Thursday, March 6, 2014

Mother, at the End - by HvS (Superseded)

Boissevain Women with Charles. Balcony of Drafna.
Back row (L to R): Olga Emily, Emily, Charles, Hester
(Hessie). Front row: Mary, Hilda, Nella, Teau.
The following autobiographical sketch of her mother was among hand-written papers left behind by Hilda van Stockum when she died in 2006. It was transcribed and is now a ghost-post. 

Olga Boissevain van Stockum was one of the two middle daughters, along with Hilda Boissevain de Booy, of Charles and Emily Boissevain. The two eldest had traditional marriages in which they were housewives and mothers. The two youngest obtained university educations and had modern marriages. The two middle ones were torn between their intellects and the expectations of them that they would be traditional wives and mothers. By prior agreement, they each named their eldest daughter after the other.  

After my mother left Holland with me and her two boys to stay with relatives in Ireland, I lived there till I married, so Ireland is a part of my youth. I was very happy there. Irish people are very natural, full of humor (but with an underlying melancholy) and their defects are endearing rather than off-putting.

My mother was poor. She had to be helped by relatives, but she always saved on necessities and spent her money on luxuries. We went often to the cinema in the sixpenny seats, with a lot of street urchins who loudly cheered the hero and booed the villain. It added style to the picture.

Later, when we made friends with the Dutch consul, we had the best seats and wonderful dinners with six courses. In return he had home-cooked meals in our cottage kitchen, which his homesickness proclaimed “typically Dutch” (which it was not, but we let him think so). He became a real Dutch uncle to us.

Actually we didn’t mind being poor. With Mother it was fun - our exercises in economy were amusing. We got a goat which we learned to milk, and two ducks. But as Mother had only a sitz-bath for their ablutions they soon forsook us for the pond next door, belonging to a farmer, who probably gathered in their eggs along with those legitimately his. So that was not a good idea and only Mother could have thought of it.

I’m prouder of our attempt to make our own Christmas tree by tying living branches to a dead fir tree!

When I went to America I tasted American poverty, which is quite different from the Irish variety. We were in New York, in the depth of the Depression. My husband's health was a bit run down and had to be built up, but the diet he was prescribed would have left me without anything to eat, so he generously compromised. Actually, that was easy as I was getting my first baby and the last thing I wanted was food!

My great joy in those days was to go walking in Central Park and make friends with adorable negro babies. I’m afraid, though I was happy in my marriage and the prospect of my baby, I was very homesick for my mother and wept over the toilet articles (silver brush and comb) she had given me.

Later on, of course, when my husband got a job in the civil service and moved to Washington, life brightened up and we never looked back. [Spike said he never felt so rich as when he had a Government job in the Depression. - JTM]

When I think of Washington I see glittering white buildings amid pink cherry blossoms. Well, I had all my children in Washington, except Olga, who was born in New York. And I remember a very humdrum suburban life with all the ups and downs that would make modern ladies squirm. But I loved it, and by then I had my mother with me. She and my brother Willem came to America in the 1930s and made their home with us.

When Spike had to leave for Europe on account of the war, we took in a lodger. He was one of those sent by the English government to help the war effort in the navy, and he became a great friend of the family. He was more or less my mother’s age and they had long arguments about the war. I think I have described it all in my Mitchells trilogy, which also describes our move after the war to Canada. Mother was very much part of our lives then.

But the Montreal winter was hard for Mother. We lived on the side of the steep hill and she slipped on the ice. It was a fatal fall.

In 1999 I had a dream in which I relived my mother’s death 50 years earlier. Of course what I dreamed was very much what I felt when she was dying. I knew she was dying, but I tried to brush the knowledge aside. I was by her bed. She was leaning against her pillows and her forehead was the only thing to look at.

Death was starting on her forehead.

First, a little area became white and cold and then her face froze. I wanted to leave her, but I saw she was frightened and I knew she wanted me there. Because she was frightened, I could not leave her. I wanted to run away, but I knew that was cowardly – my mother and daughters needed me; I had to stay.

In my imagination there was a large cross looming at my right, somewhat out of my sight. If I ran away, I would not only desert my mother, but also the cross and its victim. I could not do it. I kept looking at my mother’s face.

Her forehead was dying – it was starting there – it was getting bluish white. My mother’s eyes were fixed on me with a plea for help – yet what could I do? If I did not watch her, what might happen? Her forehead seemed to be melting and the rest of her face disintegrating – yet this was my mother. What could I do for her – how could I stop this strange melting that changed my mother’s face?

She looked at me. She asked: “Am I dying?” And there was great fear in her face. I knew I had to reassure her. It was not good for her to get into a panic. She asked: “What did the doctor say? Did he say I was going to die?” What was she feeling? The doctor’s words lingered in my ear: “She is dying, she may not reach the morning. I cannot stay – I have other patients. You stay.”

He had given me all the responsibility. I felt very alone – I prayed to God, and yes, now I felt a cross looming over me, with a victim hanging from it. I averted my eyes – I must stay. I could not desert the cross.

My mother’s face became more distorted. She was in agony, but I could not help, nor go away. The invisible cross beside me was commanding me to stay. “Did he say I was going to die?” My mother was panicked.

“No,” I said firmly.

He hadn’t actually said it. My mother’s face was full of fear – she seemed to be slipping away, not wanting to realize that it was really death that was awaiting her with open jaws. She was hanging back, clinging to life.

I felt the cross close to me. A wooden cross, heavy and splintery, reaching to the top of the ceiling. What could I do? I looked at my mother – I looked reassurance, I got behind her and held her shoulders.

“It will be all right,” I murmured. “God is waiting for you. You’re going to Him now.” Suddenly Olga, my daughter and her namesake, was there – I felt immense support. She was praying. She was going to stay through the night, to keep my mother company – I did not have to fear I would be left alone, Olga was good at praying.

Another daughter joined us. The prayers became stronger. Mother listened and joined in too, haltingly, painfully. Cocks crowed outside as dawn wakened threads of light. Mother had calmed down, was even trying to sleep a little. Olga and I kept on praying. Another daughter had quietly joined us, so there were now four of us next Mother.

The doctor came. He felt Mother’s pulse, and nodded: “She’ll be all right,” he said.

But Mother was still anxious. Her eyes pleaded with the doctor, who shook his head. At last he left and following him I asked when he could come back. “I’ll send people who’ll give her the last rites,” he said. “But I can’t stay now.”

I accompanied him to the front door and he said he’d try to return later. I went to the kitchen and told Nora, our Irish servant, that Mother was on the point of dying.

“If she does,” said Nora, “open the windows, so her soul can find the way to Heaven. Don’t cry. That might keep her back.” I hastened to my mother who looked much worse. She really looked as if she had reached the end. I held my mother’s hand and looked at her. She asked again: “Am I dying?” “No,” I said, “not yet.”

She looked relieved. I went on saying the rosary and was glad to see more of my children joining us. Mother became waxen pale.  When death came, I hurried to the kitchen and asked Nora what I must do.

“Open the windows!” she said, “Then her spirit can find its way out.” I did so and I whispered: “Go Mother, go. Don’t stay here. I can manage. You must let your soul free to reach Heaven and the boys. God be with you.” Then, peace came into my soul.

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