Mixed Marriages

Ma knew that I often walked with friends from Ryerson on Sundays. But after I had been gone on a particularly snowy day for over two hours she quizzed me rather pointedly. As I came through the back door, red-cheeked and rubbing my cold hands together, she said, “Where on earth could you have been walking? It’s a blizzard out there!”

“We stopped at Rachel’s house,” I answered nonchalantly.

“Rachel? Rachel who? And who else?”

“Rachel Cadiz. I’ve mentioned her before. She works at the library.”

“You’re talking about that Jewish girl? The one who serves tea at the book club? I knew you were friendly, but going to her house–and for two hours–that’s a little more than friendly. More like courting.”

“In Holland, sure. It’s different here. We get together, talk and do things. We’re not looking to get married all the time.”

“I’m not too sure about that,” Ma said. She paused and continued, “That girl, Rachel, certainly is very pleasant. Couple And you noticed, I’m sure, very attractive too. Her mother is pleasant too.”

After a second and much longer pause, Ma added almost guiltily, “They are Jewish, you know. If you get beyond friendship with her–well–you’ll put all of us, her family too, in a tight spot. And how about yourself? Have you thought about the complications? They are not Christians… .”

“Ma, we’re friends. Good friends. I’ll say that. And we do know about complications. We talk a lot–about religion too. Actually we’ve found many things in common. Their Old Testament, you know, takes up over three-quarters of our whole Bible.”

“Yes,” Ma responded curtly, “and you better know too that I’m not stupid. They don’t just ignore the New Testament. They deny it. They think Christ is an imposter.”

“Rachel never says that! Anyway her father tells her that Jesus was a prophet with themes taken from preachers like Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah. That supports Pa’s view that the Bible is a unified book.”

“So, now you’re going to instruct your father about the Bible?”

“It wouldn’t hurt him to talk with someone like Mr. Cadiz. Someone outside of Beza. They read Hebrew like it was English. Might help Pa debate with that Postman crowd [the progressives] at Beza.”

“Oh,” Ma responded, “and what do YOU know about that? You’re not even interested in Beza. Going instead to Ann Arbor. And, by the way, your father is studying Hebrew with a rabbi. A friend of Mr. Cadiz, too.”

That really did surprise me but I kept it well hidden. “Good! Great! Ask him to tell us about it at dinner sometime.” He never did.

“About Ann Arbor,” I began, thinking this was a decent if not perfect time to tell her about Rachel’s plans. “I will have some Christian friends there. You already know about Leonard–that we’ll be rooming together. Dave De Jong will join us too–at least for the poetry workshop. Rachel will be there too, but I won’t see much of her. She’ll be living with relatives. Strictly orthodox she thinks.”

Ma didn’t respond until after a long delayed sigh which expressed more resignation than impatience. “Next year,” she said finally, “you’ll be eighteen, old enough to make your own way.”

After another long silence she added, “We imagined a different kind of life for you. Time will tell.”

I was relieved by her measured reaction but wondered and then asked, “Will you tell Pa?”

“Of course! He’s your parent too. He cares about you–deeply. I don’t know what he’ll say.”

***

Pa surprised me. More than that, he stunned me. Ma too.

“I’ve been thinking about your courtship with the Cadiz girl. And I’ve talked about it with Joseph Cadiz too. We’re fearful that the two of you may be headed for more grief than you imagine. But we will do no more than warn you. You’re both adults. If you choose each other we will pray for you–diligently. But we will not disown you.”

Ma’s first reaction was distress. “How could you know so much and not tell me?”

“Ah,” Pa said, “students know a lot about each other and almost all of them spend time at the Ryerson Library. They’ve mentioned things to me but I didn’t take them seriously. I didn’t talk to Joseph Cadiz until last week and until then I didn’t think it was serious enough to trouble you.”

“Why can’t Mr. Cadiz simply forbid it? He’s a rabbi, isn’t he?”

“No. But some of his German friends are. He’s Spanish and more patient than we are. He just says ‘God will work it out.’

“I suppose,” Pa went on, “after being persecuted in Spain, Portugal, and Brazil the Cadiz family views a courtship of this sort with some resignation. ‘God will work it out. He always has.'”

