The Icon

When Papa’s widow, Della Kley, died in 1966, her estate’s inventory resembled a Salvation Army Store–cheap stuffed furniture not worth recovering, kitchen appliances long outdated and chipped remnants of a Sears Roebuck dinnerware set. Della saved Papa’s Bible, a leather-bound Scofield edition, several of his favorite gospel tracts and the remainders of the moderately priced jewelry he’d given her during their courtship near the turn of the last century. Everything suggested the life and times of a poor Protestant widow, except for a small crucifix attached to a necklace of binding twine.

Thanks to FDR, the President whom Papa vigorously opposed and despised, Della received a monthly $25.00 widow’s pension check with which she purchased groceries, paid her utility bills and contributed $2.50 to the North Prairie Reformed Church. She saved an equal amount in the North Prairie Savings Bank.

The house, with Papa’s basement shoe repair shop silently intact, provided income from renting a second-floor apartment. Though he had been dead for twenty years Della continued to live by Papa’s rules–Bible reading before each meal and before bedtime, long prayers before each meal and, of course, church on Sundays.

At seventy, Della was a short, plump woman with a frizzy white hairdo and a nose that had flattened and spread out like a squashed pear. Still it was possible to imagine the attractive petite girl she’d been before marrying Papa and bearing their nine children.

She followed Papa’s health program too–drink warm, not cold, water; eat an apple daily from Thanksgiving Day until Easter; and, specifically for Della, beat one raw egg into each morning’s first cup of coffee. She followed these instructions scrupulously. Papa’s words were authoritative.

Everyone knew that he distrusted Roman Catholicism profoundly. So much so that he sympathized with the KKK, insofar as it waged campaigns against the Catholics. So, the presence of a crucifix mixed in with Della’s small handful of jewelry was inexplicable.

Her children searched their memories for anything that could account for this icon. It was small, about the size of a thumb, tarnished and rather poorly molded. Still the nail heads in Christ’s hands were visible and even the blood, streaking his cheeks from the crown of thorns, could be identified. It was almost a scandal to possess such an item in North Prairie.

The children presumed that she must have found the thing while shopping in a city like Hammond, Indiana, or Chicago Heights where lots of Catholics lived. She probably didn’t even know what it was. She’d certainly taken it home after Papa died or he would have tossed it into the furnace to melt in the coal fire. Della wouldn’t have hidden it from Papa. Ever since the days when he was born again, stopped drinking and rejoined the Holland Reformed Church, Della’s devotion to Papa was boundless.

She differed with him in only one matter, church membership. He fought his way out of the North Prairie Church over the teaching of election–that God picked some people for salvation and left the balance to their own destruction, eternal damnation. Papa knew, that for his part, he had chosen to believe. It was a two-way street, God put out his hand and Papa took it. When he started to search for a more suitable church Della stayed put. Not because she agreed so heartily with the church’s doctrines, but because it was her home, her family, her village. She knew instinctively that she could not raise nine children without help from the village church and school.

So Papa drove off in his blue Plymouth coupe to worship with the Nazarenes, or Plymouth Brethren, while Della and her children walked down the sidewalk with their neighbors to attend the Holland Reformed Church services at 9:30 AM and 7:00 PM every Sunday. In all other matters Papa was obeyed–gladly. The crucifix, then, was a total mystery.

Could saving the icon have been a bit of rebellion after all? The children did remember that Papa’s raw egg and coffee therapy had been a serious irritant to Della’s asthma. A few years before she died Della’s asthma worsened considerably. Wheezing and coughing kept her awake night after night and she could only sleep sitting up. She went to see Doc Waal, Calvin Jr., who had replaced his father as the village physician. He put Della through a battery of allergy tests which revealed a strong reaction to albumen.

“You don’t eat raw eggs do you?” Doc asked. When she reported her daily practice Doc smiled, “Well, that’s easy then. No more raw eggs. Okay?”Della stopped and most of her asthma symptoms cleared up. But she never blamed Papa. The raw eggs, she said, probably did a lot of good in some other ways.Junior, Papa’s youngest, solved the crucifix mystery–at least to his own satisfaction–but he kept the solution to himself. He recalled an accident from the late forties, when he was about twelve years old and shortly after Papa died. At that time everyone said it was a miracle that he’d not been killed or had not suffered some brain damage. He’d survived a blow to the head from the handle of a freight car jack–a solid hickory pole thicker than a man’s shin.

