Diary of a Widower

Daily entries by a husband, who stayed behind with his two sons

Archive for the category “Remembering”

“My wife isn’t. She was”

WEDNESDAY, August 4 – ‘Hey, guys, did you brush your teeth?’  Okay, we’re off. A last mental check before we leave the hotel room and head for Niagara Falls.  We’re going to visit this miracle of nature from the Canadian side, so we’ll need more than wallet and car keys.

It’s really hot out, so there’s sunscreen  in the backpack. Also the passports, mine Dutch, theirs American. We’ll be crossing the border only a few hundred yards away. More important yet are the death certificate, birth certificates, and our marriage certificate. I know all the horror stories about the American immigration service, but all our documents are in order. No sweat.

This is the downside of traveling with children who bear their mother’s name. Border guards are extra alert with the risk of kidnapping always in the back of their minds. Entering Canada wasn’t a problem. The woman wanted to know if the children were mine. Yep. And that was that.  ‘Have a nice day, Sir.’ Jennifer loved Canada, the people being so nice.

Getting back into the States, via the famous Rainbow Bridge over the falls, was a bit more complicated. A couple of obvious questions about my tourist visa and the date of our trip back to Holland.  And then the identity of the children: they dutifully answered the questions, stating in turn:  ‘I’m Dutch-American’.

The woman gave all three of us a searching look. ‘I assume that your wife is an American citizen.’

I reply: ‘She was.’

No doubt my eyes tell the whole story. Almost immediately she hands me the passports. ‘And have a nice day.’

Sander takes the passports and says, ‘Good thing you corrected her.’

Combing his hair. Like Mom

TUESDAY, August 3 – My beloved youngest son, you’re looking out the window of our hotel room on the fifth floor and scrunching up your eyes. Not because of the setting sun, behind the modest skyscrapers of downtown Buffalo, but because I’m combing your hair and that always hurts. I do a few strands at a time because I don’t have your mother’s patience.

You screw up your eyes, but you don’t say anything. You know I’m doing my best to get all the snarls out. I’m careful but not nearly as gentle as your mother. She had very long hair as a girl and she knew that it took a while before the comb would glide smoothly through your hair.

The ordeal is over and you open your eyes. Large brown irises, just like your mother. I run the comb through your hair one last time, try to make a part and comb your straight wisps back.  For a second our eyes meet. Your eyes are just like your mother’s. I narrow my eyes and gaze out the window at the buildings in the background. Your familiar gaze brings on my tears.

You don’t see them and indignantly you rumple up your hair, the way boys will do.

Can you still see the ring?

MONDAY, August 2 – Time to put it to the test, since I’m starting to have doubts. ‘Eamonn, can you come here for a minute?’  He swims over to me at a leisurely pace. Sitting on the side of the pool, I hold out both hands and spread my fingers.  ‘On which finger did I wear my wedding ring?’

He looks once, then again, and points to the correct hand but the wrong finger: my forefinger. No go.

I bring my left hand closer, and ask: ‘Can’t you tell that that’s where I used to wear my wedding ring?’

He can’t.

‘Take another look.’

‘Well, maybe.’ He says it without conviction. Am I the only one who can see it?  Later on, to be on the safe side, I check with Sander.  He immediately points to the right finger.  ‘You can still see it,’ he says.

In that same pool we run into former neighbors who ask where Jennifer is. Eamonn starts pulling on my hand when I go into too much detail, but I can’t very well dash by shouting that Jennifer is dead and then do a cannonball into the pool. Although, I’m tempted.

Memories in the suburbs

SUNDAY, August 1, 2010 – Champagne! I was the first to raise my glass. ‘To Jennifer!’  And, then, in a choked voice, ‘To her friends!’ I had intended to say more, but I couldn’t.  There were eight former neighbors who had gathered together for a brunch in honor of the four of us raising their glasses to this toast. Here, Jenn lives on.

Seeing a group of people all at one time is easier than visiting them separately and having to repeat the story over and over. A good solution.  It was a classic pot-luck meal: people brought food, drinks, dessert, or a simple snack. Vegetarian or swimming in fat.

Sitting around the table, the memories came drifting back. They all had their own anecdotes about the woman who had lived here in the Washington suburbs and who had long suffered from depression. Not many people knew that. The quiet lifestyle where women stayed at home to care for the children and men went out to work had crushed Jenn’s creativity.

