This post is for my ancestors. The Day of The Dead is coming up, and Finn and I just saw/fell in love with The Book of Life, the animated film out now that Guillermo del Toro produced. (See it. It's so pretty to look at, and it's a charming story, too.) The main character makes a trip somewhere called The Land of The Remembered, where all his ancestors live, and it gave me a straight case of ancestor envy. I want mine all assembled and accessible and kickass, playing on my team like his were. I'm jealous of a cartoon.
My knowledge of my ancestors is sketchy. On my dad’s side there was a seven-foot-tall guy, who blew all the height for the rest of us, apparently. We had some name brand members of the team here and there. There were some Habsburgs. A Chinese princess, descended from Confucius. I had a great-great-aunt, Tanta Bette, who was a gorgeous, 1/4 Chinese lesbian who dressed in spiffy men’s suits all her life. (What a baller! She’s my favorite ancestor.) There was the line of clairvoyant women, too, leading up to my great-grandmother and grandmother. And on my mom’s side, I have no idea. They didn’t keep a record, and my mom’s dad left when she was a baby and walked for all intents and purposes off the face of the earth, so it’s just a big Finnish fog all the way back. Sorry, mom. I wish I could romanticize them all but I don't have anything to work with.
I love the idea of some ethereal council of people going back through time who are invested in what I'm doing down here, who are rooting for me, their representative on the field of the living. I like to imagine my team of ancestors floating around, whispering strategy and encouragement in my ear, cheering and high-fiving each other when I nail something important.
And it both delights me and creeps me out to think of everything I have running around in my DNA. There are probably some gems in there, but there's also surely some dark/weak/pitiful stuff in the mix, too.
Mixed feelings are what I have when I think about my actual, own ancestors. I have conflicted feelings about family, considering the abuse in my past, so a part of me wants to flip the bird all the way through the centuries and up the family line, right to whatever motherfucker originated this shitty abuse heirloom we’ve been passing down, and to everybody who perpetuated it along the way. In some ways I'd prefer to cut all ties and start over. Independent line. I’m Eve, Dave’s Adam, and that’s that.
But I crave team and tribe, too. I crave the connection, the sureness of a blood tie. It’s hard down here on the planet. It gets kind of lonely, even for a person who lives in a house with five other people like I do. I like the idea of a lot of people who are required to gather around the fire with me. I kind of want my ancestors on board.
Then again, would I like them? Would they like me? And why am I talking about them like they're one immoveable mass instead of a bunch of individuals?
I'm going to zero in on one of them. I have a transcript of a recording made nearly fifty years ago of my great-grandmother, Melanie, telling my then-infant brother David about her life growing up in the Dutch East Indies, and I'm going to reprint some chunks of it here.
By all accounts, Oma—that's what everybody called her, the Dutch version of Nana—was a peach, ten times sweeter and softer than her daughter, my grandmother, whom I've bitched about here enough already. I feel sorry I missed out on her. Apparently her sweetness was literal, too; the lady put sugar on everything she consumed. Pizza, french fries. Something like six teaspoons in every cup of tea or coffee. She grew up on a sugar plantation, which looks like it sank in.
So here we go. I'm going to put Oma on the line. Get the scratchy hum of old audiotape going in your head, and imagine the softest, pudding-i-est, thickest Dutch accent you can muster, treble and sweet as all that sugar. I wish you could hear her voice, but you'll just have to enjoy her adorable English in print. Some of it won't make sense, language-wise, and some of it is a little shocking to modern sensibilities—she talks about growing up with servants, who were the descendants of slaves, and that just feels upsetting and creepy. But there it was. On the whole I'm charmed senseless by Oma in this transcript, and I want you to meet her.
Here, she's talking about the estate where she grew up. Oh, also, warning: I'm going to interject sometimes.
The estate, called Nanggoeng, was a house with twenty bedrooms. The whole floor was from marble and the whole house was made of stone. It was an old house belonging -- I know my great-grandmother had lived there. So it was three generations later that I lived there with my parents.
I remember as a small girl I was often afraid because I thought it was a spooky house. I couldn’t explain why in that time, but I was always afraid to go into the right wing. The right wing was so funny-feeling that I always thought about spooks. And especially a very small bathroom. We all of us got the creeps if we went there or had to take a bath there. And the lavatories were in the same place. It was very gruesome to go there. In the night, with a light, we never went alone. We took a maid with us. So afraid we were. Even if I was a bigger girl, I would never go there alone. The maid had to sit outside because I was sure I was seeing things in there.
