When freedom came

(Christian Courier column, May 25, 2015)


Last month CC marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Holland with articles by Lloyd Rang and Dick Kronemeyer. As a subscriber to CanadaRemembers on Facebook, informative reminders of this event have crossed my newsfeed regularly. I knew about the annual gift of tulips to Canada from the Netherlands, but I didn’t know that many Dutch citizens had painted “Thank you, Canadians” on their roofs for the food air-drops. I also learned about the Liberation Forest in Groningen — 30,000 maple trees planted in honour of Canadian soldiers. Did you know that in Apeldoorn there is a street called Canada Lane and each house comes complete with a Canadian flag?

As I’ve shared before, the Liberation and its legacy comprise my historical DNA. https://cathysmith001.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/war-children/. Both my mom and dad lived through the Occupation. My mom recalls the end of the war with a vivid emotion that slices through the fog of long ago and far away:

“The last year of the war was the worst for not having electricity or enough heat. The winter was bitterly cold. My classroom was heated with bean straw. We took turns keeping the fire going, sitting in front of the stove.

Sometimes oranges came in crates from the government. We would be so happy. They were so good! We never went hungry like in some parts of Holland. When we came home from school, we had a slice of turnip. My parents would eat an egg after we went to bed. Dad had to work and Mom was diabetic, so they needed to keep up their strength. My aunt and uncle took in two girls from Rotterdam, Audrey and Annie Dikken, because of the starvation there.

One of my friends was an only child. Sometimes after school her mother would butter some crackers and sprinkle them with sugar as a snack. That was better than a slice of turnip! Jealous, I longed to be an only child! A lot of families, including ours, had to deal with scurvy and lice. There was no soap. Near the end of the war, our school was closed for a time.

I remember all these things because I saw the fear in my parents’ eyes. More and more I realize how hard life was for them back then. No electricity and an 8:00 o’clock curfew at night. Just a little oil lamp. When it got dark, we would sing or play word games or just go to bed.

During the war I learned to spin. That was a smelly job because the wool came dirty off the sheep. My mother would wind the wool around jars and wash it that way and then we had to knit socks and underwear. Yes, knitted underwear! Itchy!


Blown-up bridge.

On April 15th, 1945 we saw weary Germans walking by on their way to Delfzyl, the most northern part of Holland. The next day they blew up the bridge over Damsterdiep canal. The explosion destroyed my uncle’s boat which was moored behind my grandmother’s house. Her windows were blown out by the blast. We fled into the fields. That night we slept on straw bales in a barn outside our village.

In the morning, we saw lines of Canadian soldiers walking towards Ten Post. A man on a bike rode toward them with a white flag to let them know it was safe. As we watched them approach, an amazing thing happened. Spontaneously, we all started singing the Dutch national anthem.

Later that day we returned home. The next day was a celebration. The flags came out and we wore orange. Canadian tanks rumbled by. We saw captured Germans and Dutch collaborators with their hands behind their necks. It was an unbelievable feeling of freedom. Finally that part of life was over. I was 13.”


Impromptu parade.











Many CC readers share similar memories and hold them dear. Personal and honest stories of the war and its aftermath. The past reverberating and rolling into the present. Influencing the next generation.

Mom’s wartime experiences molded her, manifesting their impact even 70 years later. An abhorrence for wasting food. A robust thriftiness. Vigorous faith. Appreciation of freedom and recognition of its responsibilities. National pride. Respect for the sacrifices of the Canadian military. But also a deep-seated anxiety and need for control. Security as a base value.

Here’s what troubles me. I share my mom’s WWII story with unmistakable empathy for the truth of her experiences. Her story is uniquely precious to me. But am I prepared to accord the same respect to the stories of others? Can I set myself and my own heritage aside long enough to listen with deference to the equally unique and precious stories of other ethnicities, other races, other orientations ?

This week I read a moving piece in Salon ( http://www.salon.com/writer/julia_blount/ ). Julia Blount, a bi-racial middle school teacher, begs for white America to listen to her story. She relates how racial prejudice is still a comprehensive reality in her life though she is educated, affluent and privileged in many ways. How much worse, she concludes, are the systemic disadvantages of those who are black, poor, and ill-educated? As I read, I knew I was guilty of some of the knee-jerk conclusions that Blount decries about the riots in Baltimore. Remarkably, at the conclusion of her article, she expresses gratitude to the reader who, like me, stuck with her to the end of her story. She believes the listening will make a difference. She was right.

