March 8, 2024 5:51 pm

Esther de Charon de Saint Germain

A Tribute to my Grandmother and why sharing stories unite us

March 8, 2024

For all the women out there, past and present who are changing the world, not because of their fame, influence or wealth but because of who they are to other people.

Lately, I have been trying to find out more about my Omeli: Josepha Erb, my mother's mother. But somehow that amazing woman manages to remains an enigma. I'm a historian with an AuDHD brain, so when I research something, I go all-in. But instead of clarity the veils of mystery only seems to thicken. Dates and names never seem to add up, unexpected people appear. . .  

It's all very intriguing.

So far the main outcome of my research has been a bunch of amazing photos of my grandmother that I had never seen before.

But above all - in every piece of information, date, or photo - , there is this fiercely independent woman. A woman with a heart as large as the universe, who called me ‘mijn Zonnetje’ (my little sunshine) and who probably has been the most important woman in my life. 

My grandmother is the second girl left at the second row. Most likely this is not the teacher with the infamous ruler. 

My grandmother grew up in Winterthur, Switzerland.

Born in 1913 - in a time when most people never left their village or Kanton - this barely 18-year-old girl travelled to The Netherlands to work for an upper class family

Her upbringing was loving and religious, following the rules of Huldrych Zwingli. “A major figure in the Swiss Reformation, advocating for the authority of scripture and the rejection of religious practices not supported by the Bible.” 

I’m sharing this because it’s important for later.

My grandmother had severe dyslexia. In those days also known as being stupid, lazy, and disobedient, and “let me whack the mistakes out of you”.

She feared the teacher’s ruler. For every mistake she made she had to do the walk of shame to the front of the class, holding up both hands, palms upward, her sweet little face in fearful anticipation and received her punishment.

Omeli loved playing games, we spent entire days playing backgammon - she was not into giving away the win just because you were a child. But she refused to play word games because she was done with being punished for making mistakes.

My grandmother as the governess  (probably in The Hague somewhere in 1934)

Anyways, when she left Switzerland Josepha Erb only spoke Swiss-German, yet managed to teach herself fluent Dutch. 

Having a governess from Switzerland was the Thing To Do for the upper class. So this young girl from a very religious and modest Swiss upbringing suddenly found herself surrounded by the Dutch nobility, including the Royal family. (yes. I’ve got stories to tell :-) 

My grandparents on two very vague photos

Josepha met a man who already had two daughters, they got together and Josepha Erb became Josepha Haaksma.

During and after the Second World War two more daughters were welcomed into the family.

Things had happened during the war.

But I don't know exactly what.

My grandmother has told me everything: about her youth, working for wealthy families and about the war.

Breakfast was our 'story time'. We were sitting in the kitchen - just she and I - at the dark oak table with the sturdy wooden blue benches. A black coal stove with a tiny mica window in its belly in the corner.

(pulling off tiny layers of the mica was a favorite pastime of mine, I Googled it: mica is okay.)

My grandfather had designed and built everything in the kitchen. The kitchen cabinets and benches were painted in a powdery light blue color.

To this day light blue is a 'warm' color to me.

Probably also because Omeli was sitting at the end of the table, wearing her light-blue bathrobe - pouring endless amounts of tea in her teacup decorated with small light-blue flowers. I was in PJs and just listened and watched her going through all the emotions.

Like watching a movie for grownups. 

I guess she figured: " I can say whatever I want: my secrets are safe with her. Children forget everything".

That is why - until today - fragments of stories without start or finish are swimming around in my brain. The fun stories about kissing my grandfather in the middle of the street, while not being married, unimaginable in the 1930's. Going to nightlife venues that made her gasp. A prince who was trying to seduce every young female servant in the household.

And the far from fun stories. About the Razzias, the Jewish family hiding in a tiny space in the house, mid-nightly escapes and the unmentionable things that can happen to a young woman.

