Published in Christian Courier (July 15, 1994)
“Glory Land!” Sietske spat the words bitterly as she wiped the plank floor with her heavy cloth. Sitting back, she surveyed the expanse of hardwood she had just washed. Grimly she thought, Ja, and wasn’t this exactly what I was doing four months ago in Friesland? I had to come two thousand miles to ruin my knees on floors in Glory Land?
She was still upset with Jacob about the previous evening. After their supper, prepared on the hotplate in the dingy basement of their boardinghouse, Jacob had suggested a stroll to Jan’s. “After all,” he had urged, “it’s so stifling hot upstairs and your brother has a television. And we really haven’t seen him that often since we’ve come.” So the two of them had walked to Jan’s apartment building. But when they arrived, it was clear that Friday night was the night when Jan’s cronies congregated in his cramped quarters to enjoy the boxing matches on his TV.
Sietske and Irene, Jan’s Canadian girlfriend, had tried to make conversation but the language barrier had proved too much to overcome and eventually a silence had elapsed between them. Moreover, the men had become increasingly loud and agitated. Sietske had been repelled, both by the sport and by the enthusiasm displayed by these strangers over such obvious cruelty. What was worse, Jacob had pointedly ignored the plea in her eyes to leave and he, too, seemed caught up in the camaraderie of the men grouped in front of the box. Last night had been the first time that she and Jacob had slept apart in the two single beds, rather than awkwardly sharing one.
Sietske frowned, remembering the argument, dropped her rag into the steel pail, sloshed it around in the suds, wrung it out, and flung it back on the floor. Startled by the loud slap in the cavernous room, she worriedly checked over her shoulder. Mr. Henderson, the forbidding proprietor of Henderson’s Fine Furniture, was fortunately nowhere nearby.
She scrubbed. With a sigh, she thought back to their landing in Quebec. She could have seen the trouble coming then already. Naively, they had believed that Jan would be there to meet them when they disembarked. How crushed she had been to finally comprehend that a long train trip still awaited them!
Some of the other immigrants had advised them to buy some sandwiches for the journey. As they exited the station, Jacob had spotted some neon lights. He had been certain they could buy some supplies there. Sietske shuddered as she recalled the murky scene inside. It had been a bar with dancing couples clinging shamelessly to one another in the smoky haze.
Even then Jacob had glossed over the indisputable worldliness of this country and had carried her away with his vision of Glory Land once again. “Sietske,” he had said earnestly, his brown eyes sincere, “there’s sin everywhere you go in the world. This will be a good place for us. We’lll be able to buy a home here. I’ll get a job. Jan says there’s plenty of work and plenty of room in Canada. There’s even two Christian Reformed Churches in Kingsville! It will be fine, you’ll see.”
Sietske smiled humourlessly as she relived that speech. Of course Jacob would talk that way. He had been a sailor and had travelled up and down the Rhine. What had she seen of the world tending a small store in Dokkum?
He had made light of her fears, confident that in Canada they could build a glorious future together. Had she been swept along by the fervour of his words or by his dark, wavy hair and reassuring brown eyes? She paused her rhythmic wiping to straighten her back, wipe her forehead and push her glasses back up her nose. This streaming perspiration was a new and distasteful sensation. It was so incredibly hot in this country, especially on this floor where there was no ventilation.
The train ride from Quebec had been insufferably hot as well. Jacob had to admit that they had never experienced such heat back home. There had been no available berths so they had been forced to sleep in their seats, sticky and dusty. And it had been small comfort to know that they had plenty of sandwiches but nothing to drink.
As Sietske bent to continue the floor, a familiar wave of nausea washed over her. Not again, she protested wearily. They had been more than a little shocked at how quickly this had happened. This morning sickness seemed to go on forever. Wasn’t it supposed to be over at three months? How she wished she could ask Catrien! Usually the bus ride was the worst, but this morning perhaps the fumes of the ammonia were to blame.
