My father immigrated from the Netherlands in the mid fifties. He left his entire extended family and took off on his own. He traveled by working on a freighter, earning his passage. He once told me the first thing he noticed at the dock arriving in Houston. Separate drinking fountains. One said “whites” and the other “blacks.” So he tried both and couldn’t detect any difference at all. Having just completed his mandatory service in the Dutch armed forces, his first adventure in the US was to serve a year in the American armed forces. Ironically, he was stationed in Germany due to his ability to speak the language. So, having served both his old and new country, he started a family and his work as a carpenter.
Communication with relatives back in the old country was done primarily by letter. Phone calls were reserved for the urgent news of births, and deaths. My sisters and I loved the yearly package of sweets that arrived from “Oma” for Sinter Klaas. (Saint Nicholas Day.) The mundane, week to week back and forth reports went by mail. The method of choice was the aerogram. You could buy air mail stamps as well but the flimsy, blue, pre-posted aerogram was cheaper. The only less expensive way was to send a standard letter by sea. The aerogram came with the warning, no enclosures or this letter will not go by air.
I have hundreds of old letters from that time and have attempted a translation of one. It is written in June of 1958. My mother’s sister is the author and she is writing to my mother, father, and oldest sister who was not yet one year old. I can remember thinking it was crazy that this thin little paper could arrive without being destroyed. Since I couldn’t read a word of Dutch at the time, I liked admiring the beautiful cursive.
The original aerogram, front and back.
Nieuwe Pekela 26-6-58
Dear Lies, Ido and Gezina,
We received your letter today and took from it that you are all happy. Therefore, we are also happy. We find it wonderful that for a time we had Lies and Gezina with us and that they are now with their husband and father Ido is also good. We’ve been awaiting a letter since Tuesday but it was understood by us that at first writing wouldn’t be a priority. Is Gezina already back on track? Has she gotten used to the a.m. time yet? She has already experienced much in her young life. Too bad she won’t remember much of it when she is older. We knew from Ins where you were sitting in the airplane, but we couldn’t recognize that. When we left the airport, we took the bus to Ins’s house and we were home again at about 12. We were all able to sleep there and it went fine. When we got there, “Tueky” had all the beds made. She herself made a place on a couch in the front room and when we came in she said, half asleep, ”What a dear child she was.” The next morning we went to the Pekel again and everything is more or less back to normal. Our new assistant started Monday morning and he is a decent boy. We are his host this week because “Alle” is still here too. He sleeps on Ido’s bed in Reint’s room. He is very talkative and helpful and sleepy. Not in the morning, but in the evening. I have a notion to give him some camphor spirits. Shortly we will send along a package with assorted items you left behind. Say Lies, did you get a chance to buy the “beans”* for Ido? The file folders that I bought at Scholtens are still here as well as a diaper and bib of Gezina’s, and a small ball of yarn for your red dress, and a few miscellaneous bits and pieces. The little spoon for Gezina was still where we left it that day by Ins. By the way, about the “beans”, write me about it and if you didn’t buy them yet I’ll take care of it and send them along. I’ve cleaned the things we borrowed from Jantje and returned them already. We’ve returned the high chair. The stroller is in the attic until the next time!! But then with father Ido! Mother is off to the Ladie’s meeting and father just climbed into a bowl of Brinta so I guess you know exactly what time it is here. Henk Zeldenthuis (family of mine) is on the radio playing the organ. Reint was just here for a few days. He is getting better but not very quickly. On Tuesday, mother and Jo cleaned the cellar. Tomorrow they plan to do the kitchen cabinets. My goodness, there is always so much work to do in the world, eh? This evening we prepared another two jars of strawberries. There were so many, we couldn’t eat them all and by tomorrow they would’ve spoiled. Last week when I was in Amsterdam I said to mother Nap, Ido is always full of small attentions. But that he met you in New York, that is clearly a tremendous attention. I was concerned how that would go with the stop-over and transfer but this was beautifully solved. Did Gezina still remember her father?
Many hearty greetings from father and mother and Wine
We moved out of the city to the suburban town of South Holland, Illinois. This was a place where Dutch immigrants made an ethnically pure, very white, Christian Reformed enclave for themselves. You think Catholics mess with people’s heads? Try again. I’ve come across a lady who is a lot better at describing what I ‘m trying to say here and if you don’t mind, take a look at what she has to say about Christians getting lost…..in her post titled Don’t quote me, but I think Jesus is pissed.
