ANTIGONISH, N.S. - A family reunion, spurred on by a special birthday, took place in Antigonish late last year as members of the Westenenk family traveled from the Netherlands and New Zealand to help their Uncle Willie (Oom Wim in Dutch) celebrate his 90th birthday.
“For all of us, Oom Wim is the last living relative of our parents’ generation, so this was a very precious time,” Mary van den Heuvel, a St. Andrews, Antigonish County resident, said.
“Eight came from Holland (six cousins and two partners/spouses), our brother Gary came from North Bay (Ontario) and our cousin Maria and her husband David, all the way from New Zealand. Between Nov. 28 and Dec. 3, we all spent most of every day together, along with our Uncle Willie.”
Most of the visitors were a surprise to Willie who, van den Heuvel explained, was only expecting one niece and one nephew from his home country of the Netherlands. That cousin Maria and her husband made it all the way from New Zealand was not only a surprise for Willie, but also all the family members from the Netherlands with the exception of cousin Willy, who did the coordinating.
“What fun we all had in the discoveries; the eight from Holland assumed that Willy had miscounted, so the surprise Willy had for them was brilliant,” van den Heuvel said.
Willie the magnet
Maria talked about a celebration for Willie bringing the family together.
“Thanks to our Uncle Willie for his open heart, for without that, we wouldn’t have been able to make and hatch a plan to be together,” she said.
“A very special bond has been formed when cousins came to gather from around the world to celebrate their uncle’s 90th birthday. We have shared tales and stories, noticed family characteristics, learned of our heritage and exchanged cultures. We are all so eager to learn of our forefathers and their lives, and wish we could be together so much more.”
Cousin Thea also talked of Willie’s “generous heart” being the family magnet.
“It was a very special week to be reunited with the family on the 90th birthday of Oom Wim,” she said. “Oom Wim has a very generous heart; he was always keeping in contact from Canada with us in the Netherlands. The reunion of the whole family on this birthday was what he deserved, because of all his love to the family, no matter where they are.”
Cousin Hans, like Thea, traveled from the Netherlands for the birthday and get-together.
“It gives a good feeling to meet and connect with family across the ocean,” he said. “Because of the distance, together we made four days of birthday party instead of one day. We had a very warm welcome, and a pleasant stay, every minute of it.”
Mary’s sister Annetta made a shorter trek, coming from Halifax for the reunion.
“Because our cousins came from around the world to help Oom Wim celebrate his special day, it made memories for not only him, but for all of us, at the same time,” she said.
“This brought us all together and we shared love and laughter with family we don’t get to see or hear from very often. New memories were made and past memories brought back to life by reminiscing over photos, family meals, singing together and a visit to a camp in the woods. I had the opportunity to actually sit down and talk to cousins and get to know them better.”
Mary and Annetta’s brother Gary is the cousin who came from North Bay.
“Together our parents’ families gave us more than 60 first cousins. Knowing that and being able to converse, embrace, and interact with a number of them at one time, is a totally different experience,” he said.
“It has been anchoring for me as a person. It gives substance to my roots in both Europe and New Zealand. It moves my heart that these cousins of ours feel as we do; that Oom Wim is indeed a special person.”
The trio’s sister, Minnie van de Wiel, was another cousin who did the hosting as she lives in Lower South River, Antigonish County.
“It was emotional both when they came and when they left,” she said. “We built a strong bond. It was exciting to see how much fun we had and how much we enjoyed being with each other.
We have a connection that I didn’t think was possible.”
Van den Heuvel summed up the thoughts on her beloved uncle with the ultimate praise.
“As I mentioned at Oom Wim’s birthday party, he is not our father, but we are his children,” she said. “He was always so good to keep in touch with each of his nieces and nephews across the globe through his cards and letters and spending time with us whenever he could.
“On his 90th birthday, those who could came here and returned the love that they’ve had from him over all these years.”
Willie said it was “fantastic” to have so many family members travel to Antigonish for his birthday.
“They made me feel special,” he said.
“I must be important to them; otherwise they wouldn’t have come thousands of miles to be here with me. I expected one, and at the very most two from Holland; and Maria coming from New Zealand was completely a surprise … but I took it calm and easy. I enjoyed it very much.”