It’s a sad fact of modern life that when you receive an inheritance letter in the mail, you automatically assume it’s a scam and throw it away – especially if it’s from someone who promises that if you will only oblige and send your bank account information the money will soon be on it’s way. But as it turns out not all inheritance letters are scams.
It’s almost tulip season again, which always reminds me of my grandmother. I have blogged about my Irish Roots (see also A Visit to an Irish Graveyard), but not about my Dutch ancestors. My maternal grandparents were from Holland but I never knew any relatives from that side of the family because they immigrated to Canada in 1922. My grandmother was from a family of seven siblings and my grandfather ten, and being from the same village she was friends with some of my grandfather’s sisters. In this picture, which was taken in front of the family home just before she immigrated, my grandmother is in the back row, second from the right. My grandparents were married the week before Christmas and left on a boat to New York, arriving in Ellis Island on New Year’s Day 1922. According to the Ellis Island archives, they traveled with two other couples, one of which was my grandfather’s sister and her husband. Two of his other sisters and their spouses were already here in Canada, a country where things were supposed to be more prosperous, especially after WW1. My grandmother had grown up on a small farm and my grandfather worked on the boats on the canals, but there wasn’t much farm land available or work to be had, after he put in his mandatory four years of service in the army reserves. In order to come to Canada, you had to pass a medical and be sponsored by a Canadian farmer for a year, so they decided to settle in a small Ontario town where there was already a small contingent of Dutch people.
I used to tease my grandmother that the ocean liner came over on was her honeymoon cruise, as she was just newly married. She was 24, the baby of the family and a homebody, and I suspect had she known she would never see any of her family again, she never would have left. Her parents did not want them to go – but ah, the things we do for love. She boarded the boat with a large wicker trunk containing all her worldly possessions, her trousseau, blankets and household items, and wearing her mother’s brooch. I suspect her mother knew they would not be coming back. She was the only one of their party not seasick on the way over, but if you pretended you were and stayed below deck then you got an orange, which was a luxury at the time. She remembered having a nice turkey dinner on Christmas Day. When they got through Ellis Island, they were immediately whisked away to a waiting train enroute to Canada. They got off the train in Niagara Falls, stepping into a foot of snow, with no boots, as they were not used to that much snow back home.
Times were not as prosperous as promised. They worked in the sugar beet fields to meet the sponsorship requirements. They had to learn how to speak and write English. My grandmother’s English was good by the time we were kids but she always had a trace of an accent, and certain words were mispronounced, Kalander for calendar and sleep-out for sleep in, and if she was discussing something with my mother that she didn’t want little ears to hear, she spoke in Dutch. My grandfather was a quiet man, a real Checker fiend who would never let a poor kid win! After they had been here a few years, they thought about trying their luck in the US (Chicago), and had a family passport picture taken, (my mother is the baby), but changed their plans when the Depression hit in the 1930’s.
Those were hard years, but my mother said they always had enough food to eat, unlike some families. An uncle was a butcher and used to supply them with meat. It was shameful to go on the dole, considered a last resort. Only if you were sick or starving would you apply for food stamps, otherwise you made do or did without. It was WW2 which brought them into relative prosperity, as all four of them, including my 16 year old mother and her brother, worked in the war plants, which enabled them to save enough for a down payment on a farm two hours away, (and right across the road from my father, so effectively she married the boy next door).
It was nice having my grandma right across the road, as we visited frequently, and she would feed us Gouda cheese, homemade root beer and those Dutch ginger windmill cookies which are still available today, plus it meant we didn’t have to travel far at Christmas and holidays. She was a kind woman, but strong in her opinions and philosophy, could debate any topic, and she raised my mother to be a strong woman. We were raised to be strong and independent too. There were no helpless damsels in distress or pampered princess types in my family. She loved to knit and crochet and tried to teach me once, but I was hopeless. Her afghans came in bright colors and I still have a brown/orange/green one she made for me when I was away at school. She always painted her kitchen farm table an aqua green, where we sat talking many an afternoon, with the white curtains fluttering in the summer breeze and a cat curled up on top of the freezer. She favored lime green aprons, (it was the sixties), and often wore one even when not cooking, but my mother was by far the better cook. Emigrating so young she had no one to show her and Canadian food was different from back home. She had a set of those shallow European soup bowls in her (blue and white) china cabinet long before they were all the rage here. In her later years, she was starting to lose her vision and hearing, but her mind was still sharp, and she knew everything that was going on in the world and still had an interest in life. She always told me I was the best of the bunch, because I would go and visit her after she moved into town and bring her cans of lobster, (she had grown up on seafood). I wish I had visited more often. You don’t realize what an influence a grandparent has on you until after they are gone. The last time l was there, she grabbed my hand when I left, her hands were so warm – a few weeks later she was dead from a sudden stroke.
