Excerpt from End of Story
by Philibert Schogt
Now where were we? Ah yes. Johan and John. It may seem a bit childish for a man of our age to refer to himself in the first person plural and with two different names. But to us, it’s perfectly natural. In fact, the two names weren’t even our idea. Our parents were already using them before we had learned to speak, and in all probability, from the very day we were born.
Although we have no conscious recollection of the scene in the maternity ward of Bracebridge General Hospital, on February 15, 1946, we have often pictured ourselves as a newborn baby, asleep in our mother Elsa’s arms. Nine months earlier, she and a few friends joined the crowds lining the streets of Amsterdam to cheer as the brave Canadians who had liberated Holland from the Nazi occupation came marching by. One of the soldiers tipped his cap for her, she rushed up to embrace him, and the rest is history.
Bruce Butler, her Canadian hero, was now seated on the edge of the hospital bed, nervously clutching his cap while trying to catch a glimpse of the baby boy asleep in her arms. Back in those days, husbands didn’t help their wives huff and puff during labour, nor did they ceremoniously cut umbilical cords; they waited outside in the hallway until all the screaming was done and the mess cleaned up, the midwife only then stepping out of the room to congratulate them on their baby son or daughter.
That is what our father called us. And that is how we were officially registered at the County Hall. Our mother looked at him with a pale smile, meanwhile cradling us a little more tightly in her arms. Everything was new to her in this country, everything so strange. She was already eight months pregnant by the time the paperwork was finally in order, allowing her to board one of the boats from Liverpool to Halifax with all the other war brides. From Halifax she had travelled onwards by train to Ottawa, where our father was waiting for her with his pickup truck and some extra blankets. The trip across the ocean had been enough of an ordeal, but nothing could have prepared her for the bitter cold of an Ontario winter.
That is what our mother insisted on calling us. Perhaps the Dutch sounds comforted her.
What’s in a name, Shakespeare’s Juliet may have asked herself out loud, but if we compare Johan’s life history to mine, my answer would be: just about everything. From day one, our roads diverged. It wasn’t just that our mother spoke Dutch to Johan, while our father spoke English to me. They introduced us to two vastly different worlds.
Upon returning to Canada from the war, our father had taken over a derelict farm for next to nothing on the shores of Three Moon Lake, just west of Algonquin Park. It was derelict for a reason: the soil in this part of the province was poor, and the growing season too short for any serious farming. Whether it was a keen business sense or a lucky hunch I do not know: long before tourism became the most important industry in the region, he reckoned that the value of the land was not to be extracted from the soil itself, but from the magnificent scenery. Tearing down everything but the main farmhouse and the adjoining barn, he reused as much of the material as he could to build holiday cabins. Slowly but surely, Bruce and Elsa Butler’s Getaway Cottages took shape, Butler’s Getaway for short.
Always outdoors, always at work, he had little time for us, although occasionally he would let us help, or make us believe we were helping him, the way parents do with small children. “Stand back!” may very well have been the first English expression that I understood, my own first word “hammer” or “axe”.
When we weren’t getting in our father’s way, we would follow our mother about. She was usually to be found indoors, cleaning a cottage for the next guests, in the barn hanging the laundry between the rafters or in the kitchen preparing dinner. So Johan’s first words will have been quite different from mine.
Obviously, since we share a body, the two of us have always occupied the same position in space at the same moment in time. Yet when we look back at our lives, it is as though we see ourselves and each other from different camera angles. I too, remember how we used to sit by the wood stove listening to our mother reading us a Dutch children’s book, but there is a built-in distance to the recollection, as if I am standing outside the house, peering in through the window, and it’s only Johan who is actually sitting on her lap. And I am sure Johan will attest to a complementary experience, seemingly looking out the window while our father is in the yard splitting logs, resting his axe every so often to let a little boy gather all the firewood and load it into a wheelbarrow. And that little boy will be me. It’s the difference between looking at a picture and being part of one, between hearsay and first-hand experience, between a translation and the original.
As we grew older and other sources of language became available to us – school, friends, books – the gaps in our respective vocabularies were gradually filled. Once we had moved to Holland with our first wife Cindy and had lived here long enough to catch up with the latest vernacular, any outsider would swear that we were perfectly bilingual. Yet to this day, the original “feel” of both languages has never changed. To us, Dutch will always be the language of the hearth, English the language of the great outdoors. Certain words miss the immediacy that they do have in the other language, as if we’re still that little boy peering in through the window or that little boy looking out into the yard. A cookie will never taste as good as a koekje (“kook-yuh”), a kano (“kaw-no”) will never glide through the water with the grace of a canoe. So in a deeper sense, we are not at all bilingual, we’re semi-lingual twice over.