Forty years is a long time, by any stretch. For us, particularly, these back forty have felt like a lifetime. In it we bore children, raised them, bought houses, fixed them up, planted gardens, sat under its trees, started careers, finished them off, borrowed much, loaned more, nurtured church, carried its troubles, all the while staying faithful to a never-ending litany of chores and habits — doing dishes, taking out the garbage, cleaning house, going to church, camping, gathering at the dining table, reading scripture and, most blessedly, sleeping (more or less) through the nights.
By no means would I say that we’ve been through the wilderness and entered the promised land, or been tossed by a roiling flood and now come to rest. But the landscape has changed during this fullness of time. You don’t notice it so much while you’re in transit, on the slow train. But if you set markers and compare, the similarities and differences stand out.
For us, this fullness has two bookends – our trips to Europe in 1983 and 2023 (still to come). Both reveal desire and freedom to explore our motherland and its environs. Both will share qualities of family fellowship and cultural rootedness. But their circumstances and implementations are forty-far apart.
We’d been married only three year before the first expedition, then still living single’s style student and working-girl lives. Children were but whispers on our breath and we owned nothing much requiring care. We could just quit work and studies to go live for a year in Europe.
We did some planning, obviously, buying open ended plane tickets and cementing Dutch citizenships. And we bought backpacks to carry clothes and our camping gear. But for the rest we went on a wing and a prayer and with just the $4,000 proceeds from selling our harpsichord. Some people thought we were crazy.
Blithely, we borrowed uncle Gerald’s stake truck, moved our meagre belongings from Borden Street, Toronto to the attic of the Balls Falls Brouwer farmhouse, where Wendy used to play, said our goodbyes and vanished off the continent.
For the first three months, we were as free as the wind. In May we circled through the Netherlands on our bikes, visiting family. In June we dipped down to the Mediterranean by bus, before looping back up through the pope-doms of Avignon and Geneva, across the Alps and back down through Milan and Nice to where we started, all the while hitch-hiking, catching trains, sleeping in hostels and in our tent, travelling on a whim with nothing to go by except signs, printed lists and brochures.
In July we biked to the Hook of Holland, crossed the channel, bought a train pass and zipped all the way north to Kyle of Lochalsh, before winding our way back through Scotland, the Lake District, Wales and London area, with bikes carried by train always at the ready for local transport, and a tent in our packs for sleeping. It seems overwhelming now, the logistics of it all, but we did it one step at a time.
During that whole time we communicated by airmail, sending journals of our journey and receiving news at designated places, like American Express offices. Those letters are still a treasure and a necessary antidote to failed memory. But our photography now seems totally inadequate – we were too wary of the cost of developing and printing.
Fast forward forty years and we’re facing, four-square, a technological revolution and our own material evolution. Planning and preparing for this trip has been a real slog, consuming the better parts of a few months. Not only does opportunity knock, it does so insistently. Technology serves, but it can also master.
Where we were once homeless, we are now home owners, a resource that we have parlayed into points on HomeExchange.com – six families coming to our home, while we stay at four places in Europe. It’ll be nice not having to sleep in tents this summer or pony up thousands for hotels. But the consequences are more onerous than a mother-in-law’s visit. Not only do we have to clean our house thoroughly, we’ve had to fix all the little and big things that we’d left undone for no good reason.
Forty years ago we had phones and pens. Now we have gadgets coming out of our ears (well, actually, I’m leaving those at home). We’re taking smart phones and a Fire tablet because we feel we need to stay connected. And not just connected in the usual way – paying bills, throwing out spam and exploring rabbit holes, but super connected – posting, blogging, zooming and whatsapping. It makes the head spin, figuring out how to do all of this on the fly, away from the comfort of our offices.
While I was yet young I pretty much took my history for granted. It came to me, through parents, church and school, without my having much say in the matter. Now, the limits have been blown away, and I’ve taken up the mantel of place-finder and path-maker in a world wide web. My Heritage has barked me into a tree of two and a half thousand ancestors, and counting. Email and websites have allowed me to leap whole oceans in a single bound. I search and I find. There is a veritable river of media to go YouTubing down. And that’s all before I’ve even packed my bags.
Family has grown too, and we have shifted from depending on others to being depended on. Ten years beyond fifty-five, freedom is still fleeting. We’ve still never been away from our daughter with Down Syndrome longer than eight days. And I am my brother’s keeper. Retirement, stability and experience have thrust us into the resource department for our children, indeed for the whole van der Laan clan leading up to the 2023 reunion.
But all of this we accept with gratitude and grit. I am counting on concluding this summer quest with the sense of satisfaction that comes from marrying possibility with responsibility. And I am glad to be forty years further on.