Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Growing up with the ‘mark of Cain’

By Kevin Widdison, City editor, Daily Courier

Rachel Van Meers has always enjoyed telling stories about her childhood in Belgiumin the 1930s and ’40s. Maybe it’s a form of therapy, since by many measures it wasn’t a particularly happy childhood.

In spite of a veil of sadness that shrouds her tales, they are fascinating. Others mustthink so, too, because Rachel says many people have told her she should write a book.

And now she has.

“Lost in the Fog: Memoir of a Bastard” is the book’s jarring title. Much of her childhood was wrapped in an identity foisted upon her at birth: She was born in 1930 to an unwed mother in the strict Catholic culture of small-town Belgium. In the book’s liner notes, she refers to “bearing the mark of Cain.”

Sitting in the dining room of the tidy Merlin-area ranch home she shares with her husband, it’s difficult to believe Rachel has endured so much. She is relentlessly upbeat and seems to enjoy a good laugh, often at her own expense. Pointing at two framed pictures mounted on a nearby wall, she says, “Those are my beautiful young granddaughters. Not like me. I’m an old bag.” And then she lets loose a laugh.

For someone in her late 70s, she has a lot of energy.

A lot.

And she can still tell a story.

Rachel speaks with a thick Flemish accent that sounds like a cross between German and French. If she hadn’t told me, I’d never have known it was Flemish. It’s not the kind of thing you hear every day.

The stories in the book are actually told by Rachel to local writer Daniel Chase, whocommitted them to paper. The two met every week over a three-year period, asRachel told her life story to Daniel an hour at a time.

In the book, Rachel manages to tell her stories through the eyes of a young child, allthese decades later:

■ On life with her grandparents, who raised Rachel while her mother spent her days working at a textile mill and her nights going out with a series of boyfriends:

“My grandmother was strict with me, but I loved her. She taught me to crochet thecurtains, knit, and mend socks.

“… I loved my grandfather dearly. Wherever he was, I was like a dog following himaround. When my mother and grandmother started in, my grandfather winked at meand got me out of the house.”

■ On being born out of wedlock:

“I said, ‘I don’t have a daddy.’ That was it. I was doomed instantly …

“At my grandmother’s house, most of the time my aunts Jenny and Sofie were like the Queens of Sheba, because my mother was the fallen lady. When my grandmother asked my aunts, ‘Do the wash. Iron this,’ they said, ‘Why? Let Helene do that!’

“My grandmother said, ‘Okay.’ It was like, ‘Let the one who has sin work.’

“So my mother did it. I hated that, too.”

■ On Belgian capitulation to the Nazis:

“… We did not fight them. We had no weapons.

“In the beginning, people disappeared and the stores closed down. We never sawsoldiers in the streets. They came in the night.”

Her mother followed a boyfriend into the Nazi party. One of her uncles joined the Belgian resistance and risked his life fighting the Germans. The rest of the family justtried to stay out of the way. It tore the family asunder.

Many years and many chapters in the book later, Rachel came to America in 1961with her Dutch-Indonesian husband. At first, they spoke little English. They were tutored, but mostly picked up the language from living life in Yoncalla, where they were sponsored by the Methodist church. They sometimes encountered bigotry, but felt welcome in their new country.

“I really was treated so good,” she says. “People brought food every day.”

Over the decades, her husband worked as a typewriter repairman and airline mechanic, among other jobs. Rachel also worked a variety of jobs, including electronics assembly. In Grants Pass, she worked at the now-closed Litton plantand at ESAM. The couple raised three sons.

Rachel eventually made her peace with her mother.

“The first time I went back to Belgium, I went to the house and then I met my mother for the first time in years … She hugged me and she cried and cried and cried. She nearly broke me in pieces she hugged me so hard. I told her in her ear, because I didn’t want nobody to hear, ‘You know what? I love you, and youknow it.’”

Rachel Van Meers is a pen name, and all the names in her book have been changed to protect those who are described with brutal honesty.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Meet the Authors

Rachel Van Meers and Daniel Chase will be signing books at Oregon Books, 937 Northeast D St Grants Pass, on Saturday July 19 from 11:00am – 2:00pm. We look forward to meeting you!