Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of a long essay was written by Niel Slykerman in June 1985 which was found by Maria Slykerman in October 2015. Niel was president of Campaign Life Coalition Manitoba and passed away in 2000.
To a large degree the way people turn out as individuals in society is related to their background. My background includes being raised in a large family. Being the second oldest from a family of 10, I feel in a position to make some pertinent comments on large families as they relate to my own experiences.
I am 50 years old, and of Dutch descent. I came to Canada in 1958, leaving my parents, seven brothers, and two sisters, to make a life of my own. My wife, also from Holland, came to Canada that same year with her entire family. She is the oldest of seven children, so we have much in common: her background is almost a carbon copy of my own. We have four kids of our own, a rather “large” family by today’s standards.o a large degree the way people turn out as individuals in society is related to their background. My background includes being raised in a large family. Being the second oldest from a family of 10, I feel in a position to make some pertinent comments on large families as they relate to my own experiences.
But what prompts this writing is my recollection of the nest that I came from myself. It goes without saying that the happy memories are the ones more easily remembered, and yet they never stand by themselves, since often they are connected with or even form part of experiences or events that are hardly worthy of remembrance. They are part of the mosaic of life. Three in our family were born during the war years, a time marked by the effects of the German occupation: hunger, cold, deprivation, and uncertainty for the future. I was nine years old when the war ended, and my memories include my mother secretly accepting to do laundry for a German soldier in exchange for a loaf of bread, so we could all have one single slice. One thing there was always plenty of, I recall: cod liver oil. Of course we hated it, but I can still see us all line up to receive our spoonful from mother before bedtime. The Germans wouldn’t get near the stuff, we figured probably because they did not have to have it, but we know now why they lost the war.
In the early days of the occupation all radios and telephones were confiscated, and the singing of the national anthem was prohibited. Also, all windows had to be framed at night with a black paper material provided by the occupying forces, so as to seal out any light. Non-compliance would result in having the power turned off.
One of our duties as kids was to find anything that would burn to keep warm in winter: that included extracting every scrap of wood from the inside of the attic without endangering the structure. I have since wondered what kept the roof above our heads. Incidentally, that same attic was one giant bedroom for all the boys. By today’s standards one could not imagine a more wanting environment in the arguments for birth control: yet, the babies kept coming. And I cannot write these lines without stating my pride in the fact that I came from parents who knew their God as a God of providence. In the midst of the destruction of war and the cutting down of lives and human rights there was this sense of awe for life in all its unencumbered purity.
Small wonder, that I, as one of the oldest, remember most clearly the sharing. Whatever it was that came your way, and however small, you just never claimed it as your own. Of course that did not always go without a struggle, but our environment was one in which each of the children felt as a member of a team in which the aim was the wellbeing of all.
Family life was always threatened by the razzias. There was always the chance that my Dad, who was a selfemployed barber, would be picked up in one of these hostile raids, to be deported to Germany to work in the labourcamps. He would overdramatize mother’s poor health, and her need to have his help with the children. There was for us kids, a sense of the unreal about this; yet, the intimidating sound of the leatherbooted footsteps of the German officer coming up the steps is impossible to forget for a child being raised in the security of a loving home. Even the sigh of relief after the officer’s departure was muffled, for we never knew when to expect the dreadful appearance of this return.
Our weekly bath took place in a mutual tub, in assembly line fashion. Later on, we would try our luck at the municipal bathhouse, where we no sooner were under the shower, then the bathmaster would shout, at the top of his lungs: “Rinsing time!” If you didn’t rinse right then, you would be drying the suds off your body, for one single valve would shut off the water to all the shower stalls.
But in all this bleakness there was always a ray of hope, a hint of promise of one activity which was very dear to the hearts of all those boys and girls, getting what formal education they could under these miserable conditions. For when the weather stayed cold long enough, the little waterways would freeze over, and if they stayed frozen long enough we would be granted “icefree.” We would bolt from our desks, all the way home chanting that hallowed phrase: “ijs-vrij!, ijs-vrij” (icefree, icefree!). All it really meant was, that on those days, a wintry afternoon would find small groups of children huddled together, in the frenzy of getting the most mileage out of one single pair of skates, which would be tied in succession from one pair of feet to another, until all had equal time on them, for most of us simply did not have a pair of skates.
