Thursday, January 3, 2013

One Red Thread

One Red Thread - Blind Pilot

   The Sinterklaas extravaganza in our living room proved to be an exhausting event, deemed as such by the struggle which ensued to put our children to bed that evening.  Between the height of the excitement and the melt-down of the children’s moods that followed, the inevitable frustration between parents and children, which sometimes results in taking-it-out-on-but-not-meaning-to-take-it-out-on-you verbal combat with the spouse, I decided I needed a walk to catch my breath.  It’s been cold here in Leiden, but not too cold (which, I’m proud to say my Texas blood has thickened and I feel sort of comfortable in 40F weather).  I grabbed a couple of grocery bags and headed to our local Jumbo grocery store.  If you’re going for a walk, you might as well be productive, and besides, happiness is defined as a full tank of gas (or at least used to be when I drove. . .) and a full fridge.   The walk, the crisp winter air, and the grocery shopping sans kids helped shake off any remaining negativity and I was in a healthy good mood by the time I returned. 
  I unlocked the door and started walking towards the kitchen.  The door to the family room was closed but I could hear V talking into the phone, “Yes, this is . . . . you called?”  He used his full name, which was unusual.  We receive very few phone calls in this house as most of our correspondence is conducted via e-mail or skype, and the few calls we receive are from people to whom we do not need to introduce ourselves.  With confusion and an eaves-dropping ear, I nervously started to unpack the groceries.  I knew something was wrong.  Very wrong.   I stood like a motionless bystander as I watched him hang up the phone, rest his hands on the table, and take a breath.  After the exhalation, his hands covered his eyes and his shoulders started to shake.  Anything that was stressing us out before that moment, the typical marriage/family stresses – finances, kids, job, etc. disappeared and my heart melted.  No longer an audience member watching and waiting to see what comes next, I crossed the room in large strides and jumped on stage.  “Oma is dead,” he said to me, “That was the police.  They found her in her apartment today.”  An overwhelming sense of sadness and dread entered my body.  I embraced him tightly and told him I was so sorry.
  I had only met Oma a handful of times.  She lived in Gouda, The Netherlands and during my husband’s childhood, she and Opa braved the yearly pilgrimage across the big ocean to spend a month visiting my husband’s family in Louisiana during the Christmas holiday season.  After Opa’s passing in 1996, she no longer endured the journey, afraid to make it on her own.  V’s mother passed away, Oma’s only child, a few weeks after we had started dating, a little over 8 years ago now, which furthered the distance between Oma and America.  With V’s mother gone and with no other known relatives on his mother’s side, we both felt it was important to spend time with Oma during our visit to The Netherlands, 3 ½ years ago.  It was a business trip for V and I had tagged along.  It was a sunny, pleasant day in July 2009.  We took the train from Rotterdam to Gouda and walked the few blocks to her home.  The road was full of connected, square houses which looked like they were built in the 1970s, void of the typical Dutch charm.  We found her house and while my husband knocked anxiously, my palms also started to sweat.  We were already married, but first-time-meeting-the-parents-high-school-jitters consumed me.  Thankfully, she welcomed us with open arms and a cheerful smile.  In her broken English and my husband’s broken Dutch we managed a conversation about the weather, our visit to The Netherlands so far, V’s family, and probably breakfast.  She smoked inside her home and I noticed the faint cigarette smell and a slight yellowing of the wallpaper, but none of it dimmed the smile she gave me, her husband’s new wife.  “You so skinny!” she said to me.  I smiled back.   
   I remember her busying herself around the kitchen, making us bitter coffee in delicate, tiny china cups.  “Jaaaaa, soooooo!” she said repeatedly, which made me laugh.  Yearning for more information about the mother-in-law I never knew, we gently coaxed questions about V’s mother, but were met with resistance.  Disappointed, but understandable, I reasoned.  It’s her only daughter and she’s no longer here.  We moved on.   She fed us Vienna sausages and I swallowed the first and only hot-dog-like-substance I had eaten in 20 years and since.  No need to disappoint grand-mother-in-law on first visit, I told myself.  We thanked her for the coffee and sausages and made plans to meet her again for breakfast a few days later, but we’d bring breakfast.  We returned on a bright summer morning with gifts of fresh fruit and beschuit (Dutch toast).  As the sun slanted brightly through the laced windows, we sat at her tiny dining table perched atop spindly chairs while Oma pulled photos from a drawer.  Absent of words, she was ready to at least show us some photos of her past, of her grown daughter.  We waved goodbye again, for an undetermined amount of time and I saw a small sadness in her eyes as we departed.
  My excitement of being close to Oma followed my husband’s announcement that we were moving to The Netherlands.  In my naiveté, I even envisioned visiting her via the train with her two great-grandkids during the day (like I had visited my own grandmother when I was on maternity leave in Dallas) while my husband worked.   This was before I realized the challenge of juggling two kids, much less the logistical challenges of getting kids on a train. . . Either way, we visited her a month into our adventure in The Netherlands.  It was a cold, grey day in February.  It was around 4:00 p.m. and the sun was already setting.  When we entered her house, it was void of the sunshine I had seen previously.  Oma had a warm smile, but it was reserved.  She did not walk as well as she had before, but she had a walker that she used to walk to the grocery store down the street regularly.  During one of her daily grocery runs, she had purchased a Barbie-like-doll for Baby Girl and a stuffed Panda for Little Man.  She gave them these gifts with pleasure.  After being in The Netherlands for a month, I could already recognize and appreciate the effort she had to have taken to walk herself with her walker to the store, purchase these blessings, and carry them home.  It was no small task for an 84-year-old.   Baby Girl ran around her yellowed apartment, fingering the ancient teacups at toddler-eye-level while my husband and I jumped, chased, and nervously conducted half-attentive conversation.  Oma’s hair was a little greasy and the spark was gone from her eyes.  She was happy enough to see us, but in retrospect, something was wrong.  I knew it, but with a three and a 21-month old, had barely had the focus to address it. 