My grandmother in Switzerland. Check out the dress and walking boots: I love that combination.

There is one thing that baffles me. In those first years of the war my grandmother could have returned to the safety of Switzerland.

She worked in Switzerland when the war started and instead of staying put, she came back to the Netherlands. She choose to stay with a man with a complicated past and his two daughters. She must have loved them so much.

My grandmother's German accent most likely made her an outcast in the Netherlands. But she used her language skills. For instance when she needed to stall German soldiers from entering her house so that whoever was on a German List could escape.

Josepha Haaksma had figured out a foolproof system that saved lives

When - often in the very early morning-  the banging on the wooden front door started and the yelling: "Aufmachen" echoed through the streets my grandmother was more than ready.

She told me: "Your grandfather jumped out of the back window, on the roof and disappeared into the small gate next to the house. 

I picked up your mother and put her next to me in bed. When those 'rot moffen' (nasty krauts) entered my bedroom they always felt first if the other side of the bed was still warm. But with your mother there they stopped searching".

Next, she opened wall panels and floorboards for the people who were hiding and ran back to the sleeping room to open the windows. She let her blond hair fall down and opened her bathrobe so that her cleavage was on display.  She once showed me how she created the ultimate distraction cleavage that probably saved lives.

She then put on her 'I'm just a girl' face, and called downstairs in her best Hochdeutsch: "Gutemorgen meine Herren, Wie kann ich Ihnen helfen, bitte?"

Now, my grandmother lived in the center of The Hague, on the second floor of a - extremely cold and drafty canal house. Her voice and her German words, right after the banging on the door, must have been heard by everyone and I can only imagine what they thought.

My grandmother as a governess (left) and with my mother (right)

Even though my grandfather was a larger-than-life figure, my grandmother was still a shy young woman

She harboured her many -  unraveled - secrets and deep feelings of shame, being stupid, ugly, fat, and never belonging. She was the perpetual outsider who was never enough.

Maybe sharing the 'aufmachen'  story - from start to finish - helped her to self-acknowledge her 'badass' side and her quick-thinking action powers. 

But there were also the other stories

The stories about escaping from a Lebensborn house in Germany, where women's bodies were used to co-create perfect German babies with blond hair and blue eyes. 

All I remember from that story is hearing her repeat the sentence: "Du solsst dem Führer ein Kind schenken". She also shared how she escaped the Lebensborn house. Helped by a friend - in full action movie style - by running through the gates just when the guards clicked their boots and turned to  both walk into the opposite direction. 

And then there were the stories without escape, where there was just misery and pain.

What I felt was never the  'Look what I have done' Victory emotions.

What I felt was a mixture of anger, resentment, fear, deep grief, and unresolved trauma.

Years later she told me that she had many stories to tell but only shared parts of it. She said: "Only once I have told it all to someone and it made him cry, so I vowed to never tell the full story to anyone."

Maybe she remembered our breakfast mornings, but she had wiped away the memory about telling me the stories.

My grandfather (whom I have never met) was a carpenter, contractor, architect, and a whole bunch of other things - he might have been very multi-passionate.

His workplace and office were located in the adjacent house both facing the canal.  (My mother once almost drove our over-packed Volkswagen bus in the canal - with me sitting behind her - my grandmother's face, seeing it happening: wide open eyes and a hand in front of her mouth were the tell-all. But that's another story.)

The canal. Our house was at the left (behind the column) 

To me those two houses were huge.

 It was like a maze with loads of 'kruip-door-sluip-door' doors that let to rooms in the 'other' house.

There were endless hallways and stairways. When it stormed all the windows had the be secured with blankets and big wooden crosses. And when the weather truly went bad everyone had to lean into the windows to keep them from imploding

The hallways were riddled with ghosts and monsters - of course -  so when it was dark I did whatever it took to stall going to the toilet. At the very last moment, I had to run through the dark hallway, frantically waving my arms to scare away the ghosts.

