People who inspired me to become who I am today.
We all get influenced by people in our lives, whether family, teachers, colleagues, writers, or even famous people. They may have taught us things, inspired us, were a great example, or made you realise what you wanted to become in life. I was very close to my Dutch grandma, or ‘super oma’ Fenny. On the 4th of July 2021, she would have been 100 years old. If there is anyone who taught me how to be resilient, positive and not take life too serious, it is her.
She died 14 years ago. She was a natural at enjoying the little things and making the most of it, no matter what life throws at you.
Whenever she felt a bit down or alone, she would pick herself up by hopping on her bike, cycle around the local lake, buy a raw herring in a bun, and talk to anyone she’d meet on the way. Then she’d cycle home happy, and sit on her balcony with a crossword puzzle. “
“You got to stop sitting in misery for too long”, she would say, “Life goes on.”
Curiosity and resilience
She lost her beloved husband when she was 63, to a heart attack. Suddenly she was a widow, at the start of retirement. It was shock to all. I remember her and my mum crying in the kitchen, when I was about five years years old. She mourned. But then she started flying.
She always wanted to travel, but her husband had a war trauma and never wanted to leave the house further than an hour’s drive. Suddenly on her own, my super oma took her freedom with both hands, left the familiar countryside, and went on holidays to Portugal, Spain and Edinburgh, signing up for organised trips everywhere. Whoah! She loved it. The world opened up to her and she was soaking it all in, with such enjoyment. She spoke nothing but her dialect, but she laughed and managed just fine. “I just use my hands and feet!“
My oma loved life, even though life was not an easy ride. She only went to school until the age of 14, because she was expected to care for her family – as was pretty common in those days. Her own mother gave birth to 13 children, ten alive and three dead, and she died when my oma was hardly 20 years old. Oma stayed behind in the little farmhouse with her father, doing the household. My oma was the youngest, and baby sat many of her siblings’ offspring. She married my grandad, had two daughters of her own and then looked after her own dad until he died aged 96. “If dad hadn’t lived in with us, I would have had way more children!” she always joked.
Keep those legs moving
Oma Fenny found joy in many things. She loved music and dancing. She had amazing legs, even at 80. “Oh, that’s a nice tune“, she would say, turning up the radio, and we would dance around her living room. She told me of the joy she felt after the Canadians liberated her town in 1945, and they could all go out again to the dance clubs, and do what young people do best. Flirting. And no doubt, talking with their hands, feet – and lips, since none of the girls spoke any English. Many of her local girlfriends took it further than a kiss and followed their handsome Canadian lovers across the pond. My oma joked that “she just kept a peppermint between her knees to keep out of trouble“.
When I grew up, I often stayed with her during the holidays. We’d go out shopping together, or sit in the sun. Or we’d go cycling around the lake, where I’d swim and she would watch. In the mornings I’d crawl into bed with her, and we would cycle our legs up in the air to get them moving. That was good for the circulation, she said. I would use her nail polish and dress up in her scarves. She’d make ‘oma soup’ with meat balls. Life was good.
She only ever finished primary school, but she must have read all the books in the local library. Not the most high-brow literature, but she devoured them nonetheless. God, my oma could read. She also loved theatre, and made sure she booked her shows well in advance, from musicals to plays, and from concerts to cabaret. For an older woman who had grown up on a small farm in the North of the Netherlands, she was incredibly cultural and open-minded.
Accepting emotions as a normal part of life
Whenever I felt sad and needed to cry, she’d hold me close and tell me “go on, crying is good, sweetie, it’ll make you feel better“. I still hear her voice in the northern dialect saying those words when I feel teary now.
My oma Fenny taught me how to enjoy the small things in life, how to rise up from the ashes, to educate yourself, to be open and curious – and to always be warm and welcoming to people.
I miss her. I remember the night she died. I had visited her about a week or two before in the Netherlands, where she was being cared for in a nursing home. She had cancer, and the end was near. She had lost all feeling in her legs and was now wheelchair bound. “You got to keep those legs going”, she always said, and now they had failed her. She would never dance or cycle again.
We all knew she was dying, but still she kept up those positive vibes, and promised me to come and visit me in Scotland, where I had moved to not long before. “They have ramps on the plane, you know, they can just wheel me in!” I kissed her goodbye after that last visit and knew I’d never see her come off that plane.
I had dinner in a restaurant with my husband the night she died. I suddenly felt emotional and said, “I think she’s gone“. And she had. But I remember her words of gratitude during my final visit, saying that “she had had a good life, and that it was all OK.” And it was OK.
It’s a shame she never met my children. She certainly asked me to have babies, many times! But I have told my boys about my ‘super oma’, and their favourite story by far is that she used to fart very loudly and then would look around all surprised and cheekily, asking: “What did you say?”
We still have her ashes. My mum told me that my aunt wanted to put the urn in the boot on the way back from the crematory, but my uncle had made them sit with the ashes on their lap in the front seat. “Come on, you can’t put your mother in the boot!“, he shook his head. I know oma Fenny would have found it hilarious.
I think we should spread her ashes somewhere one day, perhaps around the lake where she used to cycle. We’ll have a herring in a bun to celebrate her wonderful life.
Happy 100th birthday, super oma! I love you, always.