For all the years after the war, Gerrit dreamed – sporadically, without warning – of being chased by German soldiers with guns, but back in the crisp winter of 1927, as he skated on a willow- rimmed pond in South Holland, he had no such demons. Warm in his wool cap and coat, he sped along under a cloudless sky, breath pluming in the bright winter air, his plaid scarf flapping behind him. He had just turned eighteen, and his life would change in moments.
On either side of him, the flat landscape of Overschie stretched into the distance, and underneath the snow, bulbs lay in wait for spring. Gerrit loved spring, a time of beginnings, but at this point he still loved winter too. He was an exceptional skater, and stood out even here in the Netherlands, where skating and bicycling came almost as naturally as walking. He’d never have boasted, but his skates cost more than he could afford: long metal blades that locked on to black boots, they were fancier than the wooden tie- on kind most people wore.
Savouring hot anise milk under a tent on the ice, a slender young woman watched him go by, noticing both the skates and his accomplished style. Gerrit caught her eye but looked quickly away, red as beetroot. She smiled, and admired his languid figure eights as he skated backwards, then forwards again, and glided off, pushing from side to side with grace and agility, his hands clasped behind his back. She sipped her rich, sweet milk, and had turned to say something to the young couple with her, a woman and an uncommonly tall man gobbling almond cake, when suddenly Gerrit appeared again in her peripheral vision. Without seeming to watch him, she saw his every move as he made his way towards her and away, and towards her again. Her heart raced under two sweaters and a heavy blue coat, and she pulled the collar close around her neck and shivered. She knew the blue was lovely with her eyes – a blue like cornflowers – and while there would come a time when she’d stop thinking about such things, it was far away from this moment, when she was still young and attractive, freshly aware of her new admirer. She lifted her head and looked at him. From the side, anyone could see how they matched; how their noses must have pulled them together – strong, bony noses of equal character, ready to be passed down through the generations.
The den Hartogs hailed from the Alblasserwaard region of the Netherlands, a large rural stretch east of Rotterdam, and bordered by wide rivers that continually overflowed their banks. As a child, Gerrit’s playmates were the squelching mud and the moving waters of the river Lek, though he never learned to swim. He was the youngest of three children – he had a sister, Marrigje, and a brother, Nico. His father Rochus had once been a salmon fisherman, and his back was bowed from years of hauling the heavy nets, and pulling barges as he walked the canal’s narrow footpath. Gerrit’s mother Arigje hated fish – the taste, the smell, the slipperiness – and was glad enough when Rochus became a tuinders knecht, or gardener’s hired man. It was a fine job in the provinces of North and South Holland, which grew most of the fruit and vegetables for the country, and Rochus taught their sons the same trade, moving the family from village to village as opportunities arose.
Gerrit was twelve when he left school and apprenticed with his father and brother as a tuindersknecht. Kneeling among the plants, the smell of the turned soil in his nostrils, he felt more at ease here than he ever had in a classroom, though he was already curious about the world and enjoyed reading. It didn’t hurt that the tuinder, Willem Quartel, had a son Gerrit’s age, called Jaap, and the boys became friends. They were close in stature and both had open, friendly faces and easy smiles, so were more often mistaken for brothers than wiry Gerrit and the heavy- set Nico.
Vegetable gardening was an honest trade, but like fishing, dependent on the whims of the buyer. The vegetables were sold at an auction house to which the tuinders belonged as part of a co- operative, and middle men sat on bleachers surveying the produce as it floated past them on barges. A big clock hung on the wall, counting down the time that the buyers had to make a bid. If they liked what they saw, they bought, and if they didn’t, the co- operative paid the tuinder a minimum amount and gave the vegetables to the cows. It was a living – sufficient in Rochus’s eyes. He was a modest man, devoted to his wife and proud of his three children. Arigje thought the income of a tuindersknecht meagre, and her husband’s contentment with their life was a source of irritation for her. She loved fine things and kept bits of ribbon and lace tucked away in a drawer, as if one day there might be room for them in this life she hadn’t chosen. The marriage, while not unhappy, was somewhat lopsided, in that Rochus loved Arigje from the beginning, and Arigje came to love Rochus over the years – he’d been her second choice, when her first fiancé changed his mind, and the disappointment never quite left her. In spite of Rochus’s devotion to her, she was a severe woman who ran her household and the lives of her family with more than the necessary diligence. His parents, of course, were Gerrit’s precedent for marriage, and unwittingly he gravitated towards a woman whose backbone rivalled his mother’s.
