Monday, January 28, 2013

No Baby I Don't Want To See You Hurt

Snow Baby
   “REALLY?!?!” I shout at the top of my lungs.  I’m outside my house, shoeless and jacketless in the snow.  I can already feel the bruise forming on the outside of my hand from pounding on the window to try to get their attention initially.  “REALLY?!?!” I shout again.  Two toothpick girls wearing furry hoods in the pack of newly-teenaged mischievous youth turn around and stare.  The boys responsible for the stunt, the six skinny males ahead of them (I can only imagine them trying to impress said ridiculous females) stop and turn to look at me, too.  Their long legs and sprinter-like pace had advanced the group like a pack of cross country runners halfway down the street by the time I had whipped around the corner of the living room, tore open the front door, and bounded out onto the sidewalk. “You’re going to STEAL THE HEAD?!?!?  That’s my KIDS’ snowman!”  The girls stop giggling.  The guys shrug and continue down the street.    I am beyond angry.  I am hurt and offended.  I think about my daughter upstairs sleeping during naptime.  I am confused.  How am I going to explain this to her?  That the Snow Lady we lovingly built yesterday, her first one, and my first one in 25 years has been the victim of harassment, abuse, and beheading?  I feel like our family has been attacked and I am responsible for protecting us.  In other words, I am irate.  I throw my hands up as I turn back towards my house.  My dog is looking at me pitifully from behind the foyer doors.  Tyler, the epitome of grace and compassion at all times.  “Whatever, Tyler. . . you bark at the trash truck and it's really done nothing to you.”  He is unmoved.  
  I think that was the boiling point, or rather. . . the freezing point in this case.   I explode on Facebook.  These kids don’t represent kids.  Or Leiden.  Or boys.  Or youth.  They represent THE NETHERLANDS, in my head.  I defended you, I thought.  I’ve been happy ever since I got back from America.  I embraced you, your culture, I spent holidays here, I biked in the snow, and I tromped through the sludge for a week and a half wearing tights underneath my jeans to keep warm.  We played along with your Sinterklaas traditions, I told people at a party last Friday that I like it here. . . much to the chagrin of many other Expats, and then this, this is how you repay me?  Yes.  Okay.  So I admit.  It was a bit of an overreaction and just perhaps. . . my subconscious was struggling more than I realized with the whole. . . snow/cold thing.  I’m from Texas where snow lasts 3 days tops and even when the ice and snow was on the ground for three whole days. . . once. . . the whole town FREAKED OUT and became completely insane with cabin fever and frustration.  You remember, Texas readers.  February 2011.  Superbowl at Cowboys Stadium.  Jerry Jones could not even control the ice.  Last winter, when the snow was covering the sidewalks outside our house I played along like a normal Texan.  I stayed inside.  At least until we ran out of food.  And then I struggled to push a stroller through the snow, fighting back tears, asking myself. . . what have I done?
  The year, I was ready.  In my previous life. . . my ‘winter preparation’ included wearing fishnet tights and knee high boots under the normal skirts I wore to work.  Maybe add a black or pink peacoat and to just walk quickly from the heated car, through the office/daycare/Kroger parking lot, into the warmth of the building.  This year, here in The Netherlands, the kids and I have a stock-pile of tights and fleeces to wear under our clothes.  We have multiple coats, hats, scarves, boots, and mittens with strings (yes, my first week here a year ago, we bought Baby Girl mittens and I had to ask the store clerk what the string was for.  “To put it through the jacket arms. . . it keeps the kids from losing the mittens.” I was thrilled.  “What a great idea!  I wish I had a string on my gloves!” I responded. She smiled at me half-heartedly.)  We have a rain suit that doubles as a snow suit if you add extra layers underneath.  We have multiple stroller covers (last winter, after a desperate trip to entertain my kids in the local library and as the rain started to fall, I sprinted down our shopping street and breathlessly rushed into our local Prenatal (baby store) and gave my first rendition of what would become my Clueless Speech – “Hi, I’m new to the country. . . do you have something to cover this double-stroller with to keep my kids dry and warm?” In response to my desperation she said, “Oh yes, it’s right up. . . “ and cut herself off.  “Actually, just wait here, I’ll be right back.”  She glided up the stairs and came back with a double-stroller plastic cover.  “Oh my goodness, thank you so much. . . um. . . okay. . .one more question, if you don’t mind, how do you put it on?”  She graciously opened the package and helped me put in over my sleeping 3-month old and curious 21-month old.  We walked back home through the rain, accomplished and relieved.)  This year, in addition to my pimped out stroller, I even have a more-efficient bike equipped with its own detachable stroller with rain cover.  We were ready for The Netherlands winter.   
  After a record-breaking ‘warm’ December (mostly in the 40s Fahrenheit) the first snow of the year fell on Tuesday, January 15th.  I was happy.  V worked from home that day.  Around lunchtime, we bundled up the kids, put Little Man on my back, and encouraged Baby Girl to walk to the Jumbo grocery store and back.  We snapped photos.  We were excited.  We went to the grocery store stroller free in the snow.  I felt accomplished. 
Biking In The Snow
   Two days later, my daughter was scheduled to go to her Dutch-English pre-school on the other side of town.  I was hoping to take the car that day, but V had an early client meeting, and thus he needed the car.  It was a stressful morning.  “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?  She could just stay home, you know,” he tried to convince me.  Baby Girl looks forward to going to school, she has a routine, it sets the mood for the rest of the day, and I had already told her what we were doing.  By this point, I feel like I can do whatever I need to in order to take care of my kids.  If that means biking them across town in the snow, I’ll do it.  “V,” I responded, “It’s not about what I want/what’s easiest for me!  We’ll be fine.”  In a rush, he took the car and I, equally determined, completed my morning routine and loaded the kids in the bike.  The cold did not affect me.  I was sweating underneath my super-cozy coat, hat, and gloves after three minutes.  I noticed my front brakes weren’t um, quite working at all at the end of my block – no biggie, they’ve been a little tight for a while, and the back ones were okay. But upon approaching the bridge crossing the canal closest to the DeValk windmill in town (wow. . . things I never thought I’d say/write) I realized that switching the gears down to a more manageable gear (left = lighter, pedal more quickly) I realized. . . that the gears were completely and totally not shifting.  Even though my seat is already adjusted for a full-length leg pump, I hop off my seat and put all my body weight into getting me and my two children up and over the frozen swans below.  This is a problem.  I made a successful trek across town, pedaling through snow-filled and unsalted neighborhood streets.  The snow had turned to powder and pedaling was like trying to maneuver my bike through sand.  We arrived, I dropped Baby Girl off at school and I headed back into town.  Next stop – Fiets 2000. 
