The past months feel like a voyage of discovery. No, I am not talking about a discovery of the world, but more about one that goes beyond this world. I mean a journey into my inner world. You know that I am writing a biography about the life of my parents. You also know that I have an entire archive with more than a hundred letters covering the period from 1937 to 1960. My mother has since that time dragged that suitcase behind her and on a piece of paper she had scribbled:
“It will not be for nothing that that suitcase has seen half the world and survived a war. Something has to be done with that!”
Fifteen years ago I had started to put my father’s story on paper. At that time I had no idea of this suitcase. When in those days I asked my mother questions, her answer was invariably: “I’ll tell you, but you do not have to write anything about me at all. You wait until I’m dead!” Since I wanted a book about both, I put my pen down. I kept asking questions and thought I knew the whole story. Until I got hold of the letters.
This project – the family book – is not just one of my projects. This is of a different order. It is personal. The letters from my parents touch me so deeply that I regularly turn away to do something completely different. That whole archive is around and on my desk so I cannot ignore it. I have to continue. Although, I sometimes pretend not seeing the stags on my desk.
Today I understood why it hits me like that. I have arrived in the year 1942. Yes, I work chronologically because it gives me a better understanding of life then and the circumstances. Just before the war breaks out in the Dutch East Indies. This morning I read a letter that my grandmother – my mother’s mother – wrote to my mother who was getting married on the island of Sumatra. That could not happen in Java (where my mother lived) because my father had already been called under arms and because the Japanese were standing with two feet on North Sumatra.
My grandmother writes this on 1 February 1942:
Your letter was very hasty, nervous and unclear. Child, do not be nervous. Stay calm. Do not let yourself be upset by a possible bombing; we will all get our share. Provide cover and keep yourself under cover in every way. Think about wimps and chewing gum, if necessary a piece of rubber band. Only when traveling becomes difficult, you leave immediately.
It jammed me. I felt that fear rise like a fountain when I read this. That fear! I’ve had that since I can talk. I knew my mother was afraid – do not ask me how I knew – and when I asked her about it, she always waved it away. And with me it has always been present as with her. A shiver runs down my spine when reading.
At the end of the letter in a P.S. my grandmother who also has no clue what the time will bring, writes this:
Buy your boat ticket at Tandjoeng Karang station. After marriage make a small picture of you together. Do not forget!