The book my mother received on her eighth birthday
The books in my parents’ library give an inkling of who they were. My father is represented by rows of sturdy books on history, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch art, pre-Colombian statues and books on his profession, architecture.
My mother’s contribution to the bookcase is more modest; she died at forty-seven having reached less than half the age my father did. She preferred female authors such as Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark and Margaret Drabble.
Among the many books, I discovered one from my mother’s childhood called “Vriendinnen”, which is Dutch for girlfriends. On the cover is a drawing of a young girl with a short ‘bob’ hairstyle that was popular in the early thirties. She wears a red-and-white-striped dress with a smocked collar and is reading a book by an open window through which you can see two girls talking while they bicycle on a tree-lined street.
“Given by Victor Schmidt on my 8th birthday. Fientje Vincent” it says in careful handwriting on the yellowed first page. It must have been given in 1932. I recognize the handwriting in dip pen from the birthday cards my grandmother used to send me.
The book was a fitting choice because Tilly, the main character, resembles my mother in that she, too, preferred to be on her own and read while her sisters were out and about.
When I think of her, I see my mother with a book in her hand, reading on the sofa in our living room, in a lounge chair in our garden or on the terrace of a fancy hotel at the seaside.
My mother often talked to me about the books she read, about the tragedy of black women in South Africa who had to abandon their own children to take care of other families’ offspring, about a ballet dancer who danced until there was blood in her shoes, about a man who could only express himself through the puppets he performed with.
She seemed concerned about the difficult lives of the protagonists. By the time I was fifteen, I wanted to read these books, too, so I could share the experience with her, but she considered me too young to be confronted with the harsh realities of life.
Yet, I had been confronted with a terrible reality several years earlier, when I was thirteen, when my father told me that my mother was going to die of cancer. She was under no circumstances to know and I was not allowed to talk to her or anybody else about this. Not telling felt like a betrayal towards my mother, as I was used to sharing my thoughts and emotions with her and feared that this silence would come to stand between us. At the same time, I didn’t want to be disloyal to my father.
I remember her reading one late afternoon in the living room after her nap, propped up by several cushions with her stomach swollen from the water around her tumor. She looked up from her book and stared into the distance. The sadness in her eyes made me fear that she suspected she wouldn’t live much longer, and I wanted to talk with her, console her but my promise to keep silent held me back.
Shortly after she died, I emptied the plastic bag in which I had collected the letters and postcards she had sent me over the years on my bed.
“You’d enjoy Nice, there are lots of palm trees here which you like so much.”
“I know you don’t want to leave your friends at your grandmother’s in Geneva but you still have the flight back home to look forward to”.
“Do take care of the little ones,” she wrote from Venice. The little ones were my four younger siblings.
When I saw her handwriting—the slanted letters made deliberately small so more of them would fit on the postcards—I heard her voice again. The pain of feeling her so near while I knew she was gone forever was unbearable. I stuffed the letters and cards back into the bag, rushed down the stairs and threw the bag into the trash can.
I couldn’t have known then that there’d be a time when I would very much like to read those letters and postcards again, a time when hearing her voice would not be so painful.
To my surprise, on the very last page of “Vriendinnen”, I see a child’s handwriting in red pencil, “F.Vincent, Singel 78, Schiedam, received on my 8th birthday.”
I slide my hand over the page again and again. It’s as though I can feel the slightly trembling and uneven letters under my fingers.
By caressing the words, the little girl who would become my mother feels closer, even if it’s just for a moment.