Last night we did a talk about The Occupied Garden. Our middle sister, Heidi, came along with us. A lot of people say she looks strikingly like Oma in this particular picture.
Had she lived, Oma would have celebrated her 10oth birthday in January, so it’s interesting to see how some sense of her stays alive through this book, but also through the simple fact of a granddaughter looking like her grandmother.
Heidi told me a story just the other day, of an encounter she’d had with a woman who looked so much like Oma that she felt compelled to say something. And when she spoke to the woman, she discovered that the woman was not only Dutch, but had come to Canada in the 1950s, as Oma had. “Just Dutch genes working their magic,” H wrote. I love those moments of familiarity with strangers — sometimes it’s less obvious what the connection is, but you feel it in your bones. As if you know the person.
I’m continually amazed by the stories I hear about women of Oma’s generation. As a child, I had known my grandmother as a reserved, strictly religious woman with a tight bun, big nose, and tube-like polyester dresses. I was astonished to find she had the strength, tenacity, and courage I can only dream of. And hers is only one story.
A while ago I got an email from a man who said that his mother had read our book and wanted to talk to us. “She doesn’t have email,” he said, “because she’s 93. But could you call her?” The conversation we had was lovely. She told me she had lived in Amsterdam during the war, and that she’d given birth to the son who’d written to me by the light of one candle late in the hunger winter. “It’s amazing we both survived,” she said, and I told her how I just couldn’t imagine what that must have been like – that as easy as my life is, comparatively speaking, I was a little paralyzed by motherhood for that first bit. I could hear her shrugging.
“You just do what you need to do,” she said. “You just keep on.” She told me that during the war she had seen people dragged from their houses, crying and screaming. “That’s a sight I won’t ever forget,” she said.
And it struck me that these are the reasons we need to tell stories of all kinds: to put the world in perspective for each other.