Happy May Day. A tale of my immigrant family.

May 1, 2017
Jacob and Elizabeth VanderHaag along with two of their children, Alie and Fred, about 1955 or 1956 after they immigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands.

Jacob and Elizabeth VanderHaag along with two of their children, Alie and Fred, about 1955 or 1956 after they immigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands.

Happy May Day. A tale of my immigrant family.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

Today is May Day and I have read in the news that there are supposedly people across the country planning to protest on behalf of immigrants. So, I thought I would talk about this topic since I am the son of an immigrant.

I am proud to be a first generation born American. My mother, Alida (Alie) VanderHaag, along with her sister Betty, brother Fred, and parents Jacob (Jake) and Elizabeth, immigrated here in 1955 from the Netherlands. A year later, another sister, Cora Devries, and her husband, Ron, and two children Mary and Jake, also immigrated here. My grandparents left behind two adult children, my uncle, Siebe, and his wife, Tini, along with my aunt, Ypie (Ellie), and her husband, Chris.

My mother was born in 1941 in a North Holland sea port town on the North Sea. The town of Julianadorp, which was a suburb of Den Helder, which was a strategic naval base for Germany, which occupied the Netherlands.

My grandfather and I.

My grandfather and I.

Life under the Nazi regime was difficult. One of the stories my grandfather would tell was how he would load my mother and her sister, Betty (18 months older than her) into a baby carriage and walk them past the Nazi soldiers with items — such as tobacco and food — that he purchased illegally; the items were stowed underneath the two girls. During my grandmother’s funeral in 1997, my Uncle Fred told the story of how my grandparents would allow displaced people to live in their tiny Dutch A-frame house. To the day that they died, my grandparents would wake up during a thunder storm which reminded them of the Allied bombings.

Post war Europe saw a lot of poverty and the Netherlands was no exception. My grandfather’s father, Siebe, had begun traveling to the United States to spend 11 months out of the year working for his nephew, Ryn VanderHaag, at his farm in Grant, Michigan. Ryn’s farm raised mostly onions and he had recently purchased a farm east at the end of Campbell Road east of Fountain in Mason County in an area known locally as “Bear Swamp.” My great-grandfather convinced my grandfather that he needed to move his family to America.

Immigrants must meet certain criteria to come to the U.S. One of the ways to come is to have a sponsor. My grandfather’s cousin, who was a U.S. citizen at that point, sponsored the family. So they ended their life in North Holland and immigrated — legally — to a new country along with two teen-aged daughters and a 5-year-old son. My grandfather was 45-years-old (two years younger than I am now) and my grandmother was 40.

My grandfather spent the first decade or so in the U.S. managing his cousin’s farm in Sheridan Township. They built a small house at the end of Campbell Road north of Millerton Road and my aunt and uncle built a matching house a few feet away. My mother and her brother were enrolled in school, my uncle attending a country elementary school while my mother attended Custer High School (which shortly became Mason County Eastern).

My mother, nor the rest of her family, spoke any English when they came here. She credits the generosity of her MCE Class of ’60 classmates Jim and Donna Shoup, among others, for helping her overcome the culture shock and for teaching her how to learn English.

One of my favorite family stories was how my grandfather packed up the family and got in the car and ventured to “town” (Custer). They were heading west on US 10 and got past Stephens Road and looked in the distance and saw a blinking traffic light. My grandfather feared that they were approaching a big city, so they turned around. It took them a few weeks before they got brave enough to go into Custer, only to discover that it wasn’t quite as intimidating as they initially thought.

My grandfather Jake became legendary at the pool hall in Scottville for his skill at billiards. I have been approached by many men through the years who say it was Jake who taught them how to play pool and billiards. Grandpa was also known for wearing his wooden shoes to town. He never quite mastered the English language but that did not stop him from assimilating into the culture and society.

After living in the U.S. for several years, my grandparents, my mother and her siblings became citizens. In order to do that, they had to give up their Dutch citizenship. They were very proud of this accomplishment, especially my grandfather. Our Dutch heritage was always important and never forgotten, but the family embraced its American citizenship. I think one of my grandfather’s proudest moments was when my Uncle Fred ran for state representative. He was also proud of that fact that all his grandchildren graduated high school and several graduated from college. He wanted to make sure we found success in our lives and he knew education was key. 

It is evident that the issues of immigration in the year 2017 are certainly different than the issues of immigration in 1955. With the exception of Native Americans, everyone in this nation has immigrant roots (technically, common theory is that even the Native Americans immigrated to this continent at some point in history). The vast majority of those immigrants were welcomed into this nation with the assumption that they were coming here legally and that they would assimilate into the culture of the country, while at the same time respecting their heritage and mixing that heritage into the great “melting pot.”

So, today I will observe May Day by honoring my family’s venture of coming to this nation — legally — and beginning a new life. I will not take to the streets and protest in favor of people who snuck into this country illegally. While I understand their need to leave the poor conditions of their native lands, I cannot condone their existence in our nation, breaking its laws. To me, those illegal immigrants dishonor the hard work and struggles people like my grandparents, mother, and aunts and uncles endured as they went through the proper procedures to immigrate to the U.S. and ultimately becoming citizens.

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