This past week, I’ve been helping my mother sort through some boxes of my grandmother’s things. There’s a lot in there: old books, magazines, photographs, documents, letters, and almost everything brings back a memory – for her as well as for me – or carries a story with it.
We started out easy (or so we thought): books first. We figured: how hard can it be? Clean them, catalogue them, then on to the more time-consuming boxes of photographs, documents, letters, etc.
I should have known better, of course. Very few things evoke so many memories and stories as old books.
There were the books my mother had read to her when she was young. And those books bring back other memories as well. My mother was born just before WW II broke out in the Netherlands, so those memories aren’t just the usual “oh I remember my father read this to me when I was just a little girl”, but rather “this book used to make me feel better when there was an air raid”.
Then there were the books my mother passed on to me to read when I was a little girl, books whose covers instantly transport me back to the warmth of my bedroom when I was 5 years old – not unlike Ego’s reaction to the ratatouille in Ratatouille, really.
There were the translated (into Dutch) works of literary fiction: Louise Alcott’s “Good Wives”, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Jean Webster’s “Jerry”, all of which had been hidden away in moving boxes for years. These were books I would have loved to read when I was younger, but I never knew they were there.
But there were other discoveries as well – some of them simply delightful – such as the box of cookbooks (I abducted a few of those) and tips for domestic bliss, most of which was apparently dependent on the cleaning and cooking capabilities of the good housewife. One such title, and its cover illustration, I don’t want to withhold from you:
(“Wat zullen we morgen eten..?”, Uitgave NV Universum A’dam, Onder redactie van G. G. C. Beumer, gediplomeerd vleesexpert, H. Elsbeth, S. V. O., bak- en braadspecialist, P. J. Kers Jr., voormalig radio-kok)
(“What shall we eat tomorrow..?”, Publication NV Universum A’dam, Ed. G. G. C. Beumer, certified meat expert, H. Eksteen, S. V. O., baking and roasting specialist, P. J. Kers Jr., former radio chef)
This book just made me smile: its cover so very 50s, as was the sentiment! The illustration shows the woman cooking, and her family just waiting for dinner to be served, and with the help of this essential guide that dinner will undoubtedly be excellent indeed! Such a practical instruction manual for the perfect homemaker…
But on a more serious note, this sorting, cleaning and cataloguing is giving me an opportunity I have been looking for for years: a chance to delve into my mother’s life before she married my father and had my sister and me. I’m finally getting to see and hear a far more complete history of her childhood and early adolescence than I have ever heard before. There was the odd story here and there, of course, but these documents and letters and photographs trigger a much more comprehensive telling of her memories of her parents, and of their parents and siblings. I’m getting some very enlightening glimpses into family traits and talents, tragedies and triumphs, love stories and their happy – and occasionally sad – endings.
I am also learning about my grandfather, my mother’s father, a man I remember loving very much, but whom I barely remember otherwise. A man who survived not one but two world wars, suffered a devastating blow to his health when he was in his early twenties and never fully recovered from it, but still went on to live an active and fairly long life (he died aged 73).
I was so young during visits to my mother’s aunts and uncles that I barely remember them at all, and we stopped going when I was older – most if not all of them had died by then and we never stayed in touch with their children; no connection, I guess.
As I find out more, I know I’ll feel compelled to write down some of what I’ve discovered. I hope to understand my mother’s ‘building’ blocks, to know about my granddad’s life, and to get a better idea of the fabric of what has always seemed to me an oddly fragmented family. But then, perhaps it wasn’t as fragmented as it seemed to me; I just don’t know yet how the pieces fit together.