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Stories in Dutch

Dad's Story (English)

On 15 April 1953, after two hours of sleep, we were called up to begin the voyage. Right on schedule, the Roetje Geelens intercity bus arrives. At 7:15 the voyage begins. In front of the church in the town of Neer, we bid farewell to Mr. Kapelaan Haenen and Father Sillekens, and one last quick snapshot was taken by Father Beurskens from Baarlo (our cousin). With fond farewells, we set off as the soil of our beloved town of Neer vanished beneath our feet. We were in high spirits on the bus, which took the edge off the seriousness of such a huge event. Even though this major life change had been arranged and prepared years in advance, it is still a parting, and in time, to part is also to die a little. It is only then that you feel the loss of the loved ones and friends you had. You feel completely different at the last minute, and sometimes you don’t want to let it show. We proceeded to Eindhoven, where family members came aboard to accompany us out to Rotterdam. When we arrived there, it was the end of our time together, for who knew when, if ever, we might meet again. But in good spirits, with a hearty handshake and an ‘Until we meet again, God willing,’ it was time for the sheep to separate from the goats, as I like to say. Cousin Father Beurskens, who had also accompanied us, bid us farewell with one last priestly blessing, and so it was off again for Sjeng and Tina and their eleven offspring. First wipe the feet, clean the soles of the shoes, see the doctor and then all the moving your papers from one table to another. Looking out for the boys and hearing them say ‘look at that, like to get one of those’. Finally, it took a little less than half an hour to get Jantje’s papers in order and it was time to go from the dry into the wet monsoon. The 13 of us stepped aboard our ship, called the ‘Waterman’.

The baggage was brought to the cabins assigned to us. We had a good look around them, two cabins across from each other, all’s well on board boys! Once we were all settled in it was straight to the kitchen for some refreshment, first a hearty meal, then off to find the deck to see our brothers and sisters and acquaintances one last time on the quay in the distance and wave to them. It was not even another half hour aboard when two bouquets of flowers were brought to us, one from our friends the Venters and one from family. When you can’t say it with words, you say it with flowers. We will never forget it; we were all so shocked when we received them. I don't know what you would call the feeling, but boy it sure was cold. Along the railing and on the quay you could see it on all their faces. Finally the first signal came at around 4 o’clock, the 2nd at a quarter past 4 and then the 3rd, and then the floating village was off. Slowly at first, but it wasn’t long before we were moving along at roughly at the speed of a bus I think, and in an instant the land was out of site. Our first dinner at sea was at 6 o’clock. We were hungry and ate well. The food was excellent, and the service was great: no complaints at all; especially when you think about everything it would take to feed some 800 emigrants, in addition to the crew. In Neer, you would say that it was nicer sit down outside than to be at the table, and nice to listen out as well. A police boat passed by with all manner of officers aboard: ‘Bon voyage and have a safe journey’ was the last thing you could hear and make out. A guy quickly came around to spread sand. After such an exhausting day we decided just to go to bed early. First we bathed, then said our Chaplet prayers together in the cabin. Before we went to sleep, my poor wife already had to take to the grey bag (for seasickness). After that the cream slice pastry I had eaten also started turning a bit. After that it wasn't long before the whole gang was in a deep sleep, and when we awoke on the first morning, we had already gained an hour from travelling. So today, the second day, the clock was set back an hour at noon. And if that kept up, we would get another life out of emigrating.

