Behind the story

Tracy and Kristen with sister Heidi at the Leidschendam-Voorburg Archives

One of the questions we are most often asked is, “How do you write a book together?” For us, that was the easy part. We shared the enormous amount of research required, and passed the writing back and forth, over and over again, so that four hands and two minds had been on each passage and the text flowed smoothly. More challenging than writing and weaving the story was finding it, because the main characters, our grandparents, had died in the 1980s, and we needed to recreate a world and a time that was not our own. The process was both illuminating and heart wrenching, and we quickly realized, as we set about our research, how little we’d known about this aspect of our own history and the larger one around it.

When Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, Gerrit and Cornelia den Hartog were in their early thirties, younger than we are now, and like us, raising children. But by the time we knew them, they were only Oma and Opa, grandparents living quiet lives in a southern Ontario town. Opa had shaggy eyebrows and deep, latticework wrinkles on the back of his neck. His pockets held an endless supply of Wilhelmina Peppermints, and red hibiscus bloomed in his living room window. Oma said “yumbo yet” for “jumbo jet,” and though pictures show that once she had a delicate figure, the shapeless dresses she wore as an older woman made her body appear tubular. Both of them had thick accents and long noses, and after many years in Canada – they emigrated in 1951 – still looked and sounded like people from somewhere old and very far away.

1960 Cor and Gerrit

Their small bungalow in Aylmer was an eight-hour drive from our town, but inside it seemed a different world. The beds were thin and the woolen blankets itchy against our chins as we lay awake whispering, the two of us and our middle sister Heidi. Lace curtains hung in the front window, and meals were taken at a heavy oak table with claw feet. Noses wrinkled, we tasted sour buttermilk, dark crumbly bread, and horsemeat shaved paper-thin. After supper, Opa read the Bible in Dutch – a beautiful sound made more so by the softly guttural language we didn’t understand. Oma listened with a small, contented smile on her face.

1960s Gerrit McConnell's Nursery in Canada croppedIt seemed to us that they led simple lives. Opa worked for a large commercial nursery; his specialty was roses, which filled the yard at home. Six days a week Oma ran her own business, a dry goods store and travel agency where a life-size cardboard stewardess greeted customers and a three-dimensional KLM jet twirled from a string. At Christmas she displayed a large picture of Jerusalem in the window, illuminated with a spotlight and trimmed with boughs and white lights to combat what she called “all those santa clauses.” Rolled-up posters from all over the world sat in the basement of their house, but Oma and Opa had rarely traveled – only, really, to go back to where they’d come from, though they’d never imagined that would be possible when they’d left the Netherlands. They went to church and read books, and though their children gave them a television for Christmas one year, it was hardly ever turned on. Still, we watched the lunar landing from their living room.

Opa’s fragrant roses were never cut and displayed in a vase, and only a few pictures hung on the walls in their house: a still life painted by a daughter-in-law, an oil of the church in Oma’s hometown of Overschie, and a photographic portrait of their five children, taken a year after the war ended. Other than an array of exotic houseplants – bird of paradise, towering cacti, delicate weeping figs – there was little trace of anything that could be called frivolous, anything that would not be somehow useful to the business of daily life. Which is why it was so shocking for us, visiting them, to glimpse Oma with her bun in her hand early one morning as we sneaked past the bathroom. Through the crack in the door, we saw her in front of the mirror, her real hair combed into the tiniest grey knot at the back of her head. She placed the bun we knew – the one we’d never seen her without – on top of the littler one, and fastened it there with pins. Our mouths hung open. If this had been our mother’s mother – our butter-tart-making, bosomy grandma who’d shown us how her bra straps had made permanent grooves in her shoulders – we would have burst into the bathroom and said, “Why do you have a fake bun?” But Oma’s quiet intensity, which in retrospect made her seem fragile and strong at the same time, kept us at a great distance. Just before she turned, the three of us hurried away, sick with laughter and confusion. We didn’t know anything, then, about the story behind her overly thin hair. As much as we loved her, we knew very little about her.

We were well aware, though, that after our parents separated, Oma refused to meet our father’s common-law wife. Opa, whether he agreed or not, stood by Oma’s decision, and so it went through the years, as the marriages of each of their children disintegrated and one by one they formed new pairings. Oma’s rigid response made the family more fractured than it already had been. Most of her children visited less often, knowing how her suffering would hang in the air between them; and knowing, too, that they would be expected to attend church if the visit fell on a weekend, and that among the congregation there were some who’d thoroughly condemned them. We, however, had no idea. Sucking our peppermints, we sat through the long church services and listened to Dutch sermons that made Oma smile, nod, or frown in concentration. By the end we were no more enlightened, and filed out amid ladies in Crimplene dresses and men in their Sunday suits. Our atheist father never looked quite right in this crowd, with his tie-less shirt and his beard. By extension we also felt like outsiders in this Dutch community made largely of postwar immigrants. For Oma and Opa, though, this must have been a safe, comforting place, full of likeminded believers who had furthermore been through the war back home. Those “strangers” probably understood our grandparents better than we did.

1935 Cor and GerritNow, though – long after their deaths – we feel we’ve finally come to know them. Stronger, too, is the link to our father and his siblings, as well as the connection between them. By email and in person, we interviewed each of them time and again, inspecting their overlapping, and sometimes contradictory, memories, and trying to draw out more. What evolved was not just The Occupied Garden, but a great pile of correspondence that will become a family treasure. As the stack grew over the three years of researching and writing The Occupied Garden, we began to understand why Oma and Opa rarely spoke about the war years: because of painful memories, yes, but also because of a deeply rooted faith that was as foreign to us as their food and language. Even when the war reached its worst point for the family, Oma steadfastly believed: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” A neighbour recorded the exchange in her diary, along with years of details that brought the town of Leidschendam in wartime alive to us. These accounts, as well as letters, anecdotes, photographs, and historical texts, have helped us piece together our grandparents’ story. But after all we’ve discovered, we wish we’d known what to ask them when they were still alive – that it had mattered enough to us then. And that they’d wanted to pass down their experience, so it could make its way through the generations for the benefit of others. We hope this story will resonate with others who’ve mined their own family histories, or wish to.

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