The 77-year-old Mrs. Van der V. no longer prayed. Faucets and pipes in the bathroom of her veranda house, above a branch of Vomar on Bijlmerplein in Amsterdam Southeast, are completely calcified, it looks like a stalactite cave here.
She made do in the kitchen with a sink and a washcloth, carefully maneuvering between the caked microwave, which still contains the last of her moldy takeaways, and a pile of dirty dishes. The house smells musty, the poison of fresh air did not enter here.
Mrs. Van der V. wanted to clean, but that was not the problem. From the meager pension she bought a load of napkins, brushes and cleaning products; in the house with unpainted walls, the discount packages accumulate. It never happened because she was too busy with her puzzles, Mrs. Van der V. was completely obsessed with it. They should be difficult puzzles, preferably with extra corner pieces.
She placed the puzzles among the mouse droppings on the bare floor. To spare her bony knees, she sat on a rubber mat. In the corner of the living room there is a broken TV on a cabinet, the armchair opposite is a container for unopened mail.
No one could see her. The faded blinds on the windows in the living room—right next to the central front door where other portico dwellers come and go—were closed day and night. She had no phone, the clock hadn’t worked for a while.
One of the puzzles she worked on was a reproduction of the painting Suburbs of a paranoid critical city (1935) by Salvador Dali. This surrealist canvas shows Dalí’s wife Gala, under a hallucinatory cloud cover and surrounded by structures and objects in strange perspectives.
Because of the similarities Dalí made between the objects – the grapes in Gala’s hand have exactly the same contours as the galloping horse and there are similarities in shape between the girl jumping rope and a swinging tower clock – it was a very difficult puzzle, that Mrs. Van der V … would never complete.
During the evening, when she couldn’t quite make out the pieces of the puzzle in the light of the dim light from the ceiling, she stumbled into the guest room, darkened with rags and old clothes, where she slept under a coarse blanket.
I spoke to an upstairs neighbor of Mrs. Van der V., the only one in the porch who would open the door; only a little, because her three rambunctious lap dogs would otherwise escape.
‘We as residents can’t really tell anything about her, at least I can’t,’ said the upstairs neighbor dressed in a floral dressing gown. “We used to say hello to each other, but that stopped at a certain point because she was mumbling to herself.”
The residents of the eight residences in this portico are nevertheless very private, according to the neighbor upstairs. ‘And then I’m very social because most people don’t even say hello to each other.’ She sometimes chats with the man who lives on top. He was the one who called the police because, as he passed, he had noticed what appeared to be a cute carcass tank coming from Mrs. Van der V’s house.
The upstairs neighbor hadn’t noticed the stench. ‘All kinds of cultures live here, all making their own dishes.’ Therefore, according to her, it often smells strange in the hallway. She herself had the idea that Mrs Van der V. was on holiday. ‘Because there was so much mail in her mailbox too.’ She thinks it’s quite sad that no one will attend the funeral. ‘The world is rotten. On the other hand, what can you do about it?’
The police forced the front door, Mrs. Van der V. was lying next to the bed with the rough blanket, in a rather advanced state of decomposition. No signs of violence, investigators found.
Watched by curious local residents, the stretcher with the body packed in a bag was loaded into a blinded van and taken to the forensic laboratory in the mortuary of the VU Medical Center on Amsterdam Zuidas.
A natural death, pathologists concluded. Presumably she became uncomfortable in her sleep and slipped off the mattress. She didn’t seem to be in pain, her body was quite relaxed, not tight.
The teeth were devastating, but with the help of data provided by her former dentist, it was later determined that Mrs. Van der V. was indeed Mrs. Van der V.. She looked nothing like the photo in the passport found in the house.
The conditions in the house indicated a life of deep solitude, it seemed as if Mrs. Van der V. had always been alone, one of those recluses who move invisibly through society.
However, when consulting the database of personal records, which contains data on all Dutch citizens, it was found that Mrs Van der V. had a daughter and a son, both still alive. An older sister also lived near Zwolle.
The daughter had emigrated to Tasmania years ago. Thanks to modern means of communication, the news of her mother’s death reached her raft. On the phone, she told us that it was not for nothing that she had traveled to the other side of the world. “The further away from my childhood the better,” she declared.
The church had to arrange the funeral, she didn’t want that. The daughter had no intention of coming to the Netherlands for the ceremony either. Her husband was ill and they also had little to spend.
