Grandpa’s Memory: Visiting Holland

Grandpa & Katie

My Grandpa was a Dutch immigrant to Canada. In 1950 he sailed from the Netherlands to Nova Scotia with eight dollars, his wife Anne and two-year old son Luke (my Dad). After moving around to a few different provinces within Canada, they finally settled down in Ontario where they ran a fruit farm (peaches, plums… you name it).
I remember my Grandpa as a smiling old man who would pop out his dentures just to make his grandchildren laugh (or cringe). He took us fishing, let us ride the lawnmower with him and taught us how to tickle a person just by squeezing the sides of their knees. Grandpa always had a story to tell, usually of World War Two and his part in the Dutch Underground. Grandpa spoke Dutch and English fluently, but of course his English was accented. It’s a running joke within our family that Grandpa could never say the word idea. Instead he would say, “Dat’s a good idee!”

Dini, Grandpa & Aaron

In 2004 I was to begin my second year of college, and I did, but a few days late. You see, Grandpa had Alzheimer’s and his memory was quickly fading. His children (Luke, John and Kathy) made the executive decision to help him return to Holland to visit his remaining family. At the time, he still had one brother (Aaron) and two sisters (Dini and Leini) in Holland. Two more brothers (Harm and Luitje) lived in Canada. Grandpa was one of nine children. Since Grandma felt too weak to make the trip, my youngest sister Katie and I were given the opportunity to accompany Grandpa to Holland.
This was very exciting for us! Katie had never been to Europe before and even though I had, it’s a whole different experience when you’re visiting with family. We were excited to go sightseeing and shopping and meet family we never even knew about. We did indeed get to do all those things… but this trip proved much heavier than we anticipated.
Our first clue was shortly after we landed in Amsterdam and boarded the train to Almelo, where Tante Dini and Oom Broer lived. Grandpa decided he was best friends with everyone in our train car. He told one passenger numerous times that he was in fact born in Holland and see… here are two of his granddaughters and how much further to Almelo and repeat. And repeat. With much effort Katie and I eventually managed to keep him seated with us.

Day three of our trip was yet another adventure into the World of Alzheimer’s.
“Grandpa, didn’t you wear that shirt yesterday?”
“No, this is a clean shirt.”
Of course it wasn’t a clean shirt. Not only did we recognise the red plaid from two days before, a quick sniff told us that it was not the freshest shirt he had with him. We decided that telling a proud and forgetful Dutchman that he’s wrong is not the best idee. Instead we chose another route to try to get him to put on a different shirt.
“You know Grandpa, I think this brown shirt is much more handsome. Oh wow, what a  good-looking guy!”
It worked, so that’s how it went for the remainder of the trip.

Dini, Grandpa & Leini

At one point we spent a few nights with some relatives of Grandmas; Oom Johan and Tante Ghea. After spending time with them, exploring the area where my Dad was born and going for long walks, we headed back to Tante Dini’s house. Half of the day was spent like this…

“Where are we going today?”
“We’re going back to Dini’s, Grandpa.”

“Where are we going?”
We’re going to Dini’s.”

“Where are we going?”
“To Dini’s house.”

“Where are we going today?”
“We’re going to see Dini.”

“Where are we going?”
“We’re going to Dini’s.”

Ghea, Grandpa & Johan

This back-and-forth happened at least thirty times before we were even in the car – sometimes Katie answered him, sometimes I answered him. It’s hard not to get frustrated when you keep having to repeat yourself, but we kept reminding each other that he doesn’t know he already asked.
After all that, we arrived back at Dini’s house and Grandpa turns to me with a huge smile on his face, “You didn’t tell me we were coming here!” and hugged Dini like he hadn’t just seen her two days before. All I could do was roll my eyes and laugh.

Even though we had quite a bit of responsibility on our hands, the trip was a happy time. The ten-days were fun; eating home cooked Dutch meals, drinking tea with family, visiting the seal sanctuary, meeting a new relative almost everyday, looking at the beautiful thatched-roofed houses, taking in the Dutch countryside, visiting the windmill my great-grandfather use to own… most importantly, spending uninterrupted time with Grandpa while he could still appreciate it.

Het Polderhuis: Anno 1925

Naturally over the four years after our trip to Holland, Grandpa’s mind and memory became worse. I remember visiting him and thinking, “If he doesn’t know who I am, I can at least smile so he knows I’m a good and safe person to be around.”

October 10th 2008 is the day I received a phone call from Dad to tell me that Grandpa had passed away. Three years later and I think it’s about to time to start documenting my own memories… you know… just in case.


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