I was two-and-a-half when we moved from Auckland to Sydney, and six-and-a-half when we moved from Sydney to Atlanta. I was young enough the first time to have no particular feelings of displacement (that I recall), but the second move was harder. Aside from the stupid (and I do mean stupid) questions (“How are you finding having electricity?” and “How did you learn English so well?” and “Did you used to ride kangaroos to school?”), there was always a sense of not-quite-belonging. Home was elsewhere, but home also didn’t exist anymore; ‘home’ was confusing.
We didn’t come back to Sydney to visit that first year (we went to Europe instead – a very smart move on the part of my parents, one I echoed in my first year in London), but the second year we did (thanks to a very generous travel allowance provided as part of my dad’s overseas package from work), and it was… still hard. There were other people living in our house in Sydney, of course, and that was strange. Everything was moving on without us; I still had friends, but they had other priorities and were interested in things I was not part of. I’d expected to feel like coming home, but… it didn’t entirely feel like home anymore.
In contrast to that, of course, there was our stay in New Zealand, with my Oma and Opa. In many ways, their home became my second home over those next years; it changed, but in gradual steps, and without the sense of alienation that came with change in Sydney. Most things, really, stayed exactly the same: it was a place that felt safe.
My paternal grandparents, Grandad and Grandma, were much older. Grandad died before I was born, and Grandma began to sink into dementia when I was still relatively young. In contrast, Oma and Opa had a constant presence in my life. Opa was loving but more distant, a quiet man with whom it was difficult to have real conversations. And Oma, well, she was the heart of the family, the centre of everything. Plump and cuddly, and increasingly child-sized as she got older, Oma was practically perfect as a grandmother. Her great passion in life was for books, and her house reflected that: it was a treasure trove of mostly children’s books, old and new (but mostly old), and every visit meant discovering new treasures and rediscovering old friends.
‘Alice in Wonderland’ was her particular favourite, and her collection of Alice editions took up a whole bookcase in the living room. There were books in every room, though, shelf upon shelf of them: thousands and thousands in total. There were toys, too, and particularly bears. In the mid-90s, Oma started making her own teddy bears. My own, Jacquie Bear, was ‘born’ in April of 1995 (midwife: Oma Filbry), and shipped to me in Atlanta for my birthday in May, or so the handmade passport in her little backpack tells me. Jacquie joined me in my bed the first night after my ex moved out in 2016, and has slept beside me every night I’ve been at home ever since. I came to London with two suitcases, and she was carefully tucked into one of them, my constant companion.
Oma also spent a lot of time in the 90s researching her family history, and eventually writing a book about the family but also her own life experiences. There’s a copy of her book in the library of the Auckland Museum, and later, when they were putting together an exhibit about immigration to New Zealand, that book meant that our family was chosen to represent the Dutch experience. (There is, let me tell you, a great thrill in seeing one’s own family represented in a museum.) That book helped me understand so much more about where I was from, as did visiting Holland with Oma and Opa, and letting them show us the places that were important to them.
Oma and Opa’s house sits at the bottom of One Tree Hill, one of the hundreds of dormant volcanos located in the Auckland area, and a massive park complete with herds of sheep. It was my mother’s childhood home from the age of 7, and so many experiences that I had as a child, staying there, were ones my mother had too, years before. Like my mother and her siblings, my siblings and I used to climb to the top of the hill, spending hours exploring the massive park and trying to avoid stepping in sheep turds. We’d also take trips to the Auckland Museum, to the Wintergarden in the domain, and to Devonport and the beaches and Kelly Tarlton’s aquarium. Clearly, my memories of visiting Oma and Opa are of childhood treats, but above everything, they made me feel safe.
Jacoba Josephina Schoondergang was born in Leiden, the Netherlands, in August of 1925. Her father had a canning factory, and they lived, I think, a very comfortable life. She was fourteen when the second world war began, and spent most of her teenage years living in a country under occupation. The only daughter, she chafed, I think, at being expected to do more household tasks with her mother than any of her brothers: she would much rather have spent all of her time reading a book!
Frans Filbry was the brother of one of her best friends, and she remembers seeing him standing at the top of the stairs and deciding that this was the man she was going to marry. In many ways, it’s difficult for me to understand what drew them together: she was bubbly and bright, warm and friendly, and he damaged by his wartime experiences, quiet and stern and withdrawn. That they loved each other deeply, however, was one thing I was always certain of – a cornerstone of my life.
Faced with post-war life and all it entailed, Frans wanted to get as far away from Holland as it was possible to go, and so – now engaged to Jacoba – he moved to New Zealand. She followed in 1953, travelling by plane (a journey that took, in those days, something like 10 days, always stopping overnight). Despite having both come from reasonably well-off families, they were very much working class in New Zealand. Frans worked for many years in the Holeproof factory in Royal Oak, first on the factory floor and later as a night watchman. They had five children together: Eric, Miriam, Frank, Victor and Helen.
