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Interview with Robert Grimminck


A Source of Inspiration

Robert Grimminck has always been a source of inspiration for me. Even in my first meeting with him I was impressed by his gentle, kind and generous nature. He radiated peacefulness and tranquility. As time passed the special bond between us became stronger. After his accident I was amazed that rather than developing a pessimistic attitude towards life, he used that crisis as an opportunity to grow. He not only got in touch with the spiritual, artistic and creative part of his personality, but also went back to school and discovered the power of words. When I read his poems for the first time I was quite touched. For a person who was labeled a slow learner all his life, creating such beautiful poetry was nothing less than a miracle. I feel quite proud of his accomplishments and feel honored to be his close friend. I am confident that his story and poetry will touch people from all walks of life all over the world one day. In my whole life I have not come across very many people with such saintly qualities.

I hope the following interview will help readers to have a better appreciation of Robertís life and poetry.

Dr. K. Sohail

Interview with Robert Grimminck

Sohail: Rob! Let me start the interview with your family background. I am curious to know where your family came from and when did they emigrate to Canada?

Rob: My family was from the south of Holland. After the war the economy was not good in Holland and my parents, because of having a big family, were having difficulties. They were worried that their children would not have a good future in Holland. So to ensure a better and brighter future they gave up all their possessions, sold everything and moved to Canada. In 1953, to bring twelve children in a boat, it cost them their life savings. My family like many other Dutch families, landed in Halifax. From there the family boarded a train and came to Chatham, Ontario, because they were sponsored by a priest there. They lived in an immigrantsí home for a short while. After my father got a job as a carpenter, their living conditions started to improve.

Sohail: What did your dad do in Holland?

Rob: He was a carpenter. He once owned his own business and at one time used to build caskets. He also owned a home. They had a good life in Holland, but did not see a bright future for their children there.

Sohail: Were your parents from big families themselves? 

Rob: Yes, they were. My father was from a family of eleven and my mother from a family of seven, but they had fifteen children themselves.

Sohail: Where were you born?

Rob: In Chatham, Ontario.

Sohail: What are your earliest memories of your family?

Rob: I have a lot of memories about Christmas time, because for us children Christmas was always special. Now that I look back I feel that my parents must have sacrificed a lot, because they were quite poor, but they made Christmas special for us.

Sohail: So they are fond memories.

Rob: Yes, most of them. Both my parents were very loving parents. They did everything for their kids. They gave up everything in Holland and moved to Canada for their children.

Sohail: In one of your writings you wished you were his grandson rather than his son.

Rob: The reason for that is that my father was fifty-one when I was born. He was old and tired then. As I grew older we had differences of opinion. What I saw in my house was that the grandchildren were allowed to do certain things that I was not allowed to do and that made me jealous. I wished I were his grandchild and could be nurtured more like the other grandchildren. They were wonderful grandparents.

Sohail: What was your mother like as a person?

Rob: She was a wonderful loving person, but could also be domineering. She had to be strong to raise a big family. She could never let her guard down. Mom always had a strong hold on the family. She had to fend for all of us. By moving to Canada, not only did they have to learn a new language and adjust to a new society, they also had to fight for their rights. My mother argued with the teachers in the school. My older siblings went to a Catholic school and they were asked to wear a uniform, which my parents could not afford. All they had to wear was used clothing. My mother also had arguments with neighbors, because being a large immigrant family we got blamed for things we had not done. So my mother became a stronger woman fighting all those battles for her children in school and also in the neighborhood.

Sohail: What was it like for you growing up in a family of fifteen?

Rob: There seemed to be three families living in the same house. The older bothers and sisters, the middle brothers and sisters and then the younger ones. Dad went out to work and mom looked after the children. The older girls helped mom look after the younger kids. When the older boys were thirteen or fourteen they went out to work picking tomatoes. Some of the older sisters worked in an old nunís home and others cleaned houses. Some of the money they earned was spent to buy what the family needed. And they resented that. So there were power struggles in the family. The older siblings felt they were sacrificing things and felt disappointed that their younger siblings did not appreciate their sacrifices. They always felt we owed them something. There was a lot of sharing in our family, maybe at times too much sharing. People do need some kind of ownership.

