Ealse & the Swan: Origin Story

The memoir. The children’s book. The blog.

Collage: Jitske Wadman

Collage: Jitske Wadman

I know these things because I watched with my own eyes. This is the only fairy tale I know of that actually happened…
— From the essay "Oom Ealse & the Swan"

From the day I first told my father that I wanted to pursue a career in writing, he said, “You should write down the story of my friend Ealse and the wild swan! It’s perfect. Just write it.” I began to tinker with the story fresh out of graduate school, but struggled to capture its magic in a way that satisfied me. I did not know anything about farm life, swans, or Friesland, the province in the northern part of the Netherlands where Ealse and my father were from. Since I’d been young, this story had come to me in bits and pieces that sparked light like shards of broken glass, but the edges were jagged and did not fit together. How could I glue them into a mosaic? I began to interview my father, asked him questions in letters and on the phone, filled a notebook with scraps of memories of Ealse and Janke Wadman, their farm, their children, and the swan.

It took more than a decade to complete a slightly fictionalized essay of 8,000 words. On a whim, I sent it to The Missouri Review, barely making the midnight deadline for the Editor’s Prize. I was utterly surprised when I received a letter from the Associate Editor, Evelyn Somers, telling me that the essay was one of the finalists in the contest. She wrote, “I read all the essays every year, and the highlight is finding essays like yours. I winnowed the top pieces down from 50 out of around 500, to 20 to 12, and then to 5, and your essay charmed me and made the cut down to the very last 4. It's a lovely piece.”

One day not long after, I received a friendly message in my inbox, inquiring if I were the daughter of Zacharias Doetjes. I replied that I was. One of Ealse and Janke’s youngest twin sons, Piet, and a granddaughter, Jitske, had found my story online. Our families had lost touch after the death of my father in 2008. Now we instantly started a correspondence. I knew that Ealse was no longer alive, but Piet let me know that his mother, Janke, had recently passed away as well. Piet sent me the original story about the swan written by his mother. It was composed in Frisian with Dutch translation. I could decipher quite a bit of the Frisian because I’d heard the language so often as a child when my father talked to Ealse and his other Frisian friends on the phone.

Reading this charming first-hand account made me realize how much I’d imagined, not knowing the entire story, though the essential elements were the same. Jitske wrote me that my essay had sparked her imagination. The images stayed with her. She and I began a correspondence. It turned out that we had a lot in common: she was an artist and teacher., I a poet/writer and teacher. My father, her grandfather, and her uncle had been best friends in college. Her grandparents and my parents knew each other well, and as a child I’d visited her family’s homestead in Tytsjerk. At that time, my sister and I had played in hay with her father and his brothers and received piles of Barbie clothes hand-made with utter care by her aunts. Ealse’s eldest daughter, the aunt Jitske was named after, was the one who had died right before Ealse had came upon the wild swan that had followed him everywhere for years.

Both Jitske and I continue to be gripped by the story of her pake (grandfather in Frisian) and the wild swan, so we recently decided to collaborate and retell the story in the form of a children’s book. She will illustrate; I will write. On this blog, I will post updates as we progress, so please check back in! You can also check out the “PROSE” page on this site (under “WORK” in the menu) for an introduction to this project and all the updates, for the blog will automatically post to that page as well.