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.
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8 thoughts on “Lessons From My Dutch Mother

  1. Well hello there! Another lovely post – thank you! All good life lessons there, and most importantly, you’ve made them your own.
    I admire that you’re learning Dutch. I’m a good linguist but I have to say that Dutch simply defeats me, despite the similarities with English and with German. I’m guessing from what you say that you didn’t learn to speak German either as a child. Don’t despair if you flounder with Dutch – you might find that German comes easier. But if you do persevere with Dutch and you go there to visit (sounds like you should….) people will be delighted that you made the effort. I suspect not very many visitors do.
    Am sitting here with a nice hot cup of tea, with my knitting and (at last!) a tidy welcoming room. A little bit of gezellig of my own, even if the company is myself. I’m feeling the need of some alone time after a few days of lots of people.

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    1. Thank you, Deborah!
      I did get to visit The Netherlands a few times as a child/teenager (and once again, just a few years back), and you’re right — I don’t think that many visitors do speak (or maybe even attempt?) Dutch. There is most definitely a guttural trick to it, and only time will tell if I can pull it off. The younger Dutch generations (and by that I mean anyone my age or younger 😉 ) ALL seem to speak English (as well as French and German, I think?) meaning we visitors don’t have to try to muddle our way through. When I visited as a child, my cousins all saw it as a great opportunity for them to practice the English they were learning in school. But my grandparents had never learned English, so we were nearly completely at sea with each other. My mother will occasionally slip into Dutch when talking on the phone to me, especially if she’s just talked to her sister, and I can sometimes manage to piece together the gist of what she’s saying. Getting more of it would be nice, as I don’t like to have to remind her “English, please”. The understanding will definitely come more quickly than the confidence to speak, though.

      Tea and knitting and alone-time after busyness … lovely!

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  2. I think the question “is it necessary?” is such a rich one. What, exactly, is necessary? I’m pleased to see you acknowledge the paradoxical belief I share–that some unnecessary things are, in fact, necessary. There are some things I don’t need to survive, but I do need them to thrive. The kinds of things you list–soft lights, warm colors, clear spaces, hot baths, clothes that feel right, conversations with good friends.

    I appreciate, too, your acknowledgement of the limitations of stoicism. It’s not what I think of as CBT. Like you indicate, it can result in a kind of denial that is harmful. Just because someone has it worse than you does not mean that you don’t have it bad or that you should be OK with the bad just because it is not profoundly terrible. I appreciate, too, the distinction between preaching it to others vs. preaching to self. There’s just about nothing I resent more when I’m in the depths to have someone give me a load of positive attitude talk. (See how I used talk instead of another word I might have chosen?)

    Finally, I really like one thread a night. That one I have no quibbles with. 🙂 Wishing you the best of luck with acquiring Dutch. You don’t need a practical reason to justify learning a language. Five minutes a day sounds like a reasonable thread.

    So nice to see your words here. I always enjoy them so.

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    1. I should probably confess that although I acknowledged that paradoxical belief in the necessity of unnecessary things, I do actually have a really, really hard time with that in practice (both the physical items, like tulips, for example, as well as the more spiritual ones, like time with friends). My mother was/is MUCH better at putting that into practice; I tend to be more like my dad, and although he’s not *completely* self-abnegating or ascetic, he certainly has very distinct tendencies towards that. In other words, I have to perform one helluva lot of mental gymnastics in order to get myself to stop sweeping the metaphorical stoop and to take the time to knit myself a new scarf when I don’t *really* need one and I could be doing something more “productive” with my time.

      “Just because someone has it worse than you does not mean that you don’t have it bad or that you should be OK with the bad just because it is not profoundly terrible.” I 100% agree with this. But even while I DO agree, I do still sometimes catch myself thinking of everything my parents went through during the war (my mum, who went through the terror of bombings, and nearly starved; my dad, who was forcibly taken to a work camp where hunger and fear were constant companions) and making that comparison. This, unfortunately, was a tool that was used to dismiss me, and it also quickly became a tool that I then used to dismiss myself. (I do feel like this was probably parenting 101 back in the day, with many of us hearing the same sort of thing: “You think YOU’VE got it bad…?”.) This has unfortunately been a way-of-thinking that’s been really hard to dislodge…

      You’re right — five minutes a day is an incredibly reasonable thread! I hope you’re making good progress with your (literal) threads — I would love to see your embroidery featured in a post!
      Take care, Rita 🙂 .

