how now and then they would ride along to the auction with him, in the back of his battered pickup. Either coming or going (and sometimes both) he’d stop the truck outside a bar and say, “Gotta see a man about a horse.” And then leave them, unattended, in the back of the truck for an hour, sometimes more – it depended.

I have very few memories of this man, but two stay with me. In the first, he is hunched over his breakfast plate: fried eggs, bacon and two thick slices of homemade bread. My grandfather’s second wife Alsaida seemed more servant than wife. I still see myself sitting at the kitchen table, watching him as I wait for my own eggs to be placed in front of me. My grandfather never once looks at me, never speaks to me. I watch him eat, watch him dip his bread into the gooey yellow center of the fried eggs, watch egg yolk drip down his chin. He doesn’t bother to wipe it off, until he has finished eating.

Second image. I was attending my father’s alma mater, Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, MI. Though we lived in Columbus, Ohio, all my relatives still lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan where both my parents had grown up. I’d stopped to see my grandparents, something I rarely did and then only to be kind to Alsaida who had tried to be grandmotherly over the years (my grandmother having died not long after I was born.) My cousin Nancy stopped by while I was there. My grandfather was there too, though not taking part in the conversation, as was typical. He sat in an overstuffed recliner chair at one end of the small front living room, reclining, now and then spitting out a bit of chewed tobacco into the spittoon in the corner next to the chair. We hardly noticed him as we talked. That too – typical.

We were in those marriageable years, my cousin and I, discussing current boyfriends, our plans for the future, possible careers, how many children we wanted to have. Both of us said we were thinking two, maybe three children. That’s when, suddenly, my grandfather exploded into the conversation, “That’s right, let all them damn Catholics keep havin’ the kids so they can take over the world.”

It was the longest sentence I had ever heard him speak. And one of only three times in twenty years he’d ever spoken directly to me.

I tell these stories about my grandfather because I want to be clear that my father had no role model. No model for how to be either husband or father. He crafted his own, I think, in reaction to what he didn’t have. Which meant, at times, he overreacted. He was a “strict” parent, concerned with every detail of my life. He had opinions on hem lines, didn’t allow me ever to attend sleep-over parties (He was concerned about the kinds of information I might learn there, or even what I might do. He wasn’t entirely wrong about that. He relented just once, when I was in the 4th grade. I came home and naively told the story of how we had played “doctor”, getting nude and letting others check us over like a doctor might! Suspicions confirmed, there was never any further debate on the topic.)

He refused to let me date until I was in the 10th grade, which meant I couldn’t attend the 9th grade dance even though the boy’s mother would pick me up and drop me off, even though I was only three months shy of 10th grade. And once I could date, he’d stay awake until he heard me arrive home. If I lingered too long at the front door, he was up, out of bed and in the front foyer, flicking the front light on and off. He drove me crazy my father.

But I never doubted that he loved me.

He had no model for how to be successful either. But he was. Finished high school, started college. His father thought he was crazy, but his sister, who had gotten her teacher’s certificate, encouraged him. (He was the only other one in his family to go on past high school.) The war interrupted his studies and he entered the Navy, became a pilot, and for a time a flight instructor. (Small world that it is, he taught one of our friend’s father how to fly – Ebie Glockner) But he never flew a mission during World War II. He was assigned to be a dispatcher on an aircraft carrier.

It was a quirk of fate that got him that assignment. Accompanying a friend’s body home for burial he met the young man’s father, who worked for the Pentagon. Grateful to my father for stories about his son, he asked if there was anything he could do – to help my father in some way. His answer? “I’d like to see some action.” He found himself reassigned to the Pacific and the U.S.S. Essex soon after.

But it was that quirk of fate that probably saved his life. So many of the pilots who flew missions died. My mother’s fiancé had gone down over France. And it was a quirk of fate that saved other lives too. Because he had been a pilot, unlike some of the other dispatchers, my father recognized the danger of being dispatched off the prow of a ship. If they didn’t gain loft quickly, the plane fell to the waters in front of the ship and pilot and plane were plowed under as the ship continued forward. Without asking permission, he began sending planes off the ship at an angle, something that hadn’t been done before. More pilots survived because of it, and more planes too. In his late ‘70’s he was given a medal of honor for inventing what would became, in future years, standard naval procedure around the world.

After the war he opened his own small business, selling cars and refrigerators – from the same building. (They did that then.) He married my mother in 1951, sold the business, and took advantage of the GI bill to finish college and attend Law School at the University of Miami, where he was Editor of the Law Review. After law school he moved his fledgling family (my brother and I born by then) to Columbus, Ohio, became a successful negligence attorney and ran frequently for political office. Though he never won – a Democrat in a Republican town.

I don’t mean to sound as though I am bragging. I only want to say that my father, by sheer force of will and intelligence broke out of the cycle of poverty. And because he did, he cleared a path, made it easier for all his children to succeed too. I’m not sure which of us or any of us would be what we are today, have what we are today if it weren’t for what he accomplished. He gave us a better chance for safe “lift off.”

And yet – there was that Fries temper. When my mother nagged too long and too often, (which she did), when the anxieties of providing for a family, overwhelmed him (and they must have) – he could explode, violently. Like the time the china plate, laden with its Sunday noon meal, went flying across the table, over our heads, to smash against the opposite wall. None of us moved as gravy and potatoes and chunks of beef oozed down the wall. (Though this – only once.) Or the time he’d had enough of my teenage “back talk”, picked me up and threw me across my bed, against the opposite wall. (But only once. Only once. And I didn’t back down.)

And then there was the time I watched, from the doorway to the living room, as my father pummeled my mother with his fists, watched as she fell back onto the burnt orange couch, his fists flying into her stomach, her sides, her arms crossed above her face, warding off blows that might have landed there. When finally his fists slowed, she fled to her room, locking the door.

My brothers and I (I don’t know where my sister was, she was scarcely two at the time, maybe napping) gathered around my father who by then was sitting in a chair holding, his head in his hands, sobbing. Sensing all of us near, said, without looking at us, “Your father had a nervous breakdown. He just had a nervous breakdown.” I had never seen my father cry before.

They did not speak for almost two weeks, my father and mother. I remember carrying messages from one to the other. And then, one Sunday afternoon, I see it still, my mother and father walking toward our front door, his arm around her shoulder. He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. And I knew we were safe again. I don’t believe he ever hit her again. At least I never saw him hit her again. He thought it through, I think. Changed. He didn’t want the consequences.

Not long after my father’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, he had a slight stroke which sent him in an ambulance to the hospital. They were keeping him overnight for observation so I went to see him, finding him sitting in up in a chair next to his bed. He was emotional, tearful. Typical after strokes I’ve learned. The first thing he said to me, when I sat down near him was, “You know, I remember that day in the kitchen. I’d done something I shouldn’t have done, had made a problem for my mother. She said, ‘I never wanted you in the first place and now all you are is trouble.’” He cried.

I remember saying “Oh Dad, she wouldn’t have wanted you to remember that, not all these years.”

Now, that he’s gone, I know he wouldn’t want me to remember either – the violent episodes. They don’t portray the man he wanted to be. The man he tried to be and was most of the time. A caring, loving father and husband.

I think he’d rather I remembered this: I am four years old. I am standing behind my father, watching as he puts up cedar planks in the walls of our front hall closet, hammering the nails in carefully, one by one. I reach out, touch him on the shoulder and say, “Daddy, love me.” He smiles, that wide friendly smile of his. Lays down the hammer – and opens his arms wide.

© Colette Volkema DeNooyer, June 2010