Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Thank You Oom Hemme

“Godverdomme, twee vingers!” my Oom Hemme (Uncle Herman) said to me after I poured him a beer with no suds. Translated to English he said, “Goddammit, two fingers!” He wasn’t mad. He was just a little disappointed because he wasn’t going to fully enjoy his beer. So Oom Hemme took this opportunity to teach me a valuable lesson about enjoying beer. In order to fully appreciate a beer, it needs two fingers of head, and a good beer will hold it. This wasn’t the first lesson Oom Hemme taught me, it wasn’t the last, but it was definitely one of my favorites. Now I find myself disappointed when I get no head, on my beer.

I got the call from my mom on Monday in the morning right before I dropped Xander off for school. Oom Hemme had passed away from the cancer that was eating away at him. After that call one memory after another began shooting through my head. I would try to focus on one and then another one would appear and then another in no real order turning into a bit of a sporadic ramble of memories. While driving to work with all of these jumbled memories of him, I got cut off by a gray Prius with a sticker that read “Ass Family.” According to the family description, “Smart Ass” was driving. That was the first time that being cut-off made me laugh and smile. Oom Hemme was good at making me laugh and smile, and there are not many memories I have of him where he wasn’t smiling or laughing.

Oom Hemme was a daring person. I think he got that from his childhood, during WWII. As a 10 year old, he would jump on slow moving trains and make his way over to the cart containing the coal. When the train would go over a bridge, he would start pushing a lot of the coal over into a boat that he and his friends placed under the bridge to collect what they would push over. That was pretty gutsy considering the consequences if caught. However, the alternative was freezing to death. He did what he had to do, and that should be commended. He was brave as a child and fearless as a man.

Oom Hemme was the youngest at heart adult I’ve ever known, and I think his friends never really acted their ages either. Because the last time he was in California, I noticed he had a scar on his head. When I asked him where he got it, he mentioned that he and his bicycle club friends would set up bike rides and with specific bars to stop at. By the end of the day, they would usually be a little too tipsy to be riding their bikes and his scar was evidence of one of these bike rides. Mind you, he was in his 70s doing this. He was also still playing soccer, skiing and golfing at that age too.

When I think of Oom Hemme, I think of a good beer being shared amongst family and friends, telling jokes and playing cards. Much like my grandfather, Oom Hemme loved playing cards. He always brought a new game to the table and would gladly and patiently teach us how to play. I remember many nights’ playing cards with him, my mom and my brothers. It was always so much fun.

He was the one who first really introduced me to beer. I was at the tender age of 12 when he mixed me some Grolsch and 7 up, which if I remember correctly is referred to as a sneeuwwitje (Snow White, pronounced sney yu wicha). It was like beer with training wheels, and I loved it! I don’t think I would care to drink it now, but at the time, I thought it was the coolest. I felt like I fit in around the card table, drinking my sneeuwwitje.

Back in the late 80s, my brother Tony and I practically spent a whole summer at Oom Hemme’s and my Tante Jose’s (Pronounced Yosay; Aunt Josie’s) house in Denekamp, Netherlands. At the time, both my brother and I didn’t want to go, but my parents wanted to go on their own little vacation without any children. They thought it would be a good opportunity for Tony and me to get to know Holland. So they shipped us out for the summer.

I know not wanting to go made me seem like I was an ungrateful little brat and I have to agree with you. I think I was. But over the years, I started to really appreciate that time I spent in Denekamp and Europe, and I grow more upset at myself for not taking more advantage of it. Because I learned a lot from that time and quite a bit of it was from Oom Hemme. Being that he didn’t speak English too well, and I didn’t speak Dutch well at all, our communication was always flawless. We always found a way to talk.

During that time Oom Hemme and Tante Jose introduced Tony and me to not just the culture of Holland, but the culture of Europe. For instance, upon our arrival to northern Italy, Oom Hemme pointed out that there is not an Italian man over 50 who doesn’t have a large belly. At first I was a little offended by my uncle’s stereotyping of the Italian people. But then, after driving around some small town for a bit, I noticed that he had something there. I did not see one skinny old Italian man. They all had guts. He said it was due to eating all of that pasta.

Speaking of pasta, I remember this one instance in Italy where I caused a young blond Italian woman with large breast to scream as if she were being stabbed to death. Oom Hemme, Tante Jose, Tony and I were beginning dinner at a quaint little restaurant in the small northern Italian town. I have no idea what the others ordered, but I ordered spaghetti. When I started cutting my spaghetti with a knife, I heard this loud shrill come from behind me. I honestly thought somebody was killing a woman behind our table. Turned out, every time I cut through the pasta, the waitress felt a stab in her heart.

To save herself from a mental break down, she raced over to teach me the proper way of eating pasta. Twirl the fork into the spoon. After doing this a few times and stuffing my face with mounds of pasta, I felt it was a rather messy way of eating pasta, so I went back to the fork and knife. I think it made her mad. But hey, why did they give me a knife in the first place? I think that whole little escapade really amused Oom Hemme, because he was smirking the whole the time.