Sohail: What are your earliest memories of school?

Rob: I remember going to kindergarten and my mom dressing me well. I was probably one of the best-dressed kids there. I always had this really nice plaid type of sweater with a bow tie and I liked to dress nice. The older siblings went to a Catholic school and faced a lot of problems with the nuns. This one nun in particular used to physically beat them and if they did not go to school because of fear, they were beaten again. So the older ones quit school and ended up working in the fields or cleaning houses. My mom was just horrified. She did not want the same thing to happen to the younger children, so she sent us to a public school. The public system was a little better. The teachers were good, but they still treated us as immigrants who were not very smart. I failed grade one there. Rather than helping me they ignored me. They did not seem to care whether we did well or not, they just pushed us through the system. They thought we had to work in the fields anyhow. Like my older brother and sisters I did not get any nurturing from my teachers. Later I remember we were labeled as a family of slow learners. They never tried to give us a good education.

Sohail: What language did you speak?

Rob: I spoke English. My parents spoke Dutch with all of us and could switch if they had to. I could talk Dutch, but I never talked to my parents in Dutch.

Sohail: Was your family religious, conservative and traditional, or were they liberal in their value system and lifestyle?

Rob: My family at one time was very religious. Before my father got married, he wanted to become a priest. All of his brothers were priests or missionaries. But in Holland you had to pay large amounts of money to become a priest. So my father being the oldest son got married and decided to have a large family. He tried to instill religious values in us. As long as he was alive we were asked to get down on our knees and pray the Rosary in Dutch after supper. But my mother was not as religious as my father. So after he had passed away she would jump from church to church. She was open to new ideas in life. When my mother was young, she was even rebellious against the church. When she was expected to wear her hair long, she cut it short. When she was supposed to wear a
dress she wore pants. I know I got my rebellious attitude from her. My father, on the other hand, was a deep thinker and sometimes philosophized about life. But in real life they were both confined to a religious frame of mind and traditional lifestyle.

Sohail: When you wrote the poem,

                                         When I Was Young

                                        When I was young
                                        the days
                                        were imperialistic
                                        like the times
                                        Dogma was the rule
                                        and God was feared
                                        life was simple then 
                                        and so was I

           What kind of dogma were you thinking about?

Rob: Being brought up in a family where your father was going to become a priest and having uncles as missionary brothers and my parents having priests for friends made for some one sided conversations. Priests liked big families who would invite them for special dinners and listen to their preaching on special dogmas and rituals. Back then for example I did not understand why people had to dress up to go to church. Why couldnít they go in jeans or what they normally wore? I never liked the rules the church enforced and also the concept of sin. When people did not follow certain rules they became sinners. I always believed that dogma was for God fearing people who could not think for themselves and needed guidance and I being an open-minded person always
questioned dogma.

Sohail: When did you break away from the traditions of family, school and the church?

Rob: I started questioning religion even when I was very young. I remember thinking as a child that if according to the bible if there was a big flood that destroyed the whole world then how come the world is still here. I used to question things that did not make sense to me. When I questioned things in school, I used to get in trouble. When I was in grade three I asked my teacher whether it was possible that a seed was dropped on earth and was planted here and then all life grew from it. My teachers used to discourage such questions. Once I went for confession and I told the priest that I questioned the existence of God and he kicked me out of church.

Sohail: Letís come back to your schooling. What happened after you failed grade one?

Rob: I believe my teachers thought I was stupid like many other immigrant familiesí children. They did not pay special attention to us. Now I look back at that period and remember that I had done some extraordinary things. When I was in grade seven I had written a book. It was about human anatomy. I had drawn the pictures by hand of different parts of the human body and had copied (plagiarized) the words from medical books to explain the pictures. I had placed them all in a nice binder and gave it to my teacher. The teacher said it was wonderful and showed it to other teachers, but he did not encourage me to pursue my artistic talent. They ignored and overlooked my special talent. Now that I look back I realize that I was very annoyed over that.

