Born November 24, 1894, in the second generation immigrant farm and church community of Borculo MI, Geertruida Albertha DeWitt had two older sisters and two younger sisters before she was six.
In April of 1900 they moved to a 160-acre farm in the Upper Peninsula (a 12-hour train ride north). Three years later the first brother was born, after that twin sisters of whom one died at 9 weeks, and finally a second brother in 1907. Thirteen years later when Gertrude was 26 their mother died.
Her father wouldn’t have his girls working in the fields, and though they had plenty of housework, sewing, games, music and books, Gertrude must have had cabin fever sometimes especially over the long winters. She recalled: “When I was about seven, I was trying to go from one end of the kitchen to the other without touching the floor by balancing one elbow on the large kitchen table and the other on the rail along the wall. I fell, hit my head and was unconscious.”
At age 15 Gertrude joined her two older sisters at the preparatory school in Grand Rapids which later became Calvin College. In her second year rheumatic fever sent her home where she finished up her degree and took the county teacher’s exam, but found no local job openings.
Gertrude’s Grandma Weersing showed her an ad and advised her to apply for a teaching position at a Christian school in Sheboygan WI. She got the job but was so homesick she “had to fight to stay on the train” at each stop. It was 11 months before she could go home for a visit. By then she was so homesick she “couldn’t taste anything” and fainted when she got home and saw her mother and sister on the porch. After four years of teaching a class of about 50 third, fourth and fifth graders, Gertrude married Theunis Ribbens, a banker whose sisters were her friends.
Their first daughter was born the next year shortly before Gertrude’s 26th birthday, and the following year they welcomed their first son (who would become my father). By the end of 1929 there were three daughters and three sons in the family. Years later Gertrude said, “I’ve always been happy they differed so little in age; they were such good pals.”
In 1931, seven year-old Anthony died of a ruptured spleen after falling (with a push) into an open basement at a construction site. Gertrude’s story of that time is the most riveting of her life as we grandchildren read it in the “Mother’s Memories” her daughter compiled. “The following year God gave us another blessing. Charlotte Anne, our seventh child, was born November 25, 1932, the day after Thanksgiving Day which was also my birthday,” she wrote. Later in a taped interview with me, Marjorie Anne, her oldest granddaughter, Gertrude spoke tearfully of the night she wrestled with God for little Charlotte who was burning with fever.
Theunis had left the bank and was working as a purchasing agent for American Chair Co. During the Depression his job continued but with reduced salary. The year their oldest daughter graduated high school and wanted a college education (1938) Theunis was elected alderman for their ward. He was reelected every two years, and all six children went to Calvin. Gertrude added to the family’s income by taking on extra sewing.
Recalling her relief after her sons returned from the Army and Navy after WW II, Gertrude said: “I had always liked the study of History, except for the wars. I didn’t even like to read about those. I’m glad Anthony was not here to be called into service; with his quiet nature it would have been so difficult.”
When Char was a freshman at Calvin Theunis was asked by Mr. Hekman of Hekman Biscuit Co. in Grand Rapids to work there as a traffic manager. Gertrude never really had to face an empty nest. She was glad to be surrounded by many of her children and grandchildren for the rest of her long life.
To those who moved out of Michigan she wrote frequent lengthy and newsy letters. After Theunis died she moved in with Char and Ade. By then she was quite deaf. Whenever I visited we’d play Scrabble and she’d usually win. My parents said it was because being deaf she could tune out all distractions. At age 96 she wrote: “My arm is healing slowly, but Dr. says it’s going to be OK. I have already been washing dishes and embroidering, two of my favorite pastimes. And of course reading. I never get tired of that, tho’ my eyes do. I have my application in at a retirement home now. The children feel the time has come for me to live in such a home. So I’m content and willing to go if that time comes before my call to a Better Home. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing most of my great-grands this year.”
Grandma wrote me several more joyful, loving letters after her move, and I was privileged to visit her several times there at Raybrook where she enjoyed encouraging others. She died two months before her 99th birthday.