  Fiets 2000 had sold us V’s bike a few months after we purchased my bike off of Markplaats (the Dutch equivalent to Craigslist).  The guy who sold us V’s bike was very kind.  After explaining that the Dutch don’t care about women’s or men’s bikes, “I’ve always owned a women’s bike, myself. . . the seats are much more comfortable,” he admitted, we picked one out that seemed nice, and would fit V’s height.  “Do you want to take it for a test ride?” he asked.  “Where?” V and I asked.  “Why here – on the street, of course?” he responded.  There are bikes and cars sharing the same space.  V and I look wide-eyed at the street then at each other.   He caught the glance.  “Okay, so, you not okay with that – there’s an alley across the street.  This is good, yes?”  We nodded eagerly.  V wobbled down the alley until he caught his balance.  A wide grin spread across his face on his return “test drive.”   “You want to try, yes?” the tall Dutchman turns to me.  “Uh, okay!” I say.  My bike, with three wheels and the kids, is at the end of the alley – we’re all eagerly watching Daddy ride.  I hop on to the two-wheeled bike.  I shakily pedal towards them and I jump off like a circus performer.  “No, no.” he says.  “It’s too tall!” I protest.  “No, he says. . . you need to have the seat up, so your leg can extend, otherwise – too much work.  And when you stop, go forward,” he jumps off, both feet on the ground, straddling the bike in front of the seat.  He continues the most basic of huffy-bike-riding lessons – “When you start. . . have your pedal up. . . so it is a full rotation.”  I like this guy.  I wave to him now when I see him as I pedal into town.  I think the crazy American woman with the bright green bakfiets and the circus side-saddle dismount made an impression.  I was really hoping he’d be there on Thursday morning.  But alas, he was not. 
  “Hallo. . . sprek ya Engles?”  I say to another Fiets 2000 employee.  “A little bit,” he says.  (Note:  The two official responses are A. “A Little Bit”, and B. “Of Course”. . . these two responses also correspond to A. “Yes, I will entertain you with my vast knowledge of the English language but at the end of our conversation, you will not find an answer to your question” or B.  “Yes, I will willingly help you solve whatever problem you have.”)  I trudged on.  “Okay, so I am unfamiliar with biking in these conditions and it seems as if my front brakes aren’t working and my gears are having trouble shifting.”  I nod to him, desperately.  “Ah, yes.” He says.  “They are frozen.  There is nothing you can do.”  I am sweating in this snow.  It is 10:00 a.m. and I have already had a heck of a day. I am about to respond when I hear a wailing from the bike.  Little Man, now alone in the stroller is apparently really cold without his sister in this (what turns out to be 25 degrees Fahrenheit outside) and he has a dirty diaper.  The wailing turns into an all-out fire alarm and this guy. . . this Fiets 2000 guy says my situation is hopeless.  “Frozen?!?!” I respond.  “Can I put some WD-40 on it?”  I ask.  “Nah – nothing can be done in this weather.” he repeats.  “You need to park the bike where the gears can defrost.  Yes?”  I sigh.  Where oh where is my favorite Fiets 2000 employee, the one who takes sympathy on ridiculous Americans. . . “Okay.  Thank you.  Dank u wel.”  I say to him.  Little Man is screaming his head off.  I rush to a near-by friend’s house in a panic.  She’s in the middle of a one-on-one Dutch language lesson and I apologize profusely for interrupting.  “I’m so sorry – I just need to change his diaper and I couldn’t do it outside in the snow. . he’s so upset and so cold. . . I guess the department store has a place to change babies, maybe? Or I could have biked to the library, but it’s so much further. . . I’m so sorry to interrupt.” My friend is so kind (who is also a mother) and her Dutch teacher looks mortified at the screaming frozen baby and harried mother in her student’s living room.  I change his diaper and we leave amongst a blizzard of apologies, thank yous, and promises to talk later.
Playing in the Snow
  Little Man and I head to the library, where I take the Fiets 2000 employee’s advice.  I detach the stroller and roll it into the library.  It makes a puddle on the floor the size of Lake Michigan (which, I do feel really bad about) BUT, on the flip side, it worked.  When we attached the stroller an hour later, my front brakes worked.  (The library is used to frozen strollers in their children’s area. . . again, the reason why libraries in America have carpet and any public area ever in The Netherlands. . . does not.  Too pedestrian. . . too rainy/snowy/windy/dirty).  Little Man and I biked over to Baby Girl’s school, picked her up, and we all rode home together. . . them snuggly as bugs in a rug, and me sweating like a pig in the sub-freezing temps.
  But no.  All that did not break my spirit.  I still embraced my new-found winter culture and bought a new coat (75% off) to celebrate.  It snowed again on Monday and V worked from home.  After pressure from the winter books we’d been reading and my kindergarten-teaching-friend in Germany, I decided that Baby Girl and I were going all out.  We were going to Build A Snowman in The Netherlands.  We adorned our tights, boots, coats, hats, and gloves, and set out into our front garden.  My husband, who’d grown up in Louisiana, didn’t even know how to make a snowman.  Reaching back into my very earliest of memories, I thought of my own mother teaching me.  (Which begs the question. . . she grew up in El Paso. . . how did she know?) Either way, I told him  - “Okay, start small, compact and then just keep adding.”  My daughter looked on, amazed. . . we built a Snow Lady. . . complete with flip flops, a scarf, and a flower on her head.  We used the unused charcoal from last summer and a carrot from the fridge.  Pretty cute, I must admit, and Baby Girl was ecstatic.  I felt. . . like I had embraced it all.  I felt. . . accomplished. 
The Original Snow Lady
   The next morning, when I looked out the window, I saw the Snow Lady had toppled over.  I immediately called V, “When you left this morning, was the Snow Lady still intact?”  I accused him.  “Uh, yes.  I’m 90% sure,” he said.  I was skeptical:  Of V’s attention and of the toppling over.  I thought I had made it pretty solid, but maybe I didn’t?  I am from Texas . . maybe it needs a little more support.  I went outside and put her back together.  The kids and I went to the grocery store.  Upon our return, Baby Girl ran up to our sculpture. . “Hi! Snow Lady!” she smiled, and we went inside.  I was happy at her cuteness, read her three books, and put her to bed for naptime.  As I closed her curtains for naptime, I looked out the window and realized the Snow Lady had toppled over again.  I shook it off, turned on her lullabies and went downstairs.  Confused at my apparently-crap-Snow-Lady making abilities I sat at my computer which overlooks the garden and started looking at the weather forecast.  That’s when I saw him.  The Youths.  Darting into my yard, taking my Snow Lady head, and sprinting down the street.  All my insecurities came to fruition.  All my doubts were vanished.  My Baby Girl’s love and pride of Snow Lady, my frustration with biking in the snow, being house-bound for 1 ½ weeks, for the Fiets 2000 guys saying he couldn’t help me, and me playing along. . . thinking none of it mattered, culminated into me running out into the snow and shouting English at the top of my lungs to these youths.  I later apologized to my husband on the phone.  “I know. . .I’m being so ridiculous. . it’s just a snowman. . . I know it’s going to melt anyway, but I’m upset that she didn’t die a natural death and I don’t know what to say to Baby Girl” I sobbed.  “Honey, it’s okay. . . of course you’re upset. . . you’re the one who put the work into building it, and it was in our garden.  They were on our property when they kicked it over. . . they crossed the line.”  He made me feel better and I’m glad that my husband could at least kind of justify my feeling of hurt.  
   My Dad (also a Texan-native) suggested I rebuild Snow Lady in the backyard.  There are a few land mines back there because of the dogs, which was why we didn’t build it back there to begin with.  Determined to surprise her, I thought I’d rebuild Snow Lady last Wednesday while Baby Girl was at school. . . but as most people around the world know (ahem, or so this 30+ year old learned yesterday) is that you can’t build a snowman with week-old snow.  “What happens to it?” my Louisianan-raised husband asked on the phone.  “It just turns into sand. . . it doesn’t stick”.  I explained, remorseful.  So there we are. . . hoping it snows again, so Snow Lady can reappear magically in our backyard. . .  or for all this blasted snow to just melt and stay away. . . As for now. . . Snow Lady is visiting Baby Girls’ friends’ homes. . . wandering around Leiden.  We’ll see if she comes back again.  It’s the best excuse I can come up with. 