There were endless stairways.  I have fallen down each of them. Multiple times. With a tricycle, or all my toys in my arms. I can't remember ever seeing someone running in to save me. I just got up and carried on. 

Then there was one room that everyone referred to as 'het hok' The Cage.

Just to make it more kid-friendly. 

Het Hok - The Cage - was a huge scary-ass dark space (that most likely was just a tiny room).

It had been the place where people had been hiding during the war. It also connected the living space with the working space. There was an oval painting of man with blond hair and blue eyes that everyone referred to as Opa (grandfather).  But nobody knew whose grandfather.

Small part of one of my grandfather's Gezinskaarten. This was how the City of The Hague registered who was living where.

Okay, back to my grandfather.

In the past weeks I have found out that he had a huge family.  Brothers, sisters, mother, stepmothers,  people I have never heard about. Many had  - like my grandfather -  multiple weddings and multiple divorces. Pretty unusual in those days. Even more because they were Roman Catholic.

Now that I have learned a thing or two about him I can see his background was pretty messy. Even though his parents were still alive, he was sent away to Groenestein -  a notorious Children's Home from hell, run by the Nuns from hell.

It feels like he was trying to escape his past. I guess he wanted to give his family a new and better future.

Until his body stopped at age 50. My grandmother was left behind with no income and 4 children.

And that was when she truly became the resourceful woman I knew.

There was no family she could rely on. There was no place for mothers in the workforce, her youngest daughter was 9 years old. So my Omeli rented out parts of the old workplace of her late husband and studied podiatry.

Remember?  She was severely dyslexic - even though she didn't know that was even a thing. She had been told that she was stupid, she was grieving, her body blew up, and that caused her to dislike her body even more.

There was no time, no money, no opportunity to  'Grow a Positive Mindset'. No Business Coaching.  No Marketing Course.

She opened her own practice in the old office space of her late husband next to her own house (yes, on the other side of 'The Cage')

And that was how my grandmother - without any support - built a flourishing practice. Not by choice but because she had to take care of her family and herself.

My father and my grandmother 

Before my father married my mother, he was my grandmother’s tenant.

My father lived on the ground floor where he and his colleague friend rented two small rooms.

My father and grandmother had an unlikely friendship before they became family. They were both outsiders. Both had gone through hell during the war and were not prepared to tell anything. They knew that they could trust each other. They were kindred spirits.

My father was a 29-year-old man, born and raised in Indonesia with thick black hair and brown skin.
My mother was a 17-year old girl, learning to become a professional child carer. A girl with deep feelings who still mourned the unexpected loss of her father.

This 17-year old girl was both deeply annoyed and very intrigued with 'Rudi de Charon de Saint Germain' from downstairs. She kept walking to his part of the house - through the "The Cage" down the stairs. Knocking on his door with every excuse she could find.

But Rudi didn't do anything. 

My mother complained about the tenant to my grandmother: "Why is he never reacting? He just says: "Thank you and goodbye, that's all."

And my grandmother famously answered: "If you are that annoyed with him go downstairs and ask him out. It's a Leap Year and in a Leap Year girls are allowed to invite the boys."

So she did and the rest is history. When they married two years later, they moved to the first floor of the house. 

When I was born my mother was 19 years old but my grandmother was there all the way, working in her own practice, helping to raise me and later my brother.  

Just married: my parents 

But before my parents got married one of Omeli's podiatry customers expressed her concerns and worries about this unlikely match.

She advised my grandmother to prevent her beautiful young vulnerable white daughter from marrying this brown man from a different country. Nothing good could come of it. Each should stick to their own. 

My grandmother could have let it slip - like most people would - but that was just not who she was. 

Omeli was a single mother, money was tight. She depended on clients via word of mouth. Disgruntled clients could destroy her business. No Facebook, fancy network groups or website reviews.

But she told her client to find herself another podiatrist and to never come back.