[I had a dream about this house once when I was on a bunch of Vicodin after a surgery, and it was creeeeepy as fuuuck. Vicodin dreams are the worst. Okay, Oma, go on.]
My sisters and I saw a man with a very big pick. [A very big PICK. PICK.] And we thought it was a real man and he ran after my sister and all the time he was running nearer. And then, then he went down the stairs and the man disappeared in that small bathroom. There was no – nothing there – there was only one door and a very small window. But he disappeared there. And we looked at each other, not understanding where he had gone to. Such things often happened there.
So it was a very old house.
As children, we loved it. We had lots of servants. And these servants were children of night children of slaves. So they loved us very much. [Sure, that follows.] And we were trusted to them because they would not hurt a hair of our head. And we had lots of maids too who looked over us and who looked after the rooms. We had roommates and we had all of us as children, several maids who looked after us. I slept in a room with John Paul, as my children called her. Pau Chu. She was a lovely one and we looked at her just—I looked at her just as my mother.
In these early years I remember simple things. We’re all walking in the forest, walking on the street. We had every day to take a walk. And we liked it. Everyone was greeting us and everyone was always talking to us because my family was so long in these countries that they knew everyone, some, at least - everyone was - the older people.
And so we had a grandfather, my father’s father who was an old gentleman. Very huge; 6 foot 6 he was. [Oh, maybe my seven foot ancestor was actually this 6 foot 6 guy. Pardon the tall tale. I DID NOT MEAN THAT AS A PUN.] He was tall, clean-shaven with a mustache. And he was very – to us he was a very nice man. When he came there in Djamboe -- that was the next estate-- he always played with us cards. And he gave – he let us win and he paid us for every winning – one guilder. If you can imagine that when -- when we were ready to go we would at least gathered 20 guilders. And that was our present.
He came there at least 3 or 4 times a year. Then on the fifth gathering the whole family was there, about 40 or 50 van Motmans. And we all sat at the big table.
And then what I always disliked very much, he killed the cow of a - a young cow. And that was always hanged before the bathroom and I always hated the sight of that. But, we had to eat it. I didn’t like meat and we had to -- because that was our duty to eat meat. To eat meat and drink wine every night. The wine especially I disliked because I thought it was a sour taste. But we had to. It was sad but very good for the health.
I was a very bad people [I WAS A VERY BAD PEOPLE. Oh, my heart] and so I had to sit at the table at our house just opposite my father so that he could see what I am. [So he could see that you were a very bad people? This doesn't sound good.] And certain times I had tears in my eyes because I couldn’t eat the food they gave me. Especially if you saw the chickens being killed. In such a place you saw everything because they; the servants didn’t care what we saw. And then we went everywhere and sometime I saw the chickens being killed. And then I didn’t want to eat the chickens but we had to. So that was very – The bad thing; I never liked meat – never.
But otherwise all our lives, when we were older, at least I was older; I was eight, nine, ten years – it was different. We went -- everyday it was a free life and my father always taught that we had to learn to be independent. So when we went to the hills – on our own estate it was 13,000 bowls big [13,000 bowls big, you say. Mixing bowls? Finger bowls? We need more information] and we had -- in the hills we had tea; a tea plantation. And we went there and there we go I and my sisters walked alone in a very huge forest with big trees. And one of the servants who was a good shot went with us. That was an exciting -- because there were rhinoceros; I don’t know if I pronounced that word very well [IT WAS ADORABLE, TRUST ME] -- and wild cows and they were very big.
Once I remember that the servants said “Here and not farther”. And my other sister Bette wanted to go much farther. But we said, “No, here and not farther” because here are fresh prints of a whole bunch of cows and if we met them that would be the end of us because we couldn’t; I couldn’t shoot altogether. So we went back.
So this rhinoceros – we saw a fresh print of rhinoceros; we went on. [Cow? Rhinoceros? What's happening?] And then we gave all the stories to them if ever we met one. [What???] Well we never met one. But still it was a dangerous business to go on. But my sister Bette wanted always to go to the limit. [Tanta Bette!] And then we turned back. And sometimes we heard the noise of the rhinoceros roaming about the forest. The forest was very dark because the trees were huge and very thick so not much sunlight came in. And we went home then, very satisfied that we had so many adventures every time we went in that forest. But my father thought it was very good experience.