You could certainly do something with that. This morning a drill was held aboard so we would know where we needed to be in case of an emergency; quite a sight, everyone with a life belt around their neck. The hours pass slowly though, eating well, and nothing at all to do. You go up to the deck some to take a breath of fresh air and gaze upon God’s nature: water, water and more water, as far as the eye can see. This afternoon we got a glimpse of land again in the distance. I think it was the last part of England. It was the last bit of England. You saw a little more of the last part of that country along the coast. Trees and pastures interspersed with pretty white houses: a lovely sight from out at sea. Later, when evening began to fall, the sea got a bit rougher, and people fell ill by the dozens. I ended up sitting on the top deck with Liza until eight or nine to truly enjoy the wonder that is God's pure nature. If you could only see it, with the boat all lit up and you gaze down into the sea as the boat lightly bounces into the foaming waves. It’s just as if there were a hundred little lights in the sea following you. Then we went back to our cabin to get some sleep ourselves. All the rest of the family was fast asleep. I quickly fell asleep but woke up again at 2 or 3. Boy o boy, what a feeling, what a sight. By now the sea was even rougher: one minute you could see your legs up in the air and the next it was as if you were sitting up in bed, and also from left to right. I just lay still, not wanting to wake anyone. You get used to anything, and it ends up feeling like the most normal thing in the world; but I’d rather have been travelling on the old pony down the road than on the Waterman at sea. But when you're faced with that kind of situation, you don't let anyone else know: you just try to be, and keep on being, the hero for the group. Dawn slowly broke and at around 5 or 5:30, one after another came out. Whoa Papa, it sure was rolling something awful, I couldn't stay on my feet and I kept falling over. That lasted for around an hour. They had all been up and went back to bed and the vomit bags were put to good use one after another. It was all quite the spectacle. I gathered the bags together neatly. I thought it best to remember that place well, it became a good place to hang out, good times boys. Later I had to laugh out loud when our little Nel said ‘Pop, if we’d ‘a stayed at Bergestraat, I never would’a puked’. While I was writing everything down, I sat on the bottom deck in the aft part of the ship watching with wonder at how the boat’s propellers wove a marvellous tapestry onto the water in two colours: sky blue and snow white. At 8 o’clock it was coffee time and the sitting room that was normally so crowded was almost entirely empty on account of so many having seasickness that morning.

After that, I decided that if I ever went back to the Netherlands, it would not be by boat. If you go to the front of the ship, you can see the beautiful sight of the water falling. The wind was splashing the waves sidelong against the ship, we even get up to 5 or 6 metres high before crashing back down full-on into the sea: because of the sea. You still see a bird every now and again. But I think they’re flying fish, because I don't think they could really be birds because we’re so far from land now. Today, the second day at sea, there isn’t much to do but feed the fishes boys, because one after the other leans over the railing and just drop bags in. Everything was superbly arranged at the evening meal. The bell rings at 6:30, at the table today some bags are brought along and used during dinner. Across from you and next to you, you notice someone is vomiting, a sorry sight, and then you just keep on enjoying your meal all the same. We go to bed early again that evening. Our family has more or less gotten over the seasickness.

All is well with everyone the next day. At 5:30, we get out of our bunks and at 6:30 it’s off to mass, which is held every morning in the movie room, one of the girls has to mind the little ones and to take them to the dining hall at 7 o’clock to eat. Well organised and good help here. At 8 o’clock, the larger 9 of us sat down to breakfast with an empty stomach. Our family had gotten over the seasickness. Now it’s around 9 o’clock, we go up to the deck to get a breath of fresh air. That’s just as well, we had already made it a good part of the way and in Canada we’ll have a lot of new things to learn. So we sit together and say what Aunt Nel would say. Fien doesn’t actually have so much time for it. We have to think back every day. Though we are already hundreds of kilometres apart, we still see each other in our thoughts. Nel, if you ever plan to come over with the family for Christmas, don’t let it worry your nerves a bit: it isn’t at all dangerous. It’s just hanging on because it’s the last time my ears will hear their speech. Then it all seems like pure talk to me, but then you think you don’t know what could ever come of it. Willem still found a way. It was to fish for Wiel van Heniske. We just saw a porpoise pass by that was around 1.5 metres long.

