Aunt Courtney kissed my head and called me her little mouse for five minutes when we were reunited in Wassenaar in The Netherlands. It was sometime before 9 a.m. on a midsummer morning. We hadn’t seen one another since a vacation elsewhere seven years prior. She lived in a suburb of The Hague with her husband. When they learned I would be studying abroad in Italy for the summer, they offered to put me and two friends from the program up for a long weekend.
My friends and I boarded a flight to Amsterdam. During the short flight, I found myself thinking of my grandmother, Grandmurai, who had loved The Netherlands deeply.
Grandmurai was an artist, a mother, a taxi driver, and a world traveler, among many other things. Some may have accused her of being eccentric. Her love affair with The Netherlands began in the late 1970s, when she befriended a famous artist, known as Viktor IV by the Dutch, who was best known for his floating structures in the Amsterdam canals.
The two of them corresponded for more than a year during the early stages of Grandmurai’s art career, during which she would visit twice. In 2012 Grandmurai took a final trip to Wassenaar to celebrate Thanksgiving — a trip, my aunt says, they knew would be her last. She passed away in December 2013, in San Francisco, the city she called home for more than 30 years.
During my own visit, Courtney showed me a corner of the house where she had a few of her mother’s works hanging. Courtney told me she meditated there to feel close to Grandmurai. She would speak to her mother, “sometimes just to catch her up.”
One afternoon we picked up my cousin, Jade, from her college in Leiden. Jade was a medical student and worked for a company coordinating organ transplants. During a tour of their house, I noticed in her room a small painting of a pink elephant done by Grandmurai. In my bedroom, halfway around the world, I had one of her pink elephant images hanging as well.
That night, Jade offered to cook a family dinner. She proposed something “super Dutch” — a meatball dish, served with potatoes and gravy. Gehaktballen is a comfort food I have since seen associated with both winter and grandmothers in online recipes. While it was not wintertime, it seemed fitting.
A true family meal that was created by two generations of women from two continents.
My friends helped set the table. My aunt, cousin, and I chopped shallots and potatoes, and mixed nutmeg, mustard, ground pepper, and bouillon into the meat before shaping it into somewhat consistently sized spheres.
We discussed our travels, the accomplishments of our family members, and school, before sitting down to the meal. It was the type of dish that stuck to your ribs. Food that left you feeling full, warm, and happy.
It only took one glass of wine before the Grandmurai stories began to flow. Handmade coats. Multi-colored hair. Paint-stained hands. She traveled the world alone and never stopped attending school. She always endeavored to learn more about life and the world. Grandmurai lived life on her own terms, never once adhering to society’s expectations of her.
Grandmurai once said Viktor IV “sparked a desire to embrace life as an art form.” Sometimes this is easy to find in, say, a sunset boat ride down the Amsterdam canals, or in the rows and rows of spring tulips on the Dutch countryside.
Sometimes, the art lies in forming meat into balls and laughing over old memories, and a spilled glass of wine with people you love.
Shelby Davis has called Minneapolis home for seven years. She is a recent graduate from The College of Charleston in South Carolina, with a BA in Creative Writing. She is pursuing a writing career, focused on food and travel. When she is not writing, she’s serving at Ramen Kazama or sailing on Bde Maka Ska.