Like Rochus, who escaped his wife’s displeasure in the world of books, Gerrit was an avid reader, and when his queries about Cor revealed that her family, the Posts, owned a bookshop on the Zestienhovensekade in Overschie, he became a regular, if nervous, customer, doing his best to peer intently at the neat rows of books, to choose one that might especially impress, but all the while trying to keep his eyes from darting around for her, a small young woman with sharp features and a quick step, always busy. Sometimes it was her older sister Truus, plump and dark- haired, running the shop – the same girl who’d been skating with Cor that day on the pond – and Gerrit’s disappointment showed on his face, until Truus called, "Co- or!" And Cor would appear, while Truus slipped away. Gerrit passed her his selections, aware of his rough hands and her smooth ones as she wrapped the books in brown paper.
A year after they met, Gerrit’s family moved again for work, this time several towns away to Leidschendam, a community with roots in the fourteenth century, situated on the perimeter of The Hague, where the queen sometimes resided. Once, twenty windmills had pumped water off the land on the outskirts of town, drying it and creating the flat, green fields called polders. Now, only three mills were needed to do the job, and the polders provided fertile pasture for grazing and farming. Renting land at the edge of the Tedingerbroekpolder, along the tracks that ran from Rotterdam to The Hague, the den Hartogs became self- employed gardeners rather than hired help. But each week, Gerrit made the trip back to Overschie, near Rotterdam, on his bicycle or skates, braving not just the weather but Cor’s close- knit family: Truus and the little sister Maria, brothers Gerry and Tom, and parents Neeltje and Jacobus. In winter, he knew the villages by their church steeples, each one different, and counted them as he zipped by on his fine steel skates. Through open barn doors, he glimpsed farmers milking cows or feeding their pigs. Dogs raced to the edge of the canal to bark at him. In summer, horse- drawn carts clattered over brick streets, and on his bicycle Gerrit pedalled around them, calling a greeting and lifting his cap. Finally, Overschie, where Truus’s towering fiancé Jacques, who claimed aristocratic ancestry, laughed and said, "Hier komt de boerenjongen" – Here comes the country lad – at the sight of skinny Gerrit hurrying towards Cor with his worn pants tucked into his knee socks, face shining with anticipation.
Each of them came from a long line of Gerrits and Cornelias. The Posts and the den Hartogs followed the Dutch custom of naming the first child after one of the father’s parents, the second after one of the mother’s, and so on, and if a child died – an all too common occurrence in those days – the next to come along took the same name again. Thus names cycled through family trees in a repetitive, ever-increasing spiral.
Traditions like this were important, and respected, within both the home and the larger nation, and they carried through to the army – little more than a patriotic display – where enlistment was mandatory. And so with other young men following in the footsteps of previous generations, Gerrit acquired his army training at nineteen, proud of his uniform and his part in the custom. A photograph from this time shows him posing on the Post balcony in Overschie, the clay tile roof slanting beside him. He wears his soldier’s uniform, the hat tall and boxy with a small visor, the high- collared jacket extending to his thighs and closing snugly with showy buttons. Cor stands beside him; fine- boned, slim-waisted, she rises just past his shoulder. Their arms link – as in the wedding portrait yet to be taken – and she gazes at him rather than the camera. In this rare, candid shot, Cor looks happy, and even somewhat coy, with her foot placed forward and her skirt swinging. Gerrit in all his finery leans into Cor and stares at the lens, his hat doubling the size of his head. Below, the canal waters form a ribbon through the busy town. So close to Rotterdam, Overschie would be blackened by the explosions’ clouds six years hence, but at this time, no one suspected Gerrit would actually wear his fine uniform in combat.
Their engagement ran alongside the Depression, called the "crisis years" in Holland, a period preceded by mounting economic strain that stemmed from the Great War. The Netherlands had stayed neutral, and so hadn’t the debts that other countries accumulated through battle, but Germany was its major trading partner, and its economic collapse burdened the Netherlands. Early in Cor and Gerrit’s engagement, social unrest was brewing, and long queues of the unemployed reporting for assistance were a common sight. Both the Posts and the den Hartogs had money troubles – Gerrit’s family had more vegetables than they could eat, but little else, and Cor’s had only books upon books, and the thread to bind them – so the couple was urged to postpone their marriage until they could make a proper start.
