Friday, March 29, 2013

HvS | Life and Religious Journey (Superseded)

[Superseded by May 9 2014 post -]

© 2013 by Boissevain Books LLC, NYC 

Chapter 1. My Mother and Her Family

 I was lucky in being born into a wonderful family. My mother's father was of Huguenot extraction. It is on record that the Boissevains fled their native Gascony after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and my ancestor, a mother of a large family, had hidden herself and her children in a wagon of hay. When she came to the border, French soldiers, wishing to be sure that no one was hidden inside the hay, plunged their spears through it. One went through Madame Boissevain’s leg, but far from crying out, she had the presence of mind to wipe the blood off the spear with her skirt when it was withdrawn. In this manner she was able to leave the country and take refuge in Amsterdam.

Charles and Emily Boissevain, My Mother’s Parents 

Gathering of the Boissevain Family in 1920-21, at Drafna,
east of Amsterdam in Naarden-Bussum. The seated
gentleman with the white hair is Charles, with his wife
Emily MacDonnell next to him.
There was a lot of Old Gascony left in my grandfather Charles. He was certainly not typically Dutch. As a handsome youth, with a mop of brown hair elegantly arched over a fine, intellectual forehead, deepest grey eyes and an aquiline nose - he went to Ireland as a reporter for a Dutch paper. He was to cover the annual horse show in Dublin, at which Dutch cavalrymen were in the habit of competing.

In the process he met my great grandfather, Hercules MacDonnell, who at that time lived at Sorrento Cottage, Dalkey, with his wife and numerous children. One of these children, Emily Heloise, of an attractive, marriageable age, very much took my grandfather's fancy. His courtship was dashing and French. He wrote poems for (which he continued to do to the end of his life) and smothered her with wily jokes and light allusions to an undying affection.

As she herself said afterwards: "I never meant to marry him, but he called me his wife so often in public, while making me laugh too much to deny it, that I found myself married to him before I knew it." She cannot have found the idea of marrying him too unpleasant, however, as theirs was a very happy union, which was blessed with eleven children.

There are many stories of their early married life in staid and stiff Holland. My grandmother had been used to a great deal of freedom - diving from the rocks into the sea as often as she liked - dashing about on horseback and roaming with young gentlemen through the streets of Dalkey - either discussing philosophy or visiting the poor (“which I didn't like much," she once confessed in a letter to my mother).

In Amsterdam the situation was different. There was a rigid social code there. Ladies were never seen outside in the mornings, a time exclusively reserved for servants and tradespeople. Anyone can imagine the consternation of my grandfathers relatives when they looked out of their windows one frosty morning and saw poor Charles's wife (“Irish, you know”) skating along the canals in the morning arm in arm with her cook.

My grandmother struggled valiantly with the Dutch language but I believe for the first year of his married life my grandfather was fed on beefsteak and potatoes as these were the only words my grandmother could pronounce well. She never really captured the Dutch language though she lived for more than 60 years in Holland as against 20 or so in Ireland.

The eleven children came very rapidly one after the other. My grandfather composed a poem on it.
"Oh Heaven O Heaven
O where am I driven
My children were seven
And now they're eleven."
One was more beautiful than the other, and as my grandmother disapproved of the Dutch fashions, they were all dressed in clothes patterned on the famous English "Liberty" style and sewn by my mother’s Yorkshire nurse Polly - who stayed with family till she died and was as much beloved as their mother.

Meanwhile my grandfather, with the well-known industry of a man who has numerous offspring - made a tremendous career for himself in the newspaper world and soon made the modest little paper he worked on into the most important Dutch daily, of which he became editor and part-owner. His literary contributions were spirited and alive, full of humor and wit, with a quixotic tendency to fight evil and champion the underdog.

He soon had to travel a lot (as so many fathers of large families seem to find themselves compelled to do) and visited various countries, writing amusing descriptions and vivid impressions of his itineraries. Sometimes he took a favorite child - usually the eldest girl, who was very beautiful and gifted. On these voyages he often made girl friends who would write him sentimental little reminders at Christmas. "Love from your Scottish Thistle" - "Greetings from your Irish rose" - "Gretchen sends you her warmest affection".

Grandfather would look puzzled and finger his mustache.

"Who on earth is that," he'd ask, bewildered.

“Oh, don't you remember?" his wife would answer sedately. "That's the girl you read poetry to, on the Rhine."

Or: "She was your partner at that dinner in London. The girl who laughed at your jokes." Then a light would dance in his eyes, and my grandfather would be able to return the greeting.

My grandfather was scrupulous about obeying the customs law, so much so that the officials didn't ever open his bags any more. They knew they could trust him.

"Now Charley, you could very well bring some wine to my relatives in England," pleaded his wife.  "Nobody ever looks inside your bags."

But my grandfather told her with horror that such a thing would be unthinkable. Only an unprincipled Irish woman could take the law so lightly. My grandmother pursed her lips and answered not. My grandfather duly travelled to London and had the usual amiable treatment at the customs which he took as a matter of course, walking off righteously.

Imagine his horror, however, when, upon opening his bags at the hotel he found a row of wine bottles spread out on top, for everyone to see!!

My grandfather gradually became one of the best-known characters in Amsterdam, and his family was famous. As the nurse wheeled the pram with the latest curly-haired Boissevain prodigy and the older children walking around her, their glossy black curls carefully brushed (even those of the boys), their grey Irish eyes shining mischievously under dark lashes, there would be whispers:

"There's Charles Boissevain's family - he's got an Irish wife - those are English fashions - aren't they lovely?"

My grandfather used to carry photographs of his children around in his pockets producing them at the least provocation, which earned him the name of "The Kangaroo".

