Traveling through a failing memory

By Emily DeLetter

“I’ve been to Java, Batra, Sumatra, Borneo, Celebes, Bali, Lombok, Sumba, Sumbawa, Flores, Timor, enzoorvort…” 

I’m fiddling with my napkin. I watch my sister and mom make eye contact. At the end of the table, the Cracker Barrel waitress smiles and shifts her weight. “What was that?”

“She’ll have the pancakes,” my dad cuts in, before Grandma can take another breath and launch into her rhyme again.

The list repetition, her failing memory — it’s been this way since I was in the fifth grade, around 2008. Elizabeth Oudhuis DeLetter, my grandmother, Dutch immigrant, World War II survivor, mother of four, devoted Catholic, cat lover, and incredible baker was now playing a one-sided game of hide-and-seek in department stores and restaurants.

One minute she was next to me in a Dillard’s looking at slippers, and the next she was hiding behind sale racks, a woman in her mid-80’s jumping out at workers or customers walking past. It was never not embarrassing. We would quickly usher her out with a very sincere “I’m so sorry” to the latest recipient of her “jokes”.


“I’ve been to Java, Batra, Sumatra, Borneo, Celebes, Bali, Lombok, Sumba, Sumbawa, Flores, Timor, enzoorvort…”

It was a few years after she was diagnosed with Dementia when we began to notice big changes to her personality. What began as little blunders, like a forgotten purse or repeating the same sentence twice, turned into asking what day of the week it was multiple times a day and a failure to recognize my younger cousins.

We were perplexed the first few times we heard her say her “list.” It was in Dutch, her native language, a language she hadn’t spoken regularly in over 50 years, but my Dutch-speaking Grandpa wasn’t much help. He was a proud Belgian, anyway — totally different (according to him) from the Dutch in Holland.

Their small town of LaPorte, Indiana, was seven hours away from where I grew up, so visits to see Grandma required an entire weekend. My grandparents had built the house they lived in a few years after they married, a few years after they both immigrated to the United States following World War II.

The first time she asked me where we were, I was 16 and we were sitting in the same living room she had been in for 50 years. She was in the corner in her favorite chair, cat asleep in her lap, a magnified outdated copy of Reader’s Digest on the table next to her with her coke bottle reading glasses resting on top.

“Emmeme,” she said, that being her special name for me, “where are we?”

“Home, Grandma,” I responded. “We didn’t go anywhere. We’re still in LaPorte.”

She looked perplexed, then I remember a switch seeming to flip in her brain.

“I’ve been to Java, Batra, Sumatra, Borneo, Celebes, Bali, Lombok, Sumba, Sumbawa, Flores, Timor, enzoorvort…”

My saying of “go” had triggered this list.

On and on it went. During every Sunday night phone call, I began to count the number of times she would repeat this mysterious list to me. I think my record in one conversation was nine.

Both of my grandparents came from large, Catholic farming families in rural Belgium and the Netherlands. Grandma was one of 10, and Grandpa one of 11. Few of their siblings also immigrated to the US, and as a result, there is a huge number of DeLetters and Oudhuises still living overseas.

As my grandmother’s mysterious list increased in repetition, detective hats were put on and emails sent to family, asking for help decoding what the words were and what they could possibly mean.


“I’ve been to Java, Batra, Sumatra, Borneo, Celebes, Bali, Lombok, Sumba, Sumbawa, Flores, Timor, enzoorvort…”

Dad’s cousin Wim in Holland got back to us with an answer: it was a list of the Dutch East Indies Islands, a list Grandma had been required to learn as a child at her primary school during the War in small village of Heerhugowaard, Holland. The last word, “enzoorvort,” translates to “and so on,” meaning the list of islands continued.

Wim and many other relatives in Holland associated bad memories with this list; it was a song they had also been required to learn and recite for a grade as children in the 1960s.

They were as perplexed as we were why my grandmother seemed to take so much pleasure in reciting this list.

But it fit perfectly with her personality, once I sat down and thought about it. Grandma was never angry, always playful and full of love and one more cookie to sneak to you before bed. As her disease became worse, her child-like instincts, which had made her a playful and friendly adult, turned her into a child again.

She began to “sneak up” on us, at home or in public, and give us a ticklish jab in the ribs. Her hands had always been cold, and this became a new routine of putting them on the neck of anyone close by — family member or stranger. She called everything a “monster” and constantly threatened to give us a “schop in de broek,” or a kick in the pants.


“I’ve been to Java, Batra, Sumatra, Borneo, Celebes, Bali, Lombok, Sumba, Sumbawa, Flores, Timor, enzoorvort…”

Those suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia often are very underweight— they feel a need to be up and moving around and forget to eat. Every visit to LaPorte, every hug I would give Grandma became a silent test of how many new bones I could feel. She was never a big woman, but suddenly I could wrap my hands around her wrists with ease, and my 7-year-old cousin probably could as well.

Family dinners became difficult. Her portions were small, and most of them ended up on my uncle’s plate. She would get so distracted by repeating her list of islands that her dinner sat untouched for most of the meal.

“I’ve been to Java, Batra, Sumatra, Borneo, Celebes, Bali, Lombok, Sumba, Sumbawa, Flores, Timor, enzoorvort…”  

She’ll be 90 this January. But over the summer, my talkative grandmother, my repetitive grandmother, my cat-loving grandmother began to rapidly slide downhill. I last visited in August, and was shocked by how much she had changed since my last visit.

She barely ate. I learned she was right around 70 pounds, and most shockingly to me, she was almost silent. Grandma didn’t sit at the table with us for dinner anymore. She didn’t go to church on Sunday morning with the rest of us.

She didn’t repeat her famous list once the entire weekend I visited.

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