Monday, February 28, 2011

The Autobiography of Dora Van Assen- Chap. 1 & 2


The Answer To The Dream

"Mother"!  Children!  Come here!  Come here!  I have wonderful news!" shouted my father, his deep blue eyes twinkling with excitement.  "The Lord had done a wonderful thing for us.  There is a Dutch company advertising that they will pay half our passage to America if we sign an agreement to work out the rest of the fare by plowing on some prairie land they own over there,"  Thus began God's answer to my father's boyhood dream.

Dad had come from a very poor people, and when he was only eight years old, his father had died.  He only had about a year-and-a-half of schooling, and he then had to go to work in a stable.  When the owner of the stable would go to town, my dad had to go with him, and it was his job to hold the horse while the farmer was conducting his business.  As he waited, he was required to remove his hat and keep it under his arm as a show of respect to the farmer.  He just hated the fact that he always had to take off his hat for that rich man, so he longed for the day when he would be his own boss.

During those years his mother began to have seizures while going through the change of life.  Sometimes, when my dad would come home, he would find his mother in one of those spells, and she wouldn't have made anything to eat.  Then, occasionally, the neighbor lady would knock on the wall and say, "Come on over here, Klaas.  We have some food for you."  And she would give him some bread with cooked potatoes that she had made into a sandwich.  If he was still hungry, he would ask her for more, but she would say, "There are a lot of  sacks that are only half full that are tied up, so just pull in your belt another notch and go on to bed and go to sleep"  Many nights he would cry himself to sleep, still hungry.  My father began to dream of coming to America.

I often heard him say that America was the land of opportunity for man, the "promised land" for today.  And I can see that my father was right, for even on our dollar bill it says, "The New Order of the Ages," and "In God We Trust."  This country was built upon a new order, a new way, the order of democracy.


So, my family began to save all the money they could.  There were nine of us children at the time, ranging in age from one to about seventeen, and everyone who could contribute did.  (There had actually been ten children, but one little girl died very young.)  I was next to the youngest, and didn't really understand what was going on.

Even though she had all of us to care for, my mother began sewing for the neighbors and saving that money for the trip.  She had had one year extra in school to learn to be a seamtress, and by the time she was twelve, she carried a little hand sewing machine from door to door to get work.  Now her talent was again earning money.

My three older brothers, Nick, Pete, and Bill, all about a year apart, were also working.  They graduated from grammer school at about twelve years of age, and then they went to work.  That money was put with my mother's sewing money and the money by father got when he could contract extra jobs. 

When they had saved enough for one fare, they sent my seventeen year old brother, Nick, on to America with some other people so he might go before us and scout out the land.


Finally, the glorious day arrived when there was money for the rest of us to book a third class passage.  With trembling and excitement, wonder and expectation, we packed our meager belongings and boarded the ship to America.

I really don't remember the trip, but I do know that my baby brother, Jan William, cried endlessly, struggling against the fever and sickness that had begun to rage in his tiny body.

At long last, the Statue of Liberty came into view, and the people on the ship cried and cheered and waved their arms and hugged one another in an outpouring of exhaustion, joy, and relief.  For all of us, the Statue of Liberty was the symbol of a new life.

We landed at Ellis Island, and I know that must have been a humiliating experience for everyone, because we all had to strip and be hosed off and deloused.  Eventually, all of were processed through, and we were permitted to go on our way, which for our family meant boarding a train for North Dakota.

By this time, the baby seemed worse, and the group we were traveling with tried to persuade my mother to stay in New York until he was better.  But, not knowing the language, my mother was unable to communicate with anyone and didn't want to leave her husband and children.  So she traveled on with the rest of us, doing her best to make the baby comfortable as we headed for the train station.


We must have been quite a spectacle, all ten us carrying bundles, trying to stick together in the enormous crowd being herded toward the train station.

My older sister, Tilly, was holding my hand, but I was scarcely able to keep up, being only three-and-a-half.  Suddenly, a huge, black porter scooped me up in his arms and began to carry me.

My brother, Pete, screamed, "Watch her!  Watch her!  Watch him!  Watch him, he's going to steal her."  Pete managed to get hold of one of my arms and Tilly got hold of the other arm, trying to hold me, but the man just kept walking with me.  All the while, I was screaming bloody murder!

When we got to the depot, the porter set me down on my feet and he held out his hand to my father.  My father had a big, long coin purse, and he was going to give the porter a dime, but the man reached into my father's purse and grabbed a dollar, and off he went. 

My brothers and sisters were still talking about this black man after they got on the train.  Since they had never seen a black man, they assumed he was an Indian, badly burned by the sun.


Although my life in Holland and the trip to America are a blur in my mind, the train ride left a lasting impression..  Perhaps it was because I had never been on a train before.  In Holland there are a lot of canals, and our modes of transportation were skating or sled sailing. 

Here we were, all of us with our name and address or our destination pinned on our back, huddled together, traveling into unknown territory.  But God's hand was upon us, and He supplied grace and strength for our journey.

My mother had made a huge basket of food for the trip, but since we were traveling three nights and three days from New York to North Dakota, that basket soon became empty.  We smaller children began to get hungry, and we were whining and crying and giving my mother a hard time.  Between us carrying on and the baby still being so sick, I don't know how she stood it.

