(A is delighted to find that Tante Adrie has the exact same initials and last name as her own.)
Gem's Tante Adrie is the only surviving member of his father's birth family, his father's 'baby' sister. At nearly 90, she lives on her own in a little apartment in Haarlem, a beautiful old city about forty minutes by train from Amsterdam. We arranged a Monday afternoon visit for coffee. The logistics involved several calls to iron out the details, as her English is limited and Gem's Dutch only somewhat better.
The day before our visit, our cell phone rang. It was Tante Adrie. Our conversation went something like this:
"Yah, you come coffee (Dutch words). Appel coek. More Dutch words."
"Danku (thank you; one of the few Dutch words I am sure of), Tante Adrie. I'll get Gem for you."
Gem reassures her several times that, yes, we will be there at about 2 P.M.
The next morning the phone rings again. 'Are we coming? I am worried you will get lost." More soothing words from Gem.
We arrive, Gem, A and I, about ten minutes late. Tante Adrie is standing on her tiny flower laden balcony eagerly watching for us. She is tall, big boned, smiling, her brown eyes sparkle with humour. Each of us in turn is engulfed in an enormous hug accompanied by the usual Dutch greeting of a kiss on each cheek. Her words flow in a kindly torrent. Gem picks out about one in four, but is able to make out the gist of what she says, and interprets for me. "We are to leave our shoes outside. We are to sit down. Gem looks so much like his late father, it makes her cry. How old is our beautiful granddaughter? Don't mind the dog."
The apartment sparkles with cleanliness. Elaborate doilies edged with scalloped lace, curtains and tablecloth, all snowy white, contrast with the dark, gleaming wood. Numerous thriving house plants in blue and red china pots vie for space with even more numerous knicks-knacks. A is particularly enamoured of a china figurine of a lady in a pink china evening gown with roses in her china golden hair.
Tante Adrie won't allow any help, and we sit a little awkwardly as she ushers in cups of coffee, plates and forks. A plump apple cake sits in the middle of the coffee table next to a bowl of whipped cream. Orange juice is brought for A. We are just about to tuck in when Tante Adrie folds her hands, closes her eyes and begins to pray. Our names are mentioned in the prayer.
The cake, served with lashings of cream, is delicious. The coffee is dark and luscious. A second helping of each doesn't take much urging. The dog, a fat puggish little creature, named Bepo, waddles over to Tante Adrie, who feeds him bits of cake. A is soon giggling delightedly as he licks crumbs from her fingers, too.
Later Tante Adrie brings out old photos of Gem's father, and of other now deceased siblings, of her late husband, her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, most now residing in Australia. Snippets of stories are told, some understood, some not, but the love and warmth of them, their soul and essence, nourish without precise meaning. The tears and laughter of old forgotten joys and sorrows fill the room. A reads her book for a time, and then wanders around the room delicately caressing various objects with the tips of her fingers.
Before we leave we give her our gift of a box of maple-cream cookies from Canada, and we take pictures. My husband, a big man and 6 ft, 5 ins, lovingly referred to by friends as 'the gentle giant', dwarfs most people but Tante Adrie holds her own next to him.
Last hugs, last kisses ... and last good-byes, for Gem and I both know that this is the last time we will see Tante Adrie. It is a final earthly farewell. I reach over and squeeze Gem's hand for I know his heart is very full. Having lost both his parents, he is once again dancing with the part of himself that holds all the love and sweetnesses of his childhood.
(Tante Adrie and my Gem. I love this photo!)