Letters from the dead
I meet and get to know dead people by digging around my family tree and in the archives. Today I’m getting to know Julie Wilhelmina Scherius, my great-grandmother.
On the table in front of me I have the foolscap file compiled by her husband, Jan Peelen. I read the large label stuck on the front cover. In his calligraphic handwriting it says “Brieven van Overledenen” - Letters from the dead. Above that is taped a yellow sticky note with different handwriting, it looks like my aunt’s, which says “Letters of condolence written to Jan Peelen, our grandfather on the loss of his first wife Julie Scherius in December 1903.” She was just forty-three years old.
I’m eager to read these letters but try to follow best practise and don cotton gloves to minimise contact of damaging acids from my fingers. The letters are actually in remarkably good condition. It is awkward and clumsy and soon enough I give up.
She emerges first in the platitudes - a good wife and mother, greatly missed, much loved. Then little personal facets shine through. She was warm, friendly and loving to friends and relatives. One family friend described her as too sensitive and impressionable in nature. Another worries what a blow Julie’s death would be to her mother, who doted on her. Her passing was sudden and unexpected to many though they knew she had been in poor health for years. One letter writer asked if she had died from heart and kidney disease.
At the back of the file is one photograph, a “carte de visite” of a little boy aged around four or five, with dark hair. There is no name but it has to be of my grandfather. She had four children; first, two daughters, Julie and Tippy, then my grandfather Rein and then another son, Jup, who was fair.
Then I find other letters from much earlier written by my great-great grandparents. There is also a poem of sorts which tells the story of their courtship. Julie, the “Gooische Roos” - The Rose from ’t Gooi - went to stay with her cousin in The Hague and there she met Jan Peelen at a dance party hosted by this cousin. He was not a great dancer but he was a good talker and managed to keep her attention for the rest of the evening. And thus began their courtship. His mother wrote her an affectionate letter for her twenty-third birthday, highlighting his qualities that made him a good husband - intelligent, a hard worker who could provide for a good life for them both. She sent Julie a basket of roses from her garden and writes in the note that while they have lost some of their scent, she hopes they will still be a happy souvenir of this day.
The very last letter is a small note, falling apart at some of the folds, written third October 1867 by her father for her seventh birthday. It is a fond, sweet note, from a much older father (he was fifty-seven). “In my thoughts I shower you with a thousand kisses”.