Even we went for a long walk. [Even we went for a...? Never mind, go on.] And then sometimes there was no servant who could shoot. And if it was about six—no, 4:00 in the afternoon [4:00's better, totally.]—we sometimes saw a panther far below us. And then we’d get very quiet looking at the panther -- but very careful he didn’t see us. And then we had that – that we saw a panther in the garden. And we went back, not very afraid.
It was always in that house in the hills; it was all from planks; made of planks. We were always very happy the panthers were under the house in the night looking for our dogs. [Why? Why was this good? I'm confused.] And there was -- The lavatory was outside and before the lavatory was a huge amount of good root. And there behind the curtain there were the panthers at 8:00. [First it was 4:00, then it was 6:00, now it's 8:00. Once and for all, what time was Panther Time?] They’d always be there watching for our dogs. We had 13 tenders [?] and they were not afraid for them [The tenders weren't afraid? The panthers weren't afraid of the tenders? Or *for* them? Are tenders puppies?] and they heard them bark. So they were always there to see if perhaps they couldn’t get one dog out.
And we had to go to the lavatory with a lantern. And I can tell you how we shivered to go there. Every night at 8:00 before going to bed, we went to the lavatory with our maid. And she was as afraid as we. And some time we saw the eyes glowing in the dark. But we learned not to be afraid. That was one thing we learned, never to be afraid.
I remember one time I was older; we went all with a bunch of visitors and my father and my mother to the forest. And then all the dogs were barking and barking like mad. And then we heard a rhinoceros making all the noise he could at the dogs. And my father said, “Let me go on.” And he went on and saw how he uprooted a big tree and was sleeping there when the dogs awoke him and he was loose in the forest. And then you know the ladies who were there were very frightened. And instead of praying hymns, they sang the national anthem, several of them. And that made me as a child wonder why did they sing the anthem instead of praying?
So we went away all singing all the time too until we were far enough that we didn’t hear much noise of the rhino. But -- when we came home the rhino was near on the end of the forest still making that noise. And our dogs were nowhere to be found; they still were in the forest. They came later on home, unhurt; that was a good thing. But that is a piece of attitude I never forget. [That is a piece of attitude I will never forget, either.]
Let me just say that it's a whole bunch more panther and leopard and rhino stories coming up here. The animals come nearby and everyone is on alert and pulls out their guns but then nothing gets shot and everything's okay. I'm going to skip the rest of the character-building close calls with wild animals and then I'm not going to interrupt any more. Respect. In this last stretch, we hear about herbal remedies, batik-making and the benefits of clairvoyance. Oma, you have the floor until the end.
My ancestor, everybody, a real one, talking.
In that house, the panthers were always in the night under the house. And we were living – not in the had building of the house. The house was all one with bamboo floors. But we were living a little bit in apart building. So if we had to go in the house it was impossible because there were always panthers there. That was where I grew up as a child. It was all wonderful experience because you never forget it. And you are not afraid now. That was the great thing.
It was a lovely life. It was a life; we had -- full of adventures, full of real things. Living in the forest, in the big forest, near the big forest; going there all alone in nature. It was such a silence in that wood. So full of silence that sometimes you wonder that you were alone there. Even with other people, it was very, very lonely. All the trees close up together and without, nearly without the path. So that was my life in this time.
We were a family that hung together as a clan. Then we all, when my grandfather died, before that even, we split out. Everyone was going his own life. But that was my early youth till I was 16 years old; we lived in a family clan with all the other families together. We were very close.
My mother was interested in the people and she knew all herbs. And she often cured the people; they came to her and she cured the people from all kinds of illnesses. We were very far from a doctor and so she had to cure the people. Us too; when we were ill she cured the people. She had to when we were ill. She knew all these herbs and she worked very much with herbs. She learned; Even she worked very much with the doctor in agriculture and showed him all the -- what kind of herbs to use for several illnesses. It was very clever in that.
