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Yesterday my husband, Steve, returned home from a long weekend out of town, so we resumed our regular practice of watching an old-school sitcom in bed before going to sleep. Of course, it would be more accurate in my case to say watching it puts me to sleep – at least 80% of the time. Our current show is Taxi. Although I don’t think I’d seen a single episode previously and I find it quite entertaining, my typical timeframe for falling asleep is mid-episode. Sometimes I fall asleep right as the show begins; really, the theme song could be used as a lullaby. I wake up when the episode ends, Steve kisses me good night, pushes the button on our Sleep Number remote to deflate my side of the bed to my preferred level, and I roll over and fall back asleep.

That’s how it goes most nights, anyway.

Other nights, I roll over and instead of falling asleep again my mind becomes preoccupied with something. I struggle to fall asleep before Steve calls it a night and starts snoring, leaving me questioning if I’ll ever sleep again.

Last night was one of those nights. I started to think about my childhood home in Pella, Iowa. I can’t recall exactly how my mind got there, though I had mentioned it to our girls earlier while we were eating dinner. The simple truth is I love Pella. I consider it my hometown, though our family only lived there for five years. We moved to that lovely little town in south-central Iowa in January, 1985, after my dad received a call to pastor one of the Christian Reformed churches there. I was in third grade. It was our second move in just over two years, and moving was not easy for me as a rather shy young girl. To my joy. Pella turned out to be a wonderful place to live out those significant developmental years of upper elementary and middle school. Our oldest daughter, Elly, especially loves to hear stories of my life there—particularly how I would wander uptown to the library, Hallmark store, and the bakeries. To a young girl who isn’t allowed to go more than a block from home by herself it sounds magical, and in many ways, it was.

The author and her daughter Ella at Pella Tulip Time in 2014.

Leaving Pella to move to Portage, Michigan, in January, 1990, in the middle of my eighth-grade-year, was quite likely the most traumatic experience of my life. Due to my shyness, I struggled to make connections, and something broke inside of me that I have spent two decades trying to heal. I can easily drift back into the pain of that time and find it consuming my thoughts. In contrast, my memories of Pella are filled with a sense of contentment and fond reflection of a simpler time. After our move to Portage, we went back to visit Pella twice in the first year and then once again when I was in college. Then I didn’t return for several years. I always envisioned taking my own family there someday, and it took nearly a quarter century for that dream to become a reality.

My dad officially retired from full-time ministry eleven years ago, but like many pastors his age, he never fully retired. His rationale for retiring at 63 was to move back to the Midwest from California, where my dad had served a church for eight years. Shortly after moving back to Michigan, though, he grew bored, and he knew there were a lot of vacant churches in the CRC looking for interim pastors. In the spring of 2013, my parents moved back to Pella, so my dad could be the interim pastor for one of the Christian Reformed churches in town. They had just settled in, and my husband, my sister, and I, five months pregnant with Elly, went to visit them during Tulip Time. I was very excited to go back to Pella and my first Tulip Time in 24 years—except that it snowed, sleeted, and rained. While the townspeople tried to make the best of it—joking that it was the first ever snow at Tulip Time—it was difficult. I wanted to show off my hometown to my husband. It just felt strange and disappointing and nothing like the blue-skies of my memory.

We were able to go back the following spring, just before my parents were about to conclude their time in Pella.  Elly was now eight months old, and we celebrated and experienced Tulip Time and my beautiful little hometown so much more like I remembered it. My mom borrowed a Dutch costume for our little blonde Dutch girl, and we bought a lace hat at one of my favorite stores. I was grateful to be able to be back and show Pella off, because I didn’t know if we would ever make it there again.

My dad’s service to vacant churches took my parents back to Iowa just a few years later. This time they were in a town about 20 minutes from Pella. We went to visit them in the summer of 2018, and then again for Tulip Time in 2019. It was especially fun to bring Elly back when she was old enough to appreciate things that were connected to me. We splurged for grand stand tickets, and Elly was asked by two Dutch dancers to join them for a dance. I’d been a Dutch dancer in 7th grade, and it was great fun watching her do that. Our younger daughter, Johanna, was there as well, though too young to remember our visit.

While some things in Pella have stayed the same, it’s not surprising that many things have changed in 33 years. Part of me wishes the Pella of my youth could have been stored in a time capsule, so I could experience it as it was then. To me, those were the glory days. Bruce Springsteen was probably even singing about them while I swam in the community pool in the summer.

