The coathanger: looking forward, looking back

I had a lovely (re)discovery recently – a piece of writing I’d forgotten about which emerged as part of an enlightening package of family memorabilia my auntie and uncle have painstakingly prepared and labelled on DVD for the enjoyment of other family members.

On the DVD are old photographs from my Dutch side of the family, along with a Word document containing transcriptions or translations (or both) of oral and written family history from grandparents and great grandparents from the early 20th century. They’re quite a read.

Right at the end of the document, I was surprised to see my own contribution (I still don’t know where you found it, GJ), which was an entry submitted to ABC Radio National’s The Comfort Zone program in 2002. The nasally eloquent Alan Saunders had asked for listener contributions on the subject of ‘what’s the best gift you’ve ever received?’ Although I didn’t win the competition with my entry, it was given a ‘special mention’ on air, which was pretty exciting at the time.

Now, in the interest of not offending anyone who’s ever given me a present, let me just say that the timing of the competition was perfect, just after my son was born. Here’s why:

“Picture this,” my grandmother said to me earlier this year on one of our increasingly special visits, “a young girl of sixteen, walking along the beach on the island of Vlieland, part of Holland. It’s 1932 and she’s about to go to college, a big step for a young woman.

She sees a wooden coathanger on the sand and picks it up, noting the inscribed ‘N.Y.K. Line’ and immediately has fanciful notions of its owner. It must belong to one of the dashing officers from a passing ship, she thinks, looking out to the North Sea. He probably hangs his shiny uniform on special hangers just like this. It might even have been the captain’s!

And so with these romantic thoughts she pockets the hanger and decides it will be a special but practical keepsake for her college uniforms.”

With that, Oma hands me a coathanger from her wardrobe. The wood is smooth and worn with many hues, but the grain still shines thanks to staining and polishing over the years. The ‘N.Y.K. Line’ is carved in a gentle half circle following the yoke shaped wood, from which emerges the curved hanging wire which, amazingly, is still in shape and devoid of rust.

Below that inscription is another one, ‘R. Kapsenberg,’ my grandmother’s maiden name; and the number 37, her college number. I recognise the deliberate, neat lettering as hers and it blends comfortably with the corporate logo.

Having been to Holland with my husband for the first time three years ago, I have seen those North Sea beaches that stretch for miles under the grey-blue skies of Europe. It was easy for me to imagine my grandmother walking along those shores, young and full of promise, never dreaming that in fifteen years she would leave Holland with her husband and two young daughters bound for Indonesia, where a son was born, before arriving in the totally foreign environment of the Western Australian goldfields in 1950.

After fifty years she calls Australia home, but in 1932 her imagination was dominated by the landscape of her youth and the romantic sentiments of adolescence.

“Here,” she says, “you have it”, because she knows, without either of us saying anything, that I will treasure it as a memento of her youth and a reminder of my cultural history.

“What a coincidence about the 37,” I say, “because that’s how old I am now.”

It seems to have been the right time for me to receive it, because I then tell her I’m pregnant, and in September my grandmother’s first great-grandchild is born.  

So now the coathanger rests with a superior air on the nursery clothes rail alongside its smaller plastic, mass-produced relatives, waiting for its story to be passed along.

A few years after finding the coathanger, my grandmother graduated from college. On the DVD are two photos from her family graduation celebration, including this one where she is being congratulated by her mother. It’s the only photo I have ever seen of my grandmother as a young person looking relaxed and happy – isn’t it wonderful!  

[Kapsenberg house, Groningen, c1936]

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2 thoughts on “The coathanger: looking forward, looking back”

  1. The story was probably part of your mothers memorabilia and as she was involved in the collation, translation etc. it was included. Loved reading it again.

    Like

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