Olga Boissevain, My Mother

My mother was in the exact middle of this vivacious, beautiful and gifted family. There were three boys and two girls older than she and three girls and two boys younger. She was not one of the most beautiful, though she was lovely to look at - but she soon distinguished herself by remarkable mental ability.

"Olga had the brain of a man," her mother used to say. Whereas most of the other girls married before they were well in their twenties, my mother waited till she was past thirty. While the other girls loved to go out to dances and concerts and took an interest in clothes, my mother wished to study. In those days girls didn't study and my grandmother opposed the idea. My grandfather, however, let her write little articles for his paper and even sent her to Switzerland for a while to take courses in the university at Beme.

This didn't last long however - as the consensus of opinion was that my mother should stay home and get married. My mother was a rebel and at that time she was an atheist. Her brothers and sisters all belonged to their father's Walloon church - rather like the Anglican church, but my mother had been born at a time when my grandfather had a tiff with the Walloon minister and so she was baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church instead. The Dutch Reformed Church didn't agree with my mother. She said that Catechism classes with the reformed Dominee [the name for clergy in the Dutch reformed church] took away whatever religion she naturally had.

It was not until after she was married and had been brought very low in an illness, that she got back her religious sense. She went through a course of psychoanalysis which gave her a revelation of the evil in herself and made her see that order is a divine harmony, created by God. In the end, she was, I think religious in a deeper and more passionate way than her more orthodox sisters and brother - some of whom lost their faith later in life. But at first her religion was a kind of reverent agnosticism with little form in it.

My mother was a very emotional person as well as a logical thinker. She had inherited my grandfather's eloquence and wit and imagination, coupled with my grandmother's sense of fun and impatience of goody-goodness. There was a bit of the quixote in her too - her temper would flash up and flame from her eyes at the least sign of injustice. She was not a cautious person.

As a mother she was most satisfying and to the end of her life she was my best friend. I don't think she'd have ever failed one of her children under any circumstances. 

Chapter 2. Bram van Stockum, My Father, and World War I 

My father was an entirely different personality. He was one of nine children - there were two brothers and two sisters older than him and a brother and three sisters younger. His father and mother belonged to the same stiff, Dutch Protestantism that had failed to impress my mother. It failed to impress my father too. My van Stockum Grandmother got a note from the Dominee saying:

"Your sons are very well behaved and good boys - but I would prefer it if you didn't send them to Sunday school any more as they ask too many questions."

My father, of course, was a terror. His stories about his youth were an unfailing source of entertainment to his children. There was the time when he lived in Lisse, in South Holland, and he designed a sailing wagon out of a sister’s outgrown buggy and sailed along the streets of Lisse with it at terrifying speed. This was before the advent motorcars and the farmers complained that their horses bolted at the sight. So the burgomaster of Lisse decreed that the wagon might only be sailed in the fields.

Then there was the terrifying day when his little sister Pierre stood on the wagon alone and a gust of wind bore her off at great speed towards the canal. My father told me he never ran so fast in his life and managed to catch the wagon before it toppled into the canal with its precious load.

His father was notary of Lisse and a rather stiff, dry man, not given to affectionate gestures. He and my father didn't get on at all - though my father once did say to his mother: "Please tell Papa not to beat me, it hurts him more than it does me," which was in his case literally true.

Another of my father’s exploits was to climb the church tower of Lisse and he said that the thing that amused him most about it was the commotion it made in the village - and how he saw two older women holding up their aprons to catch him if he fell. He used to make slingshots and many shop windows fell victim to his pebbles. Soon - whenever anything got broken, Bram van Stockum got the blame. Once a month his mother got the bill and she'd call Bram.

"Look over this, dear - and see if it’s correct."

Bram would go over it.

"Yes - the butcher’s window - I did that on Friday - and the Shoemaker’s window on Wednesday - and Miss Willem's in the same day but I never did the baker's window - that's a lie - who dares say I did the baker's window?"

So my grandmother would not pay for the baker’s window - as my father was the soul of honesty.

He also was a terrific fighter. His older sister Dina would have to carry his satchel home from school so he would have his hands free. And once he built a house in one of his father's favorite trees, which was hidden until the leaves fell in the autumn - and an outraged parent gave him a thrashing for it. There are revealing bits about those youthful days - how he used to imagine a statue erected in the village square to his honor - and how his mother had to bribe him to read books.

My father had an extremely affectionate nature but he was not emotional, like my mother. He used to be amused at the adventures she would be able to recount after a short journey and he said of her that of she were locked in solitary confinement for a week she'd still have hair-raising adventures with a rat.
Hilda van Stockum at 25.

My father married late in life - he was passionately fond of his freedom, and reluctant to tie himself down. My mother’s married life with him was extremely odd. My father was a naval officer and an inventor. He married because a depth-regulator for mines which he had designed had become a success and he believed he would be rich. Unfortunately the invention was stolen and he never got a penny for it - though it was used (with minor alterations) and proved very successful. So my father and mother started their married life deeply in debt and my mother naturally wanted to save. She made my father simpler and simpler breakfasts and he never protested. She grew very proud of him until he said to her one day: "Wouldn't it be better, love, if you gave me my breakfast at home. It gets rather expensive going to a hotel all the time!"

My mother had been brought up like a lady. The eleven Boissevain children had not been encouraged to learn the household arts. Those were the days of servants. Most of the girls turned out good housekeepers anyway, out of instinct I suppose, but not mother. It is one of the stories of her early married life that she discovered thick dust on the mantel piece, flicked it with her finger and said pensively to her husband; as if she'd made a terrific discovery: "Wouldn't it be a good idea to wipe that off?"

