Some of my earliest memories are of me sitting in my great-grandmother’s kitchen. We would drink tea, picking out which teacup we wanted from her collection, and we always paired it with a windmill-shaped cookie, an homage to her home country of Holland.
I remember her teaching us how to make strawberry sandwiches – sliced strawberries sprinkled with sugar, wedged between two slices of buttered white bread. She taught me and my sister how to count in Dutch, from 1 to 29, which I can still recite to this day, and even though I don’t recall her having an accent (she did) I can still remember the way she said “pwetty” instead of “pretty”, which we always found funny.
She passed away in 1999, when I was ten years old, but my memories of her are strong. When people ask about my heritage, as Americans often do, I would always say I’m Dutch on my mother’s side and Italian on my father’s, but that’s only a quarter true. I’m only one-eighth Dutch (and one-eighth Italian for that matter), yet I associate so much of my bloodline with the country that my grandmother would tell me about.
My great-grandmother, Gerry Kooger Chandler, emigrated here in 1928, through Ellis Island, from a little coastal town in Holland called Callantsoog. A small municipality on the North Sea, it’s a place that every Dutch person I’ve met has described as having “nothing there.” But I’ve always been curious about the birthplace of my grandmother. I had inherited a piece of traditional delft pottery from her. The name “Callantsoog” is written in traditional blue hues, with a sailboat painted below. It’s the only item that has traveled with me from my childhood bedroom and into my home today, and it has always taunted me to come find my familial roots and see where that sailboat really came from.
So when my siblings and I began planning a trip to Amsterdam, I began researching. I created an account on Ancestry.com and started searching for anything I could find about the Kooger family. Some of my great-grandmother’s siblings also had decedents looking for family history in Callantsoog, so I was able to follow some of their trails. Through my searches and message board conversations, and through some conversations my mom had with her relatives, I was able to piece together bits of knowledge about our Dutch family and the life they had led before coming to America. They lived on a dairy farm which has since burned down, and they came to New Jersey because they heard there were plenty of farms where they could bring their skills and form a better life on the other side of the Atlantic.
When we finally made it to the Netherlands, we hired a private driver to take us to Callantsoog – me, my brother, my sister, my husband, and brother-in-law. When we told the driver where we wanted to go, his first response was, as expected, “Callantsoog? Why?” When we explained we had come to discover where our great-grandmother had lived, he took care to drive us through the countryside, along the “old” roads that would have been used back in the early 1900s. We were following in her footsteps.
For a town with “nothing”, it was certainly adorable, and exceeded our expectations. It’s a beach town – a tourist spot popular in the summer when locals look to spend some time in the sand. We had intended to start our tour at Tante Jaantje, the farm museum in the center of town, but unfortunately it was closed. So we set about exploring the little seaside town, talking with local cafe owners, and strolling along the beach, just as our ancestors had.
We didn’t stumble upon any long lost relatives we didn’t know we have, and we didn’t even have an exact address to find their old farm. But standing on the beach, looking across the sea, reflecting on the long journey our great-grandmother took to come to America, was powerful. There was an element of nostalgia, even though it’s a place I had never even seen photographs of.
America was once referred to as a melting pot, but these days it seems that expression is falling out of favor. Many of us have the blood of so many nationalities, all representing a different piece of the world in our American DNA. And while generations before us often wished to forget their roots while they adapted into culture in the United States, I was lucky enough to hear so many stories firsthand from my grandmother, and those memories live on stronger than any document I was able to find about our family history.
And now, finally, I’m lucky enough to have come full circle, back to the place where all of the stories began.
And, I have say, the view sure was “pwetty.”