Money was tight, but despite that Jacoba always found ways to buy books – the beginnings of her great collection. Neither of them ever saw their parents again, and indeed, scarcely if ever even spoke to them on the phone. Oma told me, not long after I moved to London, that phone calls were too difficult: just hearing the voices of those she loved made her cry, and the calls were too expensive to be taken up by tears. In later life, they managed to take several trips back, and some of their family members took trips out to New Zealand to see them, too, but it was a long time before that. For me, having also chosen to move across the world, that really struck home. It can be difficult enough for me to be so far away, but I have so many easy and cheap ways to stay in touch. The same was never true for my Oma and Opa.
My mother and her siblings spoke Dutch before they spoke English, it being the language spoken at home, but largely lost their Dutch once they went to school. Nonetheless, their heritage had a big presence in their lives, as it did in mine. Mum remembers eating hutspot on October 3rd to commemorate the siege of Leiden, a meal she says was much more fun to play with than actually eat. They also celebrated Sinterklaas on the 6th of December (and I recall very vividly receiving a chocolate letter ‘L’ each year). Salted dutch liquorice, chocolate hail on buttered bread, speculaas biscuits, borstplaat, croquettes, appelmoes; all of these, for me, taste of my childhood.
I visited less often, in adulthood – I suppose that’s always the way it goes. I was there for Christmas in 2004, for a visit before a holiday with the ex in 2010, and to see Oma while she was in hospital for an extended period in (I think) 2011. Opa died in 2011, and I was back for the funeral; four years later, I was there for Oma’s 90th birthday, the first time the whole family (aside, of course, from Opa) had been together in decades.
The following year I moved to the UK, heavily conscious that I might never see Oma again. We had a few good email exchanges after that – even into her 80s and 90s she picked up enough technology to be on email and even, sort of, facebook – and even a few skype calls when my parents were there, but contact was limited. I’ve never been good at keeping in touch.
I sent her a card for her birthday in 2017, a pop-up card with a bear in it, to combine two of her passions (pop-up books being another of them). The bear was promptly named Concertina Jack, and was still displayed with pride in the living room as of a few days ago. At time of writing that card, I’d already planned a trip back to Sydney for Christmas, and I’d deliberately routed my travel via New Zealand so as to be able to see Oma. Even as I did so, I had the fear that it might be too late, that she might be gone before I made it, but I had to try. She was so thrilled that I was going to visit.
She was noticeably older and frailer that visit. Still mentally there, for the most part, but physically frail. My aunt and uncle took her out for daily drives, though she couldn’t do much at any destination (aside, of course, from drink coffee), which kept her occupied. Her hearing was mostly gone, but we still managed to have some wonderful conversations. She was so proud of me; we spoke at length about my move, my new home.
When I flew back to London, it was with the firm expectation that, this time, it really was the last farewell. I would never come back to that house that had always been my second home, and I would never again hug her or tell her I loved her. I had no plans to be back any time soon – plans for Christmas 2018 involved central America – and how likely was it that she would still be around in two years, or more?
On December 15th, my final day of work for 2018 and the day before I was due to fly to Costa Rica to meet my family for the trip of a lifetime, I was 10 minutes into my commute when my phone rang. It was my mother – and I knew.
Oma, she told me, was in hospital, and it was expected that she had no more than 24-48 hours to live. She had a herniated bowel, and was considered too weak to survive surgery. Clearly, Mum would be flying to New Zealand as soon as possible, and my siblings also intended to do so. What did I want to do?
Of course I wanted to be there, though I wasn’t sure if that was even possible. Would there even be flights available, at this time of year?
12 hours later, I was in the air. I can’t begin to describe what it is like, boarding a long-distance flight in a desperate attempt to reach someone in time, knowing that you’re probably going to be too late. After we landed in Tokyo, more or less the halfway point, my hands were shaking so badly I could barely turn on my phone, dreading what news would be waiting for me.
She was still alive when I landed in New Zealand, just short of 48 hours after the diagnosis. I was rushed from the airport to the hospital, exhausted and sweaty and still wearing my winter clothes. She’d just woken up when I got there, and was conscious enough to talk to me; we all assumed that she’d been holding on just to wait to me, the very last family member to arrive. We all assumed that, now I was there, she’d go quickly.
She was in pain, she was uncomfortable, and she was ready to die, but her body wasn’t ready to let her yet. Between the family, we made sure that someone was with her twenty-four hours a day. The nursing staff were amazing, but they weren’t – couldn’t be – always there; we helped feed Oma sips of water, put balm on her lips, gave her throat spray for her irritated throat. She was happy to have us all there, but she wanted to die and she just couldn’t.
