The following is an excerpt from the book Passing on the Comfort: The War, The
Quilts, and the Women Who Made a Difference
by An Keuning-Tichelaar and Lynn Kaplanian-Buller
Published by Good
Books; May 2005; $14.95US; 1-56148-482-2
Copyright c 2005 by
Good Books, Intercourse, PA 17534
-- January 1980
Discovering the quilts
I wasn't sure why we had come. As we approached the
idyllic country house over the only access, a bicycle path laid out of bricks, I
wondered how the weekend would go, especially because we were bringing the only
child. These gatherings of Palestinian students, all male, mostly Christian,
usually centered on the menu. The guys had taught themselves to cook while
studying and enjoyed (almost) nothing more than spending hours planning,
shopping for, preparing home recipes, and telling jokes in Arabic together in a
big kitchen, then eating it with their loved ones. Everything they did together
-- washing up and preparing coffee, too -- was so in contrast to the usual image
of Arab men that we women used to laugh.
If any authorities picked
up these six guys for questioning, they wouldn't agree on anything politically,
but they could recite -- down to the spices -- the complete menus of the
previous week. Gentle, homey guys, they thrived on speaking their native
language together, especially enjoying the intricate double entendres which
The most far-flung of the
group had been complaining to his fellow psychology students that he was missing
his "brothers." One of their friends, after consulting with her
parents, invited the student named Samir, to come to her parents' weekend house
with all his Palestinian buddies and their families. So here we came.
Avo and I and our
three-year-old daughter, Nadine, traveled up from Landsmeer, just above the
Amsterdam harbor. The oldest of the student lot and the most settled, we both
worked at demanding jobs and tried to bring Nadine up in the best of three
cultures -- Palestinian, American, and Dutch -- mostly during evenings and
weekends. We were tired constantly. Upon arriving, I was relieved to see that
the farmhouse was large enough that I could peel off early to sleep next to
Nadine if the guys started one of their all-night, low-stakes poker games.
Nadine would wake early the next morning, of course, and it would be my turn to
get up with her.
After seven years in the
Netherlands, I still marveled at Europeans' ability to get together just to be
together or to take a walk just for the pleasure of it. In Minnesota, we got
together to Do Something Useful. Celebrations counted as a good reason, but
there had to be a focus. And one went for a walk only to blow off steam, to
cogitate heavily, or to get to some place specific. We would never just walk
around together. Always eager to fulfill others' expectations, I often felt
adrift in these gatherings of Palestinian men and European women, most of whom
were still students. Added to this was my role as a working mother and I often
felt somewhat confused about how I fit into these events. I learned to stop
worrying about what others might be expecting of me and tried to do what made
the most sense, while doing no intentional harm to others.
We walked into the
farmhouse which had a huge open ceiling where the hayloft had been removed, and
hanging on the wall was a quilt which looked very North American. The house was
charming. Full of antique toys and built-in cupboards, it was warmed by a cast
iron pot-bellied stove which threw off a cozy heat, necessary to counter the
drafts which sneaked in around the poured-glaze windows. Some of the bedrooms,
converted stalls, had very low ceilings. Others, up under the hayloft, were very
high and long. As I walked through, my wonder increased. A handmade quilt
covered every bed, and every closet held stacks of more folded quilts.
Who lived here? Where did
these quilts come from? Who were these people? I asked Samir.
He thought the parents of
his friend were a minister couple -- Baptists, or something to do with Menno
Simons. What? Menno Simons? That was a name I hadn't heard since my church
instruction class in Mt. Lake, Minnesota. How could there be Mennonites way over
here, and with such a long history? All I knew was that Mennonites had all been
emigrants from colonies in the Ukraine, they all spoke a 16th-century
Dutch/Germanic dialect, and they had come to North America to avoid being
pressed into military service, based upon principals of non-violence set out by
Menno Simons. Had they started a colony in the Netherlands, too?
A new chapter opened in my
life. We had a lovely weekend. Nadine slept in the built-in bed closet, which
was painted a lovely salmon-pink with turquoise trim. And when we arrived home,
our son was conceived in the afterglow of a deeply pleasing day.
The quilts stayed in my mind. The week following, I
tracked down the telephone number of the house's owners and asked Mrs. Keuning
if it would be possible for me to purchase one of the quilts, explaining that
they reminded me so much of home. Mrs. Keuning said that she couldn't sell me a
quilt because they weren't her property, but that I could come choose one to
have. I didn't understand her gesture -- my knowledge of the Dutch language was
not strong enough to pick up subtleties -- nor did her offer fit into any
imaginable context in my mind. I knew the price of quilts in quilt stores, and I
certainly didn't consider just taking one from a stranger. Besides, if they
weren't hers, how could she give one away?
About 10 years later, I
was busy thinking up ways to tell the story of Thanksgiving Day to the Dutch
customers of our American bookstores in Amsterdam and The Hague. Quilting had
become a very popular handcraft by then, and our store was an important source
for Dutch women wanting to learn the patterns and history of North American
quilts. Recalling the quilts in the farmhouse near Drachten, I called Mrs.
Keuning again to ask if we could perhaps exhibit the quilts in the bookstore's
art gallery. As I explained who I was, she interrupted: "Lynn! When are you
coming to get your quilt?"
"I can't accept a
quilt from you," I stammered.
"Well, why not?"
she asked. "What have I done wrong now?"
"You haven't done
anything wrong at all," I explained. "It's just much too large a gift
to extend to a stranger, or to accept from a stranger. But would you consider
showing the quilts at an exhibition? And coming for Thanksgiving dinner in the
store? Perhaps we can get to know each other better."
A few months later, as
she, her daughter, Anke, and I walked past the large store window hung with her
quilts, she gasped. Later, she explained that the quilts had served as the sole
keeper of her stories about all the struggles of the War years. When she saw the
quilts exhibited in public, she felt freed to also tell her stories for the
first time. Before she told others, she wanted to tell her daughter who, until
then in 1989, had no idea of the part her parents had played in the Underground
Resistance during World War II. Until that time, An had simply said that the
quilts came to Friesland from North Americans as relief goods for the Europeans
who had no blankets left after the war.
An and her husband Herman,
their daughter Anke, and my family -- Avo, Nadine, and Paul, now 10 -- ate
Thanksgiving dinner together and learned to know each other a little bit. An and
I felt a recognition and a friendship far older and deeper than was possible. It
was a kind of comfort and a wordless understanding though we had just met, and
she is 28 years older than I am.
I would not hear the
stories, however, until much later.
Copyright c 2005 by
Good Books, Intercourse, PA 17534
Reprinted from Passing
on the Comfort: The War, The Quilts, and the Women Who Made a Difference.
Copyright by Good Books (www.goodbks.com).
Used by permission. All rights reserved.
An Keuning-Tichelaar was born in 1922 in Makkum, a harborplace near
Witmarsum, Friesland, the Netherlands. Married in 1944, she is the mother of
three children. Her home, a parsonage, has always been a haven for needy
children, youth, and adults.
was born in 1949 in Heron Lake, Minnesota. She and her husband raised two
children in three cultures while taking over and managing a bookstore company in
the Netherlands (www.abc.nl). She is active in
the Dutch Mennonite Relief organization, her own church council, and Rotary.
information, please visit www.goodbks.com