I’ve been reaching out to some of my father’s old friends recently and talking to them about the old man. Family members too. It’s been an engaging if sometimes painful experience. It’s not that I’ve discovered things about Pop that I didn’t necessarily know–although I do have more details than I ever did before–it’s just that so much of my childhood was filled with sadness that it isn’t an easy time to revisit. I also realize how much of that sadness I’ve chosen to leave behind.
In the course of learning more about my dad I’ve spoken to my mom and also reviewed her story and her family’s history. Mom was born in Belgium but moved to Zaire in 1948 when she was four years old. She lived in the Congo until 1960 when she and her mother and her sister fled back to Europe as the revolution broke out. She was picked up at school one day and brought directly to the airport. Didn’t get to say goodbye to her friends or her pets, didn’t get to take any of her things. Poof, they were gone.
My grandfather, a mechanic who co-operated a Renault dealership in the Congo, remained for a few years trying to salvage his business. He also helped preists and missionaries escape. He loved living in Africa and later returned in the Seventies for another ten years. The Congo was really my mother’s childhood home. And it no longer exists as she knew it. She never returned.
Mom finished high school and went to college in Belgium, then met my father and came to the States by the time she was 23. So Belgium was never as much a home. Still, her brother and sister live there, along with lots of cousins and aunts and uncles.
I haven’t been to Brussels since my grandfather died, fifteen years ago next month. I remember four priests who he had helped escape from the Congo were present to pay their respects. This is the longest stretch I’ve ever had not visiting. My siblings and I took turns during the summers when we were growing up. Turns out my grandfather’s younger brother is still alive. At 87, he’s still lucid and alert. I said to my mother recently, “Well, someone has to interview him and get the stories.”
One thing led to another, I saw that flights are cheap, so hell, I’m off to Belgium on Thursday night for a week to visit my family, and learn more about their lives and their history. My mother has complicated feelings about her childhood and has never been comfortable talking about the political nature of being a Colonist (and Belgium, like so many European countries, had an undeniable history of brutality in Africa). Ever hear of Heart of Darkness?
So, I’m curious. To see how things have changed since I was there last. To hear what my aunt and uncles’ experiences were, to see old photo albums and 8 mm movies from my mother’s childhood.
I won’t be gone long, and who knows, maybe I’ll even blog from overseas. In the meantime, Cliff and Diane, Will and Bruce will hold the fort down over here. Oh, and I’ll have some frites and think about y’all.