At 100 years old and wheelchair-bound, my grandmother might not immediately appear to be a valourous woman. Even in her youth, she barely topped five feet. She never learned to drive. She left school after grade six to work in the family bakery. But don’t let those facts mislead you: my grandma is most certain a woman of valour.
My grandma was born two months into the First World War. She was a middle child, and I can easily imagine her bickering with siblings as she fought to find her own place in the family. (Yes, I speak from experience as a middle child.)
At age eleven, Grandma left school and began work in the family bakery. There was work to be done and there were family members to feed, and Holland in 1925 was maybe not the easiest place for a girl to pursue her education. Grandma spoke with pride in her later years that even though she left school so early, she was still an avid reader and was knowledgeable about many subjects. She did not let the lack of schooling stand in her way.
My sisters and I once asked Grandma how she met Grandpa. She told us that she and her friends were giggling over a group of boys, and my grandma told the others, “I like the long one.” Over six feet tall, my grandpa did rather tower over his wife. My grandpa and grandma enjoyed a long marriage, celebrating their 48th wedding anniversary before my grandpa’s death in 1989.
Grandma and Grandpa were married two months after the Netherlands was invaded by Germany during the Second World War. Throughout the war, Grandma and Grandpa lived with the fear that Grandpa would be captured by German soldiers and brought to work in German factories or worse. Their first child was born during the war, a stillborn son. Their second child, a son name Jan (John), was also born. Trintje (Tena) followed two years later, and Bregtsje (Betty) was born just after the end of the war. My dad, Jabik (Jacob) was another two years later in 1948.
The babies were brought to the church to be baptized as soon as possible, on the Sunday after their birth. As women were supposed to stay at home on bed rest, Grandma did not see her children’s baptisms, but told us later that she knew the baptism had been completed when she heard the church bells begin to ring, signalling the end of the service.
In May of 1950, filled with hope and expectation, and what must have been a whole lot of trepidation, Grandma and Grandpa and their children set off for a new home on a new continent. Immigrating to Canada meant a new chance for their family, but also new and unfamiliar things in almost all of life. I can only imagine what trust and courage this required from my grandparents as they stepped out in faith, following God’s leading.
A sheet of suggested Bible readings was given to passengers on the Volendam as they sailed 8 days across the ocean. On the first day at sea, Grandma opened her Bible and read these words from Psalm 33:22…
Let your unfailing love surround us, Lord,
for our hope is in you alone.
Here, laten Uw goedheid en liefde ons nooit verlaten,
En wij willen U altijd blijven verwachten.
In a new country, Grandma and Grandpa pursued a new life as they continued to trust God’s direction and put their hope in God alone. Moving from place to place so they could earn a living, provide a warm home for their children, and eventually fulfill Grandpa’s dream of having their own farm, they were active members of multiple churches in southwestern Ontario.
By the time that I was born, Grandma was already 68 years old. My dad once told me that he regretted that his father was quite old when he was born, because Dad was quite young (at 40) when his father died. Despite the age gap between Grandma and me, I was so blessed to grow up with no geographic gap between us. Grandma lived just a few houses down from us for my first thirteen years of life, and she plays an immense role in my childhood memories.
I will never forget the times spent at her house on Sundays either in between church services or after the afternoon service until Dad came to pick me up at 7 or 8. Grandma and I would eat a simple supper together, and then spend the rest of our time playing games. It was the same games almost every time, often played in the same order. Grandma would also use the same moves each time in Chinese Checkers, and yet I was never what the outcome of the game would be. Uno can never be played now without remembering Grandma’s insistence on not using the “nasty cards” (making an opponent pick up cards or skip a turn was not a nice way to play!).
Since Grandma didn’t drive, we picked her up each Sunday after Grandpa’s death to bring her to church. Grandma didn’t like the heavy full-size hymnal that was in the church pew, so she had her own small hymnal that she carried in her purse. A favourite way to pass the drive was to pick out hymns to sing with Grandma as we made our way into town each Sunday. (Of course, I cannot tell that story without mentioning that my dad worried about my apparent lack of musical ability during these impromptu hymn-sings!)
As Grandma entered her late 90s, she began to have difficulty speaking in English. A Dutch speaker until her mid-30s, she had had a late start in her second language. She could still understand English, but Dutch most often came out of her mouth. This often causes frustration for me when I go to visit her, because I understand only minimal Dutch.
I will also always remember the pain of the first time that I went to visit Grandma and could see on her face that she did not know who I was. I sat through the rest of that visit crying as my parents spoke with her in Dutch. My mom had to explain that I was their daughter, her granddaughter.
Good days still come often enough; at her 100th birthday party this past weekend, Grandma greeted me and spoke with me in English each time I talked to her. Each time I have a chance, I take the opportunity to go and visit Grandma. Even if we can’t converse, it’s enough for me to sit and hold her hand for a while.
Singing is the best bet for memories to surface. Even on a day that Grandma can’t respond in English, she can sing along to the old hymns that we once sang long ago.
At Grandma’s 100th birthday party, one of the nurses decided to add simple clip-on earrings to Grandma’s outfit. Upon seeing them, one of my aunts declared, “That’s the first time in 100 years this woman has worn earrings!” Even when you’re 100, you’re not too old to try something new.
When Grandma turned 99 last year, I started thinking about all the ways the world has changed since she was born. She has seen and lived through so much history. She has now lived 26 years without her husband. She has lived through the loss of an adult child, in addition to the child she lost at his birth. She must be tired, ready and anxious to go to her heavenly home.
Before my aunt died a year and a half ago, her sister came to see her and said to her, “Say hi to Dad when you get home.”
“It’s one of the first things I plan to do,” was the reply.
Although thinking of Grandma going to her heavenly home brings me much sorrow, I also think of her joyful reunion with her husband and her son and daughter. And I think forward to the day that I will go home, and how I will run to see my grandma again, and laugh with joy over seeing her whole and perfect, how we will speak to each other without confusion or language barriers, how we will run and dance and laugh together, and how we will lift our voices in praise to Jesus once again.