I suspect my grandmother always regretted coming to Canada. She missed her family. In her old age, she said she was a woman without a country. When the stairs got to be too much for her she moved into a one floor house in town and hung a photo of her childhood home on the living room wall where she could see it every day. In this picture are her mother, brother, sister and young niece.
Even if they could have afforded it, my grandpa would probably never have gone home for a visit, as he suspected she wouldn’t have come back, but after the Depression, came the war, and then her parents were dead. My mother remembers getting the black edged envelopes containing the death notices in the mail and my grandmother dissolving into tears. After my grandfather died, my sister tried to talk her into taking us to Holland on a trip but she said she was too old (she was only in her early 70’s) but I don’t think she wanted to go by then, fifty years had gone by, it had been too long. But she continued to send airmail letters back and forth to her brothers and sisters over the years. They sent her a bouquet of tulips for her 80th birthday. Her siblings all lived well into their 90’s, the last one dying at 95, still riding his bike around town. They had moved into town by then too, as their farm had been swallowed up by development. My grandmother herself lived to be 96 in her own home – she was the last of her family and many condolence letters arrived from nieces and nephews in Holland after she died.
Flash forward to five years ago when my mother received an inheritance letter in the mail. A cousin had died and she was entitled to 1/17th of her estate, if she would just sign off for the debts of the estate and return said form as soon as possible. The English was poor, the grammar worse. Obviously a scam, who would sign for debts for someone they didn’t even know. Although my mother was aware of this cousin (the young girl in the picture above), we thought it quite strange, and I assumed scammers, ever a resourceful lot, must have been cruising Ancestry.com for single elderly people and their distant out of country relatives. I googled the law firm on Facebook – a group of women lawyers, all wearing navy suits and white shirts, and a few testimonials, all in Dutch – this was in the days before google translate was a feature. I put the letter aside. A few months went by. I mentioned it to my brother when he was home, and he decided to email them – no response. Six months went by and another letter arrived, this one an official looking form. By then I was beginning to think it might possibly be true. But why didn’t they just pick up the phone, they had my mother’s address, exactly as it was wrongly printed in the phone book. I decided to take the official looking form to the library. One of the new librarians was Dutch and I had commented on her accent one day as it reminded me of my grandmothers. She informed me it was a tax form from the Dutch government. She had emigrated many years before but had an overseas phone plan as she still had relatives back home, so she very kindly offered to call the law firm for me and speak to them in Dutch. It was legitimate – not a scam at all, and there were no debts – the estate taxes had all been paid off. My mother had only to send her bank account information, and a copy of her passport. In the meantime, I received an email from the relative in charge of the estate, assuring me it was not a scam, and they were all waiting for her to sign off. He sent a copy of the obituary which I later asked the librarian to translate. By then I had gone through my grandmother’s papers and found a condolence letter from a nephew, and called him, as he spoke English. We emailed a bit, I asked for some stories about the deceased cousin, and he said he would email later, but he never did. I wish I knew more about her life, I know she took care of the old folks but nothing else about her. She must have died without a will as the estate was split among all those cousins. By then my mother was thinking maybe she would just decline her share and let someone who had looked after her have it, but she wasn’t allowed to decline as then it would go to her children and get even more complicated. Several weeks went by while the euro continued to drop. The exchange rate is usually fairly stable at 1.5 but it was down to 1.3. I emailed the law firm when to expect the money so I could keep an eye on the bank account we had opened, and they said there were now 36 people who had to sign off. I quite liked the idea that I have 36 relatives I have never met, surely there must be a family genealogist among them. Eventually, about a year after the first letter, my mom received about $7,000 worth of euros, which she later used for a new air conditioner/furnace. I wish she had spent it on something extravagant, like a trip to Holland, but my mother is practical, and at 93, her travelling days are over too.
Luckily, if you are an immigrant now, you have much better ways to communicate than my grandmother did – email, Skype, Facebook, getting on a cheap economy flight for a visit. Be grateful for ways to stay in touch. Remember when you chose a man or a job or a country, you are choosing a lifestyle. Choose wisely. If you want to travel, go when you are young – don’t wait until it’s too late. Eat plenty of Gouda cheese – it’s good for your bones. When you grow old, make a will. Stay interested in life. Be strong but be kind. Plant or buy some tulips and enjoy!
PS. Do you have a relative who especially influenced your life?
(Next week in Come From Away, I will be tackling the timely topic of immigration from a genealogical point of view…if I’m brave enough.)