Thursday, April 26, 2012

'No one is as old as me'

The rose bush outside my window is top heavy with flowers. Full petalled cups that drop down as if they are too heavy for each stem to support.

 My head feels the same this morning, top heavy and ready to topple. Too full of thoughts to be able to tease them apart. Ours is a winter sky today and winter skies remind me of Europe, that first time we visited when I was still a young woman, though then I thought myself quite the sophisticate.

 In 1980 when my aunt met me at Schipol airport in Amsterdam she told me later she had been fearful of who and what she might find. ‘But you were just a girl,’ she said, ‘just a young girl.’ And no longer did she feel intimidated. Now, thirty five years later, my aunt is dead.
My aunt in Holland, the year I was born in Australia, when she herself was a young 'girl'.

 My aunt who goes by my two middle names, Margaretha Maria, was a twin born half the weight of her twin brother. So sickly was she during her early life that her parents sent her off to live in Munster, where she was allegedly spoiled by her childless aunt and uncle, away from the rigours of life with her parents and six other siblings.

 This was a commonplace event in those days perhaps but one I suspect that had a profound effect on my aunt. Sent away for her physical health with little regard for her emotional state. She felt abandoned.

 My aunt was so unlike her sister, my supremely optimistic mother, who is six years older and very much the opposite. At 92 years of age my mother wants to live forever.

 My mother believes the world is full of goodness and help is always there when she needs it. Before my father died he told her that although he had not provided well for her after his death, he was sure she would find someone else to take care of her. Not that he took much care of her other than to provide her with many children.

 My aunt on the other hand, did not trust that the world would provide. And on her death notice which recently arrived here in the mail, her children had included these words: Ik voel me stokoud. Niemand is zo oud als ik. I feel I am so old. No one is as old as me.

 My mother protests. How could my aunt say such a thing? She was not sick. Old, yes, maybe, but not sick.

 Try as I might to explain to my mother that her younger sister had lost the will to live, my mother remains confused, even after she reads Tonny Van Tiggelen’s eulogy. Tonny, who had been my aunt’s friend for nearly eighty years wrote the eulogy in the form of a letter to her dead friend.
 ‘You would get angry when I told you to eat, otherwise you would die. But you were not interested in living any more.’

 After my aunt’s husband had died in 1994, Tonny said, her friend lost her way. My aunt’s husband as he was dying had arranged for her to live in a new house in Castricum, custom built to suit her needs but for my aunt:
 ‘The house was too big. There was too much sun. You had to walk the stairs and look after the flowers in the garden and you did not like that at all. The next house was smaller but it was too cold with not enough sun. The view was good, but you did not like it any more.’

 Slowly my aunt had stopped eating, Tonny said, and she stopped sharing a glass of wine with her friend. She stopped going out to eat.

 Tonny remembered their friendship. How they walked as flower girls together, on religious occasions, dressed in white with veils; how they rode on their bikes during the war to a village, Boverkaspel, to get food, but had then to flee because someone shot dead a National Socialist in front of them. Tonny remembered how one of my aunt’s mothers friends had given them brown beans and oliebollen (dough balls) to eat and all the way home they had to stop by the side of the road to relieve themselves. The food had been so rich.

 Tonny remembered the two years they had worked together in a crèche, again during the war, and how they licked the pots and pans clean.

 She remembered the red cabbage feast at my mother’s place with candlelight and in evening dress...and how my aunt had so often said that when she died she would she see what there was to see.

My mother is certain of what she will see after she dies and yet she is reluctant to go off to see it. My aunt on the other hand, who kept an open mind about what she would find, has gone off in search of it.

I miss her already.

51 comments:

Laoch of Chicago said...

Once you get on in years you finally realize how profoundly awful such losses are. Good wishes to you and your family.

oceangirl said...

I am saddened by your loss Elisabeth. Thank you for sharing a part of your Aunt with us.

Andrew said...

Oliebollen, I haven't had some for years. Delicious. Your aunt was very attractive. It is both a sad and uplifting tale. Seeing a very old person with a glass of wine is reassuring. It tells me they are alive and still interested in life.

cheshire wife said...

It is amazing how different sisters can be. My mother and her sister were like chalk and cheese.

Jim Murdoch said...

