Dear Rie

by Caelan Beard

Dear Rie,

Today I found the album you brought over with you from Holland.

There are photos of you laughing along country fields with your friends, and tangled together in a pile on the beach. You look like you had fun. Your gang of five litters much of the album, which I’d never seen before, never knew it existed. Who were these women—cousins? Friends? After you moved to Canada, I wonder if you kept in touch. If you wrote letters across the ocean, or if the friendships faded away with time. I wonder if you saw them again, on the handful of visits you took back to Holland in your lifetime, or if those trips were always too full of family for anyone else.

You travelled with those women. I never knew you travelled. There are colour snippets of castles all across Switzerland, a snap of you smiling in front of a mountain. In one photo, you and your friends ride a chairlift, facing each other and hanging on for dear life, because there’s nothing—no safety bar—keeping you in. Could I do that? I don’t know if I’m that brave.

You were. A few years after that trip, you followed a man across the Atlantic to Canada, where he’d begun to build a home. You didn’t know him that well; you’d met a few times in Holland, and exchanged letters across the ocean for a year before you crossed it. Were you scared? Excited? Maybe this man, this move, felt like an opportunity. Maybe it felt like your last chance. You were almost thirty when you met him, old for an unmarried woman back then. I like to believe in the former. It makes me feel better to know you followed him here with hope and with love. And it was a good life you had here, wasn’t it? You and Piet, my grandfather, had a farm, five kids, lots of happy days. More recent photo albums, the ones I used to find on your coffee table, showed your life in Canada. Picking cherry blossoms with your daughters. Walking arm in arm with Piet in Stratford to see the swans. Trips to Algonquin Park every fall to see the leaves change colour.

Later, when you had Alzheimer’s and had to be moved to long-term care, he visited you three times a day. The disease robbed you of your abilities, of the memories you’d made together, but he made sure you weren’t alone in there.

You were born Rie van der Meer, but after you moved to Canada and married, you became Mary Does. Piet’s name changed slightly too, from Piet to Peter. People consistently mispronounced your new last name, Does (say it like doze, not does). To be fair, their English tongues would’ve tripped over van der Meer, as well.

You never taught your kids how to speak Dutch. It was something that could have helped tie them to their heritage, another string to hang onto after you’d gone. But you worried their English would suffer, so you and Piet never spoke it in front of them. Maybe you understood that for them, children of immigrants, it would be easier to fit in without the deep guttural r’s and that slight accent (the one I love so much) mixed into their dialect.

Your desire for them to fit in speaks to bad days I never heard about. I heard about others, though. Times on the farm in Canada were hard for many of the first years. Your family always had food to eat, but you scraped every penny. Worst of all was the loss of your fourth child, Michael, when he was just a baby. That loss changed you for the rest of your life.

So did the war you lived through in Holland. You wrote down some of these stories for your children: about the German occupation of Holland, and villages helping teen boys escape Nazi enlistment by hiding in the canals. People journeying from the larger cities to your family’s home, begging for food, and your pregnant mother tearfully turning them away because she didn’t have enough to feed herself.

Later, you helped clean up parts of Holland after the devastating flood of 1953. You witnessed destruction once again, saw dead bodies floating in the waters. That sight never left you.

Yet with all this, the legacy you left behind was one of joy. Those that loved you and knew you best speak of your unfailing kindness, your warmth, how you always made time for others. At your funeral, our family was surprised at just how many mourners there were. We’d had no idea how many people you had touched so deeply.

I wish I could’ve known you better. Most of my knowledge is secondhand. This album I found has given me a rare look back at you, your childhood friends and youth. It’s also given me so many more questions.

Did you look at these photos in private? How often did you bring them out—only occasionally, every Sunday, or every night, after you’d washed the dishes and put your children to bed? As the house was quiet, did you thumb through the pages and remember? Did it bring you pain or peace or laughter—or all three?

The first few pages are of your siblings. Their photos are the largest of the whole album. At the time you left Holland, you thought you’d never be able to see them again. I can only imagine how badly you missed them.

I am a traveller, too. I struggle with the idea of having to build a life somewhere, far away from my family, and I wish I could ask—how did you do it? And did you ever regret it?

Alongside the photos of your siblings, there’s a photo of a regular brick house with a greenhouse growing tulips in the back. Quintessentially Dutch, it’s the house you were born in. I went there, in 2017, on a trip to the Netherlands. I stayed with Sjaak, one of your nephews, and his family. Sjaak took me one day to see the house where you and his mother (your sister) had grown up with eight other siblings in Roelofarendsveen near Oude Wetering. Maybe she had a photo album, too, with your glasses and grin taking up a whole page.

Later, I went back to your house alone. I borrowed a bicycle and pedaled off, not sure exactly where it was, but thinking I could find it—and I did. Like a homing beacon, I somehow knew which lane to take, which canal to follow, like a voice inside was calling me back to your childhood home.

I hope you know, somehow, that you inspire me to be brave and take great leaps. To travel and work hard. To value friendship and family above all else. To try to do good with the time I have, to try and leave behind a legacy as powerful as yours has been.

I knew you only a little. But it seems that the older I get, the more I learn. Sometimes in small tidbits from my mother: like the soup recipe you used to make or how you always sat with her after school to hear about her day. Sometimes I learn in big leaps, like the discovery of this album. The truth is that although I knew you just a little, you are forever a part of my heritage. Your past is forever linked to my future, and I am eternally grateful to you for this. For taking that leap. For crossing an ocean. For being a part of who I am.

When I think of you now, I don’t think of you as either Rie van deer Meer or Mary Does. You were both.

For all I wish I could have had the chance to ask you—for all that I wish I could have learned—still, somehow, you have taught me so much.

Thank you.

With love,

your granddaughter

An asymmetrical collage featuring an image of a girl running through a field, the side of an umbrella, and a hand. A printed letter E is at the bottom.

Untitled Collage

by Ana Jovanovska

Caelan Beard is a writer based out of London, Ontario. Her work has been published in Horse Canada, Horse Network, Verge Travel Magazine, Sarasota Polo Magazine, and The Ontarion.

Ana Jovanovska was born in 1991 in Macedonia. She holds an MFA in the Graphic Art Field. Her practice is rooted in deep observation and reaction to the current times and spaces. Ana has had 12 independent, and more than 250 group exhibitions around the world.

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