None of us would get off the train to try to get food, because we didn't know how to speak English.  Finally, when the train stopped, an American lady got off and when she came back, she had a huge bag of shiny red apples, and she passed these out to us children.  That was the first time I ever had a whole apple all to myself, because in Holland we were peasants, and each apple was cut in four pieces and shared among us.   When I looked at that American lady, I thought to myself, "All the women in America must be angels."


The view outside the window was dry and bleak with dwarfed, scrubby plants and dust blowing everwhere.  The whole time the train was crossing the country my father sat gazing out the window saying, "What are we going to do?  What are we going to do?  There isn't any water."  All those miles and miles going across that dry prairie, all he could worry about was the water.  "How in the world are we going to raise anything?  How are we going to grow anything if there isn't any water.?"

So, you see, it was a daring adventure.  It took courage and it took faith in God and himself for him and my mother to come to America, but it was something that changed all of our lives.  God is so wonderful, He never failed to provide for us.  I can see, looking back, that God was directing us the entire time.  We lived the reality of the scripture that says God directs the steps of a man.


It was March 1911 when we arrived in Delfield, North Dakota.  It was extremely cold, and there was snow on the ground.  Jan William's condition had grown worse by the day, and by the time we arrived at our diestination he was gravely ill.

We had a trunk with us, and my mother had made a little cradle in the trunk for him.  He wailed incessantly.  Finally, though, he stopped crying, but then my mother and father and brothers and sisters all began to cry.  I remember thinking, "This is really strange.  When he was crying, nobody else cried.  But now that he has stopped crying everybody else is crying."  I didn't realize that he had died and they were all grieving for him.

In this rural town they had no facilities for funerals, so they kept the baby for three or four days waiting for a mortuary to come.  Finally my mother lined an apple crate, and they placed the baby in it.  Then my father put the apple box on a sled and took it out to the prairie where he buried the youngest member of our family.


Many times I have wondered why that innocent little baby died at a year-and-a-half and I was allowed to grow into my mature adulthood and have such a glorious life in the gospel and I questioned, "Why, Lord?"

And the Lord made it know to me that I would see Jan William again, and that he was maturing in the invisible realm and he wasn't just going to be a baby or a little cherub.  There is no age in spirit.  There's no space in the spirit realm.  There's no time in spirit; we're all equal.  He is going to know as much as I know, and his life is just as fruitful in spirit as it is on this side.

Now, at one time, I believed in a literal resurrection.  I thought that graves were going to topple over, and people were going to rise out of the cemeteries.  Then, I began to think that if he was only a year-and-a-half he would need a mother to take care of him.

As I matured in God, I realized that there is no waste in Him; nothing is lost and everything is moving onward according to His own plan, purpose and blueprint that He had in His heart before He ever brought forth creation.


Having been peasants in Holland, we were used to hard times, but life on the North Dakota prairie was harder than we had imagined and we encountered other great difficulties.

One day my father and brother, Bill, the third oldest, were out plowing a large section of land with a team of horses.  There was also an American man plowing a field nearby.  It was still early in the day, but this American came over to my dad and motioned for him to unhitch the horses and go home.  But my father wouldn't do that because he wanted to put in his hours so he could pay off his debt.  However, this man pointed insistingly to a little black cloud in the sky.

Well, my father looked at that cloud and he didn't think it looked serious enough to scare anybody.  he just thought the man was crazy.  The American unhitched his team and went home as fast as he could, but my father just wouldn't budge.  He stayed and plowed another lap around the section, which took quite a little while.  But, something told him to look at the sky again, and when he did he saw that the little cloud had swelled enormously and the wind was becoming wild.  My father decided that they had better do what the American man had done and head for home as fast as they could.

Before they reached the safety of the house, the storm exploded.  Thnder crashed like firing cannons, and lightning ripped the sky apart.  Razor-sharp rain and hail bombarded the earth.  By the time they got to the dry wash by our house, it had become a raging torrent and they were unable to cross.  The only shelter my father and brother had were the horses, so they huddled beneath them until they were able to get home.

Hail the size of eggs blasted through the kitchen window and the thunder and lightning were so terrifying that I tore up three flights of stairs to the attic and hid under my brother's bed.  It was a storm none of us forgot.


Although there were many hardships on the prairie, there were delightful times as well; like the morning my sister Tilly and her future husband, Tom Hendriks, went with a group of young people to a small cafe for something to eat.  They were still struggling with English, so when the waitress asked for their order, Tom blurted out, "Paan-ka-kes and ecgs."

The waitress' face rearranged into a bewildered expression.

Tom thought for a minute, stood up, flipped his arms like a chicken and crowed, "Cocka-doodle-doo."

Everyone roared with laughter.  "Oh", the waitress concluded, "You want pancakes and eggs."


We had come to America with dreams for a better life and, certainly, the opportunities were available.  Some from our group remained in North Dakota and eventually bought land even became wealthy.  But my father and mother just couldn't stand the harsh weather and began to consider moving to a warmer climate.

My father, older brothers, and two oldest sisters all worked for the company who helped pay our passage and they were able to pay off the debt in seven months.  Then we were free to leave!

My oldest brother, Nick, who had been sent on ahead before we left Holland was in California.  He wrote us describing the mild climate and said there was a Dutch settlement and even a Dutch Reform Church there.  It didn't take my parents long to decide that California was the place we should settle.  So, we left our ice skates and red, long underwear in a corner of the attic and packed up what remained of our family and headed west.

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