All I’ve got is a photograph

One of my projects in retirement has been to digitize and organize our family collection of photographs.

The idea arose after my Dad’s passing last year. Everyone in the family had gathered their favourite pictures for the screen display at the the funeral home, played on a loop for all the visitors. At the same time, the albums with physical photographs were available at the tables for people to turn through the pages of my parent’s lives. There is only one copy and the question of distribution to the four boys would be simplified if everyone were to receive a digital copy and one person would retain the original version.

After purchasing a quality scanner and setting up a dual monitor display on my desk, I have begun with my Mom and Dad’s photograph albums, ten in total, which will give me the practice to turn my attention at another point in the future to tackle those from Olga’s and my life together.

My Mom’s birthday was this past October 7 which would have been her 92nd; she passed away in 2005. Today, November 27, would have been my Dad’s 88th birthday. The date felt like an appropriate time to begin a series of blogs about their life together, as told through the pictures they retained from before their marriage in 1958 until my father’s passing in 2019. The series will be entitled, Honeymoon Sweet, because they always maintained they immigrated to Canada for their honeymoon and never left.

My mother was the person who sorted the photo albums. She created individual collections for each of the four children, showing pictures from their birth to that of their own children. My Mom put together something similar for herself and my Dad, including pictures before their marriage and of each of their respective siblings. There is a separate album of the their early years in Canada which is of particular interest. To this point I have managed to scan the albums specific for each of my parents.

The album for my Mom has dates and markings, sometimes illegible, for quite a number of the pictures. On a few she had written what appear to be songs, liedjes, which would have been sung for the occasion captured in the photograph. The detail and organization reflects her training as a nurse. My Dad’s on the other hand is notoriously lacking in dates; those showing his time in New Guinea as part of the Dutch navy clearly were extracted from another album but without any description, as if he would always have been around to explain for anyone interested. I have chosen a select few from each, a taste of their content.

My Dad was stationed in New Guinea while serving in the Dutch Navy as part of the mandatory military service in the Netherlands.

One of my favourite pictures of my Dad as a child shows him sitting on the ground, at the feet of three other siblings (the eldest missing, the youngest not yet born), grubby from playing in the dirt or quite possibly coal. My Uncle Kees stands behind, dressed as if he just came home from school; Tante Toos is the child on her knees with that ever present smile; Tante Jo sits beside my Dad, not enthused by the picture taking. Given my Dad’s age, the picture is likely from 1933, perhaps at the back door of the family row house in Tilburg. Each child reflects a bit of their personalities from what I can recall. My Dad was a boy’s boy who seemed to relish the rambunctious moments.

The same four are pictured as adults, probably from 1956 based on my understanding of when Uncle Kees, the missionary priest, had returned to the Netherlands for a scheduled vacation from his station in Uganda. My Dad cleaned up well, but the laugh on his face exhibits a delight captured in this photograph after some unknown, off-camera mischievous lark.

Finding pictures of my Mom as a child has proven difficult. She possesses only a handful; worn, unclear and unflattering. The van Rooij family appears to have very little from that time period. In Uncle Nico’s biographical, self-published book, there is a picture of the family at it’s fullest when he was born in 1933 (two of the brothers died later, before reaching adulthood). My Mom is the young, smiling girl in the middle. The remainder of Uncle Nico’s book is equally bereft of photographs of my mother but does provide some more background of her upbringing in Kaatsheuvel. In my Mom’s photograph album, there are numerous pictures of her nursing training with fellow students and colleagues; none with her standing alone. The pictures clearly show her pride in this accomplishment.

My Mom receiving congratulations for completion and/or graduation for her nursing training in 1954.
The van Rooij family in 1954, including two sister-in-laws.

The shadow of family looms large for all of us, and in the case of the van Rooijs, their moniker as the Holy Family is evident from the 1954 family photo and my Mom’s photo album which features numerous pages devoted to Tante Lina, a missionary nun in the Congo and of Uncle Herman, a parish priest in Belgium. Despite my mother being physically taller, she appears shorter than Tante Lina in this photograph, a symbolic representation of her parents’ behaviour, a hurt which manifested itself in unforeseen future decisions.

Very few pictures of my parents as a couple before their wedding, dating or engaged, appear in any of the albums. I recall each of them telling the story of my grandmother, Oma on my Dad’s side, being in the hospitable where my Mom was a nurse. If memory is correct, Oma may even have encouraged the linkage. The earliest picture of them together is dated 1956, looking to be in the kitchen of the house in Tilburg. I know little else about their courtship.

Undated photo, probably from the annual fair in Tilburg.

One remarkable, untold story is depicted in this photograph of my Dad showing off his marksmanship at a booth at the annual fair (kermas?) in Tilburg. The photo probably accompanies the price for the opportunity to shoot at the targets and win a prize. I expect the printed copy was given to my mother for keepsake as it can be found in her album. The full details of the photograph are unknown and are now subject to conjecture and interpretation all these years later.

My parents lives and that of their immediate families are those of the ordinary people seldom discussed in the history books or eulogized in documentaries or glamorized in the movies. Yet story after story emerges from the photographs as I wade through the collection; some from my own memory of the event or from my recollection of my parent’s telling. I am reminded of the 1999 Giller award winning novel, A Good House, by Bonnie Burnard, described in the flaps as a novel about an “ordinary” family where “each character must live out his or her own destiny, not knowing what triumphs or tragedies lie ahead”. In one critics view at the time, “Burnard spins her engrossing debut novel, a traditional saga that unfolds with quiet grace and measure…the book traces the upheavals and affirmations of the very ordinary Chambers family…There are no saints, no Jobs, no Hamlets in Burnard’s tale, just flawed people making the best possible choices given the passions and options of the moment…”.

Now that my Mom and Dad have both passed, I will have to piece together what I can glean from the pictures, many with people I don’t recognize or in places I don’t know. My parents are no longer here to explain and I did not take enough time to ask when they were with us, when I had the chance. I expect my brothers will be able to fill in some of the gaps but many stories will remain buried.

For now, all I have is a photograph to piece together their life with the hope to capture it with accuracy and dignity.

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