My Dad’s centenary

December 10th is a special day in my family.  One of our children was born on her Opa’s and my Dad’s 60th birthday.  So today she has reached the Big-Four-Oh and it’s the centenary of my father’s birth.

I’m sure that today between Auckland and Perth and down to Hobart all his 5 children are having a special piece of cake, perhaps a chocolate éclair, and once again feeling deep gratitude for who and what Dad was for each of us.

My eldest sister Julia has chased up some of the history and stories of Dad’s side of our family, and this is my slightly edited and added-to version of what she put on the record today…

Our papa and Opa was born in Amsterdam, where the van der Bom family has lived since the 1700s.

Portugaal locationThe ‘Bom’ name was first documented in 1654 when one of our ancestors got married in Poortugaal, an island (at the time) on the Rhine.  Poortugaal got its name from when pilgrims from all of northern Europe congregated there and left for the Second Crusade in the 1100s.  It would have been on the premises of a magnificent castle (see image), the remains of which are locatable but now buried under Rotterdam suburbia.

Portugaal CastleThe Bom name is probably linked to bomb manufacture.  Poortugaal became a base for an ammunitions plant at the time of the Spanish occupation (the Spanish Inquisition) until the 1800s.  In Poortugaal in the 1700s one of our Bom ancestors was a cooper (coopers made barrels – involving precision measurement and technique; gunpowder was stored in barrels, and the Dutch were unequalled for exceptionally dry quality gunpowder during that time).  Our Bom clan may well have been honourable and fervent Dutch Protestants and nationalists when Spanish massacres on religious grounds were widespread.

I don’t think Dad knew all of this, as the book with a chapter about two of our family branches – the Boms (brown eyes) and the Ingwersens (blue eyes, tall genes, Danish side) – was published in 1990.  Dad thought the name ‘Bom’ had a Portuguese connection and a French one, and he knew about a Bom coat of arms with bombs under it – created for some family celebration long ago.  Yes, his father treasured the strong connections he had with French Huguenots in Geneva, and French was his first language.  But, sorry, to our knowledge we carry no French or Portuguese genes…

Rozengracht 48 (Small)In the 1800s in Amsterdam the Boms got into the book business and later, our grandfather and our great grandfather were no. 1s in the bookbinding business, run from home with 6 to 8 staff, at No. 48 on the Rozengracht (“Roses canal”), where Dad was born.  Behind the house was a small enclosed garden with a mulberry tree.  In the smallest room of the house lived a schipperskind (a child born on a barge) who helped out in the family and had schooling with the Bom family.

Dad was brought up with the sounds of the carillons from the nearby churches, and especially the historic Westerkerk – and he loved to take on being the preacher when playing church during his bath times as a child. He also had a passion for the music of the street organs.  Us kids will never forget how he’d dance wildly with us to the records we had with draaiorgel (street barrel-organ) music.  And the family would get together at least weekly and sing hymns and songs around the organ (aka “the harmonium”), a common custom among many Protestant families in the Netherlands.  The family also followed another Dutch custom, creating poems and songs, often full of surprises, mischief and laughing at yourself, for every birthday, every special event, with a little fun present or token as a gift.

Other sounds in Dad’s childhood?  He told us how he’d wake up from a drunk on the busy canal street below their 4 storeyed house. His busy father would throw buckets of water onto the poor guy to get him to move on.  Dad could also repeat what our most respected and austere grandfather (with a “sikkie”, a goatee beard) yelled out.  Does anyone remember what that was?  We do hear from our older cousins that our Opa was very warm and happy with his wife.

My parents with Dad's oldest sister
My parents with Dad’s oldest sister

Dad was the youngest of six children, although the previous infant, a girl, died of diphtheria before Dad was born.  Diphtheria also struck Dad in his first year.  He was especially close to his endearing and beautiful oldest sister, Antie (who visited us in Kingston, Tasmania), who would have been a second mother to dad.  Dad also treasured his cousin, Kees Ingwersen, who was his age and came to live with his family when he was 5 – after both his mother and brother died (I assume form the Spanish flu as the dates correlate). The two young boys had a lot of fun and mischief together.

Dad just loved people and languages.  He had a multi-lingual upbringing and knew 7 languages, although 3 of these were “bookish” languages only (Hebrew, Koiné Greek and Latin are no longer spoken).  He scored off the scale on all subtests on the adult IQ test Julia did on him as a guinea pig when she was a 19 year old psychology student.