Gerrit continued to grow vegetables with his father and brother in Leidschendam, and several times a week, a barge arrived, pulled by men who looked like Gerrit’s stooped father. Once the crates of vegetables were loaded, one man pulled the barge with a pole, as Gerrit’s father had in his fishing days, while a second jumped aboard and pushed his pole through the water; together they steered the yield to auction. More often than not there was a glut of produce and too few buyers. As in Overschie, the unsold vegetables – termed doorgedraaid, or "turned through" – went to the cows, or got tossed on a heap where they rotted back into compost. As compensation, the auction house gave the growers one cent for every head of lettuce thrown away. When Gerrit’s brother Nico married, it was obvious the tuin couldn’t support the family he’d start, so he moved to nearby Voorburg and got work as a mailman and part-time janitor at the Christian Emmaschool.
Unlike the den Hartogs, the Post family had roots in Overschie that went back more than a century. Cor’s opa had been a carpenter, and her father a house painter, on occasion taking big jobs like the painting of canal bridges in Overschie, but the fumes strained his asthmatic lungs and he had to quit, so the bookstore and binding shop upstairs provided the family’s main income. Cor and Truus also ran a library, charging a small fee for borrowing. Both the store and the library emphasized religious books, which was all Cor read, but Gerrit’s tastes spread wider. He read everything he could about plants and flowers, about far- flung places, and travelling by plane above the clouds.
By 1931, Gerrit’s sister Marrigje, called Mar, had already married, and that year Truus did too. Cor and Gerrit assumed they would be next, since they’d been engaged several years now, but their parents continued to dissuade them. As the years crept by, Truus and Mar started families, but nothing changed for Cor and Gerrit. The couple grew frustrated, and suspected more than money lay at the centre of their families’ objections. The den Hartogs were members of the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk, or Dutch Reformed Church, to which Queen Wilhelmina belonged, and the Posts were devoted to its stricter offshoot, the Gereformeerde Kerk, which had returned to the name used by the religion in Reformation times. Both Churches were rooted in the Calvinist tradition, but the Gereformeerde denomination of the Posts was dedicated to a rigid dogmatic interpretation of the Bible, while the Hervormde denomination of the den Hartogs put more emphasis on the grace and beauty of God’s word, honouring its mystery. Cor was descended from a founder of the breakaway faction, and religion was paramount in the Post family. Among them, she in particular had an analytical approach to the Bible, and a natural intelligence, and those two traits combined made her fierce in her belief, rather than calmly faithful, like Gerrit.
Yet in spite of the Posts’ dour Calvinism, laughter floated in Cor’s home, usually instigated by Truus or brother Gerry, who could both find humour in almost any situation. Once, Cor, Truus, and Maria practised a tableau vivant for their church’s Christmas celebrations – the still poses the closest thing to drama Calvinists would allow themselves to enjoy. Cor stood draped in a white sheet, arms raised, embodying Faith; Maria knelt beside her as Charity. Truus, representing Hope, stood similarly clad, head turned sharply towards her sisters, chin lifted. Cor watched the clock on the wall, seeing the second hand tick, wondering how long they could hold the pose this time, for so far they’d not done very well. From the corner of her eye she saw Truus’s eyes bulge and cheeks balloon as she held her breath as well as her pose, and then the three collapsed in hysteria, sheets puddling around them.
The den Hartogs were a less boisterous lot, sister Mar kind and soft-spoken like Gerrit, and brother Nico slow and plodding, in Cor’s view. But religion was equally important in their family, and Gerrit sang in the choir of the Hervormde church he attended with his parents, where men and women sat on opposite sides. Cor went once, feeling awkward and out of place, everyone staring at the obvious outsider as she entered with Gerrit’s parents. Rochus offered her a small reassuring smile, but Arigje looked straight ahead, giving nothing. In Dutch society, known for both racial and religious tolerance, a loose, voluntary segregation determined which butcher, green grocer, and milkman people patronized, so a Catholic housewife bought milk from a Catholic milkman, and a Hervormde boy married a Hervormde girl. Sitting beside Gerrit’s mother, Cor felt her disdain and sent a sliver of it back. The women had not warmed to each other over the eight- year engagement – Cor liked Gerrit’s father, but his mother sent wordless messages of possessiveness where Gerrit was concerned, and offered no sense of welcome to Cor, though the invitation to church had been her idea. Cor knew Gerrit’s mother hoped she would join the church once she married Gerrit. She listened to the sermon, hands folded in her lap, and noticed that several elders wore black from head to toe. The reverend had a rich, lyrical tone, but she enjoyed Gerrit’s voice more – she was sure she could distinguish it from the many others singing.
