The earliest memory that I have of you, Sophie Carolina, was when I was about four years old. You know that when you’re little, everything around you seems larger than it actually is? Well, maybe it was due to your stooped posture, but even I realized at that age that you were a petite lady. I remember you with a crown full of gray hair which you usually wore in two thick shoulder length braids alongside your friendly and caring face. In your green chair by the window, you would patiently sit through my sister experimenting all sorts of crazy hairstyles with your hair while I, barely being able to read, would read aloud one of the stories from my schoolbook. You would just sit there peacefully smiling, just radiating friendliness. That radiating friendliness however, was not enough to conceal the worry-lines on your black kabbes skin, or mask the hardship and the tragedy that had left their mark. Reminiscing now, I realize that you looked much older than the sixty seven years you were during that earliest memory.
I was so excited to see your birth announcement in the newspaper. It was then, that I truly realized that the person I only got to know as a little old lady, was once a baby as well. Even though World War 1 had ended a couple of months before your birth, the world was still in the grip of the Spanish Flu. How frightening that must have been for your mother Minka, being pregnant and having a baby during a time when left and right neighbors, acquaintances, family members were alive and well one day and dead three days later. Oh how I wish that I could have seen what you looked liked as a baby, as a child, a teenager, but sadly there aren’t any pictures of you before the age of 30. What had your life been like before you turned seven? As the tap’ bere, the baby of the family, were you spoiled? Did you occasionally get a bigi sensi to buy asogri, and did you win at playing marbles? Did you get into trouble for stealing the neighbor’s knippa?
Did you have at least a little bit of a normal childhood before you turned seven and your mother was sent to the asylum? Ohw, how I hope you did! You see, to this day there’s still a large stigma related to mental illness in Suriname, so I can’t even imagine what that must have been like at the beginning of the twentieth century. I don’t know how your mother’s mental illness manifested itself, but I don’t think she mistreated you. And even if she did, her being institutionalized and leaving must still have been extremely hard since Wolfenbüttel did not have a good reputation. And on top of that, when your mother left, you were send to live with strangers just because it wasn’t deemed proper for a man, a father to raise his child alone. Oh the good old days.
So you, vrouw Sophie were send to live with the family R, a well- to- do family that belonged to the black elite of those days. And that’s part of the story that I don’t understand. Because why didn’t they send you to live with family? Your uncle David was a successful man, in both his profession as a barber, and in his social life. Your maternal family seemed very close- knit, hey your grandma Georgtina was still alive and well during those days, and working and having a party for her 60th birthday. Why didn’t you go and live with her? Or why weren’t you send to live with Louis or Jansje, who were already married and had started their own family? So many questions, but that’s part of the mystery that will probably never be solved.
I went to visit the only surviving daughter of the R family, you know. I made sure that I looked my absolute best. I wanted her to see through me that you came out victorious even though they had treated you as a child slave, and had put you out on the street for getting pregnant with my father while not being married. I wanted her to see what a fantastic, well- educated beautiful granddaughter you had. I know it doesn’t really make sense, but that’s how I felt. I can still see her sitting in her bed in the nursing home, looking fairly good for her 91 years. I told her who I was, and she was able to remember you, though at times she did confuse you with the great Dr. Sophie Redmond who had been her childhood friend. I showed her the picture with the group of girl scouts, and with a twinkle in her eyes she immediately started to reminisce and sing the girl scout theme song. When I asked her to identify you in the picture though, she was adamant that you were not in it. She explained that this group consisted of the daughters of ten black- elite families (the girl scout group was literally called “the ten of us”), so you couldn’t have possibly belonged to the group according to her. At one point, her devilish ways really came out, when she tauntingly started to say: “mister Ram, mister Ram, mister Ram”. I asked her who that was, and she explained that when you were serving in their house, you had given a glass of water to an Indian neighbor named mister Ram. The family R became angry because you had the audacity to serve him water in a glass, and not in a tin mug or something more “social class appropriate”. “We don’t submit to Indians”, she condescendingly said. First of all, that was incredibly racist and classist. And second, the fact that after more than 60 years, she was able to remember what to me seemed like an incredibly small incident, said everything about her character. Or should I say, lack thereof. I could feel every ounce of fondness that I felt for her when she was talking about her first car or her sister that died as a child, flow away. I think she may have noticed that, because very timidly she gave back the girl scout picture. Upon leaving, she made me assure to her that I would come back. Of course I didn’t.
When I think about your story, I can’t help but think how lucky and blessed I am even though I am far from where I want to be in life. You weren’t allowed to continue your education by the family R, I had the opportunity to go all the way. At one point in your life you were homeless and pregnant. I never had to face that. Even though we both experienced partners who were unfaithful, I never had to go through my husband having children outside of the marriage. How could you forgive him for that? Were you afraid to be alone again? I don’t understand that. I remember you were interviewed by a Dutch intern once. The only thing I remember from that recording was you telling her that when you got married to grandpa David, it was all about “sexuality” in the beginning, as you put it. Haha, was that it that made you stay? Oh well, one more question that will never be answered.
I just wanted to let you know that I think about you often. I wish I could share my extensive family research finds with you, but I like to think that you are somewhere very well aware of what I have discovered. And that you’re proud. Because I sure am proud of you! I just recently discovered that you were involved in the first black nationalist movement of Suriname. A movement that promoted the use of the Sranan language through stage- plays and a newspaper. I was so proud when I found that out! How amazing is that? How amazing were you? I’m so lucky to be your granddaughter. I’m not going to say, that I hope to see you soon (haha), but I know that when we will meet again, it will be the best!
16 thoughts on “Letter to Sophie”
A very nice posting, well done.
Thank you so much… ! 🙂
Great read. I love the study of genealogy. Your grandmother is beautiful. I think it’s awesome you care to research your roots.
Thank you… Yes, she was beautiful!
WOW, what an amazing post! Thank you for sharing your Grandmother’s life with us. There is much that we can learn from the lives of our elders.
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This is a captivating story! I just love it and so personal. Love your descriptions!!
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Thank you. I’m working on another one about my maternal grandmother. Stay tuned..!:-)
I will! love the picture and title that drew me in!
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I loved this post about your grandmother. Written with so much empathy about an amazing woman. Did you find out why she was sent to work in an elite household and not welcomed into the larger family? Also interesting to know about how Indians were viewed by elite black families. Thank you so much.
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Thank you so much! Well, my grandmother was the sweetest even though she had been through so much, so it was easy to write. No, it remains a mystery why she was sent away, and I can still only speculate. If you would like to read more about Surinamese black Indian relations or just Surinamese Indian culture in general, I would suggest my post ‘Before Mississippi Masala there was Wan Pipel’ and ‘Musical Masala’. Thank you so much for stopping by…!
Read your reply after a long time. Will read both posts. Thanks so much.
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