Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Echoes of ‘Mijn Schat’

February 21, 2011 by  
Filed under Monthly Articles

She was a female Rock of Gibraltar.

My maternal grandmother, Alice DeBoer LaFleur, was tall and trim, with salt-and-pepper hair and blowtorch blue eyes. When Grandma looked at you, you had the feeling that she knew exactly what you were thinking – and why.
Born in the Netherlands, Grandma was as Dutch as they get. No-nonsense. Frugal. Snap-to precise. From shingles to sidewalk, her house could pass a white glove test with white to spare. So could she.

It was 1967. My family flew to Detroit from my hometown of San Diego to spend the summer with Grandpa George and Grandma Alice. Maybe we only stayed two weeks. It seems longer when you’re seven. We took long walks up and down Nashville Street under the leafy canopies of hundred year-old Dutch elms, played Monopoly in the backyard, ate watermelon and ran through the sprinklers on hot, steamy days – which is pretty much every summer day in Detroit.

Not used to having young children around, Grandma was brusque and matter-of-fact. It took awhile, but I eventually realized that her clipped sentences weren’t unkind or angry, but economical. She never used two sentences when one would do. As summer unfurled, arid sentences moistened and clipped conversations trickled into chatty creeks, especially in Grandma’s kitchen.

Grandma ruled the roost in two places at 12055 Nashville. Her inside domain was the kitchen, where she reigned like Cleopatra over Egypt. “Yuck!” or “I’m not eating that” at the dinner table resulted in a one-way ticket to the attic where you could listen to your stomach growl until breakfast.

Most of the food Grandma put on the table was new to me, but I learned to give it a try. I soon developed an affinity for Rode Kool Met Appeltjes (Red Cabbage and Apples) and Draadjesvlees (Slow-Braised Beef). Erwtensoep (Traditional Dutch Split Pea Soup) became a favorite. (I never got the hang of rutabagas. Nobody’s perfect.)

No well-behaved guest went hungry in Grandma’s house, especially seven year-olds. “Are you hungry, mijn schat (“my dear”)?” she’d ask, taking my hand in her firm Dutch grip and gently propelling me toward her melt-in-your mouth Boterkoek (Butter Biscuits). Grandma may not have said much verbally, but good food was her love language before “love language” hit pop culture. She spoke it fluently and well, just like she tended her garden.

Grandma’s garden was her outside domain, particularly her tulip beds. “Come mijn schat, it’s time to weed and water.” She handed me a trowel and showed me how to use it. “Gently, like putting a baby to bed” she said.
A LaFleur garden wasn’t like most gardens – occasional puffs of spindly bulbs or sagging blooms sprouting between mounds of dandelions and weeds. Nope. Alice LaFleur’s garden was Really Something. If garden growing were an Olympic sport, Grandma Alice would’ve brought home the gold medal.

Once, in a fit of sheer idiocy and egged on by my evil elder brother, I spent an afternoon “pulling brodies” in Grandma’s garden. (Jeff has since repented.) This dastardly deed consists of running full speed from one end of the yard to the other, digging your heels into the grass at the last minute and turning so you don’t careen into the next century. The result is a divot the size of Rhode Island, and a garden that resembles confetti on January 2.

Surveying her shredded tulip beds afterwards, Grandma’s ramrod-straight back and pursed lips told the story. She marched over to where I stood quaking like an aspen in autumn, leaned down and stared at me with eyes that could’ve melted the Polar Ice Caps. I thought the earth would open up and swallow me whole. Hands on hips, Grandma spun on her heel and strode back into the kitchen without saying a word.

I can only imagine what words flew between grandparents and parents that night, but I suspect they were none too sweet. Brother Jeff and I spent the rest of the summer engaged in “indentured servitude,” working off the debt incurred by our dastardly deed, which was somewhere between the entire contents of Fort Knox and all the tea in China. We replaced divots, reseeded, weeded, watered, mowed and tended Grandma’s garden like we were training for the next Iron Man Triathlon. We also washed enough dishes to serve a third world country, all under Grandma’s wise, patient tutelage. (To this day, I don’t know how she managed it without throttling us both, but she did.)

In the process, I learned to detect the full fragrance of “mijn schat.” I also learned how to say “I’m sorry” and mean it, and why I should.

At summer’s end Grandpa George and Grandma Alice helped us re-pack and drove us to the airport. Shortly before we boarded, Grandma swept me into her strong, sturdy arms and hugged me for about a year.
“I forgive you,” she murmured, kissing my forehead. “No tulips matter to me as much as you do” she smiled, eyes crinkling. I hugged her back with all my might – not a lot when you’re seven. Grandma pressed a bag into my hands. The delicious aroma of Boterkoek tickled my nose as she whispered, “I may not always like everything you do, but I’ll always love mijn schat.” She smiled. So did I.

Grandma Alice outlived my grandfather by more than twenty years. As her beloved Detroit neighborhood decayed and both cooking and gardening required more energy than she could muster, she reluctantly moved east to join her sisters in Massachusetts.

I never made it back to Detroit. The years tumbled into decades. Grandma and I drifted and lost touch, to my everlasting regret. She passed away in 1998. I think of her whenever I catch the mouth-watering aroma of Dutch butter biscuits, spoon out a bowl of Erwtensoep or watch a spring sun coax a tulip into bloom. If I close my eyes, I can still hear soft echoes of “mijn schat” from shingles to sidewalk.

A multi-published author, Kristine Lowder has authored 12 books and contributed hundreds of stories and articles to a wide variety of publications, both electronic and print. She enjoys hiking, reading, camping and exploring the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their four sons. Visit her at: http://www.KristineLowder.cwordpress.com or www.KristineLowder.com

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