She rose unsteadily, grabbed the brown paper bag lying at the top of the stairs and hoped she could make it to the bathroom. Salivating and clammy, she flew down the two flights of stairs. Ja, she had made it in time. She retched in the toilet, absurdly pleased that she had taken the precaution of cleaning it first in the event of just such an emergency. Then she splashed some cold water on her face and leaned against the porcelain sink for a moment, allowing the sick feeling to pass.
Ascending the stairs, Sietske was relieved to observe that Mr. Henderson had left for his coffee break in the restaurant across the street. He was such a stern man! Last week Saturday he had scolded her for being late. How could she have possibly explained what had happened on the bus with her limited command of English?
As she had sat looking out of the window, shyly avoiding the glances of the other passengers, and feeling somewhat queasy, a spasm had suddenly overwhelmed her. Without a doubt, she was going to be sick! Hastily she had snatched the folded brown paper bag beside her and vomited into it. It had been a horribly humiliating experience.
She had been fortunate to have had Mrs. Woltjer’s bag handy. On Saturdays she always picked up bread downtown half-price for Mrs. Woltjer. When she arrived at the store, she had quickly descended to the basement to dispose of the bag. Mr. Henderson, unaware of her condition, had raised his voice testily, motioning her to get to work. A bag had been her companion ever since.
At the second floor landing Sietske took a breath and planned what she had yet to do. Finish the floor, just a corner yet. After lunch, dust downstairs and wash the floor.
The doorbell chimed and Mr. Henderson strode in. He looked up at Sietske and beckoned her to come down into his office. With him was his assistant, Mrs. Whitney, an angular woman who had made little effort to befriend Sietske. Sietske sat on the proffered chair wonderingly, trying to read the two faces.
Mr. Henderson launched into a barrage of sentences, jabbing his pen in her direction. She gazed at him dumbfounded. She caught no meaning from the tirade. She understood the words “radio” and “clock” but the words didn’t connect and she shook her head helplessly.
“Ik weet niet,” she stammered. “Wat is it?” She knew that she cleaned the store very thoroughly. Bewildered, she watched as Mrs. Whitney left the office momentarily and returned with Sietske’s brown paper bag.
Mr. Henderson grabbed the bag, waved it in Sietske’s face and shouted at her. Terribly anxious in the face of his anger, she suddenly grasped the word for “police”. In a flash the insinuation became clear. They believed that she had been stealing from the store! Small items could be easily tucked inside the bag.
“Nee, no,” she quavered, “de zak is voor….” Distraught, she burst into tears. Unaffected by her distress, Mrs. Whitney escorted Sietske to the door. She had been fired.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Jacob fingered the white envelope bordered in black thoughtfully as he walked. He almost wished that he hadn’t checked the post office box on his way home. Someone is Holland had died. The address was written in Catrien’s hand, Sietske’s oldest sister. Probably her grandmother, he guessed. She’d been in poor health when they’d left. Never even made it to their wedding. Jacob’s forehead creased as he wondered how Sietske would cope with this news, especially after the tension last night.
Everything had been much more difficult than he could have imagined. Jan, the adventurous “black sheep” of the family had not been much help. And Mrs. Woltjer, although she had lent them some furniture, was a suspicious landlady, checking on the state of her rooms frequently. Sietske was so embarrassed about having to share her bathroom downstairs! Even the church had been a disappointment. Two elders had visited them shortly after their arrival but it was clear that their purpose was simply to ensure that Jacob received his envelopes and recognized his duty to support the “kerk”.
They had had some fun times though, Jacob mused, waiting for a stoplight. There was that time about a month ago when he, Sietske, Jan and Irene had gone for a drive in Jan’s car to Newberry. He had won two fruit baskets at a street carnival. Sietske had been delighted with the baskets, admiring the dainty jars of jelly and the bananas and oranges, all prettily wrapped in purple cellophane.
Sietske had generously offered one of the prizes to Mrs. Woltjer in appreciation for the items she had lent them. However, when their landlady had discovered how the gift had been obtained, she had cast a black glance at Jacob and huffed to Sietske, “Ja, and did he gamble in Friesland too, when he had to go back home to his heit and mem?” How Sietske’s face had fallen when the present had been refused. Her pleasure had dwindled after that and she had consumed the groceries rather guiltily in the ensuing week.
