Faces of Sonoma - Winter 2012
She doesn’t take up much room, the diminutive woman with the heart-shaped face. Perhaps 59 inches of vertical airspace, maybe 99 pounds of pressure in her tread. The voice, too, is a tiny little thing, a reedy soprano with a sweet lilt on the whole notes.
When you’re born small, as Jessica Zoutendijk was, bigger things have a way of swallowing your footprint. Your outline tends to be subsumed by the giants around you. First, it was an electrically charged father who overshadowed Zoutendijk; next, a bohemian husband who fancied the bold stroke.
She is Dutch, born the seventh child of eight. Five brothers topped the roster, with Zoutendijk and her two sisters as bookends. “That was before birth control,” she explains matter-of-factly. “My parents tried to have less, but...” She scrunches narrow shoulders and laughs happily, and it rings through the room like a piccolo.
Zountendijk has not gathered much moss in her time; her narrative reads a bit like a novel. When she was three, her father swapped Amsterdam for New Guinea.
“I barely remember the house that we lived in. I remember the yard, all the wild things there. When it rained, a river came through the yard. It was very exotic,” Zountendijk says of those four years.
When the island’s political structure deteriorated overnight, the Zountendijks were forced to flee. “We left everything,” Zountendijk says. “We had to go on a ship. Lots of Chinese on that ship. I remember,” she continues, her eyes vivid with imprints collected in the wonder of childhood, “that the Chinese would take their cup of tea, pour the tea into a saucer, and drink from the saucer.”
Three ships, two months and countless cups of tea later, after the Suez Canal, after Alexandria, the family found itself back in Holland again, buttoned up against the coldest winter on record. “We couldn’t believe the amount of clothes you had to wear just to stay warm! Nobody liked that.”
So—Suriname. “And there we all went again. We loved Suriname, it was wonderful. We stayed there for 12 years.” Her brothers came of age while her formidable father made his trademarked grand gestures: Jessica Zoutendijk quietly took it all in. “In a family so large you have a few hams and you have a few quiet ones. I was more of an observer,” she says. Remembering her girlhood, an iconic American TV image comes to mind. “That Beverly Hillbillies truck,” she says, smiling. “Too many people, too much stuff.”
Back in Amsterdam at 19, Zoutendijk enrolled in a dance academy. “Modern and contemporary,” she says, offering nothing further. Nights, she worked in a small coffee shop, and it was there that the next big character strode into her life.
Paul Terwilliger was an American free spirit idling in Europe, and in Jessica Zoutendijk he saw a perfect foil. “My dad had helped me buy a houseboat, and I lived in the canals by myself. No electricity, no running water. Very romantic, or so I thought at the time. Paul would have coffee or food at the shop where I worked, and he asked me out one time. We went to the movies and that was about it. We stayed together ever since.”
In the decades that followed, Zoutendijk played a supporting role to Terwilliger’s lead, always the wingman, the sidekick, the reliever. And then one day she broke out in a feverish rash: eczema and psoriasis covered her small frame. “ I think it’s the attempt of a sensitive person to grow elephant skin,” she says quietly. “To make it ugly so maybe it won’t come in. I had to walk away in order to hear myself. I could hear Paul and everybody else, but I needed to know what I had inside. You have to walk your own path. If there’s a big trauma, you kind of get stuck. I had this amazing dad and this incredible, imposing husband. My whole life had been very exotic but also very traumatic, and I needed to deal with the issues by myself.”
The couple separated houses but amicably continue their professional collaboration, producing artisan leather objects of every stripe in a small shop called “Large Leather.” “It’s a bit of a pun, you see?” Zountendijk says happily, her arms spread to encompass the little storefront directly on the Sonoma Plaza. “Small building, large leather.” The little woman with the big heart laughs happily, ready to embrace all the good things that wait.
From the 2012 Winter issue of SONOMA