This is Why we Fight

As you may have surmised from my recent posts, music and lyrics comprise an important element of my thinking process. The train of thought travels in both directions where an action or a phrase sparks a song; and, a song will forever represent a person, a situation, an event. Images and music are intertwined, joyously, happily, memorably.

I cannot hear an ABBA song, especially I Believe in Angels without thinking of Olga with her trust in people and their inherent goodness; I cannot listen to Message in a Bottle without reminding me of a late night pizza run with Ron and his steadfast friendship; I cannot sing I Never Promised You a Rose Garden without memories of my mother’s life wisdom.

Now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has engendered a darker realm of musical triggers: for fight, for struggle, for survival. The Decembrists anthem, This is Why We Fight, will forever be associated with Ukraine in their heroic battle to win the war inflicted upon them.

Come the war
Come the avarice
Come the war
Come hell

Come attrition
Come the reek of bones
Come attrition
Come hell

This is why
Why we fight
Why we lie awake
And this is why
This is why we fight

When we die
We will die
With our arms unbound

And this is why
This is why
Why we fight
Come hell

Bride of quiet
Bride of all unquiet things
Bride of quiet
Bride of hell

Come the archers
Come the infantry
Come the archers
Of hell

So come to me
Come to me now
Lay your arms around me
And this is why
This is why
We fight

Come hell
Come hell
Come hell
Come hell

President Zelensky addressed the annual Grammy Music awards. His words spoke of music and musicians, of citizens and soldiers, of the need to continue fighting, of the need for uninterrupted support.

Our loved ones don’t know if we will be together again. The war doesn’t let us choose who survives and who stays in eternal silence.

Our musicians wear body armour instead of tuxedos. They sing to the wounded. In hospitals. Even to those who can’t hear them but the music will break through anyway.

We defend our freedom to live, to love, to sound. On our land we are fighting Russia which brings horrible silence with its bombs. The dead silence.

A victory for Ukraine, for the people, for democracy, for the rule of law, for self determination, for freedom; this is why we fight.

Waka* this way

The sun shone brightly

On our daily morning walk

The first day of spring

Of flowers we now can talk

Songs of birds, small tufts of green

Signs of hope before unseen

* a Japanese poem consisting of 31 syllables in 5 lines, with 5 syllables in the first and third lines, and 7 syllables in the others.

Blowin’ in the Wind

March 20, the 25th day since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the war rages on. Closing in on four weeks and the images of destruction accumulate, worsening, disturbing.  Each morning I wake to read the BBC news feed on the latest developments, peruse the stories in the Globe and on the CBC, scroll through Facebook. Today Bohdan shared yet another collage of the devastation, this set from  Mariupol. The scenes are unimaginable.

Olga too is consumed by the war, following events, reading the stories of bravery, of determination, of courage, of heartbreak. We just finished listening to Andre Rieu introduce a Ukrainian singer at a March 1st concert in the Netherlands. “Music puts people together”, he said. “If the world would make music together the world  will be a better place.” The problem is that Putin is tone deaf and sings from his own sheets.

Olga discovered a Spotify playlist of songs about the war in Ukraine, some new, some original songs of the partisan army, some remakes to capture a new generation. Occasionally she sings along with the words, taught by her father who fought in the insurgent army for an independent Ukraine, as tears roll down her cheek. I don’t understand the language, yet the anguish, the commitment, the sorrow is clear.

Daily images of the atrocities confound a belief in progress, of learning from our past, of faith in the process. The Peter, Paul and Mary version of Blowin’ in the Wind is the song on continual play in my mind.

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?

Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, and how many years must a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?

And how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

And how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?

Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?

Dead bodies are placed into a mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Georgia, Yugoslavia, Syria.


And how many times must we sing this sad song,

Before the music is no longer played?

The answer, dear world, is take some action now,

The answer is take some action now.

