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1958 – My parents Els and Kees dancing the night away.

She wears a wavering plissé skirt with a soft green and beige motif. The soft beige top is silk and the long necklace contains all the colours of her clothing. The choice of clothes colours beautifully with her fair complexion and red hair. Her shoes that you cannot see are snakeskin sandals with pointed high heels. He returned from the oil rig yesterday and he is in luck. Two weeks’ leave and immediately being able to join the annual village festival. His tanned head stands out against the crisp white shirt. It is 1958. The location Lüleburgaz, a Turkish town with a dusty main street on the border with Bulgaria. For wherever exploration drilling for oil takes place, he can be found. Always the first team. And where he is, she is and so are my sister Patricia and I. 

They are my parents. Today, 3 February is their wedding anniversary. 58 Years they lived together until death intervened. Though I suspect they were reunited again on the other side.

Their life together began in Indonesia which was still a colony of the Netherlands in 1941. My father was sent out by an oil company to the Dutch East Indies as Indonesia was then called. My mother was born and raised there. 

It is 19 January 1942 when my future mother Els arrives in Lahat in Sumatra. Her father has taken her to Batavia (Jakarta) by car. The family lives in Bandoeng (Bandung) which is not too far from Batavia. It is a beautiful journey through the mountains, past rice fields and tea gardens. At the port, she quickly says goodbye to her father and gets on a boat to Tandjong Karang which is at the tip of Sumatra. There she takes the train to Lahat where she will marry Kees, the man she met in June 1941 when he was on leave in Bandoeng. For six weeks, they have fun in and around the city. They fall in love and promise to marry each other before Christmas. 

They will not see each other for months. An extensive correspondence ensues. As they write and read, they get to know each other better. The letters, which easily number ten to fifteen pages on each side described airmail paper, follow each other in rapid succession and mostly deal with everyday events. The longing for each other grows. Els’s occupations in Bandoeng contrast sharply with Kees’s life in the jungle where toiling 24-7 in the tropical heat and the threat of war from Japan is most noticeable through the limited freedom of movement and the repetitive military exercises Kees and his colleagues are called up for. 

Lahat is not a big place, but it does have that allure. There is a civil registry, a resident and it counts a real hotel: Hotel Juliana where Els takes up residence. The town lies at the foot of a mountain range. Els is in a glow of happiness. World news is trickling in and the Japanese are getting closer. They land on Borneo on 24 January 1942 and aoccupy the oil fields of Balikpapan and Bandjarmasin.

Kees is given 2 x 24-hour special leave to get married. The austere wedding takes place on 3 February 1942. After the celebration, they spend the rest of the time in the cool mountains, in Pagar Alam. There, the foundations are laid for a life together. When they return to Hotel Juliana, there is a letter from Els’s mother with all kinds of advice.

… Don’t let a bombing upset you, that’s what awaits us all.

… And remember to wear a swimsuit under your normal clothes on the way back on board.

... Be brisk and as optimistic as possible, without becoming carefree.

Three days after their wedding day, Els leaves Lahat for Java, back home. On a crowded train with people fleeing and British and Australian soldiers from Singapore. Kees stays behind and returns to the airfield, to his small infantry company and resumes his duties as a guard. 

Late in the evening of 7 February, four days after the impromptu wedding, Kees sits with the other soldiers in the canteen. Around 11 o’clock, he leaves with several others, to take up guard. They play bridge until midnight and then go to sleep with one eye open. Less than an hour later, the silence of the night is torn apart by gunfire and shouting. Kees jumps off his wooden bed as do the others. They whisper. No one is expecting the Japanese yet. Kees decides to have a look and walks outside. His eyes have to get used to the darkness. Then, less than four metres away, he spots someone pointing a barrel at him. Before he gets the full brunt of it, he can just make out that it is a Javanese and not a Japanese. He stands as if nailed to the ground for less than a second and then strikes back with a bang. Everything sizzles. Blood flows. He feels it running into his helmet and that there is a hole in his back too. He remains dead still. After a while, the shooting hushes. Suddenly. Dead silence. The blood is running in his mouth now. He cannot utter a sound.

Kees survives the lung shot five centimetres above his heart, and three and a half years of hardship, disease and hunger in the Japanese concentration camps. Els also survives the war and the camps. They know nothing of each other. It is only in January 1946 that they meet again in a repatriation camp in Singapore. They go to Holland. Els for the first time in her life, for him it is his native soil.

The years that follow are turbulent, painful, traumatic, full of obstacles and house moves. One every year. Their joie de vivre, flexibility and love for each other were inexhaustible and the beauty is that all those ingredients are hereditary.

So congratulations dear parents, wherever you may be, on your 81st wedding anniversary. And because I learnt from you that life should always be celebrated, we raise our glasses. Cin cin!