Friday, March 4, 2011

30 Days of Me: Day 4

Day 4 - Your Parents

Fenna van Gulik and Arend Bouhuys, married March 23, 1956

Fenna Geertruida van Gulik (1934-1996)

Mom was born the youngest of four children on the island of Sumatra, in a village called Lebong Donok (which is now, supposedly, a resort town). Her father was a physician and worked at the hospital of a silver mine. They moved to the Netherlands in 1938, just in time to avoid the Japanese invasion of Indonesia, but also just in time to get caught up in the German invasion of the Netherlands. They lived in the middle of Amsterdam throughout the war, and Mom always shared stories of playing in the rubble of bombed-out buildings, and of how her father had to go into hiding because of aiding the Dutch Resistance.

Mom never really had a high opinion of herself, which was a shame, because she really was a remarkable woman. She had a wonderful artistic talent and did the illustrations for several of my father’s medical textbooks.

She was also, evidently, a deeply unhappy woman, something I really only figured out when I grew up. She suffered from depression and alcoholism, and struggled to maintain the illusion of a happy family life. My father’s position at Yale University meant she was always being surrounded by people she felt were her intellectual superiors, and it was difficult for her to feel comfortable. She was hospitalized once for depression, and we children were sternly told that we were not to breathe a word of this to anyone, lest the family image be tarnished. I honestly don’t know if she ever had any real “girlfriends” – mostly she socialized with the wives of my father’s colleagues. Looking back, I see that she was incredibly lonely, and covered it up by focusing on painting and decorating the houses we lived in.

Mom in 1980, visiting me in Washington DC (45 years old)
When my father died, she was only 44 years old. She had never lived on her own; this was an entirely new experience for her. But she eventually found her way, and slowly her life started to take on some new direction. She quit drinking, found employment, and started coming out of her shell. But she was still lonely. She eventually started dating again, and was wooed by a man who married her and then proceeded to get her drinking again, cut her off from her children and sold off just about everything she owned. He moved her back to Holland and blew through her savings; by the time she finally caught onto the fact that he was a slimebucket, she was pretty much wiped out. She divorced him, and set about picking her life up again.

The next few years were probably some of the happiest for her. She developed a wide circle of friends; she mended her relationship with her sister; she quit smoking and drinking. I visited her with my kids in 1995 and had a great time. But right after I got back from my visit, she revealed to us that she had an esophageal tumor and it was inoperable. By March of 1996 she was terminal, and a few weeks later opted for euthanasia, which was quasi-legal in the Netherlands at the time (it’s fully legal now). She was just 61 years old.

Arend Bouhuys (1925-1979)

My father was born in Deventer, the Netherlands. He was a sickly, asthmatic child, not athletic at all but very intelligent. His memories of the war years are very different from my mother’s; being in the eastern part of the country and somewhat more rural, they didn’t have as many shortages and hardships as urban dwellers. He did tell us a story about his mother phoning her regular black-market meat supplier and slamming down the phone in a panic when a German voice answered. Also, one of the family heirlooms was a brass shell casing he found near the house, about a foot long and four inches in diameter.

Dad attended the University of Utrecht, where he became a doctor. He married young to an unstable young woman with whom he had two daughters. They divorced when the girls were very small, and he married my mother not long after (and they never really talked about the details of the sequence of events; my mother was always adamant that she met Dad after he was divorced). His first wife committed suicide about a decade later, and he was crushed when his two daughters elected to live with their maternal grandmother rather than with him. I don’t think he ever really got over that.

My parents moved a lot in the early years; each of their three children was born in a different house (my brother in Appelscha, my sister in Amsterdam, and I in Leiden) as my father moved to different medical jobs. In 1963 we emigrated to the United States when Dad took a position at Emory University. We lived in Decatur for two years before he accepted a position at Yale and we moved to New Haven, Connecticut.
Dad was, quite honestly, a control freak. He was acutely aware of image, and wanted the whole family to present a unified and happy front to the world. I don’t know where this came from; it would have been nice to have some kind of idea why it was so important to him. There was so much about his life I never knew. But one thing is certain: he was a hyper-type-A person, involved in so many different projects. He edited a magazine (“Lung”), he appeared on “Sixty Minutes” as an expert on byssinosis (brown lung) in textile workers. He was the director of the Pulmonary Center at Yale. He spoke five languages fluently.

We traveled with him to Europe and even helped him with research on hemp and flax workers in Spain for a summer. He was an expert in history and had a passion for visiting cathedrals. He was an excellent pianist and could sight-read music flawlessly. Some of my happiest memories with him are with us three kids around the piano, Dad playing a tune from a musical (like “Guys and Dolls”), and us kids doing three-part harmony.

His marriage with Mom was not smooth; they came close to divorce several times. But when they finally had the house to themselves, things got better and, as Mom told me later, they decided to recommit to their relationship, and it was one of the very best times of their marriage.

In 1979 Dad was appointed to head the Physiology Department at the University of Utrecht, which meant moving back to Holland (something my mom had wanted to do for years). They packed up the household and sailed aboard the QE2. The last night on board, he suffered a massive heart attack and died instantly. He was just 53 years old.

Dad only saw one of his children graduate from college, just a few months before he died. He never met any of his kids' spouses or grandchildren.

1 comment:

  1. There can be so much trial and difficulty in life, its a real testament to human perseverance.


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