When I was 14 or 15, my uncle Frans came to spend Christmas with my family on our farm. He was a complete novelty to us, this big Dutch sport and candy loving uncle of ours. We opened our presents on December 24 as was our tradition, and I asked my uncle to tell me all the names of the things we were opening in Dutch and I’d parrot them back to him.
I announced that I was going to learn Dutch and his response was “Don’t. It’s a useless language.”
I was a dumb teenager and needless to say, learning Dutch was a passing whim that never evolved beyond learning swear words.
And it’s also something I regret.
When Mum died, we spent a few days going through her stuff, sorting, donating and sharing. We found a box of old letters that she had written to her mum when she was a new mother and beyond. They are all in Dutch, in her somewhat illegible hand. Maybe when my Omi died, mum went there to sort her things, too? I can’t remember. Somehow, she ended up with this box that her Mother saved and that we found buried under stuff.
About 6 months ago, Dad relinquished this box to me. When I got it, I scoured the internet for an over-priced Dutch/English dictionary and began to chip away at what I could. It isn’t easy: Mum writes in a shorthand that she and my Omi shared (much like all mother-daughters, I think). Sometimes, I can’t even decipher the words. I had these grand plans of sitting down one afternoon and powering through, but that’s just silly.
So I take it bit by bit. When I have a bit of time, I take a letter (generally undated, but I can sort of guess when it was written based on the contents) and I work out what I can. It’s not precise science. But it’s a glimpse into a lifetime of raising children and living her life and sharing it with her Mum.
I have a folder in my inbox full of emails between Mum and myself. I still can’t bring myself to read them. It’s still too hard.
Sometimes, the Letters Project makes me extra sad and I put the letters aside for weeks. Other times, I tackle it like an assignment. But above all, it makes me long so much for the little things we used to share as mother-daughter. I miss her notes, her advice, her scoffs. I miss getting emails title “Alo Smotje”… our own shorthand, untranslatable.
September used to be my favourite month. Birthdays, Labour day, renewals, autumn… That’s no longer the case. I think September kind of sucks.
“Oh my God, I’m becoming my mother!”
Don’t I wish.
I’m noticing more and more that we share traits. I am a worrier, like she was. Sometimes, I will look down and notice that my hands rest in the same position hers did. I sip my wine like she did. But I don’t have an ounce of the strength she did. I don’t know how she did it.
The kids and I talk about Omi quite a lot. Will remembers her, Anja claims to. I think they carry more the idea of her than the actual memories. My job is to keep those ideas alive, to share stories and my own memories.
4 years now. 4 years since I (we) lost my guide. 4 years during which our family has grown around her memory and her missing presence. 4 years since much of our family life was dictated by cancer. We don’t talk about her too often. When we do, we always share a laugh and a smile. I still wait for the sadness and the longing to fade. It’s not as acute; it’s more of a fuzzy outline to my day-to-day life that comes and goes. And yet, sometimes it can still completely take my breath away.
Maybe one day, I will finish the letters. Maybe one day, I will be able to share them. Will they be on interest to anyone else? Probably not. But it’s a tangible link to someone I miss so very much. My own guidebook, if you will. A glimpse into a life I miss being a part of. More memories and ideas to share with my children. A salve for the regret I feel at not having taken the time to delve deeper when she was alive. I take comfort in knowing the words and stories are there for me and my family.
I can’t be possible that it’s been 4 years.
Mam, I miss you.
2 thoughts on “4: Missing the little things.”
Shit. These are always your greatest posts. So well written. And ffs, of course you are as strong as your mother.