A death in the family – part one: two funerals and a cupboard

Twenty years ago last month my grandfather died, aged 78. Opa had been ill for some time, and his death was not unexpected. His was the first death in the family for me and I felt it deeply, having spent a large part of my early childhood in my grandparents’ home receiving the softer love and attention often given to the first grandchild.

At the time of his death I was living in Melbourne – in retrospect, quite miserably – and I travelled to Albany in regional WA for the funeral. I was 28 and had embraced Melbourne coolness and a fondness for black clothing, but the fickle nature of style over substance was no preparation for the death of a loved one. Worse still, I’d been in Albany only a few weeks earlier to ‘say goodbye’, thanks to the benefits of being in the travel industry. I remember other family members deliberately going to the beach so I could have some alone time with Opa, but it was awful. He didn’t want to talk, and I didn’t know what to say. And then the moment had passed, and weeks later there I was driving Oma to the cemetary for the funeral service.

Some time after the funeral, obviously once the raw emotions had eased, I remember Oma commenting with bittersweet humour how annoyed she was with Opa that he’d died 16 months short of their 50th wedding anniversary.  She’d really wanted to reach that milestone. Nine years earlier they’d celebrated their 40th anniversary with a lovely dinner attended by family and friends at the Fremantle Sailing Club. It was a very rare event for the two of them to be the centre of attention in such a social setting, but they genuinely seemed to enjoy themselves, as you can see from the toast in their honour:

Another gift to Oma and Opa for their 40th anniversary was a photo album of their family, including individual photos of their four children and respective families, and a group portrait:

I was 19 in this photo, the only adult grandchild and cousin by a long shot (with two more still to come), and about as removed from the realities of family life as any teenager could get. I was madly in love and centred on my own existence. That’s not to say I didn’t have a strong bond with all my aunties and uncles, who had been wonderful role models for me growing up as an only child. And, yes, I had also discovered that young cousins were in fact quite lovely, some of whom were young enough to be my own. I’d even babysat a few times, and visited newborns in hospitals, content to be able to give them back.

Back to 1992, and in the days following Opa’s funeral, or perhaps during a visit later that year once I’d moved back to Perth, I was with Oma and the topic of handing down certain family items came up, as she was beginning to label pieces of furniture and paintings and special pieces. I guess it must have been part of the grieving process and moving on from Opa’s death, and she was carrying out the task sporadically in her own very matter-of-fact and methodical way, as and when it seemed appropriate. I can’t remember how it happened exactly, but I think in a moment of what I thought was emotional maturity I took a deep breath and asked if I could have the cupboard she kept her odds and ends and bits and pieces in.

It was not a stylish, or classic, or beautifully crafted piece of furniture, but I loved the nooks and crannies it exposed when you opened the two doors, and the possibility of my own odds and ends perhaps one day filling the homemade drawers that Opa had added in the early years of their time in Australia. I must have hung about Oma’s knees as a young thing while she rummaged inside it to find whatever was needed to fix or make or sew, because it seemed an extension of her. I knew it would be years off, which has proved correct, but I was comforted when Oma agreed to my request, and marked the inside of the cupboard with my name.

Over the ensuing 20 years, Oma’s cupboard has moved with her from the family home to a smaller unit, then from Albany to Perth to share a unit with Mum, then another move to a house in Boyup Brook with Mum, and, most recently, back to Albany where Oma is now settled in a retirement home alongside Mum in an adjacent unit. This most recent move in 2011 necessitated the handover of the cupboard due to downsizing. And so it came that in September my husband and I did the trailer trip from Perth to Boyup Brook, collected the cupboard, and brought it home where it has sat in the garage waiting for the time and commitment needed to bring it from Oma’s world into mine.

That time arrived recently in the most unforeseen, unhappy and imperfect circumstances. That’s because last month our family experienced the first death since Opa’s 20 years ago. Not my grandmother, not an uncle or auntie or one of my parents, but one of the little smiling faces that I babysat from the photo above. James died from bowel cancer at 34, himself now a loving husband and father of a four-year-old girl, and had 11 months fighting a painful, heart-breaking battle against the disease that he and his wife knew was terminal from the day of his diagnosis but chose not to disclose to anyone.

When you look at a family portrait like the one above, it’s never the little ones that anyone imagines will die first. It has been a devastating time for James’ family, and the grief has spread to us all like ripples on a pond.

