It is somewhere in the mid-90s as I visit my grandmother in The Hague. I am in my mid-twenties. Normally the whole family would be there, usually on her birthday. But this is not her birthday, it is just me and her. Her reputation of a divider of daughters, a bitter complainer and a husband divorcer is gone now and it is just us two, in her apartment on the 10th floor of the old people’s flat. Yellow parakeets are flying around her place and her parrot copies some of our words from its cage.

She offers me a cigarette from what looks like a silver mug. I decline, not because I don’t smoke, but because they are ultra-light tasteless cigarettes. My grandmother lights one up. I look at the pictures on top of her TV; standing up, framed, is a picture of my grandmother looking in her twenties I’d say, dressed in a fur coat, stylishly smoking a cigarette. Next to her sits a lightly dressed, handsome man with curly hair who is not my grandfather.
“I’ve always wondered who that was, Oma Z.” – that’s what I call her.
“That was Ernst, the love of my life” she says while puffing out some smoke.
“Who was he?” I ask, thinking: why not my grandfather?

She tells me the story of Ernst and Indonesia, the outbreak of the second world war, that she had already met my grandfather Max but favoured Ernst, who was half Jewish and had some connection with Indonesia, still a Dutch colony at that time, that they moved there, married and had a kid, my aunt Renée, but that the war followed them, that they were incarcerated by the Japanese into a ‘Jappenkamp’ a concentration camp, and that Ernst died there and that my grandmother thought she was protected by guardian angels.
I imagined my young grandmother with a baby at her feet holding the vertical bars from the camp while angels hovering over her.
“Then what happened?” I ask. She continues: “Once the Japanese got defeated and the camp got liberated I went with my young daughter back to Holland. There I reconnected with Max, who never stopped loving me throughout the war and he proposed to me.”
I imagine my grandfather going on to his knee in front of my grandmother who would still wear a fur coat but a child on her lap and a tear in her eye.
“Your grandfather was the hairiest man I have ever seen,” she says, and I think of how many men she must have seen. “He was short and had hair all over his back.”
There is no picture of him in her apartment. In the other room is an oval picture of me where I am about 12 years old, smiling and still tanned from the summer holiday.
“Your grandfather had returned from the war a parentless, broken man as I had returned from Indonesia a widow, that’s how we reunited.”
“Holocaust!” the parrot yells.

“I hope you don’t become a lerner like your grandfather..”, Oma says.
“Lerner? Learner?” I think, “What do you mean?” I ask.
“That’s a Jewish thing where a man is studying all day while his wife works. Max was like that, he studied and studied, mostly biblical stuff. I raised the children.”
She looks at me and lights another cigarette.
“You like to draw and such, comics and all. You clearly have a talent. Just don’t waste it, that’s all I can say. Don’t waste your talent. Otherwise you’ll be sorry for the rest of your life.”

A month later I get a phone call she is dead.

The sand nestled itself between my little toes. I had never been to the beach with my mother before. Usually when I visited her we would go to the park or just cycle around the city, with me on the little seat at the front of her bike, my eyes navigating our way.

This time however, she took me on a short train trip to the coast on a mid-week day somewhere in May. She smelled kind of funny. A mixture of a rosy perfume and cigarettes, and her skin had something strangely familiar, in its somewhat pale complexion.

Back home it always smelled like fresh bread, as we lived on the second floor above a bakery. But that day when my mother came and collected me, it was the first time I realised that she, despite her constant smoking, smelled actually very nice and not just because of the perfume. For the first time in my life I felt a kinship and more than before I was interested where my mother would take me this time.

She had to choose the train compartment filled with a bluish layer of smoke and lots of grownups. My polite coughs were unnoticed until the dunes appeared from behind the clouds. My mother started talking, something about when I was a baby or something, but my attention took another path towards the windows that had a picture on them, a red circle with a hand holding a bottle.

We walked from the station across some grey, cubical houses towards the beach and I started running towards it, into the sand, leaving my sandals behind. I had been to the beach before, just not here and not with my mother. She slowly took off her flip-flops and walked towards me, into the sand and smiled at me.

I ran towards the sea, cold at first, but warmer on a shimmy. I saw my mother standing just before the shore. I looked back the other way. The sea had a gradient that went from a darkish muddy brown between my feet to a grey blue, ending up in a stark and abrupt dark ending at the horizon, only interrupted by the grey-whitish waves. Above it all, a pale blue sky was watching, with some laughing seagulls flying in formation in front of an impressive army of woolly clouds.

I walked back to my mother, who was now sitting in the sand, smoking a cigarette, looking at me with some frowns above the eyes, but also static, unmovable, seemingly in deep thought.

She started talking again, but I noticed my wet feet had absorbed all the sand and little balls of wet sand were starting to form on my skin that I could rub off gently with my hands. Now and then my mother would stop talking and I would look at her, with her blue veins slightly visible through her skin and her blond hair, just like mine.

Maybe the man with the hat is my real father. Hiding behind his newspaper four seats away in the train. I spoke with him over the phone a couple of weeks ago, but all I had was this tiny photograph of him. His face was pushed half out of the picture frame by me, a two-year old smiling white-haired chubber. His half-face, dressed with a neatly trimmed beard and metal-framed glasses seems absent, as if he knows this will be the last time he sees me. It is over fifteen years later now, and I am on my way to meet him. I am looking at the square picture my mother only recently gave to me, as if it were a secret file released by a collapsed regime revealing personal stuff from the past.

