The whole family has suffered a lot from what was done to your Oma Alida, Bea’s frequently repeated statement echoed through Sophie’s mind as her favourite countryside’s soul was absorbed into her heart.
Stepped walls protruded above the end of the Maastricht train station as it loomed around the bend. Sophie’s heart quickened as it did every time she saw it. A smile lit her face as she pictured her aunt Bea waiting at the station on a previous occasion when she had arrived from the southern border with no passport, her bag having been stolen at a Belgian station. ‘It was the only time that Bea ever came to the station to meet me. Luckily Bea was able to reassure the customs officer of my identity.’
Sophie dragged her heavy suitcase across ancient cobblestones to the taxi-rank.
A taxi drew up to meet her. After she’d settled and discussed the weather and her journey, the Dutch taxi driver turned with eyes twinkling, ‘So, what will you do in the little Belgian village that I’m taking you to?’
‘Stay with my beloved aunt.’ Sophie beamed. ‘I hope she’ll help me write my Dutch grandmother’s story.’
‘Was your Oma an important woman?’ The taxi driver looked surprised. ‘Should I know of her?’
‘Well she wasn’t famous like most people might think,’ Sophie’s smile faded. ‘Alida’s story needs to be told to give a voice to a woman who not only wasn’t heard, her very life was taken away from her!’ Her voice rose.
The driver glanced at her, ‘Sorry, you can tell me to mind my own business, but you would probably know that some Dutch people are curious.’
Sophie laughed, ‘Yes, perhaps, but I see it as friendliness. My family in Australia aren’t interested in anything that I do.’
He probed further, ‘How did somebody take away your Oma’s life? Was she murdered?’
Sophie’s face darkened, ‘It was kept secret. The horrible stories that some of my family here in Holland have told me in the last thirty-one years drove me to investigate why my Oma was removed from the family. It would have been a living hell during those forty-eight years of her life, but I learned the last eight years with her husband were also terrible for Oma Alida.’
The driver frowned, ‘Mmm, it sounds like quite a story.’ He smiled, ‘So is your aunt Belgian?’
‘No, Tante Bea is as Dutch as you are!’ Sophie laughed as she remembered how her aunt loved to joke about the Belgians. ‘It’s a long story of how she came to live here for the last forty years, but she loves it.’ She swallowed a lump rising in her throat.
‘I’m just so lucky that at ninety-three, she is still here in her home. It’s such a beautiful area.’ Sophie drank in her favourite view across the valley. ‘This is as much my home as my place in Australia. But here, you have grapes, grain, fruit and crops in between beef or milking cows all squeezed into this five-kilometre valley.’
As they pulled up in front of a red brick terrace house, the driver asked, ‘How long will you stay with your aunt?’
‘Most of the month – I only get to see her once a year. We can’t telephone anymore because she is almost deaf.’ Sophie paid the driver, ‘I’m very lucky that she is healthy and alert despite the bike accident, otherwise she couldn’t have me stay,’ her lip quivered, ‘I’ll miss her very much when she dies.’
‘She sounds like she is very resilient,’ he nodded toward house.
‘Oh! There she is!’ Sophie leapt out of the car, heart jumping with joy as she hurried to her aunt. Bea’s face lit up. Sophie leaned forward to embrace her aunt, in the customary Dutch manner – they kissed alternate cheeks three times.
‘How are you?’ Bea gave her niece an affectionate squeeze.
Sophie kept holding her aunt’s arms as they spoke, knowing that hello and farewell were the only times Bea gave physical affection, ‘Very happy to see you looking so well after your accident.’ Sophie smiled with relief to see Bea didn’t need her walking stick.
Bea took the small trolley bag while Sophie pulled the large wheeled suitcase through the door that opened into the narrow hallway. ‘Nothing has changed,’ Sophie noted as she crossed the green and yellow travertine flooring. Even the walls’ mustard enamelling warmed her heart. The kitchen still had its 1960s cupboards, painted pale-blue, and practical home-made wooden furniture. She sighed deep relief that it was the same as on the last three annual holidays.
While Sophie put the food she had brought into the fridge, Bea made a pot of tea then asked, ‘How is your mother?’
Sophie’s lip quivered, ‘She gets puffed out trying to drink or eat because her heart failure is so bad. Hearing the rattle of fluid on her lungs as she breathes is awful.’ She gave Bea a pained look. ‘But they think that she will linger like this for quite some time. They told me to have a holiday now, so that I’m fresh to be with Mum when she is worse.’
Bea sighed, ‘It sounds like you have had a challenging year with your mother’s life hanging on a thread.’
‘It’s so unbearable, Tante Bea. But in Australia it’s illegal to honour Mum’s wishes to not have her life prolonged.’
As they sipped their tea, Sophie noticed the dark rings under Bea’s blue eyes. ‘Perhaps now isn’t a good time for either of us to discuss my family’s struggles,’ Sophie thought. She felt comforted by the familiar tranquil chugging of the barges passing the meadow about forty-metres below. She stared out on the vibrant flower garden perched at the top of the cliff-like banks of the original river flood-plain.
