catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 13 :: 2014.06.27 — 2014.07.10


Found in translation

“That’s feese,” my mom would say, when she saw something that was really disgusting, foul to both her physical senses and her sense of decency.  Or at least that’s how it sounded to me anyway.  Vieze would be the proper Dutch word, but the bastardized spoken form was the threadbare heirloom of our family history — that, and brought mit strope, which was a breakfast of bread, bacon and maple syrup, as well as a salty-sweet attempt to roll the r’s of brod met siroop the way my great-grandparents would have done.

These words, and a distinctive surname, seem to be the only things that tie me to my Dutch heritage any longer.  Even the myth that the Dutch keep their garbage cans under their kitchen sinks has been debunked for me as I’ve realized that a lot of people do that.  Just like Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists and a whole lot of other people sit in the back of the church.  And a bunch of people are cheap, too — sorry, Dutch Americans.


Not “Caucasian,” which doesn’t actually mean anything, but “white” — this might be who I am more than anything.  The journey began as a typical immigrant story — religious minority flees persecution to regroup in a Promised Land — but the first Dutch in America seem to have been whip smart and quick to catch on to the number one rule of an evolving pioneer game: maintain your culture only inasmuch as it does not threaten your access to the American Dream.  You can put on the wooden shoes once a year when the tulips are in bloom, but the rest of the time, you better be growing that farm, starting that business, educating the covenant youth at that Christian school, and, perhaps the most shameful part of our collective history, putting that house on the market as soon as you see the neighborhood begin to “change.”  We have been masters of isolated integration, standing out and excelling in the business arena while marrying our tall, blond, blue-eyed children off to tall, blond, blue-eyed partners who will help populate the schools and fill the offering plates.

And yet, the deeper we get into the twenty-first century, the more the threads of this story, so carefully woven in the old country for the long journey ahead, continue to unravel.  Almost as soon as the boats landed, we began to trade our unique ethnic identity for the advantages of pure whiteness, distinguishing ourselves from the Irish, the Italians, the Polish as people whose ways were not vieze, but normal.  The more some of us succeeded at this game, the more stratification appeared within our community, alienating those who couldn’t manage to climb into the higher income bracket or keep their marriages together.  At the same time, the institutions of the community became less and less distinct and we continue to this day to forget why we went to church twice on Sunday in the first place (much less once) or sent our kids to Christian schools — better they be “witnesses” of their faith in the public school, which has the double advantage of allowing us to invest in the outward trappings of a consumerist game whose stakes keep getting higher. 

Now please, don’t get me wrong: I am sincerely grateful to my parents for the creativity and sacrifice it required to send me and my three siblings to Dutch Reformed day schools.  I have been indelibly shaped by at least one essence of that philosophy: that a living faith in the God who appears throughout the Christian narrative in a variety of forms ought to infuse our entire existence, weaving each daily choice into a beautiful, cohesive life whose ultimate image is love.  That thing remains for me, even as I fear that the message is getting lost in translation the further it travels through the generations — brought mit strope, indeed.

So, having migrated out of one of the last geographic outposts of my ethno religious subculture, what am I left with?

Van der Giessen.

The only clue I’ve ever had as to the meaning of my last name came from a famously eccentric teacher at my Dutch Reformed high school.  “Van der Giessen,” he said, putting on an accent to match his sub-cultural authority.  “That means ‘of the pourers,’ like the people who would have watered plants in greenhouses.”  At that point in my life, as a teen-ager, I was beyond “playing outside,” but still several years short of beginning to dig my hands in the dirt of my own accord.  In some sense, he was clueing me in to the prophetic side of my name: as a newlywed, I began tending my great-grandmother’s perennials, then dabbled in backyard gardening, and now I dream about ways to cultivate the parcels of land I help tend — one of four acres and one of 67 — for the flourishing of my neighbors and all of the plants, animals and microbes who call those places home. 

But the evolution of my name also speaks to the ways paths can split and split again until the memory of the original path is just a word with no discernible spelling or origins.  Where my ancestors may have built an irrigated empire of successful agribusinesses focused on the technical perfection of just one or two crops, like we did with onions in the High Prairie south of Chicago, I am these days turning toward older ways of harvesting rainwater and cycling nutrients without the “smart” techniques of modern agriculture and hopefully with a sense of joy and playfulness that doesn’t seem to have been native to the dour Calvinists.  My vision of the future is less like organized miles of flat land punctuated only with greenhouses as far as the eye can see, and more like a forest cloister where land and human beings can flourish symbiotically, nourished by an abundance of roof runoff and worm poop and ecological imagination.

And maybe, just maybe, some morning I will sit down and prepare for this work with a breakfast of homemade, whole grain bread topped with bacon from a local farm and syrup from our friends’ maple trees, to give thanks for traditions that go back many generations beyond white flight and the acquisitive success of some of my more recent forebears — all the way back to the days when we didn’t need to remember the words, because we were making them up as we went along, walking beside the original Word in whom we still live and move and have our being, whether or not we get the pronunciation quite right.

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