Friday afternoon we were passed by the largest American passenger ship, the SS United States, a colossal sea-giant, which made the Waterman look like a mere rowboat. Sunday morning to mass at 7 o’clock, and when we stood up at 9 we said to each other that they were going back to high mass in large numbers at the very moment. You can scarcely imagine the time difference. Jos had let his wrist watch keep running on Dutch time. That morning a lot of people were a bit sick again; the sea was a bit rougher again. It seems the weather has a big effect on many people. But everything was still in excellent order, and exactly on time: much praise to the Waterman. They have a lot of those darkies, around 150 for serving food, ‘hovering like swallows’ as they say in the service, and there are also a lot of children aboard, which those darkies love so much. And it’s nice to see how well they handle the littlest ones in the children’s room. And their entertainment. It’s very convenient for mothers with large families who can at least get a good rest in. Everything is done for them and no worrying about food or anything else. They also deserve a fresh, well rested start in Canada. We went to high mass and then back to the cabin, a steward came by to ask if everyone had already eaten. There was an unfortunate accident as he was closing the door. Nellie got her finger caught right in the door. She was taken straight to the doctor and bandaged up. I think the nail must have come off. This afternoon we have to go back to the doctor. She hardly cried at all, but she did say, ‘If I’d ‘a been back home sitting on the priest’s lap, I never would ’a hurt my finger’. Later that afternoon the sea got rough again. We were certainly back in another storm, rain and cold weather all day and night. It was also certain that the boat a gone some 30 miles less per day as a result. The boat rolled violently again. Monday morning we had to collect more important papers for the baggage and bureaucracy. Finally the end is slowly arriving. All was calm for the rest of Monday. A couple of ships passed by, including a Dutch ship, ‘de Groote Beer’ (the Great Bear), which was on course back to the Netherlands. Tuesday morning the clocks were set back another half hour. So right now it’s 8:30 for us, which means 1 o’clock in Holland. At 9 o’clock we had to take Nellie back to the doctor to have her finger checked. It was terrible news: she had to lose part of her middle finger above the first knuckle. That will be a lasting memory for her of the voyage to Canada and the door of cabin 131 of the S.S. Waterman. When it was removed she screamed terribly, but ten minutes later it was all over, it isn’t too painful for her. Saw some more seagulls Tuesday morning, so land is around somewhere, but you can’t see a thing from the deck on account of the fog. It was Newfoundland, have a look at it on a map and you’ll believe me and understand why when I say that they still have trouble with floating ice even in April. The ship’s command was fully prepared for it. These people do know where they are after all. Tuesday evening was the farewell dinner. Boy what a spread it was, and afterwards pastries and wine and it was all delicious. Slept well Tuesday night, a sunny morning and everyone in a big commotion: all baggage had to go up to the top deck so we wouldn’t have to lug too much stuff around when disembarking. The mealtime was an hour earlier, and today another 400 passengers will be disembarking. I don’t know yet if we’re among them, but it’s best to relax and wait patiently. At around 1 o’clock we catch sight of land and to be sure, it was Canada. What a marvellous sight! A hilly landscape with many beautiful pines with pretty white houses everywhere. Actually the arrival itself was a wonderful sight. At around 2 o’clock the boat arrived at the quay with a great commotion aboard, the children especially couldn’t take their eyes off the shore. We got started getting the papers in order again. They loaded out the heavy baggage. During unloading, we saw our trunk brought in. It was still looking great and fully intact. Tomorrow we will be officially disembarked for the last time, so it's off to the cabin to sleep, but first a walk around the ship and have a look around. The landscape was as hilly as the Bonneau region, but with more houses and everything lit up beautifully at night: a thousand and yet another thousand lights, and all up and down through hill and valley. Now off to rest. Slept well. This morning, Thursday at 9 0’clock we were disembarked: the final farewell to our beloved Netherlands, and then to the immigration authorities, very pleasant folks. All of the Canadians had the opinion that the Dutch were real nice folks. We had to set out bags on the table but not open them, as they instructed. They made a mark on everything with chalk, then 'it’s all right’. By now it was around 11 o’clock and then waiting until 1. The children, I just don't understand it at all, it's just as if they were at Bergestraat at Zeeger or somewhere, it really is completely normal for them. We hadn't been in the hall for 5 minutes when a nun came right up to Tina. ‘Are you Catholic?’ She immediately told a priest who came for a chat, he showed us around here and there and finally we came to a place where Catholic readings and rosaries and all manner of other things were handed out to young and old alike. Nellie had two little dollies. It was raining so hard outside that we stayed in the hall the entire time. I can now say that I believe the people that immigrated to Canada in the past, that in Canada you are as free as a bird. Now whether or not we were imagining that or if it is really true, the feeling was there. We all have the same view and the same feeling. People used to talk about homesickness in Holland, and that may well come, but wherever you go you take your whole family with you, and you have to make a living. If we were average common people and had go somewhere in Holland, I wouldn’t be looking forward to it. And now you find travelling from one part of the world to the other is completely normal and everything. I don’t even understand it, because with a household like this, I had often asked myself back home how we would get by with such a big gang; but so far so good here. Now it is 4 in the afternoon, or 9 o’clock Neer time, so two more hours before we would be off. I once heard at the circus that immigration is a sordid business, but I didn’t find that to be true, not in the least. The train we took to Toronto was excellent. I had a good look around the compartment we were shown to when we brought our baggage in. And God willing we would be in Toronto this coming Saturday, and, so they tell me, in Chatham around 3 o’clock. From Halifax I sent a telegram to our contact. Here in Halifax in the hall, you could get anything to take with you, but there were also places to eat. The service was fast, but you practically had to do it all yourself. You don’t see those tailcoats here. Here, you take a tray, and you slide it in front of you over a kind of table, you have whatever you want put on it: soup, meat and potatoes, sandwiches with coffee, and finally you come to the till. They look at what you’ve taken to tell you how much it costs. You pay and then go with the family to sit at a table. You eat your fill and leave without saying anything to anyone. By now it was 6 o’clock and we left when the clock struck 6. The first glimpse of the countryside: all rocky and towering over little white houses, a beautiful sight. The rest of the countryside was hilly with lakes and woods here and there, and pastures here and there. You do see some small homes, mostly made of wood and painted white. Until evening began to draw in, it was just looking out the window and looking out the window some more. I don’t know any better way to describe it. You see a group of houses together, then a village, then a town, but what you do not see is a little garden by a house. It seems not be of much interest here. It may be due to the environment or because spring was not here yet. Finally evening came and everyone tried to lie down as best and as comfortably as they could. The next day we were up early at around 5:00. Once we could see around us, we were in winter, and just as Schaken wrote, I was thinking ‘is this Canada?’ Ice and snow and if you look at the fields there was in fact some work done here and there and some spots of fertilizer. I hope we end up in a different part of the country. The soil would be very difficult to work here because you could see piles of stones all over the fields. There were certainly some that were as heavy as the ones in the city hall building, which come out of the ground like that as well. This is the province of Quebec. I haven’t seen any orchards so far, but I have seen some beautiful churches, though none very large. Most are a little larger than the church in Nunhem, but what you do see everywhere here, at the smallest little houses is a car. Walking here is terrible. Also, you see the people here not working. I don’t know what they’re up to here. It seems that a Canadian’s life is quite easy. You don’t see rye, oats or wheat anywhere. It’s as if nature runs its course in just a couple of months here. Now after having travelled by train for a day and a night, you can see that it’s getting better. Now at least you see a green patch here and there, but all this way I had yet to see how appallingly far apart the farms were from one another. You did see little groups of houses, but living 20km away from each other, I’ve never seen anything like it. There must be places in Canada where that is the case, but not elsewhere in the world. At 5:30 we passed St. Leonard, it really makes you think about Limburg, about Bridgen where they also celebrate the feast of ‘St Lendert’. We continued on to Montreal and after that it wouldn’t be long before we entered the province of Ontario. This area is not so hilly and from the barns and stables you could see that there were already large farms here. You didn’t see any more piles of stones lying in the fields. How can I best describe what I’m seeing here? like the national highway and then the houses along the way, some 400 or 500 metres or even somewhat further apart, so if you were at the end of the street, it’s another half hour along to get to the church with a little group of houses. Just the length of the field. If you went around one or two times, it was lunch time, 12 