Bea leaned forward, ‘It sounds like all your mum’s problems and your own work have kept you terribly busy. You must need a holiday.’
Sophie smiled, putting aside thoughts of her mother’s prolonged illness, ‘It’s just so peaceful and normal here. It still feels more like home than anywhere else.’
They took their cups of tea to the dining room, and Bea sat on her sheepskin-covered chair which faced the window. Sophie remembered Bea explaining how she loved the views from this chair and usually sat there when inside. Sophie sat to the side, where Bea could read Sophie’s lips, and they both could watch the barges carrying everything from gas cylinders to recycled asphalt, and shipping containers as they chuntered by on the Albert canal.
‘This carpet-covered dining table knows so many family secrets!’ Sophie wondered why the Dutch used thick, soft carpets as tablecloths. Probably to soften some very hard truths spoken across their tables.
The women sat in silence for a few moments before Bea asked, ‘Do you have any plans for this holiday?’
‘I want to write the book about Oma Alida’s life.’
Bea looked concerned, ‘Do you think it’s a good idea? I would have thought you need a rest from heavy emotional family issues after this year with your mother on death’s door.’
Sophie noticed how Bea’s eyes had huge hollows around them and she realised that Bea’s body was fading away, too. She wondered about her aunt’s memory. ‘What if she can’t remember much about Oma Alida anymore?’ Her heart skipped a beat.
‘It’s a terrible thing to say, but now that Mum has almost passed, it won’t upset her if I reveal the truth about her own mother, Alida.’ A pained look crossed Sophie’s face. ‘Thirty years ago, I made a promise not to say anything while Mum was alive.’ Sophie sighed, ‘So now is a good time as it gives me something to absorb my mind. Otherwise I’ll be emailing my sisters too often to ask how Mum is.’
Bea nodded, ‘I understand when you explain it that way. It’s typical of you, staying busy and keeping confidences – from what I’ve observed in your previous visits.’
‘Yes, I really need the distraction. While writing Mum’s eulogy, the impact on Mum of losing her mother Alida as a three-year-old really hit me.’ Sophie leaned forward on her elbows, hands clasped and looked at her aunt’s eyes, ‘Besides, at the end of each holiday for the last few years, as you’ve kept reminding me, you might not be alive the next year!’
‘It’s true as you can see from this year’s drama with my leg.’ Bea grumbled.
Sophie fiddled with the carpet tablecloth, then murmured, ‘That, plus Dad dying and Mum’s terminal condition – it has all started breaking through my complacency, because time has almost run out.’ Sophie sighed, ‘I’ve always put off writing Alida’s story because, like the rest of the family, my disbelief and shock prevented it sinking in.’
Bea nodded sympathetically, then protested, ‘But you don’t need me to write the story, surely?’
‘You are the only one alive who can tell me the story.’
Bea thudded her cup on the table, ‘But last year, you made notes after we talked about your Oma Alida’s life.’ Bea frowned, ‘What happened to your notes?’
Sophie twirled a piece of her hair, ‘‘But when I look at the notes, I want so much to make an interesting story from it. Right now, it feels impossible.’
Bea stared at her middle-aged niece, ‘I wonder what makes people write books?’
‘Some books aim to give a voice to those who were silenced or mistreated in some way. Both happened to Alida and her children.’ Sophie’s lips pursed as she drew breath. ‘I’m also trying to help others understand the effect of earlier generations’ traumas on our current lives.’
Bea nodded, encouragement shining in her eyes.
‘Hearing my mother constantly crying “Nobody cares about me” for the last eighteen months has been really hard. It emphasises how she must have interpreted the lies that she was told about her mother.’ Sophie choked on her words and stared out of the window for a few minutes, before continuing. ‘It’s clear that Mum has deep feelings of being abandoned. Losing her mother when she was three must have contributed to that.’
Bea put her hand to her mouth, eyes wide. ‘But your mum had such a wonderful husband?’ Bea shook her head frowning, ‘she shouldn’t feel abandoned.’
‘Mmm. She wouldn’t let in his love.’ Sophie sighed, ‘And when I found a therapist, she only attended once. She said, “it made no difference”.’
‘Crazy,’ Bea pushed her fringe from her eyes.
‘It was as if Mum expected to heal in one counselling session. That’s why I have to write the story.’ Sophie gazed at her beloved aunt with pleading eyes.
‘History keeps repeating itself,’ Bea whispered.
Drawing in a shaky breath, tears sneaking down her cheeks, Sophie swallowed hard, ‘‘We keep replaying the same life scripts. There’s no way I want to sound like Mum at the end of my life. It’s unbearable to listen to. If dementia also robs me of the ability to control what I think and say; I’ll probably sound like that too! I have no choice. I have to work out what and how to change my life’s course.’
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