Silence is used for many reasons – Ch 8

Silence hides so much

Silence quells so many of life’s challenges Sophie reflected as she washed mud from the vegetables gathered from Bea’s garden.

‘I’m sorry the rain continues this week.’ Bea said as she entered the kitchen.

‘So much for buying the extra two day-tickets for the train, so I can have five trips to Holland’s beaches this holiday.’ Sophie rolled her eyes. ‘Oh well, I’ve plenty of writing to do.’

‘As long as you have plenty to do, you’ll be happy. I too, can find lots to do inside when I can’t go out in the garden.’

‘Do you think you could tell me a little more about Oma Alida, please?’ Sophie gave her aunt a nervous look wondering if Bea was tired of answering all the questions. ‘Then I’ll have plenty of transcribing to do all day.’

‘I’d be more than happy to do so.’ Bea chortled. ‘Then I get to escape my paperwork – nowadays writing causes my hand to cramp. None of my friends get letters and cards from me anymore.’

The women sat at the dining table with cups of tea and Bea began. ‘Alida told me she was well looked after in the institution but described how when she was with your opa she was always exhausted and extremely unhappy.’ Bea sighed, then scowled. ‘She said that when your opa took her to live in Canada, she couldn’t speak a word of English, so of course she was very lonely there because he was out all day and evening.’

‘What did Opa do in Canada?’

‘Who will ever know?’ Bea’s clear blue eyes stared out the window over her peaceful garden to the distant hill on the far side of the canal. ‘His sister Bertha emigrated to Canada while they were there to help with the family. Your Opa asked her to come over when Alida became ill.’ Bea grimaced. ‘I only know that from Bertha when many years later we met on her return to Holland. I enjoyed her company immensely.’ Bea leaned back heavily. ‘She wrote a book about her husband’s family. It’s somewhere in my attic. Of course, it’s in Dutch. You obviously take after her with your book writing.’

‘So how long were Alida and Opa in Canada?’

‘I don’t know.’ Bea rubbed her jaw with her index finger.

‘Was your husband, Oom Nico born in Canada?’

‘No. He was born in Amsterdam.’

‘And Tante Therese?’

‘That I don’t know.’

‘Mmm… I can’t ask Mum anymore because of her dementia, and there is no possibility of finding her sister’s birth certificate, even if she had a copy of it in Australia.’

Bea raised her hand. ‘Oh, wait. Perhaps I can find the death notice your mother sent me when Therese died.’

‘No, generally we don’t put birthplaces on anything to do with someone’s passing in Australia. Anyway, Mum would have struggled to remember, because she’d closed off all her memories of Holland.’

‘The only one I know who was born in Canada was Emmanuelle, because she was exceptionally proud of it.’ Bea smiled fondly. ‘But if you were to believe Emmanuelle’s stories, you might think she was born in a wigwam or something. I often got the impression she was wishing such exotic things had actually happened in her life.’

Sophie tilted her head from side to side. ‘Considering all the emotional pain and trauma she experienced and carried to her dying day, escaping to a fantasy world was probably an important coping method for her.’

‘And it helped in all her art and handiworks.’ Bea extended her arms wide. ‘We artists need to have a creative mind to do these things.’

Silence breeds creation
One of Bea’s sculptures created in silence

Sophie glanced at the sculptures set on window sills, mantle-piece and all the walls that Bea had created with varied mediums, ‘Mum told me Tante Marie was born in Amsterdam. It was through her records at the registry office in 1985 that I got Tante Emmanuelle’s phone number.’ Sophie counted the years between each child’s birth prior to Emmanuelle’s. ‘So Alida must have endured up to two or three years in Canada.’

‘Yes, it is quite possible. Of course, I was nowhere near the family then and must rely on the tiny bit of information Alida told me more than twenty years later, when I visited her because I had married to her eldest child.’

Sophie’s body stiffened. ‘But how did they survive financially in a foreign country in the 1920s if Opa didn’t work? They would not have been eligible for any welfare.’

Bea raised her shoulders to her ears for some moments before she replied. ‘All I know from Tante Bertha is how poor they were in Canada. But your opa came from a well-off family, and both his older sisters Bertha and Martine, who was also an extremely kind lady, were always enormously helpful to him.’

Sophie stared out the window at the distant hill ‘Opa and his second wife always lived an upper-class existence. She was quite snobbish. They gave the impression they were well off, but I remember hearing many arguments about money as I was growing up.’

Bea frowned, ‘Sorry, but I have no idea what your opa did in Canada for money. What I do know was that he knew a Dutch priest over there who was related to his second wife, and he helped a lot.’

‘Goodness! Was she over in Canada too?’

‘No, I think he met her later when they returned to Amsterdam. But Alida gave me the impression that the priest helped your opa a lot. I don’t know in what way, or whether he may have worked at something.’ Bea frowned. ‘So, it was definitely a priest, a brother of your opa’s second wife, who took care of the family.’

‘Mmm… Opa also got to Australia with the help of the Catholic Church in 1954, which was when Mum emigrated with him. I wonder how much more he relied on the Church.’

Bea snorted. ‘As far as I know, the church arranged everything for him because he promised to run the hostel for Dutch immigrants arriving in Perth.’

‘Yes, with four attractive, obedient daughters aged 22-31years, he had a guaranteed labour-force.’ Sophie scowled. ‘And Mum’s friends told me how all the girls worked extremely hard and were always welcoming to their guests.’

Bea nodded, ‘Your mum wrote to me about some good friends she made from those hostel guests.’

‘Yep. She said the same to me, when I asked how she met her best friends.’ Sophie stood. ‘It’s getting late, would you like to have lunch?’

‘What a good idea. I’m sorry so much guesswork is needed to work out where your ancestors were born.’

