Hatred for Tulips
"I am your brother," said the stranger at the door.
At first I thought he was one of those evangelicals who go from house to house peddling salvation, but then I looked more closely at his face and saw my mother's eyes looking back at me.
"Come in," I said.
We didn't fall into each other's arms or even shake hands, one too much, the other too little. We hadn't seen each other for sixty years. What did it mean that we were brothers?
I held the door open for him and as I watched him walk past in profile, I thought: Willem must be sixty-five now.
But he didn't look it. A face that hadn't seen much. A gray-haired boy. An American.
"I don't have much to offer you," I said. "Beer. Some ham, cheese, bread."
"I live alone. I don't keep much in the house."
"You never married?" he asked, sounding concerned.
I didn't ask him about himself. Didn't have to.
"I was lucky," he said. "Found the right woman and found her early. Two kids. Five grandchildren. My oldest, Cindy--"
"I'll be back in a minute with the beer."
I didn't want to hear their names, see their snapshots. Willem had gotten everything. When our mother left our father for a Canadian soldier at the end of the war, it was young Willem she took with her and so he'd gotten everything, her, a family, America.
"Dutch beer is the best," he said after a good swig.
"You like a drink then?"
"Since I first tried it."
"It's in the blood then," I said with a smile and he smiled too, though I knew we had to be smiling for different reasons.
"You must be sixty-five, Willem," I said.
"That's right," he said. "I am. I don't know where the time went, the years just flew by."
I knew he was speaking about his own life, how one day you wake up old, but he was also apologizing for never having come to see his own brother in all those sixty years since our mother took him from Holland.
"What was your work, Willem?"
"I was an optometrist. You?"
"I worked in the food industry like my father. Our father. You must excuse if I sometimes say 'my father' and not 'our father. ' I've been saying it so long."
"Sure," said Willem, with a look of pain on his face that I was glad to see, "sure, I understand."
"But I wasn't a cook like our father. I worked in wholesale, warehousing, distribution."
"For several years."
I knew he was about to ask me what I did with my time but was somehow reluctant to. Maybe sitting across from me at the table, he could see into me a little.
People who don't have secrets imagine them as dark and hidden. It's just the opposite. Secrets are bright. They light you up. Like the bare lightbulb left on in a cell day and night, they give you no rest.
In a way I'm amazed that he couldn't see into me, I feel so transparent.
Or maybe he was just having second thoughts about coming over here, coming to see me. He was clearly a little uncomfortable in my place, which was clean but dingy.
We finished the first beer with small talk--how was the flight over, what hotel was he staying in, how long did he intend to stay in Amsterdam?
"At least a week," he said. "I mean, there's a lot to see and do. And I promised the grandkids to make a video of everything for them. One of them's doing a 'My Heritage' project for school, the one I started to tell you about, Cindy ... wait a second, I want to show you something. Tell me," he said, pulling his wallet out from his back pocket and flipping it open to the snapshot section, "tell me Cindy doesn't look just like our mother."
Now I hated him. It was our mother reborn as an Americanteenager and though the hair was done up in an American style, it was still our mother's thick, blond hair, and her eyes were the same too, she even had the same green vein at the side of her temple. So, not only did he get to have our mother for all his childhood, he got to have her again as a grandchild.
But I must not be transparent in any way--at least, he didn't seem to notice. "Cindy's a terrific kid, kind, helpful, full of good, clean fun. And of all the kids and grandkids, she's the one who's most interested in her Dutch background. Reads everything she can get her hands on."
"You should have brought her over."
"Maybe next time," he said with what seemed a kind of wistful sadness. Maybe he had some serious illness, I thought, maybe that's why he's decided to make the trip and see his brother, though he still hasn't once called me by name.
"She should come," I said. "Holland has plenty to offer. But teach her one thing from her uncle."
"Not to ooh and aah over the tulips. I hate tulips. They're too pretty when they're alive and look so dead when they die. But the real reason I hate them is I know what they taste like. In the war, at the end, when there was nothing, we ate them, we ate tulip bulbs."
"I don't remember that," he said. "I don't remember much. And the few memories I do have, I can't be sure if they're really true or just stories my mother, our mother, told me."
"You're lucky then."
"But I want to know what happened. During the war. And just after."
"You know the feeling when someone starts to tell you a good story, then right after he gets going he decides he shouldn't be telling it and just stops. And you try to convince him that once you start a story, you have to finish, it isn't fair otherwise. Most people will give in to that but sometimes they won't and you're left completely frustrated. Well, that's sort of how I feel about my life, except it's the beginning I don't know about."
"And that's why you came here?"
"That's why I came here, Joop."
"Well, maybe you can tell me a few stories too."
"Maybe I can."
"Except for a few postcards from our mother and the letter you sent when she died, there's not much I know."
"I know," he said, dropping his eyes. "I'm sorry."
"Another beer would be good."
For a second in the kitchen I did not want to go back to the table, to my brother, to the past and all its sorrows.
I looked out the window. The sky was a bright blue with a few gray rain clouds. A young woman pedaled by on a black bike, talking on her cell phone.
If I had died three years ago in the hospital, none of this would have happened, my brother, the rain cloud, the girl on her bike. But I didn't die.
I went back to the front room.
My brother took a long swig of beer. The part of the story he did know--our mother leaving our father, who had been incapacitated by a stroke right after the war--wasn't too pretty, and the part he didn't know about wasn't any prettier.
Take a good swig, my lucky American brother, who has sofew bad memories that he had to come all the way to Holland to get some.
"You know who Anne Frank is?" I asked.
"Of course," he said, as if I had offended his intelligence and Dutch pride.
"When they came to get her, they went right to her hiding place."
"And that means someone betrayed her."
"But who did it?" he said.
A HATRED FOR TULIPS. Copyright © 2007 by Richard Lourie. All rights reserved.