Wilhelmina was born in Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1931. She shared her home with her parents, two older brothers and an older sister. She was happy at home and was never aware that the house was too small for them all, especially when two younger sisters arrived. On the way home from school, she would often pop into her grandparents’ house where she was sure of a warm welcome and a tasty treat. She was unaware of the inroads the economic depression was making into her father’s income. She had no inkling that her parents’ desperation was about to change her life completely.
Wilhelmina’s father left the Netherlands and travelled to Africa by ship to seek a better life for his family. When he had established a base in Durban, he sent for them and they too undertook the long sea journey. The decision to leave her brothers behind to complete their high school education was to haunt them all in the years to come. Wilhelmina and her sisters can still vividly remember their first sight of Black men working at the African port at which they docked.
Their home in Durban was near the sea. Wilhelmina and her sisters quickly adapted to swimming in the warm Indian Ocean, a pastime their mother never encouraged. She could not bear the sand between her toes and always wore stockings and shoes, despite the heat of Durban’s summer. The girls loved the sunshine and the wide open spaces where they roamed barefoot like all African children. One day their father arrived home carrying a khaki haversack and their lives changed again. With her father away at war in North Africa and her brothers living in Nazi-occupied Holland, Wilhelmina became conscious of her mother’s anxiety. Despite this and the shortages caused by war, home was a loving and secure place and she did well at the girls’ high school she and all her sisters attended.
The long war years ended with the safe home-coming of her father and later the arrival of her brothers from their devastated homeland. On finishing school, Wilhelmina began a career in the bank, which resulted in a transfer to a branch in Central Africa. Her love affair with Africa deepened and love arrived too in the form of a handsome Scot working in the British colonial services. Marriage and motherhood followed. History intervened yet again and the dissolution of the British Empire meant changes for Wilhelmina’s young family.
The Land of the Long White Cloud took some adjustment for those accustomed to the bright African sun. But decades later, Wilhelmina was happy to call New Zealand home, particularly after the advent of her Kiwi/Aussie grandchildren.
Wilhelmina is now an old lady whose history makes ‘home’ a relative concept. Home could be a cottage in Utrecht with grandparents within walking distance. Or a house by the sea in Durban. Or a boma under spreading trees in what is now Zambia. Or a bungalow in suburban Auckland where they often have four seasons in one day. If she were truthful, especially on a grey, windy North Island day, Wilhelmina would agree that the sublime landscape of Africa, intensely coloured and strongly scented, was where she’d left her heart.
*written in 2005 for a writing group exercise