A long time ago, a nurse in the Dutch army met a seaman in the American Navy at an officer’s club in the Philippines. He was composed of wasn’ts: he wasn’t an officer, he wasn’t Catholic, he wasn’t going to be her husband. And yet, they dated. And yet, he proposed. And yet, she said no (due to his lack of Catholicism). And yet, he became Catholic (one of the most devout I’ve ever known). And yet, they got married. And yet, despite the wasn’ts, they lived happily ever after.
Or something like that.
I inherited many things from my grandmother. My curly hair, my short, thick, graceless fingers, my Dutch heritage, my liberalness, and this story. This is the story of how my grandmother met my grandfather, how I moved to Europe, and how, for one week, I got to revisit the past.
When my older sister turned 13, my grandmother took her and my two other cousins–also Dutch, also 13–to Holland. They spent a few weeks traveling as my grandmother introduced them to the place that she’d come from.
We come in sets, my cousins and I, like littermates. We’re grouped in increments, occurring every few years. Katie, Meredith, and Dennis were the first set to be taken to Holland. They were also the last. Beppe died four years later.
I grew up knowing that, one day, I’d go to Holland. I thought it’d happen with my grandmother, then later, there were talks about aunts or uncles or parents stepping in to finish the tradition that never was. Because, if there was one thing that my grandmother valued, it was the connection between her old country and her new. We always had cousins and great-aunts and family friends visiting. She hosted nieces and nephews, sent her own children to spend summers in Holland, visited at least once a year. She never moved back but she never moved away.
A year ago, I had some last-minute time-off. Almost immediately, I knew: this is it. It’s time to go to Holland.
Things exactly one year ago were a whirlwind. I had a puente where I went to England, then I was home for two days, then I was on a train to Cadiz for carnival. And then, directly from carnival and still very much hungover, I’m on a plane to Amsterdam. I’m going to the grandmotherland.
I arrived in Amsterdam late on Sunday evening with a bit of a hangover, a bit of a cold, and a lot of exhaustion. I still hadn’t planned out all of the details of my trip.
This is where the family comes in. Number one travel suggestion for visiting Holland? Be Dutch.
My cousin Maryke has informed the clan, through the power of Facebook, that one of Sirpriana’s own grandchildren will be returning to the home country. The Dutch relatives come out in surprising force. In Amsterdam, Sjoerd and Fransizka book-end my trip: collecting me from the airport and hosting me when I first arrive and then putting me up for the remainder of my stay in the tiny house in their backyard. In Eelde, I spend a night with Maryke and meet my cousin Jesse, who I’ve heard so much about. In Joure, I stay with my Tante Ide, Maryke’s mother, who shows me the courthouse where my grandparents married, the old family farm, and also Giethoorn.
Maryke is one of the few familiar faces I know in Holland. She visited us once or twice when I was little and I remember her vividly. When I stay with her, she buys me antihistamines and a cheese slicer: the only things you need to win me over, apparently.
Tante Ide is Maryke’s mother. Maybe I’m supposed to remember her from when I’m little, I’m not sure, it was all so long ago. But before long, she becomes familiar. From the Dutch accent to the way she cuts her food, it’s like being with my grandmother again.
My grandmother, Sipriana Minnema Adams, died when I was only eleven or so. Now, at the age of 23, there are so few things I remember about her.
Mostly, I know the stories that my family tells me.
Like three weeks ago, I was at dinner with my aunts Mary and Lisa and we get to the topic of Beppe and Granddad. Aunt Lisa tells us, “Once I asked Mom, ‘why did you date Dad?’ And she told me, ‘because he fed me.’ And then I asked Dad, ‘why did you date Mom?’ And he told me, ‘because she was on time.'”
Or the one that my mother told me, about how, years and years after my grandparents had been married, my grandmother told my grandfather about a bank account she’d started when she’d first come to America, some seed money, in case this whole marriage thing didn’t work out.
The impression I get of my grandmother is that she was fearless. That she was independent and strong. She was confident. She was kind. She was punctual. She was stubborn and, probably, she was sometimes wrong but, in the end, she was usually right.
She was also a saver, hence the secret bank account. When each of her grandchildren were born, she bought us stocks. It was those stocks that I sold to finance my trip abroad.
Going abroad was hard and scary. Not that my family would’ve ever told me not to go, but let’s just say they would’ve been perfectly okay if I’d changed my mind last minute and decided to stay. So, finding the courage to get on the plane and leave was something I had to do on my own.
I thought about my grandmother, leaving Holland for a new country with a new husband and a new future that she’d probably ever imagined. And then, several years and five kids and fifteen grandkids and one happily ever after (and a flesh-eating bacteria and a bout of pancreatic cancer and a few other maladies) later, here I was. I was made possible by one adventure, committed to by two people in a courthouse in Joure, all those years ago.
So I got on the plane and I moved to Europe.
I don’t know how it took me a whole year to post about being in Holland. Even though I wouldn’t have been able to make a spur-of-the-moment trip if I hadn’t been living in Spain, my time in Holland seems separate from my time in Spain. This trip wasn’t about traveling with friends, about taking in new sights and unforgettable memories and cheap hostels and even cheaper beer.
This was something different, a connection with my past. It reminded me of being six and seeing my sister off at the airport. It reminded me of being five and picking bluebonnets and buttercups in the field behind my grandparents’ house on Sunday mornings after mass. It reminded me of the red toenail polish my grandmother fastidiously wore, it reminded me of the blue and white of her extensive collection of Delft china, it reminded me of cake on Sundays after mass. It also reminded me of my grandfather, not because he was from Holland as well, but because of how much he loved my grandmother.
If you were hoping for some step-by-step tourist guide to Holland, I apologize (though I do heartily recommend the Hetsheepvaartmuseum, the Rijksmuseum, and Hortus Botanicus!).
Sometimes I forget that I ever went to Holland and I guess I just wanted to remind myself of the reasons I went, and the reasons it meant so much to me. And also, for the future.
I never would’ve had Spain or Italy or carnival any of it, if I hadn’t gotten on that plane. And I never would’ve gotten on that plane if it wasn’t for my grandparents. So let this serve as a reminder to myself in the future: get on the plane, marry the foreigner, move to a new country, be independent and stubborn and kind. Because fortune favors the bold and adventure always follows when you’re willing to take the risk.