by Jane Vogel Mantiri
War is hell. My parents survived two wars: World War II and the Indonesian National Revolution that followed. Although those wars ended, my parents’ trauma never did.
This story is dedicated to my parents. I was my parents’ only daughter. My father was a brave, strong, and loving man who lived for the dream of becoming an American.
My mother was a survivor. She carried with her the secrets from those two long wars. She and my father had more than a marriage–they had a trauma bond. My mother was a devoted wife and she would follow my father all the days of her life.
I was born in the Dutch East Indies, as were my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. I am an Indo, a blend of Indonesian from my indigenous grandmothers and great-grandmothers, and European from my forefathers who colonized Indonesia in the 1700s.
When I was born, my father proudly announced that my name would be JANE because someday I would be an American. He had one goal: to get his family safely to America.
Unfortunately, it was the 1950s. US immigration was not interested in letting refugees from Indonesia into the United States, even if they had a daughter with the American name, JANE.
But my father would not give up. A few years earlier, my father’s beloved sister, Deetje, was brutally murdered, in a train massacre just outside of Surabaya in what the Dutch called the Bersiap. We had to leave. My father was fiercely protective of me. Nothing was going to happen to his daughter, who with each passing day reminded him more and more of Deetje.
The only option was to wait in the Netherlands. But it gets complicated. My father harbored anger toward the Dutch. During WWII, he was drafted into the Royal Dutch East Indies Army (KNIL). He was captured by Japanese soldiers, shackled, tortured, and forced to build the Death Railway in Siam (Thailand). The Dutch government did not compensate my father for his 3 ½ years as a POW. I’m not clear about the details. My father and mother did not speak of the past. They held on to silence as if it gave them a stalwart grip on the future. With no other options, my father boarded the ship to the Netherlands. My mother, clutching her baby girl named JANE, followed him.
We waited in the Netherlands through six long bleak cold winters. My friend in The Hague had beautiful long blond hair and blue eyes. We played at my house but I was not invited to play at her house. I always had to wait outside. One day, while I was waiting outside, I watched through the open window as her grandmother was knitting. Without speaking, her Oma passed the knitting needles to me through the open window. She gently and lovingly guided my fingers with the yarn and repeated the stitches: Knit, purl, knit, purl. There began my knitting lessons outside through that open window
As a child in the Netherlands, I did not question why I belonged on the outside of that open window. I did not question why my father seldom smiled. I did not question why my mother cried in the middle of the day while my father was at work.
There was a lot that I didn’t know as a child. I didn’t know that our long wait was almost over. I didn’t know my mother was packing everything she could fit into a steamer trunk: her wok, the rice steamer, and a dress she made for me by hand so I would look nice when our American church sponsors came to pick us up.
She packed away the teaching diploma that allowed her to teach in a prestigious boys’ school in Jakarta, but in the US would only allow her to wash dishes in our school cafeteria. She was allergic to the detergent and her hands would bleed. She worked hard for that diploma during the wars, and her studies were often interrupted when the sirens went off and she had to jump on the back of a Red Cross truck to find shelter. Sometimes that was an option. Sometimes it was not.
She packed away her memories, never telling anyone what they did to her during those two long wars. She packed what she could into the steamer trunk, each item dripping with her grief and unspoken trauma. Then my father boarded the ship, this time to America. My mother followed him.
We arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 21, 1960. Sponsors from West Granville Presbyterian Church picked us up from the train station in really big cars, speaking words I didn’t understand. To my amazement, when I opened my first school textbook, there was ONE word I could read: JANE. See JANE run! I didn’t know what that meant. I thought it might mean I, JANE, am in America!
There were lots of kids in my school with beautiful blond hair and blue eyes. But they stared at me. My mother said it’s because we don’t look like them. Americans don’t like dark, she explained to me. When the blond boy kicked me and taunted me with words I didn’t understand, I knew my mother was right. When the policeman’s two sons who lived in the gray and red house across the street repeatedly punched me in the stomach, chanting “Go back to where you came from!” I knew my mother was right. I didn’t tell her what was happening because I knew the sadness in her eyes was bigger than the sadness in mine.
Five years later, my family gathered at the Milwaukee courthouse. I was 12 years old and wore a new beige dress called a shift. It had straight lines, a ruffle across the chest, and a bow that trailed to the hemline. I wore this dress on that special day at the courthouse. I also wore it to my confirmation at church, and on most days during my eighth-grade year at Samuel Morse Junior High School, because it was the only nice dress in my closet. At the courthouse, we were declared American citizens. My father said: Jane, if anyone asks “What are you?”, you can now say, “I AM AN AMERICAN! I AM AN AMERICAN”. I repeated out of love and respect for my father. And with that, he led us out of the courthouse and my mother followed him.
The years came and went. I moved West to Oregon and married an American man with beautiful blue eyes. I cooked delicious meals and I pretended that none of this was foreign to me. I made gravy, from the recipe on the back of the Argo cornstarch box. Sometimes it’s just not that hard to be an American.
My parents retired to Arizona. I raised a beautiful family in Eugene, Oregon. My father became ill and was dying of cancer. I flew out to see him one last time. Heavily sedated on morphine, my papa heard my voice and opened his eyes. For the first time, I saw a look of fear and terror in his eyes.
He uttered softly but fiercely. Run! Run!
I realized that he was seeing his beloved sister, Deetje.
Papa, It’s me, JANE!
He was undeterred. Run! Run!
I changed tactics… Papa, don’t worry, I am strong. I can run fast.
No…you are small. Run! His eyes closed.
We buried my father. My mother sang my father’s favorite hymn at his funeral. We got in the car together to go to the reception. My mother turned to me and for the first time, I saw no sadness in her eyes. It was as if she was finally free from the heavy burden of her trauma. She said to me, Jane, I’m going with him. And before we got to the reception, my mother had a fatal heart attack.
My father left this world in November 1998, and my mother followed him.
A postscript–My father picked out a headstone for them years earlier engraved with Together Forever.
About the Author
Read more about the author Jane Vogel Mantiri
Learn about Jane’s upcoming documentary project:
Author’s Note: The timeline for the documentary is unclear as we are in the fundraising stage. Hopefully, we can raise enough funds to complete principal photography in Portland this summer or fall. Then post-production and probably a festival circuit before any kind of distribution–so a couple of years, honestly. Our director has a track record with festivals and PBS and our newly hired (hopefully her schedule will permit!) cinematographer too.
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