Us and Them

In my second year as a full time faculty member at Seneca College in 1990, I was teaching a mathematics course for the General Arts and Science program. The content was remedial algebra and all the students were enrolled because they failed an aptitude test. The rest of their cohort were in higher levels while these students were relegated to the lowest rung and considered themselves to be less. No one wanted to be there and my role was as much about motivation and confidence building as it was in developing mastery of the subject matter. My casual banter with students was an attempt to establish comfort.

In one of those conversations I discovered that Anton oversaw the student radio station which broadcast inside the campus, piped into all of the cafeterias. We exchanged favourite music until I jokingly asked “so when can I get my own radio show?” He pondered the question for a moment and responded, “there is an opening for an hour on Friday afternoons. Can you start next week?” I accepted.

My DJ days continued in the fall into November on the Friday before Remembrance Day. I dedicated the entire hour to music about war as could be found in the studio’s collection along with a handful of my own records, hoping to raise some thoughtfulness and reflection. The play list included “Fortunate Son” (Credence Clearwater Revival), “Spanish Bombs” (The Clash), “Orange Crush” (REM), “Life During Wartime” (Talking Heads), “Imagine” (John Lennon) and “Us and Them” by Pink Floyd.

The war in Ukraine has resurrected that memory, making me realize the suffering of the people will be included in future commemorations. As I cringe with every new photograph of the bombings, as I watch the Ukrainian president plea for more help in closing the skies, as I listen to the rationale of Western leaders for not providing cover, I am reminded of the lyrics for “Us and Them”. Only in this scenario the Us and the Them are between countries on the same side and not between opposing combatants.

Listen to the tune in your head, sing the lyrics, follow the quotes and pictures.


“We seek no conflict. But if conflict comes to us, we are ready for it, and we will defend every inch of NATO territory.”

U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin

and Them

“We are not part of this conflict.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in denying Ukraine’s request for a No Fly Zone

And after all, we’re only ordinary men

Me and you

God only knows, it’s not what we would choose to do

“If it’s the intention of Moscow to try somehow to topple the government and install its own puppet regime, 45 million Ukrainians are going to reject that one way or the other.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Forward he cried from the rear
And the front rank died

“This is the worst military aggression in Europe for decades … the days to come are likely to be worse, with more deaths, more suffering and more destruction.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

The General sat, and the lines on the map
Moved from side to side

Down and out
It can’t be helped, but there’s a lot of it about

With, without
And who’ll deny it’s what the fighting’s all about

Volodymyr Zelensky portrayed the role of the president of Ukraine in the television series Servant of the People before winning the 2019 election to become the real thing. The rhetoric surrounding the refusal of NATO to introduce a No Fly Zone, despite the constant pleas and the ongoing carnage, reminds me of another fictitious president who mused about involvement in an African genocide as part of West Wing, Episode 14, Season 4, Inauguration Part 1 in 2003. The discussion is about the content of President Bartlett’s second inauguration speech. Read and substitute Ukrainian for Kudanese:

President Bartlett: What’s hard is that foreign policy has become a statement of what we won’t do.

Will Bailey: Yes sir.

President Bartlett reading: “A new doctrine for a new century based not just on our interests but on our values across the world.” Wow, that’s pretty spicy stuff.

Will Bailey: You wrote it sir.

President Bartlett: Yeh, I know. … Why is a Kudanese life worth less to me than an American life?

Will Bailey: I don’t know sir, but it is.

It is easy to be an armchair prime minister or president especially from the comforts of my computer on the other side of the ocean from the war. It won’t be me or my children flying the jets or wearing the boots on the ground.

For want of the price of tea and a slice
The old man died

I don’t know how the war will end, yet it must. For us. And them.

