Thursday, September 5, 2013

Emma Van der Boom and the Parable of Unexpected Expectations

Emma Vogt Van der Boom, wife of the Govert, South Dakota, storekeeper, and storekeeper herself, told me a parable when I was ten years old. I call Emma's story a parable because the narrative was short, illustrated a truth and, as often is the case with parables, the story line was somehow not entirely satisfying.

"One morning two couples were eating breakfast in a restaurant. The remaining tables were empty. The couple over there [Emma motioned to the left with her crochet hook] was well-dressed. The man was tall and handsome, the woman proportionately smaller, pretty, with a good figure and her hair and makeup were expertly done. If you saw them walking along the street, you would notice how nice they looked together.

"The second couple [motioning to the right], well, she was tall and square, he was short and lean. And maybe they weren't so stylish. [Emma paused and then continued].

"The handsome man was silent sitting there in the restaurant. He held his newspaper high, creating a barrier between himself and his companion, as he read what news there was to read. The pretty woman sat quietly in the chair on the other side of his newspaper, looking sad and sullen as she picked at the food on her plate, stirring the eggs without eating.

"The newspaper purchased by the mismatched couple lay unopened on their table. The too tall woman and the too short man were in their own little world, chatting about this and chatting about that. You couldn't hear what they were saying but their words were animated and their laughter rang true."

Or words to that effect.

Emma continued her crocheting through the telling of the parable but, with the last word, she stopped abruptly. She looked up at me expectantly, eyes wide, eyebrows raised, lips pursed, wise and knowing as grandmothers are supposed to be. But then she said not a word more about the two couples in the restaurant. Not a single word.

OK, Gram, I'm not sure what motivated your parable, but I get your point. Appearances are not important, only what's on the inside counts. Blah. Blah. Blah. So I'm stuck kissing frogs while the other girls get the princes. At the age of ten, I was already the tallest in my class at school. I wonder now whether Jesus had as much trouble sinking a point with the Israelites.

But there's more. For years, a nuance of the story remained hidden. How many years had to pass before I realized that, in the parable, my grandmother was talking about herself and my grandfather. They were not the handsome-is-as-handsome-does couple. Like the second couple in the parable, Emma was tall and square, Govert was short and lean.

Few people remember my grandmother as tall; she grew shorter with age. On the other hand, the fact that Govert was not a tall man has been recorded in history by people who met him at the store in Govert, South Dakota, the town named after him. They remember a small man with a foreign accent and abounding enthusiasm. Imagine what it would have been like for a child whose chin reached the countertop in the Govert store, just tall enough to admire the candy jars ... what would it have been like for that child to discover this not so tall man peering from behind the store counter with an engaging smile and sparkling blue eyes, and then when the man spoke his voice was musical. Is it true that Govert Van der Boom never forgot what it was like to be a child?

I don't have to tell you, Emma was right about the gold we wear inside of us, the interior riches that find a way out, maybe even as a sparkle leaping from deep blue eyes. Emma and Govert may have been a mismatched package, but they were a package deal in the town of Govert, South Dakota. Even though the town carried Govert Van der Boom's name, Emma became her husband's partner in marriage and in business. Emma and Govert were good companions through homesteading, running businesses, raising sons. They were life partners.

Do you suppose Emma told me the parable because she saw a younger Emma in me? I would like that. I'm probably now near in age to my grandmother when she told me her parable. Sometimes it takes wisdom to meet wisdom. Gram found her prince. Yes, so did I.

Now, let me ask you this. Did you realize you were reading a parable within a parable ... the latter being a genealogical parable? Emma's point was time-tested and true, but I was trying to make a point, too. I was trying to point out that history - whether that be the history of a nation, or the history of a county or town, or family history - is about people. People. Tall people, short people, fat people, skinny people, happy people, sad people. People, lots of people. Facts are important because they anchor people in time and space, but we should never divert our focus from the people, not even those who lived their lives quietly day to day. History is what happened just yesterday ... to you.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate


  1. Sweetheart,

    Your blog entry this week is absolutely lovely!

    You tell a wonderful and engaging story about your grandmother...and through it you convey to us a vivid and expressive portrait of her ("wise and knowing") and your grandfather ("sparkling blue eyes"; "musical" voice), of your grandmother's warm and caring relationship to you, and of her strong, loving, and supportive relationship with your grandfather. You end your story by emphasizing the relationship we all have to history as it unfolds. And, along the way, you remind us about some vital and apt lessons in life ("what's on the inside counts"; "interior riches...find a way out").

    Your writing this week is again exceptional!Your grandmother was a smart, articulate, strong, and loving woman. Those qualities must be in the family's genes as they can be seen in her granddaughter as well!

  2. I applaud you on how articulate you truly are. When I read, I feel like I am getting to know not just Govert, South Dakota but your family and you as well. I look forward to each little tidbit! I hope that you feel pride at what you are accomplishing by putting new life back into this town and these people.

    Carla Cahill

  3. Dear Kate,

    Apart from the lovely read and the precious glimpse in your family history the fact that you are a true family historian who foremost 'collects' what her ancestors did, instead of her ancestors' mere primary data, makes me happy. There is a large group irreverently called 'ancestor collectors' by Dutch archive professionals. These might be called genealogists but aren't. We sometimes compare these family researchers to stamp collectors. The more from a certain group the better, the more rare, the better. You need to have the object, not what's behind it.
    You, but of course I already knew that, are not a member of that group. You note the particulars, of course, but what you collect is what people were like, what they did, what they stood for. For better or for worse, in bad times and in good times *smile* That is something that makes the real family historian, get your facts and numbers right and then get on with the real business.: the people behind those birth, marriage and death dates.
    So yes, I get the parable inside the parable very well and oh, am I glad it rings true!




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