Snow Lady II and Snow Baby
Update:  Last Saturday morning, snow fell again, and during naptime, my husband and I were able to recreate Snow Lady in the backyard.  To avoid the mess of the back garden, we built large snowballs on the balcony and front yard and carried them through the house in the backyard.  Just to outdo ourselves, we added a Snow Baby as well.  Baby Girl was a bit confused at the reappearance, but loved it, too.  Rain fell on Sunday, melting all the snow, and I can honestly say, I was okay with that.  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ring of Fire

Ring of Fire - Johnny Cash

“De jaarwisseling 2012 – 2013 is rustig verlopen.  Sinds 2003 – 2004 is er sprake van een afnemende trend als het gaat om schade en ongeregeldheden.  In de aanloop naar Oud en Nieuw waren er wel veel klachten over vuurwerkoverlast. Het aantal van zes autobranden tijdens de jaarwisseling is opvallend hoog.”   
– Leidse Nieuwsblad January 4, 2013.
  During the first week of 2013 the Leiden newspaper reported that the decrease in disturbances and damages during New Year’s Eve celebrations over the previous ten years had been reversed.  The six car fires battled on New Years Eve this past year was remarkably high. 
WHAT THE HECK?!?!  SIX CAR FIRES IN ONE NIGHT?!?!  The last time that happened in the U.S., probably involved a riot, looting, and most likely the Los Angeles Police.  I’m almost certain the event wasn’t reported as “remarkably high” with a subsequent result of intellectual brow-furrowing, tisk-tisking, and head-shaking.
  No no.  No no.  Calm down, American readers.  This is just New Year’s Eve in The Netherlands – Cheers!  Combine drunkenness, illegal fireworks, and a little neighborly competition and what do you get?  A Ring of Fire.  Surrounding your house, car, children, & dogs.  This is tradition.  This is celebrated.  This is amazing.  
  Luckily, my Book Club friends had warned me a month ago.  “There are fireworks – everywhere!  They will be on your street.  They will go ALL day and night.  It’s a competition between the households – to see who can light off the best fireworks.  Don’t worry - your children will sleep right through them.  You should probably get drugs for your dogs, though.  You should definitely call your vet and get something for them.  In Germany they only last for a few minutes, but here – oh yes – they will last for hours.”  “Drugs for my dogs?” I thought. . . What about me?   
  Back up – my perspective – In America, fireworks are illegal inside city limits.  Even if you do buy them – you go WAY out into the country to set them off, thus only disturbing, well, no one.  One New Year’s Eve ten years ago, I lived in a house in Waco that backed up to a cow pasture.  My boyfriend at the time had purchased a “Big Boy” firework, hopped the chain link fence with our other male New Year’s Eve guests, lit the “Big Boy” and us girls jumped up and down as three bright green explosions lit up the field below, illuminating the faces of some disturbed cattle.   Ten minutes later the Waco police were slowly pursing through our neighborhood looking for the hoodlums.  On a more serious note, when I was in 3rd grade, I saw a house in our neighborhood burn to the ground because the kids of the household had been playing with fireworks.  The image of the children’s mother standing on the sidewalk, shaking her head in shock and disbelief is still imprinted in my memory. 
  10:00 a.m. on New Year’s Eve in Leiden, we started to hear them.  Boom.  Boom.  Boom.  I hear the WWII bomb sirens every first Monday of the month at noon.  I know that the Leiden train station and its surrounding areas were completely bombed during the war.  Our house was lucky to have survived.  I just completed reading The Book Thief about a family who had to head to a neighbor’s basement to shelter themselves from bombings in Germany during the war.  All of these images uncontrollably flooded my head as I heard the fireworks explode for hours
  After we put the kids to bed, V and I headed to the 3rd floor sitting room with the balcony that overlooks the neighborhood.  We sipped wine while attempting the most serene moments – the assessment of the past year and hopes for the new one.  We wrote down our aspirations while jumping up every few moments to peer out the window at the craziness lighting up the sky above our heads and tempting to set cars on fire in the median below. 
  Vinny had discussed the logistics of obtaining the New Year’s fireworks with his co-workers.  Apparently, the big fireworks (the ones we usually see put on by the town governments during 4th of July celebrations back at home) are illegal to sell in The Netherlands.  The Dutch and China governments have gone to great lengths to stop the importation of these illegal fireworks into The Netherlands.  According to the Dutch Daily News, the cooperation between the governments during the past four years to prevent ‘sub-standard’ fireworks from entering the market has lead to a decrease in damage due to misuse of fireworks from 43 million Euros to 10 million Euros.  But all these efforts do not prevent some of our fellow Dutchmen from obtaining them illegally.  Just a quick hop across the Belgium border, and they can find whatever the heart desires.  The Dutch police camp out and monitor the border between the two countries during the weeks leading up to the celebration.  If they see your car pass the inspection point more than once within a certain amount of time, they will wave you over and inspect your car. 
   A few fellow mothers explained to me that previous to this year, the fireworks were only allowed to be set-off during the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. on New Year’s Eve/Day.  Because the police and hospitals could not respond to all the emergencies within those hours, the law was changed so that the fireworks could be set off starting at 10:00 a.m. on New Year’s Eve – thus, hoping to spread out the injuries and damage throughout the day.  (Yea!  Good thinking!)
   The tradition of creating explosions to drive out evil spirits is common throughout history.  As my husband and I stood on our balcony, we were in complete and utter shock at the colors above, across, and below us.  The rain drops flew, but the fireworks only glistened more brightly and intensely.  Like children at Disney World for the first time, we kept pointing to each other ‘Look!  Look over there!  No, no – look over there!!”  In the end, you could look in every direction at the same time and not see all the colors.  I eagerly ran downstairs and typed a quick Facebook update.  I closed my laptop and was jolted out of my seat when I heard an explosion outside our living room window that sounded like machine gun fire. I caught my breath, took a sip of champagne, marveled at the richter-scale-piercing-action on the other side of our single-paned windows and with equal amazement, realized my kids were still asleep soundly in their beds and I ran back upstairs.  It was the most amazing, most colorful & loudest experience of my life.  We toasted the New Year and watched the distant sky flash every color of the rainbow until 2:00 a.m.  The dogs, calmed by a few muscle relaxers fell onto their own bed besides us.  A few days later, V and I recapped the scene.  I told him what I had learned about the concept of using firecrackers to scare away evil spirits.  He smiled and said, “You know – that’s probably appropriate.”  Puzzled, I asked him to explain.  “Well, we had a pretty intense year last year.  There were lots of happy times, but a lot of frustration as well.  Seeing as that was the hugest, most incredible display of fireworks we will probably ever see in our entire lives, I think that there wouldn’t be a more appropriate time or place to drive out all the negativity.”  I smiled back.  I’ve never felt a “New Year” as intensely significant as I have for this year.  January 1, 2013 marked the half-way point in our rotation.  We have come so far, and while I feel it’s been an uphill struggle, I am amazed and proud of myself, ourselves, for how much we have learned, acclimated to, and accomplished in a year.  I am anxious to see how 2013 unfolds.  More adventures, learning, surprises, challenges, connecting, reconnecting, traveling, biking, reading, and writing.  Stay tuned.  Happy New Year to everyone out there, and may your 2013 be car-fire free.                 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