All I did was ask my mother who my father was a couple of months ago when I saw her at the birthday. She wrote his name on a piece of paper together with his phone number. After that she sent the picture by post.

I look at the picture again. It really is tiny. My mother must have taken it, which might explain his absent look as well. It really didn’t work between the two.

Who is he? What does he look like now? He could also be on his way home to meet me coming from my direction. Will he recognise me? Parents should have a natural gift for that.

The man with the hat looks at me. Nervously I look away. It is not him. I can tell, because I don’t feel anything, at least not recognition.

low light

low light

The empty landscape passes by outside. It is a mild November day and the low sun casts a warm orange-yellow light through the train carriage. A bunch of kids, probably my age, are chatting and laughing, but I don’t hear them.

Upon arrival at the station I merge into the crowd. It is a Saturday and people seem very excited. I get into the tram and manage to get a seat. By now, it has turned dark outside.

Inside the tram I see all faces. This little kid is looking at me, his mum staring outside. Could he tell I am on my way to meet my father? I must look suspicious. No need to worry, I tell myself, soon all will be clear. Weather my father is a wealthy man, an intellectual, an overaged hippy or some bum, it shouldn’t matter. At least I know then and I can move on.

A sudden wind blows in my face when I turn the corner walking into his street. The tall apartment houses on one side of the street are overlooking a canal and an open space on the other side. The rhythmic street lights throw a dark orange light onto the row houses. In one of them my father lives. I look at the piece of paper again my mother gave to me, on which I had added his home address, and checked the number.

Door after door, window after window, the number slowly increases and after about a minute or so I reach the right number. It is not a door facing the street, rather it is a portal with steps upwards towards a little hallway with four doors next to each other. His name is on the right door. I put the piece of paper away and try to imagine what he looks like. I am more nervous than ever before, but manage to suddenly push the doorbell.

At first it stays quiet. I swallow. Then, a gentle ruffle sounds and a hall light goes on. Footsteps reveal a nature not that different than mine. The door opens and the bright light blinds me with me just coming from the dark outside. I can see the silhouette of a person my size and slowly the face of the man from the picture appearing on it. The voice I heard on the telephone asks me if I had a good journey and if I prefer tea or coffee.


Picture: Man in a Bowler Hat (1964) by Rene Magritte

I enter the hospital room and there he is, sitting up straight in his bed with his bald head hanging low into his hands. Even though I can’t see his face, his thin long fingers reveal his bones. He doesn’t seem to notice me.

Outside the room on the hallway are my mother and his second current wife, the both of them holding guard. They close the door behind me. I get closer to him and whisper his name. Slowly he raises his head.

The illness had eaten away his temples and cheeks, his eyes were some bulging marbles hanging in caves next to his still prominent but thinned nose. Not much was left of his neck and his mouth revealed his teeth even through his skin.

Yet upon noticing me his eyes light up. He mentions my name and a faint smile appears on his thin lips. He says something about how glad he is that I came to visit. I keep on looking at him knowing it will be the last time.

Here is the man who adopted me as a baby with his then wife, my mother now sitting outside on the hallway, and after they got divorced continued to be a welcoming man. In summer I often would spend my school holiday with him and his second wife and their son. I remember him walking around the house naked, visitors or not. He would be sitting on some rattan chair reading a book and I would be wondering how painful that must feel. More so, I would be reading one of his many comic books. From Robert Crumb for example, prompting me to think of my father as Mister Natural and his infinite meditation sessions, or from Heavy Metal, the science fiction magazine containing my first female fantasy, making me not wanting to join in and walk around the house naked myself. I felt as embarrassed as excited.

This was only a couple of years ago and now here I am, not even 16 years old, looking at Mister Natural in his hospital bed soon to be rolling out his meditation rug for eternity. I know how much he has been in pain the last couple of months and how he must be delirious from the morphine in his body. But that faint smile he just gave was genuine and so is the glimmer in his eyes looking at me. It is as if he is now more naked than ever before and all I can see is his soul, smiling at me forever.

The ground underneath the feet of the quiffed reporter and his talking dog is heating up so much that the asphalt is melting. At the same time, a mysterious star appears in the evening sky, next to the big dipper. The curious reporter decides to call the star watch.

It is Friday late afternoon. The smell of onion meatballs and gravy appears, together with the sound of talking heads on the kitchen radio. I close my door and continue reading my comic.

According to the star watching scientists the star is actually an approaching meteorite bound for the destruction of Earth. Luckily instead, all it does is causing a massive earthquake and our hero is send out for an excursion with his dog and friends.

Dinner is served. From the high chair I can just see the full content of the table. My brother had just laid it. My mother puts the mashed potatoes on my plate, creates a hole in the middle and pours some gravy in it, together with a couple of meatballs. On the table is a bowl with Brussels sprouts in it. I say I don’t want them as they smell like my brother’s farts. Despite my protest I get them anyway, accompanied by some cucumber salad and my brother’s giggles.

My mother says something, to which my brother answers in a mumbling voice. They both look so tall and grownuppish. My brother is 7 years older and he is from another planet. He talks strange, his room smells like sweaty socks and his farts smell like sprouts.

After dinner we do the dishes together. He washes and I dry. He turns the channel on the radio to something with loud music. He puts some water in his long blond hair and puts it backwards and starts singing along the song on the radio. He grabs the scrubber and holds it in front of his mouth as if it is a microphone and starts making weird uncontrollable movements with his body. I laugh and he asks me to do the same. As I do, I look at the kitchen door to the balcony. It is pitch dark outside, so you can see clearly our reflection in the glass of the door.