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]

Half her age

In just under a week’s time I will not be able to say, as I have been able to do for the past 2 months, that I am half the age of my beloved grandmother Oma.  On 8 March she will turn 95, and the neat mathematical division between us will cease to exist.

It occurred to me recently that she became a grandmother at the age I am now, and that astonishing thought lead me to reflect on the differences in our two lives. In fact it’s almost impossible to comprehend just how different our lives have been, but I thought I would give it a crack, as we go back to a point a week before Oma’s 47th birthday.

Oma Me
In March 1963, Oma is about to turn 47. In March 2011 I have been 47 for 2 months.
She and her family are immigrants – or postwar migrants as they were called then. Along with her husband and family, she became an Australian citizen soon after arriving in 1951. I was born in Western Australia and am an Australian citizen by birth.
She has been married for 19 years, and was 27 when she married the love of her life, who was 3 years older than her. I have been married for 15 years, and was 28 when I met the love of my life, who is 12 years older than me. He has been married twice before.
Her oldest daughter is 18, soon to be 19, and will be married in just over a year. 

Her second daughter, like her older sister, was born in Holland and is two months away from her 18th birthday. She is also one month away from becoming pregnant, five months away from getting married and 10 months away from having me. The fun-loving, dashing, father-to-be from the church youth group has been her boyfriend for four years. He is also an immigrant from a Ten Pound Pom family, and is welcomed into the family.

Her third child and only boy, born in Indonesia, is 13 and a half.

Her fourth child, another daughter, is 8 and the only child born in Australia.

My oldest son is 9, and my youngest son is 6. Both were born in Perth.
She lives with her family in an old, crumbling limestone cottage right on the banks of the Canning River in Perth. Although a great river playground for the kids, and having a large plot of land to grow vegetables and keep chooks, every year the river floods the house and gardens and it is not easy for her to maintain. Life is hard. I live in sturdy suburban brick home on Perth’s coastal strip which provides all the comforts of the 21st Century. Although a great playground for the kids, and having a large plot of land to grow vegetables and keep chooks, we chose to use most of it for a pool and outdoor entertaining area. It is easy to maintain. Life is good.
She is the black sheep of the family, having not only married ‘lower’ to a teacher but also been the only one in her family to make the big move to Australia via Indonesia after the horrors of WWII. Both she and her husband experienced things in occupied Holland that they do not talk about. I am the ‘only sheep’ (loosely speaking; another story) of the family, and have married a tradesman.  I have never experienced war in my country and have never had reason to leave it.
She is the only one of her five siblings without a university degree, although she has college qualifications in Home Economics.  She is a full time housewife.

Her husband works as a teacher.

I have a university degree, and am currently studying part-time at postgraduate level. I work casual contracts to supplment our income.

My husband works as a middle manager for a company that services the mining industry.

She grows her own vegetables and raises chooks which help sustain the vegetarian household. 

She makes and sews clothes and manchester for the household.

I manage to keep a few herbs, a struggling lemon tree, abandoned compost systems and dreams of vegie patches better maintained. I eat meat. 

I can sew a button and trouser hem, and dream of seams better maintained.

Although not her first language, she speaks English at home to help the children fit in to school. Thanks to her schooling, she can also read, write and speak French and German. I speak English, and can understand conversational Dutch but not speak it. I understand conversational Italian and did a six-week introduction to French course once.
I think she misses her family in Holland, but is proud of what she has achieved in her new life in Australia. She finds the time to write to her siblings and parents, and is planning a holiday to go back and see them. I have visited her family in Holland, and am proud that I have Dutch heritage in my life. I struggle to find the time to stay in touch with my family around Australia, although I have many more ways of doing so than Oma ever did, and have planned a holiday to see some of them soon.
Although she doesn’t know it, she is about to become a grandmother. And what a grandmother she will be. Lucky me. I know I will not be a grandmother for a number of years. When and if the time comes, if I can be even half the grandmother she has been, the grandkids will be lucky indeed.

Happy birthday Oma x

The inner weather girl got angry

Apparently the Dutch have a fascination for weather.  So my girlfriend told me once, and she reckoned it was because if you lived in a country that’s at risk of being submerged every time it gets a decent bit of rain, you’d want to check the weather pretty regularly too. She based her theory on being married to a Dutch man who is interested in weather, so I can’t vouch for its accuracy.

However, being half Dutch, I find there’s a bit of truth to be had from that sweeping generalisation.  I had a brief ‘Eureka’ moment when she said it because it sort of helped explain my lifelong interest in weather. 

As a child, staying at Oma and Opa’s (my Dutch grandparents) during the holidays on the south coast of WA, heaven forbid if you even breathed loudly during the weather section on the ABC TV news.   Sometimes it was just better to try and hold your breath and creep out of the lounge room so you could think without being scolded.

Their predictable habit became a useful communication tool as I grew older, because now if I want to call Oma I wait until 7.31pm.  It used to be a dead cert I’d get her and she could then talk authoritatively about the weather to ‘break the ice’.  I say ‘used to’ because now, at 94 and with wireless TV audio direct to her hearing aids (yes!) it’s not so certain.  Mind you, she’s also got the digital desktop weather station alongside the crochet hooks and sidoku, so she still knows what temperature it is any time of the day or night. Just in case.

Moving on, during high school in geography classes I learnt some of the more formal parts of weather, which sort of helped explain the physics behind the ‘Dutchiness’ interest in weather. I say sort of because, I mean, really:

Fast forward 20 years or so, and I found myself at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation working for Local Radio in a regional studio – the serious domain of serious weather.  I did so enjoy reading the coastal waters forecasts *sigh*.  Now that I look back at it, that’s when I knew that a little weeny part of my cerebellum had personally and professionally fused.

And of course I was in the Pilbara, where cyclones are a real weather threat for six months of the year, when it’s not fricken hot for the other six months – note large dark red pimple on the north-west coast of WA which is where I’m talking about.

 Broadcasting for prolonged periods of time under pressure, in a studio itself shaking and howling with the wind and the community relying on your ability to communicate information, is a serious responsibility – and one that remains up the top of the ‘Life Experiences Top Ten’ so far.

Which brings me, in a long and roundabout way, to a few weeks ago when Perth experienced one of its nastiest storms in recent times.  Where I live wasn’t affected badly, and I’m grateful.  Bearing this in mind, last week the weather bureau issued a severe weather warning for the metropolitan area because another storm was imminent.  In their advice they said no hail was expected (as per the freak storm), and no road weather alert was issued either. But they were obviously being cautious because Perthites were jittery.

Imagine my surprise then when I turned up to uni for my 5-9pm lectures, after having driven over an hour in drizzle-affected panicky traffic, to find my classes cancelled due to the weather.

Somehow 40-odd years of weather loving, cyclone experiencing, anti-weather-gang-mentality (I just made that up) indignation rose to the surface. 

I mean, come ON!  You call that a storm?  This is the kind of storm I’m used to, when palm trees blow sideways and you can’t hear yourself think for the wind, and you finally see just why there are no roof gutters on Pilbara houses, because they couldn’t support the weight of rainfall.

Grrr.  As a Dutch person would say in the Pilbara, “Word taai, prinses.”

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, enjoy Bik Runga’s lovely song, Listening for the weather, which, not surprisingly, used to be on the ABC playlist!

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