My mom was the eighth of nine children born and raised in Maastricht, a relatively small town (population 120,000) in the southern part of the Netherlands. Maastricht is not just a quaint little Dutch town, it is an old town. From early in the 1st century BC, Maastricht has had continuous settlement for nearly 2000 years. There are old churches from the 11th and 12th century still in use in Maastricht. There are parts of an old bridge from the same time period that is still used to cross the River Maas. There are ancient and winding streets lined with narrow houses, largely unchanged for centuries, still inhabited. Unlike the United States, things don’t change quickly in Maastricht. But my mom left Maastricht at age 19 to be with my father, an American. Even though her parents, her grandparents, and probably her great grandparents and great- great- grandparents had always lived in Maastricht, she decided to move away to a new continent, a new language, and a new culture with a new husband and a new baby. Growing up, I didn’t realize how much courage that must have taken for her to do that.
Having been born in 1937, nearly all of my mom’s childhood memory involved war. She didn’t often speak of her experiences, perhaps because the memories were too painful or perhaps because she didn’t want to live in the past, I never knew. My first recollection of her even talking about the war was when I was around 12 years old and there were night-time helicopters flying low over the homes in our area spraying pesticides for the fruit fly infestation. When the helicopters would fly over, she would wake up terrified and in a panic then run outside. I was too young to understand why. It seemed odd and, frankly, slightly unreasonable to my pre-teen self. She simply said that the sounds reminded her of bombing raids during the war. I wish that could have understood then what it meant to live through a war. Later in life, she would talk to Colburn about the post-war years – of living with an ever-present hunger, of her mom having to line her shoes with newspaper to cover up the holes because they could not afford to purchase new ones, of her father fishing the river for dinner after working the night-shift as a coal miner – but rarely spoke of such things to me or my siblings.
There were parts of her we never understood while she was alive – why there always had to be sheer white curtains hanging in the front windows, why french fries had to be homemade, and why sheets had to be ironed. She did them, but we never understood why. My mom never taught us how to speak Dutch because she said it wasn’t worth the effort to learn because her dialect is not widely spoken. The main concession she made to her heritage is by choosing to use the name “Oma”, the Dutch word for grandmother, instead of Grandma when my niece was born in 1985. She did her best to adopt all of the typical American traditions saying that now she was an American so didn’t want to focus too much on the traditions of her childhood. Despite this, parts of her “Dutchness” crept in to our lives: we all love hagel (small chocolate sprinkles) on warm toast, we eat french fries with mayonnaise instead of ketchup, and some of us drink a lot of beer!
Coming to Maastricht five years after my mother died has had a profound effect on me. There has been an unexpected and overwhelming sense of comfort and being at home even though I have never lived in the Netherlands. The people here look like me – they are stout and solid with big shoulders and strong legs. At least three times a day we see someone that looks exactly like my mom, at least from the back. I can see her at 77 years old riding her bike to the bakery to get some bread then visiting the butcher for some sliced meats then stopping by the florist to pick up fresh flowers. I can picture me living here too as it is all so familiar. All of the windows have white lace-trimmed curtains in them. We even saw the exact fabric my mom used when we visited the weekly market. She must have bought her fabric 20 years ago, but they are still selling the same style because things don’t change quickly in Maastricht. The cakes and pies are the kind that my mom loved – sweet and creamy – served with a tiny fork. Meeting my cousins was not like meeting strangers, it was very much like meeting younger versions of my mom. They laugh like she did, they joke with each other the way my mom did, they use small spoons and always have a cup of strong coffee at the ready as my mom did. One night we were sitting around the table at my cousin’s house and I had a flash-back to visiting here when I was six. I don’t remember a lot of particulars about that trip, but there are a few images and feelings that I clearly recall. This was definitely one of them. The image I remember is of our parents sitting around the table at my aunt’s house – drinking, smoking, laughing, telling stories. And now, some 40 or more years later, I found myself sitting around the table in an immaculate Maastricht home with my cousins, drinking, smoking, laughing and catching up on what has been too many years of not really knowing each other. I regret not having come here with my mom while she was still alive and sharing this experience with her.
The feeling of being at home started before we met up with my cousins though. It started as soon as we crossed the border from Germany to the Netherlands. We stopped for a coffee and pastry just over the border and immediately we were struck by the differences. The language in Holland is softer, has more emphasis on the vowels and more lilt to it. There is much more laughter here. People at the tables next to us were laughing, the lady who took our order laughed, we laughed louder than we had in the past month. After the reserved manner of Switzerland and Germany, the lightheartedness of the Limburgers was refreshing…and familiar.
As we rode our bikes through the countryside, the weather was perfect and we came across a commemoration of Operation Market Garden at the third largest American cemetery in Europe. Unaware that seventy years to the day, the most extensive paratrooper drop of the war happened near Arnhem. Just three days before we had seen the movie, A Bridge Too Far, which dramatizes the battle. The day after seeing the movie, we visited the Peace Museum which was developed in the old bridge abutments at Remagen, one of the bridges in the operation and the only one left intact. As we passed through Margraten, there was a big poster on the side of a barn with three images: GI’s in action , GI’s and citizens raising the Dutch flag and a young girl praying at a grave. Just riding by the poster gave us the chills. Fifteen minutes later, we found ourselves at the entrance to the Netherlands American Cemetery with more than 10,000 US soldiers (1,800 were unknowns) buried in it.
As we walked through, we were struck by how many graves had beautiful bouquets of fresh flowers on them. It didn’t seem possible that all of the flowers had been placed by US relatives in just the past couple days. Then we saw an older lady with a big bunch of flowers being pushed in her wheelchair along a path by younger family members. We wondered out loud if she had known one of the soldiers, perhaps it was her husband, nephew, or brother that she was honoring. Later we found out that 100% of the graves in this cemetery have adopted by families in the area. There is even a waiting list of families hoping to adopt a fallen soldier. The locals treat the graves as if they were one of their own family, placing fresh flowers and visiting occasionally, out of continued gratitude. Suddenly, everything came together in a sobering, somber wave. In a moment, I understood more about what my mom had endured than I had ever known before. Unfortunately, it is too late to tell her that I can now understand where she came from.