In 2022, Westerly partnered with the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP) to offer its inaugural Life Writing Prize. On the Editor’s Desk, we have the pleasure and privilege of sharing two works which were Highly Commended in the Prize. Here is Robert Verhagen’s ‘Herinnering’. Also Highly Commended was Marina Deller’s ‘Dresses, Heavy with Water’.
The inaugural winner of the Prize was Suzanne Hermanoczki, with ‘Doors’. The runner-up was Lily Chan, for ‘avatar’. Both works will be published in Issue 68.1, coming in July!
If you would like to enter this year’s Prize, you can find all the information you need here. The closing date for submissions is June 30!
My grandparents’ grave in Springvale is a rectangular tomb in the back corner of the Catholic area, the family name carved in capital letters at its base. Fifty years has picked away much of the gold in the lettering. The figures of Mary and Jesus stand behind padlocked plastic windows either side of the headstone. The locks are rusted. I gather that someone must have had the keys at some time, but I wouldn’t know who. There are too many relatives to ask.
My father grew up in the Netherlands, the second youngest of twelve children. He and his siblings were all born over such a span of time that, for most of them, childhood did not represent a collective experience but the unfolding of separate histories. The eldest was born in the thirties, during the ‘crisis years’ of the Depression. Then came the war, then the post-war years when my father was born, and the early fifties. My youngest aunt, born in 1952, reports no memories of Holland, nothing before the family’s first rental in Elwood, although she was eight when they left in 1960.
My father, the youngest boy, has next to no memory of his eldest brother, Tony, from his farm days. Tony, fifteen years Dad’s senior, was in the seminary by the time Dad was in school, overseas before he even knew where overseas was.
Though the twelve did not share a childhood, their formative memories, expressed in the stories I have heard, all carry the pruning of childhood labour. They inherited work as the natural order of the peasantry. It touched everything in life, down to the design of their home, for the Brabantian housebarn was an architectural tradition whose deference to utility came as part of a broader regard in Dutch culture for thrift as a religious virtue. In their case there was a door, both literal and allegorical, between domestic and agricultural life; and the animals had larger quarters.
I have seen the boerderij where my father grew up. I have tried to penetrate its renovation, to imagine my father scratching his scurvy in bed with his brothers. They were known at school as scheurfkatjes—scurvy kittens—an ironic insult for a family who worked a farm where the prevailing crop was potatoes. Even the crops were utilitarian: potatoes were sold to market, fed to the children, fed to the pigs. That was another name for them. Pig farmers. Varkenboeren.
To me, Dutch words sound their meanings. Vark, the screech of a pig on the castrating stool. Klomp, the sound of wooden clogs. The word for remembering—herinnering—has a circular sound, a repetitious, back-throated assonance—not quite a palindrome, but close enough. That is what remembrance is for the Dutch family I know: not quite complete. They have no other word for it except herinnering, a word that begins and ends in different places, though the middle syllables repeat.
My mother—who isn’t Dutch—says they leave out the most important information. You ask a Dutch person for directions and they will give you the street but not the number. As I have learned the language, I have come to suspect this is because, in their sentences, the verb comes last, a syntactic form of putting off the action; by the time they reach the end they are liable to forget what they meant to do.
Some other words sound how they’re practised. I learned this when I read van Gogh’s letters. He was a suitable totem for me, having grown up in the region of Brabant where my father was born, and having taken his life only thirteen years before my grandfather was born.
In van Gogh’s letters to his brother, I learned that ‘woe’ is pronounced way, and ‘courage’ is moot. It made me think of other words as onomatopoeic; the future, for instance, is toekomst, to come. And yet, there is no mention of what came after on my grandparents’ death certificates, only that they died—overleden. This is a word that sounds as heavy in Dutch as its homophone in English, and is not far from one of the few words the Dutch reserve for the past: verleden tijd. Dead times. I read overleden in this way, burdened with the weight of a past that does not belong to me, but that I carry anyway.
