A Pandora’s Box?

1946-den-hartog-children
Rige in the centre, and clockwise from top left, Rokus, Gert, Koos and Niek

Writing about family is tricky, even in the best of situations. We were lucky in that our family embraced this project, and assisted wherever they could — even though our father has what he calls a “Swiss cheese memory.” We began mining his memories, and those of his four siblings, late in 2004, with questions that now seem shockingly basic to us, after all that we’ve learned, but that grew in their complexity as the months and years wore on.

Dad lives on his sailboat, wherever it takes him, so our interviews were conducted largely by email. In his initial one, responding to our idea, he was full of enthusiasm, but stressed that, “I cannot be relied upon. My poor memory has plagued me all my life and it isn’t getting any better.” Nevertheless, as our emails multiplied to him and his four siblings, a picture began to emerge. Sometimes it seemed as clear as something we’d witnessed ourselves; other times it was blurry, or muddled with conflicting images when the siblings’ memories differed. Often, a fleeting recollection flourished when someone added a fresh perspective, as when Dad recalled seeing clouds of black smoke billow above the houses in his street – a memory he’d always doubted because he was only two years old when the Germans invaded Holland in 1940. “But what direction are you facing in the memory?” asked his sister, Rige, who knew that The Hague had suffered a massive Allied attack in 1945, when Dad was seven and more likely to remember.

Rige’s memory is astonishing. She, more than anyone, led us into the past, offering vivid, cinematic descriptions of a place and time. “One night,” she wrote, “I remember all of us standing in the bedroom, the one with the balcony. We stood behind the windows and watched green and red tracers float through the sky.” Somewhere in the distance, a city was being bombed, but Rige didn’t know it. “I remember the horror in Mom’s voice – ‘Those poor people.’ But as a six-year-old, the sky full of red and green balls seemed so beautiful.”

As the eldest of the five children, it made sense that Rige’s memories were strongest. Interestingly, it seemed that the act of remembering was more crucial for her, and also more painful. When we asked about a bombing that personally affected them, she wrote, “There is a larger reluctance in me than I originally thought there would be…. As if, when this is opened up, like a Pandora’s box, it will change us and how we feel about ourselves.” But she pushed through these hesitations and answered as fully as possible, often triggering the memories of her brothers. Dad, recounting the same event, claimed no difficulties talking about it, but in the middle of his email admitted, “I suddenly got tears in my eyes…. Amazing.”

Dad’s letters to us frequently assumed the tone of a satisfied sigh, as though he sensed things were wrapping up, and he’d given all he could. “My memories of more serious topics have been pretty much exhausted,” he wrote, when we were perhaps a quarter of the way through what would become years of corresponding. “Can’t wait to find out what Tracy and Kristen will do with all this!”

Again and again we pressed, often going over the same subjects but uncovering new information. Sometimes there were big surprises, casually dropped. “When Mom’s sixth baby died,” wrote Rige – and we stopped short, not having realized there’d been a lost child. These revelations opened whole avenues of questions. Other times, we let the conversation meander as brothers and sister recalled their marble collection, or the teacher at school who resembled a dried fish, or the German soldiers who were billeted across the street.

There were visits too – Dad and his siblings came to Canada from their various homes, and we traveled to Holland, digging through archival material and old photographs, and floating on Uncle Nick’s boat from Amsterdam to Leidschendam to interview the family’s former neighbours. Talking face-to-face nudged the story further, and allowed us to see how the siblings – our “characters” – were affected by each other’s accounts. We noticed that at times our father leaned into the conversation, and then back, pressing his spine into the sofa, and we sensed that he both longed to remember his war-torn childhood, and felt reluctant to do so.