“How can they be so resigned?” Ma’s voice became hard and impatient.   I observed my parents’ argument quietly but with increasing discomfort. Being chosen was becoming burdensome. Neither Jews nor Calvinists were ever free of God’s unblinking eye.   “Bad marriages cut the cords that keep families together. If Fritz converted to Judaism what would you say?”

“That’s not very likely. As you know from experience mothers mold children. So, I imagine, Fritz’s children would be raised Jewish.”

“Could you be happy with that?”

“Happy? What does that mean? Were your parents happy when you married a penniless preacher from Groningen? No,” he answered his own question, “but they adjusted.” Then in his lecture-hall voice he added, “If God chose the Jews, can we reject them? They’re still God’s people–unless He’s gone back on hundreds of biblical promises.”

I observed their argument quietly but with increasing discomfort. Being chosen was becoming burdensome. Neither Jews nor Calvinists were ever free of God’s unblinking eye.

Pa’s detachment was more unnerving than Ma’s tears. He seemed, for once, wise and exceedingly certain in an area where, so far as I knew, Ma had always been the authority.

Rachel and I would have to examine this new reality carefully… .

***

[Fritz and his friends go to Ann Arbor for the summer where he attends a poetry workshop led by Robert Frost.]

Ma wrote back quickly and at length. She’d been waiting, she wrote, for “something more than a postcard” and my threepage letter triggered a backlog of news and comment.

During my brief absence, dramatic events had changed our family’s situation. Grandmother Helder was seriously ill and Ma wanted to return to Holland for a last visit. There was no knowing if she could arrive before death occurred because even the fastest passage (seven days) could easily be too long.   It’s not strange for people with different backgrounds to fall in love, but loving the other person’s family is another matter. That, I think, is possible only when you know your mate’s family well enough to both love and hate them–when you share the roots to whatever it is you find despicable in them.   So she decided to wait for a news update. If Grandmother showed signs of lingering, Ma would return to Europe as quickly as possible. If she learned that Grandmother was already dead, returning would make little sense. It was a time of anxious waiting complicated by the unexpected arrival of Martha, Ma’s former housemaid.

“We had no warning whatsoever,” Ma wrote. Martha came alone. Her mother had died and, with no greater prospects than a housemaid’s life followed perhaps by marriage to a penniless farmhand, Martha pooled her funds and sailed to the United States.

“I had no choice but to put her up in our spare room,” Ma wrote. “She asks about you all the time–as if you promised her something. Exactly what, I don’t know but she hints that you know about some high-paying job for her with a rich family. She’s helping me for the time being and I can give her a few coins in addition to meals and a bed, but I don’t need help in the house! There’s little to cook or clean with just the two of us.

“It may be best if you just stay in Ann Arbor after the workshop. Martha, you probably remember, was extremely shy with a cabbage-plain face. Not now! She’s not only attractive but bold. She walks up and talks to people at church and down the street as if she’s known them since birth. If I don’t watch her some man from the neighborhood will be running off with her. She seems to trust everyone and imagines Americans to be just about faultless.

“It would be a blessing if she did meet and marry a good man. Somehow, a rumor has gotten about that Martha came here for you, that we had some kind of agreement with her before we left Haren. It’s not true, of course, but it’s not that farfetched. Several women in our church left Holland to marry men to whom they were engaged. But they were sadly deceived. I think that all of them have married other men, but the initial shock of betrayal must have changed their outlook on life. So, as you see, we’ve got a problem here.

“I’m half tempted to take her with me to Kampen. I’m certain that my brother can find some work for her in his book business. That would be a lot better than housekeeping for rich farmers in Groningen. But I don’t think she would go along with me. Somehow your letter convinced her that America is a paradise and she won’t be denied.

“I’ve told her that you are interested in a woman who is going to the University of Michigan with you–that, after working with her at the library for over a year, you know each other very well. A few days later she confided to me that she’d discovered that your friend in Ann Arbor was Jewish and then concluded that you, the only son of Reverend De Oor, could never marry a Jew. ‘So,’ she whispered confidentially, ‘we don’t have to worry about that anymore.’