When I was in grade eight at graduation I received a leadership award, to my surprise, because I also had a talent for leadership skills. Although that leadership award was well deserved, I was sent to a vocational school for slow learners. So I started going to a vocational high school, Sir George Ross in London, which then only had grade ten basic education. I had to travel thirty miles to get there. I really enjoyed that school and performed very well. The teachers were nice. They saw that I and my older brothers and sisters worked hard and we were all at the top of our classes. That should have made someone think that if the Grimmincks are doing so well, they are not slow learners.

In that school I developed a special interest in photography and decided that I was going to become a photographer. They had a wonderful photography program and I did very well in it. I never did like to get my hands dirty so I did not want to become a mechanic or an upholsterer. I loved taking pictures and it was challenging to my creative abilities. It was a two-year course and I was confident that after finishing that course I could get a job as a photographer.
For the first time in my life, I was happy. I could see my dreams coming true. The following year I was forced to attend the local high school Medway High in Arva, because I lived thirty miles away and the school had just built a new addition to accommodate slow learners. I requested to stay at the same school for the second year to finish the photography program. The school board turned down my request. My parents tried hard, but the school board did not agree. So I was sent to a different school and my dreams were shattered.

(Rob started crying at this stage. After he composed himself he continued.)

In the new school there were a lot of problems, teenagers fighting using drugs, being delinquent and violent. Even in the new school I was sent to a slow learnerís class, but the teachers did not know how to teach children with special needs. They saw us as a bunch of farmers who did not have to learn anything. I was very frustrated. I worked hard, but the teachers did not acknowledge or appreciate my hard work. I got very angry, angry with my teachers and also with my parents for letting me be destroyed by the system. I was angry at the system that it did not let me be what I wanted to be. I had an opportunity to be a photographer, but I was deprived of that: I was so angry that I left school after basic grade ten. I left my studies prematurely and started in a factory making bicycle tires in the summer of 1973.

Sohail: How old were you then?

Rob: I was sixteen at that time. I enjoyed my factory work and made some money. I had no intention of ever going back to school, because there was no hope of a better education. But in my own heart, because of the way I thought, I felt more educated than many others who had more formal education than I did.

Sohail: How was your social life as a teenager?

Rob: I did not have a social life. I was a very lonely person. I remember an incident before I became a teenager. I was invited to a birthday party and I was all
excited. But then an hour before the party my friend called me up and told me I was not allowed to come, because there were already too many children. So I did not go to the party and I was brokenhearted. Interestingly enough three or four years ago when I took my sons to a baseball game I met that friend again.
He told me that he remembered that party and he felt bad for all those years for doing that. He did not say why nor did I want an explanation, but I knew that he felt bad about it.
So I did not socialize much and did not have any friends. When you have a big family your family members become your friends. My mother did not encourage friends. As a teenager we had to walk or bike over to a farmerís house who had a baseball field. There were no extra cars to take friends back and forth.

Sohail: So you were not only neglected in school, but also felt isolated socially.

Rob: Yes. I felt a little more isolated because I was one of the younger ones. The older siblings could drive cars and had made friends and started dating. I used to feel quite lonely.

Sohail: At what age did you start dating?

Rob: I never started dating until I was eighteen. After working in a different factory for a couple years I met some girls through the guys I used to work with. I remember dating a girl for six months. She was very good looking. In fact she came second in a Beauty Queen contest at the CNE in Toronto. But then again she was from a well-educated family and she knew that my life was going nowhere. So we finally broke up. Then I went out with a few more girls, but they did not last either. And then I met Teresa. Her parents were unique. They took me for what I was. There was a special bond between us. Like me, her father was from a family of fifteen. They saw I was a hard-working guy and they embraced me right away. The interesting thing was that although I liked Teresa, she was not the type of woman I was looking for. I wanted a woman who was going to stay at home with my children while I worked. When I got to know Teresa I realized that she was like my mother. She was a strong woman who could take control. She had a good sense of direction in her life and she had focus. Teresa told me I could become whatever I wanted to become and she would help me in achieving my goals.

