--I could only relate it by writing it myself. If I tell it to you – have you seen the film “Rashomon”?
-- Many years ago.
-- Oh, I have seen it so many times as it was worn out. If I could get it on a video tape, it would be the first thing you should look at, because it cannot be done. This is one thing that history teaches us: that whatever you write about it is wrong. -- Guido Teunissen in conversation with me, 1989
I was standing on the highest point for miles: a bridge over the Waal near Tiel. Its span arced gracefully over the land below, a flat expanse bisected by the broad blue rush of the river as it muscled past the tidy docks, boats snug at their berths like piglets at the teat. Close-cropped fields and neat square cottages sat demurely on the green and gold banks like broody hens.
Harry, his girlfriend Vera, and I had been driving with random purpose for over an hour along the narrow roads that meander in the vicinity of Tiel, a small city in central Holland. Once upon a time, during the Fall and Winter of 1944, it had sat precariously on the front lines between the Occupied Territory and the Allies. And, on a frigid day in that bitter winter, it was where my father, Guido Teunissen, made the break for freedom that brought him to America. We were looking for the spot.
I first met Harry (known to the larger world as the Dutch artist Haro op het Veld) at my father’s funeral. That was more than fifty years after Guido’s swim across the river to the Allied side. I had seen my father only a few times since my mother left him, with me in tow, when I was almost four years old. Already grown up and with a child of my own, I had last visited him in the tiny Dutch hamlet of Strooiendorp, near Dedemsvaart, about thirty miles from the border with Germany, where he had finally settled after a lifetime with “a foot on each continent”, as he put it, Europe and America. I had barely begun to know him, when he died.
I had never been to the Netherlands before my first visit to Strooiendorp in 1989. Like my mother, I was born in New York City. Guido was working construction on Manhattan skyscrapers when they met in 1947. By then, he was an illegal alien under an assumed last name. For me, other than some vague rumors about clandestine activity during World War II, Guido’s life before New York had always lain behind a door of ignorance, and, I admit, indifference. My feelings about my father were a tangled knot that was easier left untied. I spent a scant week with Guido then and continued fitful contact for a while, punctuated by long periods of silence. Then, on April 27, 1997, the call came.
I had been reading in my easy chair. The only disturbance to the late-night quiet was the occasional swish of a passing car and the sweep of headlights through the window. I had just begun to drowse when the shrill of the telephone shattered my tranquility. What? Who? I looked at my watch. It was just after midnight. I carefully picked up the phone with a prickling premonition.
“Franca”. Nobody called me that here. Only family and old friends. The man had a Dutch accent, but I couldn’t place his voice.
“Sorry to call you like this, but Guido died an hour ago.” He paused, but I couldn’t find my tongue. And who was this guy calling me? “He was ailing for about six weeks. I’m sorry.” Then it came to me: the voice belonged to Ton, the Dutchman who one day, thirteen years before, had picked Guido up while he was hitchhiking in a blinding snowstorm. Fascinated by the bearded old man with the piercing gaze, Ton had invited him to live on his land, where he raised a large brood of children by several different mothers and a modest amount of marijuana for Holland’s legal market. Guido never left.
“No. Oh, no. How?”
The last time I had heard Guido’s deep, soft voice had been the previous September, when I came home from an extended trip away to his message on my answering machine. In my absence, my son’s girlfriend had recorded the greeting on my answering machine. Guido had called twice, clearly confused by the strange voice and uncertain that he had the right number. When I returned, I tried to call him back, but the Dutch phone company had changed its system, and I was unable to find out his new number. I meant to write. I really did. And now he was dead.
“He had gangrene. It was in his legs. Lange Jan built him a little room in his house so he could take care of him in the last weeks, and a doctor came in every day to give him morphine for pain.”
I had a sudden picture of Lange Jan -- so named because he was 6’4. He was Ton’s friend and partner in their farming venture and carried a kind of rumpled charisma, with a tobacco-roughened voice, 3-day beard, tousled hair and a laconic manner.
Gangrene? It seemed like such a medieval affliction. Did people even get gangrene these days?
|The Wayfarer, Hieronymous Bosch|
Nor, I think, the enforced separation from familiar faces and his beloved icons: his books, photographs of friends, the Hieronymous Bosch print of “The Wayfarer” (also known as “the Prodigal Son, but I think Guido would have preferred the former title.)
And the picture of a little girl with a mass of blond curls, finger held contemplatively to her mouth as she gazed over a desert panorama in Mexico. I was to find copies of that photograph of me at age three placed strategically among Guido’s things – on the wall by his deathbed, inserted between the pages of books, everywhere. But at that moment, listening to Ton’s story of Guido’s death, I thought only that it had the kind of grand, doomed suffering that I had always attributed to my father. He wasn’t about to bargain with death – he would take his fate straight, thank you, no compromises.
I thanked Ton, and hung up the phone. For a while I paced around the apartment, my mind roiling with grief, shame, regret. Then, on impulse, I set out a candle on a low table and placed an old black and white photograph beside it.
