On My Mind – On My Father’s Birthday

My father would have been 92 today, the 25th of October, 2016. He has been dead for 15 years, and I continue to miss him deeply.

This memoir that I wrote appeared in The Globe and Mail four months after his death.

1941-1

Henk Slegtenhorst, 1941, Leiden, Netherlands, at the age of 17.

Henry Slegtenhorst

Barber, merchant, citizen, Opa, soft touch. Born October 25, 1924, in Leiden, the Netherlands. Died, April 11, 2001, in Ottawa, Canada, of cancer, aged 76.

            On the crossing from Rotterdam to Halifax, my father, Henry Slegtenhorst, sat for long hours on the deck of the ocean liner that in nine July days in 1952 took him at the age of 27, his wife, and their four-year-old son, from the consequences of world war to the promises of the life he wanted. With $24 to his name he had sailed away at long last from his home in the Netherlands, his culture and his language, to Canada.

            Born into a poor family, the third of five children, four of them sons, in Rembrandt’s university city of Leiden on the Old Rhine, my father left school after eight years to help the family earn its way. His best subject had been religious studies, although his academic achievement was at variance with his church attendance. He first worked as a baker’s assistant, but when his father realized that a barber would make a fraction per hour more, my father was transformed into one promptly. Like many tradesmen, he worked long hours and weeks with scarce security, and my father soon involved himself deeply in the then nascent barbers’ union. It was the same desire for fairness that led him to insist he could sit in any of the pews in the local Catholic church, especially those reserved by payment, arguing with the priests that all were equal before God, even if God didn’t exist. Ejected from the house of worship, he vowed never to attend another service; and, except for the weddings of his three sons, and the baptisms and first communions of his intensely loved granddaughter and grandson, never did.

            Naturally good at sketching and painting, he was also something of an artist until the war in which the German Army overran the Netherlands in 1940. Captured in one of the many street round-ups conducted by the Germans, he was shipped off as forced labour to a camp near Hamburg. There, in July of 1943, the RAF flew bombing raids to ignite a firestorm that burned over 20 square miles for nine days, its winds reaching 200 km per hour and temperatures 1000 degrees F. The bombings pulverized half of the city, killed 40,000 people, and left nearly a million homeless. In the confusion of this catastrophe, my father escaped, made his way south back to Holland, and subsisted in hiding in the countryside till, in 1945, the Canadian Army liberated the area around Leiden. It was a moment he never forgot and always remained grateful for. But he never forgave the Germans.

            In 1952, Louis St-Laurent was Prime Minister, Leslie Frost Premier of Ontario, and Charlotte Whitton Mayor of Ottawa. My father chose Ottawa by reasoning that if one travels to a new country it would be logical to find the best opportunities in its capital; and he never found any instance to prove his judgment had been wrong in this regard.

            He took to the language and the land quickly, soon owned a barber shop near the downtown business intersection of Bank and Somerset, and prospered. He took on extra work as a janitor, watched his family grow to three sons, and in three years was able to purchase a home in the suburbs, when the roads there still were dirt and the pond across the street still thrived. For years he gave being a merchant and entrepreneur his best shot, but ultimately came to a truce with the vagaries of lack of capital, shifting markets, a fire, and city planning; and withdrew first to deliver parcels while my mother cleaned houses, and afterwards to work as a salesman while helping my mother become a successful entrepreneur as a seamstress. And despite his troubles, he never, to my astonishment, lost his belief that essentially people were good.

            He worried incessantly, particularly about money – he had had none in Holland, almost lost it all in Canada, and regained what was needed penny by penny. And he had other idiosyncrasies. He refused to eat corn and lettuce. In Holland, in the alley to the house had been coops for chickens and rabbits, and this was the refuse these animals were fed; and so, when he arrived in Canada he disdained to eat what he termed rabbit feed. But he devoured meat, particularly chicken, with undiminishable gusto. He liked chicken so much that, in celebration of his 75th birthday, when he and my mother came to Vancouver to visit, no meal could have served better than the ordinary one we had of take-out chickens roasted on the spit at the SuperValu down the block on Davie Street.

            The end disquieted him. He was not ready to die, and feared death, and fought it. Hardly sick a day in his life, he knew for certain something was wrong after his last Christmas, when, as the French say, he no longer felt right in his skin. On the morning three days before he died, when he had not eaten in over two months nor taken any liquid for five days, and he had lost his ability to speak, my mother recounted that early that day, when the two of them had been alone together at his hospital bed, she had told him she would always miss him. The tears welled in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. It was, I think, no longer fear of death. It was that he knew then that soon he could love no more.

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