On that trip, I remember hiking with Oom Hemme, Tante Jose and Tony. Oom Hemme and Tante Jose didn’t think we could keep up with them on account that Tony and I were not properly dressed for hiking. Yet, Tony and I thought that tennis shoes, shorts and a t-shirt worked just fine in San Gabriel’s, why wouldn’t they work in the Alps?

The way he described the trail, we thought we were in for a major hike. However, Oom Hemme’s attire didn’t seem too rugged to handle the hike that he described either, because he had funny looking shoes with funny socks and knickerbockers to match. All he needed was the suspenders, the shirt and a long horn to blow and he could’ve been casted in a Ricoli commercial. Back then, I don’t think you could’ve gotten me to wear a hiking outfit like that, but now I totally would.

When we finally arrived to the trail, Tony and I started snickering. Our shoes were going to be just fine. This trail looked more like a fire road. Tony seemed a bit insulted by this too. As a result, he took off to prove that this trail was nothing compared to the San Gabriel Mountain trails that we would hike with our dad. In about a half hour, Tony became a speck in the distance. I on the other hand, hung back with Oom Hemme and Tanta Jose and just took in the landscape.

During that hike, while taking a short cut through a pasture in these gorgeous Austrian Alps after we finally caught up to Tony, Oom Hemme told me not to look into the eyes of the cows which we were passing by, because that might entice them to charge. That freaked me out. I could see the headlines, “Young Stupid American Tourist Trampled by Cows.” So I walked briskly across the pasture and barely even glanced at the cows. I don’t know if he was pulling my chain, but to this day, I will not look a cow in the eye.

It was a beautiful time, and it was quite generous to let us share a summer with them in Europe. It’s funny how some summers fly by and you can’t tell one apart from another, and other summers stay with you as distinct and separate memories. The same goes with people. Some people are hard to decipher from one another, while others characteristics and charm etch themselves into your heart.

Thank You Oom Hemme.

Monday, March 21, 2011

My Dad's First Headstone.

It was a Saturday morning about 10 years ago. I arrived at my parent’s house. My mom was home, but my dad was out. She was in the kitchen making some croquettes (a delicious Dutch treat). I walked into the kitchen, greeted her and asked her where dad was. She smiled and said, “Picking up his headstone.”

The confused look on my face prompted her to explain, which she reluctantly did. She told me that one of her co-worker’s daughters had died and they didn’t have enough money to take care of all of the expenses. So being that my mom and dad had a couple of plots at Oakdale Memorial in Glendora, my parents thought it would be a good idea to donate one of them to her co-worker.

Apparently at Oakdale Memorial (I don’t know if all graveyards do this) they store the prepurchased headstones on the prepurchased plots. So my parents headstones were already there, with their dates of birth etched into them. Since my dad’s headstone had a type-o (Or is it an etch-o?), they decided to remove his headstone and use his plot. It was a very nice gesture by my parents, and my mom’s humility made her rather uncomfortable talking about it. But it still didn’t quite explain why he was picking up his headstone.

So she explained further that the error on my dad’s headstone was fixed, but since they could no longer store it on the original plot, they had no place to put it. You would think they would have had some sort of storage area for them, but apparently they didn’t. That or my dad was too frugal to pay for storage. So they called my dad and asked him to pick it up. After my mom explained all of that, an evil thought popped into my head. What if my dad got into a car accident and died? Talk about being prepared. I mentioned it to my mom, and our sick minds started laughing. It was horrible, yet funny at the same time.

When my dad arrived home, he saw that my car was there and recruited me to help him move his headstone into the garage. We went to the back of his Explorer and opened up the back lift gate. There, lying on the carpet was the newly edited headstone that read “Anthony M. Jansen, April 6, 1936 to ___________.” It was a rather haunting site.

“Can you get the dolly?” my dad asked. I did just that and when I got back to the Explorer, we lifted the heavy headstone onto the dolly. We then proceeded to roll the dolly, with headstone in tack, to the back entrance of the garage.

While rolling the dolly, I mentioned to my dad, “This has got to be one of the most morbid things I have ever done in my life.”

Annoyed my dad replied “Your mom and her fucking ideas!” This reply said it all. He loved my mom, but sometimes her ideas would put him in odd situations, and this one topped them all. When we got into the garage, my dad pulled out a piece of cardboard. We place the headstone on the cardboard, and wrapped it up. We then placed it under his work bench for safe keeping. I felt it needed a little more before we placed it in its final resting spot, like a benediction and a sprinkling of holy water. Maybe even a serenading with a Gregorian Chant during this whole process would have been appropriate, but much to my dismay, none of these things happened.

Over the years I and my brothers would mess with my dad about the headstone, but he didn’t really care that his mortality was in the garage. It didn’t seem to faze him. Sadly, when my father actually did pass, we were not able to use this headstone. My parents purchased two more plots at Forest Lawn, and Forest Lawn requires a special type of stone for their markers. Apparently their soil can only use a certain type. I have my own opinions about that, but I’ll leave that be, because quite frankly, aside from that, Forest Lawn was and is spectacular. They are a class act.

The end result is we still have a headstone with my father’s name and birth date on it in the garage at my parent’s house. So, does anybody need a headstone?