  “What do you mean, the police found her?” I asked my husband, once he had regained his composure.  “Oma had a caretaker that visited her every two weeks for the past 8 years,” he forlornly explained, “apparently there was no answer at the door.  The caretaker peeked through the windows and saw her legs in the hallway and called the police.  They had to break the back window to get to her.”  A cantaloupe was starting to form in my stomach and was pushing itself upwards.  I’m sure my husband was trying to keep a watermelon down.  “Oh my God,” was all I could say.  “According to the mail on the floor. . .” he swallowed, I could almost see the black seeds in his mouth, “ . . . it had been a few days.”  He immediately started to berate himself.  “If only. . . I tried. . . we should have. . . I could have tried harder. . .”  I shook my head.  We had not seen her since that chilly visit in February.  He had called.  He had tried to invite himself over.  We wanted to see her.  She was only 35 minutes away.  After a lifetime of a world apart, she always turned him down.  “Nee,” she would say.  “I do not feel well, maybe another time,” she’d explain.  “Maybe she really doesn’t feel well – I’ve been pregnant twice and I know when I did not feel well, there was little anyone else could do to get me out of the house and be social. . .” I explained, but deep down, I felt that, perhaps, there was something more.  Oma welcomed me and V with open arms when we were newlywed and carefree.  But once we appeared in her house with two children, I could not help the feeling that maybe Baby Girl reminded her too much of her own daughter, clearly a reasonably touchy subject.  “It takes two,” I continued attempting to shower V with reason; “She knew you wanted to see her.  She turned you down after every offer to see her.  She could have called you and said, ‘today is good, please come here’, and she never did.  I think there was something more and out of your control.” 
  The next day, after calling a friend in a panic and explaining to please help herself to whatever she needed in our house and thanking her repeatedly, V and I left our kids during naptime to venture to the Gouda police station.  We carefully tromped through an icy, slushy parking lot.  As we stood behind a red-taped line on the floor, awaiting our turn, I held V’s hand and tried to half-heartedly smile up at him.  We were led into a private room where we were met by a pleasant-looking blonde middle-aged woman.  I could tell she was sharp, sympathetic, and thorough in her job.  She apologized for her broken English, which of course, like everyone here, was amazing, and we had no problems communicating.   She explained many things to us – how she had been unable to locate the Will so far, and that it appeared that it would take 24 hours, that the caretaker thought the Will was in her home, but without it, the police could not give us the keys to look for it.  She explained that she had been in Oma’s home, and asked if we were aware that Oma had been a bit of a ‘hoarder’ (did she pick that word up from American t.v.?).   She said that the caretaker knew of no other friends or family, and that inevitably, V, because he was an heir and living in The Netherlands, would probably be deemed executor of the state by Dutch law, but that we would know more the next day – after the will had been found.  We could have the choice, of letting the State take care of everything – funeral, burial, but then they too, would also resume responsibility for everything – debts and savings accounts.  She told us that the common trend was for people of our parents generations to have their wills, wishes, funeral insurance, etc. sorted out – but for the grandparent’s generation. . . not so much.  Our heads were spinning by the time we trekked out of the police station and back to the car.  There were just too many unknowns.  We would have to wait until the first domino fell to determine the next plan of action. 
  We received a call from the notary the next day – the Will had been found, and it was dated 1969.  “I wasn’t even born until 1978,” V explained to the notary.  “Well, good,” he smartly replied, “at least you know you weren’t written out of it.”  A Will dated in 1969 which leaves everything to your husband who died in 1996 meant that Dutch law would take precedence. 
  We booked the babysitter and headed to Gouda police station again two days later to get the keys to the house.  The weekend police station attendant handed us the death certificate as well – “You’ll need this,” she explained.  We gulped and thanked her.  We pulled up to Oma’s house as the sun was setting with trepidation flowing through our veins.  Like so many things I’ve experienced in The Netherlands, “I never would have guessed. . . if you had told me. . .” the words of the police station attendant rang in my ears, “She was a bit of a hoarder.  The apartment is a bit of a mess. . . newspapers everywhere. . .” As soon as we parked and headed forebodingly towards her house, Oma’s next door neighbor was out on the sidewalk – Wisteria Lane style.  She must have been staring out her window 24-7 for a week straight.  Welcoming any distraction that prevented me from entering Oma’s ‘bit of a mess’ house where her poor body lay unattended for days, I greeted the neighbor like I was the First Lady.  “Hello!” I said with smile gleaming and outstretched hand, “I am Celeste. . . and this is my husband. . . he is the grandson of . . .” she conveyed her condolences and we started to put together the pieces of the puzzle we had clumsily received.  She spoke to us in fragmented English, “no friends, no family – we tried, us, in the neighborhood, to talk, but she turned away.  No one visited.  Oh wait – I met you, months ago.  Two children, yes?”  This woman loved to look out her window.  We thanked her, mostly for the interruption and the human connection, and headed to Oma’s apartment.  My husband unlocked the door. 