Teresa has some of the same qualities as my mom. She is strong and would not let anyone bring her down.

Sohail: What was your parentsí reaction to the women you dated?

Rob: My dad had passed away before I started dating. My mother did not meet the other women I dated. I never brought them home. When my siblings met Teresa it was not that they did not like her, but she was not the so called, ďtraditional womanĒ and that is what they did not like. But I liked her partly because they did not like that quality in her. I knew they could not push us around because of her strengths. In her presence it was very difficult for them to say anything. Surprisingly, Teresa and my mother got along fine. They were both strong women and respected each otherís territory. My mom had a lot of respect for Teresaís family, because they were educated, hard working and well respected in the community.

Sohail: Was Teresa in nursing school at the time?

Rob: Yes, when I met her she was just starting nursing school at Fanshawe College at the St. Thomas campus. 

Sohail: How long did you know each other before marriage?

Rob: We dated for three years before we got married.

Sohail: How did you take the final step?

Rob: Because of insecurities I dumped her many times. Once I told her that I wanted to pursue my photography and did not have the money. But each time she found an excuse to get back. She always nurtured me and told me that we could work out our problems together. But then I would find another excuse to dump her. And then at a New Yearís dance, when we had known each other almost two years we got into a disagreement and she dumped me. She told me she wanted nothing to do with me. And that shocked me. I could not believe that she had left me. At that time I realized that she was the right woman for me, as she brought out the best in me. So I proposed to her and then a year later we got married.

Sohail: For how long have you been married?

Rob: Seventeen years.

Sohail: How many children do you have?

Rob: Five boys.

Sohail: How is your marital and family life different than you expected?

Rob: My concept of the family was very traditional. I hoped my wife would stay at home and I would work, but it turned out quite opposite. Teresa was the main breadwinner and carried the financial burden while I lost my job and had to stay at home for two years with my oldest boys. We reversed our roles. Teresa
had the full time career and I did the cooking and the cleaning and took care of the two oldest boys. Surprisingly I really enjoyed that. My staying home developed a special bond between me and the children and I also learnt how much work it is to look after the house and the children. I learnt to share the workload with Teresa, and since I went back to work we share the responsibilities at home, which enhances our relationship.

Sohail: Did the nurturing side of your personality surprise you?

Rob: It surprised me, but it felt natural. My mom used to tell me that when they first got married my dad used to help her with the chores. So it must have been part of me, but I had not realized it.

Sohail: I always perceived you as a gentle, kind and caring man, quite different than other men, who have a traditional macho attitude. Do you see yourself as different than most men around you?

Rob: Yes, I am very different. I am not into any sports. I am more into philosophy and peopleís feelings and nurturing others. People come to me with their problems and I listen. I may not give advice, because my advice might not be good, but I am sympathetic. I do not always enjoy my conversations with men, but I can carry on in-depth conversations with women. I find some men are always trying to prove that they are bigger, better and stronger, but I have no desire to do that. I care about people and what makes them tick not the materialistic things.

Sohail: You mentioned that you drew in school and also had an interest in photography. At what stage did you become conscious that you were an artist and that the creative side of your personality needed to be nurtured and developed?

Rob: Actually I never did and I donít believe that I am a real artistic person. I always felt that it was a stage I was going through. I taught myself to play the guitar. I learnt to play it well, but then I stopped it. I always could draw and sometimes very well, but then I stopped doing it. Everything I did, I did it very well for a short time and then stopped it. That is what worries me about my writing. You have heard me talk off and on about stopping it. Thatís because I donít feel confident about my creative potential. I donít think it can go anywhere. I am surprised that I have been writing as long as I have. I find it hard to see myself as a real artist.