All My Bells Are Ringing

All My Bells Are Ringing (Lenka)

Leiden canals, shops, and Christmas tree

  December in The Netherlands.  Since we moved here in January, December was to be our final month to explore without having any previous experience to fall back upon.  As I shrugged into my comforter-like coat, broke in the knee-high boots, and accessorized the winter ensemble with a new hat and gloves, I was enlivened with the holiday spirit and smiled at my knowledge and preparation.  (A year ago, this Texas girl barely knew the real purpose of a scarf much less owned one.)  Each walk into town to visit the market or library was costumed anew with lights and greenery, which made the daily tasks feel wildly romantic and beautiful.  I could almost imagine characters in Charles Dickens novels entering in and out of the houses adjacent to the streets of Leiden.  THIS is it.  Seeing as I had been watching Christmas movies for nearly half the year in celebration of the Texas-like-40-degree-crap-weather I experienced for well, half the year - I was finally ready to experience Christmas in Europe with everyone else onboard.  Suddenly – quotes of books and lyrics of songs became enchantingly clear: Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap (Yes! I can picture how cold Europeans must have felt without central heat!) . . . The Carol of The Bells (The Town Hall bells provided a festive soundtrack as Leiden shoppers perused the stalls at market every Saturday during December).  Even small scenes in Love Actually, quick flashes of people carrying a Christmas tree through the streets, were not lost on me. . . I celebrated our first snowfall with glee and purpose.  We’d done up Sinterklaas with style, now let’s see what Christmas was all about. 
De Valk Windmill & Leiden Christmas Lights
  I explored options.  We had read about a Kerstlooper (Christmas walk) in the Leidse Hout (Leiden Woods) nearby.  Leidse Hout was created in 1931 as a governmental project to provide work during The Great Depression.  It is a large park with enormously tall thin trees, gravel paths, a dog park, playground, and an indoor/outdoor tea house where parents sip coffee and devour pannekoeken while the kids run around taking turns at saying hello to the deer and peacocks behind a chained-link fence.  Best of all, the park is less than a 10-minute walk from our house, so we visit quite regularly.  The Christmas walk advertised itself as a walk through the woods with different nativity scenes depicted live.   Seeing as the woods were so close, and in a festive Christmas spirit, V and I loaded up the double-stroller, leashed Tyler (the German Shepherd mix) and headed out the door.   We headed towards the Tea House and started walking through the familiar part of the park.  It was quite dark, but tea lights in glass jars lined every pathway.  “We forgot!” the ad had told us to bring our own lantern (flashlight, perhaps?  Sometimes google-translate gets things confused).  We walked up to the pavilion I had passed many times on daily excursions, as a large group of people, guided by a man dressed as a monk arrived as well.  Seconds later, we discovered that we were at the height of a reenactment of the resurrection of Jesus.  Two 12-year old guards staged a sword fight with a tall white-toga-wearing male and after they dramatically fell to the ground, “God” pretended to roll the stone away from the projected screen image.  I glanced nervously at my husband.  Resurrection?  Are we in the wrong holiday?  We had clearly entered the ‘walk’ at the wrong time.  Where was the beginning?  And would it be hugely bad form to leave the resurrection in the middle of the performance?  We decided to stay and sang a Dutch song using the subtitles on the screen and humbly followed the monk and the rest of his group as he led them to the exit.  Not ready for Pea soup or gluhwein at this point, the confused Americans looked confused enough for a kind Dutch man to ask us if we needed help.  “Yes, I’m sorry, but where is the beginning?” we asked.  There were no signs posted anywhere.  He pointed us to the end of a very large parking lot I never even knew existed.  We smiled and I thanked him.  All the time my daughter, though our fumbling kept asking us, “Where is the Baby Jesus?” and all I could say was, “Honey, I’m not sure, we’re trying to find him.”  We followed the masses and found the Inn.  It was a lovely and well-done scene complete with intricate costumes, a couple of real donkeys (of which Tyler tried to make a friend), and a flute trio.  The monk gathered the new comers around him.  He was getting ready for the next guided tour.  OH.  Okay, so this is how this works.  He said a few things and we started off, the Americans with their double stroller and dog, bringing up the rear.  We walked.  We walked.  We walked.  We walked to parts of the park I never even knew existed.  We passed soccer fields and windmills.  My poor 10-year old dog that barely gets out of the house was panting and looking up at me suspiciously while Baby Girl continued to chant, “Where’s the Baby Jesus, Mama?”  After a solid ten minutes, the monk turned off the sidewalk and into the woods.  He started to explain everything while I just tried to calm and quiet my children.  The large tour group followed him through the dark woods to an open clearing and waited anxiously.  An industrial spotlight and generator flip on and we find ourselves standing on a grassy hill which slopes down to a little creek.  On the other side of the creek are eight people dressed as angels.  They say a few words then start singing Hark The Herald Angels Sing (in Dutch).  Baby Girl looks at me, “Mama, Charlie Brown Mismas!” she says.  She recognizes the song from one of her favorite movies.  We’ve seen Charlie Brown Christmas about 150 times this year.  We turned it on any time it was cold – so that pretty much covers last January through July and then again starting in November.  As the choir sang, I took in the beauty of the moment – the lovely weather, the choir, the darkness and light, the illuminated trees towering above us, my children, my husband, and my dog.  I smiled.  The angels concluded and the monk was ushering us on to the next spot.  During my sereneness-check, the stroller had sunk.  In the darkness I tried to maneuver it to follow the crowd.  The ground was wet (duh – it’s The Netherlands) and we were far off a path.  As I tried to push the stroller I realized not only were we off a path, but we were not even on grass.  The entire stroller started to rapidly mud-slide towards the creek.  I dug my heels into the mud and it continued to slip.  “Honey!  The stroller!  It’s SO MUDDY and we’re sliding!” I shouted.  The monk is moving on, the rest of our group is following his clip pace and I’m the dumb American with the double stroller sliding through the mud shouting English nonsense at her husband while the angel actors on the other side of the canal are cracking up at the scene that I’m making.  My boots, dog, and stroller wheels are freed from the muck as I heroically pull my strength.  “Mama, Where’s the Baby Jesus?” Baby Girl repeats.  (Prompt more angelic laughter.)
  The monk takes some mercy on us and allows us to catch up.  He quickly nods at his caboose and continues through the darkness.   Next stop, the manger, and I give a word of thanks.  Mary is waving away the scent of the donkey which has been tied outside of her scene as the group approaches.  Tyler, still determined to make a four-legged friend, eagerly pulls at his leash to get a closer look at the donkey.  “Mama!  Baby Jesus!” she shouts above the peacefulness.   20 Dutch heads turn toward us.  Half smile.  Half don’t.  Well, at least Mary doesn’t mind the realness of the event, I reasoned.  She probably enjoys the comedic relief compared to the farting livestock. . .