o’clock. Perhaps it could be ploughed into furrows with a tractor, but I think it’s not possible. The further we travel from Montreal, the better it looks, but I'll say it again, not many farmers in the field yet. You can be sure it’s not a good idea to go into business here. As before, the long compartment set off and then on our feet. The further down we come the more hustle and bustle there is. Everywhere there’s so much hustle and bustle with cars going around, it really cannot be expressed or believed. At around 11 or 12 we reached London and after an hour of chugging along we arrived in Chatham to the promised land and I can tell you that ‘it was all right’ as they say in English. Mister Van Raay was at the station with a fancy car and a truck. We get to know one another and hit it off well. He was a farmer from Holland, but we were in for a bit of a surprise. As he explained to me, he knew absolutely nothing about us. The Canadians had only asked him if he wanted to look after some immigrants. They showed him a big list of names and after that the Canadians kept working without informing him of anything further. Now he had 3 families to shelter this week. All told, they look after immigrants better here than any organisation in the Netherlands. We were brought to an immigration house where we were received by, among others, the parish priest. They were Capuchin Friars from Holland and we were immediately provided with sleeping amenities, blankets, etc. Once that was all set, we had to go to the church with the priest. The church was attached to a building with a large movie theatre, dance hall, etc. where a couple of women were already making coffee. We let ourselves enjoy a cup and then we had to go get food and drink for the next day. We went shopping and got a nice-sized piece of soup meat. Boy you sure could get a nice chunk of meat for cheap. It'd cost you an arm and a leg in Holland. In the American style, you go in the shop and take your cart with a basket in it and you push it around the shop and take what you need and go to the end up to the till, take it all out and put it on the counter, a lady adds all your stuff up with a machine. Beside her is someone that packs it all up. You pay and, without saying a word, you help yourself and come back out onto the street again. You see beautiful shops here and anything your heart desires, if you have the dollars of course. But of course we had to earn them first, but we hadn't yet. The people here do help out extraordinarily. I don’t know if it’s like that all over Canada, but it’s unbelievable here. We had everything al taken care of, but other people were still ready to help us. Sometimes people say what they know. Here they did too. Before evening fell, there were 4 or 5 cars out front, all to offer help: one would look into this, the other into that... So finally you end up not knowing what you’re saying. That’s how it is. Van Raay is in contact with various prominent people in Canada in the surrounding towns. It’s a kind of organisation without any rules or anything. So it was just for helping immigrants and immigrants alone to find shelter and work as quickly as possible. And so along came a certain Mister Van de Winkel, a Belgian by birth, but who worked with the Dutch. He speaks Flemish, which the Dutch can understand easily. He says: you just arrived and you don’t have any work and you don’t really have a house but things will come together. I live in Merlin and I have something in mind for you there. Don’t worry, things will come together. Finally we went to bed for our first night’s sleep in a Canadian house with all of the amenities. It was a house that had been purchased by some farmers from the surrounding villages to help out unexpected immigrants. The next day, Sunday, 26 April, we went to the church. On the way another person stopped to offer a helping hand. After high mass, it was more visitors. The whole day long it was visitors and then more visitors. On Monday, Van de Winkel came back around in his car and he had to travel 20 km every time to get to Blenheim. He did say he thought he would have something for me in a couple of days, if nothing else had come up yet. But you don’t worry, it should come together before waiting for those beets. It would take too long for you. With that kind of household you want to be able to work right away, that would be better. We’ll see what we can do. Tuesday afternoon the priest came for a visit, an extraordinarily nice man. He came for a chat, but also told us that Van de Winkel had called him and that everything was in order, and after 4 or 5 hours there was Van de Winkel again. Now told us exactly what he had managed. There was a house that had become available in Merlin, the occupant had bought a farm, and Van de Winkel had rented it. If we were interested, he had also found work at a stone factory. There, like him, I would have 90% of a full-time job, and as for the boys, he would take care of those boys soon once beet season began, and the girls too. Would you be interested in that? Without hesitation I agreed, you’re happy to have it now because in the winter there are many without work. It certainly wouldn’t be so bad, when I came here 29 years ago and started with the beets and