April 21, 2009
A POIGNANT JOURNEY
My mother called me in tears on February 2, 1965. She had just received the unexpected news that her mother, my grandmother, Emerentia van den Branden, had died in Holland. She was only 68. Mom and Dad had just returned from a wonderful family visit home four weeks previously. I went to my parents’ home in Whitefish immediately with my baby daughter, Jacqueline. Mom was in a quandary deciding whether to return to The Netherlands again so soon. However the fact that her mother had passed away made the conclusion easier for her. Even so, she could not face making the long journey alone and asked me if I would consider travelling to Holland with her. I called my husband Alex at work and sought his opinion as to the feasibility of that happening. Our baby girl was very young – who would take care of her for three weeks? Could we afford it? He left work and drove to Whitefish so that we could discuss all of these factors. Alex called his mother to ask if she felt she could care for Baby Jacqueline. She agreed readily solving that problem for us. Mom called her parish priest, Father Joseph Hompes, who was also Dutch. Father Hompes came to the house immediately and told us that he would arrange the trip for us as he had a friend in North Bay who was a travel agent. So our arrangements were made and we flew by KLM to Amsterdam the next day. It was my first trip back to my homeland and even though the reason for going at this time was indeed very sad, I could not help but be excited.
We were met at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam by my Aunt Celina and Uncle Cees Millenaar. The drive to St. Jansteen took about 3 hours. When we arrived at my grandparents’ home, my grandfather was crying but let us know right away that he appreciated us coming to be present at the funeral and spend some time with him as well. Many of the family had gathered at Hoofdstraat 31, and it was wonderful to see my aunts and cousins again after 13 years. There were younger cousins as well whom I had never met at all as they were born after we left the country. There were also new uncles who had married mom’s sisters after we left Holland. I remember noticing that that the living room was much smaller than I had recalled. Of course the fact that I was a child of 10 when we left and returned as an adult of 23 accounted for that change of perspective.
My mother insisted in going to see her mother’s body at the hospital. Her sisters attempted to dissuade her but she needed that closure. I wanted to remember my grandmother whom we called Mit, as she was when I last saw her in the summer of 1962 when she and my grandfather came to visit us in Canada for two months.
We all walked behind the funeral cortege which stopped in front of my grandparents’ home in tribute for a few minutes before proceeding to the nearby church. I found this extremely moving. Many townspeople lined the street as my grandmother was highly regarded and very well-known. She had operated a fruit and vegetable store for many years from the front of her home. The High Requiem funeral mass was most difficult for my grandfather who had loved his wife totally and unabashedly. Their fiftieth anniversary would have occurred just seven months later, in September. After the Mass we proceeded to the cemetery located directly behind the church. The coffin was lowered by some of their male neighbours and friends. They used ropes which slipped a bit at times. That was upsetting to all of us although we realized that no one was at fault.
Later the entire family went to a restaurant for a “coffee meal” (koffie tafel) as is tradition in The Netherlands. This consisted of buns laden with lunch meat and of course Dutch cheese, coffee and tea, and some sweet buns. Then we returned to my grandparents’ house. I thoroughly enjoyed becoming reacquainted with my cousins. We asked each other many questions catching up with each others’ lives. They wanted to know about my husband, my home and my baby. I am the eldest van den Branden grandchild so I was the first to experience these life-altering events. I felt so at home surrounded by my relatives, which made me realize just how much I had missed my extended family while living in Canada. That is when my resolve was born to return as often as possible and fortunately I have been able to do so.