Friday, May 14, 2021

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Joe's Neighborhood

A graduation gift of 3 stories


Listen, I don’t have an actual gift. And of course I missed both parties. Not to mention seeing them walk across the stage. But I’m an ocean away as my friends’ boys graduate from Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. It’s a big deal. Will and Henry Gunderson and Eli Dotson are their names.

I’m the first to admit I’ve really never been part of their lives. But I was there at the beginning for the Gunderson boys. A wild time was had with those twins (and the third brother who followed so quickly he could have been holding their heels at birth). Those tiny babies took my friend to the mat. Hard. But she survived with grace and style. And my other friend’s boy of course had a health scare early on. Every family gets one it seems. But I wonder if the gods counted on my friend’s fierceness? I don’t think so. They won’t underestimate her again. Of course all the boys thrived. How could they not when they were wrapped in laughter and love? And now they’ve graduated from high school. Bright stars all.

But what now?

I have three stories to tell them.

The first is sobering as all first stories should be. While walking around Sarajevo, my wife and I came across a statue of man with hands cupped around his mouth, calling to someone.joes1 6.9 The statue was in a beautiful park that had been partially turned into a cemetery, as most open land was turned into in this town that was under siege for an entire war. He seemed out of place. Something was wrong about this statue being here. The grey and the mud and the hollow eyes were more of death than life.

Prep Iowa

My wife knew the story already, had reviewed the actual Serb video. But I read the sign posted off to the side. The man’s name is Ramo. He is in Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. He is a Bosnian Muslim. He has been captured by the Christian Serbs. He is calling to his son Nermin to come out of the hills and surrender to the Serbs. He is shouting that they will not harm him, that all will be well.

And Nermin comes out of the hills.

The end of the story is not hard to guess, especially when you know that hate loves to cloak itself in piety and nationalism and justice. The posted sign states:

“Exhumation teams found Ramo and his son Nermin in a mass grave near Srebrenica.”

The middle story is about work and family, as the middle has to be. It takes place in Holland. I was walking the cobblestone streets of Haarlem with my sister-in-law when we came upon a wonderful old bookstore hidden among storefronts from the 1500s. The smell of ancient books and clutter and musk wafted out the door. A heady brew.

“I have been in this book store 50 years. It is a long time.”

Paul Vernout is thin and wiry and grey and tall. A long crease on each side of his face runs from the middle of his nose to his mouth. His chin is firmly set. A high, lined forehead and large, observant eyes peer out of glasses. A character out of a novel.

“It is a nice bookstore. I am a big reader about history and art and about Haarlem.”

Vernout smiles for the first time. He is unsure of his English. Clearly, he is exactly where he belongs. Happy among his books. In love with his work. My guess is that he will die standing behind the counter.

How did this job start for you?

“I was 21 when I started.”

And your father?

“My father worked here.”

Really? And his father?

“My grandfather worked here.”

Are you being serious? And his father?

“My great-grandfather worked here.”


May I take a picture of you?

“Ahhhh… not important.”

Of course it isn’t when you’re one in a long chain of family and work and love. Or is it?

The last is about dreams, as last stories ought to be. joes2 6.9This time in Lille, France. We stumble upon a shop displaying hats of mesh and silk and ribbons and weaves and banana leaves and wool. Amazing creations. My wife and her sister are soon oohing and aahing and trying on hat after hat. Sarazin Chapeaux the business is called.

So, Nathalie Sarazin, how did this start?

“My family with me and brother, we lived in the same rooms, and my father is the first to have a suit for work. I was 3 or 4 years old. I brought a pair of scissors, and I cut the trousers because I imagined how the trousers should be. My father and mother say it was a little twisted. They give me the next day to see the doctors.”

Sarazin apologizes for her English, which is light years beyond my French, and then slowly smiles at the memory of her creative work on her dad’s suit pants.

And what did the doctors say?joes3 6.9

“The doctors was saying, ‘No, she is not mad. But she has to play with the cloth.’ ”

So, after years of schooling and study and apprenticeship — “playing with the cloth” as the doctors ordered — Sarazin was ready to open her own hat shop.

“Once I had 23-24 age, I said I wanted to make the hats for myself. My father said ‘no’ because not enough money.”

Sarazin forged ahead anyway. Now, years later, Sarazin makes hats for the various queens of Belgium, for the children of the King of Spain, and, yup, even Princess Caroline of Monaco. And let’s not forget you and me.

And what of your father?

“My father does not think I’m mad any more.”

There you go, boys. Take the stories for what you want. They’re yours. A gift from me to you.

And now?

Don’t ask me.

Go write your own stories. CV


Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is once again assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands.JoeWeegBW He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at

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