My name for it is “The Holy Family,” only partly in irony (the other part acknowledges the iconographic aura of the image.) It is, of course, a photo of Guido, my mother Frances, and me, taken not long before my father went back to Holland to stand trial for desertion.
After the Allies – the Canadian Fifth Regiment, it turned out – had plucked him, unconscious and nearly naked, from the southern bank of the Waal, which he had managed to reach before collapsing, Guido had been ushered to England for military training and thence to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, to join the Dutch Marines stationed there.
But the prodigious physical and psychic courage and resourcefulness that had made him an excellent courier and escort of Jews into hiding during the German Occupation were not enough to compensate for the petty tyrannies of military discipline. Guido could not abide military life. I found this note dated July 16, 1945 in his military file:
Character description: good intellectual development, very quiet, thinks a lot or sits there and daydreams. Pays no attention to lessons and often tries to get out of duty. Given marks of 5 for capability and usefulness, but only 3 (underlined) for devotion to duty, behavior, and “military disposition and attributes”.The War in Europe ended just a few weeks after he landed on U.S. shores; when his unit began preparing to put down the Indonesian revolt against Dutch colonial rule, Guido went AWOL.
At his trial, in a twist that transformed him from a deserter into a hero, his activity in the Dutch Resistance and the fact that he hid a young German Jew in his home for three years came to light. Instead of a lengthy prison term (or worse – he could have been executed for desertion), he received an honorable discharge with a six-month suspended sentence.
I knew little of this story at the time. I had only those scattered fragments of second-hand memory that had been passed to me by my mother and filtered through the imperfect lens of a child’s comprehension.
I had heard – or thought I did – that Guido had lived during World War II with a group of young German-Jewish exiles, intellectuals, who opened his spirit to a love for art, philosophy, and poetry, and thereby forever changed his life. One day, according to my mother, Guido returned to his apartment to find that the Gestapo had taken them all away, never to be seen again. The loss devastated him. Or, at least, I thought that was what she told me. This story had become one piece of the somber legend I had constructed of my father.
I knew that soon after his acquittal for desertion, Guido had sailed back to Mexico. But by then my mother had had enough of him: his rages, autocratic imperatives and paranoia, his fluctuations between grand plans and the paralysis of doubt. Yet, as his European friends had done for him, Guido introduced my mother to living on a more vivid and intense plane, anchored by poetry, adventure, and a disregard for convention. He told her once, “Frankie, life is the orgasm!” – a declaration that would have been cliché in the 1960’s, but was still startling in 1946.
Their meeting was emblematic. Guido had driven up from New York to Bar Harbor, Maine, where my mother was teaching Afro-Haitian dance (she had been a student of the great African American dancer Katharine Dunham, crossing a color line very few white dancers dared to do in those days). Frances was working for the summer dance camp of the great Italian Jewish modern dancer, Angiola Sartorio (how Guido, working as a carpenter building Manhattan skyscrapers, knew Sartorio is not entirely clear, but there are clues I eventually uncovered.)
As my mother remembers, he roared into view astride an Indian motorcycle, "looking like a Greek god". He parked the sleek machine outside the studio where she was rehearsing, walked in and approached her. He asked, “Where can I find Angiola Sartorio?” My mother locked onto his intense gray eyes and tumbled to the floor in a faint.
“That night we made torrid love in his pup tent, then emerged to lie on the grassy slope, faces toward the sky. And the sky exploded, in a dazzling display of flashing lights and brilliant colors…the Aurora Borealis,” she remembers. (When Sartorio found out, she was livid and ordered my mother to leave, indicating there might have been something Guido didn’t tell his new love about his relationship with her boss.)
But after seven years, first in the U.S. and then in Mexico, my father’s instability wore my mother out. One day, after a bitter fight, she threw together some of our belongings, piled them and me into her 1938 Chevy and we left, leaving my little pet burro and everything I knew behind. I was four. Save for two visits of a few short hours each, I was not to see my father again for thirty-five years.
Yet he haunted my childhood. I fantasized that he could see me riding my bike past the neat lawns on my suburban block, or doing my homework, or walking to school. My mother married a rabbi when I was seven, and we lived in a middle class neighborhood in New Jersey that inhabited a universe on the opposite end of the galaxy from that of my earlier life with Guido.
In my staid, suburban 1950’s middle American world, the phantom Guido of my imagination hovered over me as if from another dimension, compelling and disturbing. I would pretend that he was begging me to come back to him; then I would spurn his imagined advances with studied indifference, feeling the sharp, satisfied tang of revenge for his abandonment of me.
I have before me a letter just given to me by my mother. Dated January 20, 1956, it lay forgotten in a file drawer for more than four decades.
My dear Franca.So perhaps the abandonment was not as complete as I had thought.
…It has been such a very long time − 4 birthdays and just as many years − that you have not heard from me, that you may think that I had forgotten you. But I did not know how I could reach you and I was many times very sad because I love you very much and allways think of you everyday and look at the pictures of you which I have on my desk and above my bed.
