No one else spoke to me about my mother. Not my kindergarten teacher, not the kids in my class, not the neighbors, not people from our church.
So begins this memoir, describing the confusion of Jane Griffioen as a four-year old, totally puzzled as to why her mother was taken away on a stretcher from their home – because this time she did not return with a baby, as she had at other times.
The memoir is dedicated to her mom, who had a difficult life. She found comfort by standing over the kitchen’s register: “Mother often stood there on the register, leaning against the corner where the vine-printed wallpapers met. Quiet, arms crossed, cardigan sweater over her housedress, slippers on her feet.” Jane’s mother suffered from severe depression, and ends up in a mental hospital, but the illness and hospital are not named. Eventually, the secrets and complexities of her situation come to light.
Jane grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, often referred to in our Reformed communities as the “Jerusalem” of Calvinistic churches. Many Christian Courier readers may relate to the Dutch traditions like Sunday beef roast dinners, peppermints handed out during the sermon, windmill cookies dipped in coffee, strict rules about Sabbath observance, and weekly catechism lessons that teach the three forms of unity (which I suspect most Reformed church members today may have not have read, or may not even be able to name). After-church coffee conversations discuss the sermon, and the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the “dominee,” as well as criticisms of the songs. (“They are Arminian” and “Why do we need a new hymnal? What’s wrong with the red one?”)
This cultural paradigm is exemplified (almost ridiculed) by the notion of the “antithesis,” a concept that is often referred to, though never quite fully explained, in the book. But it clearly delineates two columns: “them” and “us,” a divide between not just the “world” and the church, but also by conflicting theologies (like Arminianism vs Calvinism, free will vs predestination).
Conflicts arise when boys come to date and are not members of their church, and pick up the daughters to attend church wearing jeans! Griffioen’s anecdotes of talk in the community poignantly illustrate the damning effect of gossip, and how it destroys community and trust. Equally harmful is the silence surrounding her mother’s hospitalization. It reflects the inability of the church community to face the pain of mental illness, and the resulting sense of deep shame for those who experience this pain (and their families). But it’s touching at the end to read about the mellowing of her dogmatic father as he ages.
Jane rebels against the strict rituals expected by the church community, but despite her own deep pains and struggles, eventually comes round to espousing the same doctrinal principles – and even teaches catechism (involving some controversy being female). That transition in her life is not clearly explained, and I would have liked to read more about how this change developed.
The experiences described in the book illustrate how ingrained rituals of religion and worship can become, how they subtly become part of our DNA, and how hypocrisy, narrowness and judgmentalism seep into our communities. The book illustrates how doctrines, categories and labels can divide and separate us from the love that Christ exemplified.
The climax of the book comes at an anniversary celebration of the Grandville Avenue church, a reunion where all the different factions come together. It’s not a Hallmark moment; but a time of realistically facing the brokenness in humanity we all face – and are part of – in the middle of grace.
Griffioen’s story is a courageous one. And I think anyone who has grown up in a tight, judgmental and dogmatic environment might find traces in their DNA of that scourge, leaving us all limping, as Jacob did when he wrestled with the angel.
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