Excerpt from our first visit in April 2013:
“Petronella acknowledges my presence with the slightest of nods. She sits on a throne of pillows, eating applesauce out of a porcelain teacup. Her right hand grasps a tiny spoon, and a ray of sunlight catches the sapphire ring on her finger, sending shadows of blue fire dancing across the cream-colored wall of the houseboat. Slowly, she extends her hand to me, admiring the way it catches the light. I resist the urge to reach out and grab her slender wrist to measure it with my fingers. I survey her brittle ankles, gently crossed, tiny feet thrust into plush slippers. Her peach fuzz hair gives way to a strong forehead that seems to stretch on for a long time, wrinkling down to half its size like a geisha’s fan whenever she raises her eyebrows to speak to Solange. One corner of her mouth is turned slightly upward in a lazy half-smile, and the inside of her left cheek bulges with some mixture of pureed applesauce, potatoes, and thickened chicken soup. “Swallow, Mom.” Solange reminds her in Dutch.
Petronella swivels her head to face her daughter, and then back to me. She studies me carefully and I can see that there is far more going on behind those sharp blue eyes than she can articulate. In a voice so soft I hold my breath to listen, she addresses me for the first time.
With four words, Petronella changed the course of my life. Her passion for words left an indelible footprint on the history of a country.
Today, I don’t think there are any words that will make this easier.
Sylvia Annick Petronella Van Der Moer died at the age of 90 on Tuesday, January 28th, 2014.
She left this world peacefully, surrounded by the people, the dog, and the beautiful things that she loved. It seems somehow fitting that the very next day, it rained in California for the first time in months.
It is easy to focus on the legendary acts of this woman, on the amazing things she accomplished in her lifetime. But today, I’d like to honor her by letting that go for a moment. Today, I’d like to honor her for what she has been above all for the past 59 years: a mother.
I have seen it in the way Solange gently coaxed meals into her, in the way she held a tissue to her mother’s nose, in the strength she summoned to lift Petronella from her wheelchair and pivot, as if in a slow-motion dance, to lay her in bed. I have read stories from the children’s books Petronella wrote just for Solange. I have watched as Petronella seemed to wake from a dream when Solange called to her in Dutch, noticed her bony knuckles turn white, wrapped around her daughter’s hand as if she would never let it go. I have seen it written in the worry lines on Solange’s face, and the smile lines, too, and in the way she looked at her mother with a mixture of love and frustration in Petronella’s most difficult moments. I don’t need to know their intimate history to recognize how much love has passed between them, and how much sacrifice. Above all, Petronella was a mother.
If I know Solange at all, she doesn’t want your pity. To her great credit, she is much too stubborn for that. But if you feel moved to share words of strength, inspiration, or love, I encourage you to do so in a comment below. I will make sure your message is delivered.
To The Woman Who Started It All:
With renewed determination, I will try my best to do your legend justice.
As was your wish, your ashes will be spread throughout the places you loved in Lapland.
From my soul to yours, in the only language I truly know how to say it, rest in peace.
(If you wish to download “When the Daylight Fades” for free, you can do so HERE.)