I miss the country I grew up in. I went to elementary school in a tiny Midwest town called Hamilton. Mrs. Ferris sat down on the piano bench after lunch and taught us every word of the Star Spangled Banner and other patriotic songs. Our music teacher pushed her cart into the classroom twice a week to teach us a tune about a time for everything from Ecclesiastes, describing how she and her husband gathered stones together.
Since my mom died during that school year, my second grade teacher became a mother figure in my life Reading seemed like a foreign thing when others were up at the front table, while we worked in phonics books and printing pages at our desks. The inkwells our parents used were carved into the top, but we used modern #2 pencils. The chalk dust slid down our throats as we sipped from the white drinking fountain in the room. Those bar-b-q sandwiches and chocolate milk on Fridays were savory treats.
Each Wednesday afternoon after the school bell rang, a few friends and I waved as we walked past our bus driver, from school to our church for Catechism. We spent a nickel or a few pennies on pieces of candy at the Thrift Store, the Food Center, and Ken and Addy’s gas station during that half mile. We spent half of the precious quarter our parents gave us for the offering, giggling on our way.
When we arrived at church, we often had a few moments to slide under the pews in our sanctuary and play minister, “marrying” someone at the pulpit with that giant, gold-trimmed Bible. After our patient Reverend Nieuwsma rounded all of us rowdy kids into a classroom, he attempted to teach us the Heidelberg Catechism, we placed the remainder of our coins into the weaved basket. After another hour, we skipped out to show our fresh stickers on our little books to our parents as they talked with their friends out in the parking lot.
I’m still best friends with several of those dear schoolgirls to this day. We began in the nursery in that big brick church. At four years old, a few very fuzzy memories form, like going one step at a time, holding hands, down the back steps with my best friend Shellie on our way to Sunday School after church. Neighbors and lifelong friends all around diminished worry about signing us in and out or wearing stickers on our backs. Sitting in the front row in the brown tiled room, on those tiny wooden chairs, participating in the singing contests of, “I’ll be a Sunbeam for Him” and “Doo-Lord oh Doo-Lord, oh do remember me!” and especially, “Praise Ye the Lord – Hallelujah!” We gathered cross-legged and squirming as Mrs. Haakma moved the flannel pieces of Jesus, rainbows, or lions in the den.
On cool starry fall nights, I sat on the pile of corn going into the dryer pit, and watched the billows of dust rise up into the dark. My nostrils filled with fresh air as I dreamed, without worry of harm or danger. Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, a big brother or dad had their eye on me as they drifted in and out of the farmyard in their pickups or tractors. A purring kitten was usually cradled in my arms whenever I was in that yard. God always listened as I climbed over hedgerows to pick flowers and spoke through the bubbling creek in the gullies.
Hot steam rose from our meat and potatoes together with our families, partaking in prayer at the beginning, Bible reading and prayer at the end. On Saturday nights, water was heated for the last baths, while most gathered around the Carol Burnett Show for a good belly laugh before sinking into the fresh sheets off the clothesline.
Do you remember the way we took turns swirling the jump rope while we sang our little ditties? Laughing with friends on the bumpy bus ride, gripping your plastic Barbie lunch pail? Drawing pictures of the elementary school addition, sitting on the heater as our little dresses blew up into a dome?
With each new year, more dear friends were added as locker mates, science lab partners, at slumber parties, tennis teams, band trips, “We are the Champions,” in the Pep Band, or the clatter of a ski club bus ride. Grooving in the car, singing girls through McDonald’s, the Country Kitchen ice cream sundaes, riding down the “strip” at the Ottawa Beach. Waiting in line outside the Park Theatre to see the new movie “Grease”. Marching to “Hail to the Victors,” in the Tulip Time Parade behind President Ford as Mr. Smart eyed our straight rows? Teenage girls who shopped downtown Holland in the evening without cell phones and didn’t always make it back home at acceptable hours, didn’t throw our parents into tail spins.
I’ll take the smile of the small town grocery store cashier calling, “Hi there Myrna!” The Memorial Day parade where friends threw candy to my little boys, as they stood with their decorated bikes at the tail end of the procession. I’ll take the nosy church lady knowing all about my business instead of big city people who don’t know their neighbor’s names. It was normal to see the country pastor at the ball game, the local banker in the Sunday School class, as the institutions were intertwined in a natural, patriotic, Bible-based way.
Part of the phenomenon of having lifetime friends could be because of the area I grew up in, and the fact that I haven’t moved too far away. I still live only about 10 miles from that same elementary school today. Some would mock this and say I didn’t get out in the world and accomplish anything, and how great it is to go around the world. Why do I care about that? My life’s been very fulfilling and I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Mind you, I didn’t appreciate all these things about my childhood or even my young adult years at the time. It has taken more years for the value to really sink in.
I’ve traveled to a majority of the states in America, some by car and some by plane. I went to college away from home for four years. I taught elementary school for twenty-seven years, and had a family. I’ve done some mission trips in other states and even a couple other countries. I appreciate the values of our old Christian church, the hymns we sang, and those precious patriotic refrains. Most of the values and experiences the big city offers aren’t my cup of tea. In my opinion, many of the changes in our world since I was a child aren’t exactly good changes. Sometimes I long for a return of those old fashioned community values.
My four remaining siblings all live within 10 miles from me today. My best friends from childhood are mostly nearby too. One of the best things about those rare and golden lifetime friendships is that they share my faith in Jesus.
I’ve made many other friends in the following years or adulthood, statewide, nationwide and around the world, which are silver, but lifetime friends are golden. Best friend Jane used to sing to me, “Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other is gold!” I believe that was another gift from Mrs. Parsons with her little portable marimba on her cart.
In later years, my boys rode their bikes to the nearby elementary school, where I also attended, to climb the dome without fear of kidnappers. My boys got to climb the gullies behind our house and pick flowers to bring them home to mom just like I did. Some might proclaim, “such a boring sheltered life,” or “you haven’t experienced the world!”
I consider myself incredibly blessed to know what a fabulous country we live in. If you call me a country bumpkin that’s a compliment. We cling to our American values of “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.”
When the Star Spangled Banner plays my eyes cloud up, with joy for opportunities and freedom in our beloved United States of America.
God bless America!