may 2020 / grace tells 009

Once hope is lost, all is lost

Lilian Voorveld

By: Grace&Us, Images by Grace&Us and Edwin Smulders

Lilian Voorveld (74) figured out how to break free from the strict catholic environment she grew up in. She did so by choosing her own path in life. But most importantly, by never losing hope. Because once hope is lost, all is lost.

 – “After my mother passed away, everything changed. Talking about feelings, saying what’s wrong, following your heart, it wasn’t negotiable.”

Recently I went on holiday for a week with my seven sisters. This is something we do every year. My eldest sister is 78, the youngest 65, and I’m third in line. We all live very different lives, yet we are very close to each other. A week like that is always nice, but it also takes me back to the past. To the family we grew up in. To the place I came from, but most importantly, to where I came to free myself.

When I was thirteen, my mother fell sick. She didn’t feel good, left for the hospital, and never returned home. She had cancer, and we soon discovered she would not recover. We were overwhelmed, shocked. In just a few weeks, our whole life turned upside down. The day my mother died, I held my youngest sister in my arms. She was only two and continuously said: ‘Mommy, please.’ I had to tell her that wasn’t possible while I was overwhelmed by grief. I still bawl every time I think back to that moment. I come from a strict catholic family. My parents ran a supermarket, and as entrepreneurs, they were always busy. But my mother always waited for us after school. She would then get back to work. But that little moment of togetherness was always lovely. We would sit at the table and listen to her stories. She was incredibly sweet and caring. When it was cold outside, she always let us put our arms underneath hers to warm them up. Everything changed after she passed away.

 – “The worst thing that can happen to a human is someone else taking control over your life.”

Just two years later, my father remarried another woman. I missed my mother immensely, but there was no time for grief. It was expected of us to help out at the store or in the house. My father was a strict man and together with his new wife, ruled the household with an iron grip. We weren’t allowed to read newspapers. Even quietly sitting down and enjoying a cup of tea wasn’t permitted. We had to work hard. Even when we were tired at night, we had to do the dishes. When one day one of my siblings dropped a carton of eggs after a full day of work, my father slapped her hard. I thought, “How can you do something like that to your own child?” His will was the law. He decided what happened, and we could never do anything right in his eyes. It was all about the appearance for him. Looking good to other families was all he cared about. Talking about feelings, saying what’s wrong, following your heart, it wasn’t negotiable. The strict environment I grew up in made me resourceful. Every morning, the eldest girls were tasked with delivering bread to the neighborhood hotels and restaurants. I hated biking around town that early in the morning, so I told my father I wanted to become a nun. If I went to church every morning, at least I wouldn’t have to work. Of course, I was never going to join the convent, but it kept me away from my dreaded home situation. These were years of survival. But they were also years of living on, as I refused to give up. Someday, I knew, this would come to an end. I would decide about my own life. I kept true to that thought, and I never let myself give up. 

The worst thing that can happen to a human is someone else taking control over your life, especially when they do it in an unkind manner. That’s how the years were with my stepmother. She too ruled the house with a strict hand. My siblings and I were taken in turns from school for a year, to help out at home and in the store. Gradually, I managed to break free from them. I wanted to go to Amsterdam and study to be a beautician. My father said no, but his wife told him to let me go probably because she realized I was starting to resist their strict grip. For example, I wanted my own room. I craved a place to call my own, but that wasn’t allowed. Or yes, it was allowed. I just had to make it happen for myself. And that’s what I did. I saved until I could purchase wood to build a space in the house I could call my own. It was my way of resistance. In that sense, my new mother would have rather lost me than had me around. When I was seventeen, I finally went to Amsterdam, where I always wanted to be. It felt like a new beginning. My birth name is Lidy, but the day I entered the city, I changed it to Lilian. It was the end of a rough period in my life and the beginning of a time where I could make decisions for myself, and for that, I needed a new name. 