Last weekend, which fell between James’ death and his funeral, Oma’s cupboard called me  to make it ready in time for her three daughters’ arrival at our house, in advance of Tuesday’s funeral where they would stand united in love behind their grieving brother.

My husband and Brownie helped me to sand it back (Blondie was sick), and then I painted it before new handles were added to finish its new look. We also bought a new key to fit the original lock and external plate.

     

The outside needed a makeover, without doubt, but I deliberately kept the inside exactly as it was. I wiped down the painted surfaces and the old lino lining the drawers, and left the few remaining pictures and special things of Oma’s that she didn’t remove. I don’t know their history – perhaps one day soon I’ll ask her, or pull them down and see who sent them, or if there’s any writing, but that wasn’t important on the day.

It was such a perfect day for painting, warm and breezy, and during the repetitive strokes I thought a lot about this cupboard, how it came to me, and what it will be for me. I thought about the links these two fine Hos men have and will continue to have through this cupboard – that it came to me through the death of the first, and now sits in my office because of the death of the second. It’s not the way anyone would want to plan such a thing, but who can ever plan such things and know what, and when, is right.

James Cornelis Pieter Hos: 16.11.1977 – 22.01.2012

Jan Cornelis Pieter Hos: 30.10.1913 – 09.01.1992

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11 thoughts on “A death in the family – part one: two funerals and a cupboard”

  1. JB, I read this and realized at the end that I had a tear running down my face.I am unsure exactly why, however I think it is a combination of knowing you and having some understanding of family and family members who pass before their time. I don’t have the writing skills to express how I felt about this piece or how well I think it has been written, suffice to say simply brilliant and well done.

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  2. Thank you. Being only 7 when Opa died I have very fragmented memories of him and that time so this was really special to read. We felt those ripples here in Brisbane. X

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  3. Beautifully written. Despite all the differences in our childhood and lives, I can identify with so much of what you have said. I was of course much younger when Opa died but I do remember the funeral day. I was crying and Mum asked me if I was okay. I felt embarrassed for my sadness so I lied and pointed at a lady and said she stood on my toe. This was a very moving post and by the end of it I too was crying. Thank you!

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    1. Oh Isabella that’s such a poignant story! One thing I’ve realised recently is that grief knows no protocols, and seems to delight in hijacking thoughts in the most surprising manner possible. I wonder if your mum knew 🙂

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    2. No I don’t remember Isabella’s comment being as I was, grieving for my Dad, your Opa. Thank you for sharing your experience. It helps us broaden our view of family and appreciate you all the more. Thanks social media.

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  4. Thats beautiful. Its the first time Ive seen a picture of James Opa. I know his folks always said James looked like Pam’s Dad but look at the smile on Jan in the first photo! Alike in more ways than just the name methinks.

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    1. Methinks too. And I liked that both photos were taken outside with the natural world and light surrounding them. I think Chad and Opa had some physical similarities. As Mum has said, it’s nice to think of James being enveloped in the love of his grandfathers now, and of course Grace.

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  5. JB, your writing has continued to cause me to reflect some more and I think I can shed some light on the reason for two of the pictures inside the cupboard. Your mother had four tiles framed and hung in the dining room at Boyup Brook. These tiles came from the little house in Vlieland that was special to Oma. On the back of each framed tile your mother had recordered Oma’s comment.
    “This tile comes from Vlieland (Holland) out of an old cottage built c1624 by a seaman. The tiles in the cottage contained something from boating life, like a beautiful cabin door. Like most houses on that island, the walls were covered in blue tiles (Delft). My parents bought the cottage in 1924 and had the tiles covered with asbestos sheets except for the two sides of the built-in bed. The bed had a curtain to hide it and the tiles were a delight for me who slept there when staying in Vlieland. After the war the house was demolished and most tiles went to an open air museum. I received four but there must have been many. They were easily damaged.”
    So the pictures of the two tiles in your Oma’s cupboard were like those in the Vlieland cottage where Oma spent many very happy summer holidays in her childhood, and where your mother and aunt Jacky initially lived while Opa was in Indonesia. The four tiles are now with each of us four siblings and I will always treasure mine for the memories it holds.

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    1. Thank you, beloved aunt. I’ve always known of the provenance of those tiles, but didn’t know about the bed wall, or that they had now been divided between the four of you. That Oma kept a copy of one inside her cupboard demonstrates a rare glimpse of sentimentality, which is beautiful x

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