Despite Cor’s visit to their church, Gerrit’s mother sensed her son would bow to Cor’s religion rather than Cor to theirs, for the young woman, slight and plain as she was, already exuded a quiet power, and Gerrit seemed content to please her. Furthering the likelihood, his mother thought, was the fact that his gardening friend Jaap Quartel, who had recently moved to Leidschendam with his sister and widowed mother, was also Gereformeerde, and played the organ at that church on Sundays. The conversion would be an easy one, she knew, with both wife and best friend beckoning.
Ultimately, it was Cor who set things in motion. When her brother Gerry announced his engagement, Cor told her parents that, poor or not, Gerrit was the man she loved and she was determined to marry him. She knew it was bold to speak out, for even though she and Gerrit were in their mid- twenties, they were bound to their parents’ wishes, but she thought of Gerrit’s last visit, when they’d sat together under the big willow by the water. They’d kissed, and their hands had strayed, and Cor knew that next time they might not stop. Her parents hesitated, exchanging a quick glance, and Cor wondered what excuse could come next. As they stood frowning in front of her, she blurted that she wanted to enter her marriage while still chaste. She flushed with embarrassment, for such things were never mentioned, and though her father glowered and her mother pursed her lips, the wedding was quickly set for May 3, 1935.
On the day Cor married Gerrit, narcissus blooms tinted the countryside white and yellow, and tulips paraded across meadows in a kaleidoscope of colour, but Gerrit chose lily of the valley for Cor’s bouquet. True to the Dutch tradition, he brought them to her home on the Zestienhovensekade, and he stood staring at the door knocker as if he might glimpse the future in its highly polished brass. He held the small posy in his hand, listened to the canal water pressing slowly by behind him – and suddenly doubted his choice of flower. Would the Posts equate the simple stems with a simple man, one not good enough for their daughter? Would Cor be disappointed? He thought of the photo that sat on the hutch in the Post home: bride Truus beside her groom, only slightly taller than Jacques though he was seated, her arms filled with a spray of lace and fern and plump carnations. He’d read about carnations in a horticulture book he’d borrowed from the Post library, and knew they were one of the oldest cultivated flowers, admired for their ruffled beauty and faint clovelike scent. Dianthus was the botanical name, and meant "divine flower." Exceedingly popular and showy, they may have been fine for Truus, who was outgoing and vivacious, but Gerrit knew they were not right for Cor. The slender lily of the valley, surprisingly fragrant and with a weed’s endurance, was more suited to his bride. His doubt evaporated. Thinking of the way she ran the backs of her fingers over his cheek, he lifted the knocker.
Inside, the Post household was a flurry of activity. Truus had come to do Cor’s hair, knowing that the bride- to- be would be anxious about it. Cor had lost her hair at age seven after a bout with typhoid fever, and what had grown back was thin. Forever after, Cor refused to cut it, preferring braids that wrapped over her head, saving what came out in the comb. On this important day, Truus helped wash and comb the fine, dark blonde tresses until they shone, then wound the hair into delicate coils on either side of Cor’s head. The youngest, Maria, fussed with the hem of her wedding dress, a plain ivory gown of heavy crepe sewn by Truus, and when little Nel, Truus’s daughter, peeped beneath it to see if Cor wore stockings, Maria laughingly slapped her hand away.
Cor’s mother Neeltje bustled from room to room, pausing to flick a piece of lint from husband Jacobus’s jacket and to straighten her youngest son Tom’s tie. Her critical gaze passed to Gerry, her other son, and when she saw that one pant leg, pressed earlier by Maria, was not as neatly creased as the other, she made a mental note to remind Maria of the value of a job well done.
Neeltje’s tiny, round- faced mother lived in the house on Zestienhovensekade too. With quicksilver intelligence, she was both spirited and ladylike, but these days some of her spiciness had cooled. While she pined incessantly for her youngest son Marinus, a military officer stationed in the Dutch East Indies who hadn’t been home on leave in nine years, now she was newly widowed as well. A portrait on the mantel piece offered a small reminder of her husband Teunis, but it wouldn’t save him from fading in the memories of others – eventually he’d be known only as a small man with a glass eye who was born in a windmill.
