Friday, May 1, 2009


by Ben Robicheau ~

Towards the end of World War II, during the winter of 1944-45, the Allied Forces worked their way through The Netherlands, pushing the German Army back across the border and liberating Dutch cities, towns and villages. One of the hardest fought battles was carried on in and around the city of Nijmegen, in eastern Holland near the Dutch-German border, where a strategically placed bridge across the Waal River was of vital importance to both the retreating German Army and the advancing Allies. When the bombing ended and the people of Nijmegen were finally freed from the Nazi occupation they had been living under since the beginning of the war, they did what they could to thank the soldiers that had risked so much.
One night a dance was arranged for the Troops, and a local girl, Marie Verburgh, wanted to go. Unfortunately, her mother knew that Canadian soldiers would be at this dance, and some British soldiers who had been recently billeted in her home had warned her that the Canadians were all crude, rowdy backwoodsmen who didn’t know how to behave properly and she shouldn’t let her daughters anywhere near them. Marie insisted on attending the dance and it was finally agreed that she could go only if she took one of her sisters along, the assumption being that there was safety in numbers. After some intense persuading, her sister Riekie reluctantly agreed to accompany her as long as she didn’t have to actually dance with anyone.
While Marie danced the evening away, Riekie tried to fade into the background, turning down several offers to dance. The evening was almost over when she was approached once again, this time by a tall, dark and handsome Canadian with a dashing little moustache. This time she said yes and the couple just had time for a waltz or two around the floor before the evening ended. That was how my mother met my father.
Over the following weeks and months there were many visits to the Verburgh home at 43 Dobbelmannweg. My Grandmother quickly discovered that Canadians were much more civilised than the Brits had made out and the soldier from the dance, soon known to all as “Robbie” was welcomed into their home. Things progressed quite nicely and, in March of 1946, a wedding was held at the little church around the corner. Even though the war in Europe was now over, times were still very tough in Holland; basic necessities were scarce, and luxuries were non-existent, still, a lovely service was arranged with the groom looking sharp in his uniform and the bride beautiful in a dress put together by her sisters and wedding slippers salvaged from a bombed-out shoe factory. After the ceremony the happy couple drove off in their bridal carriage, an Army Jeep.
When the war ended, Dad had volunteered for the Occupation Army so he could remain in Europe, but a couple of months after the wedding he received word that he was going to have to leave his new bride behind because his duties had ended and he was being sent home. By June he was back in Nova Scotia. In August The Queen Mary arrived at Pier 21 carrying hundreds of War Brides from Holland, England, France, Belgium and several other countries. Mom had left all her family behind in a war-torn land and come by herself to a new country to start a new life with someone she had known for a relatively short time under less than ideal circumstances.
As someone who had grown up in a large city, she found Halifax a bit small, but thought if this was what Canada was like, she could live here. The next morning they started out for Westport. She was surprised as they travelled along that there were no more cities, only small towns and villages and lots of trees. The farms and fields of the Valley reminded her a bit of the agricultural area around Nijmegen, but by the time they were starting down Digby Neck she was beginning to wonder if maybe she had made a mistake. Then the fog set in. When they drove onto the ferry to cross Grand Passage, she thought she had reached the end of the world, not sure if she believed her new husband that there really was an island over there.
If she thought Halifax was small, Westport in 1946 must have been a real shocker. Many of the women who had come over on the ship with her had similar experiences, some coming from cities like London or Paris to join their new husband on his “farm” or “ranch” only to find themselves living among the blackflies in a primitive log cabin in Northern Ontario or in a sod hut miles from their nearest neighbour on the Prairies. Some of these women took one look, turned around and headed back to where they had come from. Most, like my mother, put their trust in the man they had married and decided to make a go of it.
Things must have been difficult at first; for one thing, although they had been married almost half a year, this was their first chance to really get to know each other. Mom was an ocean away from her family, in an environment quite different from what she was used to, she didn’t speak the language and could understand very little of what was said. She had to get used to being a wife and at the same time learn to deal with unfamiliar customs and products. On one occasion Dad came home for supper to find Mom sitting in the kitchen crying. She said she had tried to make a nice meal for him, but as hard as she had tried, she just couldn’t beat the lumps out of the tapioca pudding.
Except for the problems with pudding, things must have worked out all right because within a couple of years a tradition was started at the Robicheau household, one that would become a more-or-less regular event. A baby was born, the first of many as it was to turn out, all born at home except for one. When my mother was expecting Ruth Ellen, the Doctor in Freeport knew he was going to be away so he advised her to go stay with her parents, who by now were living in Saint John, N.B. He thought having easy access to a hospital might be a good idea since it was the middle of winter and the trip to Digby over frozen dirt roads might be too hard on a pregnant woman. My Grandparents lived at the bottom of a steep hill on a dead-end road along the Saint John River. Ruth Ellen announced she was arriving just after midnight in the middle of a freezing rain storm. When the taxi arrived to take my parents to the hospital, it came down the hill with no problem, but was unable to get back up. Meanwhile, Ruth Ellen was getting more insistent and finally the taxi driver, after several failed attempts to get back up the slippery hill, called another cab and told him to stay on the other side of the hill, he then drove up as far as he could. My parents got out of the cab and, to avoid falling on the ice, made their way over the hill to the other taxi on their hands and knees. My mother says that as she crawled up the icy hill, stopping every few feet to have a contraction and sliding her suitcase full of maternity supplies along in front of her, it occurred to her that, all things considered, she might have been better off staying home.
Eventually Mom’s experience with babies grew to the extent that she was considered by people on the Island to be a bit of an expert on the subject. She advised mothers-to-be on how to prepare for their new arrival and even assisted with some of the deliveries. The doctor would call and let her know when he was leaving for someone’s house and she would meet him there. There were a few times when Mom and the baby both arrived before the doctor did. Several people walking around the Island today were helped into the world by my Mother.
A long time ago a young Dutch girl accepted an offer to dance from a soldier. Now they’ve been married for over sixty-three years, she’s Mother to nine kids, Oma to a dozen more and Great-Oma to several more.
The things that can happen when you agree to a waltz!
Happy Mother’s Day Mom.


Jeff B. said...

Beautiful, Ben.
Thanks for posting this.

nsharleygirl said...

Thank you. I loved reading the history of how your parents met and came to be here. I met your mom and dad many a times when I visited your parents store and the island. To this day I still make regular visits and stay upstairs.