Just over forty years ago my grandfather, Arend Schuil--Opa, as we used to call him—put on a heavy apron, picked up his sheers, and cut into a piece of rawhide. He knew what he was doing, since he had spent his life cutting leather to make the special orthopedic shoes he sold to customers all over the Netherlands. But now that he was retired, the shoe molds and rubber soles that used to fill his shop were long gone. Instead of leather uppers, this time he cut the leather to make wallets for his grandchildren. I received mine, my last gift from him, in 1967.
I still have that wallet in a drawer of my desk. I keep special papers in it. Opa sewed it together using tiny, perfectly symmetrical, stitches. Even now, the leather is soft and supple—the softest thing I own.
I only met him twice, for a few weeks each time, on his rare visits to Canada. He taught me to play chess on long summer afternoons under a shade tree beside our house. We didn’t talk much, since my Dutch was poor and his English non-existent. Still, it never felt awkward. Quiet with him was restful, relaxed and happy.
Genealogy is my hobby, so by studying old church and civil documents in the Netherlands, I’ve learned that my Opa’s ancestors had been making shoes in the Dutch province of Groningen for the better part of three hundred years. But now my wallet is the only tangible link I have left to all those centuries of toil.
I’ve also learned that some Schuils wanted more out of life than making shoes. Among my great- and great-great grandparents there was one who helped buy a new house for the local preacher. Others were volunteer organists and choir directors. My grandfather would have loved to become a preacher himself.
But back then most people didn’t have a choice about what they would do with their lives. Formal education was a luxury. Most people did what their fathers did; you took up the business and learned as unpaid child labor. And that was if your family had a trade. My grandfather on the Suk side had to quit school to work the potato fields as a day laborer by the time he was eleven or twelve. His father peddled groceries door to door out of a dog cart. They got by, but sometimes only barely.
And my wallet reminds me of all that. My wallet is like a hinge, really. It connects me—with all my opportunities, choice, and postgraduate education—to an era in the very recent past when what you did with your life, workwise, wasn’t a unique “calling” you had the luxury of making a decision about. No, in those days, people didn’t have “callings.” They had “tellings,” and did as told, workwise, whether they wanted to or not.
That wallet reminds me that having the opportunity to go to school, and choose a career is a big privilege. Thinking back on my family history, my hope is that my grandkids will understand just how great a privilege that choice is. Of course, they’ll have to study hard borrow money and work hard to make their dreams come to pass—but I’ll urge them to do so.