Oma Cornelia, called Kee by the family, always dressed in black lace, with a matching hat tied beneath her chin and set on her head like an inverted dish. This day was no different until she misplaced her elbow- length gloves, and ran frantically about the Post household shouting, "Where are my arms? I cannot find my arms!" Cor suspected it was her husband she was missing, and she wondered what it was like to live with a man for so many years, and then to lose him. The family, used to Kee’s dramatics, took little notice.
Cor’s father sighed and went to the window. Just as he parted the curtains for the third time, looking for the bridegroom, Gerrit knocked.
In their wedding photograph, Cor hooks her arm into the crook of Gerrit’s elbow and holds the flowers in her left hand. A sprig of fern decorates her hair, and her dress, which someday will be cut apart and fashioned into christening gowns for her babies, falls in neat folds around her, with more lilies pinned to the train’s hem. Gerrit stands beside her, slender in the new black suit he’ll wear every Sunday for years to come, making the most of a costly purchase. How proud he feels, dressed in something so fine, and not his corduroy pants that sag with age, his faded jacket, wooden shoes, and the cap that keeps the sun off his head. The portrait shows his wavy hair combed back from his face and two cowlicks swooping above his high forehead. A single bloom is pinned to his lapel. There is some glimmer of their later selves here already: Gerrit’s enthusiasm shows in his raised eyebrows and dimpled chin, his big ears standing at attention; and Cor seems to be wary, and planning the future. She clenches her square jaw and her lips form a thin straight line, as though she knows that happiness is precarious.
Gerrit paid an Overschie boy with lettuce to move Cor’s belongings to Leidschendam on his family’s barge, and as the vessel floated along the Schie, Cor rode by train with her new husband, travelling away from home with mixed emotions. The Posts were a klit family, meaning its individual members were entangled like knots in the hair, so pulling herself free was difficult, as much as she craved independence. In Leidschendam she’d have Gerrit’s family – his brother Nico in Voorburg and sister Mar in Rijswijk, their three villages positioned one after another along the edge of The Hague – but it was a poor substitute for her own, and Cor’s homesickness, spurred on by the chugging train, increased with distance. She looked at Gerrit, and with a twist of guilt remembered her father’s words to her mother when they thought she wasn’t listening: that Gerrit was a good man, but the den Hartogs were common folk and she could do better. Cor raised her hand to Gerrit’s face, and reminded herself that her parents might just as well have deemed Jacques "unworthy" for Truus – whether or not he had aristocratic roots, his immediate ones were as plain as their own. She eyed Gerrit riding happily beside her, and felt a rush of devotion. He was a good man.
At Leidschendam, she disembarked, just a step ahead of her husband. The breeze spilled over her, smelling of spring flowers, but the fragrance was lost on Cor until Gerrit pointed it out. Her connection to the natural world was different from his, though she was aware of the orderly pattern of the country, and how each region depended on the others: cattle in the northern province of Friesland, grain in the remote northeast, fish from the many rivers and the North Sea. And throughout the lowlands, canals criss- crossed in a dizzying pattern, one part of a complex system that kept the Netherlands from sinking into the sea.
From the train, they walked along the busy Vlietweg, which funnelled traffic from Leidschendam to Voorburg and beyond. On one side, horse- drawn carts clattered over the bricks and the odd cattle truck chugged past, cows peering through the slatted wood of their enclosures. On the other lay the wide canal, where barges laden with produce were poled to the auction house. Cor watched them pass as she stepped neatly along beside Gerrit. These were the kinds of boats that pulled his vegetables, and so they were part of her new world, but also her old, since her belongings were travelling on a similar craft. Only a glance away, beyond the sweaty, sinewy labourers on board, green lawns stretched up to imposing mansions, each surrounded by a manicured garden. She’d be living, now, in one of the wealthiest parts of the country – close to the bekakt, or the stuck- up, though the word was so coarse that Cor flushed when it passed through her mind. She recalled Jacques’s tease that she would fit in here, next to the scholars, diplomats, and noblemen, with her prim manners and her exacting diction. It was meant as a jab, she knew, but she was not ashamed of being proper.