“All the people who will die starting from this day will also die because of you. Because of your weakness, because of your disunity,”

The sky is falling, falling down
I’ll be waiting for you, for you, for you
On the dark side of the moon

Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd

If I had a rocket launcher

In 1981 I was enrolled as a second year student at King’s College of the University of Western Ontario in the Sociology program. Several of my professors were left-wing matching my own political leanings so I was invited to participate in a Marxist reading group. Students and faculty would gather at one professors home each week to discuss a pre-assigned reading about, for example, the plight of El Salvador, a Central American country ravaged economically by multi-national corporations, its people tortured by a brutal dictatorship propped up by the United States government. The words and the wine would flow, people largely agreeing on the circumstances, arguing about the theoretical underpinnings, bemoaning the general apathy amongst fellow students, faculty, and citizens.

Fast forward to 1987; married, a Masters degree, two children, a mortgage, I was a faculty member on contract at Seneca College, attempting to become full time, teaching whatever course was offered because I needed the work. I had befriended several colleagues, most full time, all on the left hand side of the political spectrum. A number of us could be found in the Liberal Studies lounge, debating the plight of workers, the ineptitude of our provincial and national governments, and the state of contract negotiations between our union brethren and the scurrilous college management.

Economic and military imperialism was also on the menu of topics, parceled with a debate on the merits of the Frankfurt School. Salvatore Torres* , a fellow contract faculty with a young family, was particularly engaged in the discussion, trained in political economy and having lived in Colombia. He could banter the theory and the ideology with the most learned of the group and he brought a dose of reality to the conversation. I will never forget the description of his lived experience, where the best protection for his family against the roving hit squads wasn’t the eloquent words he learned at university but the unmistakable persuasion of his AK47.

On February 24, 2022, diplomacy failed to stem the demonic aspirations of Vladimir Putin and the Russian army began their invasion of Ukraine.

I attended the March for Ukrainians in downtown Toronto with Olga, our daughter and her partner’s family, along with 30,000 people. The crowd listened to predictable speeches from politicians and Ukrainian organizations as people chanted and sang and cheered. Amongst the rhetoric was a plea for money, apart from a donation for humanitarian aid, specifically for the purchase of combat equipment. The Ukrainian government had issued rifles and automatic weapons to every citizen of Kyiv willing to take up arms in defense of their country against the invaders. The march attendees were urged to dig deep because the collection would be to purchase protective vests at a cost of $500 each for these brave men and women fighting along side soldiers but without the equipment.

At home, I caught up on the latest news and watched an interview with a Ukrainian member of parliament. Kira Rudik was articulate and resolute, armed and ready to exchange fire with Russian troops.

Ukrainian MP takes up arms to join the fight against Russian forces. Screen capture of a CBC interview with Kira Rudik pictured here brandishing her weapon.

She described long queues of people, men and women, lined up waiting to acquire their weapon; others were making their own molotov cocktails to thwart the Russian army. Ukrainians living abroad were urged to return home and join the fight. Countries around the world were united in imposing sanctions but would not join in the battle; Ukrainians would be on their own.

Salvatore Torres’ story became Ukraine’s.

“Those of us already living in free societies owe Ukrainians a great debt of gratitude. Their courage has reminded us of the nobility of sacrifice for just causes. … What Ukrainians have done is inspire [the West] to shake ourselves out of our torpor and create policies of assistance to them, in the hopes that we might one day prove worthy of becoming their ally.” ( Putin Accidently Revitalized the West’s Liberal Order. Kori Schake. The Atlantic. )

When Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the President of Ukraine, was offered evacuation by the Americans, he vowed to remain in Kyiv and responded, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

The West has begun to supply. Canada announced the provision of anti-tank missiles. Germany, reversing it’s own ban on the distribution of weapons, will be providing Ukrainian troops with 1,000 anti-tank weapons as well as 500 Stinger missiles from its own military reserves. Sweden broke with it’s policy of not selling arms to any side during a military conflict and will be sending missile systems. Not the specific armaments requested but ones more accessible to fighting civilians: “easy to operate, doesn’t require training and can be handled by a single soldier.”

And still every hour brings more images of destruction, of human suffering, of desperation.