My father was a connoisseur of food. He knew his wines, for instance. Once his friends wanted to test him, and blindfolded him. He was given many different wines to sip and unfailingly placed them. Finally his friends thought they'd stymie him and mixed two wines together.

"That's odd," said my father. "I can't make out whether it’s this one or that," naming the two wines that had been mixed. His friends gave up after that.

It was rather awkward to have a person of such fine taste in the house. While we'd all be enjoying some store-bought cake, he'd push it away in disgust. "Margarine and saccharine," he'd mutter, outraged. Or: "the eggs weren't fresh."

On the other hand, his enjoyment of good food was a pleasure to behold - every taste was relished. Mother said that though she began by disliking oysters she learned to like them from watching my father eat them. Afterwards I often wondered at the casual way most people treat oysters - making soups and stews of them and acting as if they had no dignity. There was only one way my father would eat them - as they lay cosily in their mother-of-pearl bed, with a sprinkling of lemon juice over them. And opening them was a kind of religious ceremony. It was no wonder that my mother in the early days was swayed by his preferences and ordered caviar and oysters almost every day, until a relative told her that was not the way to save.

For an emotional lady like my mother, my father was not a wholly satisfactory husband. For one thing, his hours were not normal. His brain only became active after 4 pm and then he would work through the night. Going to bed around the time my mother got up he would presently sleep through most of her waking hours. That was, of course, when he wasn't on active duty. He usually had some sort of invention on hand at which he worked furiously, not noticing my mother much. As those were the days before she had children and as they lived in a lonely country place, my mother found it a bit dull. There was the memorable evening when she rebelled. Finding my father absorbed as usual, my mother simmered slowly by the fire until suddenly she kicked up her feet so that one slipper hit the ceiling and the other flew right across the room and she exclaimed passionately.

"I'm going out of this house and I'll run off with the first man I meet."

My father, roused out of his meditations, took in the whole situation at a glance and went into one of his delightful, shoulder shaking laughs - which immediately restored the harmony. (Mother liked nothing so much as having her jokes appreciated.)

In some ways my father never outgrew his childhood. He lived his whole life in near-poverty and always expected to be made a millionaire by each of his inventions. Whatever money he had always went on patents. Once he was complaining that mother hadn't cooked the rice properly - My father had strict views on rice which must have each grain separate and soft, but not moist. My mother said irritably:

"Well, why don't you invent a pan which would make rice the way you want it."

That was enough to start off my father and my mother soon rued her words. My father was up all night in the sitting room and in the morning my mother was greeted by a pitying servant who shook her head and said: "Ah, poor Mr. van Stockum - isn't it sad about him." My mother asked anxiously "Why? What's happened?"

"He must be ill," said the servant. "Look what he did -" and opening the door she revealed the result of my father's nocturnal labor. Several enormous mounds of cooked rice had been carelessly emptied out on the Turkish carpet and various pots and pans of my mother's were lying about with holes punched into them.

The result of these efforts was a very efficient pan which would infallibly make the right kind of rice if you obeyed instructions. It was a kind of steamer and would cook any kind of vegetable in a wholesome way. We used it all our lives and valued it but it wasn't a commercial success as it needed a modicum of intelligence to use it. I still remember an attic full of these pans which were never sold.

Sometimes, when my father had a marvelous idea he would wake my mother up in the middle of the night and take her for a walk on the moors. She was very sleepy at those times and found it difficult to follow his thoughts but her warm heart always responded to his need for companionship.

She often said that she was glad that my father never made a success of his inventions. It was only lack of money that curbed his ambitions and when he regaled us children with stories of what he would do when his millions came in, in a year or so - I could see my mother shudder. It always involved an enormous house full of gadgets and once he even had an idea for a miniature railway in our garden. Once, when I was about ten years old, my mother got a legacy. I had been begging her for a little playhouse as my Grandmother had in the garden for her grandchildren to play with. It was just large enough for two children to sit in - it had a nameplate and a bell and a letterbox on the door and a window with curtains and a little chimney on top - exactly as if it were a big house. My mother wanted to use part of the legacy to give me such a house and my father said he'd design it for me. But alas, it was not his idea to follow the conventional which delights a child. He had an invention of a door which could open on either side (it had no hinges but worked on the principle of a banknote wallet.)

It was a complete success. The door did open on both sides. But who wants a door opening on both sides? It was a great disappointment to me. (There was no letterbox, nameplate or bell either.) It was done on crossed ropes.

My father was an extremely sensitive person. As a small boy it was well known that he could be led by a kind word though he resisted all compulsion. He had a loathing of any kind of harshness. When anybody spoke unkindly to or of a person, my father would get up and leave the room with an expression of real suffering on his face. Though he was an atheist for the greater part of his life he never spoke a profane word or showed any irreverence towards traditionally holy things. He was a tremendous example to us children as he never lost his patience. His only way of protest was to leave the room and meditate in the seclusion of his study. With children he was at his best - he loved them. I remember walking hand in hand with him and hearing Kipling's Just So jungle stories retold by him. On another occasion he bought me "Alice in Wonderland" and read it out to me, punctuated with his shoulder-shaking laughter.

Then there was the day when he took me to the Amsterdam Zoo and I lost the paper whistle with the colored streamers he had bought me. Later we found it trampled in the dirt and I got my first lesson in philosophy, in the transitoriness of all worldly glory. I don't remember his arguments at that time but when I was a little older a similar thing happened. My father had bought me a bag of sweets and I lost it on the road. I wept bitterly until my father told me of the little poor boy who was going to come along that road and find that bag of sweets - and the delight it was going to be to him. That dried my tears.

