A Shared Name, an Unshared Life

Gram and Pop Wisse c 1945

My grandmother shares my name. And I share hers. It is a name of love and loss, given to me before my birth. The name of a woman whose flesh and blood formed the woman who formed me. The name of a grandmother pictured in a 5×7 black and white photograph that rests on my mother’s living-room end table. In it she stands next to my grandfather in their backyard, her head slightly tilted, a soft yet no-nonsense expression on her face.
For most of my life, this photo was merely a vague testament to a woman I never missed because her memory was seldom invoked. Her early death had generated a gap in my family’s history. But recently, I’ve gleaned photographs from a crumbling album and gently mined my mother’s fading memories to reclaim my grootmoeder who died before I was born. She rose out of the shadows of another century, another country, and another culture, all left behind when she married my grandfather and crossed the ocean to begin a new life with him in northern New Jersey.
Marie Buijze was born in 1889 in the Netherlands, in the southern province of Zeeland, which is a cluster of large islands reclaimed from the sea and anchored to the continent by Belgium. Not far from this border lies the small city of Terneuzen with its surrounding towns where my ancestors lived for centuries, some in the countryside, some by the sea, and a few in the city itself.
My grandmother was the eldest of nine children, three of whom died in infancy. She was born and raised in a two-room workmans house covered in grey stucco and roofed in red, clay tiles, a house built on de Baandijk that stretched out of Terneuzen along a ditch and into the countryside.
My grandmother’s father, Adriaan, was a farm labourer. He toiled from dawn to dusk for a wealthy farmer and little money which lead towards his early death. During the growing season, Adriaan also tilled a half-acre of land on the polder behind his house to feed his expanding family. It yielded most of their food for the year.
My grandmother’s mother Rachel was a Dutch housewife who kept their house spotless. She prepared the family’s meals on a cook stove in the small kitchen that contained a dry sink, a cupboard, and a sturdy table with chairs. A wooden ladder led to the zolder where the older children slept under the eaves.
In the front room or beste kammer white curtains framed two windows. Between them, sat an heirloom table and hutch that held the Sunday china. Wasting no space, the middle wall enclosed two beds behind paneled doors – one for Marie’s parents and the other for younger children.
While the front door was opened only on formal occasions, the back door was the portal to the outer world. One step down was a small stoop and an iron pump fixed above a cistern. To the left was the w.c. harbouring spiders. To the right, around a corner, was the pig pen and an enormous pig. A small shed housed farm implements and chickens which Rachel raised for eggs.
After she was born, Marie was swaddled in layers of clothing to protect her from the waterkould the chilly dampness of Holland that seeps into the bones. As a young girl she wore thick undergarments and a heavy skirt and blouse over which she wrapped a striped apron. She pulled woolen stockings up her legs and squeezed her feet into klompen wooden shoes. In warmer weather she often went barefoot. Later, as a young woman, Marie’s clothes resembled her mother’s outfits of warm shirts, bulky vests with flaaren (‘wings’) and woolen skirts. She wore a white cap on her head with a braid hanging down her back. In time she acquired a strand of orange coral beads or koraalen for church or special occasions.
Marie Buijze’s early life was little different from that of generations of girls and women who lived before her. The Dutch family was virtuous, frugal, and hard-working. The father was the provider, the mother the housewife, and the children subordinate to their parents. In the southern part of Zeeland where the Buijzes lived, the Dutch Reformed Church was the pillar of society. Respect for its authority and adherence to its beliefs were paramount in daily life.
Dutch law required all children to attend school until they turned twelve. It is likely that my grandmother learned to read and write in a school with two rooms, one for boys and the other for girls. Along with math and geography, she was taught sewing, darning, and knitting skills. After grade four or five, she returned home to help her mother with the endless household chores and the care of her younger siblings.
Life on de Baandijk was not all hard work and little play. Sundays provided a break from the grind of daily life. Dressing in their Sunday best and walking to church dominated the larger part of the day. But afterwards, there was visiting with friends and family, drinking coffee in the beste kammer, eating a hearty meal, and probably attending another church service in the early evening. A favourite “past time” was debating Sunday sermons and interpretations of scripture. They dove into it with a passion that often stretched into the rest of the week and sometimes into family and church schisms.
As Marie grew into adulthood, she became restless living in the small workman’s cottage. Family lore reveals that my grandmother had an independent streak. As soon as her sisters could take over household chores, Marie spread her wings and left home in 1909. She donned Western dress and went to work for a merchant family in Terneuzen as a nursemaid for their little girls. She also minded their winkel or small dry goods store when the children attended school or when the parents ate their mid-day dinner.
Wages were low for domestics and Marie may have earned no more than 50-100 guilders a year. Some if not all of this money may have been turned over to her family. But some may have been squirrelled away for Marie’s future. No longer a country girl, Marie had taken a decisive step into adulthood and the world of city life. Her expanded horizons grew and, five years later, gave her the courage, determination, and finances to leave her provincial Dutch life when she married my grandfather, Jan Adriaan Wisse.
Born in 1887, my grandfather was the second eldest child of another large family. His father Wilhelm was a visser or fisherman, his mother Adrianna a traditional Dutch housewife who bore 16 children, five of whom died as infants. As an older boy, Jan also worked on a botter in the Westerschelde River that separated Zeeland from the rest of Holland. He dubbed for flounder, sorted fish, and coiled ropes. The work was always hard and often dangerous. Boats, wharfs, fish, ropes, nets, baskets – all were wet, cold, and slippery, especially in stormy and wintery weather. So as a young man, my grandfather decided to learn masonry.
When my grandparents began to court, Jan was 22, Marie 20. He was a city boy. She a country girl. But they may have gone to school together or attended the same church every Sunday. Or maybe Jan brought fresh fish to the winkel or patched the bricks on the merchant’s building. How they met is unknown, but given their small social world, they more than likely knew each other for a long time before Marie’s independent streak caught Jan’s eye and Jan’s hard-working spirit convinced Marie that he was a good catch.
In the spring of 1911, the Wisse family made the momentous decision to leave the Netherlands. The year before, Willem had declared bankruptcy as he could no longer earn enough to feed his large family and pay their debts. Five years earlier, his older brother’s family had immigrated to the United States. They had settled in Northern New Jersey and found work in its textile mills. Undoubtedly, they wrote home about the economic prospects available in this Land of Opportunity.
At this time it was common for whole families to immigrate together. The young, unmarried adults and older teenagers found employment and helped establish their families in the new country. So Jan’s family sold most of their possessions to purchase the steep $45 per person for eleven tickets on the SS Ryndam of the Holland-America Line. On April 8 the Wisse family left Rotterdam for America. Ten days later they arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey. The ship manifest states they had $90 in their pockets and planned to live with Oom Anthony Wisse in Passaic. My grandfather Jan was described as a 23 year old merchant, 5 feet/6inches, with black hair and blue eyes. He was actually a mason and carried a certificate documenting his trade, a profession he pursued for years.

