Yesterday I drove home with three suits in the back of my car. Home is a wooden cottage somewhere in the middle of the Netherlands, overlooking snowy meadows and bare trees. There is a small pond in the garden and next to it squirls sometimes fight over hazelnuts in the big pine tree. I put them there in winter, the nuts. I feed the birds too. I sometimes hold one in my hands, when it has mistaken my window for an opening into empty space, carefully keeping it warm, feeling the tiny bird heart jump up and down. They all survived so far. Luckily.
I always wanted a home where I could grow things. Artichokes. Strawberries. String beans. Potatoes. Cherries.
Things grow here but lots of things don’t. It is forest soil, the sun hardly touches it, only in summer does it reach over the treetops. It is a temporary home where I pick blueberries and mushrooms. Where I dream about cultivating a big piece of land, about building my own sustainable house.
Tomorrow morning at 7.20 there is a flight from Amsterdam Airport to Barcelona. I was supposed to be on it with my 25 kg suitcase, carrying more than I usually do because I wasn’t aiming on returning. I had planned to start a new year in a new country. Explore new roads, different ways of being. Slowly start in the city, learning Spanish, making art, to move from there into the countryside to learn about permaculture and natural building. To grow artichokes, beans, pomegranates, lemons. I was in the middle of finishing off the last bits of my old life here. Throwing away and selling things, handing over projects and organisations I had been in charge or part of, sorting out my administration, going through old papers. Planning meetings in the first week of January in the Spanish sun. Dinner parties, coffee with a walking artist, where to meet an old friend at midnight when 2014 would change into 2015, a meeting with a group of people about an ecovillage, first thing in the new year.
Yesterday, before I drove home with my father’s suits, I had dinner with my mother. My sister was there with her husband and their three kids. My mother talked about the new ski stockings she had bought. About what they had eaten for Christmas. About getting a new car with heated seats. About visiting her mother-in-law, my grandmother. We juggled the 18 (or was it 19? I sometimes loose track) cats around, cooked hamburgers and shrimps, folded paper cranes and tiny boats with the kids. Often I don’t understand why these lovely people choose to stay on the surface. Why the things I want to talk about are uncomfortable for them. But this time I saw it in their movements. In their eyes. The seriousness of life. The heaviness of their sadness.
I asked my cousin Aiden, who was born on my father’s birthday on the first day of summer seven and a half years ago, what he wanted to become. He hesitated. “DJ” he said first, moving his hands the way a DJ does, making funny sounds. “Or researcher” he added. And I suggested he would be a researcher during the day and DJ at night. Or be a researching DJ, study music. All evening he had jumped around the living room, letting his supersonic airplane, handfolded out of a simple A4 piece of paper, make unexpected moves. His oldest sister, Gaia, was making summersaults inbetween two lazy chairs. The youngest one, Tirza, the thinker, sat in my father’s chair and glewed as many plastic diamonts as she could on a small piece of paper until it became too heavy to hold. She gave me one, a purple one, her favorite colour. I stuck it on my forehead. She smiled. I forgot about it and only noticed it when I went to bed late that same night.
My mother’s agenda was lying open on a table. There were old appointments written under the dates. December 21, 24, 28. I turned the page. I wouldn’t normally but these weeks everything is different. Monday December 29, Tuesday December 30. Official working days. A while ago she had written down “Gerard vrij” on both days. My father’s name, Gerard. He had taken today and tomorrow off from work. “Vrij”, “free”. He was supposed to be free today. My father the workaholic.
And he is.
I drove home in the dark, I turned on the heater, I took my father’s pipe wrench out of my winter jacket, I decided replacing the drain tap could wait until tomorrow. It was freezing cold inside, I sipped from his hipflask, I don’t think he ever used it although he did like drinking a good whiskey at the end of the evening or a glass of vintage south african wine for dinner, sometimes two, and when there was something to celebrate and he wasn’t driving, even three. I had filled the flask at the evening of our last wake, after we carried him through dark streets aligned with burning candles and sad neighbours. I had found a bottle of Ukrainian liquor in my parents’ cupboard, a clear liquid in which three hot peppers were floating. It kept us warm inbetween shaking hundreds of hands. And it made me remember how he talked about his business meetings in Russia where there was no way around drinking wodka before lunch if you wanted to get a contract signed. In church we had waited doing the introduction in English because the flight of his Polish business acquintances, who later on honoured us with a small bow and kissed our hands, was delayed. They had brought beautiful flowers for him. On the ribbon they had written “from your friends from Kielce”. They adressed him as their friend. In that cold night, the longest one, they became our friends.
I never really knew what to say when people asked me what my father was doing. Manager. Director. Organisor. Technically gifted, business man. Adviser. Sometimes I asked him and he would always explain in long sentences and words I forgot the moment he said them. I knew he worked for two big companies, one involved in manufacturing machines for large scale snow-cleaning and de-icing (whenever I see one on the highway I always say “daddy!”) and the other one manufacturing innovative agricultural machines. He started out on the workfloor, the oldest son of a family of 15, doing what he loved, working with his hands, but being an ambitious and smart man, he kept schooling himself, improving himself, setting new goals. He loved travelling, going on business trips, teaching other people how to run their business. But he loved his other life too, his wife, my mother, gardening, reparing and building things, playing with his grandchildren. And even though he would probably never stop working free lance, his position was about to become available. He wanted to spend more time at home and going on holiday trips. The add had just been put out in the newspaper. Just before we put the other add in. The one with a photo of him carrying a small back pack and staring out over the ocean near Cape Town where we had all celebrated my parents 40th wedding aniversary. Where we got quite drunk one night and he told me things he would have never told me otherwise. A night I cherish. Because usually he didn’t talk about his feelings.
I brought my father’s suits with me because I had an appointment with a tailor today. The afternoon two weeks ago when I received the phonecall to tell me he had been rushed to hospital, I was just about to bring my own three-piece suit to the woman who would digitalise the QR code that was going to be embroidered on its trousers and jacket. The suit I would wear travelling to Barcelona. The suit I would wear the three months of my art project in the Spanish city every day. The suit I might wear afterwards until it would fall from my body. A grey men’s suit in the smallest size.
I had called the best tailor in Amsterdam to ask if he could resize one of my father’s suits so I could wear it instead of my own suit. In the middle of everything it suddenly seemed to be the best thing to do but when I was in my own world again I wasn’t sure if starting something completely new in somebody’s old suit was the best thing to do. In your own old suit, yes, in somebody else’s, possibly, but in your father’s?
My mother had emptied his pockets. Handkerchiefs, lots of pens, a couple of coins, a few foreign business cards. She had overlooked one, a brand new card in his breast pocket. I read his name, like I had read it everywhere in the last days. Gerard Besten. Plant manager. So that is what he was.
I cancelled my appointment with the tailor. It isn’t the time to wear my father’s suit after all. Maybe in the future. Or maybe not. But somewhere in the new year I will bring it to Barcelona to let plants grow on it. And afterwards I will grow them in the earth. Be a plant manager. Like my father. But differently.
I will try to be like him. Like what he is today. Free.