Yet almost everyone remembered her spontaneity, her friendly gestures, her intelligent observations, and her warmth. Jenn herself would later characterize those six years in Kensington, Maryland as a cold period. After the birth of our second son, she lost herself for a long time. This also marked the beginning of a temporary ice age in our marriage.

By far the most touching story came from N about how Jenn’s death had been a trigger for her, encouraging her to take action. She regretted that she and Jenn had never gone to Italy, had never stayed in that dream castle they’d talked about in their emails. But she had no regrets about going back to school for a new career motivated not by Jenn’s death, but by the way she had lived.

L talked about her own life. It was the first time she had opened up in company. She had lost her own mother when she was only ten and her father had not been able to care for his children, who had to be placed in different families and also how earlier this year she discovered that that old wound had been cruelly torn open. L suggested that perhaps it had something to do with Jennifer’s death, but in a positive rather than in a negative sense. She was at odds with herself and in the end she left her husband. This was a phase in her personal voyage, one that had brought her some happiness.

Again we raised our glasses. In celebration of life. Her life. Our life.

Memorialised on Ellis Island

FRIDAY, July 23 – While on Ellis Island, I tell the boys about the American roots that millions of people began to establish on this little island just off the coast of Manhattan as well as the hardships those immigrants faced when they made the decision to leave everything behind and start a new life in America.

I bring history to life in the stories of Jennifer’s great grandfather who set foot on land here, spoke poor English, and, thus, saw his Greek name corrupted. Then I take them outside, to The American Immigrant Wall of Honor, where countless names of immigrants are engraved.

On panel 627 my own name: Tim H. Overdiek.

It was a gift from my brother when Jenn and I got married in 1996. A gracious gesture to the bridegroom, who in late 1994 quit his job in Amsterdam, sold all his possessions, bought a one-way ticket to New York, and joined his one true love. There’s an accompanying certificate, and my name is inscribed on the aluminum wall on Ellis Island. The boys say they are impressed.  And so am I. I really do have certain roots in America.

Yet, it’s also a bit strange: here I am explaining to my Dutch-American children things that have to do with their mother’s DNA. and how they feel more American than Dutch, and how I – as a Dutchman – ventilate more American sentiments than they are aware of, because they’ve lived abroad for five years. A world turned upside-down, and yet so familiar.

I can’t do any more than help them find their true identity. We are who we are. Children of an American mother and a Dutch father. Roots are important, but they can grow anywhere as long as they are nourished.

On the run again, from the past

THURSDAY, July 22 – Out of the grandparental house. It’s just before nine and I need to get away. It’s very hard for us to relax in this house. I stand there looking at four suitcases that somehow or other will have to be packed. Things that go, things that stay. In six days we’ll be back with Jenn’s parents.

I toss one pile of clothes into two bags, and the rest into the other two. Jenn was a past master when it came to packing, and she always knew exactly what to take along.

Right now, she’s doing her bit by getting in the way. The urn with the ashes stays behind, stuffed into the carryall with the jackets and the jeans purchased yesterday.  Seeya later, honey.

My mother-in-law and I have decided that the ashes will be scattered on the grounds of Swarthmore College. Last month a bench was installed with her name on it.  ‘Jennifer would like that,’ her mother said. So that was settled. I informed the brothers-in-law that the ceremony would be on the 11th or 12th of August. Whoever can make it is welcome. If not, tough luck.

Eamonn is complaining of a stomach ache. When I lose my temper – something which I shouldn’t do but which still happens – he says it’s because of Mom. I assure him that I do understand and give him a hug, but I don’t want to spend too long on words of comfort. I order the boys to get into the car. A brief farewell, and then we’re off – heading for New York. It’s almost as if we’re fleeing, while what we’re really looking for was some peace and quiet.

Revisiting our engagement

TUESDAY, July 20 – Up early. Thanks to jet lag. I slipped out of the house in my stocking feet, so as not to wake anyone, and went for a long walk. Three streets further on, I really woke up. It was on this spot on Clarksville Road that Jennifer and I decided to get married.

It wasn’t a romantic proposal. We’d gone for a walk, just the two of us, like I was doing now – and the subject of children came up. We wanted them. ‘But then I’d like to get married first,’ Jenn said, a standpoint that I found quite conservative; but, of course, we were in the States.

