While most of the world is now in panic about obesity, many years ago the reverse was at play. Many victims of the last WW2 were underweight. Especially children. It was a battle then to put weight on.
“Gerard is too skinny, Mrs Oosterman, you must send him away. There is a family in South Belgium who have volunteered to try and feed-up the chronically undernourished,” doctor advised. “They are well off with plenty of food. “Gerard must put on weight. He is malnourished”. The years of potato peelings soup and limp water porridge wasn’t enough.
I can’t remember this precise conversation. It must have been something like that though. My mother often told me that the doctor was scared I would not survive. It was after 1945 with the war over. By the end of the war there were tens of thousands of children whose level of malnourishment was so severe, a national programme was set up to help those unable to regain normal weight and health. I and my brother Frank were both considered in the category of needing fattening up.
I remember my mother putting me on the train and she also impressed on me not to lose my ticket which she told me many times, “it is in your top jacket’s pocket.” She showed me. I was put in a train cabin which was one in a series of cabins with a corridor running alongside them. She asked the adult passengers to make sure I would get off at the destined station and also showed them where my ticket was to show the conductor and the border control. ( I was travelling on my own to another country) My mother had three other children to look after and perhaps no money for her own ticket. My father was working in another city. Anyway, I travelled on my own.
My memories are scant except for this dreaded nightmare of my life. When the conductor came along, my ticket was gone. I searched all my pockets. The passengers searched my pockets. The conductor searched as well. No ticket. It was gone. I cried, sobbed was lost myself. I had lost my ticket, my life. No mother around. I still have that fear of loss. I had lost my ticket. I must have been put off the train at the right station in Belgium. The Belgian French speaking people would have picked me up. I can’t remember.
The memories of my stay in the southern part of Belgium are rather scarce. I loved the mussels. I still see a huge saucepan filled with steaming pink-orange coloured mussels. It is the only food I remember from that time in Belgium. The other lovely memory was of a crepe paper fan that was attached between two flat sticks. When you held the sticks a little apart and waved it down quickly, a most amazing patterned and colourful world would open up. If you closed the two sticks together again, the paper pattern would fold back. It was my first introduction to pure magic. I spend days with this fan in a large garden… I could not understand French nor their Flemish-Dutch. The garden had apple trees. I ate real apples. I was inconsolable when this paper fan of magic finally broke. A second loss, and no mother.
The mussels greatly made up for that loss. The family also gave me a bike to ride on. They must have taught me. I can’t remember. But the proof is in that picture. It was a large house and my room was upstairs. I can see my bed which was left of the door.
The French speaking Belgian family wrote my parents updates over the few months that I stayed with them. I was doing well and had gained 300 grams after the first three weeks, they wrote to my mother. “Gerard is very brave,” they wrote. I still have that card. It was also when I learned to speak French which my parents could not understand on my return.
I am now a good 78 kilos and never go without my ticket.
When I see a film I clutch the ticket in my hands during the entire performance. I keep checking where my passport is and get quite annoyed when I lose something. H. has a hard job keeping me calm and not panic. I am not sure if it is related. Odd, how such an event could possibly keep one from being a bit more normal. I don’t easily give up fretting when something is temporarily missing. H. keeps saying it is NOT lost. She says don’t FEED your anxiety. The Allen key or ‘special’ bit of written note, your glasses will turn up. Don’t worry so much, she says with so much care and love.
Yes, true, but I lost my ticket. It was so long ago.