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Column: Finding family where you least expect it

By Brenna Visser

The Daily Astorian

Published on September 1, 2017 12:01AM

Brenna Visser

Brenna Visser

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There’s something special about small-town living.

That something special is a phenomenon I found myself defending when I made the decision to move to the Oregon Coast. I was halfway through my last quarter of college in Bellingham, Washington, when I took the job with the newspaper more than six months ago, and the announcement was usually met with either some jealous statement about an opportunity to live on the beach, or some form of this question:

“Why there? It’s so small. Do you have connections down there?”

They meant connections in a vague sense — professional, personal, familial or otherwise. Six months ago, my answer was “no.”

Deep down, I was nervous to leave all my friends and family for somewhere unknown. But then I would line up my defenses. I grew up in a small town, so I know what to expect. You connect with people stronger and more quickly, I would argue.

So what if there’s no big strip malls or large concert venues? So what if most of the bars and restaurants close by 10 p.m.? I had faith in having that small-town, family-like culture carry me through.

Turns out I was wrong. I did have a connection to the North Coast. It took me physically moving here to discover I had a whole branch of extended family I never knew existed. And I found my family through a series of conversations and connections that only a small town could provide.

For those of you reading and wondering: yes, I am related to longtime North Coast residents Dan and Sharon Visser, and their kids Jennifer, Julie and Lori Visser.

I was first tipped off to their existence when sources would ask me if I went to Seaside High School, or if my name was Jennifer. Apparently we look similar. They would ask if I was one of the “local Vissers” in town, and each time I would answer that I wasn’t sure. After this happened five or six times, I decided to figure out who these “local Vissers” were to be able to answer these inquiries.

When I asked my parents about being related to someone named Jennifer, the answer was more or less “plausible.” The description sounded like the daughter of my dad’s cousin, but he wasn’t sure.

If at this point you are wondering how I could not be aware of an entire branch of my family, it may be worthy to note, I haven’t met a large portion of Vissers related to me because my grandfather’s generation had 10 siblings. Many live all over the country, and when each of those siblings have babies, and those babies have babies, the number of Vissers to keep track of starts to become quite the task.

Sorting it out

To sort the local connections out, I found one of my colleagues was a mutual friend with Jennifer Visser. I sent her message saying I thought there was a chance we were related.

Around this same, an article about my arrival ran in The Daily Astorian, which listed the fact I grew up in Wenatchee, Washington, where a sizable portion of the “Visser clan” still live. Between Sharon reading the article and the timing of the Facebook message, dots were connected and before I knew it I had received an invitation to Easter dinner from my new-found family.

I showed up the next day with a bottle of wine and a lot of questions. We had 22 years to make up for, anyway. Over the course of dinner, we found that Dan was my dad’s cousin, and our grandfathers were twins. I left Easter with fewer questions and five new lovely people to call family.

Looking back, it’s uncanny to think of all the intersecting, moving parts that lead to this culmination of events. I often wonder if this situation had unfolded in a place like Los Angeles or New York would I have ever met this family.

One of my greatest fears moving here was the possibility of feeling lonely. But by moving here I not only was able to connect with biological family, but also with the tight-knit North Coast community that allowed me to find them in the first place. There is a lot of power in knowing your neighbor, and in small towns like this, a lot of impact.

And taking the energy to know your neighbor is what makes small-town living so special.


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