had been on my own for as long as I had known, working no more than 5 months a year. He currently had 4 farms. And so it was settled. I’ll come pick you up on Thursday or Friday, and sure enough, on Thursday, 30 April at 10 in the morning, there he was already with a big truck to take along the whole kit and caboodle. In 10 minutes we were ready and it was off to Merlin, somewhere in Ontario near Lake Erie. This is where our journey will end, at least I hope so. From here it is around an hour’s walk to the water. It’s now 30 April and nothing at all has been done in the field yet. You could still see last year’s stubble all over the place. But it’s awfully heavy clay and when I walk through the yard it’s as if the ground sticks to your feet. We have a lovely yard with 2 big fruit trees. It must be at least ¼ of a hectare. It was time to start learning the ropes on the very day of arrival. So the farmer with the fancy car came by in the afternoon. First we would need an oven and stove for cooking and baking. They insisted that we need not pay for it right away. We had to earn some money first or work it off. That would be up to us as well. It’s a lovely white oven, works with wood, coal, and even for heating with gas. That was done and now I’ll show you where there’s a shop, the school, etc. until finally we arrive at Van de Winkel’s house. We had to have a cup of coffee and he showed us his farm. First the cattle, he had two barns with oxen for manure. One barn with some 20 units was for sale. A small cow walked by, which he kept for his own use for milk. The buildings were tall, and if you go into a barn like that, you immediately see the reason why. Half of the barn had been divided up into two stalls. The animals all walk around freely, not a single one tied up, a trough as long as the stall and ripe hay, a mill to grind maize corn. The corn was ground on the cob and no corn was threshed, more space for machines. The hay was stored up top. Everything packaged up. There was still a large amount left. The farmer estimated there was still some 30,000 kg. It was a whole heap of it that I saw. It was at least more than I had ever seen all at once. Then there was another, extra barn for machinery: one reaper-binder, it wasn’t used much anymore. He had a contraption that threshed corn and at the same time put it clean up onto the truck. Tractors, trucks, 2 fancy cars: one for the farmer, one for his son. And as you’re riding home and think about the fact that he came here 29 years ago with a family of small children and then set up a kind of loan office with a couple of other people with the aim of helping new immigrants because, as he said, if you want to by a car in a few weeks, just say so: you can borrow the money for it. You could also buy one from a garage, but then you’d be paying around 18% interest and at the Credit Union you'll pay 7% and pay it off as you go. The trust that the people here have in Dutch people when it comes to paying, and I’ve already heard it many times from different people that the Dutch only need to take and if they’re newcomers they don’t want them to pay for it right away. They say you need to earn some money first. So for instance, there was a family from Holland with us on the boat who also ended up here in Merlin. The husband found work in Tilbury (miller) and because of the distance he needed a car right away. I talked to him on 2 May after high mass. He has to learn to drive now. The car was already there. We talked about the high mass. Saturday afternoon Van de Winkel came by our place and told us about everything. He checked that we didn’t get mixed up with the time because where we live, the daylight savings time is a half-hour ahead. Where the church is, is still on the old time. So, for us, first mass is at 9 and high mass is at 11 o'clock. So we walked together to high mass. They take the children in as well, so sometimes during mass you here a little one talking or screaming, not the infants, but all of the ones older than that came along into the church: so all of us. Around 10 minutes from the church a car came up from behind. It was a Canadian and he asked in a friendly way if we were going to the church. The mother and the little ones can climb aboard, and you shouldn’t decline that sort of offer. If you don’t ride along they get quite offended, I discovered that. Saturday morning, I set off towards church and work, in part to get an idea of how long of would take to walk it. On the way a car came up behind me and stopped to ask if I wanted a ride. I explained to him as best as I could why I was going it on foot, but you could see that he didn't like my response at all. Then Sunday after high mass we were standing with the whole family together talking with some folks from Holland, just as you might do in Neer after high mass. We wanted to go home, but no, not walking, no way, we were all taken home by at least four different cars. One or other drove a good ways back just to take you home. It was really a strange sight to see four cars stopping in front of the door. In English you say ‘thank you for the ride’ and they answer ‘You welkom’: the friendliness and willingness to help here in Canada is really extraordinary. This is where dad’s diary ends.