A long time ago, before I ever flew on an aeroplane, I would look at the sky. I would imagine that in that plane, filled with passengers and crew, a little girl would look down on earth. She looks out of the window and realizes that at that particular moment somebody (me!) would look up – and think the same. As I watch the plane drawing a line in the sky, me and the girl, we are connected. Without even knowing it. And at the same time, knowingly. We are connected.
I can’t wait to meet you
I have always known that there is somebody, like that little airborne girl, that is waiting – for me. And I can’t wait to meet her. We don’t know each other yet, however, we can’t wait to meet one another. I have been patient for a long time. And I will continue to be patient. My anticipated enthusiasm increases every day.
During my childhood I often felt alone in the midst of others. Surrounded by family, classmates or any group of people, there would always be this nagging feeling of loneliness. I remember my sister complaining that I did not want to play with her. Except for playing outside, I did not like to go on playdates either. I preferred staying at home in my bubble, where I built a DIU villa for Barbie dolls or an entire Lego village where ‘I was’ all the inhabitants. I felt the happiest alone in my own imaginary world, not disturbed by the thought process or imagination of another person. I felt like the worlds of others were not aligned with mine. Much later I would understand why…
Built on sandy grounds
So, here I am in Ghent, on a sabbatical in my native city, alone and well. I just turned 40 last week – a new beginning and I am musing and writing about my past. You, dear reader, are a witness of stories that have never been told, or yet, that are still to be discovered. For, I am here to reinvent myself, to reconnect with my roots, to rebuild the house that was constructed on sandy Flemish grounds. I have come here to inspect the foundation of this house. I feel like its basement is filled with still water – dark and smelly, and it is eating away at the brittle woodwork that has to keep the building in check.
So, let’s not forget this little girl, high in the skies. We haven’t met her yet. But the strangest thing happens now I am here. It feels like she is leading the way. Somehow…
A couple of days ago I went on a walk with a friend, Marthe. She lives also in Ghent, but she’s about to move to a small village not far from here. ‘It’s so tiny,’ she said, ‘you probably won’t even know it’. I couldn’t believe my ears when she said ‘It’s called Zevergem’. In Flemish ‘zeveren’ means ‘talking nonsense’ :-). Even though, this is not the original meaning of the name of the village, it’s kind of funny. ‘No kidding,’ I responded with surprise, ‘that’s were my grandfather (Aimé Niemegeers) was the headmaster of a village schoolhouse. That’s were my grandparent’s 5 children are born, my mother being the youngest. That is where their house was destroyed in 1945.’
Marthe and I decided to go for a stroll in her future village – Zevergem – village from my past.
After World War II, it was a confusing time in Flanders, just like in any other European country that was occupied by Nazi Germany. In this era, there was a need of setting the record straight. A new balance needed to be found and, of course, people who still had a bone to pick with somebody, took advantage of the chaos during the post-war reconstruction. In the small village of Zevergem, a family of noble birth farmed out the lands adjacent to their castle. The baroness reigned like a feudal ruler over her lands and the villagers.
All is well…
My grandfather, critical thinker and never afraid to speak his mind, was not particularly popular with the Right Honourable Ladyship, who acted as if the Middle Ages never ended. She set up a group of villagers against my grandfather and so, shortly after, he was thrown in jail for almost 4 months. My grandmother with her newborn baby found herself abandoned in the house behind the school.
Hiding in the basement, desperately trying to prevent my aunt from crying, she experienced how angry farmers and other villagers smashed everything to pieces, stole the young family’s possessions, and set flame to the house. She never talked about it. She hid her pain. Always. My grandfather, on the other hand, told us these stories over and over again. To us, his grandchildren, they were heroic stories in which good conquers evil. All is well, that ends well.
Having left Amsterdam behind and being here again in East Flanders, all those stories bob up. They are long lost memories of, up to now, 3 generations. These experiences traumatised my grandparents. I am sure they influenced my aunt, uncle and mother in a huge way. (By the way: the other 2 children of my grandparents died: a girl Maria and a boy named Peter). Their death also impacted everyone mentioned above.
Needless to say that all events, experienced by our (grand)parents also affect us, albeit in a different way and more indirectly. Traumatic experiences led to certain decisions that impacted all the generations in this lineage. My life, for sure, has taken a specific trajectory because of the choices made by those before me. It is all unfolding as a ‘present’ I am unpacking very slowly.
You might think: why is she still reminiscing about the history of people long gone? As a child I could listen to these stories for hours. To me they were like fairytales. But since then, something changed. The tales are no longer fairytales. Because I can feel them now. I can empathize with my ancestors and actually imagine what they must have been through. The little girl, the grandchild in me, is sad. The adult 40-year-old woman is feeling the pain. Ignorance is a bliss. But I chose to ‘go back’ on purpose and I can not undo it. I am starting to feel ‘where I am coming from’…
Prospèr Niemegeers (1879-1955)
So, after our walk I dropped off my friend Marthe in ‘Zwijnaarde’ where she was going to visit her boyfriend who lives there. Zwijnaarde is another village that summons the past, like a genie conjured from the bottle. We said our goodbyes and I told her that I would stay in Zwijnaarde a little bit longer. The church was closed, but the cemetery was publicly accessible. The sun was shining brightly – I always see this as an encouragement, when it comes to graveyards. (Yeah, I’ve seen too many zombie movies nót to be wary!)
Although I’ve never been here before, I knew that on this cemetery my maternal great grandfather Prospèr Niemegeers is buried. He died in December 1955. Obviously, I have never met him. I was to be born no earlier than 22 years later. My mom was 7 years old when he passed. But as I sat down on this sunny Thursday in April, 2017, next to his grave, I cried. Not because I felt a unique connection to him. But because I pictured my mother Gertrude (7), uncle Ignace (8) and aunt Lutgarde (12) seeing their father burying his father. It was a cold winter day and my grandfather (first row on the right with scarf) had a terrible cold.
Angels in heaven
I had absolutely no idea where to look for this specific grave. Some of the old graves were damaged, some indecipherable, having been exposed to the hands of time. I wandered and wandered between the greyish rows, meticulously scanning the names on each tombstone. ‘I give up!’, I said to myself. I still had a big part of the cemetery to cover, but I decided to call it a day. ‘Maybe, I’ll come back another time.’
A split second later, I had this brainwave: I can ask ‘Pepe en Meme’, these 2 angels in heaven watching over me and following my every move, so I believe. I asked them to give me a sign: to turn left or right, to go straight ahead or head back. And about a minute later, I stop. Just like that. I look a the grave right below me – I found it! Here I am, kneeled down at the grave of my ‘Peetje Zwijnaarde’ (gramps Zwijnaarde), whom I’ve never known. And I am feeling togetherness. I look up at the blue sky and far, far above an aeroplane draws a thin white line…
~ Fin ~
© Muriel Van Peteghem, 10 April 2017
[Nederlandse vertaling volgt spoedig.]