If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die.


* The story is true although Salvatore Torres is a pseudonym.

I want to raise every voice, at least I’ve got to try. Every time I think about it water rises to my eyes. Situation desperate, echoes of the victims cry. If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die. Bruce Cockburn. 1984

Stand by me

My Catholic elementary school was populated by a number of ethnic groups, situated in a working class neighbourhood on the east side of London, Ontario. St. Roberts had a history of being rough and it was not uncommon for fights to break out in the school yard amongst fellow students or with the rival protestant school or with those from the Christian Reform who dared cross our playground.

Naturally, St. Roberts had its share of bullies who marauded unchallenged during the lunch hour, terrorizing others at will. I managed to avoid these confrontations largely because I was buttressed by two of my brothers, one of whom was particularly deft with the fisticuffs, not reluctant to use them for self defense or in the cause of others. One incident, however, in Grade 6, continues to conjure vivid pictures and a lasting impression.

Sean Murphy, a fiery red head with a temper to match, stood a head taller than me and possessed man-size fists. He was surrounded by a cadre of smaller sycophants who succumbed to Sean’s malicious will as a form of self-preservation and protection. On this spring day, Sean had made it his business to torment Kendal Bonner, a fellow classmate although not part of my close friends. Sean had pulled Kendal’s arm behind his back, extracting painful cries of agony, yanking ever harder, pressing for a complete surrender. I was shooting hoops nearby, suddenly aware, realizing no one was attempting to intervene, when I heaved the basketball directly at Sean, hitting him squarely in the back.

Sean released Kendal immediately then whirled his head towards me, eyes ablaze with anger. I stood my ground as Sean took several steps before pummeling me with three hard punches to the head. It was over; I was beaten and everyone scattered. By the end of recess, my left cheek had swelled, the eye was red with bloodshot, matching an egg shaped purple welt. I sat at my desk, crying from the pain, abiding by the school yard code of not snitching. Eventually Mrs. Turner noticed, extracted the story and likely administered some form of punishment to the perpetrator.

I don’t know why Sean was abusing Kendal. It didn’t matter. I don’t recall what was going through my head when I decided to intervene and tackle someone who completely outmatched me. All I know is that a fellow classmate needed help, and I utilized what limited resources were in my possession to stop a bully.


The last words from the Snake Island 13 who refused to surrender in defense of their country.

Let it snow

“You don’t have to shovel rain.”

I was reminded again this past weekend of my father’s saying after three hours of clearing the accumulated snow fall at the cottage. Some work was self-imposed, shoveling my way to the ice beneath in an annual effort to make a skating rink on the lake. Fortunately, the 200 foot lane is plowed by the neighbour saving one prohibitive task. Carving a pathway to the lake and clearing the stairs to the basement, however, continually tests my aging body. I can see some of your eyes rolling while muttering, “talk to me about a real problem”, to which I produce exhibit A from three weeks earlier at our home.

The worst part is the end of the driveway where the snow plow dumps an almost impassable pile.

Toronto received what felt to be a full winter’s equivalent of snow in one day. Add the pile from the sidewalk plow and the road tractors and you have a morning and an afternoon of pushing, lifting and throwing hip’s deep snow piled ever higher. Our dog, Odin, accompanies me on these ventures. He gets his own shovel although he still has not grasped the concept, preferring to gnaw on the handle rather than endure the strain of dragging a load to the side.

Growing up in Southwestern Ontario, I was very familiar with the demands of living within the snowbelt. Shoveling the driveway was an expectation for everyone in the family, starting at a very young age, no slackers allowed.

Our Dad began the day shift at 7:00 am which meant leaving the house at 6:30. If it snowed heavy overnight, Mom would get everyone out of their bed and out onto the driveway at 6:00 am to ensure the car could leave. Then we had to follow the vehicle up the unplowed dead end street, providing the extra push where needed and ensuring the car was able to ram through the tsunami wave of snow onto the highway. The plow eventually cleared the street leaving enough to cover the gravel road, all ready for us road hockey warriors.

