Monday the 1st of June
It had been three years. My grandma had deteriorated from the lively woman I remembered into a shadow of her old self where she now resided in the retirement home alongside other members who also needed taking care of. An impeccable grin spread across her face as we entered the room and my parents leaned down to give her a hug where she sat in her immobile state. I went to do the same and she asked me “what is your name?” I broke down. I held my breath as the tears streamed down my pink cheeks but I could not fake a smile, let alone hold a neutral composure when I resolved into sobbing. It was a relief to be out of there and into the nearby Cafe Kamiel with her by our side. But my shock had not subsided and crying did not stop but for moments at a time. Maybe I had not prepared myself for it, but it had come as a massive shock. From the moment I set foot in the aged care home my jaw had been clenched. From there on I could not hide my emotions – I could not look at Moemoeke without my eyes watering. I did not blame her for not remembering me but it had touched a nerve nonetheless. This was not fair. It had been three years since our last encounter so I did not want her to see me cry. She ought to have a good time instead of me offending her with my childish tears. What if she were to take it personally that I purse my lips and avert my gaze as though nothing is more interesting than the opposite wall? As if I don’t care enough to direct my attention towards her? I wanted to go back to sleep and start again.
Toughen up Babet.
We took a detour past memory lane. Our home in Edegem. We had lived for three years in the pristine white home with its navy tiled roof and matching window shutters that hid behind a luscious green hedge dad had fostered during our short time there. I recall vague memories of the winding staircase and tall windows overlooking the spacious backyard; I remember running from room to room in the lower story as though there were no dividing walls between each area so I could find fun in every inch of the property. Above all, it was how my parents described the house that made it so remarkably special to me. It was their dream house. It was perfect, from the chimney to the street name, Boniverlei, which could not have been better were it painted in gold. When my dad was asked to move to Australia in order to establish the international office of the company for which he then worked, we had only two weeks to confirm our involvement. Within two weeks our belongings stood in cardboard boxes. Within two weeks my family had to take leave from the ideal construction which they had so long strived for. Everything they then knew was left behind for a new life abroad. The house still stood in its optimum beauty, as though it were a picture plucked from our ambitious past and planted in the place we once called home. We drove by slowly.
We lunched at De Vlegel, a favourite that dated back to our reality in the dream house. It was a go-to for its novelty flemish coffee that was served black with a pot of cream on the side as a replacement for milk. This came on a tray with a kahlua and cream shot, a croissant and speculoos cookie. We spent the afternoon exploring our surroundings as tourists in the gorgeous city of Antwerp. First we saw the looming tower of the Cathedral of Our Holy Lady that stood as guide to the centre of the city from the surrounding streets. Its golden clock face rings on the hour in songs sung by bells. The Stadhuis of Antwerp was decadently covered with flags at full mast in valiant colours representing various nationalities. This city hall is inscribed on the World Heritage List of UNESCO as it is a remnant of the city’s medieval history as a busy trading post. The Vleeshuis was the next sight we visited. It was a brown bricked building that had once been used as a slaughterhouse and head of regulation of the meat industry. We changed our path and headed in the direction of the coast where the water lapped against the wooden pier. To get to the quay one had to pass through a stone castle, the oldest building in Antwerp, appropriately named Het Steen (translation: The Stone). This storybook-esque structure had acted as a fortress prior to the ninth century and today stands as a reminder of this barrier. We had an impressive view of both the city and the opposing river bank. Finally we made our way, beneath the low tunnel and into the sheltered square, to the stadsbiblioteek or city library that stood opposite an equally impressive building forming walls to the cozy square that had become a still but popular meeting place hidden from the city.
It was time for another long-awaited family reunion, this time with mum’s side of the family. She was the youngest of five siblings, all who joined us with their extended families at Le Royal Restaurant that was a featured attraction in the Antwerp Central Station. Were we in Australia this might have been a five star restaurant only accessible by those who have money to waste yet the engraved marble ceiling made in 1830 and its golden embellishments that stretched down the walls seemed commonplace. A piano stood beneath a golden rimmed clock built into the wall and made a classy setting for our dinner together. It was wonderful to see the Van den Berghs together yet once again the evening was far from enough time to reacquaint ourselves with my aunts, uncles and cousins. It is difficult to feel as family when we have lived separately for so long yet at the same time it is a reminder that every encounter is a blessing that feels only more special.