Letter to Nelly

Dear Nelly,

We’ve never met, but I’ve heard nothing but good about you. From your brother telling us, full of pride, how you had your derdegraads*. Your cousin recalling with an exciting twinkle in her eyes, the overnight stays at your parental house when she was a little girl. Your nieces and nephews all claiming that you were the only person their parents allowed them to stay with, when they were working out of town.

And I can see the kindness and warmth radiating from your face in the few pictures that were left of you. You look like the kind of person nobody gets angry with. And in those few instances that someone does get angry, you just know that the other person is at fault since everybody knows without a doubt that you don’t have a bad bone in your body. That’s what you look like.
You look like your mother, and your daughter looks just like you, too. She has that same kind, open gaze. That same shy, kind of mysterious smile. People say that I do, too. But I don’t always see that.


This is my favorite picture of you. Was this studio portrait a gift to yourself, paid out of one of your first paychecks? When I close my eyes, I can just imagine it. You, strolling down the streets of the city with your sisters, self assured, young, care free, giggling while trying on new hats, contemplating whether to buy calico or pongee fabric for the dress you would wear in this picture. And then that big moment would arrive, the moment where you had to pose for the camera. And you would stare in the lens with that twinkle of hope for the future in your eyes, smiling ever so sweetly at that future generation that would be staring back at you years later. Well, you nailed it! You looked so beautiful. I always wanted to take a good set of professional pictures, but I always come up with some excuse. I either think I would have to gain some weight, loose some weight, grow my hair a little longer. Just a lot of silly things that I’m sure wouldn’t matter to the ones that will be staring back at me one day.

There aren’t a lot of tangible things left that had once belonged to you. Six pictures with your image, this one included. A notebook we found while cleaning out your husband’s house, containing written preparations and evaluations for the classes you were giving. I remember finding the notebook and eagerly going through it, hoping to find some notes about your feelings, your life, your decisions. But there were no diary notes in it. I think that’s part of the reason why I started this blog. If I’m ever blessed with children and grandchildren I want them to read this blog one day and get to know what I liked, what I was jamming to, what I was thinking, my mood, my struggles. I basically want them to get to know me through me.

The notebook did give me the opportunity to learn more about your personality, albeit indirectly. It contained extensive notes on what you were going to teach your pupils per day, what subjects you felt like you needed to repeat to them and just a whole lot of other work related things. To me it showed how much you cared about your job, and how much you gave it your all every single time. Even though, at times, the job probably didn’t show you the same appreciation. I remember your daughter telling me that you needed to quit your job every time you became pregnant just because a pregnant woman in front of the class was deemed unsightly and not proper in those days. Once you started to show, you had to stay at home without any pay. It’s all so bizarre, but I think about this story every time I find myself in a situation where I want to complain about the treatment women are receiving in this society that’s still very patriarchal and misogynist. This doesn’t mean that I silence myself, but I constantly keep in mind that the things I want to complain about seem so small compared to what women of your generation went through. We’ve really come a long way since then. The notebook also showed your work ethic in another way: the last notes were dated just a couple of days before you passed away.

There was also the blue nightgown your daughter kept as a remembrance to you. I don’t know why she kept that specific gown. Was it your favorite? I have to be honest, and say that I thought the nightgown was pretty ugly, but I guess it was the style back in the fifties and sixties. I remember seeing one that looked just like it on “Mad Men”, flowy fabric, ruffles, lace and all. I think that’s the earliest memory I have of your daughter talking about you. My sister came up with the “brilliant” idea to wear the dress at night, and I remember your daughter taking the dress out of her closet for my sister and explaining that it had belonged to you. I absolutely hated that my sister was wearing the dress. Not because I thought it looked unflattering which it did of course since my sister was a size extra small and the dress a size extra large. No, I hated it for another reason; I was afraid of the dress. We would share a bedroom and closet, and I remember being afraid to open the closet every time that dress was sitting on top of a pile of clean clothes. To me it was the dress that belonged to “that dead woman”, and since I was a child with an active imagination, I believed that touching the dress would somehow awaken your spirit. It didn’t help that the dress looked like the quintessential dress a ghost woman would wear in a horror movie while flowing through the window with bloodshot eyes. I was not a fan of that dress. I think your daughter eventually threw it away. Which is a pity because now I wish we’d kept it.

