Institutions disconnect people from reality
Institutions robbed Oma Alida of everything, including such a simple pleasure as cycling on sunny summer days like this, Sophie thought as she peddled back to her aunt’s home. After an exhausting half-day expedition to find a service provider in Lanaken, she was finally connected to the local Belgian internet. She stopped and filled her lunch jars with large luscious blackberries because the fruit close to Bea’s home were still green from the shade of the surrounding woods. I wonder if Alida ever went fruit picking, Sophie mused.
On arriving home, she popped the jars in the fridge, then made a cup of black tea and peeked into the lounge to see if Bea was having a nanna nap. Finding that Bea was reading the local community paper, Sophie slowly waved an arm to avoid giving her aunt a fright.
‘Ohh-h, there you are. What a long trip. You must be tired.’
Sophie flopped on to the long, leather sofa. ‘Thankfully the wind had died down, and I stopped a couple of times and lay on the warm concrete canal wall and drank in the stillness. Sometimes I think you can hear stillness.’ Sophie sipped her tea. ‘It was warm enough to really enjoy being outside, but I’m exhausted.’
‘The canal lane is the best place to cycle. No cars other than the odd fisherman’s, and very few broomers.’ Bea sounded wistful.
‘Yes, scooters make cycle ways quite dangerous, but the gentle rhythm of cycling nearly made me fall asleep while peddling.’ Sophie opened her tablet. ‘Look at this wonderful butterfly that kindly stayed still on a flower while I took several pictures. I ended up almost touching it with the tablet.’
‘Beautiful. They have just moved into this area. Years ago, you never saw them here.’ Bea stood to search for her butterfly book to find the name. ‘We call it four-eyed something.’
‘Hey, now I have an internet connection, I can Google it. Look, here it is. Silk Tiger’s Eye.’ Sophie beamed at her aunt. ‘Isn’t this wonderful, just to be able to look up things so easily?’
‘Yes, but I’m not getting a computer at my age.’
‘Okay, so would you like to do what you are very good at: telling the story of our family history for us while I video?’
‘That I can do. It’s better that I do this now, for you can’t count on my being here next year.’
‘Perhaps you’re right. I’ve been rather complacent for too many years, but now I’ve taken up writing as a serious hobby, I will get it done.’ Sophie stood and set up the video camera. ‘As I rested by the canal, I jotted down a few questions which struck me while wondering how much bicycle touring Oma Alida might have done.’
Outside the front window, a group of teenage boys cycled by, faces transfixed on their mobile phones. They stopped, looked around and waved their phones like metal detectors, mouths open, shaking their heads and gesticulating. Suddenly, a couple of them pointed and they all dashed down a side street.
‘They are looking for Pokémon.’ Bea said with a proud smile.
‘Wow, ninety-three years old and totally against computers and mobiles, yet you know about Pokémon?’ her niece chuckled.
‘Yes, they speak about it on the TV, and you see people of every age doing it. The war memorial opposite my house seems to be a landmark for them.
‘At least you have a TV. My parents refused to buy one, even though Mum was seven years younger than you.’
Bea laughed, ‘I would be lost without a TV, especially in the last four months after my bike accident, when I couldn’t cycle anywhere and had to sit or lay down most of the time.’
‘I wonder when Oma Alida got access to TV, or whether it was allowed.’
Bea frowned, ‘It’s hard to tell, because she never mentioned TV or anything that she saw. The visitor’s room where I met with her certainly didn’t have a TV.’
‘But by 1981, you would have thought that the institution would have given the patients something to stimulate their minds.’ Sophie’s voice cracked as she stood to check the video camera to see where they were up to, then recapped. ‘So, you didn’t know who Alida lived with as she grew up?’
‘No, because when I visited her on my own, I was always ‘Madame’, and she didn’t give me details about her childhood.’
Sophie nodded slowly, ‘Yeah, I guess you must have seemed like a stranger.’
‘When I came with my husband, she addressed me as Mevrouw (Mrs). It seemed that when her son came with a woman, she didn’t know how to deal with the situation.’ Bea’s face looked thunderous. ‘ At the beginning of my marriage, she’d been in the institution for about twenty years and so she didn’t know what to say or how to behave. The nuns dressed them in simple frocks and cut their hair short, however, Alida always behaved like a lady; gracious and polite.’
‘I wonder if that’s how society referred to women before Oma Alida was put into the institution in 1933 – not by name – because women were not recognised with respect in those days.’
‘Perhaps, but we don’t really know why she addressed me in these different ways.’ Bea rubbed her bottom lip then smiled. ‘Still, I liked to talk with her when we were together, and found it was best when we talked of her younger life. But I must be careful what I say, to only say what she said, not what I think she might have said.’
Sophie glanced at her notes. ‘So, you don’t know if Alida had any brothers or sisters, or whether or not they came to visit her?’
‘No, she never said anything about that.’ Bea frowned. ‘If I asked her about her life before the institutions, she just gave facts. She seemed happiest to talk about the time she was at school, but I don’t remember any details.’
Sophie’s face softened. ‘Mmm… it’s now a long time ago, about thirty years since you last saw her. I’m so impressed with your ninety-three-year-old memory.’
Bea didn’t respond.
Sophie’s face brightened, ‘You’ve told me so much over the last thirty-one years during my nine trips to Holland, basically the same facts so I know the story by heart, just like children’s stories are handed down through the ages. But this is family history, not a fable and it is important that I get the facts right.’ She sneaked a peek at her notes. ‘Oh yes, can you say anything about what work Opa and Oma did in the early days?’
Bea frowned. ‘Opa couldn’t find work in Holland before he took Alida overseas to Canada. He was not accepted into the navy, which apparently was his dream, because he had a small problem with his eyes. It seems that he wasn’t really willing to apply himself to anything else.’
‘So how did they survive?’
‘Alida described how she had to clean the shops to pay rent and provide for the children while your Opa spent his time debating politics with university students.’
‘Yes, he was always interested in intellectual pursuits, particularly politics, and dictating how the country and the world should be run,’ said Sophie. Bea folded her arms and leaned back, face stern.
Sophie sighed, shook her head, then glanced at her watch. ‘It’s nearly time for the news. Let’s defer this conversation to a day when we have more time.’