The exact date of the funeral escapes me. I was barely eight years old and couldn’t quite comprehend what had happened. I held my father’s hand. He didn’t cry, or he didn’t cry when I could see him. I am sure he did at night, after the lights were out. When I couldn’t see him.
Three coffins lay there, ready to be lowered into the ground. One the size of my mom, two smaller, one for my twin sister and finally, a smaller one for little Tessa. She turned five last November. My father held my hand and wouldn’t let go. Like he had held Tessa’s that night, only to lose the grip. Many years later, as he lay dying, he cried. Cried because he thought he should have been stronger that night. Cried because he should have done a bit more to save her.
Saturday 31st of January 1953 had been like any other. A storm was brewing, not unusual for this time of year. The dark clouds in the sky looked impressive, and we laughed about getting soaked if the rain came. Old Jan, our neighbour, was cheerful as he handed me the sack of potatoes my father had asked for. It was heavy and my bike was unstable in the wind as I rode across the dike, but it was nothing I wasn’t used to. The waves were crashing against the dike, and sometimes I could taste salt. Father had told me to be home quickly. The storm was getting worse.
My sisters were playing by the house as I arrived, and I immediately joined them. Tessa loved hide and seek, and especially if we shouted “boo” and ran away when she found us. She would do her best to catch us, and sometimes we let her.
The potatoes cooked, and our mom stamped them with kale. The smell of sausages escaped the house and as they called us, we went inside. We ate in silence, with the radio turned on.
“A heavy storm is raging above the northern and western part of the North Sea and is spreading eastwards. The storm is expected to last all night. Rotterdam, Willemstad and Bergen op Zoom have been warned of an unusually high tide.”
My father seemed worried, and my mother was eager to get us to bed as soon as possible. We we were all in bed by eight that night.
I didn’t sleep well. It was pitch dark as I woke up to the noise. The storm was tearing at our house and I feared the roof would come off. I tried to go back to sleep. A door was slamming outside, probably the stables. The cows couldn’t sleep if it wasn’t secured, I thought to myself.
I got out of bed and went downstairs, found my father’s kerosene lamp and lit it. The orange glow revealed the rain as it streamed like waterfalls down the windows. I put on my boots and opened the front door. The wind immediately pulled it out of my hand. I stepped out into the storm, the rain like icy bullets on my face. The wind blew the lamp out and I was in darkness again.
Struggling through the storm, I got to the stables. It was so dark I couldn’t see much, but I heard the cows pulling at their chains. They were scared. I went inside and stroked them for a while. I think it calmed them a bit. ‘What are you doing here,’ my father said? I turned and saw him standing in the doorway. ‘Go inside, try to get some sleep.’ He stroked my head and kissed me on the cheek. ‘Tomorrow, this will all be over.’
He was right. I should go to bed. I went outside and closed the door behind me. I should try to sleep, I thought, but I really wanted to see what the storm looked like up on the dike. I looked back at the stables and saw my father through the window. He was attending the cow and couldn’t see me through the window, so I climbed the steep slope behind our house. As I came up to the top of the dike and onto the path I’d biked, I could hardly stand. A gust swept me off my feet and a wave washed over me. I was soaking wet, the taste of salt in my mouth and my eyes hurt. I tried to stand up, but I couldn’t. Another wave washed over me and I felt the ground under me crumble. The dike that protected us, everything we owned, seemed to turn into sand. I frantically crawled away and towards a distant light. The only thing that allowed me to see anything, the lighthouse we sometimes biked to. It was far away and I wouldn’t be able to reach it, but I had to get away as the ground crumbled beneath me. The wind tore at me and the waves crashed over the dike.
As I crawled, the ground gave way behind me. I got up on my feet and ran along the dike, hunched, or the wind would have taken me away. The sea rushed down into the yard and engulfed the house. In the near darkness, I saw my father run, windows break and the water reach the upper floor. I cried for papa, but he couldn’t hear me. There were screams. A light came on, but an instant later, everything was dark. I heard their voices through the storm, heard my father calling our names, Tessa’s, mine, my twin sister’s. I heard my mom calling our names. I wanted to go to the house, but there was a streaming ocean between us. The ground became soft under me and I frantically crawled further. Until I couldn’t hear their voices anymore.
The 1953 North Sea flood was the worst natural disaster in the Netherlands in the 20th century. The storm surge struck the Netherlands, north-west Belgium, England and Scotland in the night of 31 January and 1 February 1953.
In the Netherlands, 1,836 people lost their life, 307 in England, 28 in Belgium and 19 in Scotland. 230 people drowned at sea as boats, shipping vessels and ferries sank.
This story is fiction and not based on specific people, but it is typical for what would have happened and did happen that night. I dedicate it to all that lost their lives and their loved ones that survived and had to rebuild their lives after this disaster.
This story is the fourth installment in the Moments series.