And so she cured lots of people and she learned to batik, make batik work. And she learned weaving, weaving. Is it word? And she made her own beautiful weavings: woven things from gold work, from cotton. She even learned to color them; color the cottons that she used that she got to her dreams. She had -- from bark, from bark of trees, from herbs, from plants, from trees that she could. She always made her own coloring; all kinds of coloring. Fast colors – they never discolored. She learned to – She had a very busy life. She loved to learn. She learned the people to weave and she was all in it. She could make everything from gold, silver to ordinary cotton; old patterns; old patterns of the country; She all teached them. So she was very useful in her life – especially in herbs. She knew poisons anti-poison.
David, I know you know you are very small baby. But maybe when you are older, you can hear my voice when I am not long here. You know, we, my, we are from a very funny family, let me say. My father’s family came from Belgium – Dutch --was then Dutch. Austria; he was from then Austria, yes, it is true. But they were so quite different. They were very strong willed person; with a strong will and strong characters, all of them. They could do things that other people thought was too self-willed.
My father for instance, when he had cancer, he could master the pain to some extent through his will and all people admired him. Only when he couldn’t stand it longer he asked for an injection to kill the pain. But so long as he could stand it, he had the will-power always to seem peaceful. He couldn’t talk more but he wrote everything down.
And as we van Motmans could - we knew our death coming for the family. My father wrote me a letter that he was dying on Wednesday or Thursday. When I got that letter, by accident late, on Tuesday I went straight and I had to travel two days. And on Wednesday, on Thursday night I came just in time to his bedside and he waited for me. And then that same night, he died. He knew he was dying a week before. He asked my mother, which would the better be – Wednesday or Thursday? And my mother said, “Both days.” And so he chose. Because I couldn’t be there on Wednesday, he chose Thursday to die. Thursday night he died.
My uncle -- my brother – It was a very queer thing. My mother -- my brother said in the office, “That is my last time I go to the office,” ten days before he died, “so I’m going to take -- all my papers must be in order. I have flu and I will die. I will not live.” And he went -- I didn’t know but the man told me later, when I was there several times, he said to me, I am not dying now. I will go to the hospital when I think it is right. Then on Thursday night he said, “Bring me tomorrow to the hospital.” And he went to the hospital and he said, “Friday I will go.” And he went on Friday.
My uncle said to my father, “Don’t come now. Friday a week I will die” and on Friday a week, he died.
My grandfather said, “At 5:00, not earlier.” And the clock was 5 and he died.
And my sister said when she died, here in Ojai, she said, “The angels will come for me tomorrow. Tomorrow morning they will come for me.” And she died between 3 and 4. So they knew before. It was a special thing of the family; they knew before they died.
My mother’s family; she came from a very old Dutch family with occult powers. She was clairvoyant and her whole family, David, was clairvoyant. Not one – her whole family- all of them were clairvoyant– not one of them was not. I was astonished even from people.
It was my cousin, she is my cousin. I didn’t know that she had the ability of clairvoyance. But she told me how -- that in the present generation even she knew how to manage her business because her father told her in her dreams what to do. And so she saved her money through the war because she acted as he wanted in her dreams. And she had funny things – she knew. The whole family from that side of my mother and my mother, all were in a way clairvoyant.
My mother was very clairvoyant. My grandmother was real – she knew what she was doing in occult things. I know that. But I will not go into it. And uh, then my children; my sisters were sensitive. And my brother was also very sensitive. We all were. Dora, your grandmother is clairvoyant. And so it goes down. Not all of them in this generation knows; or are clever, but some are very clairvoyant still and have the ability to become it, what is more.
I hope David, that in later years, you too will see, because it is so important to be able to see another world. It makes you so different, David, very different in your point of view of life; of seeing things, of knowing things. You can understand other people much better so as your grandmother did and we all do. It is so much more clear to know, not only the other world but to get a point of view detached of others, of other points of view -- the ordinary one. Because you know more, you see more, you understand more. And you love other people more because you don’t see other people in the habits that they form. But that -- what comes through -- through the ego. That counts, what comes through, not the thoughts of people but that -- what comes through – that is you; that is he; that is she. And that is the most important.
So you can help people because you know them. And they are – not this little personality; that doesn’t count. They are only shells. But the real person is That, his spiritual way of looking at life, of thinking, of feeling. That is the real person and that counts. Our loving doesn’t matter much but that is the real person. That person who lives and everybody has that more or less.
Is that okay? [End of tape]