Do you ever feel that you can talk to your ancestors?
I do. I didn’t think I ever would when I was young. But once your life progresses and you become more aware of life’s fate of family and close friends passing, you begin to think about where they went. They can’t just have gone away when you still feel their presence.
This happens to me with several people who have been instrumental or influential in my life. You still feel their heartbeat, you hear their speech, you know they’re in your room as if listening in, wanting to continue partaking in your life. My grandmother, my mother, Fioen, the girl who gave me my first kiss and died in a dreadful accident when she was 16 years old; and my dear cousin intended co-writer, Anne van der Laan.
It happened again when I dwelled in the library and workroom of my great-uncle Joost, or Joshua van der Poorten Schwartz, alias Maarten Maartens – the once-famous Dutch writer who wrote primarily in English at the turn of the 19th and 20th century – in his splendid house in Doorn, a small town in the Netherlands. I had visited this workroom many times before, always impressed by its serenity and literary wealth, with the many old books in French, English, German and even Latin and Greek, filling the shelves along the walls.
In 2002. I sat at his writing desk and suddenly felt Uncle Joost “speaking” to me. “Pick up your pen and write. Do as I did and feel fulfilled.” To my regret, I did not follow his gentle push right away as I was still fully absorbed by my consulting demands. However, a cousin, who had also been in that room at that time, and felt the same way, agreed with me to outline our first book together, entitling it Some Women We Have Known after the title of our uncle’s first volume of published short stories. Then he passed away before we could finish it and again on my next visit to Maarten Maartens’ desk I felt his strong urge, “John, you go on. Don’t let this fail.”
I started with short stories in English about each woman I had selected for this purpose. Audrey Hepburn, whom I had known when we were kids, she 13 and I 7, was the first. Eventually, these stories became a coming-of-age and early-adult memoir, ending with my marriage, this time keeping the same title as Maarten Maartens’ first short story volume, Some Women I Have Known.
After I climbed that first hurdle – everyone who writes knows that a first book is a hurdle – I wrote my first novel, Enchanting The Swan, about a musician couple whose love goes wrong before it gets right. It’s quite a dramatic tale, starting at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and from there to Brussels, Geneva and New York. Even though it is written in the first person, it is pure fiction, except for the description of the hall of Baron Maconville’s house in Waterloo: as close a description as possible of the antiques in the hall of Uncle Joost’s house. It had to be based on memory: when I went back to the house to verify my memory, all the antiques had disappeared (harnasses, musquet rifles fixed to the ceiling in a perfect circle, little canons, and other collections from North Africa where the Maartens traveled – see the picture below in Th. M. Gorissen’s book Maarten Maartens, 1992). For some sad reason and madness, they had been removed. Nobody could tell me how that happened and where they went, but it had to have had the approval of the then managing committee (including family) responsible for the upkeep of Maartens’ library. Shame. If I had still been in Holland, that would never have occurred.
At the stage of writing Swan, I strongly believed Uncle Joost communicated with me. In 2013, my sister Mary Kranendonk and I and a small group of family members decided to celebrate Maarten Maartens’ one-hundred-year passing in 1915. I heard this voice in me to write a summarization of his 13 novels and his 4 volumes of published short stories. By reading his work, often twice, to enable me to commingle my summarizations with passages of his own writing, I bonded with this long-gone family member-writer and now feel that I’ve known him all my life. When I am in his workroom, I don’t feel like an outsider. I am part of him. Other learned people may have studied his work and life, and analyzed it, but nobody ever made his works available in a contemporary format that allows family and interested readers to enjoy Maarten Maartens’ writing without having to read his sometimes lengthy 19th century style in full, that is, if they can still find them in antique bookstores or libraries.
The One-Hundred-Year Commemoration of Maarten Maartens in September 2015 became a very successful event, thanks to the hard work of a small dedicated group of family members who spent many months preparing it (see a previous blog in November 2015, describing the festivity). It gave us a feeling we had revived his memory and done him right.
Living in the US, I wanted to go back to Uncle Joost’s house once more. My sister and I decided to celebrate our 80th birthday there in July 2017 (she a half-year ahead and I a half-year past). This scribbler went “home” to the Maarten Maartens House to pay his respect and express his gratitude while at the same time celebrating a life with many family members and friends (the subject of a next blog). For me, as a modest scribbler with no fame, it was also a day of reconnecting with an uncle who had instilled in me the joy of authoring stories.
Soon to come:
Francine – Dazzling Daughter of the Mountain State: She rises to the top of a mining conglomerate, demobilizes the anti-mining lobby, but will she save the company and find love in the meantime?