Church coffee with a side of disaster

Dutch-Canadian memories of de Ramp, the terrible flood of ‘53.

There were not many options on Sunday afternoons. We were not allowed to do homework. Even workaholic men like my father were not permitted to labor. There was, however, a lot of visiting. Sometimes an invitation was extended in the church parking lot. Other times my parents proposed a drive after lunch and we wandered roads and highways for an hour or two until one or the other commented, “So-and-so lives near here.” Then we’d stop by to check.

Adults drank coffee and kids neon-hued Freshie. Men filled rooms with smoke. If the visit went long enough, shelled peanuts, sour pickled onions or salty potato chips appeared in tiny bowls. Children nibbled and then wandered away to find board games or headed outside for hide-and-seek.

In every Voorkamer

If there were no children or if I’d finished my book in the car, I had one reliable strategy because I knew something about Dutch-Canadian living rooms. It wasn’t just that most had lace-strip curtains along the top of picture windows, or thick woollen rugs draped over coffee tables, or Delft Blue porcelain or, most intriguing, a cuckoo clock.

I knew I could almost always find a copy of De Ramp, “The Disaster.” The front and back covers showed violent waves, the ripples resembling the mottled glass of Opa’s living room door. In the water, a horse and cow wade near submerged bushes.

In 1953, eight years after the end of the Nazi Occupation, the economy still recovering from war, the Netherlands was hit with another catastrophe. A high spring tide combined with a severe windstorm raised sea levels as much as 18 feet, flooding a fifth of the Netherlands. Eight years before, retreating German soldiers vindictively breached dikes, flooding farms with North Sea salt water and forcing many farmers to emigrate. Now nature amplified such devastating fury.

The storm killed 2,000 people in a country of just over 10 million. Scores were buried without being identified. More than 70,000 people required evacuation. Farms and buildings were ruined. It was four years before I was born, but I still heard a lot about it, just as I heard much about the Second World War.

Special offerings were taken in churches, even in Canada, for disaster victims and recovery efforts. De Ramp, published the same year as the flood, was a commemorative volume sold as a fundraiser for relief efforts. It included a foreword by Queen Juliana, a facsimile of her handwritten letter.

Morbid curiosity

I paged through, ignoring the Dutch text but finding the photos fascinating. I studied city streets awash in water. People piling sandbags, clothes and hair tugged and torn by wild winds. Waves sloshing against buildings and through windows, either broken or opened. Grim refugees in flight, wading with blankets or babies in their arms. A devastated greenhouse range stood, twisted into ruin, its huge panes swept into the water.

This was no distant disaster. This happened to people like us, with names like Teun and Ton, Bep and Bets, Ineke and Tineke. They ate kaas and rode kool, cheese and red cabbage. In one photo, a close friend’s father, Bill Suk, was one of a half dozen marines rescuing civilians.

The photos that most captivated me showed bloated black and white cows on their sides in mud, others of horses in similar straits. Dead cattle winched onto barges for disposal. I lingered on the ugly images, feeling shame, as if viewing something that I was not supposed to see. I looked around to see if adults observed my focused attention.

A flood of troubles

Sorrow is thick throughout Dutch history. From the Depression to the Occupation, to the excruciating reconstruction of a ruined economy to the Ramp, the Dutch endured trauma after trauma. No wonder survival was a prevailing motivator for our immigrant ancestors. No wonder they feared so much.

Long before Nazis, the country was occupied by Napoleon and before that by the Spanish. Many died during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Hazards are reflected in common sayings. When a room alive with conversation suddenly falls silent, people comment, Daar gaat een dominee voorbij, “There goes a pastor passing by.” Not because ministers are killjoys. Rather, in Dutch maritime settings, ministers were officially responsible to inform folks when loved ones drowned or went missing at sea. You hoped never to have a pastor suddenly at your door.

Apocalypse and rescue

I grew up attending a church called “Maranatha.” A name inviting God’s return; I liked that. Every week our congregation recited that Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” At school, we practiced duck-and-cover, huddling under desks, in case of an atom bomb. “Turn your faces from the windows,” our teachers admonished. Glass could easily become shrapnel, after all. I hoped God would show up in splendor before it came to that. I expected Christ’s return in my lifetime, possibly within weeks.

I remember coming home from church one Sunday in our bulbous four-door olive green Chevrolet. I can’t tell you who we visited that day or if I’d paged through a copy of De Ramp that afternoon. But as I climbed from the backseat, my father’s smoke billowed out around me and I turned my face to cobalt sky. I checked. Jesus might float down at this very moment calf-deep in bulky clouds. He could arrive just before the next disaster, if he wanted to. It would probably occur on a Sunday I was sure, right after we had done our duty by going to church, acknowledging our faithful attendance, and before the unnecessary second service, and I would be among the first special ones to notice. I was happy to be in on God’s plans, not entirely sure why I got to be part of that special circle.

Or maybe I did think I deserved it.

Excerpted from Shattered: A Son Picks Up the Pieces of His Father’s Rage by Arthur Boers ©2023 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.


  • Arthur Boers

    Arthur Boers is an Anglican priest in Toronto and author of several award- winning books, including "The Way Is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago" and "Living into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions." Excerpted from "Shattered: A Son Picks Up the Pieces of His Father’s Rage" by Arthur Boers ©2023 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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