No children were ever too young to talk to, according to my father, and we were treated to the best of his thoughts from the first. My mother says he even talked to me as an infant and I can well believe it. I know I worshiped him and liked nothing so well as to sit on the little saddle he had made for me on the crossbar of his bike - with his arms around me and the whole wide world in front. 

My Father’s Naval Career 

My father's naval career was unusual. Several times he risked his reputation for an idea. At the naval port of "Den Helder" there used to be exercises of the navy - one part of the fleet would be the "enemy" and the other "Dutch". The enemy would have to sneak into the harbor at night without having been spotted by a searchlight. In my father's early days he was appointed captain of such an "enemy" ship. And he didn't like the assignment. The "enemy" never won. It couldn't win.

The searchlight covered all of the navigable space. Father felt it was unfair. He was always ambitious, and he wanted to win. He explored the approaches to the harbor and found a place not covered by the searchlights which was considered too shallow for the kind of ship my father commanded. My father always wanted to find things out for himself and he measured it. According to his calculations he could make it. And so, on the fateful night, he went over this dark stretch of water, his heart in his mouth. If he grounded that ship it would have been the end of his career in the navy. He often told us how he listened with beating heart to the ominously dwindling numbers of the depth meter - until at last - it remained steady - steady - steady and my father’s ship came through. It caused terrific excitement in Den Helder - as it was the first time the "enemy" had won for years. It was on that occasion that my mother first met my father and that he and she quarreled about the number of children they wanted to have. It was ten years later before they finally married.

My father once won a sailing match through similar daring. He took his boat from Den Helder at the Northern Tip of Holland down to Rotterdam harbor in the south, whence he'd reach the lakes where the regatta was held. Unfortunately the wind rose while he was sailing over the North Sea and something went wrong with the rigging so he couldn't take down the sails. They flew like a bird over the storm-tossed sea.

"Can you swim?" asked my father anxiously of the sailor who was with him.

“Like a brick," said the man, meaning it literally. But he had full confidence in my father. My father believes that they made Rotterdam harbor on account of the fact that all sails were up. He said if one of those enormous breakers had overtaken them they'd have been done for - but they went faster. Nobody afterwards would believe that he'd gone into that harbor in that weather. The next day the wind had considerably abated but all the other sailboats had only half sails up. Of course my father saw no need in taking down his sails and so he won the match with ease. (we still have the little silver tea set he got on that occasion).

My father always deplored the advent of steam. His first ship was a clipper and he could tell appetizingly of the activity and skill involved in handling sails and the way you were alive to the weather and became one with your ship.

World War I 

My father wasn't a pacifist but he believed all wars should be fought at sea. He was very much against women and children being involved and he felt land-warfare was unchivalrous and messy. "At sea we do not fight against people." he said. "We save them when we can. We fight ships."

It was the fact that the Germans broke this rule in their naval warfare and refused to save the crews of sinking ships or failed to give sufficient warning, that turned Father against then during the First World War.

They do not understand the laws of the sea-" he said with disgust.

He was commander of the seaport to Amsterdam called Ymuiden in 1914 - and once when a British warship was mined just outside the harbor he had the crew rescued, clothed, fed and dispatched to England before the night was gone. Of course, my mother said, “Holland was neutral. But father was never neutral."

He always maintained that we should have come to the aid of Belgium when it was brutally invaded by the Germans in 1914.

“But think of all the suffering that would have brought on Holland-" protested my mother.

"No matter - when a brother is attacked, you don't stand by and do nothing - you help." said my father. "The same rule goes for nations as for individuals." I often thought of those words when the 1939 war was upon us and he was so plainly proved right.

Once, during the First World War, my father invented a gadget that horrified my mother. It was a kind of automatic torpedo which could be directed infallibly towards an enemy harbor - where it would explode. My mother thought this diabolical and wept and argued until my father tore up this invention. Perhaps if there had been more wives and husbands like that we wouldn't have the atom bomb upon us now.

My father had tremendous physical strength and seemed to me most courageous. He smiled when I told him that.

“Not at all - " he said. "I wasn't brave. I just couldn't imagine anything going wrong." He always said that he could stand any pain as long as he could clench his teeth - that's why he was a coward at the dentist's. He was so afraid of the dentist that he once pulled one of his own teeth. I can remember it clearly, my father standing in front of a mirror with a pair of plyers clenched around the offending tooth - tugging at it for all he was worth.

"Bram," my mother called from downstairs. "Dinner is ready!"

"I'll be down in a minute." my father replied. "It's half out already!"

Once my father was vice-admiral for a while and his beautiful uniform made a deep impression on me. He had a three-cornered hat with a plume and he had gold-braid epaulettes on his shoulders. The gold-braid on his sleeves and trousers glittered and he wore a saber at his side and white gloves. He was covered with medals which he said he got for sailing and bowing at royalty.

He used to have dinner with Queen Wilhelmina and he often told us children with relish how a minister had taken a spoonful of boiling hot soup and was growing purple in the face, unable to swallow it though not daring to return it to its original place. The Queen noticed it.

"Spit it out - your Excellency," she cried with maternal solicitude. "Spit it out!"

He used to take me to see processions of the royal family - I'll never forget the lined streets - the waving flags - the handsome Cavalry men and the open carriage in which the Queen and prince consort bowed from left to right.

When my father became a naval officer, the Queen of the Netherlands was very young. He saw her crowned as a girl of 18 and I think he fell in love with the slim, long-necked dignity of her. His feeling for her was always that of a champion and he often said he preferred to have a Queen to fight for than a King. Not that he did an awful amount of fighting. He participated in some minor skirmishes in the East Indies, that was all, until the first World War came.