We spent hours on the street with a hard orange ball or a puck, using chunks of ice for goal posts.

I don’t recall being hindered by the snow. The cost of downhill skiing and organized hockey eliminated our participation. We found other avenues: tobogganing, forts for snowball fights, backyard ice rinks, or trudging to the frozen creek. The latter two activities meant work in preparation, warming us up for the fun itself.

“There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing” or simply relying on the advantages of youth to ward off the cold. We aren’t young anymore so attitude and a warm attire have become our saviours. Olga and I woke to -27 C yesterday morning and proceeded to don our snow pants and assorted seasonal accoutrements to embark on Odin’s daily constitutional. The air was clean and fresh, the sun was shining. It was glorious. Last night was peaceful and calm as Olga and I followed the cottage road without a flashlight, led only by the brightness of a full moon on the white snow, kept company by the crunching beneath our feet. At one point we stopped and drank in the silence, gazing at the constellations. Today I skated on my ice rink, stick handling around Odin, raising my arms in jubilation after an imagined goal. We ended the day relaxed on the bench, quietly breathing in the beauty of the lake.

Forecast for Thursday: plus 6 and rain.

Just don’t call me late for dinner

My name is Henricus Gerardus Decock, at least according to my birth certificate. Those who know me are raising an eyebrow; those reading the “About” page are confused, understandably. I seldom refer to myself in that manner. According to the website, , “Henricus is the Latinized form of Heinrich. As a Dutch name, it is used on birth certificates though a vernacular form such as [Henry] is typically used in daily life.” Try explaining the distinction to an officious organization like the World Bank or an American border guard at the airport. Neither were amused with my usual quip, “only my wife calls me Henricus, and only when she is angry”. The joke did not engender even the slightest smile.

I am named after my two grandfathers: Henricus on my mother’s side, Gerardus on my father’s. Not a surprising choice but also very unimaginative. My birth occurred 360 days after my older brother, Gerardus Henricus. We are Catholic twins with reversible names. Peter Cornelis (spelt incorrectly) came into the world thirteen months later burdening my mother with three kids under the age of three.

Photo of the three amigos, probably in the fall of 1961. I am the cute one on the left.

Peter was named after our father although I don’t recall anyone referring to him as junior; certainly the moniker did not stick. He might have qualified as the third of a triplet except there are two issues with his birth certificate. First, his given name needed to be Petrus to be consistent with the Latin versions of myself and Gerardus; and most importantly, his surname is different: De Cock instead of Decock.

We have developed our own theory on this curiosity. Our mother was the parent who completed the birth registration for Gary and myself. In her attempt to assimilate, she anglicized the spelling. Our father, for some unknown reason, was responsible for Peter’s documentation and simply kept everything status quo. Mom would always sign her surname Decock while Dad consistently wrote De Cock. I employ what is written on my birth certificate as does Peter.

Michael came along four years later and was named after… no one. Breaking with tradition, my parents decided to select a name they both liked. The rest of us might have questioned his relationship to the family except his middle name is after the oldest living brother of my mother, Herman; and there are pictures of him as a baby.

Not definitive proof the baby is Michael, but as good as it gets.

When Gary was young, he had difficulty pronouncing Henry. His effort resulted in Hi-yo (phonetic spelling) which he said with such frequency all the other children in the neighbourhood did the same. Their parents would talk to my mother, asking about Gary, Hi-yo and Peter. Eventually Henry became the norm.

I have had people preferring the French version, Henri, and I can count on one hand the people who call me Hank. The first was our mechanic in London, the man with no front teeth and an infectious laugh. Then there was Ann and Carol both in the registration office at work, each of the rough and tumble kind. And finally there is my best friend, Ron, from whom I hear Hammerin’ Hank from time to time, reflecting our love of baseball.