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  3. I didn’t know that your parents lived through such experiences; maybe you shared that before but it didn’t quite register somehow? At any rate, I can certainly understand how their trauma might have impacted you. I understand, too, that their level of hardship is on a different plane from that of those of us who haven’t ever had our physical survival at risk, especially for a prolonged period. I can understand why you might feel you could never feel bad about anything, or why your parents might feel the same way. I guess the thing is, we can’t control our feelings. They are what they are. Learning that was a revelation to me. I get to choose how to respond to them, but I can’t control their existence. AND–harder still to truly accept–my feelings are not indicative of my character. My response is, maybe.

    So much to untangle, isn’t there?

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    1. The only time I might have had cause to mention anything my parents went through during the war would have been in a food waste post: my dad was, understandably, incredibly sensitive about food waste.
      Thank you for your words of understanding, Rita. My family history is, unfortunately, marred by trauma, both physical and psychological. I’ve been really heartened by the relatively recent calls-for-action on how society should view and deal with mental illness, in that we’re now encouraging people to talk openly about depression, anxiety, OCD, trauma. I do really hope the Dutch have fallen in step with this as well; anything of this sort was certainly viewed as a weakness when I was growing up.
      Reading your words on feelings has come as a bit of a revelation to me, Rita. I guess I knew this on some level — that we can’t control the feelings we have — but clearly, this is still something I struggle with, both the acceptance that I am this particular person having these particular feelings, as well as the understanding that we all possess — or need to learn to cultivate! — the ability to choose how to respond to those feelings. (I want to say this is a “grown-up” thing, and that we *all* do eventually get there, but clearly that isn’t the case…)
      Like you, I also have a hard time separating feelings from character; it’s way too easy for me to say to myself, I feel THIS and therefore I AM this. And then this will invariably lead into thoughts of character itself…HOW does one end up becoming the person/character they are? How can they become the person/character they want to be? How much freedom/choice is there in who we become? Can we overcome pretty much anything, through sheer strength of will? I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure…
      This is an incredibly tangled subject — thank you for joining in with me in trying to figure it out 🙂 .

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  4. So, I’ve visited you at least 4 times to leave a comment but there are SO MANY thoughts and the words tumble and make very little sense and then I get sidetracked!!

    First, everything Rita said about feelings! I grew up in a family where being angry or sad wasn’t acceptable. It was selfish. It was bad. It took me a really long time (and a lot of work with my therapist) before I learned that feelings are just feelings. I’m learning to see them as a weather report – I can prepare myself and my plans and know what I need to stay as comfortable as possible. I think they have a lot less power when instead of trying to deny them, I let them guide me, but I’m the furthest thing from a stoic. And I agree that self talking to yourself about being positive, is a lot different than telling someone else that they should put a brave face on things. (Wisdom, that.)

    Second, I love that you are learning Dutch. I’ve been talking about taking a few classes down at the university this year and one of the ones I’m thinking of is Spanish. I took it my first go around, but it was at 8:30 in the morning and I hardly ever went. At the time I was just checking off a requirement, but I wish I would have put more effort into it. I’ll rarely use it, but just the fact that I’m DOING something I want to do I think is useful. (Which is also how I feel about you using Dutch. You may not ever NEED it, but how lovely to know it anyway.)

    Third, focusing on the necessary, but knowing there are certain unnecessary things that are kind of necessary. YES!!!

    Fourth, I love your scarf. It looks so pretty and marled and cozy.

    I know my comment is scattered and a little all over the place, but I REALLY wanted to write because I’ve been thinking of you and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it.

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    1. Thank you so much, Kate, for taking the time to write such a lovely comment 🙂 .

      First off, I have to say I’m sorry that you, too, grew up feeling bad about your feelings. But selfishly, I have to say that talking with you and Rita about this — hearing what you’ve both learned through therapy — has been so helpful to me! I love your weather report analogy, and the idea that you can maybe know in advance what situations are going to cause which feelings, and that once you recognize this, you can work to prepare yourself. This is WAY smarter/healthier than trying to deny your feelings, or to beat yourself up over having them in the first place!

      8:30 am classes are hard! I think you’re absolutely right — it’s the DOING that matters. I’m totally rooting for you — get yourself to university and start taking those classes! (If we had a university here, that’s what I’d be doing; as we don’t, I’m trying to steel myself to put an online course in a cart. The only thing stopping me is the worry that it’s not the *right* thing for me to be taking; maybe I just need to tell myself the act of DOING is all that matters right now…)

      Thank you for the compliments on the scarf! I was pretty worried, when making it, that it wouldn’t turn out to be the right size — and, as it’s an infinity scarf, too big or too small is a valid concern! — but it turned out perfectly 🙂 .

      Happy Thanksgiving, Kate!

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