Friday, April 2, 2010

Apr 2/10 Beginnings and Endings

Apr 2/10 Beginnings and Endings, originally uploaded by susanvg.

Spring brings rebirth as nature wakes up. Today also brought the death of my late husband's mother. She was one month short of her 102nd birthday, long past her "best before" date. Her stubborn and tenacious attitude kept her alive. I have written about her before.

She was born in Rotterdam in 1908 to a middle class family. She married at 21 and shortly thereafter left for Indonesia with her husband who was in the Dutch colonial service. Though she had servants, as the wife of a high-ranking official, she also had to get used to living in more primitive housing, at times without electricity, in a time when contact with "home" could take months. Her first two children were born there. When the Second World War reached Indonesia, the family, along with all the Dutch civilians, was interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, my father-in-law in one camp, their son in another and my mother-in-law and their daughter in a third. They all survived, though they lost many family members in Europe. When my mother-in-law became pregnant after the war, they decided it would be best for her to return to Holland to give birth, as the infrastructure in Indonesia was decimated. She stayed there until my husband was about 8 months old and then flew back to Indonesia, a lengthy ordeal in 1947.

When Indonesia got its independence from the Netherlands, the family returned to Holland and a year later moved to Montreal where my husband was raised. His older brother and sister started families. When my father-in-law retired in 1969, he and my mother-in-law moved to Florida where they remained until the mid 1980s. 1982 was the beginning of tough times for my mother-in-law. Within the span of 13 years she lost her youngest son, her husband and her daughter. Then in 2005, the last of her three children died. I am sure she had grown a thick carapace to shield her from more hurt.

She was never an easy woman, demanding attention and expecting others to bend to her wishes. She had a sharp tongue and was never afraid to criticize. I was often the brunt of her comments. Snobbish, perhaps from her days as the wife of a colonial bigwig, she had a sense of entitlement. She considered herself above many people, who did not travel, or did not think the way she did. This limited friendships and activities that she would join. And at her advanced age, friends and relatives had pre-deceased her. My mother-in-law was very independent and fought against her diminishing autonomy, angry that she could no longer go off shopping or sit over coffee in a cafĂ© with friends. Despite all that, I respected her; she has been my responsibility for the last four years. After her 100th birthday her cognitive function diminished and she blurred time, asking about her long-deceased relatives and why they weren’t visiting. She did not go down quietly and fought for her dignity. In her prime she could be formidable. It was hard to watch her crumble.

I think about the changes she has seen in the world in her lifetime and the places she has been. She has witnessed the birth of air travel, two world wars, the end of European colonialism and so much more. She has lived on three continents and has travelled to five. I feel as if an era has ended. She was from another time and now her time is over.


  1. Oh goodness- I just wrote a comment for you and lost it.

    Just writing to say it was sad to see the passing of an era.



  2. She definitely lived a full life. The picture and writing make for a thoughtful goodbye.

  3. Such a long and varied life. A woman to be heard and to be dealt with - her character and strong will is what kept her going so long, I suspect. You're right -an era has passed with her.

  4. What a fascinating, but at the same time sad, account of a long and eventful life. Thank you for sharing, Susan. I feel that I was on time travel reading it.

  5. The changes this woman has seen are hard to imagine. I wonder if they'll say the same of us. I think she was lucky to have had you in her life.