John and Marie Wisse, Wedding 1914

When Jan immigrated to America, my grandparents had not announced an engagement. But two and a half years later, Jan returned to Zeeland with a notarized document from his parents (necessary for “children” under 30) that granted him permission to marry. On December 24, 1913, Jan and Marie announced their engagement and were married three weeks later on January 15 in the Terneuzen Townhall. Afterwards their families and friends gathered for a wedding ceremony in Nordstraat Christian Reformed Church. Before their simple reception of traditional Dutch foods, Marie and Jan posed for a formal wedding portrait. Jan had become John and sported a western suit, while Marie wore a black skirt and blouse with a brocade vest. In her hands she held the black, gauze veil she wore during the ceremonies. Around her neck hung a long gold chain, a wedding gift from her in-laws. She did not wear her koraalen necklace. Nor did she wear a Dutch cap or hat of any kind. She too preferred the ornaments and dress of her future.

Honeymoons for Holland’s working poor were an extravagance the newlyweds could not afford. Instead, after all the paper work had been filed at the town hall and Marie’s emigration paper received, the couple traveled to Rotterdam, passed through a thorough inspection, and finally boarded the SS Noordam on February 14, 1914. John had purchased second class tickets. For twelve days they savoured the luxury of a small, private cabin with running water, hours of relaxation in the lounges, bracing walks on the deck, and hotel quality meals 3 times a day with entertainment in the evenings, all a foretaste of the prosperity available to them in the United States. When they disembarked at the Holland America Line port in Hoboken, New Jersey, John’s family greeted them, hoisted their baggage onto their shoulders, and motored them to the Wisse home on Gregory Street in Passaic, New Jersey.

John & Marie with Bill, 1916

Within two years, despite WWI having broken out in Europe, Marie and John had moved into their own clapboard house on “Dutch Hill.” John had obtained steady work as a mason and Marie had a newborn baby to raise. In their first American studio portrait, John stiffly held his son on his lap, while Marie, wearing a white muslin dress and her gold chain, stood next to him, a small smile playing on her lips. Her eyes were underlined with the dark circles of motherhood, but her gaze was proud and direct. Their small family was already reaping the rewards of their momentous decision to move thousands of miles to the prosperity of the New World.

However, while Marie and John’s house was more spacious, their material possessions more plentiful, and their food more varied, their lives replicated in profound ways the one left behind in Zeeland. Like their ancestors, the Wisses were a frugal, virtuous, hard-working, traditional family. John was the head of the household and Marie a mother and housewife, though often an equal partner in financial and family decisions. Their children, much loved, towed the line. But above all, the Dutch Christian Reformed Church and its beliefs and customs remained the center of their world. Regular Sunday church attendance (3 services, 1 in Dutch), private Christian school for their children, weekly church committee meetings, and a social life comprised of extended family and church members defined their lives. For Marie and John much had changed, but much remained the same.
To tie Marie’s new American life to the old Dutch one of her close-knit family in Zeeland, many letters penned in Dutch crossed the ocean. Only once did she travel back to visit them in Holland. In 1936, two years after Marie’s father Adriaan had died, Pop purchased tickets on a cargo ship The Black Tern for Gram, himself, and my nine-year old mother. Now and then, stories of that trip, and a few others of my mother’s childhood were shared with me and my siblings. But not many. And not often. Life was busy in my house. My parents had five children to raise and full time jobs. There seemed little time to tell tales of past lives, especially of one that ended too soon. Memories of my much-loved grandmother were held tightly within my mother’s heart. Now, as I poke and prod, she shares memories of both parents and a childhood lived in that Dutch immigrant enclave of Northern Jersey. From a few photographs and much research, plus emails from my Dutch cousin Adrie, I have imagined my grandmother’s early life in Zeeland. Seven decades after she died, I am finally meeting my grandmother, even though I never sat on her lap and brushed her long hair or baked Dutch sweets in her kitchen or listened to stories of the old country. Mercifully, we share a name that finally sparked a desire, almost too late, to find her and fill that gap in my life.

A Shared Name, an Unshared Life” is excerpted from a larger memoir piece to be shared with family, friends, and the wider North American Dutch community when completed.

share this page: