This is the story of Joan, also know as Hannie. Joan was my husband’s mother. I never met her and there are few people alive who remember her. She is one of Lo’s great grandmothers and, for that reason among many, deserves to be remembered. Unlike Lo’s great-great grandmother Dorothy who I remember vividly, I have gathered Hannie’s story from the memories told by Brian and his Bendiks cousins.
Joan was born in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1913. Though we know little of her childhood, we know she came from modest means – her father was a house painter. She had a sister. She met Brian’s father Harry (a man whose own story is of novelistic proportions ) in Amsterdam in the late 1930’s. Despite being a Gentile and Harry a secular Jew, they married. With the growing coffee importing business of the Bendiks family, they had a comfortable life. The first important thing to remember about Joan is that she was a hero who saved the lives of her Dutch family. As a German, Joan knew that she, Harry and their infant daughter were at risk. Due to their affluence, they were able to secure passage to Brazil, and then onto the United States. She was right, and Harry’s father, sisters, nieces and more than 100,000 Dutch Jews were sent to the camps.
The family settled in Port Washington, Long Island and had a second child (Brian/Papa.) From all external indicators, life was good. A big house, a live-in maid, a Cadillac, an in ground pool. But, we all know that things are not always how they seem. Hannie and Harry were spectacularly mismatched, but she made the best of it for a long while. Exuberantly social, she kept busy with Bridge clubs and parties. Brian’s cousins recall her as elegant with beautiful clothes (often self made) . She was also extremely generous and after the war, when the surviving relatives returned from the camps and had nothing, Joan and Harry provided for them including treasured “American” clothing sewn by Joan.
Brian recalls his mother as having extremes of emotions. She could cry for days, but be restored to good humor by social engagements. She loved her children to extremes as well. As a child, Brian had a fondness for a kind of small novelty license plates that were affixed to certain cereal boxes. Joan wanted him to have these treasures and picked them off the boxes in the store, cutting her hands in the process, and slipped them into her purse. Brian and his sister were indulged. There was little discipline in the house. It was okay to eat the whole chocolate cake. There were no repercussions for taking the family car for a spin, in spite of being too young for a driver’s license. But Joan, once again, saved a family member. She recognized that Brian was having behavior issues in school and moving quickly toward full fledged juvenile delinquency. She did what she believed was the best thing for him – sending him to boarding school. Again, she was right.
I am speculating, but my impression is that Hannie tried hard to find happiness in her life on Long Island. She was isolated from her German family, was not a native English speaker and was unaccustomed to the American culture. Her children had problems. Her marriage was doomed – Harry’s hidden homosexuality certainly a factor. Yet, she remained active socially. She exercised her creativity through sewing and decorating. She is remembered as someone who never spoke badly of anyone. As being someone you could talk to about anything. Brian remembers her as reassuring and loving. Sad, rather than angry, she sought pleasure in a series of cruises. On one of these, she met a St. Louis business man. She left Harry, moved to St. Louis and married her new lover. She found happiness at last, and died too soon. Joan died of a heart attack at the age of 53 in 1966, providing her with one final way to save the family: exposing the genetic mutation that left all her future generations with cardiac risk, regardless of the healthiness of their lifestyles. (See a doctor! Get your lipid profile!)
Joan’s children missed out on knowing her, except from the distance of childhood memories. And she missed knowing their adult selves. She did not get to know and cherish her 5 grandchildren. Or her seven great-grandchildren – all girls – the youngest of whom is our Little Lo. I am certain that all our lives would have been enriched by this loving and generous woman.
We may not have gotten to know her, but DNA is a amazing thing and strands of Hannie live on in the generations she saved. And as Lo continues to demonstrate her own unfailingly pleasant and decidedly social disposition, we now know from whence it hails.