Sophie held her hands open to the ceiling, ‘At least, these days, we can explore the internet for birthplaces or visit each country’s government registry office. But, when I attended the Amsterdam Registry Office in 1985, with Marie’s first and last name, I discovered there were sixty girls with the same name registered.’

‘Goodness! How did you find the right one?’

Sophie held her hand like a telephone to her ear. ‘The lady said I could make international phone-calls at the GPO. So, I ran across the city and called Mum to ask for the exact birthdate.’

Bea’s eyebrows shot up under her fringe, ‘Did your mum tell you?’

‘Mmm, she was most reluctant to give these details expressing such a huge fear of Opa, (who lived on my parent’s small farm).’ Sophie shook her head. ‘It was crazy!  I told her, “there’s no way a young girl working at the government office is going to try to find Opa, then contact him to tell him I’ve asked you for the information which this girl needs to do her job – just find people’s family records.’

Bea giggled. ‘That you can be sure of.’

‘Mum saw the sense in what I said, so gave me Marie’s full date of birth.’

‘What happened when you telephoned Marie’s number? She doesn’t answer the phone herself, because she lives in a monastery.’

‘You’re right. Luckily the person who answered had the contact details of Marie’s sister, Emmanuelle.’

Bea’s jaw dropped. ‘You mean they gave the phone number to you? A complete stranger?’

‘Well, I explained my story to them, and maybe they knew Emmanuelle was the opposite to her sister. Do you think Emmanuelle may have explained her perspective to them?’

Bea nodded, ‘Absolutely. She had such a hard time trying to keep contact with her father, then he forbade your mum and Therese to have contact with all of us in Holland. Yes, Emmanuelle would have told the story to try and obtain help from anybody to influence the only family she had here in Holland to stay connected.’

‘Yes, she was overjoyed to meet me, an Australian niece. But Emmanuelle spoke virtually no English and her husband spoke none. I had to learn Dutch as fast as I could.’

Bea’s eyes twinkled. ‘It was good for you. You’ve improved greatly over these last few years.’

‘But I was hopeless in 1985. Emmanuelle was hardly able to talk about her mother Alida’s terrible experiences without crying continuously. Not much conversation about Alida occurred after the first meeting because it was too upsetting for Emmanuelle.’

‘True. But she was glad to have informed you how the woman with Opa in Australia was not your real Oma.’

‘Yes, she and her husband also impressed on me how my real Oma Alida was not crazy and described their regular visits.’

‘She loved her mother Alida deeply. We talked often, and when my children grew up and left home, I suggested to Alida that she come and live here in our big home.’

‘Yeah, it was so sad how Oma Alida didn’t feel she could manage to move out after about thirty years in those institutions.’

Both women prepared the tablecloth and lunch things in silence. As they began eating, Bea asked, ‘What happened after you returned to Australia?’

‘I asked Mum if she wanted to share the truth about Alida and the step-Oma to my sisters.’ Sophie grimaced. ‘When she protested, I told her to consider it, otherwise I would tell my sisters what I’d learned.’

Bea placed her knife on her plate loudly. ‘Wow! How did she cope with you taking charge?’

‘Oh, my goodness! Maybe that was why she withdrew from me emotionally around that time.’ Sophie hit her head with the heel of her hand. ‘At the time, she agreed it was probably a good time to tell the others. My sister Marianne was already married.’

‘Your mum was wise to tell them before my son decided he would go to Australia to meet his opa, soon after you had met us all.’

‘Gosh. We never thought of your family arriving. I must admit I was just angry with her step-mother and Opa.’ Sophie’s face glowered. ‘Mum knew what a determined person I am, so she made it clear that as the mother, it was her role to reveal the truth to my sisters.’

‘Huh, last time I saw your mum in 2006, I was shocked at how controlling she had become – so that doesn’t surprise me.’ Bea looked at the distant hill, then turned to Sophie. ‘How did your sisters react to the news?’

Silence as defence

‘They were generally speechless, stunned.’ Sophie thought how silence was her mother’s predominant defence against all the major traumas which occurred in her life. Her mother’s only advice after a gunpoint attack on Sophie was “not to say anything to anybody.”’ Mum was three-years-old when she had last seen her mother, Alida – so she couldn’t answer any questions about why and what happened.’

Silence as a weapon

Bea chewed for an extra long time on her two-centimetre square of bread with a paper-thin slice of cheese. ‘Actually, your opa told the children to forget about Alida. My husband described how they were silenced with a repeated message; “She’s crazy. She won’t remember who you are.”’

Sophie’s vegetables chopped in silence savouring natures gifts

Silence as a coping mechanism

Sophie stuffed spoonfuls of her raw vegetables into her mouth as Bea methodically cut her second slice of bread with cheese into eight fingers and placed one neatly on her tongue. After five minutes of chewing in silence, Bea said, ‘Like my children, your sisters don’t seem to give much attention to Alida’s extraordinary long detainment.’

‘It was all too shocking for us in our early twenties. We were told “that’s what happened to people in those days.” Throughout our lives, Mum drilled into us the idea of just accepting things – leave the past behind.’

‘You’re right. That is how we were brought up, and I am also guilty of telling my children just try to accept things.’  A mischievous grin spread across Bea’s face. ‘But children copy what we do, not what we say; so, my children asked difficult questions when they disagreed. Mostly, when it is said politely, people are willing to discuss things. By the time, my children were the age which you were when you came to Holland searching for family, Oma Alida had died. They knew who she was and could see she was just an old lady. For them, there was no deception to discover.’


Please don’t suffer in silence.

If any of this story has upset you, feel free to contact me  or via facebook for some counselling or the trauma support group.