When you lose your mother at a young age, you have to find your own path as a woman. I didn’t have a role model. There was no one to ask questions, no one to encourage me, and no one to hold me back. Becoming an adult was a journey of trial and error for me. I wanted to do it differently from my parents and make my own choices. But I didn’t know how. And that’s the role Hennie, my husband, played in all this. He made me softer, not only by being sweet to me but also by showing me that it’s good to follow your heart. He taught me to stand behind my choices, to go for what I want to do. When we had just gotten together, I got an opportunity to take over a salon. I was young, and it was on the other side of the country. But he said, ‘You have to do it.’ My stepmother didn’t want that. She even forbade me from going, but I went anyway. With Hennie by my side, I was brave enough to take this step. We moved and lived in a nine square meter room for a whole year. Because I feared my father and his wife so much, I told Hennie it would be better if we tried to get pregnant. If I had a family of my own, they would have no say over me. Luckily, Hennie was smarter than that. He thought we were too young and that we should get our act together first. So that’s what we did. I’m very happy about that decision now. We had an amazing time. With Hennie in that small room, for the first time, I could take deep breaths. I was free. I did what I wanted and was together with a man who made me incredibly happy. It felt as if I had come home to myself.

 – “Hennie made me softer, not only by being sweet to me but by showing to me that it’s good to follow your heart.”

We still had kids, of course. I wanted nothing more than to become a mother. Though for a time, it was uncertain whether that would work. I had an accident when I was sixteen that caused me to break my pelvis and injure my back. The doctors had told me getting pregnant would be difficult. But it worked. We got two beautiful daughters. I was over the moon. It is only when I became a mother myself that I finally started to process the death of my mother. I was only thirteen when she died and too young to deal with such a loss. I immediately went into survival mode. There was no time to mourn. But now that I had children of my own, I was able to understand her. I not only realized how sweet she had been to us but also how tough her life must have been. She had become an orphan at the age of sixteen. In that sense, she also had to discover herself as a woman. I realized how much I resemble her and how hard it must have been for her to say goodbye to her children. And once again, Hennie was a pillar of support for me. If he noticed that I was having a difficult time, he would say, ‘Go have a chat with your mother.’ And that’s what I did, in my head, alone in my room. It was comforting to be with her in that way.

 – “But you can’t keep paving the way for your children. I had to learn to let go. And that too was a process of trial and error.”

As a mother, I had to reinvent myself too. There was no one to set an example for me. The first four years, I was protecting my daughters like a lioness. I watched over their every step. Coincidentally, every one of my sisters was just as protective over their children during the first four years. We think it has to do with the fact that we were all close with our mother in the first four years before we went to kindergarten. These were the years where we felt loved and protected. This laid the grounds for our own ‘mothering.’ But you can’t keep paving the way for your children. I had to learn to let go. And that too was a process of trial and error. I wanted our daughters to be able to make their own choices so that they did not feel trapped but supported. I wanted to give them the freedom to develop themselves as the women they wanted to be, and the women they eventually became. I learned that sometimes it’s okay to take a step aside, to swallow words and let them make mistakes. I wanted to pave the way for them, but I saw that they learned far more by making mistakes. I let them know they could do it themselves, and if that didn’t work out, that I would always be there for them. Did that work? I think so. They are beautiful, strong, independent, stubborn, and bold women. I hope I let them go enough for them to feel free, and that I have supported them enough to feel loved.  

 – “Never lose hope, never give up, because only then can you shape your life.” 

When I look back at how my life went, I dare to say that I am proud. I’m not someone to quickly pat myself on the shoulder, but I worked hard to find this balance. I always tell my children, ‘Once hope is lost, all is lost.’ That’s the lesson I want to give to them and their children. Never lose hope, never give up. Because only then can you shape your life.

Anouk Smulders, “Lilian Voorveld is my mother. She lives on the Veleuwe with her husband, my dad Hennie Voorveld. They have two daughters, me and Nicole, and 3 grandchildren. She is the best chef ever, takes everybody that needs some support under her wing, used to dance on tables (not kidding!), is a huge tennis fan and great player. She has a bigger social agenda than you and me together and still thinks she is 58… although she is 75!”