Secretive Family members
‘Secretive TV, give over!’ Bea pushed a button repeatedly, till there was a TV programme. ‘But it’s not the channel I want!’ Bea protested with a glum face. She continued to press the same button, till the screen showed many thousands of people engaged in what appeared to be a modern outdoor Catholic mass.
Sophie went back to the kitchen to finish preparing her vegetables for brunch. Just as she’d finished, Bea entered.
‘Come and look at these very special happenings with Pope Francis.’
‘Oh, I didn’t realise it was the Pope!’ Sophie hurried to join Bea and they watched the footage of Pope Francis on the normal train, albeit in a special carriage… ‘Alida would never have had an opportunity to choose what church she attended, let alone see any important people like this.’
Bea’s face softened as she nodded. ‘He always likes to be down at the people’s level.’ ‘There was a young couple with a little girl. The mother kneeled and kissed his feet. But when they were going to move away, the little girl grabbed his hand and kissed it too. You could see he was almost chuckling.’
‘Well, I can see him quietly laughing a lot of the time. He is certainly loved by most people.’ Sophie looked at Bea. ‘I wish I’d realised the mass was led by him. Then again, I wouldn’t have understood much with the subtitles in Dutch and him always speaking in another foreign language.’ Sophie stood. ‘Thank you for telling me to look at these more social interactions; it shows his humility, which is what everybody says about him.’
After lunch Bea had a nana-nap while Sophie caught up on more transcribing in the kitchen until Bea appeared. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘Yes, that will be nice.’ Sophie tidied up. ‘Would you please tell me some more of the story about Oma Alida?
‘Of course. I don’t work in the garden on Sunday, otherwise all 365 days of the year would be the same for me.’
Sophie set up the video at the dining table, thinking how every day was the same nothingness for Alida after Opa put her in that institution. ‘You mentioned that before being locked up, Alida used to clean the shops below their apartment. Did she say who looked after the little children while she did that?’
Bea looked surprised. ‘By the time the shops closed, the older children were home from school to look after the little ones.’
‘How old were they when Opa put Oma into the institution?’
‘Alida’s children must have been… let me see. My husband told me he was eleven years old and Therese was the same age as me, so she would have been ten. Nico didn’t talk about it much at all, but sometimes he would become so depressed and cry, and he would talk a bit then.’ Bea pursed her lips and her blue eyes became icy. ‘Nico said that he and Therese were put into institutional care a little while before their mother was institutionalised, which means I know very little about what happened.’
Sophie gasped, eyes wide. ‘Tante Therese never spoke about her childhood, just like Mum. So, I wonder who put the children into an institution.’
‘We don’t know that either,’ Bea sighed. ‘My husband was very reluctant to speak much about these things. I only know that it happened because he told me briefly. I never asked him to tell me more, otherwise he would have stopped talking about his past altogether. I always stayed very quiet when he began to talk about his life before he met me so he wouldn’t really notice I was there.’
‘It’s really incredible how history replays similar scenarios. I used to wonder where on earth Mum got the idea of telling us that if we didn’t behave ourselves, she would get the welfare to take us away when we were in primary school.’
Bea leaned forward. ‘Perhaps it was your Opa’s idea, since it had been for him a solution when he couldn’t afford to feed all his children in the 1930s. There was a lot of poverty in Europe then, which is why Hitler gained so much popularity. And you already know your Opa was much too interested in what was going on politically in Germany.’
‘Huh… That story came after he locked up Alida. I really want to focus on pulling together a book about Alida and her children’s lives. Poor Alida never got to live a normal life, let alone a life as interesting as the one Opa led. He’s dominated his children’s lives – even more – more than enough already.’
‘Even though Alida had hardly any relationship with her children, the mother, or absence of her, is a powerful influence, as I have witnessed in my seventy years as a social worker,’ said Bea.
‘I remember when I first came to Holland in 1985, Tante Emanuelle told me her whole story in between much crying. She spoke mostly Dutch, and as I hadn’t learned much Dutch at twenty-four, I was really struggling to make much sense of it.’ Sophie sighed. ‘My first thought when I awoke the next morning, was to ask if my mother knew that the woman with Opa in Australia was not her real mother.’
‘Emmanuelle was two years younger than me, so she would have been only eight years old when her mother was taken away.’
‘Yes, but I remember she told me the next morning that Mum had been involved in discussions with the remaining family over the years since. I was told that Mum was three years old when her mother was taken away from her forever. Even though I was glad that my mother had known Alida, it seems that those three years of watching her mother always working, with no time to play with the children, may have influenced the way Mum was with us children. I don’t remember her playing with us. She spent all day doing chores.’
Down in the meadow, a weaned foal neighed shrilly for its mother. Sophie’s eyes became wistful. Bea leaned toward her.
‘So, if your mother was three, your mother’s next older sister was only four-and-a-half-years old, and the youngest, Ann, only eighteen months.’ Bea gazed at Sophie intently. ‘Emmanuelle carried her anger and pain throughout her life. But, I noticed how much better she was when you first came to Holland and shared news about her other sisters. I believe it gave her some healing.’
‘Yes, she told me how she used to write so many letters to her sisters, and even to her father after they emigrated to Australia in 1954, but nothing ever came back.’ Sophie frowned. ‘When I spoke with Mum about this on my return to Australia in 1986, she said that her father forbade any contact with anybody in Holland, particularly with Emmanuelle and Nico. Mum said that eventually Opa stopped her corresponding with you, and that she missed that very much as she saw you as a valuable, wise, older sister.’
Bea gazed out the window, silent as Sophie sipped her tea.
‘I still have photos of you as a baby.’ Bea resumed eye contact. ‘Would you like them? She probably hasn’t given you her copy, and I think they are better in your possession because I am old and enjoy you as you are now.’
‘That would be good, but I am sure it will take a long time for you to find them.’
Bea laughed. ‘Yes, and you haven’t seen just how many things are stored in my attic. Mostly my children’s things. Oh well, it’s their job to sort them out when I die. But I will give you the photos before you leave this time.’
‘Thank you for helping me understand more about Alida and her children’s lives. I’d better start preparing dinner.
’Would you like to join me in some Cointreau?’ Bea’s Sunday routine included a late afternoon drink of spirits.
‘Emmanuelle’s husband introduced me to that, and I must admit that I have a real liking for it.”