A virus can take a long time to let its intentions play out. In the meantime, it can push a whole human life onto a different track. You sometimes don’t see that until a century later.
My “Grandma Amsterdam,” as my brothers and I called her, lived with our grandfather upstairs in an old house in North Amsterdam. I remember the tall, corkscrew staircase with a loose bannister halfway up. Inside you had to take off your shoes, otherwise the downstairs neighbors would complain. There was no shower. My grandfather shaved over the sink in the kitchen. A small mirror was attached to the wall for this purpose.
When I was eight I went to stay there alone for the first time. I remember my grandmother froze when I sat down with her at night in my nightgown, hoping for a bedtime story. But my grandmother didn’t like fairytales. When I woke up in the middle of the night, afraid of the shadows on the wallpaper, she told me to be brave. That would harden me against life, she said. Death — she often talked about him — was a brutal creature who ran off with your life without compassion.
Grandma was good at calculating. When she went shopping, she had already calculated what she would have to pay before the cash register rang up the amount. She would have liked to study mathematics.
Her life as a housewife did not challenge her. I was in awe of her, bordering on fear, but mostly full of questions. Why didn’t she embrace her life? Why this cynicism? Where were her thoughts taking her?
And then there was that photo on the dresser of her as a young woman, sitting straight upright on a shiny new bicycle. Over the years, the contours of her life gradually revealed themselves to me, like a coin under tissue paper that you trace over with a pencil. My grandmother had been engaged once. Not with my grandfather, but with a banker. They wrote poems to each other about their love and their plans for the future. She taught herself French to go to Paris with him.
In 1918 he died of the Spanish flu, along with 20 million others. My grandmother was in shock for years. She bought the bicycle with money from their life insurance policy. She was well on her way to becoming a “spinster” when she was paired up with a local bachelor, my grandfather, just in time. Although they had three children together, I saw little tenderness between them or even a look of understanding. The litmus test for a good marriage, she once told me, is that you should be able to bear to wash your husband’s dirty underwear. That is quite different from reading the poems of her fiancé, which she kept until her death. The Spanish flu was a brutal actor who threw a monkey wrench into the finely tuned plans for her life. When the dust cleared, it left her just like millions of other lovers who, in a shoebox in the attic, cherish the yellowing photos of an unfinished past.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published in 2017 in the U.S. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.