Regardless, all my credit cards, employment records, school records, email accounts, and virtually everything else identifies me as Henry Decock, which brings us back to the beginning of this post.

Shortly after 9-11, I was travelling to the United States for a conference. The airline ticket was purchased bearing the name Henry Decock. Passing through customs the ever serious American border guard looked at the ticket, then at my passport, up at me, then back to the passport before saying, “The names don’t match.” I proceeded to explain while he pecked away on the computer, sideways glancing every fifteen seconds. I had never had an issue before. The ongoing delay was making me nervous until he finally stamped my passport and waved me along. Welcome to America. Forthwith all my airline tickets are bought for Henricus Gerardus Decock.

Most recently, I have been in a vigorous tug-of-war with the IT people at the World Bank. I began working for the organization as a higher education consultant which required my passport as identification. So, I am Henricus Gerardus in their system. In order to get paid, I submitted a voided cheque and instructions on how to transfer the funds to my bank account to the IT department. All good except, “The names don’t match.” I wrote a lengthy email explaining how the bank uses my passport and drivers licence as proof of my identity for an account in the name of Henry Decock. The issue was passed up to HR with whom I went further showing how every card, ownership, email, work record and pension are all issued to a Henry Decock. HR referred the matter back to IT who responded, “The names don’t match.” I escalated the problem to my immediate supervisor who was sympathetic, apologized for the bureaucracy, admitted my particular case was unusual, and suggested I petition the bank to verify my identity. Back to the bank who would not guarantee any external funds bearing Henricus Gerardus would be accepted into the account for Henry Decock for fear of money laundering. I cried Uncle, relented and allowed to have my account name changed, over the phone. I notified IT. Hopefully I will get paid now.

Henricus, Henry, Henri, Hank, or Hi-yo are all fine with me, as long as the cheque doesn’t bounce.

Pics or it didn’t happen

The ubiquity of digital and cell phone photography has translated into the accumulation of thousands of photographs by individual people, many shared through some form of social media, the bulk stored on the devices themselves or on terabyte size hard drives. There is no risk in continually pressing the button. Mistakes, blurriness and bad angles are easily deleted. The special moments, the everyday, the mundane; nothing goes unrecorded, such that proof of the event or activity or the person attending and participating is demanded for verification: pics or it didn’t happen.

Those of us from a particular vintage recall the days of film with a very limited set of pictures, 24 or 36 image rolls, curled up inside a camera where a little motor purrs automatically to advance to the next frame, or you would manually drag the lever across the back with your thumb to prepare for another shot. Without a preview, and no opportunity to redo, you spent time framing and focusing, holding your hands steady, ready to depress the button at the precise moment, hoping the resulting photograph was usable. After picking up the developed role from specialized shops, you flipped through the prints, disappointed in half, surprised at the rest.

Many fuzzy pictures were saved, occupying a space in the photo binders stacked on the shelves, kept in spite of the quality. Photographs were treasured, retained regardless of condition, folded or damaged, because it was the last one of a relative, or a scene, or a memory. They were carried in breast pockets, close to the heart; wallet sized copies were produced to be ported and shared in company – “let me show you a picture of my wife, my kids, my boyfriend, my family”. Albums were to be gifted in preservation of the family history.

I was reminded of the change in photography practice recently while reviewing our expansive digital collection in an attempt to corral its proliferation of disparate files scattered across iphones and androids, old and new laptops, usb sticks and portable hard drives, copies and originals and retouched versions. Amongst the morass was our 2007 visit to the Netherlands accompanied by Dad for his first return back since my mother died two years earlier. We made a short trip into Belgium to visit Bruges and Ghent and various World War I memorials including Vimy Ridge. Dad’s primary reason, however, was to visit family, his own and Mom’s, those who still remained. One important stop was an afternoon with Dad’s endearing, older sister, my aunt, Tante Toos.