When the family arrived in Australia in 1960 they were too European to be Australian, and too wog to be European. Dad—at ten years old—was so quick to become Australian that he forgot his Dutch. But all these years later, Oma’s sayings come back to him in English.
‘Always leave a little bit of room for later on.’ I cannot count how many times Dad has said this to me as he wraps cheese in cling wrap so tight it will last till the Second Coming. In the Netherlands, the government considered the family self-sufficient, so they were ineligible for welfare, except the little money Opa borrowed from the farmers’ bond. Twelve scorbutic children eating potatoes every meal, half born before the Second World War and its Hunger Winter of 1944, half born after, but all affected, like the rings of a tree which tighten in lean years. Some events are so harrowing they leave genetic marks that never go away; this reminds me how, in his hurry to forget the past, Dad forgot his language as well. Yet, now, it has found him again. What is dead has nowhere to go.
Ever since I can remember I have sat between my father’s anglicisation of our surname and his siblings’ dogged commitment to the Dutch, the difference between pronouncing the central vowel low front or low back. I have corrected my surname’s pronunciation for so long that, these days, I go by whatever comes first. But Dad was reborn on his naturalisation certificate, his mouthful of strong Dutch Latin names spat out for English.
People talk about novels losing their nuance when they are translated, but what about a name? What happens to a person when they are translated, especially so young? And what happens, much later in life, when their tongue folds back into the syllables of its youth? Now, sixty years since he stepped off the boat, Dad’s Dutch has found him again, and with its memories he says to me fondly: ‘You know, I had the best childhood in Holland.’
I look over Opa’s given names, etched on the tablet at the cemetery in Springvale: Bernardus Maria. Maria was common for Catholic boys as well as girls—it was Oma’s middle name as well—but the census office changed it to the masculine Mario when he emigrated, because Maria didn’t make sense for a man in Australia in the sixties. And although his family finally put it right on his headstone, all it took to force assimilation was the stroke of a pen. Is that what I am doing? Trying to measure dead events with the imperfect reach of words?
I gather up the shreds of decayed second-hand memories, clarified in the different variations of the same stories my father has repeated over decades.
‘Dad was very backward,’ he tells me. ‘He used to make us bind the sheaves of wheat by hand—by hand!—like the Israelites.’ He tells me how, when all the other farmers were using machines, Opa drove a horse and plough by whip. Once the horse took off in a gallop while he was strapped to the plough, and dragged him along the ground. When the horse finally stopped, Opa flogged the animal so hard it almost died.
Opa was a cruel man. Quiet, but cruel. He had a manner of clearing his throat—h’m-hurm—which Dad carries on without noticing, and which I have accidentally picked up; once, when one of Dad’s brothers, thinking himself out of earshot, mocked the way he coughed, Opa turned and cast a hammer at him, knocking my uncle out cold.
One of the other stories Dad tells is how Opa tied up the third eldest, Jan, with the pigs. Jan’s offence has been lost in that story, but after hearing it so many times I feel as though the crime is not as important as the punishment. I have stood in that renovated kitchen, where the pigs once styed in squalor, and I have imagined Jan tied up in shit, piss and straw—though it is hard to see through the porcelain tiles. The question that first arose in my mind: where was Oma?
And yet, for all the scurvy and Old Testament parenting, Dad says it was the best ten years of his life.
I ask him how that could be, when they were so poor. He says he doesn’t remember being hungry, but he also gets angry when I drink the last of the wine, or when food passes its expiry date uneaten, or when I stay too long in the shower.
‘Mum used to fill the bathtub with hot water,’ he says, ‘and the girls would line up, the cleanest first and dirtiest last, and they would all go through the same bath, so that the dirty ones wouldn’t waste it for the clean. The water was black by the end.’ No amount of potatoes, I see, was ever going to prevent scurvy.
