The fear, the anger, the pain. It is all there. It doesn’t matter that the real trauma happened 22 years ago, or 48 years ago. Flashbacks take a lifetime to dissolve. Or will they ever? How can one get over such harrowing experiences? Hardly possible, even with incredible courage and determination…? We, the outsiders, we who never witnessed how a bomb blows your buddies to smithereens, we expect too much. “Sweet heart, you are home now, you are safe”, does not suffice, cannot possibly erase the screams in your head.
Being in the presence of Warrior Writers is a sobering experience, yet necessary to bring the war reality home. To bring closure. Here I am, Friday morning, the second day after our workshop. I have not slept very well. A lot of painful memories have found their way out of my sub-conscience. I did not know I had those. My past is coming back, with insistence.
Sudden outbursts of anger, scenes of beating… all there, in my memory bank, as if it happened yesterday. Mama startled reaction, not screaming, just crying quietly, not a loud extended wail of incomprehension that cut through bones and heart. Just puzzled. How can he beat her? She does it all: manage the paint store, handle sales, shop, cook, clean, take care of all his needs.
As suddenly as the outburst happened, it was over: all anger gone. Then the stream of regrets, the “I am sorry, it will never happen again”. Yet, it happened again.
As a 9 year old, it is very hard to understand the behavior of this man, our neighbor Prudent, who became my stepfather. He is a house painter, and very good at his trade. He knows how to obtain the exact color his clients expect: for the outside facade, for dining room walls. Anything to perfection. Can match the wallpaper with the tint of your curtains or sofa. He creates the colors for the paint himself, mixes tiny quantities of color till he arrives at the exact nuanced color tint. A trick, a tour de force by a real magician, in my childhood’s world.
Prudent, when he reads the curious frown on my face, explains: “It is really simple, Ritake. See, a bit of yellow, a bit of bleu, some ochre and voila: green! And when the paint is too thick, add a bit of turpentine”.
He patiently teaches me how to paint the doors of our kitchen cabinets: “First you move the brush up and down, up and down. Then, from left to right, horizontally, till the whole surface of the panel is covered. See? Then, without adding more paint, you go diagonally, from the upper right corner to the lower left. Finally, to finish the panel, just move your brush with feather light strokes, with a gentle touch, like an angel. Like that, the paint will never drip.” A lesson I never forgot!
Today, looking back at my childhood, I do understand my stepfather Prudent. His feelings of guilt. As a young innocent lad, 18 years old, he responded to “the glorious call of duty to defend the Sacred Fatherland”. He embraced it with enthusiasm, filled with noble patriotic sentiments of that age. He served in World War I – the war that was going to end all wars. He defended the little patch of Belgian territory that was left after the German invasion. His unit was the last line of defense. They fought in the trenches of West –Flanders, which still exist today, behind the town of Ieper, trapped between the North Sea and the river Yzer. They were gassed. These soldiers were the first Guiney pigs of the newest German weapon in 1918, forbidden today. That he survived this brutal attack at all, was a miracle.
But this experience marked him forever. In the fifties, “real men” did not talk about their feelings. It was “just not done:. They had to tuff it out. Nobody knew about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Therapy did not exist. Counseling and peer groups unheard of. No camaraderie, no relieve possible for grown men. So all the pain, all the suppressed rage could never be released nor resolved. And society was structured very differently then. People worked long 12-hour days, even on Saturday till noon. The only day off was Sunday. Alcohol was the only medicine to release the pain.
That was the day when our family would visit the neighborhood pubs. And there were a lot of them, Belgium being the beer capital of the world. Prudent would drink, till he could barely stand anymore and was in a jolly good mood. Some Sunday nights, he had to lean on my mom to walk home. And some late nights, when enough beer had lifted any emotional control, the mood could swing, violence would erupt suddenly, triggered by mysterious causes. A terrible side effect of war. We just witnessed it, dumbfounded, puzzled, scared. …“Time heals all wounds”, right? But it did not.
With me, Prudent was patient, sweet, friendly. My innocent chatters and laughter was a counterpoint to his pain. Unknowingly, I made him believe in life again, I was the image of the future he had fought for. My innocence had a calming effect, it worked as a tranquillizer. He could become whole again and reconcile the part of humanity he had lost in the trenches. As a child, it was very scary and really puzzling to reconcile this image of the patient man, who was so sweet and tender with me, with this raging bull.
Just like the poet Laurence Binyon wrote in his collection of poetry “Winnowing Fan”: “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old”.
We lost my stepfather three years after my mother agreed to marry him in 1952. They had been neighbors since 1931, when my parents were married and rented the house in the “Bergstraat”, the Mountain Street, next door. They knew each other well. Both had lost their partners a decade earlier. For many years, Blanche had taken care of Martha, her friend and my stepfather‘s wife. She had visited her every day during her illness, checking on her, making sure she was comfortable in her suffering, until the day she died.
In 1955, Prudent got sick on a Friday. We thought it must be the flu, it was the season. He went to bed, but could not keep his hot tea with lemon. By Sunday he was vomiting blood. We did not have a car. Our doctor took him to the hospital and left him in the good care of the nursing sisters. That Monday morning he died of an internal bleeding, diagnosed too late. He was fifty-five. That was the day that my mother Blanche put her head on my tender shoulders, the day that this long suppressed wailing scream escaped, with a sound that makes your bones clatter and turns your blood ice cold.