Despite this Dad had no interest in an academic career, preferring to work with people: he was a keen networker who loved creating and building relationships with people of many backgrounds, not only but especially in Christian circles.  During his retirement he loved catching up with old friends: when visiting his children all over Australia and New Zealand he would invite a roomful of friends and just enjoy together time.  He was also multi-perspective and non-judgmental: he was far ahead of his time among conservative and Reformed Christian leaders in his friendships with the local Catholic and Anglican clergy.  He had an understanding and open mind on complex issues including creation/evolution, women-in-church-ministry, family planning and homosexuality although (especially in his times) he had to keep his views largely to himself.  He valued hearing what people said before he spoke – the Dutch ‘come in from behind’ or listen first.  He did this at important meetings and cued us in about it.

P Fam011And he was a master joke and story teller.  He was entertaining and renowned for the evenings in cigar smoke filled rooms with his close circles of university and church colleagues and friends – for his jokes in yiddish (Jewish) and “Amsterdams” (the languages of the streets where he grew up), and later, Dutch immigrant English.  Not sure if all his jokes would be PC now.  His closest school and university friend was Sjoerd Gerbrandy, the son of the Dutch wartime prime minister.  Julia mentions visiting him and hearing of how Dad was glowing when he declared he had a girlfriend from Zeeland.  The last time Julia saw our Oom Simon he thought it worthwhile to share that he and dad had both been ‘set up’: the matchmaking having been done between the families who lived far away in different provinces, and who networked through business and church circles within the talented and educated bourgeois of the relatively small but powerful Reformed churches.

My parents' first home (not owned by them) - the church manse in Ijlst, Friesland.
My parents’ first home (not owned by them) – the church manse in Ijlst, Friesland.

The various branches of the Dutch Christian Church each had their own political party, education, health, media and welfare systems or ‘pillars’; these were ‘tolerant’ as necessary under the democratic model and active in seeking social justice (at least by contemporary standards). It’s a coincidence but December 10 is also Human Rights Day.  It is also worthy of note that members of the Reformed Churches were the only group known for harbouring Jews during World War II.  Local autonomy was prized and practised, and this cellular structure and the Christian values of Reformed Church people made them relatively successful in providing sanctuary.  We know the Jews in hiding in the attic with our parents in Friesland even survived the war.  Dad was also at risk as he, with the priest and the doctor and the mayor, were ongoing targets for the German authorities when hostages were wanted.  He’d be snuck away to the Nauta family farm (close friends who also kept the young Bom family supplied with food) whenever the Germans combed through Ijlst in the watery northern province of Friesland where Mum and Dad’s first two children were born.

Dad was a rough and tumble play dad, had heaps of fun with children, and cycled in Sydney, sometimes with kids sitting on the front and behind, before funds for a car could be raised.  But he was an Amsterdam boy, he was no good at sports and somewhat scared of any animals – even though Mum tried to get him to walk the dog and enjoy the dog on his knee during a catnap.

Our family in in Sydney summer sunshine in 1951, just after our migration to Australia
Our family in Sydney summer sunshine in 1951, just after our migration to Australia

He spoke about how he thought we and our children had missed out on so much intellectual challenge and culture. That’s one of the reasons why he read us ancient and modern church history and did heaps of true and false questions as part of each daily school lesson (oops, alongside Blinky Bill) when we were in Stanwell Park for holidays (but during school term) in the 1950s.

And that was true: multiculturalism and any appreciation of anything non-English was unheard of in 1950s Australia; as Dutch migrant kids and Dutch Christians we lived in a very insular way, isolated from the heritage and culture of Australia, poor as it was at the time.  And we were also cut off from and missed out on our own family and homeland links, national history and culture.  Julia mentions that only once in her years of schooling did she do anything on our homeland at school – and that was a project when she was 8.  Oh, and she also got an opportunity to sit NSW Leaving Certificate Dutch, which she did with Dad’s assistance: he corrected her spelling in the written work she did as preparation.

choceclair…I’m sure you can all add to this preamble, which started as two paragraphs…

Hey sibs!  Remember to do a taartje, a worstje, gebak, of zo iets…

Enjoy today, the 10th December 


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