I have read that I will shed my body a thousand times in life, through hair, nails and skin, and end up with more of the place around me in my biology than what I was born with. That would make me a different person if my body didn’t insist on recopying its old self, so that, unlike a photocopy, the facsimile does not fade with each iteration but grows stronger. My father’s old facsimile is growing stronger by the day. He remembers more Dutch at random, as if, in his seventies, his mind is becoming a child’s again. He takes on the habits of his parents too.
People talk about their parents getting old—in Australia we are obsessed with retirement age, now stopping work so young that the word ‘grandparent’ has lost its patina. Retirement has become a career. If that is getting old, I know nothing about it. I only know what it’s like to have a parent become more Dutch. For every sentence to end in ‘yap’. For them to start conversations which trail away without endings. To disappear into the garden early in the morning. Not be able to sit still. To start the car and drive away to some fruit tree by the side of the road to harvest oranges so they ‘will not go to waste’. Not want to retire because the Dutch word for past is the same as death. The perennial combat against retirement reminds me that Dad used to say seventy-five was his deadline for retirement. Now it’s a ‘target’. He knows as well as I that a target can be missed.
I thought for a long time that it was the opportunity of Menzies’ Australia that drew my grandparents away from the soil of their deep ancestry. But at one point I started to wonder, if conditions were so bad in the Netherlands, why did some of the family stay? Like Jan, the one tied up with the pigs. And why did some of the children go back? These questions were clarified when my aunt, my oldest surviving Dutch relative, told me by accident that the family’s emigration was not their choice, but Oma’s, so that she could reclaim something she had lost.
‘My mother could not face the fact that she could not see her son, Tony,’ she said, of the uncle I never knew. ‘Tony had to emigrate to Australia. She could not stand that she could not see her son. So she talked my father into selling the farm to her brother-in-law. She could not face it. She could not see her son.’
The eldest son, who made Oma so proud when he joined the seminary and the holy orders of the priesthood. But, for reasons I will never know, he left the seminary and came to Australia to drive taxis. In a reversal of the fable of the prodigal son, my grandmother chose to displace most of her twelve children for the sake of one, and for the sake of herself.
This proves to me that, as is so common in history, what is often supposed to be economic is usually emotional; what has been, for me, scripted into family folklore as a rational decision was, I expect, irrational. It explained why the stories of Opa’s militant personage seemed to stop with the boat. Why there is no recollection of him hurting any of the kids in Australia. Only ever ‘on the farm’. Dad tells me that his father didn’t talk to anyone much in the new country. That he struggled to learn English when he came out. Dad’s stories of Opa later in life, as a linesman for the Postmaster General, describe the hard casing of a man threshed of his anger. In Australia, ultimately, he lost control of his family—the twelve children who had once laboured for him before school and after school. Oma lost control too, though she often wore blinkers.
When Dad came home drunk one night, vomiting everywhere, Oma said: ‘He must have eaten something bad.’ And, despite Tony’s boozing and smoking and abuse, she never allowed it to sully the memory of his short adolescent years in the seminary, years of pride that no obloquy could diminish. Dad remembers her crying when Tony stopped going to church in Australia. ‘Won’t you come at least on my birthday?’ she asked.
I wonder, if she was so willing to excuse the shortcomings of her children, what wrongs could she have excused in Opa, years before they sailed through the Suez Canal?
Of course, this can only ever be a question, and it may not be a fair one. But when I see on the grave Sadly missed by all of our large family, I am reminded that in every speech, at every family reunion, there is often a remark about all the children my relatives have borne. A nod in the direction of the newest infant. Praise for Oma, bearing twelve children, three miscarriages among them. I wonder if she and Opa thought of twelve as too many to care for; too many to educate. Or if duty allowed them to think these things at all.