She and Gerrit turned away from the Vliet, with its bank of mansions, towards the working- class, largely Catholic subdivision where Gerrit lived, the straight and tidy streets branching off the Vlietweg like teeth in a comb. Cor had been here many times before, but today she saw it anew, with a wistfulness she hadn’t expected. Filled with plain, two-storey brick houses attached in blocks of four, the area was set apart from the old, curving streets of Leidschendam. The houses here were almost brand new in 1935, and lacked the charm and unmistakably Dutch flourishes of older architecture – decorated cornices, shaped gables, ornate brickwork. Each flat, unadorned facade along the Tedingerstraat was nearly identical; the paint on a door, the fabric of window curtains, and the plants growing in the tiny front gardens created the only distinctions. They passed the milkman’s home and business at number 15, where the milk cans were lined up along the house, and Gerrit nodded to the melkboer in his white jacket and cap preparing to make deliveries with his cart. Across the way was the butcher shop, with its cool marble interior and carcasses hanging from steel hooks. The sweet smell of tobacco and cedar wafted from the open door of the cigar shop, and a white poodle yapped at them as they passed. A man wheeled his barrel organ over the brick road and stopped at the corner to crank the handle that made music spill out of the ornately painted contraption.
Soon Cor stood before Tedingerstraat 61, the house of her in- laws. A low fence abutted the sidewalk, and behind it were flowers planted by Gerrit’s mother – her Moeder den Hartog now. She saw the woman pull aside the curtain and peer out at them; Moeder and Vader had come from the wedding on an earlier train to prepare for the newlyweds’ arrival. Cor glanced away, pretending she hadn’t seen her, and looked at the yard instead, where flowers bloomed. Cor took no notice of their variety. As she approached the entrance, her gaze moved to the upper-floor windows, wide, rectangular panes that would let in lots of light, but already she was thinking, How will I ever live my whole life here? Just then, the door was pulled open from the inside, and Gerrit’s father spread his arms wide to hug her.
"Welkom!" he said, kissing her cheeks, and she noticed the fruity pipe- tobacco smell of him.
"It was a good journey?" asked Moeder as they came through the door, but the words seemed directed to an invisible someone, and Cor let Gerrit answer.
His mother bustled about, bringing tea and biscuits, and Cor – not knowing whether to offer her help – sat wishing they could excuse themselves and go upstairs. But her mother- in- law prattled on, and not for the first time Cor noticed her river dialect. Gerrit’s father spoke the Alblasserwaards dialect too, but it sounded less obvious to Cor, and she’d never heard him use words like allez or enfin, as his wife did. Moeder called Gerrit "Gurt," drawing out the long u sound, and while Cor would come to mimic the pronunciation, by then an endearment, today it seemed another oddity in a day filled with them.
One comforting sight was the portrait of Queen Wilhelmina that hung on the wall, ermine cloak trailing from her shoulders. Even topped by a crown, her face was kind and matronly rather than regal – round, with small features and happy eyes that sat a touch too close together. Good Christians revered the royal House of Orange, since they believed the right of rule was God- given, so the same portrait hung in the Post household on otherwise sparsely decorated walls. Here there were prettier things than at home, though the family was poorer: Moeder den Hartog’s Delfts Blauw china graced the mantelpiece and the eyes of peacock feathers looked out from a delicate blue- glass vase. The feathers always surprised Cor, because she thought of Gerrit’s mother as superstitious, and she knew that feathers indoors were said to bring bad luck. Cor wasn’t superstitious about much outside the Bible. Even if the aura of bad luck became visible around the vase, if it emanated in blue waves from the feathers, Cor could ignore it – thunderstorms too. One had just begun to rumble over Leidschendam, and Moeder den Hartog rushed through the house, closing it up. "God’s wrath!" she exclaimed, looking out at the rain bouncing up off the road, her eyes darting nervously. Cor knew it was no such thing, though she was equally devout.
Later, as she unpacked her suitcase, she came across two photographs Truus had tucked in with her belongings – in one, Cor looked out from the bookstore doorway, and in the other she stood inside, with the books on their shelves behind her. In the years to come, the features of her face would fade from the photographs, though the books and the storefront remained. But even now, when the photographs were crisp and new, they suddenly seemed like mementoes. One of Cor’s favourite cousins – another Cornelia – lived in Schiedam near Overschie and would take her place at the bookstore on Saturdays, while Cor’s duties would begin here. From now on she would awake in these rooms. She’d have her babies here, and in the not- too- distant future, stand on the balcony with her husband and children watching green and red tracers light up the sky.