I have been travelling much in many countries since you went away and now I live on a little Island with Palmtrees and the deep blue sea all around it. I made a little house for myself with many windows on all sides, which are allways open because the sun shines everyday and it is nice and warm all the time…It is very quiet here, only the sound of the wind and the sea and the song of many birds. Some of the birds are very tame and come into the house to eat out of the sugar-bowl or sit on the table when we eat and we feed them. Also a lizard comes in 3 times a day and sits before the ice-box till I give him some blue-cheese…
After I was here a whole year and still had not heard about you at all, I wanted to see you very much, and so, one day I closed my little house, and went on a plane to the States. I travelled then a long time by car till I came to N.Y. and began to look for you. But that is such a big city and there are so many people, that it was very difficult to find you. I rode on a bicycle all over town and asked many people if they knew where you were living. After many days I found someone who knew you and Mommy and also Martin, and he told me that Mommy was going to marry Martin…Now this was all very new to me. I had come a long way to see you but now I was not sure if it was the right time for that. I had been away for so long and maybe you would not even want to see me. And I began to think about it all a long time, and then I thought it would be best to come back some other day…
That I missed him was not something I could accept until he died. But our estrangement began to wane when I became pregnant with my own child. In 1979, Guido started calling me from Europe on a regular basis and I reluctantly began to entertain the idea that he could, just possibly, mean something to me.
But I was ambivalent. When he called, two voices would struggle for dominance within me: one spoke of connection and compassion. The other spoke of self-protection and detachment. When speaking to Guido I used the first voice, partly out of politeness, partly reaching to express feelings that seemed submerged just beneath the surface. But the second voice undermined it, interposing a screen between us he could not fail to sense.
Love stuttered, tangled in pity, as I listened to him apologize mournfully for his historical inadequacies as a father. Yet he understood that he had chosen to live life his own way, and that the consequences were paid by him, as well as his children. "I'm not a father; I am the anti-father," he said once, with an edge of bitter pride.
|Guido with Ton's son 1990|
I found to my surprise that I was my father's daughter: we shared an uncanny congruence of favorite things – Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, Moby Dick and Shakespeare, craftsmanship, the beauty of the natural world. “Oh, child!” he would exclaim, overcome, as we uncovered yet another interest in common. “Oh, child!” (Although I was a woman of forty and a mother.)
Guido always sought to inspire others with the central ideas and passions of his life, often to his great frustration. Now he discovered that, across the distance of all those years, he had somehow managed to bestow at least part of his intellectual inheritance on his own estranged daughter. I had expected only hardness and suspicion; I found tenderness and appreciation.
I began to ask him about his past. It was in Strooiendorp that I first heard of Gisèle d’Ailly (née van waterschoot van der Gracht) and Wolfgang Frommel, and of the house on Amsterdam’s Herengracht canal that they and Guido had lived in during the War.
I learned that, in fact, not all the friends had died at the hands of the Nazis – only two had been taken away to their deaths. And it was then that Guido told me the saga of his journey to the Allied side in January of 1945, which eventually brought him to America.
But more than this, he was unable to express. When I asked him to tell me about his wartime experiences in Amsterdam, something – was it grief? Dismay? Bitterness? -- struck him dumb and he just shook his head and looked away.
Maybe it was just the enormity of trying to articulate the meaning of the war to someone who stood on the other side of the divide between war and peace. In common with others who lived through the Occupation, it was the high point of his life, despite the horror and privation. Nothing following could ever compete with the comradeship and courage of those days. The sense of it could only be lost in the translation.
On the first of May 1997, I arrived in Strooiendorp to say my last goodbye. Guido lay awaiting burial in a plain wood coffin (unstained and unpainted, smelling of freshly cut boards) resting on a bier, in the little room where he had died. He looked so small, the body shrunken into death. I was surprised and moved to see a picture of myself as a child in the Mexican desert tacked onto the wall by the coffin.
Then a photo next to it arrested my eye. A powerful-looking man with a leonine head and tousled hair looked out from it, not directly at the camera, but gazing off at some haunted inner vista. I wondered who it could be, but Ton only knew it was someone who had been important to Guido in his younger years.
The bier was brought out under a leafy bower and placed on wheels for the short walk to the graveyard. Flowers spilled over the freshly built plain pine coffin in a lively profusion of color.
|Guido's casket. Harry is the third figure from the right.|
He went on to say that he had known Guido in the war and had learned of his death only by the most unlikely chance — a tiny notice he had caught sight of in an Amsterdam newspaper, listing only Guido’s real name, the span of his life, and the time and place of the funeral. We stood together at the open grave as the plain pine box was lowered into the ground. Guido’s last girlfriend, Ines, placed a drawing she had made of him on it. Then, the earth thudded onto the coffin, punctuating the poems and brief remembrances of the small group as the ceremony wound down. There was no stone.
After the burial, Harry paced slowly beside me as we made our way back from the cemetery. As we walked, he began to tell me the story of my father, as he had known him – the story that, four years later, would take us to the bridge in Tiel.