‘Agreed,’ I said, ‘so we’re going to get married.’

We looked at each other briefly, and nodded. A quick kiss and then we continued our walk. At dinner that night we announced our engagement.

Now I stopped there briefly, but then quickly walked on. Despite the memories, I felt little emotion. No more than a smile. Is that a good sign? Does it mean that on this trip, unlike the one in December, there will be no painful memories and associations?

I don’t believe a word of it, but this morning walk bodes well.

Going home with her, at last

MONDAY, July 19 – The inevitable question, when taking a cab to the airport. ‘Where are you headed?’

‘The States. New York, Washington D.C., and a few other locations.’

‘All on your own?’

‘No. My children are already there. I’ll be seeing them tonight.’

‘In a hotel or a house?’

‘They’re with their grandparents. They were born in the States.’

‘Oh, I see. And where’s their mother?’

‘Their mother,’ I laughed, a bit viciously, but mainly to give myself time to think. ‘Their mother is in your trunk.’ He screwed up his eyes, and for the umpteenth time, I

explained it all. The rest of the ride was blissfully quiet.

13.20 p.m. – Was it because no one noticed the urn when my bag went through X-ray? Was it recognized, but the inspectors didn’t think it was worth opening my bag for and demanding an explanation? Maybe the urn wasn’t important?

In any case, on the passenger bridge leading to the Delta aircraft, I was suddenly overcome by emotion. Memories of all those flights from the States to Holland, and vice-versa. The first time she flew from New York to Brussels, where I was waiting with a red rose in my hand and she gave me three Dutch kisses.

We must have flown across the Atlantic at least twenty times. Just the two of us at first, and later with the children. Last December her absence had been so tangible, when the three of us were able to sit next to each other.

This time it was the awareness of our ultimate finiteness that hit me and I was totally unprepared for it. This is the very last time. Her ashes are going back to America, to be scattered. I had always felt that she was close to me and maybe that was why I occasionally pretended to be unconcerned and even jokey about the two and a half kilos of dusty body remains. But not right now.

I stepped on board without wiping the tears from my cheeks. The steward’s face was permanently fixed in an expression of cheerful hospitality. ‘Welcome, sir. 24G. On the other side of the aisle.

The urn stood at my feet. ‘We’re going home, dear Jenn.’

She was cremated, in English

THURSDAY, July 15 – I’ve spent at least an hour plowing through piles of documents, in search of the English Declaration of Westgaarde Crematorium. It’s as if the goddamned thing has disappeared from the face of the earth. I have turned everything upside down and inside out. I had gone through tax documents, business documents, medical papers, legal pamphlets, personal papers, etc. etc., until I finally found that one vital piece of paper I need in order to take her with me to America.

Declaration of Cremation. Hereby I declare that on 29-20-2009 has been cremated the late Jennifer Mary Overdiek-Nolan born at Brooklyn (US) on the 28-05-1968. The ashes of the deceased are placed in a closed urn inscribed with the cremation number W155323, the name of the deceased and the date of the cremation.

It is signed by the manager of the crematorium. Jennifer would have said  ‘Lousy text. Another cocky Dutchman who thinks his English is pretty good.’ She would have taken out a pen and re-written the text.

Good grief! Holland loses

SUNDAY, July 11 – Eamonn called right after the last whistle, to share his disappointment with us. In fact, he was hopping mad. ‘Well, son, now you know what I went through twice as a child.’ Losing a World Cup final.

Strangely enough, my memories of the 1974 game are stronger than those of 1978. I was nine when we lost to West Germany and I can still see each and every goal in detail. Neeskens. Breitner. Müller. Four years later my recollections of the World Cup, then in and against Argentina, were bound up with my father, who had died several months before. I could not accept the fact that he was unable to experience that game which was also the final.

The impact of my father’s death – the definitive irreversibility of the snuffing out of a life – was painfully reflected in his empty chair in the living room.  In the same ridiculous logic, I could accept the fact that Holland lost that night – stupid Rensenbrink! Hitting the post in overtime! – because it meant that my father hadn’t actually missed anything.

Neither had Jennifer, I concluded this evening when after the Spanish goal  Eamonn called shortly afterwards, highly indignant, but still he reasoned that Holland would have another chance in four years’ time. That sounded like a good plan to me. This kid will always make out okay. Life isn’t a bed of roses, but intuitively he takes a pragmatic approach.

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