The Empty Chair

We never talked about our history. I knew fragments, from my grandparents’ generation, but nothing beyond that. I know my father and his siblings grew up on a farm near Amsterdam, where they grew potatoes and sugar beet. I know that farm was sold in the 1980s, so they could build the motorway to Schiphol airport. I know my grandfather, who invented the most bizarre mechanic contraptions for irrigation on that farm, died before I was born, of leukaemia, and that he was missed. Aside from that, there was not much discussion. It was a mystery to me- a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.

In uncle Tom’s autobiography, he said, were stories that were important for me, because they would help me understand my place in the world. It was not until after he died that I started to read it, and my own hidden history unspooled before me.

It started familiarly enough. He wrote of the flat miles of boggy farmland where he grew up in north Holland, in a place called Baarn, near Hilversum. I have never been there but I know what it will be like- iron grey skies, emerald grass, grazing cows, criss-cross canals with little bridges and low-roofed houses with big windows. 

He wrote of singing old folk songs, of riding his horse, of stargazing, and of being forced to attend the Sunday services at the Calvinist red brick church- most likely with a square steeple, that his father (my great-great-grandfather) revered, because it ‘points our way to heaven’.

He wrote of his older brother Cornelis, who he idolised, who had bright blonde hair and twinkling blue eyes, and rode his motorbike at breakneck speed along the canalside; Cornelis who would die emaciated, feverish and broken, in a camp in Germany- we think- just a few days before the end of World War Two.

Someone had mentioned him before, at a family meal several years previously. It was the night before my aunt’s wedding, and the conversation moved to the people who could not be sat around my Oma’s table that night. We talked about Opa of course, and each of us was given a button from his military uniform to wear on our person at the ceremony. Someone spoke of “Cor”, who “died in the camp”, and moved swiftly on. There was an empty chair at the table, and it’s emptiness was bright and shining.