Chapter Two: The Unwanted Shoes

January 5, 2020

Born in 1934 and raised in Bilthoven near Utrecht, in Holland, my father is the third of 12 children of Magda Van Rees and Louis Kuitenbrouwer. (In this photo Paul is in the middle between his brothers Otto and Joost.) Louis, my grandfather, was a newspaper columnist who wrote under the pen name Albert Kuyle.

Paul Kuitenbrouwer immigrated to Canada in May, 1954, aged 19, sailing aboard the Groote Beer (The Big Bear). He and worked in Alberta and British Columbia, then returned to Holland in 1957 for his eldest brother Otto’s wedding.

Paul blew all his cash and somehow weasled his way onto a freighter sailing out of Rotterdam to return to Canada. The freighter bulged with Hungarians fleeing the Stalinist repression of the Hungarian uprising. A young Dutch woman sailed on the ship as well. Born in Nijmegen and living, at that point, in Groningen, Marianne Dekking bore an invitation to teach Christian summer camp in the Pocano Mountains of Pennsylvania. 

My father and mother fell in love on the crossing. In Quebec City, on the ramparts by the Plains of Abraham, my father asked her to marry him. The pair parted company at the ship’s final destination, Montreal, with plans to meet up at the end of the summer. My mom wrote to her parents, to tell her the name of the man she planned to marry.

My grandfather, Hans Dekking, was an eye doctor at the University of Groningen. He had worked for the resistance in World War II. He did some research and learned that my father’s father had been an anti-semite and member of the Dutch fascist party, Zwart Front. It didn’t help that Paul’s family were Catholics and Marianne’s family were Protestant. In the 1950s, if a Protestant in a Dutch town saw a Catholic coming towards them on the sidewalk, they would cross the street.

In a letter to his youngest daughter, Dr. Dekking forbade her from marrying Paul Kuitenbrouwer. Mom ignored him. She eloped with Paul in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, in the fall of 1957. A year later my eldest sister was born. My parents struggled to get established, and got no help from across the pond.

My father’s family certainly had no money to time to give them. As for his wife’s family, no matter what he did, my father could simply never measure up in their eyes. She wrote to her father, but he returned her letters unopened. Dr. Dekking had a younger brother who had also settled in Vancouver. Each week my mom went to her uncle’s house to report on her life. It was never enough.

In the fall of 1957 Marianne and Paul found an apartment in Vancouver. The place had wall-to-wall carpet, so my mom liked to walk around in bare feet. Someone who visited then reported back to Holland that my mom was so poor that she walked barefoot. My grandmother responded by mailing a box of shoes. However, they were all flapper shoes, from the 1920s. Mom showed them to my father.

“Where is the lid?” he asked. She gave him the lid of the box. He disappeared.

“Where are the shoes?” my mother asked.

“We have a garbage chute,” he said.

In 1963, the year after I was born, Herr Dekking travelled to Vancouver to visit his younger brother. He had no plans to see his own daughter. My mom’s uncle devised a plan that he hoped would reunite father and daughter. He called my mom when her father arrived in Vancouver.

“We will leave the house at 2 p.m.,” he told her. “Then you can come over and speak to your father.”

When my mom walked into the house, her father stared at her in horror. He turned white as a sheet and backed into a corner, as though he had seen a ghost.

“No! No! No! No! No!” he screamed.

“Will you please come to my house and see your grandchildren?” begged Marianne. “You have a grandson!” Mom’s eldest sister had had three daughters, and the middle daughter five daughters; my mom had two daughters before she gave birth to a son. Sons were thus a rarity in the family, and seen as a big deal in the Dekking firmament; her father, after all, had wanted her to be a boy, which was why he called her Hansje, a feminization of the boy’s name Hans.

“Please agree to meet your grandchildren,” pleaded my mother.

But Opa would not budge. He cowered, shaking his head.

“No,” he repeated.

My mother fled in tears. I never did get to meet my grandfather. He died in 1967, in Holland.