Jacob trudged up the outside stairs to their rooms. Still, he was glad that he could work the extra Saturday now and then. It felt better to be working when Sietske worked. Hopefully not much longer for her. He had been so lucky, really, to have landed a job within his first week in Kingsville. Well, not lucky, he reminded himself, blessed. Without mentioning the possibility to Sietske and raising her hopes unnecessarily, he had already been eying a place Jan had showed him in the country, more suitable for them and the baby.
As he stepped inside the sittingroom, Jacob was astonished to see Sietske curled up on one of the beds in the other room, crying. “Sietske, lieve, what is it? Why are you home already? What’s wrong?” The spectre of a miscarriage loomed in his mind.
Sietske hugged him hard, their quarrel forgotten in her present need. Out spilled the story of the charge of theft and her dismissal. In the midst of her lament, she let escape the words she’d held back until now: “Jacob, maybe we should think about going back. We don’t fit in here. Our baby should get to know our families. I know we prayed about it, but maybe we misunderstood the Lord’s will.”
Before Jacob could formulate a soothing reply, Sietske spotted the envelope he had laid on the bed. Her eyes flew to his and she tore it open. She scanned the lines and moaned, “Beppe is dood.” Suddenly hysterical, she shrilled, “I shouldn’t have listened to you! You and your romantic notions about Glory Land.” Her eyes blazed with blame, her depth of longing for Dokkum and things familiar too deep for expression.
Jacob turned and stalked out, anger welling up inside. In a moment it would boil over and things would be even worse. Couldn’t Sietske see how hard he had been trying to keep up her spirits? And wasn’t she the one who had wanted to get married? She was the one who had discouraged him from sailing for a few more years!
As he stomped down the street, Jacob’s resentment burned against Henderson, too. How stupid could the man be to think that Sietske could be stealing from him? The idea was crazy. What if she would lose the baby because of all the trauma? A powerful urge to confront the man swept over him. He would relish the chance of telling Henderson what he thought of him. His thoughts whirling, Jacob found his steps leading toward Lakeshore Drive. He knew where the man lived because Jan had once pointed it out to him.
He had to walk a long way. Too bad the buses aren’t running this time of day, he grumbled to himself. At last he found the place. His steps slowed. Viewed up close, the home was even more impressive than he had remembered. A wrought-iron fence separated the property from the sidewalk, but the gate swung open when he pushed on it. Uncertainty beginning to wash away his resolve, he walked up the paved drive.
As he stepped onto the pillared portico, Jacob steeled himself to ring the doorbell, rehearsing the English phrases in his mind. A woman opened the door. “I would like to speak with your … with Mr. Henderson,” he blurted out. His accent sounded painfully heavy even in his own ears. Noticing her plain dress, he had realized at the last moment that the lady might be a housekeeper.
“Have a seat,” the woman said. She indicated a carved bench in the spacious foyer. “Whom shall I say is calling?” Jacob shifted uncomfortably on the bench, hesitating. “Jacob Teldersma, Sietske’s husband. He knows who I am.”
She left. Jacob viewed the elegant appointments nervously. His workboots were resting on an intricately patterned rug and above his head hung an ornate chandelier. His wavering courage dissolved. How could he possibly face up to a man who owned such a home and had a maid? Perhaps he would yet call the police as he had threatened.
He got up and quietly slipped out of the front door. This was not going to help them, anyway. Observing the lengthening shadows, he stepped up his pace. It wouldn’t do to have Sietske alone in the dark, not in her state.
There had been an awful incident only a few nights after they had arrived in Kingsville. A dreadful shriek had startled them awake. Jacob had jumped out of bed and pulled the drawn curtain aside to see two men running from another man lying on the ground. The victim was alternately groaning and shouting hoarsely.
Jacob had dressed and hurried downstairs. Other neighbours had gathered as well and a policeman soon bustled his way to the prone man. He had not been able to understand the entire story but the man apparently was a restaurant owner who was known to close up late and carry his earnings home. A veteran, handicapped by a wooden leg, the businessman had been an easy prey as he exited his car.
