While I have yet to read Motherlode: A Mosaic of Dutch Wartime Experience by Carolyne Van Der Meer, I attended the second launch for her book in Toronto this past Friday, April 4, 2014; the first book launch was held in Montreal.
I had a couple of reasons for attending. The first was that this book occupies a central position for me, uniting two main passions of mine: literature and history. Motherlode is an elegant blend of short stories, poems, and essays, and it is a creative reinterpretation of the experiences of her mother and other Dutch immigrants who spent their childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland. These individuals grew up deeply affected by war, and the complex emotions it inspired even in the innocent minds of children is brought to light, expressed in the most emotive manner. My second reason for attending was my past affiliation with the publisher of the book, Wilfrid Laurier University Press. This inspiring group of people that help make books like Motherlode happen also helped cement my decision to make my career in publishing. For two summers, I was WLUP’s co-op student/publishing assistant and that immersion into the world of scholarly publishing left me forever changed, dedicated to the written word. Therefore, I was also hoping that at least a few of my old co-workers would be in attendance (I wasn’t disappointed–Lisa Quinn, the acquisitions editor of Motherlode, and Clare Hitchens, the publicist, were both in the audience that evening).
Upon arriving, I rode up in the elevator with two older ladies. I soon came to the conclusion that they were also heading to the book launch, and what was also interesting was that they were speaking in Dutch to each other, in fact, almost everyone in the lecture room I entered was speaking Dutch. It turns out, the event was being hosted by CAANS, the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Netherlandic Studies. Most of those in attendance were therefore Dutch and regulars, and as a result they knew each other fairly well. I was the odd twenty-something in the room with no word of Dutch and, at least until Clare and Lisa arrived, knew no one there.
I decided to sit next to an elderly lady who was already sitting by herself, and it was one of the best decisions I made that night. A delightfully charming woman, she immediately warmed to me. Her name was Grace, and she had immigrated to Canada in the 1950s after having lived through the Nazi occupation as a child. I was humbled to be sitting next to someone who could so closely relate to the book about to be launched. When I asked her about the experience of living through it, her response was, “It was no fun at all.”
Aside from this somber moment, the rest of the time we waited we had a light and often amusing conversation. Before knowing her past, I had asked her if she could speak Dutch and she had said of course, but that she could also speak a few words of English (obviously, we had been speaking English this entire time—I was pleasantly surprised by such cheeky humour). At one point, I was asked by Marianne Verheyen, the host and Toronto CAANS president, if I was Grace’s granddaughter. We chuckled at the mistake and I said no, I was actually a stranger until just recently. I suppose my blonde hair could make me appear “Dutch-like” in appearance, if one didn’t know better, and being chummy with Grace would appear grand-daughterly to most. I certainly didn’t mind the error. It was nice to feel that I could blend in despite not being Dutch…or in my eighties for that matter.
The event started about ten minutes after eight (earlier, Grace had amusingly said that their meetings were always at least ten minutes behind schedule). My friend and past mentor, Lisa Quinn, introduced the book and the author, painting a lovely picture of love, loss, and memory. Then Carolyne took the stage. Although she was soft spoken (some in the elderly audience were unable to catch everything), I found her tone to be highly appropriate for the content she was discussing. It reminded me of my grandfather’s own manner of speaking that would often surround me like a comfy blanket by the fireplace, listening to his stories of the “good old days.”
Carolyne first talked about how the concept for Motherlode developed, and it essentially began with her son. He began to ask questions about his family ancestry that Carolyne herself had never thought to ask before. Thus, in an effort to answer those questions not only for her son but also for herself, she sought out these untold stories. A phrase Carolyne used that I found truly encapsulated the meaning of family history is that it is a past that is full of both “intense pleasure and intense pain.” I think this is also why we find memoirs so fascinating, because the stories they tell are riddled with an array of emotions that truly consume readers because, to put it frankly, it’s all true.
As it turned out, Carolyne’s mother’s childhood was not enough to fill an entire book. Aside from it being difficult in general to talk about her wartime experience, it was also difficult to remember every single detail having been so young at the time. So Carolyne started to look elsewhere and what she found was both touching and surprising. Expecting reluctance, those who allowed themselves to be interviewed willingly opened up to her in ways they had never done so before with their own family members. As Carolyne also mused during her talk, perhaps it is easier to confide in a stranger rather than sharing such intimate and painful details with the one’s we love. Looking around, I saw many heads nodding in agreement. However, she did mention that those interviewed often shared her tape recordings with their families after the fact. I was deeply moved by the fact, as I’m sure Carolyne was, that she was able to inspire that kind of confidence in these people that they were suddenly able to speak on topics they had been silent on for so long.
Carolyne also read excerpts from Motherlode, choosing various poems and one short story to read aloud to us. I particular loved the short story she read, “Marijke’s Song.” A true story, it was absolutely touching and painfully real. Marijke’s simplistic joy, knowing her father was home, and her pure innocence in regards to the secrecy necessary during times of war. I don’t wish to ruin any portion of the story for those who haven’t read the book, and you most certainly should (it is on my upcoming reading list), but I found that I was able to relate and understand Marijke in many ways. I became immersed in this memory, which was rendered so honestly that I don’t doubt Carolyne’s mother felt herself transported back to her Papa’s shop with the distinct smell of leather tickling her nostrils.
Afterward, the audience members had a lot to say with many stories of their own to add. One memory an older gentleman recalled particularly comes to mind. He mentioned the scarcity of food and how one of their alternatives was eating tulip bulbs. As he pointed out, these tulip bulbs were not the most savoury food item to digest. He also added that during the annual children’s tulip planting in Toronto’s Amsterdam Square in memory of the Holocaust, he told this small fact of life that happened during Nazi occupation and a little boy proceeded to take home with him three tulip bulbs to try for himself. He came back the next year and told the older man, “You’re right. Those tulip bulbs are gross!” Once again, the matter-of-fact nature of children is a phenomenal thing.
After a number of such stories, some sad, some funny, the book launch’s reception took place with red and white wine and an assortment of crackers and Dutch cheese. It was a delicious way to end an evening of reminiscing, delving into the smaller, more intimate pockets of history that were close to home for many in the audience that night.
You can also find the author, Carolyne Van Der Meer on her Facebook page.
To leave you with a final thought, I thought I’d end by sharing this video posted on Youtube of Carolyne reading from Motherlode during the Montreal launch. Enjoy!