Family Histories

Personal Reminiscences and Memories of my Paternal Grandparents: Robert and Grace Swierenga


 by Robert P. Swierenga

     During my childhood in Cicero, Illinois, I always lived within a half mile of the home of my Grandpa and Grandma Robert and Grace Swierenga, whereas my maternal grandparents, the Reverend Peter and Alice Hoekstra, moved from Cicero to Hanford, California in 1940 when I was only five years old. Until that time, they too were living less than a half-mile from my home.  So Grandpa and Grandma Swierenga played an integral part in my growing up, whereas I saw Grandpa and Grandma Hoekstra only for a week or two every few years.


     In these early years my parents rented the first floor of a two-flat at 1625 South Austin Boulevard from 1934 until 1938, which was less than half a block south of my Swierenga grandparents' home at 1534 South 59th Court. The backyards of the two homes adjoined a common alley, with the only barrier being Sixteenth Street, which bisected the alley. My mother and I, and later my brother Raymond and sister Alyce, walked over to Grandma's house several times a week. As a toddler of two years, I even ventured to Grandma's house once on my own, to the dismay of my aunt Etta, who saw me cross the busy Sixteenth Street.  Ironically, thirteen years later, while delivering newspapers after school on a rainy afternoon, I was struck by a taxicab while crossing Sixteenth Street at the very spot I had safely crossed as a toddler. Fortunately I was only bruised and cut and not seriously injured. 


     My Hoekstra grandparents lived in the parsonage of the Second Christian Reformed Church of Cicero at 1406 South 58th Court, which was two blocks north and two short blocks east of my home. When my parents bought their first home in 1938 at 1230 South 59th Avenue, the trip to my Grandma Swierenga's house became four blocks, which was too far for walking.


     Customarily, our family visited Grandpa and Grandma Swierenga every Sunday after church and once or twice during the week with Mother. "Grandma's house" was the regular gathering place of the clan on Sunday morning after church for coffee "and". Thanksgiving feasts were also held in Grandma's big dining room. While the adults discussed church and business affairs, the children played games outdoors or indoor depending on the weather. Parcheesi and caroms were our favorite indoor games at Grandma's house. The empty lot next door was a perfect place for running and throwing games. The concrete sidewalk and alley lent themselves to hop-scotch or jump rope. And the concrete steps of the front porch made an excellent court for throwing a tennis ball against the steps, with the object being to carom the ball off the sharp edge of a step and thus propel it beyond the reach of the player trying to catch the ball.


     During school vacations it was a big treat to ride for a day with Grandpa in his two-ton delivery truck. He parked the truck in a specially-built garage at the back of his home, backing it in from the alley. I would sleep at Grandpa's house overnight on these occasions, awaken with him around 5 A.M. for an early breakfast, and then go with him to the South Water Street farmers' market where he bought fruits and vegetables from the commission houses and vendors for his store on Randolph Street.  I helped him load his truck, had an apple or orange for a treat, and then we went to the store until about noon where we unloaded and reloaded the truck for the afternoon round of scheduled deliveries to retail grocery stores around the city but primarily on the west side. With the last delivery made in mid-afternoon we headed for home, where I arrived tired but contented.


     Then it was time for Grandma's dinner, which always included potatoes, a vegetable, meat, and gravy. Cucumbers in vinegar sauce and applesauce (appelmoes) added flavor. Mashed potatoes was a treat usually reserved for Sundays and holidays, although sometimes at midweekly meals, potatoes and vegetables such as carrots, cabbage (boeskool), kale (moes), or turnips would be mashed together in the Dutch way. For dessert the favorite treat was the traditional Groningen dish "soep en brij," a porridge of buttermilk and barley served hot and sweetened with white sugar.  Dessert on Sunday, however, was rice pudding. 


     I particularly remember several things about Grandpa at meal times. After opening with a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the food and for safekeeping throughout the day, he would take up his primary eating utensil, a short four-pronged, pickle fork with razor sharp points. This instrument likely had been brought from the Netherlands. I always watched for Grandpa to prick himself on the mouth with his unusual table fork, but he never did, much to my surprise. Second, Grandpa craved a strong horse-radish mustard (Dutch-style "Koops Mustard"), which he spread liberally over his meat and potatoes. The taste of one finger tip dipped in his sauce was forever enough for me, but he loved the spice and tang. Third, after the meal and devotions were finished (Grandpa always read a Bible passage and prayed), Grandpa took a glass of baking soda and water to quell heart-burns. He long had digestion problems, but never complained and seldom sought medical attention. The caustic baking soda regimen, which Grandpa followed for more than ten years, likely contributed to the esophageal cancer that resulted in his premature death at age 61 in 1949. After the baking soda, Grandpa lit a cigar, his favorite after dinner treat. He had already smoked several cigars on the truck or in the store. His cherished cigar stand is now in our home.


     Several times in the 1940s, when Mom and Dad traveled to California to spend several weeks of vacation with Grandpa and Grandma Hoekstra, my brother Ray and I would stay at Grandma Swierenga's house. This was a time of the "Monopoly craze" in our lives, and I remember that we played virtually non-stop except for the interruptions of morning and afternoon school sessions.  The game board was left on the den or bedroom floor and we played before school, during the lunch hour, after school, and in the evening until bedtime. The game went on indefinitely because we broke the rules and made unlimited "loans" whenever one of us faced bankruptcy.


     At that time, Grandma had several other permanent boarders--Margaret Dykstra and Betty Vanden Berg, young single women who were studying in preparation for going to the Nigerian mission field of the Christian Reformed Church. They did not eat with us, so we had little to do with them.


