May 27, 2018

May 27th

Today would have been my mother's 74th birthday.

My mother was a force of nature. Known to everyone as ‘Hansje’ she would spontaneously speak out against injustice whenever she saw it. Sometimes that didn’t go well for her. Once she observed a young couple with their four year old son in a shopping centre. They passed a toy store and the little boy paused to look through the window at all the toys on display. The father grabbed the boy’s hand and yanked him so hard that he fell down and was crying. “Come here!”, the father commanded. Hansje approached them and said, “Don’t you ever do that again!”  They didn’t take well to her interference and the mother coolly responded, “Get away from us or I’ll kill you.”  Another time she was on a flight and an orthodox Jew was sitting next to her. Before takeoff the man complained to the flight attendant that he can’t sit next to a woman and they should rectify the situation.  I don’t remember the exact words my mother used but the gist of it was, “Oh, grow up.”  The man punched her in the face. Whenever I was with her nothing like this ever happened, we just always ended up laughing till it hurt, either at her unusual expressions and flowing sentences or silly observations. She loved jazz and Leonard Cohen and sometimes when she spoke, you could hear those rhythms.

(Hansje in a scene from the film "Mensen van morgen" (People of tomorrow) dir. Kees Brusse 1964 A documentary of several Dutch youths discussing their experiences and thoughts on life. This film was iconoclastic, helping to break through many taboos in Dutch culture. It employed a unique montage editing method where the questions are never heard and participants seem to be reacting to the answers of others though they never actually met each other. 

