I discovered my great-great-grandfather’s bible dated 1848 in a dust-covered box at the back of the closet. Along with the bible were daguerreotypes of men and women in the 1800’s whose genetic lineage I now carry in my body. Among these treasures was my grandmother’s journal of her travels with my grandfather and her life in Holland during WWII.
In 1930, when my father was two years old, he and my grandparents journeyed from Houston, Texas, east to New York by train. From there, this small family sailed on the S.S. Rotterdam to Holland for two months’ vacation before they traveled on to Java where they would live for the next five years.They traveled from Holland by train across Europe, then by ship across the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal and on to Indonesia. What an incredible journey to take with a small boy to a land they knew not. My grandmother wrote of the people, places, ship companions and scenery, and of settling into a transplanted European community that did not welcome her.
Shortly after arriving in Java, her mother, my great-grandmother, passed away in South Dakota. The pages following this event are filled with my grandmother’s heartbreak, her depression and her grief. It was too long a journey for her to return to the United States to bid her mother farewell. Her sadness is palpable in those pages; her self-confessed restlessness symptomatic of her depression and loneliness.
She wrote, “I wonder if this diary is to be an emotional outlet for me. Today (Aug 3, 1931) I feel I should like to confide in someone and have that someone advise and help me. I realize as I live longer and longer that I am no leader, and what is more, I cannot decide many questions for myself.” On another page she wrote, “There seems so little to look forward to. If I could look forward to going home...but with Mother gone and with Father’s prospective of losing all the money...would I be happy doing it? I dread to return to Holland [my grandfather’s family.] There is no one there who really loves me....”
My grandmother left the United States at the beginning of the Depression and would not return until after WWII ended. She would not see her sisters or father or any family during that time; living in Nazi-occupied Holland, she would not have any contact with them at all for the last two years of the war. She would have to make a way for herself as a mother and wife without the counsel of family or close friends.
I didn’t know my grandmother until the 1960’s, when she was an older woman who seemed scary and unapproachable. I saw her through my own mother’s eyes as a difficult person with whom we seldom spoke and rarely visited. My mother told stories about my grandmother’s odd behaviors, and I naturally defended my mother when they disagreed.
I did not know of my grandmother’s strength, of all she had lived through, of her resilience and determination to be a good wife and mother. It was only after her death that I read her journals and began to love her. I was in my mid-thirties and a mother in my own right, navigating the deep waters of a difficult relationship with my mother-in-law, feeling unloved and misunderstood much of the time. I began to see that my grandmother was an adventurer, a world-traveler, intelligent and clever. I realized that I had lost the opportunity to know her, to talk with her, to live near her; even so, her journals have given me clues as to who she was.
My grandmother did not see herself as a leader, and yet she led her family through fifteen years of cross-cultural living in Asia and in Europe. She would add two children to her family, and stand beside her husband as he moved up the ranks as one of Shell Oil’s top geologists. In her journal, she wrote that she could not decide many questions for herself; nevertheless, she would end up making many decisions in life-threatening situations to keep her family alive in war-torn Holland.
I feel a kindred spirit with my grandmother as I sit tonight on my deck in the cool of the evening after a long week at work. As a single mom, I have had my own depressive thoughts: Do people really know me? Who is there anyone who really cares what happens to me? I feel the burden of providing for my family, of the loss of my mom, and of the loneliness of my life. I question my ability to be a leader and whether I want to continue to carry the weight that leadership brings.
At times, I grieve that I did not know my grandmother, and that the times I had with her were colored by my fear and uncertainty. At times, I grieve alongside her, as her words reflect what my heart feels. And at times, I am envious of her – that she traveled the world and lived a rich, adventurous life.
What are the lessons my grandmother’s journal holds for me? What are the truths about her life that speak into mine eighty years later? One thing I do know: my grandmother was a writer. And so am I. This undeniable urge I feel to write, to study, to understand – she felt it, too. I am grateful for her legacy of courage and perseverance. The following chapters weave her story and mine through her journals and American and European history of the 1900’s, uniquely illustrating the incredible strength ordinary women discover within themselves through the suffering and challenges of their lives.