A Tribute to Johan Blok
My parents both left Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and studied at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands where they met, learned a new language, married and studied to become doctors (early 1970’s). My father’s professor, Johan Blok, (1925 - 2015) and his wife, Elly Blok (1927 - 2018) suggested I live with their family until my parents completed school. This came about because my parent’s grades dropped after having me. Opa Blok (Opa=grandpa in Dutch) was a father figure to my family and me and wanted to afford us every opportunity to be successful in the Netherlands as immigrants. Opa Blok was a trained experimental physicist, who also studied biophysical work in chemistry, biology and medicine. Opa lived through WWII and endured one year of having to study at home. He eventually married and had 5 children who I consider my older brothers and sisters.
My parents ultimately accepted his offer and from 6 months old, to 6 years old, I lived with the Blok family. At age 7, my mother and I moved from Amsterdam to Pasadena, California (USA); I remained in California through college. Every summer from age 8, I continued to visit Opa Blok, and his family, for anywhere from 6 – 8 weeks. Relationships worth having are layered and can be complicated. Throw in different continents and cultures it means you really have to want to foster and continue the relationship. I’m proud to say I still visit my extended family annually.
Starting at age 8, each summer when I arrived to Holland we would take a camping trip for 2-3 weeks (in a legit collapsible caravan and tents) to countries like France, Germany, and Switzerland. Much to my chagrin Opa would tutor me in math and science so I would be ahead in my studies when I returned to school in the U.S. each fall. We hiked, biked, and visited historical landmarks in countless cities. When at their home he would give me piano lessons.
The greatest gift Opa gave me is feeling incredibly loved by so many people (both his family, and my biological family). Growing up I really didn’t understand how unique my situation was. In my 8-year old logic, every child takes a 12 hour unaccompanied flight to visit grandparents in Europe. Opa opened the world to me and always treated me like his own grandchild, with dignity and a voice.
I remember writing him letters and it would take 6 weeks to get there, and 6 weeks to get a response. We both kept all the correspondences. Years later, Opa is also the first person I ever emailed with. He recommended I find the computer lab on my campus and set up an email address. We continuously emailed about all kinds of topics. Some memorable moments include when Angelina Jolie adopted Ethiopian-born Zahara Jolie-Pitt. Opa e-mailed me and jokingly said: “We loved an Ethiopian baby before it was trendy.” Years later when Barack Obama was elected President he said: “Thanks for your detailed description of the street parties in Washington, D.C., after the election of Barack Obama. It reminds me of the time in the Netherlands after the victory over the Germans in 1945. Spontaneous street parties! Everyone was convinced that there would come a new era and that all people would build the country up together again.”
There are countless stories I can share with you about my Opa’s kindness, selflessness and positivity, but the trait that inspires me the most is his determination. He was determined to do the right thing for family, love unconditionally, and teach us lessons he learned. I was in the room when he passed away. I have a bond with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We’re all extremely close because he made a decision 43 years ago that changed my life. I miss him everyday, not just Father’s Day.