Twenty years ago this month on a hot August day I drove my ’89 Ford Tempo (with no air conditioning) 268 miles north, following a procession of U-hauls and cars to my new hometown of Lynden, Washington.
We had only visited Lynden a couple times before the move. The first visit was late spring of ’97. My parents were in the front of the suburban and I was sandwiched in the back with my younger sister and two brothers.
We were hit with the smell before we hit the town. Lynden is known for it’s dairies and berries, which means spring is the season for spreading manure. “Oh GROSS! Roll up the windows! That is RIPE!” We were all gagging.
“Does it always smell like this?”
We looked at each other with wide eyes as Mom and Dad laughed at us. My brother Elijah, known to be slightly dramatic, closed his lips tightly. “I can taste it. It will actually get stuck in my teeth. You can CHEW it!”
“Do you think we’d get used to it smelling like this if we lived here?”
“No way. We better not. No way. Let’s always call it. If we always say “I smell that!” then we’ll never let ourselves get used to it.”
We couldn’t stop laughing. The tension and emotion of the unknown, the questions that needed answering that weekend to determine if we’d move from one end of Washington to another, bubbled up and came out as laughter as we watched cow shit spraying out of sprinklers.
Moving a week before my senior year of high school started was less than ideal and had plenty of heartbreak accompanying it, but still I was enamored with the little Dutch town we had landed in. Everything was closed on Sunday, but the cops were out ready to ticket people speeding to church. The lawns were immaculate. (Yes, the rumors are true–there are laws here about keeping your lawn under 7 inches.) The windmill on Front St. was charming. The entire town showed up for the high school football jamboree and there were an abnormal amount of tall blondes.
I’m Dutch but I didn’t grow up in a Dutch town. Arriving in Lynden had an interesting type of familiarity. The houses were immaculate like my grandma’s house. The Dutch Bakery had treats I recalled from holidays as a kid. The work ethic was admirable. I recognized the Dutch brogue in many of the older generation and it reminded me of sitting at my grandfather’s kitchen table.
Simultaneously, it was foreign. I was used to driving on the freeway and 25mph was stifling. After having Portland across the river, this tiny little border town felt sleepy and isolated. Starting a new school is hard at any age, but starting my senior year caused a level of detachment.
In addition, we had moved in hopes of a fresh start. Our family was going through bankruptcy and had lost our home, vehicles, and everything else of monetary value. Some investment dealings my dad was involved with had gone south and we lost the ensuing lawsuits. We were walking away from our huge family home on acreage that hosted countless friends and family, to a rental at the end of a cul-de-sac in a town full of strangers. We were all trying hard not to think about the losses and view it as an adventure. The worst was behind us.
We moved a lot as I was growing up and it taught me to not hesitate when getting involved in a new place. Our strategy was to jump in immediately, even if we felt like wallowing and hiding out. Lynden was no different. We joined the town at the football jamboree. We got involved in a church–my mom on worship team, my dad mentored by a pastor, I volunteered in children’s ministry. We pushed to get through that awkward new phase as fast as possible; inviting people over, exploring the shops downtown, and going for drives to learn the roads.
A couple months after our move we found out the worst wasn’t behind us after all. The civil trials were over but a criminal trial had opened, with the looming possibility that my dad would be sent to prison.
We were in a brand new town where we knew very few people, suddenly thrown into one of the hardest seasons of our lives. We weren't in just any new town...we were in a small town. My siblings and I joked about living in a town where no one has secrets. Everyone we met seemed to know our names already and we kept saying, “Don’t they have anything else to talk about around here!?” It wasn’t a place to hide and it wasn’t a place we could protect our reputation. My parents didn’t try to hide our legal trouble. Throughout the trial they shared with members of our new church and had groups of people supporting and praying for us.
By the time my dad was sentenced to a year in prison, I was living across the state attending college. I wondered what my mom would do in a fairly new place with my three siblings, all by herself. I wondered if if it had been a mistake to move where we didn’t have the family and long term support we had in our previous community.
