I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.
- Psalm 27:13-14
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
- Mark 9:35
To explain the verses, Psalm 27:14 is the verse my wife quoted most often, but when you add Psalm 27:13 and Mark 9:35, you get the essence of the woman I married.
The last year that she spent in the Netherlands, she was preparing, along with her family, to emigrate the Netherlands and see if her father could get a decent job in the USA.
Immigration into the USA
The trip from the Netherlands to New York City was my wife’s fourth trip by ocean liner that took her across the expanse of an ocean, but instead of the Indian Ocean, it was the Atlantic Ocean.
She arrived in New York City in 1957, three years after Ellis Island was closed. They had a visa that allowed them to stay for the summer or they would have to go back to the Netherlands if her father did not get a sponsor. They had no money in which to make the return journey, but they played by the rules. Her father applied for any and every job he could find, and he kept looking for a sponsorship to get a longer term green card.
In the meantime, my wife’s mother and her six children huddled in a small apartment. There were two things in the apartment building that they had never experienced. They had an elevator. I will get to the television in a little while. My wife and her older brother were the only school-aged children. The third in line would start kindergarten that year. This meant that my wife and her brother were taught how to use the elevator. They were given tasks and a few coins. They would take the elevator to the ground floor. They would walk to the bodega on the corner. And they would have to ask for what they wanted. If they had a few coins left over, they would have to learn how to say the treat that they desired. My wife’s older brother quickly learned the language, maybe out of greed for the treats, but he learned. Once the family reached their home for the next eleven years, she was still behind with her language. Odd, how someone who talked all the time would struggle with language, but she was not quite seven-years-old.
Before I get to the television, they experienced something in the elevator that they had never experienced before, a man of African heritage. There were dark Indonesians, but nothing like this man. She and her brother huddled in the corner, crying in terror, hoping that the man would not harm them. Whatever the man thought at the time is now a mystery, but all three could not wait for the elevator to stop and someone to get off. It was odd. When they were walking the streets, they did not notice that there were people whose skin was lighter or darker than their own. They only noticed when they were trapped in an elevator.
Now for their first experience with television. The box had sat in the corner, unnoticed, but my wife’s older brother was a precocious child and very inquisitive. He turned a knob on the television which both turned on the television and cranked up the volume to the maximum. And of course, in a situation where no one knew how to turn off the television, the television show had to be something scary. It was “Frankenstein,” the 1931 movie with Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster. Needless to say, when her father returned to the apartment, his wife and all six children were huddled in the far corner of the room, screaming in terror. In disgust, he simply pulled the plug. He then had to give his oldest two children a lesson on what all the buttons and knobs on the television did.
As the day of their visa expiration began to get closer, immigration agents would visit and warn them that they had to be ready to return to their home country.
But with just a few days to spare, my wife’s father not only got a sponsorship, but a job offer. He was being sponsored by a dairy processing and distribution center in El Paso, Texas. He was elated and saddened at the same time. When in the Netherlands, he was unable to get a job as an accountant. The unofficial caste system was still in place and his father had been a milk truck driver. His only job offers in the Netherlands, with experience as a military officer and a degree from Utrecht in Accounting, was a milk truck driver.
But this was God’s hand at work. His sponsor had plenty of drivers. He needed someone who could do both the bookkeeping and the accounting for the company. And what attracted him to my wife’s father was that he had experience as a milk truck driver.
Her Time in El Paso, Texas
As a result, the family would live in El Paso, Texas for the next eleven years. And three more girls would be born. The Catholic church refused to allow them any contraception, even after they had written countless letters, but finally they took matters into their own hands. Nine children, four boys and five girls, was enough, too much for a struggling immigrant who barely had enough to properly feed “most” of his children.
My wife seems to be the only one who remembered the lectures about how the older children would eat less so that the younger children would not be malnourished. She remembered the many nights when she went to bed hungry. After two children, many years later, her metabolism shifted, and dieting reminded her of those hungry nights with little or no sleep. Dieting never really worked as a result. It was during these years that my future wife would get sick and not tell her parents. She once got strep throat with the infection reaching her stomach. She spent a couple of months at home with her lessons being delivered to her until she was better. Some doctors in recent years pointed to that incident as starting her declining health in later years, but she knew her parent’s finances. Her life’s mantra was “I never want to be a burden on anyone else.”