That night, Cor lay in bed, observing the shapes of her new surroundings by moonlight. She thought of Gerrit’s parents downstairs, asleep in their twin beds, framed photographs of the previous Moeder and Vader den Hartog hanging on the wall above their heads. The pictures were a reminder, she knew, of the importance of tradition and duty, but Cor didn’t intend to follow the custom and hang the likenesses of Rochus and Arigje in her bedroom. Nevertheless, listening to her husband’s steady breathing, she already understood she’d become part of the tapestry of this family, and that she and Gerrit would continue the weaving.
When she finally slept, she dreamed of the street- life in a place that seemed to be Overschie and Leidschendam at the same time – the milkman pedalled past in his short white coat, as did the fish vendor, the cigar vendor, and the schillenboer who collected potato peels and old bread to sell to the farmers. Each of them had his special cry, but the most joyful was that of the flower vendor, who called "Bloemeninallekleuree!" – Flowers in all colours! – the words echoing as he disappeared, and sung even in the rain and wind. There was so much wind in this flat land reclaimed from water that Cor dreamed of it roaring across her husband’s garden, picking up all the seeds they had just planted and scattering them uselessly into the sea.
In the middle of this restless sleep – two hours, or three? – Moeder den Hartog called upstairs with a loud "Gurrrrrrt!" and rapped on the wall. Cor started awake in the darkness, wondering at first where she was and why. She could see Gerrit open his eyes beside her, and just as she moved to kiss him, the rapping came again, along with a louder "Gurrrrrrrt!" Cor bristled, and knew she must express to her mother- in-law, however wordlessly, that it was Gerrit who’d taken a capable wife, rather than his bossy mother who’d acquired a fourth child. She urged Gerrit out of bed and drew the sheets up without a wrinkle. It was four in the morning, and the workday had begun.
Cor joined the den Hartog family during Gerrit’s busiest time, when the first crop of cucumbers, planted months earlier in the clay- and straw-walled hotbeds, was ready for picking. May’s chores lasted from the dark morning of each day until ten o’clock at night, when the sun sank into the low horizon and mirrored Gerrit’s exhaustion. Alongside his stooped father he spread the composted manure, turned the heavy black soil by hand, two spades deep, and planted summer crops like beans, melons, potatoes, endive, carrots, beets, and cabbage. Soon, after the seedlings appeared, he began the back- breaking job of fertilizing and watering. For this he walked on planks between the rows, and, carrying a yoke hung with two twenty- litre cans that held water or wet manure, he showered the plants that had sprouted in the two- and- a- half- acre garden. He had a thin frame, and his veins bulged with exertion.
Through the spring and summer, while Gerrit worked eighteen-hour days in the tuin, Cor took up the task of wife, silently asserting her role to Moeder den Hartog. Dressed in a traditional white apron that crossed at the back, she spent her days cleaning, cooking, washing, and mending. At harvest time, she salted vegetables, or preserved them in jars. The beans, cucumbers, and beets that lined the shelves were grown by her husband and prepared by her, and the glass jars packed full with colourful, homegrown food were proof of their now seamless bond – tangible evidence of happiness. But she was still restless. Having been raised in a bustling town at the edge of Rotterdam, she found her new home oppressively quiet. Since the age of twelve, she’d been used to daily contact with customers in the bookshop and library, and she missed the smell of the books, the lap of the canal outside the door of the house, and the giddy company of her sisters, Truus and Maria. Neither she nor her sisters had a telephone, and the letters they sent back and forth did little to bridge the distance. She even missed Truus’s husband Jacques and the jokes he repeated ad nauseam, doubling over with laughter. Jacques could fold himself in half and still be almost as tall as Truus, who had thick black eyebrows and a happy, heart- shaped face. Their rows were loud and frequent, and the making-up just as exuberant, but however much Cor disapproved of such outward displays, she adored her sister. She knew she ran the risk of forgetting to laugh if she spent long stretches away from home, and that she had a tendency to take things too seriously; two creases had already formed between her eyebrows, and she was only twenty- six. Gerrit had noticed them, and often smoothed them with his finger. "I think you’d like to visit your family," he said one day, and his expression held a kind of apology for the things he couldn’t give her. After that, once every two weeks, Cor spun through her chores and hurried for the train to Overschie. The tracks ran alongside the garden, and she liked to take a seat on that side, so she could see Gerrit from a distance in that great plot of land, turning to find her in one of the many windows rushing by.