     The front two-thirds of the basement of Grandpa's house on 59th Court in 1940 was made into a cozy one-bedroom apartment for my Aunt Etta and her new husband Uncle Paul Tuitman. So we children sometimes were invited to have dinner "downstairs." We accepted with some fear and trepidation because Aunt Etta was a more venturesome cook than Mother. She experimented with recipes from magazines. Whether the recipe succeeded or failed, we had to "try" a little of everything and "finish our plates," no matter the excuse, before we were permitted to leave the table. Once we had a dessert concoction that included orange rinds, which we ate only after much protest. Of course, we not only survived, but thrived on Grandma's and Aunt Etta's cooking. Nevertheless, when Mother and Dad returned home from California, we were more than ready to return home too.


     Thanksgiving dinner was truly a special day at Grandma's house. After attending church services in the morning, the entire family gathered. The women worked in the kitchen preparing the turkey with all the trimmings while the men watched on T.V. the traditional pro-football game featuring the Detroit Lions hopefully playing Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers. Uncle Ralph was a sports enthusiast and insisted on watching the game, but Dad and Uncle Paul would usually talk instead. After the meal, the men and older children played "Rook," the "approved" card game, while the women cleaned the dishes and made turkey soup.  In the evening, after a light snack of turkey soup and turkey sandwiches, we all attended the traditional Thanksgiving evening concert of the Knickerbocker Male Chorus, in which Dad, Uncle Ralph, Uncle Hank, and earlier Grandpa (and later myself) all sang. Dad and Grandpa were baritones, Uncles Ralph and Hank sang first tenor, and I was a second tenor. The concert was usually in the spacious First Christian Reformed Church of Cicero and was so well attended that all seats were filled long before the opening number. The chorus was comprised of Dutch-Americans of Christian Reformed and Reformed Church membership living on the west side of Chicago and suburbs. In his younger days Rob played the cornet and was assistant conductor of the Excelsior Band of the Douglas Park Christian Reformed Church. He also sang in the church choir and was its assistant conductor.


     By 1945-1950, over twenty-five persons crowded around Grandma's dining room table on Thanksgiving Day. The table had been extended to the maximum, with every available chair pressed into service. Ray and I, as the oldest grandsons, felt a special obligation to prove our manhood by eating the men "under the table." The main rival in our minds was Uncle Hank, our favorite uncle who was then in his early to mid-twenties, eleven years my senior.


     What do I remember about Grandpa and Grandma?  Grandpa was a relatively tall man at 6 feet and solidly built. He was a serious man but gentle and soft spoken. I never recall him losing his temper, shouting, cursing, and being abrasive. "Rob," as he was known, was respected by all his friends and business associates for integrity and honesty. He would truck with no blackmarket dealings in rationed foods during the Second World War. As an orphan himself, widows and orphans held a special place in his heart, and he would quietly drop off 100 pound sacks of potatoes to widows with large families. The church--first Douglas Park Christian Reformed Church, of which he was a charter member, and then the Second Cicero CRC, chose him often for the office of deacon and elder. The Timothy Christian school society also named him to its board.


     Grandpa encouraged me to do my best in school and proudly wrote his advice and best wishes in my 8th grade graduation "memory book". To my sorrow he died the same year I graduated, about 10 months later. So I did not know him as an adult.


     Grandma lived over seventeen more years and we had a much longer association. She not only attended our wedding, but Joan and I lived in her basement apartment the first three months of our marriage. (Uncle Paul and Aunt Etta had purchased their own home by then.) Grandma also visited in our homes in Pella, Iowa in 1959 after Bobby was born and in Iowa City in 1964 after Sarah and Celia were born. Dad and Mom brought her along when they came to visit.


     As newlyweds, being under her roof, Grandma accepted a special responsibility to advise me about my responsibilities as a new husband. I must, she insisted, buy the bride her new bedroom suite rather then be satisfied with a used set offered by my folks. We bought a blonde-colored suite that was popular in the fifties.


     As a housewife and homebody, Grace was the boss of her domain. She ruled the kitchen, the children, and the home. She was a fanatic for clean windows, so in the early and mid-1950s, after Grandpa died in 1949, Grandma insisted that I and Ray (and later Don) come over on Saturday to wash her windows and cut the grass. We were the oldest grandsons and lived the closest (at that time we lived only two blocks away at 1418 South 58th Court), so the task fell on us, reluctant as we often were. But we loved Grandma and later we never regretted having had the opportunity to help her. She was always so cheerful and made sure she had treats for us.


     Grandma had another "carrot" for us. Uncle Hank, who still lived at home, bought a T.V. set! So sometimes we were invited on Saturdays to watch "Big Ten" basketball, the Ozzie and Harriet Show (a situation comedy), and professional roller derby and wrestling matches. Grandma quickly became a T.V. addict and enjoyed her favorite evening programs. We wondered when Uncle Hank got to watch his T.V. set. But he was busy dating or out 2with friends in the evenings.


     Grandma was slightly overweight, usually jovial and contented, and she ruled her home with stern authority. Her word was her command, and woe be the youngster who challenged her.  This penchant for assertiveness and control of any situation is remembered as a Dykhuis character trait. My mother has often observed that my dad "is a Dykhuis" when he acts in the same way as did his mother. But Grandma was too loving and expressive of her feelings of love for one to think of resenting her control.   Her loving discipline was a light discipline. When I visited Grandma in Rest Haven for the last time a few weeks before her impending death, along with Joan, Bobby, Sarah, and Celia, it was a difficult thing for each of us to hug her and say our last goodbyes. Her body frail, and short of breath, she longed for Heaven and to rejoin her beloved Rob in Eternity.


August 1994, revised July 2003