Dad fidgets all the time, always touching himself, adjusting his belt, moving his hands over surfaces. He says he has a little St Vitus’ dance, but I don’t believe it. He says his body’s always itchy because he helped his brothers make fibreglass when he was a teenager. But once, at dinner, he let slip that he was raped by a teenage girl from the commission flats behind the football pitch back in Holland, and I watched his hand move up and down over his thigh as he said it.
I did not know how to ask about it then. He said it so suddenly, as though he did not realise what he had given away. In the intervening time it has clarified, for me, all the other half-admissions—things that first appeared in isolation which I now see hanging along a common thread. Why, when my aunt snuck out to a dance and returned early the following morning, Oma said to Opa: ‘Just, leave her be, now.’ My aunt told me that story with a neglect for the shadow behind her mother’s plea. Of the little I know about Opa, I know that, nightly, he sat at the head of the table, watching the children recite the rosary with a fire poker by his chair. ‘I don’t remember him ever using it,’ Dad said. I cannot claim to know the truth simply because there are questions unanswered. Yet I am sensitive to a grief that cannot be voiced. I feel entitled only to a part of it, though I am affected by the whole. My father has, either by effort or neglect, forgotten much of it, though things resurface from time to time. What is the ethics of dealing with a grief you’ve inherited from someone else, when that person’s means of coping is to forget? How can I forget what I have not yet learned how to explain?
The dark is deep in Dad’s memory now. I have discovered the limits of dredging it up with him, and with his relatives; I have made peace with the emptiness that remains around what little I have been told, and with the unconscious auditing of memory left for me to find.
He has never suggested we visit his parents’ grave in Springvale, so I have come alone. I don’t feel the ambivalence I expected. Opa was dead ten years before I was born. Oma two months. So I thought I would find them strangers. Yet, though I don’t cry, I am not so apathetic. It’s the discovery of the tomb itself that gratifies me—to see my family name in stone, having, in the past, traipsed through the tidy graveyards of my father’s birthplace without finding a single name to hang on the branches of my family tree. When my grandparents left the farm, it appears they left behind a history as well. No small part of that history—the generations of dead—had long been overridden by the Dutch code of utility: without an ongoing lease, cemetery plots are still recycled every twenty years.
And yet, though my grandparents may be no closer to me than strangers, I see curves of them in my shadow and my father’s, and I know that we walk but a few steps ahead of them, for all the years that have perished in-between.
If we are constantly shedding skin and consuming the world around us, it stands to reason that we are made of the place in which we live. But a closer examination of my father reveals that he is actually a silhouette, the shadow of many forms standing distantly along a line; from where I stand I can see they cast a single shadow, a dark shape into which I fit.
Perhaps I should not be surprised that language is imperfect. An imperfect tool for an imperfect job, the job of rucking together so many unmatched pieces—the grief of an old country transplanted into a new; and my name, which belongs to the stumbling tongues of others.
It does not surprise me, then, that stories have only two possible endings—happy or sad. And I suspect those endings are reliant on how long a story lasts. Only the short stories—the anecdotes and reminiscences my father shares—can ever be made out as wholly happy. When those anecdotes are brought together into the wider weave of a more serious narrative, there is a chance that happiness will pall, or at the very least, that there will be gaps, silences which are their own explanations.
How something can be reduced so simply when it is built of bricks as broken as sentences is beyond me—but I have an advantage on the words. I can still use them better than they can use me. Their meanings are what I make of them. Like the Dutch word for melancholy, weemoed, which is neither happy nor sad: though the first part means woe, the second is courage. And although the Dutch do not have a language for the past, their language implies that it takes a certain aching courage to face up to the years with no name, knowing they may not lead anywhere, but confronting them in search of meaning nonetheless.
Robert Verhagen is an emerging writer based in the Yarra Valley. He holds a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing from the University of Melbourne and has been published by Meniscus Literary Journal and Grattan Street Press. Beyond fiction, Robert chairs a community not-for-profit magazine in the Kinglake Ranges, and teaches creative writing in classrooms across Victoria.