  I gagged on the cigarette smoke that permeated from the walls and the other scents in the apartment – dust – so much dust and rotten bananas – for the rest of my life I will equate rotten bananas to death.  The lights were on – yellow lightbulbs.  Her last breakfast lay on the table – the table where we ate Vienna sausages and beschuit years earlier.  Her walker was in the kitchen.  A delicate tea cup with remnants of the last sip was on the coffee table.  Dirty yellow hues surrounded me, oppressed me.  Shoes on the floor, newspapers on the couch, and clothes lay on a chair.  I desperately tried to open the window for air.  It was locked.
  In the dying light of the day and the awful amber hues of the lamps – we threw ourselves into action – it was all we could do.  We snapped on the rubber kitchen gloves we bought at the grocery store and pulled our energy, focused on the task at hand.  We rummaged through drawers, unlocked cabinets, threw anything we thought could be potentially helpful into bags – of course, all documents were in Dutch.  There were bank statements from the 1960s.  Every piece of mail she had received for half a century was in her house.  I could not look at the food in the kitchen and on the table.  I could not bring myself to throw anything away, like I had hoped.  I could not even venture past the living room into the bedrooms.  After an hour, our nerves and consciousness frazzled, we fled the scene like the bandits we were, to go home, pay the babysitter, put the kids to bed, open a bottle of wine, and google-translate the documents we had found.  It was a crazy Saturday night.       
    The mortician came to our house a few days later.  We scheduled her with hopes of the kids’ cooperating with a synchronized nap-time and to our amazement, the timing worked out perfectly.  As V and I uneasily sipped tea, we attended to the business at hand.  We first learned about the burial options in The Netherlands.  The only information the caretaker had known was that Oma wanted to be buried, not cremated.  We had no idea where.  We had asked the police station if there was a record of where V’s Opa had been buried but she was not sure if such a public database existed.  Oma’s family was buried in her town, but she had had a falling-out with whatever family she had left and after the mortician called the cemetery, she noted that there was not a place available in that family grave, anyway.  (There was a spot, but it had expired a few years ago, which would require another hefty deposit and approval by the grave owner, etc. etc. again, I believe this concept of renting/owning/deposits/of graves in The Netherlands is much different than the U.S.)  The other option was a public grave, which basically means that people are buried chronologically with strangers.  After 15 or so years, the remains (which are few, according to the mortician) are moved and the grave is used again.  I cringed in my seat and while I was couth enough to keep my jaw from dropping, I know my eyes gave away my internal freak-out-session.  Again, V and I shook off the jitters and had to focus on the task.  We looked at each other and remembered a document.  By sheer accident, we had come across a piece of paper from 1997 in Oma’s apartment and we had google-translated it the previous Saturday night.  It indicated that a gravestone was to be updated with her husband’s name on it in a town about an hour and a half from where they had lived.  We showed the paper to the mortician and she called to see what the story was.  They would have to research and call her back.  We continued with the details – the casket, flowers, etc.  Because we knew no one to invite to the burial, both the neighbor and caretaker were consistent with their stories of her lonely life, we hired pallbearers.  Dutch law requires all people to be buried within six working days of death – because of the timing of everything, there was going to be a late penalty.  We learned the traditional Dutch-way of a death announcement in the paper.  She gave us a sample and explained the details – a poem, and explanation of who the person was in relation to the deceased, the family/person/notary settling the estate, and a corresponding address.  She gave us a sample book of poems in Dutch for me to translate later, if I wished.  It was a learning experience like no other, and yet, I felt like it was the most Dutch-thing I had done.  Few Expats (I hope) have had to plan a funeral during their stay abroad and it was clear that everyone we met was not familiar with making arrangements with American-grandsons-living-in-The-Netherlands.  Either way, everyone was so kind, helpful, and sympathetic to the situation.  As the mortician left our house, everything had been determined except where to bury Oma.  Luckily, within the hour, the mortician called us back.  The cemetery had researched and found the right answer - there was space, in the grave, on top of her husband.  Without her telling anyone, we knew we were doing what she would have wanted and for perhaps the first time in the entire process – V and I breathed a sigh of relief. 
  It had snowed and the snow grew deeper and thicker the further east we drove, towards Germany.  Little Man was in the back seat as we followed the hearse for an hour and a half.  Baby Girl was at school – it was a difficult debate – to have her there or take her to school, but as she neared her third birthday, I feared for her awareness and unawareness.  I also wanted my husband to take in the moment – to say goodbye as he needed to.  With a 2-to-2 ratio, I knew that would be difficult and in the end, I also thought Oma would understand our decision.
  We pulled the car through the grand arched stone entrance into the cemetery.  We exited our car, adorned our hats and gloves and shook hands with the caretaker.  Four tall men in elegant suits and top hats placed Oma’s casket atop a rolling table.  Ancient stones and a cathedral of trees stood along side our most humble and somber procession.  A light dusting of snow crunched under the wheels of Oma’s casket and Little Man’s stroller – death and new life.  Our small family and two caretakers stood around the grave.  One caretaker read a poem in Dutch, my husband said a prayer in English, and we nodded and said goodbye.  It was one of the most beautiful ceremonies no one has ever seen.   
  Thoughts of Oma’s self-inflicted isolation haunted us through the entire process.  Only tiny bits of information from the caretaker about the life Oma led gave us any clues – Oma was not very trusting and would become emotional with sadness at any mention of her late daughter.  My suspicion about Baby Girl reminding her of her painful loss had remained unconfirmed during the past 11 months since our one and only visit. 