  The monk left us behind again as we tried to put our wandering daughter back in the stroller, make a bottle for Little Man, hand Baby Girl a cracker, drag Tyler away from the donkey, etc. The next monk guide and his tour group come up behind.  He basically said ‘get a move on, we have a schedule to maintain around here” and we decided we’d take an exit, since the five of us were getting restless anyway.  The wise men and shepherds would have to wait until next year, and we had Gluhwein at home. 
Decorating our Christmas Tree for Daddy
   We participated in other Dutch Christmas traditions.  As I drove my daughter to school her last week in December, I eyed a man expertly riding his bike while accomplishing the most amazing of tasks.  He steered his bike with his left while balancing a 4-foot potted Christmas tree with his right.  My first thought was: “Wow, that’s insane and a feat of insurmountable wonder.  The Dutch can carry anything while riding their bikes.”  My second thought was: “Huh, if he can balance a bike while carrying a Christmas tree – surely I can somehow get one home, too.”  We had brought an artificial Christmas tree with us from America and it had been decorated for weeks, but my husband, for as long as we’ve been together, has wanted a real one.  So I hashed a plan to surprise him.  I weighed my options – bike, double-stroller, baby carrier or any combination of above.  I even briefly pondered the red flyer wagon we brought with us that’s been in the shed but between my jumping baby boy and the fact that it’s a red flyer wagon (could I possibly attract any more attention than riding a neon green bike?  Yes.  I believe I could.). . . I just have not bothered to take it out in public.  I pushed the double stroller to the foot of the DeValk windmill where a make-shift Christmas tree lot had been constructed in the parking lot.  It was located about ½ mile (800 meters) from our house.    Baby Girl was pleased with the process – as Linus and Charlie Brown had performed the very same task.  I pointed to a few 4-foot potted Christmas trees and asked “how much?”  “15 Euros” the man said.  “One-Five?”  “Ja.”  I’ve never bought a live Christmas tree before, but it sounded like a pretty good deal to me.  “Here, this one.  Very nice.”  He pointed to a small one and I agreed.  “I put in bag for you, yes?”  “Yes – dank u vel.  I saw a man on a bike yesterday carrying one home, I thought – surely I could get one home, too.”  He smiled at me with disinterest.  I know that the Dutch Kerstboom vendor doesn’t care about my personal quest and reasoning behind getting his tree home, but as an American stay-at-home-mom in The Netherlands, I still can’t help but talk to any adult I can and try to engage them in conversation, regardless of the results.  “Here.  Carry in arm.” He told me.  “It’s de easiest way.”  I wrapped my right arm around the pot with the tree towering above me while steering the stroller with my left hand.  No problem – I’ve got this.  I started my half-mile trek home – two kids, double stroller, and what turned out to be, a 25 lb (11 kg) Christmas tree.  Holy smokes. . . I thought to myself – this sucker is heavy!  Why are all the short trees potted?   My comforter-like jacket started to suffocate me.  Steam was being trapped underneath my hat.  I shifted and balanced the tree on the handlebars of the stroller.  Between the kids, the stroller, and the tree, I was pushing a barge close to my own weight.  Cars stopped to let me pass at places where stopping was optional.  We approached our house with glee and I hauled the tree up to the third floor sitting area.  “We did it!” I exclaimed to my daughter – one of her favorite phrases.  Then we set back out to the local CVS-equivalent (Kruidvat) to buy some European converted Christmas lights.  Needless to say, V was quite surprised and impressed with the cute real tree obtained and decorated with love when he came home that night.   We even thought to decorate it in his favorite colors – purple and gold. 
Church Service at St. Pieterskerk
  Our family rode our bikes to the Christmas Eve service at the St. Pieterskerk – the late-gothic church in Leiden which took 180 years to build (starting in 1390).  As I imagined generations of families for hundreds of years humbly and joyfully approaching the beautiful church to pay homage to God and to celebrate the birth of his son, I was catapulted into the present.  When the kids weren’t screaming, they were running all over the cathedral, attracting attention and stressing me out in this kid-friendly service.  After attempting to sing Silent Night in Dutch with my children (my favorite song) I thought we’d “beat the rush” and hop on our bikes and head home a little early.  Perhaps next year will be a little more. . . meaningful.  Who has a Normal-Rockwell-esque Christmas Eve service experience with two kids, anyway. . . no matter what continent you’re on? 
  V had already spent Christmas Eve dealing with settling Oma’s estate and worrying about work.  We had not wrapped presents yet (as present shopping had been pushed and pushed back due to Oma’s business and shorted shopping hours – I’ve gotten used to a lot, but stores closing at 5 p.m. two days before Christmas threw me for a loop).  As we pedaled home after the Peiterskerk challenge, I thought – you know, the kids won’t know any different, there’s no other family counting on us, let’s give ourselves a break.  We need one more day – let’s take it.  So we did.  
Ice Skating Rink on top of the canal
  We did not open gifts on December 25th.  Instead, we took a long walk through town on Christmas Day – all six of us, dogs included.  Weeks ago, we had seen the town erect an ice skating rink on top of the canal adjacent to the Town Hall.  With the whole family there, and the crowd on the ice diminished because of the holiday, we decided that Christmas Day was the perfect opportunity to take Baby Girl ice skating.  “Who do you want to take you skating?  Mama or Daddy?” we asked.  “Both,” she said.  “I’m sorry – but one of us has to stay with Little Man,” we explained.  “Mama, Daddy, Baby Girl, AND Little Man skate,” she said.  Hearts melted.  In the midst of all our questionable decisions, I think we’ve done something right.  In the end, she chose me (who hoo!) and Daddy took pictures of us skating – Baby Girl on the bright orange seal and me pushing her around the ice methodically following a counter-clockwise circle like the American I Am.  (Everyone else was just throwing themselves from end to end).    After our walk, we put the kids to bed for naptime.  V and I heated up some Gluhwein, wrapped gifts, and watched Christmas Vacation for the 100th time this year.  Later that night, we feasted on fajitas and Skyped with my parents and sister.  Celebrating Christmas after a full day of equal parts excitement and relaxation, plus the connection with family seemed like the appropriate thing to do, anyway. 
Baby Girl & I Ice Skating on Christmas Morning
    All in all, it was a lovely holiday full of enchantment, wonder, offset by a little homesickness.  It was the first Christmas ever I spent away from my any of my family, but after a year of so many ‘firsts’ it seemed okay.  We did not have a White Christmas, unlike all my friends back in Dallas – after wearing a jacket 80% of the year, I have to say I may have been a little bit jealous – but with that, I know I experienced the Christmas of a lifetime – and the bells, inside my heart, and outside the town hall, were definitely ringing. 