Mrs. Van der V.’s much older sister lives in a nursing home. A nurse informed that as a result of Alzheimer’s there have been deep gaps in the memory of Mrs. She vaguely remembered a relative in Bijlmer, the nurses said they had not seen each other for over thirty years.
Mrs. Van der V’s son lives in Enschede. Like his sister, he reacted passively when informed of his mother’s death by Team Uitvaarten from the municipality of Amsterdam. He too refused to arrange or even attend the funeral. Unlike his sister, the son was willing to tell me about his mother. He also hoped this would explain his indifference about her passing.
Mrs Van der V’s parents were traders in Ommen. They already had older children, it wasn’t meant to be another one. It happened in 1944 anyway.
The merchant barely made a living because of the war. In order not to have to feed another mouth, the parents decided to give up the girl, who they thought was not quite well. Mrs. Van der V. grew up in a convent near Zwolle.
The nuns had little patience with her. “They gave her quite a beating both physically and verbally,” says the son. As a grown woman, his later mother would have left the convent traumatized.
She visited her parents in Ommen, who slammed the door in her face and ignited in a frenzy in the street in front of the house. The sister, who now struggles with gaps in her memory, took care of her.
Mrs. Van der V. lived with her sister until she met Mr. De K., a bon vivant from Amsterdam who ran shady deals. She had never been in love before, these unknown feelings of happiness blinded her. Despite protests from the sister, who had doubts about De K., Mrs. Van der V. moved in with him. In Amsterdam Bijlmermeer he rented a house in a brand new apartment.
According to the son, his mother was a dependent, rather happy woman. His sister, who now lives in Tasmania, was born in 1969. Mrs Van der V. treated the child like a living doll. “She thought of her as a little sister, she spent all day playing with her.”
The relationship with her son, born in 1972, developed in the opposite direction. “She neglected me because she wanted to be alone all day with her so-called sister.” In her experience, he disrupted their close bond.
It then emerged that Mr. De K. sexually abused not only an underage girl from a neighboring Bijlmer apartment, but also his own daughter. He was convicted and imprisoned.
Mrs. Van der V. was divorced from her husband and she found shelter elsewhere in Bijlmer with the children. The son remembers her bullying and kicking and punching. Her father’s misdeed revealed a man-hatred in her.
She indicated to aid organizations that she was unable to cope with the upbringing, the son was eight when he ended up in Burgerweeshuis. “She was glad she got rid of me.” He was placed in foster care, then in a boarding school.
When he contacted his mother around the age of 15, Mrs Van der V. let him know by letter that she wanted nothing to do with him. “So she basically repeated what her parents had done to her.”
The son experimented with drugs, resulting in a persistent addiction, which he only overcame in France, where he worked for years as a landscape gardener. Back in Holland, he went in search of his father, who turned out to be living in an attic in Amsterdam-West and had become addicted to alcohol. It was not a pleasant confrontation. ‘He died shortly after, I didn’t go to the funeral.’
His sister had meanwhile gone to Tasmania, she did not reply to letters he sent. To come to terms with his past, he also decided to track down his mother and confront him about his discomfort.
It was twenty-five years ago that Mrs. Van der V. now lived on Bijlmerplein. The clock didn’t work, the son knocked on the window. Because Ms. Van der V. was receiving benefits and people kept trying to help her find work against her will, she thought the person at the door was an inspector for some agency.
When another resident came out through the central front door, he slipped in and knocked on the front door. The door opened, Mrs. Van der V. did not recognize him. “I said: I am your son.” Mrs. Van der V. did not flinch. The door closed, he screamed until the police arrived.
In the auditorium of the Sint Barbara cemetery, I have played music by Barbara Streisand, according to the son, Mrs. Van der V. liked it. When Barbara Streisand came home from school, he knew she was in a good mood, and the day passed more pleasantly than usual.
There you lay, just like that, silent and unseen,
with a stack of puzzles in your closet:
five hundred, one thousand, fifteen hundred pieces.
Were they beautiful, your castles in the air
among mouse droppings on the floor,
at dusk from closed blinds?
And then your puzzle of memories:
unwelcome child, cast out, nuns,
your parents and their slammed door,
your daughter like a doll to play with,
your husband, his abuse of your child, your hatred,
your son, banished from your life
as you were once banished.
A puzzle, big, inexplicable.
Sometimes you played music about love
and dear was your doll, a sister, you thought.
Only two puzzle pieces.
Jos Versteegen wrote this poem especially for the deceased and read it at the funeral.