Listening respectfully to another’s story is simply this: love. As I was drafting this column, a friend sent me this excerpt about the power of language (from Stone upon Stone, Wieslaw Mysliwski):

Words lead the way of their own accord. Words bring everything out on to the surface. Words take everything that hurts and whines and they drag it all out from the deepest depths. Words let blood, and you feel better right away. And not just with outsiders, with your brothers also words can help you find each other, like brothers again. However far they’ve gone, words will bring them back to the one life they came from, like from a spring. Because words are a great grace. When it comes down to it, what are you given other than words? Either way, there’s a great silence waiting for us in the end, and we’ll have our fill of silence. Maybe we’ll find ourselves scratching at the walls for the sake of the least little word. And every word we didn’t say to each other in this world we’ll regret like a sin. Except it’ll be too late. And how many of those unsaid words stay in each person and die with him, and rot with him, and they aren’t any use to him either in his suffering, or in his memory?

Words are a great grace, a reaching for the other, a stretching beyond self. The Word-Become-Flesh authenticates an even greater grace, a grace beyond human definition, a divine freedom to be embraced. New life from ashes …. It happened in Holland. It can happen in Baltimore. It can happen in my soul. And yours.





Clothed with Christ

(Christian Courier column, April 27, 2015)

IMG_0004I joined the Golf Lakes Harmony Notes while in Florida this past winter. It’s been fun. The choir sings popular music (from six decades ago) and, surprisingly, an abundance of Christian pieces. In fact, the choir’s motto is Psalm 104:33: “I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.”

We have a gifted director and accompanist, both 79 years young. They are “retiring” at the end of the season. Thankfully, replacements have already been recruited. Our choir “uniform” varies … blue Golf Lakes polo shirts and white pants for casual events, black and white for church services, sequined teal capes for sing-outs, and sequined silver capes with fringe for concerts.

One event stands out. Our choir visited Westminster Towers, a sizable residence for seniors in Bradenton, owned and operated by a Presbyterian association. We entered a spacious auditorium, decorated for St. Patrick’s Day, with festive green streamers and a stuffed toy leprechaun grinning rather maniacally on a desk at the back of the room. Many residents were already seated; more were arriving. A solid audience of about 75 seniors. Ruth, our pianist and song leader, handed out the songbooks.

Before our performance, we chatted with the residents. A blond woman on the sidelines, with a walker in front of her, thanked me for coming. Our pleasure, I assured her. The lady next to her asked where we were from. I told her we were from Golf Lakes, a mobile home park, but I couldn’t make her understand. “I’m blind,” she said, as if that explained it.

We opened our binders and sang some oldies: “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” “Let It Be Me,” “Catch a Falling Star.” Many of the residents were singing along – a woman whose head shook uncontrollably, her dangling earrings glinting and dancing in time, a man with a cowboy hat, a couple of ladies in look-alike cardigans. In the front row a heavyset younger woman sat in a wheelchair, her hair pulled back into a severe ponytail, her glasses as enormous as those we wore in the 70s, in matching sky blue jogging pants and t-shirt, both embellished with silver studs. She had a presence, singing along confidently with every number. A black male attendant yawned through most of our selections, but pitched in on “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Every time our pianist called out a number, a handsome gentleman with a cheerful expression shouted it out again — louder. Directly across from me was a man with his arms folded across his chest, scowling. He didn’t sing at all. But, I thought to myself, he’s in the front row. Maybe that means something.

At the end of our “concert” we sang “Happy Birthday” to three individuals who had March birthdays. One was our jovial announcer. He told us, chuckling, that he was 39. The blond lady who had thanked me for coming had a birthday, too. She was 85. The third birthday celebrant was a diminutive woman in a wheelchair, draped in an elegant paisley shawl. She was 96. With a captivating smile, she gestured at us, repeating, “I love you all. I love you all. Thank you. Thank you.”

Birthdays. A cause for joy. Or not. Three men in the audience had significant bruises on their bald heads. One had a black eye, too. There were more than a few listeners whose heads hung on their chests, never looking up once. Many of our audience members weren’t permitted, because of diet restrictions, to accept the homemade cookies we handed out.

Yet one song got a rousing response: “Count Your Blessings.” I, myself, could hardly choke out the words watching these aged folks sing the final verse:

So, amid the conflict whether great or small,

Do not be discouraged, God is over all;

Count your many blessings, angels will attend,

Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.

I hope we were a help and comfort for those elderly friends. Could it be we were their attending angels that day? I know this much. If I ever end up in a nursing home, I won’t be consoled by the luck of the Irish or leprechauns or homemade cookies. I’ll be pining for the songs of faith. And if those good old hymns are sung by some ragtag choir of ordinary seraphs, I won’t care what uniform they’re wearing. They’ll be clothed with Christ.