He was sent on several exploring expeditions in New Guyana, which he had described himself in a diary. He penetrated forests where no European had yet set foot and gave names to mountaintops, the Van Stockumberg being one of them.

My father was a terrific arguer but a fair one. When you beat him in an argument he always acknowledged it and congratulated you with as much pleasure as if he'd thought of the idea himself. My mother says that her intellect went through a terrific course of training with him, as his ideas were so original and unconventional that he was hard to live with unless you could convince him that the generally accepted way was best. She managed to convince him several times, and on each occasion the matter was closed. My father gave in and the subject was never mentioned again.

One such argument dealt with the training of us children. At heart my father was an anarchist with a flavor of Rousseau [who loved the state of nature]. He believed children to be naturally good and able to grow up perfect if not interfered with. All my mother’s efforts at discipline were considered interfering with nature. My mother said that nothing less than the welfare of her children would have embarked her on the argument that ensued. I believe they argued day and night for a week, but in the end mother won and we were brought up normal children instead of savages. The only remnant of his former attitude could be found in the fact that he didn't like our table manners to be corrected.

"The children will learn from looking at us." he maintained. "Meanwhile conversation at table should be pleasant." If mother sometimes forgot and burst out in irritation at our bad manners he'd leave the room.

Another extraordinary trait of my father's was his opinion about time. One of the tragedies of my childhood invariably went like this: Father and Mother would take us out on a trip in the train. We were all dressed neatly and left much too early on account of Mother's nervousness. Father would laugh to see us go.

"You'll have to wait for hours." he'd warn us. "I'll follow later."

"I don't care." Mother would answer defiantly. Of course we did have to wait for a long time on a cold and draughty platform. The train would eventually come, but not father. With tearful faces glued to the carriage windows we would see him arrive just as the train pulled out of the station. To go out together with him mother used to say, she'd have to aim for a later train and he for an earlier one.

Once we went on a trip in a donkey carriage with my father. We were not allowed to beat the donkey. Though it went at a snail’s pace.

“It will run when it wants to," said my father treating us to many stories of gentleness and charity to animals. It was a very edifying journey but it took us all a day to get to the seaside place that we should have reached for brunch - and instead we all had to stay overnight at a hotel. The next day we went home by train and father's orderly made the return trip in the donkey carriage in two hours. You have no idea how slowly a donkey can go that knows it’s not going to be beaten! And how fast it can go if it does!

I don't really know what that trip taught me. I think I dimly felt that some ideals cost more than they're worth. But I honored and loved my father for it all the same.

Both my father and my mother always followed their consciences. When they were atheists they were so from a mistaken idealism, because the God they were asked to believe in didn't measure up to their standards. Eventually they both became ardent believers. God could not have failed to love them even in the days when they denied Him.

Chapter 3. My Religious Sentiments [Diary Book II] 

My father and mother were not the kind of people to discourage a child in his search for God. I made up my own mythology, patched up from various remarks made by grownups added to an inborn religious sense. I was really a Sun-worshipper. Early in life I associated the Sun with God.

The first real grief I can remember is when my father went to the West Indies on an expedition and was away for many months. I was only three at the time [1911] but I missed him dreadfully. I'd go to the house of my aunt [Mary Boissevain van Eeghan?] and she had made up a song for me about my dear father coming back, which she played on the piano. That comforted me. 

Mother Leaves for Switzerland 1912 

A year later an even worse thing happened. My mother fell seriously ill and went to a sanatorium in Switzerland. My baby brother Willem and I went to an aunt [Teau de Beaufort] in another part of the country. To have my mother go - to be sent away from our home to a place where we were not the pivots of the universe but merely guests - was shattering to a child of four. I know it deepened me and showed me the transitoriness of human life. Luckily I had an aunt who taught me about God and the angels of Heaven. It gave me a new sense of security which I badly needed at the time.

I must have worked on these few data in my own mind for a year later I find myself with this mythology I worked out for myself. My mother is back in Switzerland again but this time I am with her and I've begun to draw. I still have the book with those early drawings. The sun is obviously God - He is smiling when "the children" are safe - but frowning and worried when they're in the woods, because of the wolf (devil) who will eat them. On one page there is a church and the wolf is listening sentimentally to the bells. All the children are turning around gaily in the wood and the sun is smiling because the wolf is so piously occupied.

My mother's sanatorium [Privatklinik Bircher-Benner] was in Zurich and they have a carillon there every Saturday night. These bells impressed me profoundly. They were the holiest things I'd ever heard.

There was a nurse in this sanatorium whom I disliked. She was called Marianne and she was often impatient and harsh with children. Once my mother had to go out and left me in her charge. She took me to her bedroom. There I saw a picture of the Thorn-crowned Christ. "Who is that funny man?" I asked, struck. She was horrified. She took me under the armpits and planked me on her bed.  Then, kneeling before me with a fierce face she told me the story of Jesus. As I sat on that bed - my legs stretched in front of me, I marveled. I felt a great dislike for Sister Marianne who was obviously very angry with my parents for some reason or other. But the story made a deep impression on me all the same. 

The Great War 

It wasn't long after that when the war broke out [starting end of June 1914 – after the Assassination of the Archduke of Austria in Sarajevo, and escalating in August with the invasions by Germany of Luxembourg and Belgium] that the war broke out and my father was appointed commander of Ymuiden [the port of Amsterdam]. We had rented a country house in the neighborhood but when the Belgian refugees flooded the country we gave it up to them and retired to a smaller house - until another place was found for the refugees.

I remember my mother studying near a window and weeping over the horrors described in the paper. I remember my father full of ingenious plans for the defense of Ymuiden. (Unfortunately for him, it was never attacked. [Holland remained neutral and Germany did not invade.])