Thursday, January 3, 2013

One Red Thread

One Red Thread - Blind Pilot

   The Sinterklaas extravaganza in our living room proved to be an exhausting event, deemed as such by the struggle which ensued to put our children to bed that evening.  Between the height of the excitement and the melt-down of the children’s moods that followed, the inevitable frustration between parents and children, which sometimes results in taking-it-out-on-but-not-meaning-to-take-it-out-on-you verbal combat with the spouse, I decided I needed a walk to catch my breath.  It’s been cold here in Leiden, but not too cold (which, I’m proud to say my Texas blood has thickened and I feel sort of comfortable in 40F weather).  I grabbed a couple of grocery bags and headed to our local Jumbo grocery store.  If you’re going for a walk, you might as well be productive, and besides, happiness is defined as a full tank of gas (or at least used to be when I drove. . .) and a full fridge.   The walk, the crisp winter air, and the grocery shopping sans kids helped shake off any remaining negativity and I was in a healthy good mood by the time I returned. 
  I unlocked the door and started walking towards the kitchen.  The door to the family room was closed but I could hear V talking into the phone, “Yes, this is . . . . you called?”  He used his full name, which was unusual.  We receive very few phone calls in this house as most of our correspondence is conducted via e-mail or skype, and the few calls we receive are from people to whom we do not need to introduce ourselves.  With confusion and an eaves-dropping ear, I nervously started to unpack the groceries.  I knew something was wrong.  Very wrong.   I stood like a motionless bystander as I watched him hang up the phone, rest his hands on the table, and take a breath.  After the exhalation, his hands covered his eyes and his shoulders started to shake.  Anything that was stressing us out before that moment, the typical marriage/family stresses – finances, kids, job, etc. disappeared and my heart melted.  No longer an audience member watching and waiting to see what comes next, I crossed the room in large strides and jumped on stage.  “Oma is dead,” he said to me, “That was the police.  They found her in her apartment today.”  An overwhelming sense of sadness and dread entered my body.  I embraced him tightly and told him I was so sorry.
  I had only met Oma a handful of times.  She lived in Gouda, The Netherlands and during my husband’s childhood, she and Opa braved the yearly pilgrimage across the big ocean to spend a month visiting my husband’s family in Louisiana during the Christmas holiday season.  After Opa’s passing in 1996, she no longer endured the journey, afraid to make it on her own.  V’s mother passed away, Oma’s only child, a few weeks after we had started dating, a little over 8 years ago now, which furthered the distance between Oma and America.  With V’s mother gone and with no other known relatives on his mother’s side, we both felt it was important to spend time with Oma during our visit to The Netherlands, 3 ½ years ago.  It was a business trip for V and I had tagged along.  It was a sunny, pleasant day in July 2009.  We took the train from Rotterdam to Gouda and walked the few blocks to her home.  The road was full of connected, square houses which looked like they were built in the 1970s, void of the typical Dutch charm.  We found her house and while my husband knocked anxiously, my palms also started to sweat.  We were already married, but first-time-meeting-the-parents-high-school-jitters consumed me.  Thankfully, she welcomed us with open arms and a cheerful smile.  In her broken English and my husband’s broken Dutch we managed a conversation about the weather, our visit to The Netherlands so far, V’s family, and probably breakfast.  She smoked inside her home and I noticed the faint cigarette smell and a slight yellowing of the wallpaper, but none of it dimmed the smile she gave me, her husband’s new wife.  “You so skinny!” she said to me.  I smiled back.   
   I remember her busying herself around the kitchen, making us bitter coffee in delicate, tiny china cups.  “Jaaaaa, soooooo!” she said repeatedly, which made me laugh.  Yearning for more information about the mother-in-law I never knew, we gently coaxed questions about V’s mother, but were met with resistance.  Disappointed, but understandable, I reasoned.  It’s her only daughter and she’s no longer here.  We moved on.   She fed us Vienna sausages and I swallowed the first and only hot-dog-like-substance I had eaten in 20 years and since.  No need to disappoint grand-mother-in-law on first visit, I told myself.  We thanked her for the coffee and sausages and made plans to meet her again for breakfast a few days later, but we’d bring breakfast.  We returned on a bright summer morning with gifts of fresh fruit and beschuit (Dutch toast).  As the sun slanted brightly through the laced windows, we sat at her tiny dining table perched atop spindly chairs while Oma pulled photos from a drawer.  Absent of words, she was ready to at least show us some photos of her past, of her grown daughter.  We waved goodbye again, for an undetermined amount of time and I saw a small sadness in her eyes as we departed.
  My excitement of being close to Oma followed my husband’s announcement that we were moving to The Netherlands.  In my naiveté, I even envisioned visiting her via the train with her two great-grandkids during the day (like I had visited my own grandmother when I was on maternity leave in Dallas) while my husband worked.   This was before I realized the challenge of juggling two kids, much less the logistical challenges of getting kids on a train. . . Either way, we visited her a month into our adventure in The Netherlands.  It was a cold, grey day in February.  It was around 4:00 p.m. and the sun was already setting.  When we entered her house, it was void of the sunshine I had seen previously.  Oma had a warm smile, but it was reserved.  She did not walk as well as she had before, but she had a walker that she used to walk to the grocery store down the street regularly.  During one of her daily grocery runs, she had purchased a Barbie-like-doll for Baby Girl and a stuffed Panda for Little Man.  She gave them these gifts with pleasure.  After being in The Netherlands for a month, I could already recognize and appreciate the effort she had to have taken to walk herself with her walker to the store, purchase these blessings, and carry them home.  It was no small task for an 84-year-old.   Baby Girl ran around her yellowed apartment, fingering the ancient teacups at toddler-eye-level while my husband and I jumped, chased, and nervously conducted half-attentive conversation.  Oma’s hair was a little greasy and the spark was gone from her eyes.  She was happy enough to see us, but in retrospect, something was wrong.  I knew it, but with a three and a 21-month old, had barely had the focus to address it. 
  “What do you mean, the police found her?” I asked my husband, once he had regained his composure.  “Oma had a caretaker that visited her every two weeks for the past 8 years,” he forlornly explained, “apparently there was no answer at the door.  The caretaker peeked through the windows and saw her legs in the hallway and called the police.  They had to break the back window to get to her.”  A cantaloupe was starting to form in my stomach and was pushing itself upwards.  I’m sure my husband was trying to keep a watermelon down.  “Oh my God,” was all I could say.  “According to the mail on the floor. . .” he swallowed, I could almost see the black seeds in his mouth, “ . . . it had been a few days.”  He immediately started to berate himself.  “If only. . . I tried. . . we should have. . . I could have tried harder. . .”  I shook my head.  We had not seen her since that chilly visit in February.  He had called.  He had tried to invite himself over.  We wanted to see her.  She was only 35 minutes away.  After a lifetime of a world apart, she always turned him down.  “Nee,” she would say.  “I do not feel well, maybe another time,” she’d explain.  “Maybe she really doesn’t feel well – I’ve been pregnant twice and I know when I did not feel well, there was little anyone else could do to get me out of the house and be social. . .” I explained, but deep down, I felt that, perhaps, there was something more.  Oma welcomed me and V with open arms when we were newlywed and carefree.  But once we appeared in her house with two children, I could not help the feeling that maybe Baby Girl reminded her too much of her own daughter, clearly a reasonably touchy subject.  “It takes two,” I continued attempting to shower V with reason; “She knew you wanted to see her.  She turned you down after every offer to see her.  She could have called you and said, ‘today is good, please come here’, and she never did.  I think there was something more and out of your control.” 
