Margrit portrait


24 October 1924    11 December 2007

[This necrology I wrote while sitting next to my dying mother. It is rather factual probably because I’m not ready yet to become personal. It’s still too close, too recent. But I want to tell my mother’s story now as a way to distract myself and at the same time getting closer to her. There are certainly a lot of factual errors in it. I will talk to Amadou, her Mauritanian friend who considers her his second mother, to fill in some details and make additions and changes. It’s telling that he knows more about her life than her own children.]

Margrit was born in a upper middle class family in Sankt Gallen, Switzerland. Her father was head of the bleu collar civil servants, and amongst others responsible for hiring labourers for snow removal. He had a lot of friends when visiting a bar. She was the youngest of 4 children, two girls and one boy. Her mother became very ill when she was a toddler and spent her last years in bed. Because little Margrit was still at home she got a lot of attention from her mother, who told and read her a lot of stories. Her love of books and reading must have been originated at that age. The blow for her when her best companion died when she was 6 must have been quite fierce. Her father immediately started an affair with the live-in house keeper which surely didn’t help.

During her teens she got a major traffic accident that scarred her face and caused major damage in other areas.

Margrit went to university to study physical education. However after a year and a half she herself fell ill with tuberculosis. She spent two years in a sanatorium in the Southern Alps where she read a lot and had extensive conversations about religion with patients and staff. During this time she decided to change her religion from Protestant to Roman Catholic, much to the dismay of her family.

When she was cured she wanted to change subject and start to study medicine to pursue a career as a doctor but her father told her that her study funds had been depleted by the sanatorium dispenses and that instead she should get a job. And thus she started to work as a doctor’s assistant. She didn’t have any diplomas but soon she did many medical procedures because she was better at them than the doctor she worked for and he was not afraid to acknowledge that. She really liked her job but one night she found out that her boss also carried out (illegal) abortions which totally conflicted with her moral and religious beliefs. She quit her job and after some other small jobs managed to become a sports instructor and landed a position as a group leader and sports instructor at a boarding school for Dutch asthma patients and children of diplomats (the latter financed the other, poorer students) located on a steep cliff near Montreux overlooking Lake Geneva. There she met Karel, a Dutch Language teacher from the Netherlands who proposed to her shortly after they met. She hesitantly accepted. Soon thereafter the school was closing its doors because of a lack of funds and the pair got married in a ceremony in the school’s auditorium followed by a short honeymoon in a hotel at the other side of the lake to where they travelled in exotic modes of transportation like a funicular and a Mississippi paddle boat.

Immediately after the honeymoon, Margrit and Karel moved to the Netherlands where Karel, being a Dutch Language teacher, had more chance of landing a job. She never worked in the Netherlands, lacking the required certificates.

Even though it was a couple of years after the German occupation and the Second World War the Netherlands was still lacking resources and there were big housing shortages. So the pair moved in with Karel’s mother and youngest sister in Nijmegen, a university town in the East of the Netherlands. Margrit was shocked, being used to the rich Swiss circumstances where they gained from the war instead of suffered from it. Living in with her mother-in-law also caused a great deal of tension.

To their great joy Margrit became pregnant, even though the doctors had told her that conceiving a child would be impossible after her accident.

Their first child was a girl they named Aagje, and soon after her birth Margrit got pregnant again and a boy, Peter-Jan, was born. After a few months he suddenly died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome leaving the young couple devastated. Soon thereafter, when Aagje was 2 and a half, they adopted Ronald.

Margrit got pregnant two more times and with Maaike and Barbara the family now consisted of 6 people.

They moved to another house, located opposite from the care facility that she lived in during the last year of her life and where she also died.

There, seven years after Barbara, Mark was born. Karel and Margrit tried to conceive another child as a playmate for him but after a late miscarriage their doctor strongly advised against getting pregnant again.

Even though she had many children Margrit never was a very warm and dedicated mother. The marriage with Karel was also not always easy as he often retired in his office to work on his dissertation, that he finally finished after 13 years, leaving most of the care for the 5 children to her.

She did the best she could but also tried to get as much away-time as she could by reading large quantities of books in as many as four languages. She wasn’t very happy in the Netherlands, but also didn’t feel welcome in Switzerland anymore when she visited there, but at least the books gave her an escape to live far more interesting lives in far more interesting places.

She was often plagued with health problems, had chronic and recurring bronchitis, a misdiagnosed herniated disk that was much later diagnosed as an inoperable cyst in her spinal column, causing a lot of back pain and painful pressure on certain nerves in her leg. She also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, especially in the morning when she hadn’t moved for a while.

In 1970 they bought a house in the country near Nijmegen that belonged to their maid’s mother. The house was in terrible shape, basically a shack, but it was very nicely located near a pond and a forest, just on the other side of the dike along the Maas river. They saw the potential in this house and worked for many years to improve it and make it their Garden of Eden.

Then Karel’s aging mother moved in with the pair and their two youngest children who still lived with their parents. This caused a lot of tension in the family when Karel had to decide where his loyalties lied, with his wife or his mother. It culminated in Karel getting a major stroke that, although it didn’t cause physical damage, made him less capable to do his work and after a short while led to his early retirement.

A few years later, Karel developed a major manic episode during which Margrit didn’t feel save anymore so she left the house that she loved so much to live alone which eventually led to a divorce.

The divorce turned out to be very positive for Margrit. Instead of relying on his circle of friends she had to make her own now. She started to do volunteer work for the refugee aid organization “Vluchtelingenwerk” that made good use of her strong language skills, and became really good friends with a couple of refugees. She also went on long and adventurous organized hiking journeys to faraway countries where she often was the oldest participant, but nevertheless connected with some like-minded people. During these travels she also made strong connections.

After Karel finally acknowledged he was ill and received successful treatment for his mental problems they became good friends again, maybe better friends than before. But she didn’t want to give up her newly found independence by moving in with him again.

Karel’s death a few years later caused quite a stir in the relationship with a few of her children. Accusations were made back and forth and only after many years they came on speaking terms again.

Over the years Margrit’s health also began to deteriorate. She suffered from a series of Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIA) and then a major stroke on the day she bought a ticket to visit her emigrated son Mark in Canada. That stroke paralyzed the left side of her body which turned her suddenly from a very active hiker to a wheelchair bound. She had to leave her own house, had to get rid of a lot of her art and her beloved dog.

[I was writing this story while I was sitting beside Margrit’s deathbed. After writing the previous line my mother coughed twice and then stopped breathing and died.]

She was moved into a care facility where she spent her days reading and watching television. Her paralyzed leg became very painful and she required a lot of pain medication which in turn made her very drowsy. She couldn’t concentrate on complicated tasks and only pretended to read the books her friends brought her. Her friends played along, not wanting to make her feel more miserable as she already felt.

During a heat wave she developed serious pulmonary problems which resulted in yet another hospital visit. But her body wasn’t ready yet so her heart fully recovered. She also survived a double pneumonia combined with heart problems a year later.

In December 2007 her lungs started to deteriorate and she was often out of breath. When the nursing home doctor wanted to admit her to the hospital she refused and said she was tired of hospitals. They administered pain medication and she died peacefully after a couple of days, in company of her son Mark, who was coincidentally just visiting the Netherlands.

[photo: Goedele Monnens]