In my family two of the sweet people were my maternal grandparents in The Netherlands (Holland) who I called Beppe (grandmother) and Pake (grandfather). They had each lived through WWI (when the Netherlands was able to be considered a neutral country), lost a farm in the years of the Great Depression, and lived through the terror of Nazi occupation in World War II (6 years) and then didn’t enjoy the hard work of having a farm again, until they were well past middle age. Their sweetness clearly came from spirituality, gratitude and fellowship. I will be telling you more of their stories.
My paternal grandmother who I called Oma (a different word for grandmother – long story) was not as sweet, she had lost so much of the life of others, that she lost much of her own life.
She lost her husband in Japanese concentration camps in the Dutch East Indies, tried to keep her children safe during the same brutal years, lost her home in the Dutch East Indies, returned to no home in the Netherlands, found out her parents had died, and that after all her fighting for life, that something in her had died. This was before PTSD was understood, so she received no help with knowing that trauma causes a temporary death inside. Here she is in the 1950’s, in Nederland The Netherlands, safe again.
I have a sweet memory of Oma I treasure. It was 1965. We were one year into living in the U.S. as Dutch immigrants. I was seven years old, and Oma came to visit. Her full shiny gray hair curved around her pale face. Her dark eyes reflected the shadows under her eyes. Frequently she said, “Keurig,” an untranslatable Dutch word connotating order, perfection, all your ducks in a row. When we were on a road trip on schedule, it was keurig, when my mother served a meal, it was keurig. She relished her food, as you would expect from one who starved for almost four years in Japanese concentration camps. She strode along everywhere we hiked in sturdy shoes everywhere we went, including a road trip to the Grand Canyon, but did not have the gleam of life in her eyes that Beppe en Pake had.
Shortly after our road trip I went to sleep pleased to be in a sleeping bag because Oma was our guest, and we had all been shuffled around. I awoke in the dark, from a nightmare that blankets were endlessly piling on top of me. Terrible flu like fever left me drenched and I had released diarrhea in the sleeping bag. Shivering in a cold sweat, icky, confused, befuddled I needed help with my mess. I felt ashamed of my mess and the diarrhea left behind and leaking down my legs, like shame I was carrying along. I was not keurig. I wandered from the basement to the upper floor like I was in a dangerous land I had never been in before. I found Oma and told her I was sick.
She spoke to me softly, peeled off my pajamas, washed me off and found a clean dry place for me to sleep. I can’t remember where, maybe she tucked me in next to her. The rest of the night was peace, I don’t remember another moment. All the mess went away because of Oma.
Now in 2011 I realize something new. I always thought I asked for Oma’s help because of my turmoil, let’s ask Oma, she won’t be upset.
What do I realize today? She helped me because she was awake. How often in her life did she do night-duty, the night-duty of the hurt who don’t sleep solidly? I had no idea. That night she treated me as she must have treated her children, my father and Oom (uncle) Herman before they were sent one-at-a-time to mens’/boys’ camps and another one and a half years for my Tante (Aunt) Mechtelien when they each sick in turn with malaria, dystentery, and no medicines. Oma showed me I was safe and cared for that night. Although I never knew her well, she gave me as much comfort as my mother or father would have. Comfort. She gave more comfort than she had received.
A meaningfulness exercise for you: Write down the name of someone who gave you great comfort when you needed it most. Contemplate your memory.
Mine says, “Oma comforted me when I was ill and didn’t know where to turn.”
Now add the spiritual, for faith so often works through people to bring us sweetness, “Grace comforted me when I was ill and didn’t know where to turn.”
What is your own spiritual belief and wonder about comfort? I like to think about how the Holy Spirit is thought of as the Holy Comforter.