Please don’t call me Sir

I had more faith in my father’s second “fact” about Uncle Kees being recognized by the Queen. I had doubts, however, having never seen any evidence.

I am unclear about the basis of my father’s faith, whether or not my parents had seen any pictures or were simply repeating the information as relayed to them from the other relatives in the Netherlands. The honour certainly makes for a good story, but uncovering the details is problematic without some more concrete details.

During my last trip to the Netherlands, the picture became more clear when Dr. Cees van Deursen displayed his collection of photographs from Uganda while working at the hospital in Kamuli. A very officious looking gentleman appears to be pronouncing the accomplishments, congratulating Uncle Kees after the medal is pinned to his left lapel, followed by a small reception of friends and co-workers.

Uncle Kees looks uncomfortable, almost embarrassed, standing alone, at the front, hearing a litany of praise about his work from a representative of the Dutch consulate in Kampala. His look turns to pride in the second picture after a congratulatory handshake, exploding into relief and joy when the ceremony is over, awaiting a welcome beer to share with colleagues and friends.

The evidence was complete when I was able to touch the medal itself, hold its weight in my hands, feel the intricacies of the craftmanship; and later, listen to the words of the proclamation itself as read from the original letter (copied below).

Fr. Kees de Cock was appointed as a Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau, awarded by her Majesty the Queen, on the occasion of her birthday on April 30, 1980. The order was created in 1892 to recognize foreign diplomats, as well as Dutch citizens, for their service to the nation. Knight is the fifth class of six categories.

The letter itself speaks to a few of his accomplishments, the places where he was stationed and the schools he built. It notes Uncle Kees’s acquisition of the language and adoption of the local culture, understating the love of the people he served. Every conversation about Fr. Kess de Cock is imbued with words of praise of him as a person, adored by all those with whom he interacted. All of us wish our legacy will remembered with the same fondness.

I wonder how he would have reacted to the lines which praised his work as “great merits to the Netherlands in Uganda” and how his “actions and great dedication have kept the name of the Netherlands in Uganda high” (as per the Google translator which can miss language nuances). The question is pertinent given my own father’s disdain for the monarchy, royalty of any nation not just the Netherlands. Such incredulity must emanate from experience and an upbringing which fostered these views, which I expect, were part of the de Cock household (passed down here in Canada to myself and my siblings; my own is more nuanced now). My Dad claimed Uncle Kees did not tell him directly about the honour because, quoting his older brother, it was “just the queen”.

The photographs above depict an after party of sorts, another ceremony back in Kamuli, without the pomp and the ties. Uncle Kees was presented with a sash which reads, Kiske de Ridder (Kiske the Knight) and an accompanying sword, for what is a knight without one. After the proclamation, he then received the customary salute before the night was capped with beer and ground nuts. An evening of laughter, suffused with a hint of mockery, intended as a celebration among friends. The scene reminds me of the line from the movie, Michael: You gotta learn to laugh; it is the key to true love.

I wonder, as well, if the actions are a form of modesty, a deflection away from him so he could focus on the work and the urgent needs, letting the attention flow there rather than to himself. The photographs with him receiving the medal suggests a man proud of the recognition and certainly of the attention given to the work. Uncle Kees was devoted to the people of Uganda and not concerned with how his efforts situated the Netherlands in the eyes of the world.

The knighthood he received is analogous to the Order of Canada, for the Canadian readers. The rest of the world can compare the honour to the Order of the British Empire, where recipients are knighted and can use the title, Sir. Such is not the case for those in the Order of Orange-Nassau.

Regardless, I know Kiske* would insist, please don’t call me Sir.

*Kiske is the diminutive version of Kees; a term of endearment.

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