And then there was always that nagging feeling in our stomachs: the hunger. At mealtime we would be seated around a large, round table. There was not much to waste: we had established turns who would scrape the pot. In part, what intake we had was supplemented by a school program, which provided Vitamin C, and later on a ration of milk, albeit on a haphazard basis. Food was a scarce commodity indeed. I remember especially the soup kitchens, the watery, tasteless substance that would not last through the first hour of a growing kid’s needs. Then there was my mother coming home one day with a small bag of grain. Immediately, there was the question: “How long would that last”?
Toward the end of the war the news spread that tulipbulbs were edible. They were, but they will never make it to the gourmet list, even on the eager palate of a growing kid. Nevertheless, even tulip bulbs became scarce. The status symbol of wellbeing was having a stewed rabbit for Christmas dinner. If you had not raised your own, you could never be sure if it was not a cat that had found its way into the pot. Thus, even cats became scarce.
When the troops were eating at a nearby depot, we would watch them hungrily. And when, at the end of the war relief forces dropped parcels from the skies, our school supplement included an orange. It was the first orange I ever tasted.
What did we do for fun? No growing kid is going to get himself deprived out of fun by any occupying force. Allowances were in order to cope with the restricting condition imposed by that circumstance. We learned at a tender age that necessity is the mother of invention. Thus, an old bicycle frame became in our minds the means by which we would learn the art of riding a bike. What fun we had in learning to ride that bike! And how we “took care” of it! That bike had no tires, but I am still convinced that we appreciated that contraption more that many a kid today, getting the most expensive bike as a birthday present. We played games of all sorts; we had races for girls and races for boys. We played marbles. We found fun and happiness in things which are alien to today’s youth. And, adapting to the circumstances, we even had our fun chasing after the marching troops, quasiparading after them, venting our feelings toward them, and hurling obscenities at them. How we got away with that, I’ll never know.
Even after the war ended, there were many years of hardship: several of us took permanent jobs after elementary school to supplement the family income. Our family could hardly be sustained on one income, since the war years had ruptured the economic structure in the land. What constituted “getting ahead” in those years meant no more than having three healthy meals per day and basic clothing to wear. I was working fulltime at 14, when I purchased my first (secondhand) bicycle by special arrangement between my Dad and the local bicycle-shop owner, by installments of two guilders per week.
In my wife’s family things were much the same: to boost the family income her mother sewed curtains at home; the leftover pieces were sewn into dresses for the girls. My wife’s duties as oldest in her family during those years paralleled the irreplaceable position held by my own elder sister: that of assuming the duties necessarily shared with mother in raising the rest of the clan. This invaluable aid has proven to be of immense assistance in raising our own family.
When the war was over, our family celebrated. The community sang until we were hoarse, and danced until we fell to the ground. In my mind I am still dancing the “Hokypoky,” and I am still singing the liberation songs we learned at school.
Everyone in that joyful crowd was to learn the hard fact that there would be several more years of hardship, although not as profound, and with new hope for the future, before an occupied country would be liberated, through hard work and determination, from the ravages and deprivation caused by the German occupation of our land.
All in all, we were happy kids. Here’s why: we knew no loneliness, no boredom. We were always together as a family and lack of distractions contributed to our sense of togetherness. Of course we were eager for material improvements, and we wanted more diversity in our social life, without really being able to pin down just what that would entail. In the ensuing years we drew great strength from our years of hardship as siblings. And how lucky we were to grow up in a time without the social pressures of cars, drugs, cheap sex, hangouts, and other diversities of our presentday society. In those days no one had the slightest notion as to the meaning of the word “peerpressure.” To my mind the antidote to peerpressure is the need to share with siblings.
Ironically, while we grew up in a time the likes of which are not to be wished upon anyone, I feel most certain that we are no worse off for the experience. In fact, I think we are better off, for we know of hardship, we know of hunger, we know of deprivation, we know of need to share. And we drew that knowledge from one another, as members of a large family. The closeknittedness we experienced can only have a positive effect on society as a whole, since because of our experiences we are better equipped to adapt ourselves to adverse conditions in society, while at the same time being able to truly appreciate the riches of life around us as it is today. It is no secret that many an immigrant has not only been successful economically, but also has asserted himself into society as a moral individual, whose background has helped him overcome serious struggle in both areas. Many of these people came from large families.