The special relationship between my father and his mother-in-law remained strong. I think that he was the only one who knew the full truth. 

My father and grandmother having the giggles (check out my tiny swiss dirndl)  

My father, grandmother and I, a Swiss/English cousin (left) and my aunt (right)

When I was 6 years old my parents, little brother, and I moved out of the house that we shared with my grandmother and her youngest daughter.

We left the maze of stairways and drafty halls for a boring house in a boring suburban village, where all the husbands worked at the European Space Agency,  Leiden University, Shell or Esso and most of the women stayed at home.

I was not happy. I missed the sounds of the city, the reflection of the canal on the ceiling, but most of all, I dearly missed my omeli.

That was why I - from age 7 on - took the bus to The Hague to stay with Omeli during holidays and weekends. My mother got me in the bus, it was a 60 minutes drive, the bus made me sick. But my mother gave me a couple of peppermints, a wet washcloth, something to vomit in, and off I went.

Somehow my oma's presence influenced my health and happiness.
When I was sick and Omeli couldn't come over and sit next to me, my mother placed a portrait of my grandmother next to me to speed up the healing. Really, it worked miracles, every time.

My father, grandmother, nephew, little brother and I - somewhere on the road

Though my grandmother was completely reliable, she was far from predictable.

She once gave the most points for The Best Drawing to someone else but me! What? Surely those point should go to me? I'm your little Sunshine! Imagine the shock and horror :-) 

She never ceased to amaze me with her completely independent views and choices. On one side there was her unique ability to make 'normal things' special. Or to cook very non-Dutch meals like Tongue of Veal (yep - the entire tongue on the table, skin and all) or tripe (yes, that's the stomach) for the entire family (no, there was no child menu) and making it feel like that tiny kitchen was a palace.

On the other side, there were the very thinly veiled layer of shame, sadness, grief, and trauma.  The tears about the country she had left behind, and how much she missed 'her' mountain the Säntis.

She listened to Swiss music with me on her lap and cried. I could feel her entire body stiffening with pain and just let it happen. I surrendered to any feeling of uneasiness, opened my heart and  made space for her to cry.

* It was something that my father - many years later when he was severely ill with Parkinson's - used to do as well. I think that almost everyone who have been taking care of someone they truly love will recognize this.
When I said goodbye to him there was often the unspoken question: "Can I please have your energy?".
 * What can you do?  
You just surrender and give it all away. Leaving an surprisingly energized person behind and driving home drinking Coca Cola with all the windows open to stay awake.

But when I  didn't have to be escorted back to the bus anymore and left Omeli after a visit . . .

she stood there waving at me at the top of those endless stairs. So very, very alone. And I felt so very, very guilty for not being able anymore to take away the pain.

I guess that she was completely oblivious of how I felt. Her pain was hidden under so many layers that it had become a dull ache . It was just there and I knew better than to ask why she felt so sad.

On the other side, there was this woman who solo traveled to Spain to stay with her youngest daughter and family

Celebrating Independence Day 1 August in Switzerland with the family

There were family holidays in Switzerland, long walks in the mountains, picnics on beautiful meadows with fresh water streams. Random blankets, with people eating fresh brotchen and drinking from glass bottles - all carried over the mountain, in a bright orange backpack, by my father. There were children running around and my grandmother was the central figure.

Omeli had a unique connection with all her grandchildren
She had a beautiful tea table - designed and created by my grandfather - with a dedicated fine china teacup for each grandchild. Drinking tea with Omeli was 'a thing'. With engaged and civilized conversation about small things. There was no place for cursing, rudeness, or bad manners.

She loved to dress to the nines with beautiful hats,  made simple things into an art form and kept working until it became too much. 

When I told her how intrigued I was by what I had learned at school about the life and teachings of the Buddha, she said: "If I hadn't been raised like a protestant I would have chosen to become a Buddhist" This was the woman who had been raised according to the strict rules of Zwingli and rowed with my parents who didn't go church anymore and had welcomed the Anthroposophy  in every part of their life.

