In Part 1 of this “identity” story, I wrote about finding a cemetery surrounding a church in Witmarsum, the town where my great grandparents lived in Friesland, The Netherlands.
I’d taken along a photo of a distant relative taken outside the church in 1947. I posed for a picture in the same spot. Exciting! Note how the trees had grown. The steeple was unmistakably the same and the first thing we spotted as we entered the town.
That post concluded with me having an emotional reaction to finding my family name, Hoitenga, on tombstones in the churchyard’s cemetery. At that time, my maiden name was spelled “Hoitinga.”
I became aware that I was alone in the cemetery. It was deathly quiet. The sun’s heat penetrated my back as I skipped sideways between tombstones trying to find any last family stone that I could find to photograph. I felt eerily alone.
My husband and his three relatives had returned to our rented van. The streets surrounding the small cemetery that encircled this old church in Witmarsum, Friesland, displayed small well-kept homes clustered tightly together with little to no front yards. No one was outside.
It was 12 noon on a May Sunday in 2001. I imagined everyone to be inside—away from the 90s heat of the day—eating dinner. I wondered what they were eating. Roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, and red Jell-O? What we always considered a traditional Dutch Sunday dinner.
Somehow I could not see our U.S. version of a Dutch dinner on their tables after what we’d been served on our canal tour the week before—lots of fish and dry French fries. We’d been told we were having fish a lot due to the mad cow disease scare.
I found my fourth and most likely last gravestone and snapped a picture, framing it carefully to include the gabled rooftops of neighboring homes in the background. Just in case anyone ever wanted to find it easily. I rounded the corner of the church, spotted the van—engine running—and crowded back in.
I retrieved my second picture, carefully stored in my travel folder, of my family home, with its inhabitants in 1947, that I’d gotten with my dad’s genealogy book in the early 1980s, when, I might add, I couldn’t have cared less. I told my companions that my brother, who’d made this trip years ago, had told me we’d easily be able to find the house just by driving down the street from the church. The photo even had an address on the back—15 Aylvaweg.
As my husband drove, we each began to scan street names painted on the sides of corner buildings. We found no “wegs” (ways), just “straats” (streets). So having an address was of no help. We inched our American-sized van up and down quiet, narrow, cobble-stoned streets lined with ancient gable-roofed homes. No houses fit my picture.
My husband turned another corner, and suddenly we were in a new development–modern, similar to our own housing. I felt discouraged and hot. I knew we’d get tired of looking, and we had a full agenda for the day. We still had to find the birthplace of my husband’s mother in St. Annaparochie, many kilometers north. The trip was, after all, primarily to find mutual history of my four traveling companions, with this one side trip to find some of my own.
As we rounded our last corner, or so my husband threatened, we spotted the only life we’d seen since we entered this town. A forty-ish man on a cycle—a major form of transportation in this country of the Netherlands—who had paused to talk to two older people on their doorstep that hugged the street.
Anne, our Dutch 78-year-old cousin, combination tour guide and interpreter, shouted, “Stop!” She turned and grabbed my picture and sprang out of the van. Dutch words flew, my picture passed from hand to hand, and hands waved and pointed. I had my window down, watching this as if it were a foreign film without subtitles. I had no idea what was being said.
And just that quickly, Anne climbed back into the van. I expected her to say something like “no luck.” Instead, she commanded, “Follow him.” Sure enough, the cyclist bee-lined down the street. I felt as if we were about to discover America, like Columbus, only we were on land in a van on the way to locate my family home.
Several turns later, the cyclist stopped. We unfolded out of the van. The man took my photograph from me and pointed behind him. Excited, in halting English, he said, “See, this is the house. See the two windows? See the house behind it? Same as the picture.”
Shocked, I asked, “How do you know?” He responded, “I know, I’m born here. I know all the houses. This used to be Aylvaweg. You are good to come here now. See the house is being fixed over. The old couple living here moved out two months ago into a nursing home. See? See?” He pointed to piles of construction materials hidden in the greenery. “If you came any later, you would not know the house.”
My photo of the house had been taken of its side. No wonder we hadn’t found it cruising the streets and looking only at house fronts.
I began wildly snapping pictures. The man invited us to his home. He said he had old books on Witmarsum’s history—perhaps we’d find my great-grandfather’s name or picture. My heart folded around this man like warm gravy over mashed potatoes. I felt a strange intimacy, a connection like I’d felt in the cemetery.
I knew we could not stay. We had no time. I thanked him. I asked if my husband could take our picture. “Ya, sure,” he replied. I clasped his waist—and he mine. “Just like old friends,” I said. “Ya, sure,” he agreed, “just like old friends.”
As we drove away, my husband handed me his e-mail address. “He wants to hear from you.” I was dumbfounded that Marv had thought to ask for it.
When we got home, I emailed my new old friend. The email was bounced back, apparently a letter or dot or space was incorrect. I’ll never know.
Next week: Some new light on my Dutch identity that I learned this past week while vacationing in Aruba.