It seems to me that my earliest recollection is of a small, dark bedroom with a bed in a corner. The shades were drawn, but the afternoon sun shone through the pin-holes in the green shade.
As I sit here probing into the past, it seems like a long time ago that this happened. They tell me that I was born on Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 1907, soon after my dad returned from the morning service at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And I have no reason to doubt it.
To provide a little context for the story, let me go back a couple of generations. Friedriech Wilhelm Hanko, my grandfather, was born in Prussia, married there and later moved to ‘t Zandt, Groningen, the Netherlands. Friedriech was a tinsmith by trade. My father told me that Grandpa had made the silver candlestick that stood in the Roman Catholic Church in Stadt Groningen.
Grandpa raised his family in the Hervormde Kerk (the State Church) in the Netherlands. From every impression we received, the family did go to church, but were not very spiritual. Herman Hanko, my father, was born into the family on August 4, 1861. Grandpa was of the better class, since he had a business of his own, and was insistent that my father should learn a trade, namely painting and decorating, but did not seem overly concerned about the spiritual welfare of his family. Having been away from home and in the service, my father had not had much opportunity to grow spiritually. This may explain why he was accustomed to using vulgar language. This language was a great offense to his second wife, my mother, and he gradually learned to avoid it.
At age 27, my father married Jeltje Schriemer. They were blessed with the birth of two girls before they immigrated to America.
My mother was born on November 22, 1872 near Harlingen, Friesland, to a poor farm hand, Cornelis Burmania. She and her three sisters were very young when their mother died of tuberculosis. Cornelis married again and had five more children with his second wife.
As the family increased the food became scarcer. My mother spoke of getting a piece of rye bread for supper with a small piece of pork. The girls would push the pork to the end of the slice, so that the last bite would taste the best. Then they were sent to bed, holding their stomachs so that the hunger pangs would not keep them awake.
Mother’s family belonged to the Afscheiding, the Secession of 1834, which was led by Hendrik De Cock. As poor as they were, her father sent the children to the Christian school. Mother told how they passed the public school on the way to their own school and were mocked as “fijner” (pure ones) or “doe akelige Cockseanen” (you hateful followers of De Cock.)1
But when mother turned eleven, her father could no longer support her, so she was taken from school and put to work. She found a job in Leeuwaarden with a rich family. If I am not mistaken, he was the mayor of the town. The mayor lived in a large three-story house. The water for washing, cooking, baking and baths had to be drawn from the canal. Mother ruined her back by hauling water all the way to the third floor, and suffered as a hunch back for the rest of her life.
Her uncle, Doeke Bouma, showed deep concern for her spiritual welfare and often visited her. When he came to see her she was told by her employer that she could visit with him, but had to keep on ironing. On Sunday she prepared the whole family for church. They then stepped into the coach while she hurried to get dressed and run to church. They sat in the rented seats. She often had to stand throughout the service.
At first my mother worked only for room and board, but as she grew older she received wages which she frugally saved for the day when she could get away to America.
At about the age of twenty she did manage to get to America even though it meant that she had to travel third class in the bottom of the ship. When they arrived at the port of Hoboken, New Jersey she had to be deloused along with the others. She never cared to go back to the Netherlands, not even for a visit, for as she said, “I never experienced anything there but poverty.”
She stayed first at her sister Lizzie Goeman, who lived in a house along Chicago Drive, between Zeeland and Hudsonville in Michigan near 62nd Street. She quickly began looking for work. She needed to support herself, but also wanted to save money so that she could get her parents and her other full sister to move to America.
Here we see the amazing hand of providence. My father, who as I mentioned had moved to America with his wife and daughters, had then settled in Grand Rapids to set up his painting and decorating business. The Hankos had not been in this country for long when Jeltje died, shortly after the birth of their third daughter. Father needed someone to take care of the house and children, so he hired Jantje, my mother, as a housekeeper.
Jantje soon became attached to the three Hanko girls, Jennie, Maggie and Henrietta so that after a year or two, and at least one rejection, Herman convinced her to marry him. Rev. Svensma, minister in Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church, married them. Being a Friesian himself, he told my mother that in her case it was too bad that she had to give up her maiden name to take on a German name!2
Fred, Sena, Lucy, Corrie and I were born to this union within the next nine years. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Panic had struck.3 My parents lost their home and were forced to move elsewhere. Because of bad economic times and the lapse in the home decorating business, Father had to work at cutting ice on Reed’s Lake, near present day Calvin College, for a dollar per day. This ice was then stored in shacks to be sold for use in the preservation of food. Mother took in weekly washings to supplement the family’s income.
It was not strange for us to have outsiders in the home with us. My Dad often referred to our home as always having the welcome sign out. In fact, a young man stayed with us for a number of years prior to and after I was born. He was a gloomy fellow whose gloom deepened whenever he failed at business or love. Eventually, he did marry and move out of our home. Another regular visitor was my aunt Lucy who had eleven operations and each time recuperated in our home.
In her younger days, my mother was also neighborhood midwife. She was called on from time to time to deliver a baby, for which she received little more recompense than a thank-you. She sometimes jokingly referred to a ten cent set of salt and pepper shakers for which she had worked all night.
An expectant mother, for whom my mother acted as midwife, died soon after her baby was born. On her deathbed she asked my mother to take the baby, since she wanted it to have a good home. My mother consented, although she already had seven children to raise. After about six months, long enough to become strongly attached to the child, some relative came and demanded the baby on the basis that they had more right to it than my mother had. Since no adoption proceedings had begun, my mother could only turn over the child.
Mother was also known for ability to make coffee in large quantities. In those days coffee was made in a wash boiler. To make the grounds settle to the bottom a dozen eggs were added. At society banquets, or even at neighborhood weddings, my mother was asked to make the coffee. We sometimes received a free invitation to the wedding because of my mother’s ability to make good coffee.
My father was quick-tempered and often impatient. I actually did not learn to know my father well until I was old enough to paint with him in the summer. Then I was sorry that I had not learned before to know his inner kindly nature, his understanding, and also his generosity. The latter went far beyond my mothers who always feared the wolf of poverty at the door.
And so the family lived happily together. Especially Mother strongly exerted a spiritual influence. She knew how to comfort in times of distress, but she also knew how to admonish in no uncertain terms. She was very matter-of-fact, very down to earth. Her stern disapproval of all that was wrong, her quiet admonitions, and above all her exemplary walk of life could not pass unnoticed. One sees that marvelous work of God in gathering His church in the line of continued generations. As a parent works out his or her salvation with fear and trembling a mark is left upon each child either as a blessing or a condemnation, but a mark that is never entirely erased.
A mother who was given only the most basic of educations can nevertheless be used by God to gather, defend and preserve his church from generation to generation even as the promise came to Abraham.
A mother has not lived in vain when in the great day of days she can say, “See us, Lord, and the children thou hast given us, for we are Thine.”
1These schools were not the same as our public schools. They were actually supported by the government but operated by the State Church.
2Burmania was a noble Dutch and Friesian name going back beyond the Reformation.
3The Cleveland Panic (1893-1897) is so named because Grover Cleveland was president when a recession hit as a result of the country going off the gold standard.