Once again reading one of your posts I feel at a loss. I only met a few of my mother’s relatives, most of them only the once—I certainly only met my maternal grandmother the once—but I never knew any of my father’s relatives. Uncle Harry was the first to appear and, as it happens, the last I spoke to. One day when I was about nine this stranger turned up at the back door looking for my mum and he was introduced to me as my Uncle Harry. About a year later a couple of carloads of Mum’s relatives arrived including the ones who had emigrated to Canada and my grandmother and the one emotion that sticks with me from that time was fear. Not terror—they all went out of their way to be nice to us kids and one of the Canadians gave the three of us a silver dollar each—but a profound sense of discomfort; they all went to the pub (our parents never went to the pub and they never left us alone) and after an hour we were waiting out in the street terrified we’d never see our parents again. And then they eventually came back with a carry out and I remember one of the men—I’m guessing Uncle Frank—using the side of a table to open his bottle of beer since my parents didn’t own a bottle opener. There were so many of them that I had to give up my bed and bunk with my brother which I point blank refused to do and slept on the floor instead.

Over the years one or two of them drifted back—Harry, Frank and Lily—and once one of them brought a couple of my cousins, the only ones I ever met and considering my mother came from a family of about twelve there must have been quite a brood. My dad’s family was every bit as large but as I’ve said I never saw a single one of them. When Mum died I tried to call Harry but couldn’t find his number. A few weeks later, much to my surprise, he called me in Glasgow (the people who’d bought Mum’s house had my number) and he passed on his condolences; I’ve never spoken to him since and expect he’s dead too or getting there. I don’t remember any of my mother’s siblings dying before her. I know Lily was ill the last time she came up—I was in my thirties by then—but if she died either Mum never mentioned (which would have been quite like her) or I’ve forgotten (which is more like it).

When I married I inherited an extended family and that was the first time I realised that aunts and uncles and cousins and nephews and nieces and grandparents and even great-grandparents could be a part of a family in more than name only. I have to say I found it odd and I never was really comfortable with it. Now the only relatives I see is my daughter and her husband, my son-in-law (first time I’ve ever said that); I have a brother and sister, one of whom was still married the last I heard, and my brother has three kids so I have a nephew and two nieces at least (and maybe even a grand-niece or nephew) but I’ve not seen any of them since Mum’s funeral and don’t expect to again but stranger things have happened.

I’ve sent Carrie the recipe for oliebollen. I’m very fond of suet dumplings—very bad for me if done right—and these look good although less like the dough balls I imagined when I read your article. But we’ll given then a go. She likes doughnuts more than me and neither of us need the calories but we’re allowed the odd treat.

jane.healy said...

A moving tribute Elisabeth, your aunt (it seems) was a realist - your mother is still a romantic.

Is there a family resemblance between you and your aunt?

Anonymous said...

I loved the last two lines: Certainty, but reluctance to confirm it; Uncertainty and plunging forth to find out, no matter what. Your aunt was quite a spirit. A beautifully written remembrance, Elizabeth.

awyn said...

I loved the last two lines: Certainty, but reluctance to confirm it; Uncertainty and plunging forth to find out, no matter what. Your aunt was quite a spirit. A beautifully written remembrance, Elizabeth.

Ms Sparrow said...

I believe there are personality traits that are inborn. While we might be aware of them and fight against them, they will always dominate our thinking. Being unable to enjoy life is such a sad trait. Your aunt's lack of the will to live was not her fault.

PhilipH said...

A melancholy glimpse of what seems to be a lonely and lovely lady. The photograph is just beautiful.

As for sisters being so different: my wife has never been close to her sister. Her sister is two years older and is unmarried. Their mother did not think it right that my wife should be wed before her sister. There was, perhaps, some maternal favouritsm for the elder child and this is why there was some jealousy when I got engaged. It is not uncommon, sibling rivalry and all that.

Shelly said...

A uniquely beautiful tribute to your aunt and a lovely introduction to your intrepid mom. I enjoyed this post (my first time to visit here). I am your newest follower~

aguja said...

A beautiful and moving post. Thank you.

Putz said...

very neat write up, what a diverse life you have had, relationships are important to you, you could not live a lonely life i preceive

Joanne said...

Thanks for sharing and reminding us of the importance of our histories.

Kirk said...

You describe your mother as an optimist, and your aunt as a pessimist, yet it's your aunt who wasn't afraid of death. Ironic.

Windsmoke. said...

