January 20th 2016 - I moved to Europe in search of work, just as many people from other countries have moved to the USA. The unemployment rate in the Midwest, where I’d lived and attended university, had exploded, and I was unable to find work. A friend living in Germany told me that there was work there, and I was desperate enough for a teaching job that I moved to a country where I knew only one person and did not speak the language.
After finally finding work teaching at a language school and becoming settled in Munich, I decided to track down my maternal grandmother’s relatives. My mother’s parents had emigrated from the Netherlands to the USA in 1911. My mother never learned Dutch and had no contact with the relatives. Because I did not speak Dutch, a Dutch acquaintance accompanied me to the Netherlands, to the address on an old letter to my grandparents that my mother had sent me. We found a brick house with a thatched roof, dark green doors and shutters, and windows trimmed by lace curtains; it had been built by my grandmother’s now-deceased brother Dirk in 1925. We knocked on the door, and my acquaintance introduced me to the startled woman, who had had no contact with my family in decades. Once the Dutch relatives overcame their shock, and despite the years of no contact and my inability to speak Dutch, they welcomed me warmly.
After this short introduction, they invited me back for a visit later in the year. I arrived a few days before Christmas, and my mother’s cousin Betje ushered me into the bedroom that I would share with my second cousin, Margje. After unpacking, we went into the living room next door, where Dirk’s wife, my great-aunt “Tante” Cori, lived. After greeting her, I looked up and caught my breath. There on the mantel was a two-foot-tall porcelain doll, wearing a long dress, a white lace headdress and coral necklace. In halting Dutch, I asked, “Was this my grandmother’s doll?” Tante Cori nodded, saying, “Your grandmother’s brothers took the doll out of her suitcase and hid it right before she left for America. They were angry that she was leaving.”
This doll had gained almost mystical status following repeated stories that my mother had told me while growing up in Iowa. My grandmother was very sorrowful that the doll had remained in the village of Doornspijk when she followed my grandfather to America. She’d packed it to have a tangible reminder of her family, especially her mother, whom she missed desperately; but it had remained in the homeland.
When I asked Tante Cori why my grandparents had left, she began to reply, “I was 13 years old then and . .” but became unable to speak; her face contorted and she rushed from the room, leaving her daughter Betje to finish the story. “Your grandfather had stolen chickens and he would have had to go to jail,” she explained. “It was a great disgrace, so he decided to leave for America.”
Of course, Grandma felt compelled to join her husband in forging a life in a foreign country, making the ocean crossing with my uncle, who was two years old, my mother who was one, and another child on the way. Emigrating to the USA was difficult for my grandmother, who did not speak English. She was far from all that was familiar and yearned for that doll – and for her mother, whom she never saw again after boarding a ship to America in 1911.
Just as my grandmother and her family grieved when she moved to the USA, my mother cried (one of the few times I’d seen her do so) when I moved to Europe. She thought that she would never see me again. I hadn’t realized how alone I’d felt in Europe, far from family and friends, until I saw my grandmother’s doll, 65 years after she’d been separated from it. The longing and sense of loss were palpable – for my mother and my grandmother.
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