  The next day, after calling a friend in a panic and explaining to please help herself to whatever she needed in our house and thanking her repeatedly, V and I left our kids during naptime to venture to the Gouda police station.  We carefully tromped through an icy, slushy parking lot.  As we stood behind a red-taped line on the floor, awaiting our turn, I held V’s hand and tried to half-heartedly smile up at him.  We were led into a private room where we were met by a pleasant-looking blonde middle-aged woman.  I could tell she was sharp, sympathetic, and thorough in her job.  She apologized for her broken English, which of course, like everyone here, was amazing, and we had no problems communicating.   She explained many things to us – how she had been unable to locate the Will so far, and that it appeared that it would take 24 hours, that the caretaker thought the Will was in her home, but without it, the police could not give us the keys to look for it.  She explained that she had been in Oma’s home, and asked if we were aware that Oma had been a bit of a ‘hoarder’ (did she pick that word up from American t.v.?).   She said that the caretaker knew of no other friends or family, and that inevitably, V, because he was an heir and living in The Netherlands, would probably be deemed executor of the state by Dutch law, but that we would know more the next day – after the will had been found.  We could have the choice, of letting the State take care of everything – funeral, burial, but then they too, would also resume responsibility for everything – debts and savings accounts.  She told us that the common trend was for people of our parents generations to have their wills, wishes, funeral insurance, etc. sorted out – but for the grandparent’s generation. . . not so much.  Our heads were spinning by the time we trekked out of the police station and back to the car.  There were just too many unknowns.  We would have to wait until the first domino fell to determine the next plan of action. 
  We received a call from the notary the next day – the Will had been found, and it was dated 1969.  “I wasn’t even born until 1978,” V explained to the notary.  “Well, good,” he smartly replied, “at least you know you weren’t written out of it.”  A Will dated in 1969 which leaves everything to your husband who died in 1996 meant that Dutch law would take precedence. 
  We booked the babysitter and headed to Gouda police station again two days later to get the keys to the house.  The weekend police station attendant handed us the death certificate as well – “You’ll need this,” she explained.  We gulped and thanked her.  We pulled up to Oma’s house as the sun was setting with trepidation flowing through our veins.  Like so many things I’ve experienced in The Netherlands, “I never would have guessed. . . if you had told me. . .” the words of the police station attendant rang in my ears, “She was a bit of a hoarder.  The apartment is a bit of a mess. . . newspapers everywhere. . .” As soon as we parked and headed forebodingly towards her house, Oma’s next door neighbor was out on the sidewalk – Wisteria Lane style.  She must have been staring out her window 24-7 for a week straight.  Welcoming any distraction that prevented me from entering Oma’s ‘bit of a mess’ house where her poor body lay unattended for days, I greeted the neighbor like I was the First Lady.  “Hello!” I said with smile gleaming and outstretched hand, “I am Celeste. . . and this is my husband. . . he is the grandson of . . .” she conveyed her condolences and we started to put together the pieces of the puzzle we had clumsily received.  She spoke to us in fragmented English, “no friends, no family – we tried, us, in the neighborhood, to talk, but she turned away.  No one visited.  Oh wait – I met you, months ago.  Two children, yes?”  This woman loved to look out her window.  We thanked her, mostly for the interruption and the human connection, and headed to Oma’s apartment.  My husband unlocked the door. 
  I gagged on the cigarette smoke that permeated from the walls and the other scents in the apartment – dust – so much dust and rotten bananas – for the rest of my life I will equate rotten bananas to death.  The lights were on – yellow lightbulbs.  Her last breakfast lay on the table – the table where we ate Vienna sausages and beschuit years earlier.  Her walker was in the kitchen.  A delicate tea cup with remnants of the last sip was on the coffee table.  Dirty yellow hues surrounded me, oppressed me.  Shoes on the floor, newspapers on the couch, and clothes lay on a chair.  I desperately tried to open the window for air.  It was locked.
  In the dying light of the day and the awful amber hues of the lamps – we threw ourselves into action – it was all we could do.  We snapped on the rubber kitchen gloves we bought at the grocery store and pulled our energy, focused on the task at hand.  We rummaged through drawers, unlocked cabinets, threw anything we thought could be potentially helpful into bags – of course, all documents were in Dutch.  There were bank statements from the 1960s.  Every piece of mail she had received for half a century was in her house.  I could not look at the food in the kitchen and on the table.  I could not bring myself to throw anything away, like I had hoped.  I could not even venture past the living room into the bedrooms.  After an hour, our nerves and consciousness frazzled, we fled the scene like the bandits we were, to go home, pay the babysitter, put the kids to bed, open a bottle of wine, and google-translate the documents we had found.  It was a crazy Saturday night.       
    The mortician came to our house a few days later.  We scheduled her with hopes of the kids’ cooperating with a synchronized nap-time and to our amazement, the timing worked out perfectly.  As V and I uneasily sipped tea, we attended to the business at hand.  We first learned about the burial options in The Netherlands.  The only information the caretaker had known was that Oma wanted to be buried, not cremated.  We had no idea where.  We had asked the police station if there was a record of where V’s Opa had been buried but she was not sure if such a public database existed.  Oma’s family was buried in her town, but she had had a falling-out with whatever family she had left and after the mortician called the cemetery, she noted that there was not a place available in that family grave, anyway.  (There was a spot, but it had expired a few years ago, which would require another hefty deposit and approval by the grave owner, etc. etc. again, I believe this concept of renting/owning/deposits/of graves in The Netherlands is much different than the U.S.)  The other option was a public grave, which basically means that people are buried chronologically with strangers.  After 15 or so years, the remains (which are few, according to the mortician) are moved and the grave is used again.  I cringed in my seat and while I was couth enough to keep my jaw from dropping, I know my eyes gave away my internal freak-out-session.  Again, V and I shook off the jitters and had to focus on the task.  We looked at each other and remembered a document.  By sheer accident, we had come across a piece of paper from 1997 in Oma’s apartment and we had google-translated it the previous Saturday night.  It indicated that a gravestone was to be updated with her husband’s name on it in a town about an hour and a half from where they had lived.  We showed the paper to the mortician and she called to see what the story was.  They would have to research and call her back.  We continued with the details – the casket, flowers, etc.  Because we knew no one to invite to the burial, both the neighbor and caretaker were consistent with their stories of her lonely life, we hired pallbearers.  Dutch law requires all people to be buried within six working days of death – because of the timing of everything, there was going to be a late penalty.  We learned the traditional Dutch-way of a death announcement in the paper.  She gave us a sample and explained the details – a poem, and explanation of who the person was in relation to the deceased, the family/person/notary settling the estate, and a corresponding address.  She gave us a sample book of poems in Dutch for me to translate later, if I wished.  It was a learning experience like no other, and yet, I felt like it was the most Dutch-thing I had done.  Few Expats (I hope) have had to plan a funeral during their stay abroad and it was clear that everyone we met was not familiar with making arrangements with American-grandsons-living-in-The-Netherlands.  Either way, everyone was so kind, helpful, and sympathetic to the situation.  As the mortician left our house, everything had been determined except where to bury Oma.  Luckily, within the hour, the mortician called us back.  The cemetery had researched and found the right answer - there was space, in the grave, on top of her husband.  Without her telling anyone, we knew we were doing what she would have wanted and for perhaps the first time in the entire process – V and I breathed a sigh of relief. 
  It had snowed and the snow grew deeper and thicker the further east we drove, towards Germany.  Little Man was in the back seat as we followed the hearse for an hour and a half.  Baby Girl was at school – it was a difficult debate – to have her there or take her to school, but as she neared her third birthday, I feared for her awareness and unawareness.  I also wanted my husband to take in the moment – to say goodbye as he needed to.  With a 2-to-2 ratio, I knew that would be difficult and in the end, I also thought Oma would understand our decision.
  We pulled the car through the grand arched stone entrance into the cemetery.  We exited our car, adorned our hats and gloves and shook hands with the caretaker.  Four tall men in elegant suits and top hats placed Oma’s casket atop a rolling table.  Ancient stones and a cathedral of trees stood along side our most humble and somber procession.  A light dusting of snow crunched under the wheels of Oma’s casket and Little Man’s stroller – death and new life.  Our small family and two caretakers stood around the grave.  One caretaker read a poem in Dutch, my husband said a prayer in English, and we nodded and said goodbye.  It was one of the most beautiful ceremonies no one has ever seen.   
  Thoughts of Oma’s self-inflicted isolation haunted us through the entire process.  Only tiny bits of information from the caretaker about the life Oma led gave us any clues – Oma was not very trusting and would become emotional with sadness at any mention of her late daughter.  My suspicion about Baby Girl reminding her of her painful loss had remained unconfirmed during the past 11 months since our one and only visit. 