Jacob walked even faster. No, it wouldn’t do to have Sietske face the night on her own. She had been petrified for a long time after the mugging.
When he finally returned home, Jacob was famished and beat. Sietske was seated on the couch in her nightgown, her head covered in damp pincurls. There were red blotches around her mouth and her eyes were visibly puffy. She seemed subdued and sad.
“Sietske, I’m sorry I was gone for so long,” Jacob apologized. “I walked to Henderson’s house on Lakeshore.” Her mouth dropped open in surprise. “Ja, I was going to tell him a thing or two. I wanted to give him a solid right uppercut like those boxers on TV.” He demonstrated half-heartedly and shot her a rueful grin. “I left before I even saw him.”
He knelt by her feet and gazed up at her seriously. “I’m sorry about your beppe,” he said. “I know that you miss your family more than I miss mine. I’m used to being away from home. I know how scared you are to have a baby here so soon, without your mem or your sister. Once we have some money saved, we can go back for a visit.” His voice dropped. “Or, even for good, if that’s what you really want.”
Sietske bent over and rumpled his hair. She was touched by his uncharacteristic lack of bravado, his confession of vulnerability. It dawned on her that perhaps all of Jacob’s talk was as much for himself as it was for her.
“Jacob, let’s set the alarm early enough so that we can walk to church for the Dutch service. That way we won’t miss if Jan “forgets” to pick us up.” Jacob agreed, encouraged by her tone. More than once they had missed the earlier “Hollandse dienst” because Jan liked to sleep in on Sunday mornings.
The next day, just before the service, Jacob sought out the dominee and informed him of Sietske’s loss. Just as he had hoped, she was gratified to have her family mentioned in the congregational prayer. “Lord, ” the pastor had prayed, “as you welcome Sietske’s grandmother into glory, may you also comfort Sietske and Jacob during this time of mourning.” Sietske had shed a few discreet tears, but she had been comforted nonetheless.
After church, a young woman approached and invited them over for coffee. Sietske demurred because they had walked, but the woman, who introduced herself as Tine Bulthuis, waved off the objection with a pleasant laugh. “Hep will bring you home,” she insisted. “It’s not good for you to be alone today. Come have some “gebakjes” and see our baby. We are from Friesland, too, you know.”
Jacob and Sietske had a wonderful time with Tine and her husband, Hep. Their home was small but cozy. They spoke proudly of the new Christian school being erected beside Second Church. Sietske bounced their “klein popke” on her knee though, of course, neither she nor Jacob divulged their own secret just yet. Hep invited Jacob to join the choir as more male voices were badly needed. Jacob, knowing how Sietske loved to sing, readily volunteered both of them. With a meaningful glance at Sietske he said, “Ja, it will be good for us to do something together for fun.”
That evening, Sietske and Jacob took their soup out onto their tiny balconey to watch the sunset as they ate. The sunsets in Canada had been a spectacular treat. They marvelled at the brilliant colours and changing patterns. This was something else they had not experienced back home.
Tonight it was again a breathtaking panorama. Billowy dark clouds, haloed with fiery filigree by the hidden sun, hung heavily in a pink sky. Then, as the sun dipped beneath the clouds, orange and red rays streamed from its radiant centre to the horizon, silhouetted against further massed clouds in the distance.
Sietske and Jacob were silent for a time. Then Sietske remarked, “That is how beautiful heaven must be, I think. I can picture Beppe in a place like that.” Jacob murmered his agreement.
He went into the sittingroom to get the Bible. They had been systematically reading through the Psalms. He turned to Psalm 85. He chuckled as he read the first verse: “You showed favour to your land, O Lord: you restored the fortunes of Jacob.” Sietske smiled back at him, sharing the joke. As the waning rays of the sun bathed them, Jacob read further. At verse nine his voice trembled a little and Sietske reached for his hand: “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” He put the Bible down at that point, and together they sat content and contemplated the sky.