I'm saddened by your loss :-).

Rob-bear said...

A thoughtful post. I could feel you aunt's abandonment, sadness, and too-big house.

Blessings and Bear hugs in your loss. Seems she was a most interesting though melancholy lady.

Christine said...

You really convey so much of your aunt, a kindly but, or is it 'and'? sad lady. The subtleties of sibling relations, how people borne from the same parents can be so different is so well conveyed. Thankyou for sharing this.

Niamh B said...

As always insightful and full of feeling. Great to read.
Thanks

rraine said...

what a beautiful homage to your aunt, and to your love for her. i wonder what she found?

Anonymous said...

I find stories of survival and hope so fascinating, Elisabeth and I always like to think of myself as the optimistic survivor but I fear I am the pessimistic fatalist.
I do notice that I surround myself with optimistic people because I love their 'can-do' up-beat attitude, but my sons always chide me about my cynicism. Yet someone said to me the other day she has never known me to worry or be down in the dumps. So there is hope.
As they say, you can choose your attitude.
My closest aunt died last year age 93. Full faculties, loved life and still able to out-stride us on a walk. My last blood relative of her generation and my inspiration for life.
Why can some people never get past the smallest set back and others never now a day without hope?
Oliebollen - my (favourite up-beat) friend's Dutch husband often cooks this for visitors, and we visit often!
You and your aunt share a beautiful family resemblance.
Karen C

persiflage said...

What a sensitive and beautiful tribute your aunt's friend Tonny wrote about her. The dwindling involvement with life seems so very sad.

Elisabeth said...

I read a notice in the newspaper yesterday, Laoch, of an old friend/once colleague whom I haven't seen for many years. It seems she has just recently died of ovarian cancer. She leaves behind a husband and two children now in their early twenties. She was not much older than me. It seems far too young to die, barely scraping sixty.

Thanks for the good wishes and understanding, Laoch.

Elisabeth said...

It is a sad loss, Fazlisa, as most such losses are. Thanks for sharing it with me.

Elisabeth said...

This aunt was a woman who loved life to the full, Andrew, until the death pf her husband I'd say. She was a vibrant person who was fun to spend time with.

I'm glad you know oliebollen. They are okay, but Dutch cuisine - if you can call it that - tends to be stodgy in my view.

Thanks, Andrew.

Elisabeth said...

I have three sisters, Cheshire Wife and I reckon we are all very different. I also have four daughters and they too are very different, almost not recognisable as siblings in personality and appearance. The one thing they share in common is that on the telephone they sound like me, their mother, and people often cannot tell our voices apart.

Thanks, Cheshire Wife.

Elisabeth said...

Good luck with the oliebollen, Jim. I hope you enjoy them more than I do, but then I don't enjoy donuts either. Maybe Carrie woll find them a treat. My mum reckons they tended to eat oliebollen with golden syrup - what the American's and maybe the Brits, too, call treacle.

As for extended family, I have a huge one as you can know, but like you, we do not see that much of one another, though we are no where near as distant from one another as you. That said one of my sisters who lives far away from melbourne in Dubbo had only one daughter who she raised some distance away too. That daughter sees little of her extended family.

My children often remark on the fact that they do not know certain of their cousins and aunts and uncles who live further afield. It's hard to keep up.

My mother will tell you she has nine children, and twenty three grandchildren, with another nine great grandchildren with one other on the way. That is her claim to fame. Her posterity.

I understand her pride and yet it also appalls me. In part because I spent my childhood feeling like a statistic, just another one of her many children.

I suppose my blog title says it all.

Thanks, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

A family resemblance to my aunt, Jane? I'm not sure. certainly not physically. Physically I take after my father. And emotionally? I might sound like my aunt on paper but I'm afraid I am very much like my mother in many ways.

My mother is also an Elisabeth and she too shares my aunt's other names along with me. The tradition of naming after significant relatives was very much a feature of my parents' time. It has its advantages and needless to say it can also be a burden, especially for those named after dead relatives, like my older sister and for me, named after my still alive mother.

Thanks, Jane.

Elisabeth said...

It's good to hear from you again, Awyn, and thanks for your ind words. There can be such a tension between our desire for certainty and our need not to know, especially as it relates to life hereafter.

Thanks, Awyn-alias anonymous.

When I was a girl I had a poetry anthology edited by one Louis Untermeyer. It is a children's book of verse, and illustrated.