And also: seriously? I had never seen her read a book about Buddhism (and no Internet) How did she know?

Or - out of the blue - she shared how happy she was that women had access to abortion. I can now see how progressive that was.

 When I told her - years later - that I might have messed up, because I had two boyfriends at the same time and didn't know what to do, who to choose and the guilt of hurting someone I deeply cared for was eating me alive, she said something like:

 "Young people nowadays have a lot going on. Just enjoy it. You deserve to have more fun. You're too young to choose one person"

Spoken by the same person who masterminded my parents relationship.

Celebrating Omeli's 80's birthday. My father's 60's birthday and my 30's birthday

Omeli had this annoying ability to sense when I had broken a rule.

There were a couple of clear rules.

1. Don't open the top drawer in the cabinet.
2. Don't open my handbag.
3. Don't take anything without asking.

I had taken candy - without asking. I just couldn't resist. It was burning in my pocket - and on my way sneaking out I found my Omeli. Blocking my exit.

She asked: "Is there something you want to tell me?" So I had to confess my crime and was send back to return the bloody candy.  

When I returned to the kitchen she still stood there and asked: "Anything you want to ask me?"

Oh dear. . . .

 "Can I please have a candy, omeli?", and she answered: "Of course you can have a candy, it's on the table next to my chair."  

She had installed an unwavering Stealing is Bad moral in me.

Everyone around me stole. Licorice at the drugstore or milk from the milk car (just to show they could). At Art School my friends left the store with paint and brushes in their pockets.

But not me: Stealing is Bad!

However, my friends urged me break the rules. Stealing was part of growing up. It felt so good. 

Or so they said.

So I received some ' How to steal without getting caught ' coaching and stole a plastic black and white bag at the Hema (sorry Hema)

Total worth around: € 3 Euros. 

The first thing I did was calling my Stealing is Bad grandmother. I told her that I had stolen my first ever thing. I explained how I had done it, that breaking the rules was thrilling and scary at the same time. That I felt wild and alive. It was not a confession. I just really wanted her to know how it had felt.

Her reply: "I'm happy you have had that experience. So I guess now you know." 

Till this day, that plastic bag in the Hema is the only thing I have ever stolen.

So that was my Omeli, grandmother of 9 grandchildren, keeper of many secrets, and a heart as large as the universe.

When she passed away my father didn't allow us to just run off after the funeral. He saw a family that had partially fallen apart as a result of all those untold stories, the shame, grudges, and the inability to accept the life choices of the people they loved.  

He made us all sit in a large circle and share one memory.

It was a circle of family, friends - that might as well have been family. There was a mother and her son who loved each other but hadn't spoken for years. There were sisters with a complicated relationship.

The memories we shared were not the material that make epic movies or books. We each shared our tiny 'Omeli and I' story.  

She had touched us all differently. 

And during that hour - when we shared our fondest memories - it felt like we were connected in the love that we had received from Josepha Haaksma-Erb.

X Esther 

About the Author

Esther de Charon de Saint Germain, Branding Queen, Marketing Strategy Miracle Extraordinair, Energy shifter, founder of the Wonderfully Weird World, bestselling author, and Whisperer of Souls also bestselling author, Abe's mother, Rik's wife, and the servant of Marie and Leeloo (yes, cats)

Oh, she can also channel information from Source, so that you can tap into the wisdom of spirit guides.

Esther is the founder of the Wonderfully Weird movement that transforms, inspires, and supports women entrepreneurs to build a business and brand based on self-love and self-acceptance and become their authentic selves.

You can work with Esther in the The Real You and if you want to honor you Wonderfully Weirdness and get 10 clients each month with emotional heart based marketing (that doesn't suck at all. Or work with her in person - limited availability - Take the Quiz for your best solution

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