Wednesday, July 9, 2014

HvS KIN | My Mother, Olga Boissevain, by HvS

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 combines two different hand-written essays on her mother left behind by Hilda van Stockum when she died in 2006. To my mind it adds up to a remarkably coherent picture of her mother, a chapter of an autobiography.

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.  The two youngest obtained university educations. The two middle ones were torn between their intellects and expectations that they would be traditional wives and mothers. By prior agreement, they each named their eldest daughter after the other.  

I was lucky to have been born into a wonderful family. My mother's father was Dutch but had a French name, Boissevain. That is because he came from a Huguenot family that years ago fled their native Gascony after Louis XIV revoked the his Edict of Nantes and made Protestants in France no longer welcome.

Monsieur Boissevain was able to leave France right away, but his wife Marthe Roux was left behind with their many children. To leave France, Marthe hid herself and her children in a wagon of hay. When she came to the border with Belgium, French soldiers, wishing to be sure that no one was hidden inside the hay, plunged their bayonets 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leg, but far from crying out, she had the presence of mind to wipe the blood off the bayonet with her skirt when it was withdrawn. Through her courage, she was able to leave the country and take refuge in Amsterdam.

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 her (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 commercial newspaper he worked for into Holland's most important 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".

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

"Olga has 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 Berne. This didn't last long, however, as the consensus 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, which was rather like the Anglican church. But my mother was 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. She did not care for the Dutch Reformed Church. She said that Catechism classes with the reformed Dominee [the name for the church's clergy] drove out whatever religious impulses she naturally had.

Not until after she was married and had been brought very low by an illness, did she seek solace in religion. She went through a course of psychoanalysis which gave her a revelation of the evil in herself and made her see that order is 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 early in her life at her religion was a kind of reverent agnosticism with little form to it.

My mother was a very emotional person despite her being 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 quixotic 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.

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. [This belief is expressed in James Joyce's writings and in a musical based on them.] 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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