My Mother’s Holland

The taste of Holland recedes, as I grow older. It once held a central place in my consciousness. The taste as strong as the almond infused marzipan that I came across whenever someone had a wedding and layered their fruit cake with a thick undercoat of marzipan before the pristine white layer of sugar icing.

I peeled off the top most layer, not because it was too sweet. In years gone by, sweetness at its most intense appealed but not if it lacked flavour. I liked my sweetness to come with other hints of vanilla or chocolate or hazelnut not straight sugar.

This appealed to me too in my sense of Dutchness which arrived once a year in early December when my Opa sent all his children living in Australia a silver tin, the size of a squat suitcase, filled with Dutch delectables: salted liquorice, Speculaas, Hagel, and best of all the marzipan.

I left the liquorice to my older sister and brothers, those who had acquired a taste for the raw saltiness of the sweets that came usually in the form of cats, small back cats that you chewed on until your teeth were black.

More than the individual items themselves the contents was the reminder of that place my mother called home. That place where she had once been happy. That place where she had been able to lead the life she once expected for herself, surrounded by friends and family.

In my mother’s memoir she wrote about a day early after her arrival in Australia when she stood at the back door, perhaps the only door of the chook shed which they had converted into their first home, and swept the step clear of the dust that piled high from the unmade road in front. Beyond the road she could see long stretches of green fields where cows grazed as contentedly as she would have liked. But she could not graze.

She had six children under ten by then, with four at home and two at school and another one on the way. She was trapped in this brave new world where she had moved in order to give her husband the satisfaction he craved, off on a new adventure with a chance to get away from the shame he left behind in the form of his parents.

She had left behind her own most beloved parents and although three of her brothers had joined her with their families on this other side of the world far from the ravages of war, she looked across the fields up to the sky and held back tears.

A car flashed by, a black sedan smeared in dust and through the front window she recognised the driver. Her new parish priest, Father Ashe, off on a call to some other parishioners further afield.

My mother put down her broom and waved to the priest from the shade of her front veranda but his eyes looked ahead and he did not see her. Nor did he see her through the rear view mirror as he drove on up the hill after she had stepped away from the shed and out onto the street in the wake of his dust.

Or if he saw her he did not stop. He did not wind down his window and wave to my mother from his position of retreat. That would have been some comfort but he offered nothing. And she felt the tears splash down her cheeks remembering her life in the parish of Haarlem where not only would the priest stop, any visit in the direction of her parents home on the Marnixplein would be his first stop.

In Haarlem, my mother wrote, I was a somebody, the member of a respected family. Here in Australia she was nobody, of no consequence, and she went back inside, picked up her broom and dusted off the last leaf that had landed there.

So, my mother began to forget the country that was once her home. She remembered it from her childhood, but it stood still in her imagination and even as she continued to read newspaper accounts of the happenings at home, the death of Queen Juliana, the wedding of Princess Beatrix, the politics of the place, she found herself growing more attached to her adoptive country.

Besides she could no longer tolerate the idea of those long cold winters, especially as she aged when ice-skating, the joy of her childhood, became an increasing impossibility.

These days, I find myself increasingly a reluctant traveler, under the shadow of my mother’s homesickness. To be buried far from where she was born in a country she’d never have chosen as her final resting place.  Far from her parents’ burial plot.  Far from home.


6 thoughts on “My Mother’s Holland”

  1. I echo your mother’s sentiments regarding homesickness. There I am somebody, here I am nobody. After my last trip I decided no travel experience was worth it. (and it was only my first taste of homesickness). Then my son followed his heart and moved to Germany. Now, I will travel only to relieve my aching heart.

    1. That’s just so sad, Karen, that you have to travel so far to spend time with your son. Of course it is as it needs to be given he’s moved away but it is also hard to have so much distance between you. This too was my mother’s lament. Thanks.

    1. ‘Dutchness’ is a good word, Carmel. It’s in my bones despite being born here in Australia and it’s hard to translate the sense of Dutchness into images that don’t run to cliche so I’m glad you enjoy it. Thanks, Carmel.

  2. National identity is something I struggle with. I talk about myself as a Scottish writer and, yes, I was born in Glasgow just down the road from where you and I had coffee but you’ve met me and you know I down sound remotely Scottish which is odd because I’ve spent my entire life here. I simply never picked up the accent and yet I’ve known people who’ve moved away and within a few months have virtually lost any tinge of Scottishness. My parents relocated to Glasgow in the 1950s and never lost their Lancashire accents but it was only when one of my uncles turned up that I realised that their accents had been diluted even if they hadn’t—and never did—adopt any Scotticisms. Unlike me. I spoke like them but included—and continue to include—many of the wonderful and descriptive Scottish expressions that are, sadly, starting to die out. All I have to do is listen to my daughter talk to see this. I’m not passionately Scottish though and I struggle to identify with the English although I have (as do many Scots) a soft spot for the northerners even if no one can really decide where “the North” begins although it definitely includes Newcastle, Yorkshire and Lancashire. I suppose like most things nationality is a spectrum. Billy Connolly is a Scot and so I am.

    Carrie’s kids tell her her accent’s changed since she’s been here. I can’t hear it but I suppose the same’s happened to her as did my parents. At first she missed the States but the longer she’s spent here the more her eyes have been opened and not simply since Trump was elected. I don’t think she’s ashamed to be American but I’m pretty sure she not proud to be one. Not that she’s become remotely Scottish except in her diet. I kinda thought when she arrived she’d bring all sorts of new and interesting dishes with her but apart from craving sticky chicken and chilli every once in a while she adapted quite well. I’m not even sure she’d talk about herself as being a citizen of the world. I get the expression and it’s a nice idea but unless you’re truly a globe-trotter I still think most of us lean towards some geographical area if not a national one.

    1. Well I suppose national identity is in the eye of the beholder, Jim, not just about where you come from, but where you are and from whence your ancestors came. I suppose in this global world we are all much more complex. I like this. accents shift and change. They can be deceptive. Thanks Jim.

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