My story started in this imposing looking double story mansion in the little place called Ĳlst (in English pronounced Ailst) in the province of Friesland in the northern Netherlands. This is where I was born and spent my first few years. The house was the manse for the minister and family of the Gereformeerde Kerk (Reformed Church) of this little city (pop. c. 2000) – and my Dad worked there for his first years of ordained Christian ministry.
That’s the nice part of the story so far.
My parents had been through a rough time. Dad finished his studies for the Christian pastorate in the early 1930s and became engaged with another student at his university. But in those times marriage was inadvisable (an also financially impossible) until the bridegroom had “a proper job”, and for 7 years up to 1943 first the worldwide economic Depression and then World War 2 meant Dad could only get several successive positions as an assistant pastor (notably to a blind minister and as a hospital and prison chaplain). Mum had nightmares about that 7 year engagement for the rest of her life.
When a Friesian Reformed Church extended an invitation (or “call”), Dad and Mum accepted it, no doubt with enthusiasm and hope. A strong ray of God’s sunshine amidst the gloom? I must remember that the northern Dutch provinces were notorious as a “bootcamp” for young and green pastors, that the location meant being far from family and old friends, and that the War was becoming increasingly nasty. I any case, Dad and Mum married in August 1943 and set up their first home. Their first pregnancy was elusive. The nightmares continued.
All War is ugly, and in Nazi-occupied Europe WW2 was traumatic in its own way. Like many Dutch Christians (and unlike the majority of Dutch) both my parents and in-laws were deeply involved in the Resistance and the sheltering of Jews. My father being one of his small city’s leaders, he was “picked up” from time to time when the Germans wanted hostages. More stress. Thank God he survived, unlike some of his friends and colleagues.
In May 1945 the Allies finished driving the Occupying powers out of the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. Life after liberation was relatively sweet, of course, but the cost of war would take a decade or so to overcome and repair, even with US and other help. However, Friesland being a largely agricultural province, there was little of the food and housing shortage that affected Holland’s largest cities.
I was born in September 1945, a few months after the Liberation. 10 days later I was operated on for pyloric stenosis (PS), a form of stomach blockage. PS is caused by any of several factors, one of which is maternal stress triggering an over-production of gastrin, a digestive acid, in the mother and/or the baby. Although I don’t know much about the circumstances of my first illness and surgery, I suspect that my PS was not hereditary (no known relative having had it), and so my mother’s trauma and stress levels are the most obvious culprit.
The provincial capital, Leeuwarden, 25 km from home, was where I had my first surgery. The only way to get there at the time was by steam train, so every day for two weeks (as I would guess, this being the normally prescribed hospital recovery period at the time) Mum had to travel to Leeuwarden and home by train to express milk for me to be fed. What commitment a mother is sometimes called to demonstrate! I love her.
Mum was already stressed by a long engagement, the exigencies of war and her first pregnancy, and so my hospitalisation would have affected her deeply. I have read countless posts written by parents describing their experience with first a desperately sick PS baby and then submitting their infant to surgery. Almost all these parents mention their extreme emotions and describe it as the worst time of their life.
The life traumas my mother experienced affected her more deeply than I had realised when she died in 1994. In the manner of her generation, she was terse whenever asked a question about it. What I have written was pieced together after years of reflection on her life events and my research. For her sake and mine I do wish she could have shared more of her story – including the pain.
What I know now fills me with growing compassion and love for her and deep appreciation for her dedication to God, her husband and her children.