Yesterday, my 93 year old grandmother came and spent the day with us. She’s an immigrant from the Netherlands and ever since I was a little girl, she’s always told me about the old country, the people she knew, and the things that happened.
(My grandfather was a wonderful storyteller, though it took years for him to start telling stories. Perhaps because he’d never told stories before. Or maybe because his stories were not the stories you tell a child—stories of violence and suffering, the years when he worked with the Underground during WW II.)
I’d thought about bringing out an old linen dinner napkin—it was my great-great grandmother’s. My grandmother gave it to me years ago because it was old, stained, and had a hole in it. But to me, it’s a talisman to the past and I imagine dinner parties at my great-great grandparents’ villa on the river.
But then, I had another idea. I got out my computer, sat next to her on the couch, and said, “Oma, where was your grandparents’ villa.” Then I typed it into Google maps and pulled up the street in Woubrugge. I took her to the street view. She caught her breath. “That’s it!” And we took a walk down the street, and she pointed out the river that ran behind their villa. (Sadly, her grandparents lost the villa—which is a fascinating story full of family gossip.)
After that, we traveled to the town where she grew up and “walked” the streets. She pointed out an ugly building that didn’t used to be there. Instead, there was a lovely bench and she’d sit and wait there for her father. She showed me the houses that my great-grandfather had built around the turn of the century—they’re still there. He died young, and his widow supported herself and her three children by selling off a house every year or so and living off the money afterwards.
It’s been decades since my grandmother went back to her homeland. That last few times, my grandfather went back, she didn’t go. I suspect it was because of the emotional pain involved (some things are best forgotten) and the out-of-place feeling you get when people and places have changed so much that you feel you no longer have a place there.