“Pa, as you can probably imagine, does not take any of this very seriously. ‘Time will tell,’ he says. Meanwhile I’m the one watching the clock while he’s preaching and defending the faith at Beza.

“I never said this to you before but I’ve thought often that he uses his doctrine of providence to avoid responsibility. It’s true, of course, that time will tell, but I’ve always had to twist things around to avoid the disasters that his kind of time might tell.

“And, while I’m being direct,” she continued, “I’m not so readily at ease with your Rachel courtship as your father seems to be. I know her family rather well–her mother at least–and they’re no more enthused about a mixed marriage than I am. It will be complicated for both of you, but her family has an advantage because Jewish women determine the family’s religious identity. Rachel, I can assure you, with an infant at her breast, will be more loyal to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob than to the De Oor clan.

“If I were in her place, I’d do the same thing. That’s the reality you had better recognize. Don’t mistake me. I like Rachel–a lot more than this nosy pest Martha. But I’ll never be the mother-in-law to Rachel that I could be to Martha. Selfish? Yes. I know it is and I expect you to ignore my selfishness. You should! But you should not ignore the likely consequences of your choices. If Rachel should become my daughter-in-law I will love her, and it will not be difficult. But, will she ever be able to love us?

“It’s not strange for people with different backgrounds to fall in love, but loving the other person’s family is another matter. That, I think, is possible only when you know your mate’s family well enough to both love and hate them–when you share the roots to whatever it is you find despicable in them. That has a way of balancing your feelings. But you need to know a lot about a family’s traditions if you’re going to succeed. Some of it can’t be learned– you’re born and bred to it.

“I wonder if Rachel could understand the old farmer who beat welts on his young horse because it refused to pull the family’s buggy with a properly solemn Sunday gait. We judge him to be ignorantly overzealous. But knowing the roots of his behavior it’s hard for us to hate him. Actually we see him as a tragically humorous example of our own traditions gone to excess. So, we smile. Would Rachel be able to join us? Martha would.”

Ma closed her letter with apologies for being so blunt, but she took nothing back. And, knowing her as I did, it was clear to me that she’d written this letter over and over with a dictionary at her elbow.

***

We took our seats in University Hall Auditorium well before Frost’s presentation was to begin. Keeping my promise, I handed Ma’s letter to Rachel. She read it slowly and then, shaking her head in disbelief, said, “That woman–your mother–she’s amazing! She writes so clearly. How long has she been here in America? Five years?”

“She does write well. And it’s been less than four years. Her family, the Helders, are book publishers. Writing is very important to them. We weren’t half settled in Grand Rapids before Ma began to study English. She practiced on me. We read books together. You know, of course, that she joined the Ryerson Book Club. Now she’s its secretary. Mrs. Dumond is a good friend and probably helped with some parts of the letter.”

“Not the last part,” Rachel hoped, “where she says I couldn’t really love your family.”

“No. I’m certain she would not show that to anyone.”

“She has a good point.” Rachel sighed while glancing up from lowered eyes to see if I disagreed.

“I suppose so. But what, precisely?”

“Well, I’m living with the Bordins. He’s Jewish. She’s Danish–and Lutheran. Their first child, Amanda, will go to school next year. But where? They argue about that. The public school or the Lutheran Church school. He says the Lutherans are more German than Lutheran. She says the public school is more Methodist than public. I think she’ll win that one, but they are not Lutheran.

“They’re Unitarians–a way to avoid conflicts about God being just one or three in one.”

“Well,” I said, “we’ve hit that brick wall too.”

After we had admitted to loving each other that day at the lake we had not rushed to public displays of intimacy. We often walked holding hands, loosely tangled fingers. At private partings we stood inches apart looking deeply into each other’s eyes until one of us smiled or laughed–as if the whole experience was too mysterious for words. But Ma’s letter changed us. If our love was going to create such difficulties we needed to know how deeply rooted it really was. Now, looking deeply preceded lingering kisses and sometimes we actually cried. Something so good, so sweet and expansive could not, should not sour into competitive religious bickering, or into silly power plays. We realized quickly that every risk mentioned in Ma’s letter would have to be weighed.