To me the war was a fantastic thing I could not understand. I used to imagine to myself, when tucked in bed at night, what would happen if German soldiers came into my house to kill my parents and my two brothers. I always felt sure that all I'd have to do was to go out to them and tell them:

"Don't you know, they're my father and mother, you wouldn't want to kill them, would you?" and I'd look at them and they'd say in German:

"Oh no miss, of course not, we thought they were just people but if they're your father and mother we will go away."

Another of my fantasies was that I'd have an underground passage, like a rabbit warren, with various openings, stocked with food and other useful things. I could spend hours imagining and furnishing that hide-out. 

My Father’s Teaching 

Though my father was very busy at the time and was away sometimes for weeks on end, he wouldn't let me go to school but instructed me himself. He thought all schools were stupid, killed initiative, made knowledge unattractive and were physically unhygienic. He disliked us acquiring a vulgar way of speaking and feared the influence of other children. My mother wasn't happy about it. She favored a more social attitude but she hers  elf had suffered a lot from boredom at school and didn't care for the orthodox methods of education. She had just heard of Maria Montessori and was examining her methods. Meanwhile she taught me reading and writing by the Jan Lighthart method - a great improvement on the older ways.

My father understood arithmetic and geography. He was a very difficult taskmaster. He allowed no hesitation. If he told me to learn a table I had to know that table without pausing to clear my throat. I remember weeping hopelessly one afternoon because I couldn't "understand" the table of two.

My father didn't make allowances for a child's way of thinking. Instead of starting geography with a familiar thing like my own house, or our village, he began with the earth and the sun. There was a candle and an orange. I remember, and a lot of talk about stars and planets. The result of this was that I no longer pictured the night sky as a sheet with holes pricked in it to let through the glory of heaven.

My father's teaching was dramatic and descriptive and bolstered with logic. I pictured my life as an angel after death, flying between all these worlds in a space without an end - so it didn't matter if you fell for there was nowhere to fall to - and was it likely you'd ever meet another angel? Well, once in a while, perhaps - and then what would we do? Sit down in a world and chat for a while? What a dreary existence! However it wasn't as dreadful as another nightmare I had, after my father had flatly told me that God was an invention of people who were too cowardly and lazy to stand on their own feet. I remember standing in front of him as he told me this, the lovely sunshine outside making an incongruous background. My father said it sadly, regretfully. There was no hatred, not even satisfaction in his voice. He was dreadfully sorry to disturb my illusion but honesty compelled him. No, there was no God - I might as well know now as later. I ran to my mother and asked her. She was more concerned with my peace of mind and much less sure.

"I don't know -" was all the comfort she could give me. I felt more deserted then I had done when they had left me because of illness and travel. I pictured what it would be like to die if there was no God. I could picture nothing - for ever. It was appalling. I had to stop myself from doing it because I knew it was bad for me. And secretly I didn't believe a word of it. I knew there was a God. But I remember freezing coldness. The freezing coldness of the thought.

It was at that time that we had a servant who was found to have stolen a lot of our things. They were found in her suitcase. There was a terrific scene. I still see the girl walk past me, weeping. I was horrified. Suddenly I knew very definitely that I must never lie or be dishonest in any way - neither with myself nor with others. "If you are truthful you will be saved," something told me deep inside myself. I promised this something that I would try - and any lapses against truth have always hurt my conscience more than any other sin. 

Blockade, 1916 

I was about eight years old [1916] when Holland was being blockaded by England along with Germany. So there was scarcity of food and fuel. I remember being very cold in my bed at night and being allowed only two slices of grey bread. Also there were not as many toys at Christmas and St. Nicholas day. My mother celebrated both feasts as her Irish mother had done. The Dutch usually only celebrated St. Nicholas. I remember the day when we expected the saint’s arrival. To me he was always a very holy man, but I was afraid of him. I was dressed in white silk, with patent leather shoes and white socks. I was shivering with fear and before joining the others in the drawing room. I knelt by my bed and asked God fervently to protect me from St. Nicholas. With beating heart I joined the others and the solemn figure of St. Nicholas entered.

Then, suddenly, my fear collapsed like a pricked ballon. My mother had not put the front of the bishop’s mitre properly on Nicholas's head and so a wart was revealed in the middle of his forehead that proclaimed him immediately as harmless Mr. Cornelis, my father's best friend. Instead of feeling disillusioned as so many children do when they find out that St. Nicholas is only someone dressed up, I felt it was a beautiful answer to my prayer.

What better way was there for God to protect me against St. Nicholas than to show me the truth? I have never forgotten it and my faith in prayer dates from that day.

Somebody gave me a children's bible around this time and I was absorbed and thrilled by the stories, especially the New Testament. I felt passionately concerned in Jesus's crucifixion and would weep over it, curled up in my father's big red armchair.

As a consequence I wanted to go to church and I told my mother so. My mother thought it rather amusing and said I could go with the servants the next Sunday. However, the servants were Reformed Dutch and the church was a bare, cold affair. The clergyman hopped about excitedly and talked a lot in an unnatural booming voice. I was bored stiff. I remember thinking to myself as I walked home between the chattering servants that it was a hoax the grownups had played on me and that it hadn't been a church at all.

A little later my mother, brothers and I were walking through the village. The door of the Catholic church was open and light and music came streaming out. It must have been Benediction - I darted in, followed by Willem. The lights, the music - the incense - or was it the Real Presence? I sensed something and I ran excitedly. "Mother, mother, come inside, this is where God is!!"

My mother quickly hurried us away.

"Never go there again, that's a dangerous place," She told me sternly. 