Workmen were using it in a game played to pass the time while the sugar beet loader was idle. The railroad guys, Italians, were pitching sugar beets to the Mexican farm hands who used the jack handle for a bat. When Emmanuel Torres went after a wild pitch the “bat” slipped from his hands and bounced into Junior’s head. Fortunately Manni had clutched the bat long enough to slow it down. Still, Junior was out cold.

He should not have been there. None of the five or six kids standing near the beet loader had permission to play there, but the lure of a free ride up and down the beet loader was stronger than parental prohibitions.

In October the Calumet River valley farmers harvested truckloads of sugar beets to be shipped to factories by rail. Trucks, sometimes twenty or more, lined up alongside the railroad tracks waiting to unload their beets.

Because field trucks were not dump trucks each one was backed up a ramp onto an elevated platform. The hinged platform was then hoisted up so that the whole truck tilted backward while the sugar beets rolled down a wide hopper and onto a conveyor belt. The belt carried the beets away and into a waiting gondola freight car. After each car was filled the railroad crew used the freight car jack to push it down the track and replace it with an empty gondola. The jack handle, detached from its iron lever, was a rough approximation of a baseball bat.

Kids hung around to beg rides from the farmers who always stayed in their trucks’ cabs while being tilted. The process looked a little dangerous but with emergency brakes pulled and the back wheels snugged up against a thick wooden bumper, no truck had ever fallen over backward. Some drivers, especially younger farmers, enjoyed the round-eyed excitement on the faces of the kids whom they permitted to join them on the beet loader. At full tilt the view from the truck’s windows soared over railroad cars and nearby buildings–a thrill which lasted for several minutes.

While the trucks were unloading every worker was busy and attentive, but during lulls, when no farm trucks pulled in, games filled the time. When Emmanuel’s bat slammed into Junior’s head, he dropped to the ground like an empty rag bag. Manni was there first on his knees whispering, “You okay?” And all the while he was fingering a crucifix hanging from a brown twine necklace. When Junior’s eyes fluttered open Manni whispered, “Good kid, you okay. You good. Thank God.” Then he took the crucifix and draped it over Junior’s chest.

Junior was conscious, but not ready to stand up. His head ached and his right temple had begun to swell. Someone yelled, “Ice. Get some ice.”

But Junior wailed, “Home, get me home,” and he tried to get up.

Emmanuel stopped him, scooped him in his arms like a battered pet dog and carried Junior home. Because several farm trucks were coming, the work crew returned to its duties while Manni carried Junior down the street with several kids pointing the way.

Della was in the back yard hanging clothes on the line when Manni turned onto the sidewalk leading past Papa’s empty shoe repair shop and toward the side porch.

Della’s face collapsed. Fear and tears mingled in a short piercing cry but she recovered quickly and opened the side door. Together they helped Junior to a bed where he almost instantly began to fall asleep.

“No good. No good,” Manni whispered loudly. “Get Ice.”

He was so insistent that Della simply followed his orders. She returned with the ice to find Manni clutching the crucifix in his folded hands while praying silently to the icon.

Junior responded to the ice rather quickly. He wanted to know what had happened. Manni couldn’t explain the details in English but the kids who were crowding the porch door provided a full report.

Manni had to return to the beet loader but he hesitated long enough to hear Junior speak clearly. Before leaving he pressed the crucifix into Della’s hands and said, “I am Emmanuel.” He left by the side door and walked back to the railroad tracks.

Junior’s survival was never in question. Della didn’t even take him to see Doc Waal. But she did plan to meet Emmanuel and return the crucifix. She never did. She watched the farm hands when they arrived on the beds of their pickup trucks but they looked too much alike. Besides, they didn’t seem to know much English. One of the farmers told her that the Mexican’s name really was Emmanuel. But Della didn’t think that could be right. She couldn’t imagine anyone calling themselves Emmanuel. That would almost be calling yourself God.

Della kept the crucifix with her jewelry. As time passed it took on a special meaning. Once she was even tempted to hold it while praying but didn’t. And, of course, she could not think of throwing it out.

Junior had some clear memories of the accident but vague recollections of Emmanuel. He thought he remembered that a crucifix formed part of that strange and distant day’s events. When the family surveyed Della’s estate, each child, searching for a meaningful memento, Junior said, “I’ll take that crucifix.”

Herbert Brinks is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.