The remarkable began to happen. My mom called to tell me stories about how she was taken care of. “You won’t believe this, but while I was gone today someone came and put a ton of groceries on the kitchen counter! I walked in the house and there were bags of groceries everywhere!”
“Looks like not locking your house pays off in Lynden!”
Coaches and other parents watched out for my siblings. Teachers checked in with my mom to see how she was faring. The schools were accommodating as everyone missed school frequently for weekend visits to the prison. That Christmas, someone put us on the Angel Tree. Yes, the tree where you take a tag off to buy a gift for a needy kid. I was “18 year old girl”. We used to buy gifts for “that family” and now we were “that family”. It was humbling. Yet the relief and thankfulness at seeing a pile of gifts arrive the week of Christmas cancelled out any pride.
Some types of hardship are harder to explain than others. Bankruptcy and prison are not fun to broadcast. I remember feeling like I should have a good defense; a good explanation so people would know we weren’t criminals or crazy people. Instead, in this small town known for having a church on every corner and conservative family values, we experienced grace and care. They were practical and didn’t make a big deal about meeting needs. The people I remember wrapping around our family didn’t need explanation and they weren’t given to gossip.
Don’t get me wrong–every community has it’s gossips and judgmental observers. The perk of a small town is how quickly you can pick out the gossips! I remember listening to my mom make the distinction, “Some people share information so they can better support you and be involved. In some room, our situation was discussed so that they could put our family on the Angel Tree. Someone shared enough information to get groceries onto our counter. Sharing that results in praying for us and helping us is fine with me. Gossip stops where it’s at. There’s no benefit in that.”
I had been worried about my mom’s loneliness but instead I watched her develop real friendships with people who took seriously, “Love God and love people”. They didn’t bail when it got rough. They leaned in closer.
I thought Lynden was a quick stop on my way to college and real life. Instead, it shaped me in a short amount of time. I experienced community. Not in an elusive way but in a tangible, “Let me mow your lawn. Let me carry your burdens. Let me drive your kid to practice” kind of way. It’s flawed (and oh, some love to spend time pointing out the flaws). Yet, it is where I learned the importance of contributing to something bigger than myself. I’ve watched people give not only to our community, but I’ve watched people from our town invest in third world countries long term–building schools, orphanages, and helping economies. I’ve watched Days for Girls start in our backyard and grow into an organization named by the Huffington Post as a ‘Next Ten’ organization poised to changed the world in the next decade. I’ve watched a businessman’s dream for a rundown building grow into a YWAM base for training young people. I’ve walked aside more families than I can count as they adopt children, foster children, and impact the way we educate people who have endured trauma. I've seen people rally for their own–families dealing with medical expenses, lost jobs, or house fires, being cared and provided for.
This tiny little border town has taught me that petty differences and conflicts aren’t worth it. The town’s too small to have a beef with too many people. Truthfully, there have been a few times I’d love to run away. Sometimes it’s nice when people know you and your life and sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it’s suffocating and requires sunglasses and baseball hats in the grocery store. Staying and pushing through has developed my character. Tight community requires abounding grace and true forgiveness. It’s caused me to work through hard things in relationships. When the restoration and celebration comes, it’s deeper and sweeter than it could be alone. Many people in Lynden have won my loyalty as they've loved me at my messiest.
Lynden isn't perfect. It's full of about 12,000 imperfect people. Fortunately, I didn’t move here to find a flawless place to live. I moved because my parents made me. It just happened to be a place that smelled like cow shit and felt like home.
I met an old-timer a couple weeks ago. He’s third generation from this area. He asked, “What’s your name?”
When old-timers ask, I know they’re looking for a connection and what family they can pin you to. If I don’t have time, the non-Dutch name “Taylor” stops the Dutch bingo game right there. I had time so I added, “Tadema is my maiden name.”
“Ah! Tadema!” He had a few things to say about that. “So how long have you lived here?”
I half smiled. “My family moved here in 1997.”
Then I braced myself for it…
“You’re a newbie!”
A shrug and a sigh.
“Yes. That’s right. Twenty years. Total newbie.”
Just throwing myself out there a bit...