Finding Religion in Hans Christian Andersen 

At the time [1916] I was very fond of Hans Andersen's fairy tales, from which I also got a sense of religion. I preferred them to the Arabian Nights or Grimm's Tales. Especially the Little Mermaid and the Snow Queen seemed to me full of religious truth. [The “Snow Queen” story is posted online here: The family is interested in having this published as a book or a DVD or both.]

I secretly had the ambition of marrying a prince and when our neighbor, a farmer's boy of my own age, asked if I would marry him I told him I aimed higher. This boy lent me a book on Don Juan which he said was very good. I don't know what kind of a book it was, but from a few sentences in it I concluded that it was an evil book. (I must also admit that it didn't interest me very much.) I didn't tell my mother about it but I took it to a little pavilion we had in the garden where I solemnly told God that I wasn't reading it for His sake. After which I returned it to the boy. I never said a word to anybody about this, not at the time.

My grandmother, my father's mother, fell ill at about this time. My father was very upset about it. He was his mother's favorite. I remember sitting up in bed and my father coming into the room looking ever so sad and saying in a broken voice:

"Your grandmother has died."

"Now he will have to believe in God-" I remember thinking. And strangely enough it wasn't long after that that he did get a kind of revelation which changed his whole outlook and made him a firm believer in God - though in an unorthodox way.

I had a pair of rabbits in those days which I called Adam and Eve. I don't know whether I neglected them though I was accused of it by my nurse - but one day I found Adam lying still and I took him in my arms to the nursery, where I sat on the floor with his poor stiff body on my lap. I remembered reading how the first Adam had been formed and I began to blow hopefully on my rabbit - but though I blew and blew nothing happened, and I found out the difference in power between God and me.

Sometimes I used to play with two little Catholic girls who lived a few fields away. They talked about the Holy Ghost being a dove and I argued with them.

"How can a ghost be a dove?" but they said He was - and that was the end of it.

The war was getting worse and worse - there was less and less food. Mother was ill and a young cousin of mine of 18 came to help out with the household along with a friend of hers named Hanna. I stuck to my cousin as being the more familiar and of a blond, comfortable type. My brothers immediately made a beeline for her friend who was dark, vivacious, full of imagination and told stories. I could invent stories too - I often did, for the boys, and the books I chose were filled with the antics of two bad little girls, laboriously written with cramped fingers.

But Hanna could invent things nobody else ever thought of - she had ghost stories that sent shivers down our spines - like the one in which someone plunges her hand in a flowerpot and brings up an eye! She had to feed us with her stories for neither of the girls knew much about cooking and once there was only rice for dinner and it was both burnt and hard - no one could eat it - not even the cat. I remember being in a dilemma about going to school. (My father had at last relented and Willem and I went to honest-to-goodness schools in the village.) My boots had no soles but my slippers had good soles. As it was wet and cold outside I wanted to wear my slippers but my cousin said I had to wear my boots until Hanna came to my aid and said it was silly to wear boots without proper soles and sent me off in leaky slippers.

My mother became very ill indeed and was sent to a hospital. My father fell ill also at that time so our house was closed up and we children were distributed among relatives.

Aunt Teau 

I went to the same aunt Teau [for Catherine or Cateau Boissevain de Beaufort] whom I had visited at the age of four. She had a girl of my age and three younger boys.

This aunt Teau was my mother's youngest sister – the youngest of the eleven children. She was a lovely person and extremely gifted. She used to tell us bible stories and made them come alive in a way I've never heard since. A person like the actress Ruth Draper seems closest to her. There's a story of how she wanted to see "La Dame aux Camelias," with Sara Bernhardt as a young girl and her father said it wasn't a suitable play. She was furious - and a few days later she told her father that she had a surprise for him. Unsuspecting he sat down in the chair provided and then my Aunt Teau proceeded to act La dame aux Camelias more movingly and better than Sara Bernhardt, according to those who saw them both.

My aunt Teau often acted in private theatricals and even wrote plays but she never went before the general public. Instead she married a professor of zoology of aristocratic lineage and lived in a castle on the moors - where she made life for us children into an enchanted fairy tale. After my mother there is no one I loved more. And she had a simple, childlike faith which appealed to me very much. She taught me hymns - the Lord is my Shepherd - We Are Little Candles - etc. Naturally I was not completely happy. I missed my parents and my brothers. At those times I used to look at a little bronze sparrow which my aunt had given to me and it seemed to hold a message: "Not a Sparrow shall fall to the ground..." That little bird was a great comfort to me.

My aunt didn't live long. She suffered from leukemia and died when I was twelve years old.

Meanwhile my mother had become very close to this sister and persuaded my father to go and live in her neighborhood. As my father was by this time pensioned off and there was no need for him to stay in the house near Ymuiden, he rented one in Amersfoort - not too far from my aunt’s house.

My aunt often came to visit us, driving up in her pony carriage or in the car in a grey suit with a big white muffler carelessly flung around her neck and a red tam o'shanter perched on her glossy black hair. She had a lovely face with a sensitive mouth, long straight nose and grey-green eyes full of expression. I used to love to crouch behind my mother's chair and listen to their conversation when she visited us.

I didn't realize how much my aunt was suffering at the time, knowing that she could not live very long. Once she came to visit me when my mother was away and I was ill in bed and weeping from self-pity.

She knelt by me and said passionately and tragically: "Child, child, if you only knew how little you have to weep about. If you only knew what real grief is!"

The note of anguish in her voice struck me deeply. I stooped weeping and never forgot it. She was very concerned at leaving her four young children. Two have joined her since. One drowned as a young boy, the other was shot by the Germans. The other two married and are now well and happy. 

