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My Father's Mother Tongue

Written by Kim van Alkemade

I took my first steps on Dutch soil, but I don’t speak the language.

When I was eleven months old, my dad, who’d emigrated from the Netherlands a decade ago, brought his new wife and baby daughter to Amsterdam to meet his family. The reunion is documented on a sixty-year-old reel of 16mm film that I recently had digitized. For one minute and forty-four seconds, my Dutch family comes to life.

Original film reel

We are in the garden behind my Oma and Opa’s house in Amstelveen. My Oma is seen through a window, setting the table inside for a meal we’ll all soon share. My father’s sister, my Tante Ineke, holds my baby cousin Corien on her lap. My Tante Petronel, dad’s oldest sister, appears for less than a second, my baby cousin Anne in her arms. My cousin Lillian is there, too. Older than the crop of babies, she dances on the lawn, playing with a ball. My father’s two bachelor brothers are there, as well as his two brothers-in-law. Though the film is silent, I know that everyone is speaking Dutch—except for the babies, of course, and my American mother.

My mom, a Jewish girl from the Bronx who’d just turned twenty-one, had met my dad two years before in the Empire State Building, where they both worked in the same office, she as a secretary, he as an account manager. I wasn’t the reason they got married, but I came along soon enough. The passport on which she traveled wasn’t hers alone: in those days, mothers shared passports with their babies. The note on the stamp documenting our arrival into the Kingdom of the Netherlands has a handwritten note in Dutch: met eén kind. With one child. I count these as my first Dutch words.

Passport Stamp

In the movie, my mom, kneeling on the lawn, sets me on my feet. I imagine my dad is holding the camera. I wobble for a moment, then totter towards him. I manage six steps before I fall, laughing. Two more attempts are filmed, each more successful than the last, though both end with a plop on my diapered tush. Thirty seconds of film that prove my first steps were taken on the soil of my father’s homeland. 

First Steps

We returned again five years later, my mother’s passport amended now to include a second child, my brother Glen. There are no movies of this trip, but I do have two memories. The first is of being left by my parents in the childcare room while they attended church with my Oma and Opa. I remember this because I didn’t know how to tell any of the Dutch women who were watching us that I needed to use the bathroom. At five years old, I could recite the entire alphabet in English, but I couldn’t speak a word of my father’s birth language. My second memory is of visiting a park where little fountains hidden in a patio would suddenly squirt playing children. I looked it up today, amazed that I remembered the name of it well enough for Google to figure out what I meant. The fountain is called De Bedriegertjes, the little deceivers, and to me it was a magical experience.

We traveled to Holland often over the years, but I never did learn Dutch. My aunts and uncles all spoke English, and as my cousins got older, they learned it, too, so that’s the language they spoke with me. Inevitably, though, during a visit, family members would start talking to one another in Dutch and soon I’d be excluded from the conversation between my own relatives. It’s a common enough experience for the children of immigrants, but it made me sad that the language that could have connected me to my father’s country was instead a barrier keeping me at a distance.

I’ve tried to learn the language on my own. There was the set of Linguaphone records that I’d listen to on a portable record player when I was in high school. In college, I took a Dutch 101 class, but there was no 102 offered. Later, I listened to Pimsleur CDs on my commute to work to brush up before a trip to Amsterdam. During the Covid lockdown, I signed up for a beginner's Dutch class that met over Zoom. Recently, my partner and I started planning a longer stay in the Netherlands, and she turned me on to Duolingo. It’s fun, and I’m surprised by how much I’m learning, but when one of my cousins recently visited us here in the States, English was the language we all spoke. I’ll keep trying, but at my age, I doubt I’ll ever learn to speak my family’s language as well as they speak mine.

Me, Dad, and Oma

There was one time, though, when my limited Dutch was enough. I was a teenager the last time I saw my Oma, who was living in a nursing home outside of Amsterdam and suffering from Alzheimer’s. My Oma had been an educator who’d studied Latin and Greek and been fluent in four languages, but dementia had reduced her to her mother tongue. Oma hardly recognized her own adult children anymore, so my Tante Ineke didn’t expect much when she asked her mother who she thought I was. Oma reached up with trembling hands and tied the strings of my peasant blouse in a neat bow. Dit is Kim, de dochter van Gerard, she said. This is Kim, Gerard’s daughter.

Despite her illness, despite the continents and decades that separated us, my Oma remembered me. She pointed to herself and said her name: Cornelia Helena. She then placed the tip of her finger on my breastbone and said my name: Kim Ilene. She’d always believed I’d been named after her, a Dutch tradition my parents should have followed but swore they hadn’t. Even though my father hadn’t passed down to me his mother’s name or her language, in that moment, I understood exactly what my Oma was telling me.