She was pregnant with my older brother when she developed eclampsia.  With no treatment at the time she sunk into a coma and the doctors told my father she wouldn’t make it. An emergency cesarean saved my brother but my father was told to say his goodbyes. She pulled through but suffered from a kind of verbal dyskinesia or aphasia. When talking about the founder and publisher of Playboy magazine, he was ‘Huge Hefner’. Living in Canada she would mention that the weather report said it would be bitterly cold because of the ‘windshield factor’. She had hundreds of these confabulations and whenever I would point one out she would laugh that hearty laugh of hers. 
Somewhere around 1986 when my parents were living in Atlanta I flew out to visit them and lo and behold who was on the plane, in coach? Muhammad Ali. We didn’t follow boxing in general in our household but my mother loved watching his fights. As we disembarked I could see my mother coming towards me at the gate and I was dreading the embarrassment of her perpetual mama-bear hugs; “Oh Eric! I’m so happy to see you!”  She extended her arm forwards, which confused me, walked right past me and shook hands with the legend. “You’re the greatest of all time!” she beamed and his enormous hand enveloped hers. He smiled and said in a whisper, “Thank you.”  My hand, by no means small, also disappeared into his, soft and warm and then he shuffled off by himself.
Serendipity was a mainstay in her life. As she was stopped at a stoplight in Toronto she heard shots being fired. She looked to her left and leaning her elbow on the door, inadvertently pressed the lock on the door. Suddenly men were exiting a bank wearing ski masks. ‘Oh,’  Hansje thought to herself, ‘They’re filming a movie, how exciting!’  One of the armed robbers ran through the line of stopped cars and made his way to my mother’s car. He pulled on the door handle several times. Hansje just looked at him. The thief went for the car in front of her but was apprehended by security guards.
In the 80’s she ran an art gallery in Amsterdam. One evening walking along the street a man started following her. She didn’t walk faster or look behind her but let him get right up close and then wheeled around with a shout, taking up a karate pose. “Watch it buster!” she said, apparently with so much authority that the man took to his heels and ran off. She wasn’t shaken by the experience and didn’t give it any thought after that.
She joined a women’s choir which they officially named, “The happy mentally deranged women’s choir.” Joy and happiness were an essential part of her existence and whenever someone had a birthday she always found the craziest birthday card to send or a handy little gadget, "Just something silly", she would say.
Many years ago I had to undergo some abdominal surgery and she flew in from Atlanta to be with me. She decided it would be best if I flew down with her to recuperate in the warmth of the south. I could barely take a few steps because of the pain from the surgery and as we sat waiting for takeoff, one of our inevitable fits of laughter began. The pain was unbearable and I had to tell her to go sit somewhere else or I would rupture my stitches. She got up and moved towards the back of the plane, still giggling.
During the same trip as the meeting with Ali, which was a few days after the Chernobyl disaster hit the news, I wanted to get some more experience shooting video as I was studying screenwriting in Toronto at the time. Hansje suggested we go to the local mall. I was worried about light streaks and exposure, thinking this was simply a challenge to my technical abilities. The camera was large, with a separate recording unit and wired microphone and it became clear by people’s reaction that they thought we were a real film crew. Hansje immediately picked up on this and told me, “Give me the mic and start filming”.  She went up to a tall athletic man and introduced herself with her Dutch accent, “Hello, we are from DAF, Dutch American Film, and we’d like your reaction to the Chernobyl disaster.”  I was overwhelmed by her confidence, no hesitation.  He replied that he couldn’t talk about it as he was an active air force fighter pilot and any opinion he gave could be construed as that of representing the air force. After a few more interviews we wrapped it up and she turned to me saying, “Well that was fun wasn’t it?”  Understand, she didn’t do this to be in the spotlight herself or to try and prank people: she did it to give me the experience that I was looking for and her saying it was fun was further encouragement for me to overcome any fears I might have.
That’s how she did things, subtly, without force and always with humor. She had a powerful intuitive sense of what a person was going through. This often resulted in confused looks when she would approach a stranger and tell them something. With people she knew she would often say something which, while still part of the conversation, seemed a bit odd or out of place. It took me about thirty years to figure out this mode of communication that she had. She was fully aware that people often didn’t understand her, but she didn’t mind and never forced an issue. She got along with just about everyone and when I was out with her, if I left her alone for a few minutes, to go to the bathroom or something, it was guaranteed that when I came back she would be deep into a conversation with someone, more often than not both of them laughing and her new friend sharing their life story with my mother. “Good for you!”, “That’s great!” were her common phrases and almost always, her patented goodbye, “Have a great life!”
I never heard her speak badly about another person or have an argument. She had a rough childhood and was swindled out of a substantial inheritance by her own relatives but she never dwelled on it or cursed those that did wrong by her, not even under her breath. It was in the past so it didn’t matter anymore; she was ridiculously spontaneous and always looked to the future as positive potential. For years she worked as a volunteer in a shelter for indigenous women in Toronto, with whom she felt a kinship so deep that she was accepted into a tribe by the elders and presented with an Eagle feather. Wherever she travelled language was no problem, not only because she spoke four of them but because her hands were always pantomiming regardless of whether she was speaking English to an English speaker or trying to communicate in a foreign land and, because her laughter was the great ice-breaker and people would respond to the great spirit that she was.
When she became sick with ALS, it was an especially aggressive form which attacked her speech first. Now scribbled notes were constantly being produced: a mix of questions and answers as well as philosophical exposition. She still smiled even after walking became impossible. I would exchange emails with her and could feel the frustration of not being able to communicate with hands and laughter. I would mirror her thoughts in our discussions, clarifying what I thought was at the heart of her ideas and I knew that I had finally understood her fully when she wrote me, “Eric, my dear, you are able to write my thoughts.” Every day I think of her, appreciating her positive attitude towards life, her love and openness, her intuition and her patience. For me, there is so much to learn from those positive attributes.
She often worried about me because I had dedicated my life to my son, Segev, which meant not paying heed to my own needs. “What about you, Eric?” she would say. But she left it at that. She never once told me how to live my life or intervened or showed that she disapproved of some life decision I had made. “Good for you!”, “That’s great!” was what I heard, because she trusted that each of us are on a path, that experience will bring knowledge and that one of the worst things a person can do, is judge another. Another lifelong staple of our conversations, even after she became ill, was her asking, “So did something funny happen to you today?”
Hansje passed away in January of 2012 and I still regularly feel like calling her and telling her a bit of good news and I can hear her response clearly, “Oh Eric, that’s great!”

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