And then there was your wedding band. We found it in an old wardrobe in your husband’s bedroom while cleaning up his house. In the wardrobe he didn’t keep a lot of things which wasn’t unusual since he was a very frugal man. Two or three moldy books about keeping cows, worn underwear, an old yellow newspaper containing an article about your daughter, the book she has co-written still wrapped in paper, and some other trinkets that your daughter ordered us to throw away. And there were the wedding bands, on the top shelf, placed underneath two little antique wine glasses that had been turned upside down. One of the bands was cut open, and I instantly realized that must have been your ring. Your daughter had told me that when you died, the hospital staff removed all personal belongings in order to give them to the family. However, they couldn’t take off your ring because you had gained a significant amount of weight since your wedding and the ring was too snug. So a technician was ordered to cut the ring off. It’s strange… It wasn’t the first time we had to clean your husband’s house. It also wasn’t the first time I went snooping in the cabinets and old suitcases in his house, searching for treasures. However, I’d never noticed those bands. When I went searching for them again right after he had died, they had disappeared again.

I remember my sister telling me the circumstances of your death as she was told by your daughter. She told me that you had been suffering from Jaundice for a while, and had gone to the doctor who had ordered you strict bed rest. She told me that you kept the doctor’s orders a secret and had kept on slaving away; cleaning, teaching, cooking, the usual. Until one day you became really ill and couldn’t get out of bed. She told me that your daughter had pleaded with her father, your husband, to bring you to the doctor, but he acted really nonchalant, and didn’t see a reason to do so. She told me that he drove away to go to work with the only means of transportation. When he and your children returned from work and school that day, you were in an even worse state and that’s when you were finally taken to the hospital. But it was too late. You would die the next day.

“Who does that?!”, I can still hear my sister exclaim outraged, when she told me that you had kept the doctor’s order a secret. And indeed, why did you do that? Did you think that this was a storm that too would pass? That you were strong enough to survive? “That’s what made mama sick…!”, said one of your daughters once in a conversation, when she recalled how your family had to move hastily from the house you rented from your father in law, when he sold the land to the government, breaking the promise he gave to you that you and your husband would be eligible to buy the house. Well, that explains the Jaundice flaring up, but it doesn’t explain your decision to go against the doctor’s order.

Or were you maybe a victim of the new house you moved in? The house that was rumored to be haunted and according to local gossip had claimed the lives of several people that had lived in it? Your daughter talks about the first house all the time. She has described the interior, the fruit trees in the garden, her bedroom. She never talks about the house you and the rest of the family had to live in for those three to four months leading up to your death.

Or where you just fed up? Just tired of it all. Tired of your marriage, maybe tired of living a life so far from what you’ve hoped for on that day you took your picture, and were you just ready to “go”? I can only speculate about the reasons of course. I won’t get any answers in my lifetime here on earth.

I believe your daughter blames herself a little bit for your passing. I believe she feels that she could have done more, helped out around the house more, caused you less stress, pleaded with her father or others for doctor intervention sooner. When you died, she vehemently took on the role of caretaker for her younger siblings and father. She learned how to cook, she cleaned, she did it all. She also became a teacher, just like you did. She was in constant pursuit of education, driving hours to take classes at night, studying often at candle light during the black outs that were common in those days. And that all while having a day job and maintaining a household. She had to live abroad for several months for her university education, away from her children, but she succeeded. She graduated! You would have been so proud of her. I know I am.

It’s strange how history can repeat itself. Years later your daughter would also fall ill at home, and her daughters would also have their pleas for medical intervention fall on deaf ears. Luckily they were older, and had the ability to drive her to the Emergency Room themselves. Unlike you, your daughter did survive.

We’ve never met, but I miss you. Which is strange because you can’t miss something you never had. But I do miss you. I miss the grandmother you could have been, but mostly I miss you for your daughter, my mother, who I know misses her mother. I don’t want to see the woman we both love sad. I want to see her happy, I want to make her proud, and I don’t want to be the cause of her worries. I’m far from where I want to be in life, and I haven’t been able to be the kind of daughter I wished I could be. But I draw strength out of your story, and her story every time I’m slacking, or want to give up or quit. There’s no reason for me to fail, if you both succeeded under circumstances far worse than mine. It would be the best day when I’d finally get a chance to meet you, oma Nelly.

Your granddaughter

*derdegraads: a high level teacher’s degree. In those days it was uncommon for anybody, let alone a woman, to have this specific degree.

19 thoughts on “Letter to Nelly

  1. I’m so in love with this masterpiece. If I could give you a standing ovation Ana all by my lonesome, best believe I would. Wonderful–as stated above captivating, touching. . . ♥E.E.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A well-written touching story! I too longed to know my grandmother who died before I was born. Fortunately, she left letters written when she was young, eloped and defied her parents. There are photos of her – and the stories my mother told me. But I still long to talk to her, know what she thought about, what was important to her. Like you, I miss her although I never had her.

    Liked by 1 person

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