I’ve always been pro-euthanasia, and watching Oma over the last five days of her life, I can only say that I am doubly certain that it is the humane thing to do. At first, we were able to have conversations with Oma. We sang, we read her books, we talked about our lives. She again told me how proud she was of my decision to move. She made jokes, mostly black comedy about dying (she’d close her eyes, as if intent upon deliberately dying then and there… and then open them a few moments later with her eyebrows raised as if to say ‘well? WELL?’).
A priest came in to give her last rights and she asked us all to leave the room – and we could see her inside, waggling her finger at him as she told him exactly how she felt about the Catholic Church’s stance on euthanasia.
It was special, though, to have that time with her – and for the family to gather. I spent more time with my cousins than I have since we were small children. It was hard, but it was also important. One evening, a bottle of wine was brought in and she sucked some of it off a sponge, much as she’d been doing with water for days (there were also some wine ice cubes, because why not).
It got harder and harder to get her out of bed to use the toilet, until they finally put her into an adult nappy instead (apparently, the doctors wanted her on a catheter and the nurses basically revolted and refused to do it – good on the nurses!). It got harder for her to talk. She became more and more agitated, and kept choking. My brother and I did an evening shift with her, from 7-1am, and it was awful. She kept trying to sit up and reach for things, but couldn’t tell us what she wanted. I know she was still partly with it, though, because at one point when I thought she was asking for water, she was actually trying to tell me yet again what a wonderful life I was having in the UK.
The following morning, the doctors decided to take her off the fentanyl she’d been on and put her on morphine. After that, she didn’t really wake up again, not properly. That night was quiet. I came in at about 6.30 that morning (jetlag is good for something) to take over from my aunt and uncle, and she didn’t stir at all in the time I was with her alone. Her breathing was laboured, and sometimes she’d go for ten or fifteen seconds without a breath, meaning I was constantly on alert as to whether she’d stopped breathing altogether.
That morning, the day nurse, Claire, invited us to help her wash Oma for what was likely to be the last time. My mother, aunt Helen, sister and I all helped, carefully wiping her down and then smoothing lotion into her skin. She was so small, so fragile; she never even stirred.
Most of us actually left the hospital for lunch that day, going to the kiosk in the domain (admittedly, right next to the hospital) rather than one of the hospital coffee shops just to get outside for a little while. We were all exhausted, emotionally and physically, after spending long hours – and overnights – in the hospital for most of the week. It was Friday, a full week after the diagnosis.
When we came back into Oma’s room, my cousin Kim was singing to her. Within thirty minutes, between one song and the next, she finally drifted away. In the end, after everything, it was peaceful: she was simply gone.
I’d never witnessed death before.
We held the funeral on Christmas Eve, in the same venue as Opa’s was held seven years previously. It made Christmas a more subdued affair than usual, but also perfect in its own way. It’s probably the last time the whole family will gather like that. It’s certainly the last time we’ll all gather in that house.
The house is crammed full of memories, for me and for everyone else in the family. It is also crammed full of actual stuff, from the thousands of books, the many teddy bears, the antiques, the delft, the art and the detritus of fifty years.
It feels uncomfortable, to me, to be told to go through and pick what I want from a house that has always felt like home to me – like grave-robbing, picking through the remains. But it is important, too, to save the things that matter most to us. I will never see that house again: the house is not in great condition, and the land it sits on is worth potentially a lot of money. By the time I am next in New Zealand, whenever that may be, the house will be long gone.
So yes, I picked through the remains. Two antique and beautiful books have come home with me (a second edition of Jane Eyre, a first edition of Daddy Long-Legs), as has a framed tile depicting two traditional New Zealand villas (not dissimilar in style to the bungalow that is Oma’s house) with One Tree Hill in the background. I’ve also adopted another teddy, Ralph, who will be foster-parented by my parents until such time as they can get him over to me (alas, he did not fit in my luggage), and who will join Jacquie Bear in sharing my bed. Packed away in my boxes in Sydney, I also have an antique writing box that Oma and Opa gifted me from their collection for my 21st birthday. For me, these items will always help me remember.
Not that I need things for that. I am so lucky to have had my Oma for thirty-four years of life. Not many of us get that long!
She was one of the kindest, biggest-hearted women I have ever known. Open-minded, interested in everything, acquisitive when it came to her passions and also generous in sharing; equally, cheeky and full of fun. My mother claims to remember her once flinging a forkful of mashed potatoes at the plate of one of her sons, saying she’d always wanted to do it. My aunt remembers it being a forkful of peas, and no one else remembers it at all, so who knows what really happened – but it makes a great story, and seems entirely in character.
I flew back from Auckland yesterday, spit out of Heathrow airport at 5am to a foggy, damp winter’s morning. It’s hard, being so far from home again. It can be lonely, sometimes.
But then I remember how much harder it was for my Oma and Opa, and how lucky I am that my own parents are only a facebook message away, and that I will see them again later this year, and that when the moment came it was possible for me to fly back to say goodbye.
Watching my Oma die was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but being able to be there for her was one of the most rewarding.
I miss her.