Brian and I traveled to Europe this spring, and one of our first stops was the Netherlands. Arriving at the airport we were greeted by smiling Caroline, my father's cousin. I met Caroline when I was 14, she came to Michigan for my grandfather's funeral. We didn't stay in touch, but when Facebook became a universal platform of communication our lives re-connected.
This part of our journey abroad was an exploration into my family history. When Brian and I decided to go to the Netherlands, 15 years passed since since I had met Caroline. I reached out to Caroline and she graciously invited us to stay with her and her two sons. She also understood my desire to learn more about my grandparents life in Europe before they immigrated to the United States. My grandparents have both passed away, but she reached out to other relatives and planned tea and lunches.
We met up in Rotterdam with another family member, Cornelia, and her husband. They walked us through the city and showed the houses and doors my grandparents lived in. They talked about the wars, the joy when my grandpa came home to marry my grandma. They showed us where to took their first steps as husband and wife. They remembered the sadness the day my grandparents boarded the boat from Rotterdam to America. They took us to the port their ship left from. Cornelia's eyes got misty when she retold the memory of my great grandfather crying as he walked my grandparents to port that day. Communication wasn't easy then, no one could e-mail or Skype, and as this father kissed his daughter, he didn't know if this would be the last time he ever saw her again. As I stood at the same place my grandparents gave their goodbyes to their families and their birthplace, their country, I felt so much gratitude to meet people that loved and remember my grandparents the way I loved them.
There is one theme that was carried through all my conversations. My grandparents didn't want to leave their home and their family. They had so many people that loved them, but war had bombed and demolished the core of Rotterdam, there was a housing shortage, no jobs, and the war took their youth, leaving them with little to no education. Cornelia explained my grandparents immigration to me, "They [my grandparents] never wanted to take you away from us, but they didn't see any other way."
My father and I were born in the United States. I never identified as anything but an American, and my father feels the same way. My grandparents has to learn to speak English when they arrived, and they chose not to teach their children any Dutch. They wanted to immerse themselves in their new home. The realization I'm left with, no immigrant wants to leave their home and loved ones. They go because they feel there is no other way out. My grandparent's gave us a beautiful life, they work incredibly hard, they were brave and they built a new home and country surrounding us with love. They were fortunate to be able to come to America and start over.
Caroline opened the door for experiences abroad I did not expect. I found another family that loved us from across the ocean. She gave me an amazing gift of knowing my grandparents better, and I am so grateful.
Here's a green turquoise necklace pendant I made for Caroline, and small token of love to my family. xoxo.