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Martina Sophia Zandbergen Van Egmond

Wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, Hunger Winter survivor, immigrant, knitter. Born Aug. 1, 1932, Rijnsburg, The Netherlands; died March 21, 2012, in Caledon, Ont., of cancer.

Her grandson is possibly the only student at the University of Guelph with a hand-knit laptop case. Knitting was considered an essential skill for the girls of Martina's Dutch village and generation, and she first took it up at the age of five. Socks, hats, mittens, scarves, slippers – and one laptop case – fell off her needles effortlessly while she watched the news or conversed. No pattern required. It was all in her head.

She was against perfectionism. If she ran out of a colour of wool mid-project, she switched to another. If she made an error, she incorporated it into the work. She didn't go back. "That's against my policy," she once said – an approach that also served her in life.

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Tina's father sold flowers; her mother managed the Zandbergens' drugstore, household and family of 10. In 1940, Hitler invaded Holland, and for over four years the Zandbergens endured the privations of Nazi occupation. During the infamous "Hunger Winter" of 1944, Martina felt certain that if the war continued much longer, they would all die. However, the following May, she and her euphoric neighbours danced in the streets as Canadian soldiers rolled into her village, liberating Holland. Low-flying Allied bombers dropped relief food packages, putting an end to starvation.

In 1951, the Zandbergens left war-torn Holland and immigrated to Canada – along with a young carpenter named Kees Van Egmond, Tina's fiancé.

After 10 seasick days on the SS Waterman, Tina landed in Halifax and boarded a train to Pembroke, Ont. To her eyes, familiar only with flat Dutch landscapes, the houses on the hillsides they passed appeared cockeyed and off-level. A refurbished chicken coop served as the Zandbergens' new home. Three of Tina's five children were born in Pembroke before the family moved to Brampton, Ont., in 1961. Years later she observed that immigration is for the young.

Not one for jewellery or expensive clothes, Tina preferred the plain and the practical. Her only heirlooms were flesh and blood: her eighteen grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. For them, she kept a fleet of variously sized bicycles on hand, along with a formidable stockpile of toys, games, puzzles and craft supplies.

A woman of faith, she quietly exercised her convictions through concrete action. People often found plastic bags dangling from their doorknobs, containing one of her hand-knit or cross-stitched creations, raisin breads, banana muffins, jars of applesauce, or jams. She offered a listening ear, her home and herself. Once a neighbour kicked his son out; Martina took the youth in. She befriended a lonely immigrant from Lebanon, and three teenaged refugees from Vietnam called her house home for a time. And so it went. Like Dorothea in George Eliot's Middlemarch, "her full nature spent itself in deeds which left no great name on the Earth, but the effect of her being on those around her was incalculable."

Sophie Vandenberg is Martina's daughter.

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