When I was a sophomore in college, I was assigned to write an essay for a linguistics class about the origin of my surname.
I thought, I don’t know. I think it’s German?
What I discovered about my name has stuck with me.
It wasn’t German. It was Frisian. And Frisian is the language that is most closely related to English.
I learned that my ancestor, Okko Peter Tjaden I, the seventh of eight children, arrived in the United States on June 4, 1856. In the United States, he met and married his wife, Anna Ubben Juttbrook on May 17, 1857 in the Silver Creek Reformed Church in Forreston, Illinois. They both died in Ocheyedan, Iowa (population in 2010–490 people).
Okko grew up in a city called Emden, which is currently part of Germany. But it hasn’t always been German. When you look at Emden’s political situation over the past five hundred years, it makes you weary.
It made me think, How did my family view their national identity? Did they consider themselves to be Germans?
When I asked my father about this while he was still living, he gave me a very broad answer, something like, They were Dutch-speaking Germans. They didn’t speak German. They spoke Dutch. But Germany controlled the country.
It was all very confusing to me, a twenty-something who was still actively untangling my own identity. If they spoke Dutch, why was the origin of the Tjaden name Frisian? Which parts of my values and beliefs came from being an American? Which beliefs came from my religion? What did I think about politics?
Over time, I’ve been able to sort through what I believe and what I value and trace back their origins.
It makes sense now that my ancestors probably didn’t value their national identity as much as their religious identity. Politics can change. Governments topple and are rebuilt. But the Kingdom of God is forever, they would argue.
I understand much more fully and more completely now just how important religion was to my ancestors.
When I was in graduate school, I dug into the research on Dutch immigrants and their cultural assimilation in the United States. I found that compared to their Catholic Dutch counterparts, Dutch Protestants stuck together as a cultural group and resisted assimilation.
Many Dutch Protestants came to the United States to establish Dutch-speaking religious schools where they could teach their children without government interference. In the past, there was increasing pressure on schools to outlaw Dutch children from speaking Dutch in schools.
It’s a story we’ve heard over and over again. A government forces children to learn their language in order for them to be considered True Citizens of wherever they’re living. Forget your old culture and embrace our new better culture.
So they were forced to use German in the schools. Obviously, this didn’t go over well with Dutch families and some of them even decided to leave the whole country behind and forge ahead in a new country, where they were told by relatives who had already settled in the States that they could set up their own religious schools and teach what they wanted, without government interference in the language and values that were taught in the school. (By the way, we have religious Dutch immigrants to thank for Betsy DeVoss. Sorry about that.)
I don’t know if this is the key reason that Okko Peter Tjaden left Emden, but he did join a large community of Dutch immigrants who had settled in Iowa. His arrival in 1856 suggests that he probably left because of the decline in agriculture (an influx of American wheat was driving down the price where he lived). However, he and Anna were married in a Dutch Reformed church, which certainly had members who had left behind Holland/Friesland and other areas because of school indoctrination issue.
For whatever reason, I’ve always felt that I’ve had a strong connection to my father’s side of the family. It’s not because I spent a lot of time with them. I actually spent more time with my maternal grandmother and aunts, uncles, and cousins on my mother’s side. They are the people of whom I have the warmest memories.
But there is no doubt that I don’t look like my mother’s side of the family.
I look like my father, and my father’s brother, and a cousin on my father’s side.
It turns out, I was right.
I did the 23andMe genetic test and found that I have the following ancestral components:
The French/German made sense. That was the Tjaden line through my paternal grandfather. The Eastern Europe made sense. That was my paternal grandmother (nee Osimowicz), who was 100% Polish.
But Scandinavian? 22%? Really?
I looked back at the family tree that I had mapped out so far and thought, Oh. That’s interesting.
My paternal grandfather’s mother was 100% Norwegian. Her parents immigrated from Norway in 1870 and I’ve been able to trace back the Norwegian line all the way to the 1600s.
Genes are fun.
My mother’s father’s line has been established in the United States far longer. Her family (the Bundy family) can be traced back all the way to William Bundy, who first showed up on records in Rhode Island in 1663. That’s twelve generations of Bundys in the United States (No close affiliation to Ted ((he was adopted)), Clive, Ammon, or Al Bundy, thank you very much). They lived in North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. They were hard-living people. Homesteaders and farmers. And also very religious.
My mother’s mother’s line has also been in the United States for hundreds of years. They were the Combs and Haburns. Five generations of the Combs family were born and died in Spirit Lake, Iowa. They were even buried in the same cemetery.
What both sides of my family have in common are
- devotion to the Christian faith
- lives of hard labor (farming, homesteading, manufacturing)
- a fierce spirit in the face of hardship
- a willingness to step out into the unknown
They crossed oceans and nations. They worked in multiple vocations in one lifetime, as my grandfather did (farmer, watchmaker, jeweler). They married across ethnic groups (German – Norwegian – Polish) because a shared faith was more important than shared nationality.
I’ve learned that creativity–in a variety of forms–has been a legacy of the Tjaden name. My great-uncle, Otto A. Tjaden, was sign painter, wood carver, and sculptor in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. I found a newspaper article from the local paper in which they talk about an art exhibition of bronze and metal sculptures that was on display in downtown Fergus Falls.
