These are the stories told by Emerentia Casteels, to her daughter, Suzanne Liptay
1.As a young woman from a large farming family in Belgium, Emerentia worked in Brussels as a housekeeper for the local priest. One day she made a milk pudding and left it to cool on the window sill while she hurried off to mass. During the sermon, the priest glanced out the window, stopped the sermon, and said “Ma-ke (pet name), go to the kitchen because the cat is licking the pudding”. With flushed cheeks, Emerentia quickly left to save the pudding.
2. In 1941 Emerentia married her sweetheart, Albert, who had courted her while a soldier in the Belgian army. After three daughters, in 1946, their first son, Willy sadly lived only two days. During the night Albert found the baby not breathing. He knocked on her sister Jeanne’s window in the multi generational home; she told their father who came and told his daughter the heart-breaking news. Little Willy’s funeral was hurried because the wedding of her two sisters took place that same week. Subsequent Sundays very often included a cemetery visit to Willy’s grave with the angel headstone.
3. The loss of her first son stayed with Emerentia her entire life. Years after moving to Canada on a visit to Belgium when she and Albert went to Willy’s grave site, they discovered it had been officially removed and they were devastated. For their 25th wedding anniversary, when given a family ring, she remarked sadly that it had 11 birthstones, one for each of her living children, but none for little Willy who had died. In the days before her death at age 78 she told her children she was eagerly looking forward to holding little Willy again in the next life.
4. In the early 1950’s, while living on their own farm in Belgium, Allied forces took over the land surrounding the farm. This prompted her husband to want to immigrate with his family, now with seven young children, to Canada. Emerentia was devastated to leave; with close family and friends, she was happy in Belgium. However, she followed her husband’s lead and in 1954 the family departed by boat with a few belongings to seek their future in Canada.
5. The first few years of life in Canada were very challenging as Emerentia and her husband did not know the language, had no social support and faced financial hardships. Emerentia tried hard to live contently; she did not complain and simply accepted hard times. “Don’t think about it, don’t talk about it” was her way of keeping a peaceful house. Her mild voice, gentle manner and warm, generous spirit characterized her relationships with her husband and children whatever the circumstances.
6. In 1958, after four years of living in Canada, Emerentia was very homesick and made a six week trip to Belgium. She and the latest baby embarked on an organized journey via New York City, a ship to Cherbourg, and then on to Belgium. The need to be with her family and in her homeland was stronger than concerns of leaving her eight children on the farm in Kinkora in the care of her husband and fifteen year old eldest daughter.
7. Despite having little, Emerentia was always hospitable. In Belgium, with a large extended family, there were always visitors. In Canada, hospitality extended to other immigrants, and to visitors from Belgium. One example is Frank, a young man in his mid-teens. From a Belgian immigrant farming family, he worked in construction a great distance from his home but only about two hours from Emerntia’s family’s farm. Emerentia ensured that on weekends Frank felt at home with her family, this despite already having 11 children.
8. Emerentia was attuned to beauty. Music touched her heart and she loved to sing, and was in the church choir. Garden flowers and house plants were always special to her. When not working in the fields, the vegetable garden or greenhouse, she tended her flower gardens. She would often express to others “aren’t they beautiful?” When travelling or visiting she would try to build up the courage to ask for a cutting, or if she was feeling bold, would ‘nip’ a clip!
9. When not outside, Emerentia was found in the kitchen wearing her bib apron. She did canning and freezing of the garden produce. She cooked modest meals, routinely without a recipe book, and she was known for her soups and meatballs. All meals were eaten together around the table even when there were workers boarding with the family during the summer work season. Over the years, she expanded her cooking skills and ventured new recipes. The first time she delivered a baby in a Canadian hospital (she had been accustomed to home deliveries with a midwife) she was faced with corn and turnips on her plate; she was shocked, as this was livestock feed in Belgium, but she learned to incorporate these and many other items such Jello for dessert into her cooking repertoire.
10. Emerentia was adventurous and enjoyed socializing. She and Albert often went for ‘drives’ and travelled together. They visited Belgium and surrounding countries numerous times and Tanzania in Africa to visit her sister Jeanne and family. They enjoyed bus trips in Canada, Europe and US as well as visits with their adult children and grandchildren. It was the social aspects of these excursions that she especially reminisced about.
11. Emerentia was a devout Catholic and found peace in her great faith in God. Meals began and ended with prayer; the family rosary was an evening ritual. She ensured all would dress in their Sunday best for mass at the local parish. She encouraged and expressed an eagerness that all her children, even as adults, would ‘practice their faith’. Her kindness, generosity, patience, gentleness, and even her songs, were living expressions of that faith.