My Grandpa was born in 1919 and was the first of his family to be born here. His Mother and Father left the Netherlands after World War I, and started a little farm in New York. The beginning of his and his family’s American story was the fast pace Roaring Twenties and then the hard years of the Great Depression. It was especially hard to be a farmer in those years. He grew up with many siblings and like many immigrant families of the time they played down their backgrounds. His parents never spoke Dutch unless they were arguing and did not want the children to know what they were talking about. I think at times he wish his parents had taught him, as I remember him knowing a couple words, and at the dinner table we would sometimes have Dutch dishes.
When World War II broke out he became a Marine and fought hard in the Pacific. He lost a great deal of his hearing when a cannon fired near him without him knowing it would fire. In the years after the war he met and married my Grandma and they worked hard, very hard. My Grandpa worked a high position in the grocers business. My Grandma, an expert seamstress did alterations and fixed garments for people. They bought rental property, and even at one point even had their own business. They built the American Dream and bought their own home. It was a medium sized old white shingled home with a large backyard filled with grandma’s flowers, a peach tree, and large pine trees. My Father and his brother must have had such fun in that backyard! In my own childhood it seemed like a small solitary Eden where no harm aside from a scraped shin could ever happen. As they socked more money aside they built a patio and swimming pool.
After years of working they retired and moved to Hawaii. My Father and Mother lived in that white shingled house and brought me up there during my first nine years of life. My Father and Mother worked hard jobs as well, and tended to their rental properties, which in my formative years taught me the basics of home improvement. During those years Grandpa and Grandpa sent me care packages regularly from Hawaii. I am their only grandchild and they sure spoiled me. Grandpa would pack candy and books, and Grandma would sew me one of a kind outfits.
They would come home for a few months every summer, and it was great fun. Grandpa and Grandma would go to the garage and get their 1970s Buick. They would pack me in the back seat, and we would go on adventures. We would go get ice cream, pick berries, go to farmers markets, and go shopping. One of my earliest vivid memories is being three and going to Ames. After getting out of the Buick I was put in a stroller, and we went inside. We went down the toy isles. They bought me my very first Barbie, she was Hawaiian Barbie, she had a bright early 1990s neon swimsuit, a little hair brush, and even pineapple perfume! They bought a balloon too. After I got home I had a little help ripping her out of the package, and I went right into the living room, sat in front of the television set and played with her for hours. I would take her poolside with me as I lived in the swimming pool their swimming pool.
Family dinners were the best. Mom and Grandma made dinner and would pop in and out of the patio while making dinner. The adults would have strawberry daiquiris, and I being wee had a non-alcoholic version to be like the big people. Grandpa always had a big bag of cheese curds, and often I would steal his bag and nail them. The patio was where we gathered as a family and talked and shared stories. Soon dinner would be served on the picnic table and we would sit elbow to elbow and enjoy Grandma and Mom’s hard work. For desert Grandma made many peach pies from the peaches that would fall from their tree. Every time I smell or eat peaches today I feel safe and at home. I can still hear Grandma yelling at me to get down from there, as I climbed its limbs, and Grandpa sitting at the dinner table cutting peaches with a paring knife.
I did not know what to think when I turned nine. I had just had my birthday in the only house I had ever known…my little life changed in one phone call…they were coming home to live, but we had to move into the rental property next door…I was sad about moving but happy about seeing Grandpa and Grandma all the time. It turned out great. We had more family dinners. I could craft with Grandma. I could walk down to the grocery store with Grandpa, and buy a newspaper which meant great talks and stealing the comics from him. During the summer I could stay with them all day while my parents went to work. I would watch cartoons, enjoy walking with Grandpa, and get lunches made with love from Grandma, my childhood favorite melty grilled cheese and soup. I would swim poolside and grandpa would be there in the patio reading and listening to Sinatra albums. Like all families who spend a great deal of time together we would not always see eye to eye, but it did not matter, especially all these years later.
A few years after their return Grandpa had a stroke, and slowly his health declined. Grandma was really brave and took care of Grandpa as long as she could. It was hard, but he was put in a nursing home where he could have professional care. Grandma would see him every day at lunch time. My parents moved a few streets over so Grandma could sell the rental property and have more money for Grandpa’s health care. He died in the nursing home when I was fifteen.
It was not until many years later until I was grown and making my way in the world that I realized I had something very special as a child. When I met my sweetheart in college he told me his family was estranged, and he never had a relationship with his grandparents. It was then that I realized I had a pretty special and unique childhood. I never thought otherwise. When we are a child sometimes we think everyone grows up the same way.
I am the first in my family tree to get a degree, and I plan on working hard all the way to a doctorate in Ethnomusicology. Growing up my Grandpa and Grandma pushed for me to have a college education and put aside savings bonds that have helped me along the way. I think my Grandpa wanted to go to college himself. He was one of the smartest people I knew and read everything he could get his hands on. Some of my fondest recollections is sitting at the kitchen table or leaning up against a wall in the adjacent backroom and hearing him amicably debate politics with Mom. I don’t think he had the opportunity for college being a kid growing up on a farm, then war, marriage, kids, and life happens in ways we don’t always expect or plan. I know he was happy and had a pretty great life.
I want the same thing for myself. Like my Grandpa was I too am working hard. I want the white house and to marry my sweetheart and make a home. I want the same American Dream and at the same time I keep all the Dutch traditions alive that I know. I think they are more important to me then my parents. Like Grandpa I too read everything I can to keep bettering myself. All those books and papers I know will make siding, windows, and a roof of my own while doing something I really love with my life. I want a chance to change the world through academia. I am so happy they both pushed me towards a college education. All that I have left of my Grandpa is my memories along with Grandma and her stories. Despite a few health scares in recent years she is overall pretty healthy. I hope the rest of my family enjoy her stories the way I do. Her gardens still bloom every spring and summer. The Buick was sold last year. The peach tree is sick and dying. The only branch left on the tree is the one I would climb on as a child.