By: Tina G. Rubin
I had just landed my first international writing assignment and it was turning out to be a dud. I’d come 5,000 miles to cover one of Holland’s historic windmills, and it wasn’t even working.
“You have to run them weekly, or they deteriorate,” Jaantje Bloembergen told me. But she hadn’t turned hers on in a year.
The April day I parked my car at the windmill Jaantje and her husband had converted into living space, she was in high spirits. Her tangle of gray hair framed a smiling, ruddy face. I took to her immediately.
“Come,” she said, extending an arm, and walked me briskly around her “yard,” a grassy spit of land next to the canal. “Holland is below sea level,” she said in lilting English, “so we have the windmills! They pump water from the canals. Without them, the North Sea”—she pointed northwest—“would submerge us.” I looked in the direction of her finger, but all I could see were repeating rows of canals and windmills stretching across the landscape like an infinity mirror.
Then Jaantje showed me a rope lashed to one of the windmill blades. “Try to pull this,” she said, and stood back, arms folded across her chest. I took the rope in my bare hands. I’m strong, and the wind was blowing, so I expected the blades to turn. I pulled hard. They didn’t budge. Jaantje laughed. “I used to do that every week,” she said.
I stifled a groan. Could I even get a story out of this? Would I ever get another assignment? My writing career was starting to feel like this windmill, stalled. Maybe my father had been right.
It was his well-intentioned words one Sunday morning that dashed my hopes of ever being a writer. I was sixteen and sitting at our living room desk, filling out college applications. He came into the room, put a hand on my back, and looked to see what I was working on. When he recognized the applications, he squeezed my shoulder. “Do you know what you want to major in?” he asked. His voice was smiling.
“English,” I said brightly. “I’m going to be a writer.” Just that month I had sent three article ideas out to big magazines. I knew what I wanted. My father’s hand withdrew from my shoulder. The energy in the room turned icy. I spun around to face him. “That’s no good,” he said. “Writers are a dime a dozen. If you want to make money, you’ll have to be better than all of them. You should be a teacher. That’s the smart thing to do. You’ll have summers off to spend with your husband. If you end up divorced, at least you’ll have a good career to fall back on.”
I couldn’t find breath. I groped for balance between the world I had just left and this unfamiliar one. What had I been thinking? Of course, I wouldn’t be a better writer than all the others.
So, I did that smart thing and became a teacher. But my compulsion to write did not go gentle into that good night.
Jaantje showed me around the ground floor of the windmill—or rather, pointed to it: a simple, circular living room and kitchen surrounded us. We sat down at her café table for a cup of coffee before moving on to the upper floors. I was still slogging through the slush of discouragement, but the aromatic Dutch coffee worked on me like an elixir.
After some small talk, Jaantje sighed. “You know about my husband, yes?” She gazed out the tiny window toward the canal.
Yes. My contact at the Dutch Press Relations Bureau, Odette Taminieau, had alerted me when I arrived. The spring before, Jaantje’s husband had been out mowing the lawn when one of the windmill’s nine-ton blades struck and killed him. She hadn’t turned it on since. “It’s a sticky situation,” Odette said. “Yes, this is one of the last operating historic windmills in the Netherlands. No, we can’t ask her to run it. That would be insensitive.” The news sent me reeling. Why hadn’t the bureau given this information to my editor before I left?
Now Jaantje was bringing the subject up herself, and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. Could I let go of my disappointment enough that she wouldn’t notice it? The last thing I wanted to do was offend this lovely woman who had experienced such pain. I took a breath and went with my heart. “Tell me about him,” I said.
She explained with a small smile that he had been a physicist who taught at the local university. It was a second marriage for both. They had still been madly in love, even after fifteen years together. “So, you see why I haven’t been able to turn it on,” she said.
I put my hand on her gnarled one.
On the fifth level of the windmill, the small rounded top, we stood in a room no bigger than a closet. Inches in front of us, the interlocking wooden wheels of the mill mechanism loomed. “I want to show you how you would get it going,” she said, gesturing toward the apparatus with a small tub of what appeared to be butter in one hand and a dirty pink rag in the other. The butter looked viscous; the large wheel, frozen in time. The way I felt. Maybe it had been foolish of me to change careers after eight years as a remedial reading teacher. I should have stuck with it. I was doing something of value for those kids, not standing here in a closet with a stalled windmill and a nonexistent story.
“First lubricate the small wheel. . . .” Jaantje turned to me. She must have seen the look of defeat on my face, because her next statement startled me. “You’ve come all the way from America,” she said, her voice decisive. “I don’t want to disappoint you. I’m going to turn it on.”
Turn it on! I inhaled sharply. What if it doesn’t work? She’ll be devastated.
I thought about stopping her, but Jaantje had already dipped her rag into the lubricant and was applying it to the wheels. Then, with gardening gloves, she grasped the smaller wheel and tugged it around and around. It seemed unlikely, but the larger wheel slowly began to move, then pick up speed. The windmill creaked awake, like an old man after a thousand-year sleep. Within seconds, through the tiny, ancient window, we saw the blades whiz by. Grins plastered our faces. Jaantje gave me a high five.
Thrilled, I closed the door behind us and we started down the spiral staircase. This time, Jaantje’s step had more of a bounce. As we rounded the landing on the third floor, the doorbell rang. “Who could that be?” she wondered aloud. “I’m not expecting anyone.” Then she literally sprinted downstairs. “Take your time coming down,” she shouted up to me.
In that moment of solitude, I couldn’t help but think about my assignment to document how this couple lived in their restored, working windmill. There had to be a bigger story here, but I didn’t see it. I contemplated “The windmill works; Holland’s heritage is saved.” A dime a dozen, my father’s words rang in my ears. I still wasn’t going to be better than all the rest.
By the time I got downstairs, three of Jaantje’s neighbors stood in the kitchen, laden with packages of cakes, crackers, cheeses, and liqueurs. They gestured and wiped at their tears as melodious words flew. Jaantje pulled glasses and plates from the cupboard and introduced us, translating for me. From their homes across the canal, her neighbors saw the blades of her windmill turning. One called the other to share the news. Jaantje had been despondent for so long, they knew something big must have happened. They came directly to see what it was.
“It was you,” Jaantje told me. “The American journalist.”
She poured us glasses of oranjebitters, and the rest of the afternoon we ate, drank, and chatted as neighbors continued to stream in with gifts of food and drink. With each new arrival, Jaantje repeated the story, clasping my hand or hugging me. Each one turned to me and tearfully said the same thing: “Thank you to the American journalist who gave our friend back her life.”
I couldn’t have hoped for a better assignment. It enabled me to serve a purpose beyond just writing a story. In being there, I had helped Jaantje reclaim her life, and in turn, she helped me put my own into perspective. Because of her, I realized that my work as a writer mattered. Not just because I could make a living doing something I loved, but because the stories I wrote impacted others . . . and the stories themselves impacted me.
My piece was published in the L.A. Times Sunday magazine section and launched an international series for me on lifestyles abroad. Not every story I covered was as meaningful as Jaantje’s, but I always tried to make heart-to-heart connections. I realized that I didn’t have to be better than all the rest, like my father had said. I just had to keep writing. My articles grew into a pile on my father’s desk, and eventually he told me he was proud of me. Like that windmill, I had a purpose, and it wasn’t too late to fulfill it.
Tina Rubin holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She’s written six coffee-table books on cities and states, and her work has appeared in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Vegetarian Times, Better Nutrition, and The Citron Review. Creator of the online journal Travel by the Books, she tweets at twitter.com/travelbythbooks