The poignant story of my Mother

Willy (right) in the early 1930s with older and younger sisters

Willy van Mazijk had a privileged and sunny upbringing, one of three daughters of a small town “advokaat”, as the Dutch called their early 20th century multi-skilling of a solicitor with land and property auctioneering and conveyancing.  Willy’s father was well respected in the town as honest and caring, and he was quite wealthy.  His three daughters adored their dad and started their lives free of the poverty and related concerns of most of their contemporaries in Europe: a spacious home and property, a Christian school, a variety of pets, the picturesque Dutch province of Zeeland, and a special place in the local community.

However, each of the three sisters had some lifelong health and emotional issues.  Willy suffered a severe head concussion in a children’s playground accident which (unsurprising in the 1920s) was not properly diagnosed and treated.  It resulted in a life of frequent and severe migraines and in her early 60s she began to be affected by what her family thought was Alzheimer’s.  Today we know that her head injury resulted in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), also known as “boxer’s dementia” which is being recognised as a scourge in the world of contact sports, notably football.

Willy wanted to become a doctor and moved to Amsterdam, a day’s travel to the north in the 1930s, but her headaches (and I suspect the demands of the rigorous studies) caused her to abandon that dream.  Like countless other young women in the troubled 1930s, mum became a domestic help and governess in Dutch and later English homes.  As a result she met Jan, a young man who was studying theology.  Despite her father’s concerns for his daughter, the damaged daughter and her idealistic but impractical suitor started to dream of Christian work together, possibly in Indonesia which was then a Dutch colony.

But the Depression followed by a World War proved to be a nightmare time, as Willy’s fiancé could only get lowly paid assisting positions in a succession of Dutch churches, keeping marriage out of reach and stretching their engagement to 7 years.  Mum’s nightmares in later life sometimes relived the stress of that period.

In 1943 dad was invited (“called by God”) to come and work for a Reformed Church in a Friesian town Ijlst (which prided itself in having the status of “city”).  Mum was now a minister’s wife and her husband was now the occasional target of German hostage taking.  More stress.

Two years later they celebrated the birth of their first baby.  Dad sent the town-crier around to proclaim my birth and wrote letter cards to the family, as visits were impossible with the Netherlands transport infrastructure in post-war ruins.

Mum with me mid-1946

Their excitement and gratitude were short-lived.  Ten days after his arrival their baby boy was being operated on after almost vomiting his young life away with pyloric stenosis.  This surgery was in itself life-threatening then, and in the Reformed tradition an emergency baptism was given before the operation.  I survived, but for two weeks mum had to take daily 25 km steam train trips to the hospital to provide (and maintain) a milk supply, whilst the danger of infection kept her from personal contact with her newborn.

Maternal stress is one of several recognised causes of the stomach condition I had, and I find it a sad but true reflection of our broken world that it was most likely my dear mother’s stress levels that caused both her and me still more trauma and stress.  Often we cannot help the pain we receive, nor the damage we pass on.

During the next four years mum had three more children, and during those years she received home help, a normal accessory for ministers’ families in those times of low wages and most women being restricted from tertiary studies and adult employment.

By 1950, the flood of post-War migration out of Europe and to the “new world” countries had begun, and the national Migration Committee of my parents’ church asked them to consider moving to Australia to provide Christian pastoral support for Dutch migrants.  Grandfather van Mazijk was again horrified and had another serious talk with his audacious son-in-law.

Let’s say, true love and loyalty won the day.  My parents’ genuine and deep Christian faith certainly changed as a result of their migration and its associated service, as did that of many Christian people who lived through the huge changes affecting the Church and our world during the decades after World War 2.

1951 to 1961 were years of still more stress but also fruitful and widely valued service to Dutch migrants of many descriptions and with many needs.  My dad’s parish was initially the Australian state of New South Wales as well as Brisbane.  Wife Willy continued to have live-in home help (and a 5th child) and her heart, hospitality and Sydney home were always available to migrants in need of a listening ear, a meal or even a bed for a day or more.

She kept up the link with the family in the Netherlands, writing weekly air-letters to her parents and ensuring that her children were never forgotten or neglected.  Our sibling memories are of material poverty but a rich home life supported by a rather private but nevertheless robust Christian faith.

40th anniversary photo (1983)

In late 1961 my parents accepted a new church appointment in Kingston, then a lovely rural community just 10 miles (17 km) outside Hobart in Tasmania.  For Mum it was almost like a return to the little city she grew up in: a compact and close-knit community rather than a widely scattered city parish; she was back in the natural world she loved, with time and space for a garden and pets.  Her family was by now growing up, and they took over supporting her in the home and garden during her times of migraine incapacitation.

Dad found Tasmania stimulating and challenging despite being a city boy at heart.  Country life was not his thing but Kingston’s small-town character and Tasmania’s small-state chumminess gave Dad new networks and other opportunities to relish.

Mother Willy enjoyed Tasmania and her developing family life for less than 20 years when dementia started to affect her.  Dad, my Tasmanian sister and then a nursing home cared for her with skill and tenderness until God took her home in 1994.

Mum and I had a complex relationship.  Although I obviously carry the imprint of both my parents, I sometimes clashed badly with my mother but not with my dad.  Being the eldest of her five children and her husband having two left hands, she often turned to me for practical help – which I loved to give.  But there were friction points.

Is it any wonder I am still unravelling the tie I had with my mother?  And I’m not alone: mother – son relationships are famously interesting.

As I reflect on Mum’s life, I tend to feel sadness. But she would not have wanted that: her glass was certainly more than half full. Next post let me share some of her loves and likes.


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