I would like to register a complaint against your Church. I’m not registering the
complaint against all of your Church, just the crazy parts.
I don’t think I’d even seen a black person until Dad started taking me to work with him. He was building houses in the city and during summer vacation from school, I was the kid best taken out of the mix at home. Some days, Dad would have me stay with a family in the neighborhood where he was working. Here’s me and my friends.
I thought black skin was beautiful and didn’t like mine much at all. White skin looked kind of unfinished, like God skipped a step. We tried to figure out a way to dye it but nothing worked. I had my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We bought penny candy from an old grandma that sold it from her front porch. I went by my middle name which is Aleida. My friends called me Delilah, which I also loved. (Later, when my parents divorced, my older sister and I had our names legally changed on Dad’s suggestion. Maybe to Americanize but probably to create a new identity somehow.) Gezina became Jean, and Aleida became Tina. Shoot. I wish I would’ve picked Delilah. Besides, the identity change didn’t stick. There was a suspicion in my head that my natural identity wasn’t such a great idea .
Me and my pretty sister in a parade in South Holland. She’s the one down front in full costume. I’m the chunky kid kind of in the middle with a red sweater around my shoulders. Here they called me Aleida to my face and all sorts of ugly things behind my back. Here people snatched you off the sidewalk on your way home from school. Here they lived with the curtains closed all the time, but still showed up at church every Sunday. Dad wouldn’t let me stay with my friends in the city though. Oh well. Some days I just stayed on the job site with Dad. That was fun too. I learned how to lay out oak flooring lengths so that the short seams alternated properly and Dad came along with the mallet and finished it up. I found the plugs from the electric boxes and pretended they were coins. There were bits of scrap wires in all different colors that I made into bracelets and decorations. I screwed the knobs onto the cabinets in the kitchens that I would never really live in except for those few days with my Daddy. My favorite was when Dad was ready for lunch and I found a piece of wood just the right size to put over a 5 gallon drum to make a table for us for lunch and Dad would let me have a sip of his coffee from the thermos. He liked it black with a little sugar. I can still taste it.
Ok, now back to this letter writing thing. That’s what I intended with this post, and there I wish to finish. (Shut-up. I wandered a little. Someday you’ll find that endearing.) I don’t get many letters anymore. Just a few. Not more than 5 years ago a sister and I were talking about that, in letters, that soon we wouldn’t write letters to each other anymore.That our written letters would be artifacts of a time when people took the time to let a boat or a plane take a message to someone we loved. The fact is, they didn’t choose to send their messages in this fashion. It was the only choice. And so I admit that I, a traveler on this planet am truly overwhelmed at this moment with all the options at my hand for touching people. There is a part of me that is super hyper techno on board with all these options. I get to touch base with my kids, even if it is by reading their correspondence with their connections on facebook. I get to find a friend I lost 30 years ago. I do however admit that I am enamored with postcards at the moment. My kids are sending them to me. They kind of feel like week to week, mundane messages from the old country. Maybe there is some hope that postage stamps will remain for sale and human beings will communicate in a way that is, well, patient.
Hand-made art from Iceland where my daughter’s partner tells me that there is a breed of horses that is very specific to the country and, has a knowledge of blue berries that is quite distinct from blueberries. It just occurred to me that he has made the lower portion of the card into the shape of a flag. Well, it was all hand-made and I am reminded of being impressed that very special things can be delivered via international mail as his post card arrived intact. The message was very encouraging. Postcards always have great messages. For crying out loud, anyone can read them! For this reason I have great hope in postcards.
Another postcard example which is the invitation to celebrate my oldest child’s entrance to Princeton University. Pretty much an excuse to say, “Shit girl, really.?” But in this expose, we will remain in the postcard mode.
And now this, a lovely “bericht” announcing a change of address by my daughter-in-law who is thereby the wife of my son. She also is brilliant in the art of postcards and many things graphic, including photography. You may try to resist taking a look at more of her work but I think you will not. http://www.nic108.wordpress.com/
Clearly, there is some hope for the lost art of letter writing. Here is a slow, patient message, but I love it. It took a willing sending, a willing messenger and a willing rock. I do believe it’s the most rocky message I ever sent. It’s possible that the nicest thing about sending a message is knowing it’s been received, and, understood.
So, just call me Delilah and love me as I am. Even if God did skip a step.