Wednesday, March 28, 2012

My Father's Survivor Games--a transcribed memoir of Robert A. Doorenbos 1928-2002

As promised, I am sharing my Dutch father's memoir about his life prior to his marriage to my mother. This document was written in 1991. He passed away in August 2002 after a long battle with hereditary cholesterol disease. I've only changed the grammar and will add commentary in italics along the way. Pictures, drawings from his memory, and so on will be included throughout this journey. 

And now, without further preamble, here begins my father's story. 

An anecdotal history of me and my family. 
by Robert Alexander Doorenbos


This history starts with my birth on November 17, 1928 in Alexandria, Egypt. My father was employed by the International Commission for Harbors (a branch of the League of Nations as far as I know). He took care of the quarantine services for Suez, Port Said, and Alexandria.


No memory remains of that first house I lived in. The second house I remember vaguely. Some things I remember  more clearly. 

My father going to an audience at the palace twice a year, dressed in a tuxedo with a red fez on his head. Our car with its balloon tires for desert travel and its front springs reinforced so its hood pointed upwards. 

Our Dutch nanny, Juffrow Bos. She wasn't a big hit with us and stayed only one year. The three of us must have been little terrors as far as I remember (Dad had two older siblings, Hetty and Willem. I never met Willem. He died when he was 26 of a heart attack).

Our nanny until we went to Holland in 1937. Madam Schura was Studeten German (the German part of Czechoslovakia), a devout Catholic, and I liked her. If a piece of bread fell, she kissed it before putting it back. If she wanted to get rid of a piece of food in her hand, she threw it out of the window, crying "Fur die Katzen." (for the cats). She was popular amongst the starving half-wild cats sitting under the kitchen window. Egyptians never kills cats, but they don't care about them either.


Why I like cats is beyond me. They have scratched, bitten and chased me since I can remember. I learned the hard way not to pick up half-wild kittens at a very tender age. After being scratched by a kitten, the mother cat chased me. 

My father has always loved cats. I think part of the reason is this Nanny. But he had an interesting relationship with them from the time he was young. My brother and I also love cats. Our first cat was a half-starved old stray who'd been turned out by her owners when they got a puppy. She was pregnant and had three kittens in my parents' bed. We found homes for two of them and kept the third. My mom named him Sloppy because he slobbered when he drank and he had a little black mark dotting his white furry bib.


Going to the beach was a daily occurrence during the long Egyptian summers. I learned to swim early while playing in the shallow water and never had instructions. I still prefer swimming on my side with an inefficient, but relaxing stroke. 


We were a privileged family during the Depression years. My father had three months sabbatical every year and we had long holidays. I have vague memories of a trip to Lebanon and Syria. We visited the Great Mosque in Damascus, and stayed a few weeks in a house high in the mountains near Lebanon. We took a trip to Holland then spent four weeks in a chalet in Switzerland. I remember crossing the Mediterranean on my way to Athens. I vividly recall the Canal of Corinth and our train trip from Italy to Holland. 

Dad loved traveling and continued to find ways to explore the world throughout his life. He went to Holland many times after we immigrated to Canada, visited every western province, fished in the north and sketched his way through the tiny towns and lake villages throughout the area. He also went to Australia and rode the train all over it with my mom. Mom wasn't really the traveler Dad was, but she went along with him just the same.

He gave me a love of seeing and exploring the world. 


Alexandria was a polyglot city. Besides Arabic, the language of Egypt, there were large French, Greek, and English groups. My parents were fluent in French, Greek, German, English, Malay, and of course Dutch. My father also added a fluency of Arabic, a smattering of Greek and Italian to his repertoire. When I was six I was fluent for my age group in French (with our neighbors), German due to our Nanny, English via my Kindergarten, and Arabic via our servants. I remember having no trouble communicating with Swiss children when visited Switzerland. Dutch was my weakest language until I was sent to Holland. Then I quickly forgot most of the other languages and spoke only Dutch. My brother Wim (Willem) remained fluent in all these languages except Arabic.

Dad must have had an ear for language and dialect. I know I do, but I rarely get a chance to practice my skills. In my next post, you'll learn about his boarding school days. I still feel like those years must have been very difficult. I can't imagine sending my child away, but this was the normal thing to do back in those days. And the other thing that still boggles my mind is the wealth that once was part of my history. None of these privileges remained after the war. None were restored. Only now does my aunt receive recognition for these early years.

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