   We are currently muddling through the remainder of the tasks – excavating and evacuating the disastrous apartment, shutting down the utilities, contacting notaries, etc.  After the burial, V and I returned to her apartment the following Saturday afternoon to find things we wanted to keep.  After rummaging through a life-time of accumulative papers, old electric razors, and rusted nails in dusty boxes, we found a world of photos.  That night, after the kids had been put to bed, we spent another Saturday night pouring through our findings.  I worked at the computer translating her hand-written school workbooks from the 1930s, while V sat in the middle of our family room flipping through boxes of black and white photos which had been aged yellow and are now cigarette smoke scented.  Flip, flip, flip – too many photos of unknown people.  Then his jaw dropped.  He rushed over to me and held a photo of his mother.  She could not have been more than 3 years old at the time the photo was taken.  My daughter’s face stared back at me.  His mother’s hair was cut the same way, her shy but yet sparkling smile shone through the decades.   Most strikingly of all, her sweet little hand gently touched her lips, half protecting her funny little grin.  How many times have I told my daughter to, ‘Put your hand down, honey, I’m trying to take a photo of you?” I could have easily mistaken the photo for my own Baby Girl, had it been taken out of context.  My husband and I shared the same shocked expression then smiled.  We will never really know why Oma did the things she did, but perhaps she was only trying to protect herself and us from further pain.  A friend of mine said, “No matter how great the task, I know you will be able to look back on this time and be thankful that you all were even here to help and take care of it all.”  We will be and we already are.  We will never know all the answers but I do take comfort that Oma and Vinny’s mom are both watching over us now, protecting us.  Together, the two women will be highly entertained over the next year watching from above, while their descendants experience, grow, learn, and love their home country of The Netherlands.             

After translating the samples of Dutch poems, I decided to write my own for Oma's obituary.  The following appeared in the Goudse Post, December 19, 2012:

Every hello leads to goodbye

Sometimes pains do not subside
Hide from world
Heart stays whole
But to love is to share and give some more

Her warm smiles were reserved for few
So no one ever really knew
The joy she brought to eyes as blue
In a land across the sea


  1. Oh, I'm so sorry about Oma. Great post. xo

  2. I bet she is very proud of you and Vinny.