My Father Rolf Hendrik Beerhorst passed away a little over two months ago. He was 91 years old. The last three years of his life were increasingly hallowed out by Alzheimer's disease. By the time he left us it was something of a relief so it felt odd when people said over and over "I'm sorry for your loss." I suppose that sentence sounded odd because he was gone before he was gone. It also sounded odd because in the deep ways that matter I never had my father in the first place and he never really had his.
My father grew up in the Netherlands. The family business was growing and exporting flower bulbs. This had his father (also Rolf Hendrik Beerhorst) gone on frequent trips to America by steamship to sell bulbs. He would come into New York City and from there ride the trains through out the country visiting customers to maintain existing accounts and at the same time always looking to begin new accounts as well. When my Grandfather eventually returned home, surrounded by his children he would open his steamer trunk in the parlor and pass out Hershey bars, cans of Skippy peanut butter and the cowboy and Indian books. The fact of the matter was my grandfather was gone a lot. As fate would have it, when my father was ten years old my grandfather came down with a bad case of appendicitis. It was a stormy summer night in June and the doctor recommended a warm compress and promised to come first thing in the morning. The next day when the doctor arrived my grandfather was already gone. This doctor's decision changed our families history for ever. My grandmother Margaretha was pregnant with her twelfth child at this time. With my grandfather now gone and the depression deflating sales in the United States, our family business collapsed and was liquidated a year after my grandfather's passing. Three years later Germany took over the Netherlands in a humiliatingly swift five days. A German Calvary detachment took over the Beerhorst tulip bulb barns and two officers took up residence in our family home. Over the next five years until the liberation by the allies in 1945, life would prove to be an incredible challenge for our family. I grew up hearing many stories of the war years. Stories of how they had to eat their flower bulbs mashed with potatoes in order to stay alive through the winter, stories of how my father and his siblings walked for miles along the railroad tracks picking up scattered pieces of coal that had fallen from the trains. This scavenged coal provide some extra fuel to keep their big home warm against the cold winter winds that blew in from the North Sea. Before they climbed into there beds (My father shared a bed with his brother John) for the evening it was necessary for the water to be blown out of the pipes from the upstairs bathroom to make sure the pipes wouldn't freeze and burst in the night. This was a rotating task that the children shared through out those long winter months during the occupation.
These hard ships combined with with a missing father meant that not only did my father suffer from a physical malnutrition growing up but an emotional and physiological malnourishment as well. I would go so far as to say that from what I knew of my father that this deep deficiency left him for ever soul hungry and underdeveloped as a man through out his life. Even though he found some kind of solace in his sect of fundamentalist christianity, it always seemed to me that his religion remained too light of a diet to provide the soul nutrition to enable the real growth and healing he so desperately needed. In writing about my father in this way I do not want to judge him and make myself the victim. What I hope to do is unpack my family story in such away that I can begin to fill in some of the hallows in my own soul. I want to take a good hard look at where I have come from. When I know my story and know what I need to work on perhaps I will be able to improve my ability to connect with my children. I want to be able to more fully give myself to those who come into my life. I want to develop my conscious self so that I have something real to give.
I know now that my father like many of his generation came into the task of being a father with an empty "fatherhood account". Most of the checks he wrote bounced when I tried to cash them. He came off stiff, distant and hard to please. He had few if any male friends I remember. His only real friend was my mother. I have absolutely no memories of him going out to hang with his friends or having any buddies over to our house. He disappeared every day Monday through Friday to something called "the office". Weekends were about yard work, washing the car and going to church. I really don't remember much else. When I reflect on it, what ever relationship I did have with my father felt very thin. A worn penny, a faded photograph creased and dog eared. So the real question becomes where does this leave me with my own son and daughters? I remind my self that my father and my grandfather before him did the best they could working with the limitations they were born into. I don't want to cast blame, I want to simply carry on my own journey with out resentment, to dedicate myself to remain awake and ready for my work.
This is a poem that I wrote last week that comes out of mulling over these thoughts of who I have come from and who I am becoming.
Where The Mower Never Goes
I wrangle deep in the pit from where I came
too dark for shadows
working clay mixed with sand and bits of root
I fashion a new me, a person
that has more in common with animal fur, sticks and the
broken windows of an abandoned
house siting back on a country road
I pick up the stone and throw it as far as my arm allows
it falls just beyond father's grave in the
tall grass and Queen Anne's Lace where the
mower never goes
dusk approaches with the frogs in the ravine
to call me back home