My parents are currently serving a church in Everett, Washington, and we hate having them so far away. They have come home a few times, and are actually on their way back here as I write this. It has only been 10 days since they left the last time, and while they were here two weeks ago, I asked what their plan was after they finished up in Washington. My mom was somewhat evasive in her answer, so I cut to the chase. “Are you going back to Washington in September?”

To my relief, she said that they were not, but her expression made me think there was something else she wasn’t saying. So I asked a follow-up question, “Are you going somewhere else?”

With a twinkle in her eye, she replied, “Yes.”

Feeling a bit annoyed, I asked, “Where?”

Now with a grin: “Pella.”

“That I can get on board with,” I announced, but my mind started working. I was pretty sure that at least three of the five CRCs in Pella had pastors, so I was a bit puzzled. “Which church?”

“Pella Two.” Our former church. Since we were last there to visit, the two-towered red brick church building with the green and white tiled basement floor, where I went to Calvinettes, Sunday School, and made profession of faith, has been condemned and is waiting to be torn down. No one will again walk down the aisle where my dad was rumored to be square dancing in his underwear after preaching a sermon about David dancing before the ark of the Lord. The incredible pipe organ that I watched being installed has a new home. The church has a new building that I’ve never seen, though I’m told it’s very nice, and it has a new name that I can’t remember.

The author’s daughters Elly and Johanna at Pella Tulip Time in 2019.

Things have changed, but one thing has me pretty eager to visit. My parents expect to be living in the parsonage, our old house. That’s what made me mention the house to the girls at dinner and subsequently start thinking about it last night. That’s why I couldn’t fall asleep last night. I was excited at the prospect of showing the girls the inside of my childhood home. It wasn’t something I ever thought would be possible. I started picturing all the spaces, and I experienced a flood of emotions. I felt happiness at first, but then I nearly panicked.

 I couldn’t figure out why I had that reaction, but as I reflected more today, I realized my memories of my childhood in Pella are nearly sacred to me. I was more carefree then and felt more whole. It was a time before my heart was shattered by moving away, a time before I experienced countless struggles to develop meaningful connections with people. I recognize that in many ways I’ve idealized it, but life in Pella sticks in my imagination as normal life. There were moments of laughter too numerous to count and also times of struggle—like the aforementioned rumors about my dad. I went through the usual pre-teen girl friendship drama. I fought with my siblings. I lied to my mom about practicing the piano. I wandered around town alone quite a bit, yet also felt safe. I had a sense of belonging there that I haven’t had since. I think there is fear that going there, being in that house, our old house, will erase my idealized version of life in Pella, similar to my first time going back to Tulip Time.

Having acknowledged the basis of my anxious feelings, I have rediscovered my excitement to go. My mind chooses to retain the best of those years, and that’s what I will get to share with Steve and our girls when we visit in October. I was Elly’s age when I lived there. Johanna is the age I was when my family moved the first time. It will be fun to experience going back with them at those ages, and we will create new memories together in a special old place. I look forward to joining the old and the new and healing some of the pain of the intervening years, remembering that life is filled with highs and lows and change, but in the end there is hope—a hope that isn’t dependent on a changing world, but on a God who never changes.

(Header Image: The author (left) and her sister at Pella Tulip Time in 1985.)

Becky Barkema

Becky Barkema is the daughter and granddaughter of CRC pastors, and a third generation graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary. She resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband and two daughters, and works as a paraprofessional at Dutton Christian School.


  • Joan Huyser-Honig says:

    Becky, thanks so much for this thoughtful essay. My parents both went to Pella Christian High School, and our family visited our Iowa relatives twice a year when I was growing up. We still have loved ones in Pella, and I have a half ring of Pella bologna in my freezer, saved from the last visit. Your words stirred up so many Pella Two memories in the old building, including weddings, funerals, waving cardboard fans during impossibly hot summer worship services–and seeing the minister’s children riding their bikes on Sunday, something we were never allowed to do.

  • Gerald Vander Hart says:

    Becky: I who grew up near Pella and lived in many other places the past 70 plus years, understands.

  • Ardean Brock says:

    Thanks Becky, for the engaging article. It makes me want to go visit Pella. I my mind it seems a bit like Holland, which I love. Maybe there is a size difference? My imagination goes on. Love the picture too! It is a cute as can be. Best wishes in your endeavors.
    Grace and peace,

  • Helen Boertje says:

    I accidentally ran across this lovely reminiscence of earlier days spent in Pella. I did not belong to your denomination but I am very familiar with Pella as I grew up in country school neighborhood near Pella, attended Pella High, Central College and taught for 26 years at Pella High School. It was and does remain quite a safe place for children to grow up in.