Today is St. Nicholas Day, a day my family has always recognized as a sort of precursor to Christmas, because my mom’s dad — who I called Opa — was born in the Netherlands.
And yesterday was the 17th anniversary of his death.
It’s not strictly a Christmas song, but many people throw it in with the others. The Leonard Cohen song has been covered many, many times, most notably perhaps by Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright. The Rufus version was long my favourite, even unseatable by kd lang’s gorgeous rendition, but the pure power and majesty of the Canadian Tenors’ voices and the orchestral arrangement has become my absolute favourite.
I was only six when my Opa died of lung cancer. I have a few vague memories of him — he and my Oma (not Dutch) had a big cranberry farm in the Lower Mainland of BC here when I was a kid. Opa always had all these big tractors and construction vehicles. I remember wandering the grounds of the farm and checking out his workshop with my dad and brother. I think I remember riding in one of the big vehicles. I remember sitting inside their home, and I remember Opa sitting on the couch. I can see his smile, but that’s probably just from pictures. I have a vague memory of following him downstairs for something. I have a vague memory of him in the kitchen, or at the kitchen table.
I know some of his history, at least, from stories. He was born in the Netherlands, in 1927, the youngest of fourteen kids in a farming family. When he was born, his oldest sister was already getting married. In World War II, he was taken by German soldiers and put in a work camp. He came to America sometime after the war, travelled across the country, and found his way to Vancouver, where he met my Oma.
I wish I could remember more. My mom emailed me yesterday to say, simply, “I’ve been thinking about Opa today — it was 17 years ago today that he died. Sure wish he’d stuck around to see you guys grow. He would have been soooo thrilled to share your lives with you and always interested in everything new. I miss him.”
And I asked her to share with me some of her memories of him. She did, as did my aunt, her sister. The memories of two girls of their father.
“He’s responsible for my chocolate addiction!” my mom wrote. Her first response, which made me smile. “Because he lived in Holland during WWII, with many deprivations, including chocolate, when we were kids, he used to regularly buy these big blocks of solid chocolate that we would chip away at, because he didn’t want us to live without chocolate, like he had done for many years.
He was the most fair-minded person I’ve ever known. He would never say anything prejudiced or racist or any other ‘ist.’ He may not like a particular thing a person did, but he wouldn’t condemn the person, just the thing, and he would never condemn a race because of what a few people of a race might do. Even after living through WWII, including the last 6 months in a German work camp, he wouldn’t say anything against the Germans.”
“I also remember playing football in the backyard with dad,” my aunt wrote, “throwing the ball back and forth for hours, and him driving us around in the back of the pick-up truck — around and around the driveways that connected between the neighbour’s and our place — as we sat in the open back screaming ‘Again, again!’
Dad was the one who caught me skipping class and actually listened to why and then came to the school to help fix the problem. He came out to watch my failed attempt at the school softball team.”
My mom told me, “He didn’t like Christmas. Well, what he didn’t like was the commercialization of Christmas. He didn’t like the pile of presents under the tree. He didn’t like the excess. I think all of it depressed him.”
“When we were older,” my aunt added, “he always went Christmas shopping for us to have that one thing under that tree that was really from him.
He rescued us when we had vehicle troubles (because I had been places I wasn’t supposed to be when I wasn’t supposed to be…such as skiing, etc.) Every night dad would fall asleep in the chair in the family room watching TV, and I remember having to lead him up to bed in his sleepy state. He was up so early every morning — which also made it hard to come home late.”
“I also went skiing once and came home sunburned!” my mom said.
“He LOVED to have philisophical/political discussions. My friend used to come for dinner, back when we were in grade 8 and 9. Her dad died when she was fairly young, so I think she really enjoyed spending time at our place. She was really politically minded and involved (NDP) and she and Dad (Liberal) would have endless discussion-debates and I was BORED to tears!”
“Dad was the one who when he came home and we had been partying suggested we shouldn’t mix the weed and the alcohol,” my aunt said. “But he never got angry, it was just his subtle way of saying don’t do that again!
He was also the one to drive friends home after parties at our house so kids wouldn’t drink and drive.
I remember him taking me on an outing to the garbage dump (of all places) so we could have a talk about whatever it was I was being a ‘teenager’ about.”
“I didn’t have parties,” my mom responded, “so I didn’t have him driving friends home. And it was always Mom who caught me sneaking home — slightly wobbly — not Dad. I was probably sneaking home earlier than you, being the goody-two-shoes.”
She also told me, “When he did his bookkeeping, he always counted in Dutch.”
My aunt added, “And do you remember that when he counted in Dutch, he could add or subtract etc. way faster than we ever could with a calculator!!”
“He loved sitting close by when I practised the piano,” my mom wrote. “He loved listening to me play. (I could play back then. Ask Daddy.) He loved music. When he and Oma had parties, late at night, when I was asleep, he’d put on this song, in Dutch, and BELT it out. It would wake me up and I’d be so frustrated and tired that I’d cry myself back to sleep. I’d LOVE to hear him sing it again!”
She and my aunt couldn’t remember what the song was, but my Oma says it was “Milord”, made famous by Edith Piaf, but they had the Dutch version by Corry Brokken.
I wish I had heard him sing that, or wish that I could remember it. I wish I had known my Opa better, longer.
We’re not a religious family, but when we went to France and later the Netherlands when I was 11 and 14, any time we toured a church or cathedral, we always lit a candle for him.
“He didn’t have a lot of time for us,” my mom said, “because his job kept him busy a lot of hours, but he loved the time he had, being with the family. He didn’t think he was a very good father, (he told me that, shortly before he died) because he didn’t spend lots of time with us.
But he was wrong (and I told him that).”