I still have my ragged copy. Throughout there are many many poems ostensibly penned by one Anonymous. When I was young I used to be amazed by how prolific and versatile anonymous could be with his poetry.

It took years before I realised my mistake.

Elisabeth said...

I agree Ms sparrow, my aunt's lack of will to live in her last few years is not a case of fault. There were many reasons why she might have given up, not least among them the climate in Holland.

For older people for the half year over autumn and winter and even in springtime it's almost impossible to get out and about outside without increasing the possibility of falling one hundredfold on the slippery and often times icy ground. Older people can feel very confined and also isolated.

Thanks, Ms Sparrow.

Elisabeth said...

It's lovely to see you here, Shelly. Thank you for your visit and for your kind words.

Elisabeth said...

My aunt was beautifil, as you say philip. her personality matched her appearance. as for issues of sibling rivalry, they are alive and well everywhere. My younger sister fell in love and married before i did. It seemed I was meant to feel jealous but I did not, not in this instance, though there have been many other instances where I have felt deeply jealous of this younger sister.

Even so I took longer to marry and my marriage has lasted. My sisters has not. For what it was worth it was perhaps better for me to have delayed.

Thanks, Philip.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the kind words, Aguja.

Elisabeth said...

It's good to meet you here, Putz. You're right, I tend to be gregarious. I do not like too much aloneness, though there are times when a little solitude goes a long way.

Thanks, Putz.

Elisabeth said...

I'm glad you resonate to this tribute to my aunt, Joanne. Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

There is an irony there, Kirk, as you observe. My aunt has never been fearful of death, despite her doubts about an afterlife and my mother who is certain of her place in heaven, fears death. Ironical indeed.

Thanks, Kirk.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the condolence wishes, Windsmoke.

Elisabeth said...

Mu aunt was a fascinating woman, Rob-bear, though as you say, at times she was melancholic. On the other hand, she was a woman who loved life and lived it to the full, though in a quiet understated way.

Thanks for the bear hugs, Rob-bear.

Elisabeth said...

My aunt was a complex woman Christine, sad and joyful all at once. As complex as the sibling relations she also enjoyed, as do most of us. Thanks, Christine.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for your kind words, Niamh. It's always a pleasure to hear from you.

Elisabeth said...

I wonder what my aunt has found, too rraine. I wouldn't dare speculate about it, but her spirit lives on in me and those others who loved her.

Thanks, rraine.

Elisabeth said...

I did not think there was a resemblance, Karen, but perhaps you see things that I cannot see.

It's funny that your sons consider you to be cynical. You do not come across this way in your comments to me, but rather more thoughtful and even optimistic in a soft way.

Cynicism can be so harsh, though I suppose a modicum of it is helpful.

Thanks, Karen.

Elisabeth said...

It's sad to watch people dwindle away in spirit even as they live on. You'd know this full well, Persiflage, given your experience with your husband.

It's good to hear from you here again.

Thanks, Persiflage.

SE'LAH... said...

sending peaceful, loving vibes your way. you are in my thoughts and prayers.

one love, my friend.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the kind thoughts and wishes, Se'LAH.

Heidrun Khokhar said...

My tendency is like your aunts, always sickly but I carry on for those I love. If they go it won't take me long to search.

Kath said...

Ohhh.... and the photo shows such a beautiful young woman - those eyes!

My grandmother though, also 'lost her way' when her husband died. Life clearly lost a lot of meaning and interest for her and, like your aunt, she was ready to go.

Syd said...

Your aunt sounds like an amazing person. I like the optimism and the realism in her. Some times though, there is enough to living and little to be gained by staying on day in and day out. She obviously had enough of life and was ready.

Elisabeth said...

I'm glad you carry on Heidrun of Kleinstemotte, but I hope it's not too painful for you.
In the end you need to do what's right for you. We all do and sometimes it's distressing for those we leave behind, but that's the way it is in the cycle of life.

Thanks, Heidrun.

Elisabeth said...

My aunt was a beautiful woman, Kath and it's sad how she 'lost her way ' after her husband's death but not before she had lived a good and full life.

Thanks, Kath.

Elisabeth said...

My aunt was a terrific woman, Syd, as you can see and the fact that she decided enough was enough to me is testimony to her strength of character. She recognised when it was time to go and she went.