When this blog goes live, I will hopefully be thousands of feet in the air over the mid-Atlantic, on my way to the Netherlands for a family reunion. This is where my thoughts have been for the last many weeks now, and rather than write about my own musings, I want to share a reflection my dad, Henry, wrote a number of years ago. His post featured some poetry written by his dad, Herman, and both my dad’s reflection and my Opa’s poetry speak to the peculiarity of place, the longing for home, and the reality that sometimes home can be many different places.
Perhaps my father was lucky. There is a place in the world that he called his own. It’s a wonderful place that he could visit and remember and which never lost its essence throughout his own variegated life .
That place is Terschelling, an island off the northern coast of the Netherlands. It was the home of his father, Hinne de Jong, who was born there in 1896. So it was my father Herman’s ancestral home, rooting back through Hinne to Kees to Doeke and beyond. For those generations, Terschelling, just 88 square kilometers large, was a world apart and a place to belong.
But Hinne left the island to serve in the First World War, and then to find work. He never lived there again, and neither, of course, would my father, who was born in 1932. Not all people who leave home care to return, but Hinne’s heart stayed behind. He kept going back, later taking his family along with him for visits and vacations, and later even grandchildren, like my brother and I in 1974.
Hinne loved Terschelling, and these poems are as much about him as about the author Herman, who took that love from his dad, carried it across the ocean and passed it on to his children. There it is even more widely shared — among the scattered de Jong cousins, and now their children, the island of Terschelling claims almost mythical significance.
Relationships with Terschelling are varied. For Hinne it was home. For Wine (Win-uh), Herman, Sen-se and siblings, it was a place of regular recreation and reconnecting. For their descendants it is an idyllic vacation spot and a chapter in our history.
This strong love of a special place is really quite common. Perhaps the easiest comparison we have here to our Terschelling kinship is the bond of some to their family cottage up north. But Skylge goes deeper than that for those like us who are not Johnny-come-lately tourists. The de Jongs, though not living on the island anymore, love the life that belongs only to native islanders.
For the Terschelling expats though, bittersweet comes with the territory. Herman de Jong saw it in his father’s homesickness and in his own, ‘pitifully crazy’ dreams about the island. There is a price for such love. Though it is freely given it also ‘owns’ you.
In ‘bittersweet’ and in ‘homesick’, the one half cannot be without the other — there can be no bitterness or sickness if the home is not sweet, or sweetness if you don’t feel at home. Of course you can avoid this tension by staying put, but then how sweet would it be? Perhaps the familiarity that comes from being not-absent moves the heart away from fondness. Would Hinne and Herman have chafed at the bit if they, by some stroke, had remained Terschelling in-dwellers?
For Hinne and Herman, Terschelling was never out of reach, but never fully attained. Perhaps then my father was unlucky to be so tantalized by this island, an ocean and half a continent away. Wouldn’t it have been better to forget about it and focus on pleasures nearer at hand?
I think not, for it is the unreachables that truly become us. By our very nature we cannot have it all. Whatever we draw, or claw into our grasp ultimately leaves us looking for more. Only when we recognize that the islands of delight we experience now and again are but moments in an ocean of grace do we catch the wonder of God’s gift to us.
It is God who is our all. His creation is so much more than we could ask or imagine, and we are destined to be fully open to its rich complexity. It’s not for us to be stuck in a rut, satisfied, for God soon prods us to look out and up, deeper and beyond to the abundance of being one creature within a vast creation. Neither heaven or new earth will quell this hunger within us, but they will open our hearts and minds to each new satisfaction and its Source.
For us, Terschelling is one island in a world of being and a taste of how it should be — always there but never enough, a home to visit, a sunny place when it is raining, a past with future and an old place to be new. It does not simply distract us from our ordinary lives but gives us hope that the extra-ordinary is possible and the desire to let it happen. And it gives us the patience to wait, even in difficult times, for the unbridled joy that Hinne and Herman have gone home to.
Untitled Poem by Herman de Jong,
translated by Henry de Jong
if you live in canada
forty years in canada
more than half of your life
spent in canada
it is a bit strange
that there are nights
marked by the pleasure
of dreams about Terschelling
I walk beside Dodemanskisten
walk through the dunes
to where a horse walked
in front of the cottage where Uncle Herman
lay to be cured of tb
I walk behind the village
walk to the bunker
on the high dune with the mast
and below me is the village
with its yellow tower
I think I smile
smile in my sleep
I’m not sure I smile
I can not see myself
when I sleep smiling
but when I awake
after such a dream
in my bed in Canada
then I know for sure
that in the country where I live
through much sleeping thinking and smiling
in all those forty years
nothing has owned me
quite like the island
where I never lived
*Header Image part of a panorama of the island taken by my dad in 1974.