Sohail: Is it because you have not found the right form of expression, a form that you can stay with for the rest of your life? Is it that you are still dating and have not
found your partner? I believe that one day it will come together for you.

Rob: I believe it only when some one says it. I see my Industrial Design skills and I know that I am good at it. I see my poetry and some good things are happening there. And I see my participation on advisory boards as expressing leadership skills. But I donít seem to have the confidence. I canít see when they will all come together. Without the reassurance I think I am going to fail. It will take a person like you, a person like Teresa, or a teacher like Sam Morrison, who will help me get there. All of you have been trying, but I donít think I have done it yet. I have the potential, but I havenít reached it yet.

Sohail: Do you say all that because of your insecurities, or because you are a modest and humble person?

Rob: I do downplay it because I am always waiting for the big fall.

Sohail: A person who was considered a slow learner in school, goes back to school and gets all kind of awards. Does that not make you feel confident?

Rob: Yes in some ways. My biggest achievement was going back to school and getting my high school diploma with honors through my hard work and being recognized for that achievement. All the other awards were a bonus. I appreciate all those bonuses, but I am fully aware that it is going to stop. But I will always be thankful for being recognized for my achievements and maybe I can inspire and encourage others through my literature. If I could do that I will feel successful, but I still donít feel secure or successful at this point.

Sohail: You know that you have already inspired a number of children and adults.

Rob: Yes.

Sohail: You know that you ignite a spark of enthusiasm and optimism in people you meet.

Rob: When any student or person comes to me and tells me that they were inspired by me I do feel successful.

Sohail: In your poetry I feel undertones of spirituality. How did you develop the humanistic and spiritual aspect of your personality?

Rob: I think I got it from my mother and father. My parents were not materialistic. Whatever they did, they did for their children. Material things never really interested me. I think I always had a spiritual side to me, but it was not until I got married and studied different religions that I got in touch with my spiritual dimension. But I did not express it until I had the industrial accident, and started writing. It was at that time that I had to ask myself ďWhat do I want from life?Ē And I decided that I wanted education. It was during that time that I was reading the book Seth Speaks which helped me see life from a totally different 
perspective. It was at that time I started believing that I could change my life and since then I have changed a lot of things for myself and one of them is discovering my spirituality.

Sohail: What did you learn from Seth?
Rob: I also read another book called Seth Material which describes a completely new concept of life. I learnt that we all are part of All That There Is and we have multi-dimensional selves. We experience them simultaneously. We experience past, present and future all at the same time. It would be like running three movie projectors, one projecting the history of the Romans, one the present life and the third one Star Wars, all at the same time, but unaware of each other. Seth introduced me to a completely new philosophy. To believe in our dreams and that we actually create our own reality.

And then I read Walt Whitman who was saying almost the same kind of stuff. I could not believe a poet like Whitman writing similar things hundred years ago. To me it seem so radical for his times.

Sohail: Who introduced you to Whitmanís writing and philosophy?

Rob: When I was taking a grade eleven English course at the Centre for Lifelong Learning my teacher Sam Morrison who also read Seth told me that if I liked Sethís books I would enjoy Walt Whitman, because they have similar philosophies. Sam wanted me to do a presentation on Whitman. So I started researching him and I started to read his stuff. It was difficult in the beginning, but a few things hit me right away. As I was reading about Walt I also started to draw him. I could feel in his hair the elements of life. I could feel the hardships and the gracefulness in the wrinkles of his face. While I was drawing Whitman I could sense that his eyes were worldly and he was a loving person. I could feel his poetry. So I drew Walt all out and I wrote a poem about him and presented all that to the class with an oral presentation. Sam was impressed. He gave me a mark of 11 out of 10 and I presented my drawing as a gift to Sam as he had introduced him to me. Sam loved the drawing. Reading Walt Whitman opened a new world for me and I started writing. It all came out and I felt strange. I had not planned it. It was all a surprise for me. It kept pouring out and it is still pouring out.