My Father in USA 

Around this time [1917, 1918] my father went to America. One of mother's brothers, Eugen Boissevain (the widower of Inez Milholland) gave my father this chance to try out an invention he had for a gearless automobile [what we call an automatic transmission]. My father enjoyed the year in America very much, but nothing ever came of his invention.

While my father was away we children came down with the measles, Willem first - and Jan and I weren't allowed to go to school - so we played in the woods together. It was beautiful weather and I enjoyed very much getting to know my little brother better. I was still young enough to enjoy playing imaginary games and Jan responded very well. Only I noticed that he was very credulous and inclined to get frightened at the idea of hobgoblins. I didn't want him to get frightened but I liked the fact that fairies seemed quite possible to him - so I told him about the fairies there were in these woods and that there was a particular hole in a hollow tree which he should visit every Sunday morning and then he would find that the fairies had brought him candy. Jan was about seven years old at the time and the idea enchanted him. So when we were over the measles I used to spend all my pocket money buying prettily colored sweets and hanging them decoratively around the hollow tree - Jan trudged there every Sunday morning and was a firm believer. Once he went before I was quite ready and I fled through the streets in my underwear to get to the place before him. Another time I hadn;t any weekly money except a penny and I dared not go into the sweetshop with so little. My school teacher found me weeping in front of the shop and brought me inside to buy my pathetic pennyworth of sweets.

For months I kept up this game until one day, when I'd been away on a trip, my mother awaited me with a grave face.

"I'm sorry, Hilda - but I'm afraid you're going to be very disappointed at what I'm going to tell you."

"What?" I asked, alarmed.

"Jan came to me on Sunday and asked me if God was true. I told him yes." (Mother had decided as much by this time.) "Then he wanted to know if the fairies were true..."

"And you said no, I hope -" I interrupted her. "Naturally, it would have been wicked not to. I don't mind a bit," I said.

Mother was very relieved and perhaps I was too. It had been a bit of a strain looking after a fairy hole all the time.

My mother made an interesting circle of friends in this town. (We lived on the outskirts of it.) She was by now thoroughly familiar with Maria Montessori's ideas and she was trying to find a school like that for poor Jan. There wasn't one in Amersfoort - and at the ordinary school he was unpopular. Poor little fellow - he used to give away all his toys in hope of making friends, but didn't succeed. My mother joined a philosophical and theosophoical society and heard Rabindranath Tagore speak. She read Dostoyevsky and Herman Bahr and used to discuss these novels interestingly with her friends. One of her frineds was a famous art-critic Josh Havelaar - who was married to a charming woman who became Mother's great friend. Then there was the musical family next door - the Father, Piet Tiggers, gave me piano lessons, but I was frightened of him - and his wife taught me dancing. His wife was much gentler and helped me to compose little dances for my mother's birthday. I always tried to have some sort of entertainment on my mother's birthday and drilled my brothers and whatever schoolfriend would join, into their respective roles. They had two little children who used to call their father and mother by their Christian names but when they heard us call our mother "Moeder" they did the same. I remember having long arguments with Mrs. Tiggers about Hans Christian Andersen. She didn't like him and I defended him with all the vehemence of a twelve year old. I saw my first opera during that period and it made me drunk with joy. Mr. and Mrs. Tigger were in the thick of it. I loved the smell of greasepaint, the excitement, the music. For a long time afterwards my cousin and I would walk along the streets playing at being Lionel and Martha and singing Martha, Ade.

My Emergence as an Artist 

During those days my talent was being disciplined by all these great people who nodded wisely over carelessly executed drawings and wondered if anything would come of it.

"I don't know what I'm more astonished at - what she can do or what she can't do," said Josh Havelaar.

So it was decided that I should take painting lessons from a friend of his - a charming painter called Mewg, who taught me to use hard pencils with sharp points and look well before I drew anything. I remember getting very tired. I used to love watching him paint. His colors were always fresh and he had a mellow, tender outlook on things. Once he painted a picture which Josh Havelaar dissapproved of - but I liked it - a little dead rabbit surrounded by primroses. It was delightfully sentimental. It was around this time [1922] that my poor Aunt Teau died.

Father Returns from USA 

Presently my father returned from America and astonished us all by having grown a beard. He liked America and he told us great stories about it. He'd liked the three-ring circus and the empty sidewalks (you've got the road to yourself if you walk) and the Cafeterias. He also enjoyed the comic strips. He liked the universal carfare system and the lack of red tape and a certain generosity in trade, which didn't trouble itself about a penny here and there. It all suited my father very well.

Meanwhile we were having trouble with our neighbors who kept doves and roses while we kept a goat. Our goat got at their roses and their doves got on our clock. As a matter of fact my goat was a good little creature though she took a lot of looking after. She used to jump on our windowsill to bid us "good morning" She was a very young goat and I called her Kiddy.

I had to get a bundle of straw for her stable every week from a farmer some way off - but I would have done more for her. She used to follow me everywhere, she wore a little bell and I'd hear it rin-timing behind me. I went for long walks on the moors with her and she was more company than a dog - I know, I've had both. But when she got old and melancholy I sold her - she was better off on a farm where there were other goats.

It was around this time that I began to discover the pleasure or working well and getting high marks. I used to take an interest in history and read my father’s Streckfuss for hours on end. I was delighted to find Palestine and Christ mentioned in an ordinary history book. I had ideas of my own on religion at the time. When the teacher wanted me to parse the sentence: "As the hart panteth for water so I pine for God."

I refused. I said it would be disrespectful to God to pull that sentence to pieces. The teacher sent me home with a note to my father who laughed and said I was perfectly right. Henceforth I was excused from parsing religious sentences and the teacher probably thought we belonged to some obscure, unknown sect.

 © 2013 by Boissevain Books, LLC