Back home on the Zestienhovensekade, she caught up with Truus and Maria, and visited her childhood friend Marie Zandbergen, and her husband Dick. In the first hours, the visits were just what she’d craved, but by the middle of her time away, she wanted to be back in Leidschendam, settled into the routine that gave her days an undeniable purpose and a constancy that was in sync with the world around her: Gerrit’s work and the auction, as well as her own visits to the baker and the dry- goods store. She prided herself on the efficiency with which her days unfolded, waking early each morning, seeing Gerrit off, soaking her whites in scalding water, scrubbing everything until it gleamed, and then standing back to inspect the whole. Each day, at lunch and at dinner, she removed her apron, hooked a basket over her arm, and walked the short distance to the end of the Tedingerstraat. Here, she turned right, passing the busy Stalen- Ramen- Koop factory that manufactured steel- framed windows, and crossed the Broekweg to reach the tuin, where she would find Gerrit tending the vegetables. She brought him strong, hot coffee and sandwiches, and kept him company while he ate, and the garden stretched out before them, an expanse of black soil to which they entrusted their future. On the slight rise beyond the field lay the railroad track joining The Hague to Rotterdam, Cor’s link with Overschie but also her passage back again.
Gerrit had a similar desire to connect with the world beyond Leidschendam, but the draw for him was news. Much as he loved to read, books and newspapers didn’t bring current events to life the way radio broadcasts did, so before long, the rich wood cabinet of a multiple-band radio graced a small table in the living room. It was a costly purchase, but for Gerrit, news was as necessary as food and water, and in the evenings when he switched the radio on, its warm yellow glow filled the room. He liked the fact that he could tune in to stations from across Europe, but the Dutch and Belgian- Flemish broadcasts were the only ones he understood. So while Cor worked in the kitchen, cleaning up from the day and preparing for the next, Gerrit relaxed near the radio, and listened.
By now Cor had arranged her own things in the half of the house she shared with Gerrit, and like her mother in Overschie and her mother-in- law downstairs, she hung the standard portrait of Queen Wilhelmina on the wall, dusting and straightening it as she went about her daily chores. Wilhelmina had inherited the crown in 1890 from her dead father, Willem iii, when she was just ten years old. A special law was passed to allow it, since the right of accession had not previously included women, and there were worries that the related German royal house might try to claim the throne. Her German mother Emma, Princess of Waldeck- Pyrmont, ruled as regent until Wilhelmina turned eighteen, but the girl’s gilt- edged childhood was nonetheless cut short by the looming responsibility. Wilhelmina grew up in what she herself called "the cage" – not the actual palaces her family inhabited, but the regal confines that had existed since birth, when she escaped from the womb only to find herself equally hemmed in by protocol and expectation.
In an attempt at normalcy, little aristocrats were often invited to play with Wilhelmina in the palaces’ ornate drawing rooms, but at heart, the girl was a lonely, deeply religious child whose best friend was her mother. She preferred riding around the flower- laden grounds of the royal residence Het Loo with Queen Emma in a wicker horse-drawn carriage; or in winter, skating at the palace of Huis ten Bosch under the guidance of one of her father’s aides- de- camp. King Willem, two generations removed from his daughter, believed skating was an indecent pastime for a girl of high breeding, and was unaware of the lessons she took in his last sickly years. Wilhelmina was told it might kill him to know. Shrouded by trees, cheered on by her mother, she stumbled and then careened along the ice. She grieved when the king died – for the loss of a father, and for the weight that loss placed on her – but at last she could openly speed around the moat at Huis ten Bosch, a child queen clad in fur- lined velvet.
Situated a short distance from Leidschendam, Huis ten Bosch nestled in an ancient forest that gave the palace its name, which means "house in the woods." House is a relative term, and doesn’t usually imply grandeur, but in her day, Queen Wilhelmina was the richest woman in the world, and the castle had a Green Room, a Blue Room, and an Orange Room, and each window opened out to lush, rose- covered grounds ringed with moats in a symmetrical design. The bridges that arched over the moats led to a forest of lofty elm, smooth beech, and old oak with rippled bark. This dense forest would turn thin over the course of the German occupation, as trees were cut and burned in makeshift stoves, while at the palace, bullets punctured walls, and the gardens were upturned and destroyed. But in the early years of her reign, Wilhelmina’s surroundings were still pristine, and the country itself was, by her own admission, like a nation asleep. The times seemed unimportant; "life was a pond without a ripple," as she wrote in her autobiography.
Excerpted from The Occupied Garden by Kristen Den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski
Copyright © 2008 by Kristen Den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski
Published by St. Martin’s Press.
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