Sohail: How has that outpouring of creative energy in poetry and literature changed your life?

Rob: My poetry connected me to the world. In one sense it connected me to you. I remember the dinner when you read my poetry and told me it was wonderful and gave me a few suggestions. I then sent my poems to other poets and I was surprised by their responses. I was ready for negative responses. I wanted someone to say to me ďRob! Itís terrible. You might as well give up writing.Ē But they did not say that. They all encouraged me and gave hints to make it better. They were all extremely helpful. I wondered why they would encourage a nobody. And then I started enjoying writing and then I saw my philosophy being expressed through my poetry. I would read my poems to ordinary people and they liked it too. Whenever I did lectures on illiteracy I incorporated poems into my presentations and people raved over them. They loved my poetry and I came to realize that there was something more to my poetry then I had originally thought.

Sohail: So you were surprised when you touched the hearts and souls of ordinary people with you poetry?

Rob: Yes, I was. Because I am not always touched by other peopleís poetry. I was touched by Walt Whitman, Togore and by some of Earle Birneyís work. For example his poem ďDavidĒ touched me. So I was surprised when I touched other peopleís hearts.

Sohail: You talked about an inner child in your poetry. Tell me about him.

Rob: I firmly believe that my inner child was never developed or nurtured in a healthy way. Being brought up in a large family who had neither the time nor the caring attitude made family dynamics difficult for me. So the academic and creative aspect of my personality never had an opportunity to develop until just recently.

Sohail: What do you foresee now in your family, academic, literary and social lives? How do you see your future unfolding?

Rob: It is hard for me to foresee, because a lot of things are happening. I have a lot of options, but there are also a lot of barriers. My poetry is developing, but it is not mature enough. My industrial design skills are very good, but the economy is not doing very well. The school has indicated that it would like to hire me as a part time teacher, but I need full time work. I feel confident that finally I will get over these stumbling blocks, but I am not sure which road I will take.

Sohail: So there are possibilities, but no concrete plans.

Rob: Yes. 
Sohail: Do you see a bright future ahead of you?

Rob: I always had worked hard and tried to do my best, but I always faced hurdles. I hope one day I can inspire other people and by sharing with them my little story, I hope that it gives them courage to follow their own dreams.

Sohail: In the end I want to ask about your dream. In your poem `Sometimes' you write: 

                                        Sometimes all we have to do 
                                        is dream a different dream 
                                        and really believe 
                                        it will come true 

                                        Tell me about your dream. 

Rob: I always had dreams and I tried to make them come true, because they were not unrealistic. If I were going to dream about being a brain surgeon it would be unrealistic, but after my industrial accident I dreamt of going back to school which I did. Receiving my grade twelve diploma was the fulfillment of that dream. I not only received education myself, I was also instrumental in changing the law that all adult learners have the right to a high school diploma. My dream helped other peoplesí dreams come true. Even in College, I had become one of the top students. When I suffered from the accident I had the choice of just lying in bed doing nothing but whine and complain. I had every right to suffer and complain. My doctor had told me that my injury was so serious that I could have been crippled for the rest of my life. I could have easily taken the martyrís path and been pensioned off permanently, but I chose another way. I went back to school and Teresa helped me. She encouraged me and I succeeded.

Sohail: When I look at your dedication and commitment and accomplishments I feel very proud. I know that there are millions of people in Canada and all over the world who are illiterate. I believe that your story will be a source of inspiration for all of them. I believe that your dream can become the dream of millions of others. I feel very optimistic about your future.

Rob: The last time you encouraged me like this and supported me, I felt inspired to write a poem called ĎA Voiceí that I want to share with you.

A Voice
The cries of millions reach out
and I have become their voice
I stand literally naked
in front of the world
for all to see
to be judged
perhaps mocked
to tell my most secret
a silent soldier
fighting a silent war
where the pen
is mightier
the sword


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