Their father made an edict once they settled into El Paso. They would only speak English. This brought a new type of crying and complaining. My mother-in-law still had a thick accent when she passed away, having spent far more than half her life in Texas. She cried each night in those early days, complaining that English was so hard – the experts calling it one of the most difficult to master. But the edict remained until everyone was comfortable with the language.
And speaking of the language, my wife struggled. She was deemed ill prepared to enter the second grade although she had advanced to the second grade in Indonesia, just to be told she was too young in the Netherlands. Then again, advanced to the second grade in the Netherlands, just to be deemed unable to speak English well when she arrived in El Paso. So, she was in first grade three years in a row. Now, she was older than almost everyone in her grade. She quickly learned the language since she made friends easily. She never met a stranger. And she would excel in school. Her brother was a couple of years ahead of her in school, since his English skills had improved more than hers while in New York City.
If you wondered, my wife’s father graduated from Utrecht in time for the liberation of the Netherlands in World War II. He joined the Dutch Army and was promoted to lieutenant. But since the Netherlands had no officer training school, he was sent to England for his military training. As a result, I find it easy to pick out the Dutch visitors with their penchant for the guttural sounds and Germanic pronunciations and with a thick British accent.
As the family started learning English, with my wife’s mother almost to minimal proficiency, my wife’s father allowed the family to sing songs from the old country on Friday evenings only. They learned the Dutch songs, but also songs from around the world. This started a tradition that would lead to over twenty years of singing at the Texas Folklife Festival and induction into the Texas Institute of Culture in San Antonio, Texas. But it was my wife who sang solo that led to the group singing.
But before we leave the subject of language, there came the time for my wife’s family to become citizens of the United States. They took all the tests in English. They passed their verbal written skills tests. They knew more about the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights than most people born in the USA. It got down to the point where they only had to say the oath and they were then naturalized. After being sworn in, my future mother-in-law was outraged. She wrote to the local newspaper and the advice columnist published her complaint. That was how her family got to know Ann Carroll, like Dear Abby and Ann Landers, but on a smaller scale. The letter started a firestorm which led to more articles in the Ann Carroll column. The question was simple, as immigrated Dutch people, they had to learn English well enough and all the history and civics lessons in order to pass all the tests in English, but the vast number of immigrants who were sworn in that day were from Mexico, but they were afforded an interpreter. Thus, they could not have passed any of the tests. Much of my future mother-in-law’s issues in all the citizenship requirements turned on a difficulty with the language. Their house was egged. They were vilified.
I wrote how the friendship started with Ann Carroll (not her real name), A Servant’s Heart is Born. When my wife lived in Indonesia, each child had a babu. Labor was very cheap there. In the Netherlands, she had chores, but there were cousins to share the chores. The chores were spread out. In El Paso, they had no money. The labor was more expensive. And the Asian tradition of the oldest daughter serving everyone else was invoked. It wasn’t until she met Ann Carroll’s sister that my wife thoroughly had a servant’s heart, loving as she was giving of herself for the benefit of others – even then with family coming first.
Some of her chores expanded as her mother met friends. Her mother would play canasta until my future wife got home from school and then my wife would feverishly clean and cook so that her father did not know that her mother had been socializing with friends instead of keeping up with the house. Maybe that is why those two, mother and daughter, called each other daily and talked up until her mother passed away about six years ago.
My wife always dressed nicely in school. She had a friend who was a lot better off than my wife’s family. They were about the same size, and my wife got a lot of nice hand-me-down clothing.
My wife’s unreadiness to enter second grade soon flipped. She excelled in school and by sixth grade, she was elected student body president. She learned public speaking at a young age and she had no fear of the stage. Because she was a year older than most of her classmates, she got the largest speaking parts in all the plays, often playing the female villain. She especially had the lead singing roles.
When we visited El Paso many years later, she had to go up McKelligon Canyon. She said it was the favorite place for making out, but she was always chaperoned in the few dates she had. She went there for the battle of the bands. With mountains on three sides and deep into the canyon partially on the fourth side, she said that the acoustics were great. We also visited a German restaurant in El Paso that was still in business, but so much had changed by then. She showed me the best restaurant on the north side of El Paso, that served great gorditas. Our only trip to Juarez, Mexico was to a marketplace for things that were authentically Mexican. If you visit there, tip the guy for watching your car, or the same guy will probably be the one to steal your hubcaps, wheels, etc. But with the unrest in the area in the past few years, it may not be a good idea to visit such areas.
