Lessons From My Dutch Mother

Stoic stitchery. This is a paraphrase from The Secret Garden.

This weekend, my 12-year-old son installed the Duolingo app on my phone and I began 5-minute-a-day language lessons in Dutch.

Beyond feeling like learning Dutch is “something I’ve always wanted to do”, and therefore — at 50 — I’d really better get on with it, I’m not exactly sure why I’m bothering. (I’m also not certain Duolingo is the best tool for this task; but that’s another issue and beyond the scope of this post.) The cold hard truth of the matter is that the only Dutch speaker in my life is my mother, who has just turned 86. And although there are apparently incidences of stroke taking away second languages and leaving first ones intact, she does not seem to be faltering at all when it comes to her mental capacities. In other words, I’m perfectly aware that the *need* for me to one day know how to speak Dutch is quite remote.

As many of you probably know, I have a Dutch and German background. My mother emigrated from The Netherlands in the 60s, and then met and married my German father, who had immigrated to Canada when he was 17.

According to my mother, my parents initially had plans to teach my brother and me to speak both their native tongues. Unfortunately for my brother and me, my parents’ resolve on the matter faltered and died very early on, with the result that, except for a smattering of exposure when visiting with relatives (and a quick jaunt through in-one-ear-and-out-the-other high school German), my brother and I did not ever *really* learn to speak either language.

What follows is but one example to illustrate how incredibly unfortunate this state-of-affairs was for me:

My last memory of my maternal grandmother is of her standing on her stoop in Pernis, a small town just outside Rotterdam, waving to me as I — 19-years-young — walked down the street to catch the bus on what was the first leg of my journey back home to Canada. She had, just a couple of hours earlier, led me out of the house, walked with me arm in arm amongst the trees in their backyard orchard, all the while speaking, pointing, gesticulating, looking at my face to see if I understood anything she had said. I caught a few words, here and there, but the underlying here-is-the-important-thing-I’m-trying-to-impress-upon-my-Canadian-granddaughter was entirely lost. Finally, the frustration in her voice a palpable thing, she shook her head in regret and with a rueful half-smile, gave up.

I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t confess that I find it diffiicult, at times, to recall this last day with my oma and to not feel anger at all that was lost.

But of course, dear reader, as you and I both know, it’s useless to cry over spilled milk. So I (metaphorically) pull myself up by my bootstraps (thank you, German father?) and give myself a stern talking-to and proceed to list off all the life lessons my Dutch mother taught me, for which I am utterly grateful:

One thread a night. Dutch girls are (were?) an industrious lot, and I grew up under the notion that if you were sitting, your hands had to be busy. Now, my mother wasn’t an absolute tyrant about it: she herself was an avid reader, and yes, I was permitted to sit and read, but only once I had made some form of daily progress on whatever project I was working on. One thread a night, my mother would continually say, and eventually you will have (for example) a finished cross-stitch piece. Although I sometimes resented the fact that I, THE GIRL, had to sit and embroider every evening — while my brother, THE BOY, did NOT — this has proven to be an invaluable lesson to me. It taught me fortitude and perseverance, it taught me that large and complex projects — crafty or otherwise — are entirely doable when using the one thread a night, each journey begins with a single stepif-you-never-get-started-you’ll-never-get-finished approach.

Is it necessary? The contemplative Is it necessary? is a question I heard often growing up. I remember sliding pocket-sized Peanuts comic books into paper bags — thank-you-for-coming-to-my-birthday-party — while my mother muttered mutinously about how SHE wasn’t going to be the parent who buys UNNECESSARY plastic junk to hand out to our guests. (Ground zero, apparently: this must be where my loathing of plastic crap originated.)

Although I occasionally railed at this frugal and oftentimes utilitarian approach to life — I KNOW a crib skirt is unnecessary, Mum, but I think it will look nice, and YES, I AM going to continue sewing it! — it’s come in remarkably handy while raising children. It wasn’t until I read this post on Finding Dutchland about the pressure an American ex-pat felt when considering whether or not to purchase a Hatchimal, that I fully appreciated that it was precisely this early training with this question that allowed me to coast nonchalantly through the Tickle Me Elmo madness when my daughter was a baby. It was the question that allowed me to easily say No to my children when they asked for all-the-crap littering check-out lanes. It was the question that resulted in Easter baskets and Christmas stockings filled with nothing but socks and books and single bars of chocolate, not a single blade of plastic “grass” in sight, no Dollarama trinkets deemed necessary.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the simplistic beauty of this question. After all, if you only surround yourself with necessary things, if you only perform necessary tasks — if you free yourself from the superfluous — then that allows you to truly see and appreciate and take care of those things that are important.

And, as an added bonus, focussing on what’s necessary is also a more environmentally-friendly way to live. I could do an entire post on all the unnecessary stuff marketers tell us we need, but which in fact is not only unnecessary, but actually harmful…

Sometimes unnecessary things are nice. And, well, kind of necessary. Tulips, potted plants, table runners covering bare wood, suikerbroodspeculaas, coffee and cake and a visit with a friend. There’s *got* to be some lovely unnecessariness to life; it can’t all be about sweeping the stoop and ironing the tea towels and building the dikes.

When you have a book, you have a friend. As I’ve discussed before, I came quite late to this knowledge. But now … I’m not sure where I would be without books; I suspect I’d be very lonely indeed.

Think happy thoughts. Don’t dwell. Remember that there is always someone out there who has it worse than you do.  AKA: DIY Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The Dutch are known for their level-headed practicality and stoicism. And while I do firmly believe there is truth to the premise that stoicism is sometimes the only way one gets-oneself-through-life, it needs to be said that Dutch sink-or-swim stoicism, while producing a heckuva lot of strong swimmers, can also result in drownings. It can, and often does, come off as unfeeling. And, quite honestly, as dismissive. I don’t know where the Dutch are at with regards to mental illness nowadays, but my childhood experiences have shown me that there is a vital distinction between preaching stoicism to others, and preaching it to oneself. In other words, I can dismiss and diminish my feelings; I can encourage myself to stay strong, to pull myself together, to cultivate happy thoughts — if that’s what I think will help me get through something (and it usually does) — but I don’t appreciate it when others dismiss or diminish my feelings, or imply that I’m weak or self-indulgent for even daring to feel those feelings in the first place. Just sayin’.

So … I need to find a positive way to end this post (because I am trying so damn hard these days to keep positive) and the only way I can think to do that is to share a bit of knitting. Gezellig — THE quintessential Dutch word — is usually used to refer to the cosy feeling one gets when in a warm atmosphere and in the company of convivial friends or family. This introverted homebody finds knitting — while drinking koffie, while in the company of 12-year-old zoon who is quietly reading a boek — to be the very definition of gezellig.

Stockholm scarf. Two strands of MADELINETOSH Merino Light held together: denim and Dr. Zhivago’s sky.
Advertisements