***

“Your father,” Ma’s letter began, “saved us from a barge full of problems and embarrassment. Martha is engaged to marry Jaap De Boer. The whole business was brewing in my own house and I didn’t even notice the monkey until it jumped out of the sleeve.

“Jaap, you probably know, didn’t graduate with his [seminary] class. He needed more courses before he could try to get a church. You remember, I’m sure, that he was thick with Johannes Wheeling and they spent lots of time in Pa’s study last year–about the time Postman was pushed out. So, I didn’t really notice that Jaap’s c
oming here was extraordinary.

“Pa introduced them in the parlor shortly after Martha dropped down on us.   People like your father, Jaap, and Martha come from the flat farm lands where no one is deeply embarrassed by this kind of marriage. Many, many, many of those farm people are nearer to childbirth than they should be on their wedding days.  Then, in his study, Pa told Jaap that Martha had good training to be a preacher’s wife. As our housemaid in Haren she had seen how it was the husband’s responsibility to lead the family. She’d seen how the preacher’s wife needed to be ready for unexpected guests, and needed to keep secrets. Pa remembers saying, ‘Martha’s attractive face does not cover an empty head. She’d make a good wife for you–if she’ll take you.’

“So, he set the trap for Jaap. Pa knows that Martha wants two things very much–a man, yes–but only a man with a decent future. No potato-eater for Martha.

“As things here go, Pa is teaching every morning at the theological school. He comes home for a warm lunch and takes a nap. He goes back to his office at Beza from two to five o’clock. Supper is light so I don’t need to spend much cooking time in the kitchen.

“The afternoon is mine. I go to the library for books, I go to book club every Wednesday and sometimes I see friends like Mrs. Dumond for tea. The church ladies’ group meets every other Thursday. It’s all very regular.

“Jaap discovered quickly that Martha is home alone three afternoons of every week from three to five o’clock. Time after time Pa finds Jaap waiting for him when he comes back from Beza at five o’clock. Usually they go to Pa’s study. Jaap has questions or something to discuss. They have a cigar and a small glass of wine. Martha knocks and brings in a few biscuits. Cozy, no?

“When I come home at about the sixth hour the table is already set for four. Tea is warm over the candle. The bread and cheese are laid out in orderly slices. So, without asking, Jaap is included in the meal time.

“A week ago Pa came home early and went directly to his study. After a short time he heard the front door open and the sound of Jaap’s rather high voice. Pa was not surprised. He kept quiet and had not even smoked his pipe.

“Before long Martha and Jaap went running up the stairs and went directly into Martha’s bedroom. After ten minutes or so Pa got up, opened and closed his study door so it could be heard easily in Martha’s room. Then, with heavy steps, he clumped down the hallway and called for Martha. ‘Can you get me some tea?’

“There was no way for them to hide. When Pa saw them he said simply, ‘You will get married? Soon. No?’

“Jaap nodded vigorously and finding his tongue said, ‘I was planning to ask your permission this afternoon.’

“‘The answer is yes,’ Pa said, and then he congratulated them.

“They will be married in our parlor next month. I don’t expect you to come home for the wedding, but it would be good if you wrote them a letter.

“I know you did not care much for Jaap or Johannes, but this is a special occasion for Martha. I hope she has a good life with Jaap. People like your father, Jaap, and Martha come from the flat farm lands where no one is deeply embarrassed by this kind of marriage. Many, many, many of those farm people are nearer to childbirth than they should be on their wedding days.

“I don’t know if Jaap and Martha will have an early child, but that makes no difference now. They’ve only known each other for one month. She will be a good and dutiful wife, and grateful too for escaping the life of a housemaid.

“Jaap is more of a problem for me. He likes Martha–now for sure. But I don’t think he likes women. In all the times he’s been here, and in all the times he’s taken meals here, he never says more than polite things to me. Too much respect–like I’m a delicate vase that will break easily. He’s afraid of me–of my mind, I guess. Martha has a good mind too. I hope he finds it. He’s certainly found the rest of her.

“Give my greetings to your friend, Rachel. I see her mother every Wednesday, a very pleasant person.”

Herbert J. Brinks is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the author of many works on Dutch-American immigration, including Dutch American Voices: Letters from the United States, 1850-1930 (Cornell University Press, 1995).