She made a little extra money picking cotton and other things grown in the area. As for the cotton, they went into the fields to gather the cotton that the machines missed or fell from the wagons. She never knew how much work it would be to fill a sack full of cotton and then how little a full bag of cotton would bring when she sold it to the farmer. She would buy candy for her siblings, and she rarely ate any herself. She lived in a time when she could walk a couple of miles to school and back without the fear of violence.
Her dark skin tone was always a mystery in the USA. When she was in El Paso, everyone thought she was Mexican. When she moved to Port Arthur, Texas, everyone thought she was Cajun. Even so, her skin tone was about the lightest of anyone in the family. But she was stopped as an adult coming back from Tijuana, Mexico on one trip after getting out of the Air Force. She tried to pass herself off as just another Mexican walking across the border, but the guard had seen enough of them and said she was “something else.” He never guessed it right, but he got closer than most.
There never is a good time to move when you have a large family. Her father got a job in Port Neches, Texas, over eight hundred miles from El Paso and you never left the state. He became the president of a credit union that was attached to a chemical plant run by a tire manufacturer. My wife lacked her senior year of high school, not a good time for her to move at all. On one of the trips, one of the sisters was left at a rest stop. Since her older brother had already finished high school and started college at University of Texas – El Paso (UTEP) about the time the school’s name was changed from Texas Western to UTEP, they carpooled the family in two cars. Up to this point, each child had a chance to dine out with the parents, since they could not fit everyone in one car and did not have the money for all to dine out anyway. But since the family was split in two cars on long trips, they did not notice the lack of one child, the oldest of the three girls born in the USA until they stopped later on. They frantically retraced their steps, and the missing daughter was sitting on the park bench next to the parking lot, according to my wife, hands calmly folded. “I knew you would return to get me sooner or later.” I wonder if other large families could relate to that story.
But thinking of large families, there were a couple of other large Catholic families in their church, and they all became friends. We would end up “adopting” a younger brother while in Europe. He was offered a promotion from an oil exploration company in Alaska, and he refused the promotion, taking a world tour instead. He would buy a Eurail pass and when it ran out, he would knock on our door and yell, “Hey, Mom, I came by for you to do my laundry!” When we visited El Paso, when I taught a course at a steel mill there, I finally met his older sister, who was roughly my wife’s age, best friends for many years.
Her Senior Year in East Texas
During her senior year, she started dating. When she had dated before, she had to have her older brother chaperone, and he was far from kind. During that year, her father would wait up for her, accuse her of things she did not do, and life became miserable. She began to rebel.
Although my wife had only been there for a year, her picture was in the album in five places other than the obligatory school photo. Everyone said she was “cute.” She hated cute. Cute was a girlish attribute. She wanted voluptuous, ravishing, beautiful, etc. – the more grown-up attributes. She was still cute when she passed away. The girlish figure might be gone, but she had a quick wit and an ever-present smile. She was still called “cute” in her seventies, but by then, she had resigned herself to accept it, sort of.
With the fatigue of cooking, cleaning, and for the younger girls, mothering, and then the constant fights with her father, she joined a friend, and they went into the Air Force. It was her friend’s idea, but right after bootcamp, her friend married an airman and she left military service. Now, by herself, she went to medic school and became a surgical technician. But that is where we will pick up next time.
And what is next?
She went to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, MS, and quickly decided that she would never marry a man from Mississippi. That idea did not work out. But her time in the military was during the Vietnam War, and Keesler was one of three hospitals that received the wounded. That’s a good place to start next time. Then there was PTSD upon discharge. And then she met a young guy from Mississippi who had given up on girls about the time she had given up on guys. …
And to all this, I give praise and honor to God. Only He knew that the two of us would one day marry each other.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.
Thanks for another great installment, Mark. This reminded me much of my 14 years working in El Paso, and 22-plus years overall just living north of El Paso in Las Cruces, New Mexico. But despite this, I’m totally hooked on your wife’s story. Looking forward to the next part … and how she met that guy she married!
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She does not meet that guy next week, but, then the week after is another question.
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Ah … looking forward to it!