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Maria Zeemen spent three years of her childhood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia during World War II. Everyone in her family survived, but Maria had much catching up to do when they returned to Holland. Maria’s story highlights a positive outlook, a hunger for knowledge, and a willingness to work hard. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles from a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
My full name is Maria Johanna Cornelia Zeeman and I’m 77 years old, but often feel 47, and sometimes 97. I’m one of the taller members of my siblings, but not of my own family. I still look good and like to dress well, except when I’m at home. Then I like to be comfy and easy.
For many of my younger years I worked in offices. I started at age 14 at Van Amerogen in Amsterdam. I loved it there. On the roof at lunch time we played table tennis or bridge. I was just a typist and filing clerk. After a year I went to other companies, always driven to look for more money and better jobs.
I was the only one in my family who didn’t stay in school until my eighteenth birthday. My father was so angry at me that he didn’t speak to me for a year. But I just couldn’t do it.
I had missed three and a half years of schooling while I was in the war camp in Indonesia. The kids at school bullied me and called me stupid, and more. I was older than most even though I did several classes in one year to catch up. And I knew that I wasn’t dumb.
My father was working as a captain on a ship to Africa after he returned to Holland. He was going to be away for almost one year to help feed and educate his family. So I just told my mother that I wanted to work and do my education in the evening.
I worked mostly full-time during the years I lived in Holland, and went to classes four nights a week from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. I got the equivalent of high school and typing, shorthand, and accounting diplomas.
I also played bridge with my mother every Friday evening, and we were Group A players. I played table tennis in the Dutch Club and played many Saturdays all over Holland against other clubs.
I met my boyfriend, Ger, fairly soon and married him at age 20. We got a place to live far from Amsterdam. There were very few apartments or houses available for the younger population because of all of the damage from the war. Soldiers were returning home, and people were moving back from Indonesia. People from European countries were poor and had no jobs either.
We only got the apartment because Ger got a job at an American company in the “boondoggies” through my brother-in-law Luc. We lived there for two years. Thank God I always got a job real easy. My dream was always to emigrate to the USA, but at that time we could not.
Ger’s company eventually went back to the USA, so Ger no longer had a job. It was 1959, and we decided to move to Canada. I got a job the day I arrived in Montreal. My brother, Piet, was already in Montreal, and he had appointments lined up for me at the Bell Telephone Company and at the SunLife Insurance Company in downtown. I went to both interviews.
The SunLife Company hired me on the spot; they said it was for my determination. My English was fair, so I translated the application into Dutch first, and then answered all of the questions in English. It took me two and one half hours.
I worked there for eight years and I loved it. If the province of Quebec had not changed to almost all French, I would have stayed there. I did type French and English policies, but my knowledge and pronunciation of the languages was not very good.
I also went to evening school and did my high school work over. I took English literature, French language, public speaking, and speed reading. I also bowled once a week with my colleagues and with my parents, who had also moved to Canada. I played bridge with my mom when I got a good partner for Ger. My boss was a good bridge partner. I was really happy then.
But things happened. In 1969 I was divorced with two adorable girls, and no longer had a good job. So my mother said, “Why don’t you try California? Take the car and I will go with you.”
A girlfriend came with us as well. We had a very nice trip, stopped often, went sightseeing, took our time, and had a marvelous time for nineteen days. I went to Downey Office Services and got a job. And I never went back.
Published: July 10, 2014 – Volume 13 – Issue 13