My own father, Leland Tjaden, was a terrific storyteller. Very theatrical in his performance of just about any story that had made an impression (good or bad) on him.
My uncle, Dennis Tjaden, has a love for photography.
And I write. A lot.
Which is not something that happens on my mother’s side of the family. They are a family of few and carefully chosen words. No need to be emotional or superfluous. Just say what needs to be said and be done with it. I have some of the letters that my grandmother wrote to her sister-in-law. Mostly reports on the weather and the children, and occasionally news about who had visited whom lately.
So when my grandmother passed away, there weren’t many people who were jumping at the chance to give a eulogy.
So I did.
Here are some of the words that I said,
Grandma was practical. You could always count on her to reuse an old box of checks for storing rubber bands or a tub of laundry detergent as a garbage can. She wasn’t sentimental. If a soap opera was on TV, she’d usually fall asleep during it. She never said she loved you. She showed you she loved you. She cooked you food and sent cards in the mail. She was a private person. She kept a lot of her own thoughts to herself…
Grandma, you will be deeply missed. I will miss the quiet hours as I would knit and you would doze off peacefully in the armchair. I never cared that you weren’t much of a conversationalist. Just being there was enough. I know you never liked being the center of attention. You were always a fan of serving behind the scenes and laboring without recognition. Know that your life did not go unnoticed. May you find rest from the struggles and labors of life.
What does it all mean?
What does it mean for me to be a descendant of so many travelers who derived their identities from their beliefs and values rather than the country where they lived?
Who could live for years in isolation, miles and miles from neighbors, surrounded in open country where the whipping winter winds chilled them for months, no matter how many fires they made?
What does it mean for me to have the blood of ancestors who struggled through harsh winters in the upper latitudes, who lived modest lives, who worked the land for food, who watched governments rise and fall and clung to their religion to give the world — and their purpose inside of it — meaning?
What does it mean for me to come from families that never once rubbed shoulders with aristocracy and nobility?
Who were for generations uneducated and illiterate? And when literacy came, it came in the form of the Bible?
Who weren’t formally taught science, but who learned about science through tinkering and trial and error?
And what parts of my genetic ancestry have I passed on to my own children?
Will they also have the wandering, curious, creative spirit? The steely resolve? Or will they have their father’s problem-solving and efficiency? Or his penchant for minimalism and order?
Or will they have something else that has been lying dormant for several generations, just waiting to emerge?
I wonder if my heritage is part of the reason that I’m always looking out on the horizon, wondering what is next.
Caught between the gratitude for today and what I have and the curiosity of knowing about what’s down the line. Always thinking about the next thing that I’ll create or write or research.
What is the next thing that I’ll discover or learn or understand or convey to others? What lessons and messages will I be able to share before I join my ancestors in Death? How much of this vast tapestry of life and everything inside of it will I know before I die?
The answer, I’m sure, is Not Enough.
There’s too much beauty and mystery in this life for one human being to ever be able to hold it all at once in one human mind.
It’s too wonderful.
Even when it’s the worst, it’s too wonderful.
On February 2, 1913, Anna Juttbrook passed away in Ocheyedan, Iowa. Okko followed her a year later on February 14, 1914.
104 years later on February 2, 2017, I lifted my hand to the bright winter light that streamed through my hospital window, crying out in pain as I moved into the hardest part of labor.
In that moment, I felt the spirit of my father beside me, although he had passed away three years earlier. In my worst moments of pain when I wasn’t sure I could go on, I closed my eyes and saw people around me. Some of them I knew. Some of them I didn’t. But the people whom I didn’t know, I had a strong feeling that they were related to me and the child for whom I was laboring was a continuation of their blood.
That was what kept me going.
The knowledge that I was not alone.
That I would forever be connected to those I loved and to those who gave me Life.
And humbled by their presence, I said,
I will try.
I will try for you.
I don’t know if I’ll succeed.
But I’ll try.
Three hours later, I gave birth to our second child. A son named Henry.
I did not know until recently that this was the name of Anna Juttbrook’s father.
And her son.
On my worst days, I think about the courage that I had on this day. To step out into the unknown, into the heart of pain and danger, and feel no fear. Because there was no room for it. I was surrounded by Love and strengthened by the Life that was coming through me.
On my worst days, I remember that I was born with ferocity and resilience. I remind myself to feel gratitude for what all of those who came before me have done. Unlike the rugged individualist story that I learned in American history classrooms, I didn’t grow like a magic bean from the ground, dependent only on my own fortitude and industriousness.
I am here because of Okko Tjaden and Anna Juttbrook and Laurence and Mary Osimowicz and Hans and Kari Vaagesar and William Bundy and so many others whose names I’m still learning.
I am here because they left their homelands and struggled in this new foreign country where they were often scapegoated and resented as newcomers for generations before they were considered “real Americans.”
I am here because they chose uncertainty and the hardships that come with it over stability and familiarity.
Am I grateful enough?
Do I make them proud?