In most children there is a recurring image of the parent, dead, forever gone. Overwhelmingly this seems to be mother who dies horribly leaving the child alone in the world with little or no hope of surviving. We are as children all potential Bambi’s. All through my childhood as early as I can remember there was the nightmare of being chased into a basement by a tiger, to find my dad dead, the wall splattered with bits of him. Little me standing there utterly without the ability to escape, the great cat’s breath steaming the back of my neck. I’d wake up the sheets drenched, clammy, shaking. Those dreams stopped,just after my father died when I was twenty. Dad was more than a parent he was always, without question, an ally in life, the only person in whom I had total trust.
Several times a week my mother and I made the trip into Rotterdam. Mams had her voice lessons and rehearsals. Mams had an incredible mezzo-soprano voice, warm, agile without any affectation. When I was two she had applied for national audition and won a place on scholarship at the conservatory, her private lessons were also on scholarship. since my father was also a student there was a scarcity of monies which necessitated taking me everywhere rather than parking me with a baby sitter. What luck, limitless concerts by the best opera had to offer. Some very impressive divas sung me lullabies, and some of them seemed to be nice people (I said some!)
This particular time it was a very overcast and rainy day. On the way to rehearsal mams took me to the nearby bakery for a fresh buttered bun with brown sugar. It was not good to have me become fussy from hunger part way through rehearsal. It was not difficult to be completely amused during rehearsal, the music was wonderful. Spectacular drams took place between the director, conductor and cast. There was a great deal of huffing and puffing and ruffling of feathers. There were not dull people here, many of them found time to focus on me, I was allowed to browse through purses and many chocolates were employed bribing me to silence during their arias. During lunchtime we would walk to the walking malls where the most beautiful parrots perched, occasionally screeching insults at passers-by. There was a second buttered bun in mama’s purse for having on a bench while watching traffic pass by.
Around three we would pack it all up and rush to the bus-stop. I would take my nap on the way home. It wasn’t worth fighting sleep based on the scenery. Only what seemed like many miles of polder landscape, one long horizon with dirt on the bottom and dark grey sky above. The only wildlife was the occasional gull. I’d seen it all before.
I was half dazed stepping out of the bus. The brick lane atop the dike was glistening with rain. A light fog billowed up from the ground at the bottom of the dike. Not all of this polder was ready to build on yet. The ground could be very unstable, especially after a long rain. We stayed on the roadway, walkway really there were no cars, this was foot and bicycle traffic only. We would take the stairs to the walkway and then walk straight ahead until the buildings of Hoogvliet appeared. The first few buildings were stores, not many, it was all very new here. Most shopping was done at the weekly market or on the other side of Hoogvliet where there were shops who accepted the rationing coupons. To make the walk more enjoyable mams and I would sing and skip.
Suddenly there was a lot of fuss and screaming. Just directly ahead there were people standing just off the road. It took a few hard looks to notice what was up. it is very hard to focus one’s little eyes with raindrops falling in them and mother pulling you along. although I could not see the man clearly, I was instantly convinced it was my father. He was tall, lanky and had a balding head. his coat was long and dark. Of course that description fit most every second man living there. Reason, if I’d been old enough to have reason, would have cast considerable doubt. After all my father did not come home for some time. At age four, most kids are a little fuzzy about where fathers spend those hours. work can simply be defined as something father did when he was not at home.
New polder was quicksand in places. That’s why the buildings here were erected on the most enormous pylons hammered into the soft near liquefied ground by pounding machine you can imagine. Most of my morning started out with these hammering machines pounding pylons at daybreak. Day by day the giant orange and black hammers would move a little further away. All of Amsterdam is built on pylons, one marvels how this was achieved without the use of combustion engines. These were not a little noisy, these were very angry monsters and the earth would lightly shake so we could feel it living on the second floor.
On this day a man had gone off the walkway, trying to cut some time off his daily commute. On this day it did not take a great hammer striking him to get the man started sinking into the ground. I saw him second by second, sinking. An no one could do anything. A few of the bystanders had linked themselves together trying to reach him. It was not possible. Before his outstretched arm could grab theirs the earth had swallowed him up whole. I yelled, I don’t know what I yelled, I just remember yelling and my throat hurt I yelled so loud. My screams were only part of the cacophony emanating from the polder. My mother grabbed me and pulled me away from there as fast she could. Just as the men with stretchers and digging equipment were coming down the walkway. I cried, sobbed. My mother did not make a sound. Five years of living in the middle of an urban war zone had made her very efficient at dealing with moments like these. I can only imagine now how she might have felt. I only remember how silent she was and how quickly we got home.
I was put on my little box by the stove my coat left on until the coals got hot enough. Mams who had still not said anything was already clanging teacups and putting on a kettle. Stressful moments at home always involved some hot sweet beverage. Al I warmed up I heard nothing but the reassuring rush of her skirt brushing back and forth behind me. We sat and had a little sweet tea and a cookie. She kept telling me dad was going to be home for dinner. I doubted her. I’d seen him swallowed up by the ground, with my own eyes. Still I wanted her to prove me wrong. She was making dinner, peeling potatoes. Now I was starting to think maybe she knew better.
I was still sad, if it was not my dad, it was someone’s dad (since it follows all balding men were dads) and children want their daddies. I was warming up, and it was a very good cookie. I watched as each coil of potato peel fell to the floor.
My father had a distinctive walk. I always listened for him, if the dog made his way toward the door it was a very good bet dad was nearby. I could hear his “pet, pet, pet” sound in the stairway, I could hear him brush the soles of his shoes as he always did against the doormat. She did not lie. He was home. I clung to his corduroy pantsed legs and my mother very quickly told him how the man had sunk into the polder and how I had become certain it was him. I don’t know for certain if this was the day the nightmares started, I do know I never took parents for granted. I did not tell them how scared I was and how sad because he was probably someone’s dad. That kind of thing was not encouraged. It was all made out to be not quite so important. In the scheme of things, since they both had grown up in the middle of a war, perhaps it was not devastating anymore for them, and perhaps they could not remember back to a time when death was not part of the daily landscape. I was terrified for a very long time. Certainly I never wandered off the path, I am still very much a between the fences sort of person. That was a very costly shortcut.