“Just every few months a big old Citroen would come around to pick us up. I thought it had the be the most beautiful automobile on the planet. It was a nineteen hundred and forty something limousine, of Italian descent, probably Mussolini had one quite similar. It was black and a bit intimidating, but then all cars from the forties were large and most often black. It was unusual only in that it was large in a country full of little cars, little cars which were most often not black. also this car came for us, with a chauffeur. Now if that was not impressive, I can’t think what would be.
Of course, I was quite aware the entire neighbourhood had their eyes fixed on the spectacle of my family, mom, dad and myself, fully doffed up. Imagine what stories they must have made up to suit the spectacle. Perhaps they thought my mams, the opera singer, was called to a command performance with the queen?
No matter what day of the week it was it called for Sunday shoes, the Italian red ones. How blessed was I not to have to wear the dreaded dark brown orthopedic shoes. I brought my dollys with me. My mams had made them both from cast off clothing, they were quite beautiful. The darker doll’s name was Jamaica and the light coloured one was Sunny, each fit in one pocket of my coat or in summer they were carried in my straw Easter basket.
The best part of the day was still to come. Hard to imagine topping a ride in a limousine with a chauffeur, but I knew the day was just beginning to warm up. There was the spectacular ride through the countryside, farm upon farm, small town after small town. Every season had its own wonderful colour scheme, and my father was excitedly pointing out all the interestingness around us, every bird, flower and tree had a name. Actually they had two names, one in Dutch and another in Latin. The Dutch names were often funny, while the Latin names were melodic and fascinating because I did not know what they meant, though sometimes there was a familiar sound like the Dutch name.
After about an hour’s ride we pulled into a driveway of little rocks, pink little rocks. Each visit I would find the nicest of these rocks and take it home. To me they were every bit as glorious as a diamond. At the end of the well-wooded driveway stood a rather unassuming, though large house of red brick and wood painted cleanly in white. Across from the house stood a large wooden barn, a very well maintained barn. conspicuously there were no barnyard animals though otherwise it looked every bit like a large farmhouse. the front door opened as soon as the car pulled up and a large-boned woman stood in the door frame, wearing a pretty flowered cress and on top. a crisp white lace apron. This was not the housekeeper but the lady of the house, my Great Aunt. As we got out of the car and walked toward the steps into the house the delightful fragrance of freshly baked breads and pastries teased my nose.
Certainly the breads and pastries were for us, we were the only guests and the table was already set. As lovely as the prospect of having a lunch was I eagerly looked for another familiar sight, my Great Uncle Leen. Oome Leen was a large man with and even larger moustache. One could marvel at how the man could even stand fully upright with a moustache quite as big as that. He dressed the same always, in a large white shirt neatly closed with a beautiful silk tie in colours that one rarely saw, certainly never on a man his age. He wore neatly pressed pants and depending on the weather he’d have on rubber galoshes or wooden shoes. I expect he had leather shoes for churchgoing but I did not see him ever wearing them. Outside of these visits I never saw Oome Leen, he was one of those sociable hermits.
He’d come by a small fortune when he sold a particularly lucrative invention of his, the mechanism to interrupt and redirect telephone calls. Before that he was a repairman, of clocks mostly, but if it was mechanical it held his interest. We all in my father’s side of the family have a tendency to tinker and problem solve. For a Mes to enter adulthood it was necessary to fix a clock or build a great contraption of note. My father took it to new heights with his Atomic Mass Absorption Spectrograph. My great-grandfather made cameras and clocks.
Oome Leen lived to invent and tinker. His wife did not share his love for things mechanical, above all she loved her clean stately home. Having Oome Leen build contraptions of all kinds on the dining room table and indeed, throughout the house, to hear her tell it was not acceptable. Ultimately it was put to him that either the contraptions would go or she would. As mentioned, she did keep an immaculate house, and could bake the most wonderful breads and pastries, so he was no doubt torn between the two. It was quite a dramatic time, stories had his wife throwing his contraptions at his head, though I doubt that, they really were in love, anyone could clearly see it.
A middle ground was found and the barn became his primary place of residence, so he could work day and night on his contraptions and the house would be free of them. The barn contained everything important, the contraptions, tools, a bed, and a wood burning stove for comfort. His meals were taken in the house and the two attended church together as a proper couple would.
Oome Leen no longer needed to worry about making money, the patent had kept them earning a living no matter what, his work was purely for the joy of it, and the projects he worked on were for fun and occasionally profit. I loved the contraptions, especially the ones that he would build just to amuse his niece. first lunch would be served and the cook would be praised and hugged, over and over, meanwhile sampling all she had lovingly made until my belly felt stretched to capacity. My parents would help tidy up after the meal and my uncle would beckon me to follow him to the barn.
Sitting on a large table in the middle of the barn sat his latest amusement, one built quite specifically to entertain his young niece. I would step up to where the big button was and giggling with excitement I smacked to button down and the button made a bell ring. from that second a meticulously orchestrated series of events would unfold before my eyes. Little men would cycle across wires, little wooden birds would flap their wings, everywhere creatures were walking, sliding, flapping, balloons would inflate, just the most wonderfully intense happenings running from the centre of the barn up, over, around and back again, and never was it the same two visits in a row. He would throw back his head when it was all done and laughed heartily, I would get to keep a small piece of it (like a little wooden bird) to take home as a memento. He showed me the cause and effect mechanisms that made it work, each time he would let me make some small contraption with him.
Then my Great aunt would call out from the house that supper was ready. Shortly after supper we would be taken home. On my way home, while clutching the memento, I would recount the day’s contraption to my parents until mid-sentence I would fall fast asleep. As if by magic I would awaken the next day, no idea how I ended up in my bed, but I knew it was all real as real as the wooden bird in my hand