Tante Toos opening the tabernacle to offer a drink, including her favourite: sherry.

A lively conversation ensued, conducted in Dutch because Tante Toos and Oom Gert (who chauffeured us to her home in the community care facility) possessed very little grasp of English. I understand colloquial Dutch but dared not speak it; Olga knew only a word or two (definitely more than my Ukrainian). I simultaneously translated the banter, whispering my understanding to her; Dad conveyed our contribution to his siblings. Hand gestures, pantomime, smiles and laughter completed the rest. Eventually their thoughts shifted to the family tree.

“Even eens wacht jonges. Ik wil wat foto’s laten zien.”

Tante Toos sifting through her archive of family photographs.

From inside the book cabinet, top shelf, Tante Toos pulled out a cardboard box. She slowly lowered herself back onto the chair, settled the container on her lap. Hunched over the makeshift vault, my aunt carefully removed the lid and began digging into the archives. With deliberate motion, she lifted one photo at a time, selecting special ones with the other hand before splaying them on the coffee table.

“Ah Piet, onthoud deze. Het was op de bruiloft van Jo en Kees. Je moet het bewaren.”

It was a picture of Tante Toos and Dad, as young adults, smiling proudly, brother and sister standing side by side, having just witnessed the marriage of another sibling, Tante Jo.

“Kijk naar deze. Mijn grootouders, jullie overgrootouders.”

Tante Toos handed over several photos, worn at the edges, slightly yellowed. Small squares of thick paper, portraits of my great grandparents, photos I had never seen before. She dug deeper, contemplating each new revelation, removing one more for her audience.

“Hier is er een met je vader op de schoot van zijn grootvader.”

Another black and white, evidence of a corner fold, spotted lightly, taken in the back of the rowhouse in Tilburg. Dad was a child, approximately two, dirty, perched on the lap of his grandfather, his own father standing behind, smiling at the scene. It was the only copy still in existence.

Tante Toos then recalled stumbling upon old photos of people and families in flea markets, sold as antiques and decoration. She feared ending up on some dusty table, sold to passing customers. Better to be rid of all the pictures than to be scattered to the walls of strangers as some form of curiosity. She wanted to be spared that indignity.

Tante Toos gathered up the photographs and the box was closed. We posed for a few pictures and hugged our goodbyes for the last time. It was a precious moment, captured digitally, resurfaced for this post, stored in my memory bank until age erodes the story.

The last photo with Tante Toos, August 2007.

Tante Toos passed away in 2009. She instructed the executor of her will to destroy all her pictures. They disappeared, as if their subject matter never happened. I cannot imagine what she would think of her pictures displayed here, on the internet, potentially to live on forever in some file, her pixels possibly sold and monetized, floating in a cloud until it bursts.

I understand Oom Gert hung on to a handful of photos but abided by her wishes and discarded the bulk of them. I hope one day to search through what he deemed necessary to retain, maybe copying them for myself. I think about what will become of them when Oom Gert passes on and if this chain of family history will be buried forever.

We have pictures of Tante Toos in our possession, mostly when she visited Canada, stored in binders of my parents. There is an album of photos when she visited Uncle Kees in Uganda, the two perpetually connected. Many have found a new home in another box, tucked in the corner of the basement. We cherish our own pictures of her, captured digitally, uncovered on occasion. None, however, bear witness to the essence of Tante Toos’s life, her service to others. No pictures of living at home with aging parents after the rest of the family moved on. No pictures of nursing my grandmother paralyzed by a stroke. No pictures of working in a home for mentally challenged youth so they have some semblance of independence. The loving sibling, the doting aunt, the devoted daughter, giving and sharing with the extended de Cock family happened even if many of the pics no longer exist.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

December 2021 has come to an end, finishing with my monthly review of books read. The year began in a flurry, ending with a mere trickle in the remaining three months.