   We are currently muddling through the remainder of the tasks – excavating and evacuating the disastrous apartment, shutting down the utilities, contacting notaries, etc.  After the burial, V and I returned to her apartment the following Saturday afternoon to find things we wanted to keep.  After rummaging through a life-time of accumulative papers, old electric razors, and rusted nails in dusty boxes, we found a world of photos.  That night, after the kids had been put to bed, we spent another Saturday night pouring through our findings.  I worked at the computer translating her hand-written school workbooks from the 1930s, while V sat in the middle of our family room flipping through boxes of black and white photos which had been aged yellow and are now cigarette smoke scented.  Flip, flip, flip – too many photos of unknown people.  Then his jaw dropped.  He rushed over to me and held a photo of his mother.  She could not have been more than 3 years old at the time the photo was taken.  My daughter’s face stared back at me.  His mother’s hair was cut the same way, her shy but yet sparkling smile shone through the decades.   Most strikingly of all, her sweet little hand gently touched her lips, half protecting her funny little grin.  How many times have I told my daughter to, ‘Put your hand down, honey, I’m trying to take a photo of you?” I could have easily mistaken the photo for my own Baby Girl, had it been taken out of context.  My husband and I shared the same shocked expression then smiled.  We will never really know why Oma did the things she did, but perhaps she was only trying to protect herself and us from further pain.  A friend of mine said, “No matter how great the task, I know you will be able to look back on this time and be thankful that you all were even here to help and take care of it all.”  We will be and we already are.  We will never know all the answers but I do take comfort that Oma and Vinny’s mom are both watching over us now, protecting us.  Together, the two women will be highly entertained over the next year watching from above, while their descendants experience, grow, learn, and love their home country of The Netherlands.             

After translating the samples of Dutch poems, I decided to write my own for Oma's obituary.  The following appeared in the Goudse Post, December 19, 2012:

Every hello leads to goodbye

Sometimes pains do not subside
Hide from world
Heart stays whole
But to love is to share and give some more

Her warm smiles were reserved for few
So no one ever really knew
The joy she brought to eyes as blue
In a land across the sea