Saturday, February 12, 2011


Oma ("grandmother" in Dutch) Emma Suzanne van den Nieuwenhof

I wish I had known my Dutch-Javanese Oma Emma better.  My memories of her are of a frail and smiling lady who lived in a small room in the back of our house.  She never left her bed.  It wasn't until much later after her death that I learned that she had had a stroke.  My father blamed the stroke on a beating she received years earlier from her common-law husband, Jan Nicolaas Muller, a tough German Dutch fellow.  I don't know how old my father was at the time, but he was the one who found his mother lying on the floor, unconscious in a pool of blood.  He didn't know what to do except run to a neighbor for help.  

Emma was a physically well-endowed beauty with startling green eyes and a wide smile, and Jan Nicolaas thought she was having an affair, something that may or may not have been true.  My father does remember occasionally visiting with another man, who would hold him and give him presents.  He always wondered if he weren't the son of that man. 

If I could have a face-to-face talk with Emma now, I would ask her...
-  What were your parents and grandparents like?
-  Did you have any brothers or sisters?
-  Did you know you were beautiful?
-  Did you have many lovers?
-  Your parents strongly disapproved of Jan Nicolaas. What made you decide to go against their wishes?
-  Was it worth it?
-  How did you manage during WWII?
-  What was the most exciting thing that ever happened to you?
-  Who is my real grandfather?  Jan Nicolaas or someone else?
-  If it is someone else, what was he like?
-  Am I like him or like you?
-  What advice would you give me?

My other grandmother:

Oma Sofie Rosaline Lumanauw

You can tell that this Oma would never consider an extramarital affair.  On the other hand, who knows what really went on in the heart of this pillar of Manado's  Christian community.  Married to George Jan Lumanauw, highly esteemed minister of churches in Manado and Tondano in Northern Sulawesi, Sophie (I have trouble even calling her by her first name), was the organizer and undisputed leader of Christian Women's organizations.  When I asked my mother Antoinette (her sixth child of eight) to describe Sophie, she said that she did not really know her mother well at all, because she was always gone, busy with one Christian Women's organization after another.  

When I asked Antoinette what childhood memory stood out for her, she related this story.  

Houses in the area were built on stilts.  One day when she was three years old, she was playing under the house, right under the room where her 11-year-old brother Freddie was lying in bed, sick with pneumonia.  She overheard her mother tell Freddie to take the medicine.  Freddie did not want any.  He was very skinny, very sick, and very weak.  Her mother angrily screamed at Freddie and forced him to take the medicine.  That night Freddie died.  Terrified, Antoinette blamed Freddie's death on her mother's angry screaming.

The story explains why Antoinette, even when angry, would never raise her voice, but speak in staccato hisses instead.

If I could have a face-to-face talk with Sophie, I would ask...
-  What was it like for you to be a strong woman at a time and in a culture that frowns on that?
-  How did you manage to spearhead new organizations and give birth to eight kids too?
-  What excites you?  What brings you to tears?
-  What were your parents and grandparents like?
-  Your family has exploded and multiplied all over the world.  How do you feel about that?
-  What is the one thing you wish you had not done?
-  What do you love about Antoinette?
-  What one piece of advice would you like to give me?

Back in the Eighties, when my parents Antoinette and Jozef were still alive, I made up a long list of questions to ask them about their lives.  They did not always have the patience to answer, but I did net a couple of interesting stories.  Like everything else, I trust they'll find their way eventually in some of my writings down the road.

My sister Judith is way ahead of me.  Back in 2000, she edited and published a book, called "Pages in My Book of Life" by Jozef F. van den Nieuwenhof.  It's an interesting autobiography, dictated by Jozef, covering the time before, during, and after WWII, as well as, living in America and growing in his Christian faith.  

Jozef was born with the last name Muller, but had to change it to his mother's maiden name when he found out that Jan Nicolaas Muller had never registered his birth.  The reason for that was that Jan Nicolaas was in jail when Jozef was born.  Here's the story as Jozef told it to me (it's not in his book).

Jan Nicolaas' job was to transport monies on horseback to and from various plantations on Java.  It was a dangerous job with robbers lurking around mountain paths and jungle.  He kept the money in a saddle bag.  One day it happened.  He was ambushed by two robbers.  His horse reared and took off in a gallup.  Jan Nicolaas somehow managed to escape the robbers and found shelter in a village homestay.  Before going to sleep, he placed the money bag in a wooden chest by his bed.  That night the two robbers caught up with him and broke into his room.  One held a knife to his throat, while the other tried to open the chest.  When he couldn't open it immediately, he told the other robber to give him a hand.  The other robber obliged, but made the mistake of leaving his knife on the bed.  Jan Nicolaas saw his chance, picked up the knife, and struck him in the chest.  The other robber took off like a bat out of hell.  Jan Nicolaas tied the robber and took him to the nearest plantation where his boss was.  It just so happened that his boss was having a party.  Roaring drunk, he went at the robber and killed him on the spot.  Not a smart move.  When the boss realized what he had done, he told the authorities that it was Jan Nicolaas who had killed the robber.  The boss was sent back to the Netherlands and Jan Nicolaas spent three months in jail.  And that's the reason why our last name is not the pedestrian "Muller," but the tongue twister "van den Nieuwenhof."  It means "of the new court," or "garden court."

My baby sister Paulette (who has inherited a shade of Oma Emma's green eyes) is organizing a big family reunion to celebrate the 50th year anniversary of the Van den Nieuwenhof family's arrival in America.  In preparation, we're all going through our family photos.  Since I sent all my photos to my sister Judith in Oklahoma when we moved to Bali, I was delighted to receive the photos of our grandmothers by email today.  There were some more I wanted to post, but something got in the way of the uploads.  Wish I knew how to solve these digital picture problems that pop up every now and then.  I think they're just to remind me that there is no such thing as control.

A toast to uncontrollable relationships, events, and family stories!


  1. Questions, questions, questions. Indeed, yes! One never knows, even in an intimate familial situation, what has driven a person to become who they are - was Emma's natural shining beauty a hinderance or something she could use to improve her life? Was Sofie's backbone quite as strong as it appears to be, or something she developed over time in order to survive her lot in life? Did these women more frequently dissolve into tears or into laughter? And what, if any, traits have been passed down to you, Ms. Elsha? Do you see these women at all, if only glimpses, in yourself or your own children?
    Thank you so for sharing. I look forward to hearing more about that 50th coming up!

  2. What an incredible story! Your grandmothers were very beautiful and high spirited, too. I look forward to reading your memoir, when it is published -- hopefully, soon.

  3. To Kate:

    We were never trained to ask questions of our elders, so we're left with so much unknown. Had I not pressed my mother about her life growing up, she would have remained tethered to the image I had of her, based on my childhood needs and my interpretation of events. In turn, the glimpses she offered me of herself, shone a light on my own behaviors.

    It's fascinating to recognize oneself in others, especially if they're your close female ancestors. And yes, my urge to direct and organize groups of people (aka, being bossy!) is a direct link to my Oma Sofie. But we won't go into any possible connections to my Oma Emma's extracurricular activities -- yet. I'm saving that for my memoir, where I can at least give the reader a more poetic framework :)

    Thanks so much for responding, Kate.

  4. To Gigi:

    Thanks so much for your comments, Gigi, and for your interest in my memoir. It's slow going, though. It will be a couple of years before I'll be done. I'm not as fast and nimble as you are :)