The last book for the year was a memoir, recommended by the instructor for the writing course. For the same reasons my reading petered out, I wasn’t able to keep pace with the weekly exercises. Fortunately, the material remains accessible for life allowing me to return to them whenever I have the opportunity.

Hidden Lives by Margaret Forster was suggested as an example on how to write about “a parent or grandparent and trying to conjure people or a period of time they did not live themselves”. The title and the subject matter attracted me, thinking about documenting the life of my Uncle Kees as a missionary in Uganda, a history I am attempting to piece together; so, I ordered a used paperback copy.

Penguin Books, 1996. 309 pages.

“Margaret Forster (25 May 1938 – 8 February 2016) was an English novelist, biographer, memoirist, historian and critic, best known for the 1965 novel Georgy Girl, made into a successful film of the same name, which inspired a hit song by The Seekers. Other successes were a 2003 novel, Diary of an Ordinary Woman, biographies of Daphne du Maurier and Elizasbeth Barret Browning, and her memoirs Hidden Lives and Precious Lives.” (Wikipedia) Hidden Lives begins with a funeral after which a woman approaches the three sisters (the author’s mother included) about the will, and whether she was included. The sisters were completely unaware of this person’s identity, discovered later to be the illegitimate child of their mother, Margaret’s grandmother, who managed to keep secret the first 23 years of her life. Margaret researches official records from city offices and churches, unable to uncover much detail or information, remaining a mystery forever. The essence of the memoir, however, is about the circumstances of ordinary, working class women in late 19th and early 20th century England. The strength of this memoir is the evocation of that experience and the impact on their lives, hidden from the standard texts of our times.


Hidden Lives is written in the third person up until page 132 when the author, Margaret, turns five and her “own real memory begins, real in the sense that I can not only recall actual events but can propel myself back to them, be there again”. With a grandmother of the same name, I found the depiction confusing, unclear as to who was conveying the story. The switch to first person was abrupt and suddenly everything made more sense.

Aside from this quirk in style, Margaret Foster’s description of her mother’s life, and her life with her mother strikes me as reflective of every working class family with the daily struggles of maintaining a home and growing up. Their world is bereft of sensational events or family crisis or sexual improprieties or awakened identities. The father is part of the picture, but the focus is on Lilian, the mother, and on Margaret, the eldest child. There are numerous moments when I could envision substituting the characters with my mother or our family situation as a child. I think particularly of the description of how Lilian had given up her respected job and potential career in order to marry and become a mother, fulfilling the role for woman of her time and class. My mother had forsaken a career in nursing.

Margaret Forster best describes the purpose of the book for the reader and for herself:

It gives me such satisfaction to prove, to myself at least, that what I hoped was true is true – my chances, my lot, my expectations, born as I was into working-class family in which women had always served rather than led, were always hundreds of times better than my grandmother’s or mother’s. All of us, all three representatives of different generations, always have put family first but in my case, in the case of my generation, it has not been at ruinous cost. (p.306)…..Everything, for a woman, is better now, even if it is still not as good as it could be. To forget or deny that is an insult to the women who have gone before, women like my grandmother and mother. (p.307)

Looking back at the very first post about my parents, entitled All I’ve Got is a Photograph, the appeal of this memoir was evident: “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” ; and in the obituary for my Uncle Kees, as recorded in the post, Server to Everyone, which read in part: “A legendary figure? No one with such recognition would laugh harder than Kees himself. He was true, and truly an ordinary man”. Their life is a story rarely told.

Looking forward, Hidden Lives provides encouragement to continue with my posts as markers of these lives; that the descriptions are of interest to those with similar backgrounds; that the stories are a memory to other members of the family; that they serve as a history for the next generation; and as importantly, that in writing, I learn more about myself and the impact of these lives on who I have become.

For 2022, I will continue to blog about the books I am reading as an occasional post, when they are completed, just not necessarily at the end of each month. I wish everyone much happiness in the upcoming year, and, of course, happy reading.

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