Sparrow Girl – Overnight in the Country

Overnight in the Country

Train stations were exceptionally noisy places. this one in Rotterdam was under a glass gallery, immense amounts of glass and steel. The sound of voices, hurried footsteps and screeching metal train brakes drowned out even thinking. Our train was just pulling in. The first few coach cars were first class. The people in the cars looked down smugly on the world, their well-coifed hairstyles resting gingerly against the crisp white lace doilies pinned in the velvet upholstered seats.

“Fist class” my father announced, with the disdain one would fully expect from a post war socialist. Now he second class cars came rolling in. These seats were upholstered in vinyl, some dark res and some dark green. These people were well dressed but not nearly as well coifed. My hand was being tugged to keep on walking to the back of the train. Third class.

In third class you were seated on plain benches, if you dared. There were all sorts of stains and puddles and malodorous sticky stuff everywhere. Most of it no doubt left behind by all manner of animal, livestock, baskets of pigeons, Dogs and pigs both on leashes. It was a good idea to cling to my daddy.

As I understood it we were going for a fun weekend out to the country with my father’s university friends. We each packed a small bag with just the necessary things like clean underwear and toothbrushes. The dog was staying with the next door neighbour for the weekend. Mum and dad wore matching corduroy pants and black hand knitted sweaters. I was in my favourite flood pants and striped shirt.

It was not long before our stop, just as my nose was getting accustomed to the smell. The pig on the leash had gone to sleep. I felt somewhat envious of the pig.. I was told that Jaap’s mother was an excellent cook and was excited to have a little girl staying the weekend. I hoped I would like her, if I did I would pretend she was my grandmother, I really wanted a grandmother. It had rained lightly and the cobblestones of these small streets in Leiden had my shoes make a klip klop sound, I made a game of dancing noisily along the cobblestones to my father’s whistling. We passed the canals with ladies putting laundry on the lines strung along deck now the rain had stopped.

Jaap poked his head out of the door, apparently he had been waiting. there was a great deal of hugging and his mother was very nice, really grandmotherly as I had hoped. I was there not five minutes and a hot chocolate and cookie appeared before me. Jaap had also put a fresh heap of sand in the back yard for me to play in.

The afternoon was lovely, I had to go to bed early because the next day included a long walk in the forest for me. I tried to imagine what a forest looked like. I’d grown up in the polder with just the occasional tree. No wildlife other than marine birds and insects. Forests as I understood it has rabbits and deer, and foxes. I was a bit apprehensive after all these would be wild animals and I also had heard frightening stories of little children being eaten by wolves. I asked my father about wolves when he put me to bed and he said simply “no, the wolves all live in Germany these days”. That suited me, after all according to my mother Germans were terrible people so they deserved to live with wolves.

The next day was absolutely beautiful. We left early and could see the mist rising from the gardens and the water of the canals. Jaap’s car was coughing and sputtering it’s way to the forest. He had salvaged the aged Citroen from a junk yard and with my father’s help had somehow managed to get it going. We passed through large fields of brightly coloured tulips, row upon row of greenhouses being built, and finally trees, many, many trees.

From here we would walk. As Jaap stopped the car the engine gave one last full-body shudder. Jaap patted the hood with considerable affection. There were trees everywhere, very tall trees, as we walked into the forest there was less and less sky. I missed the sky, my whole life it had been there and now all I could see were branches, and stuff was falling from the branches, insects, leaves, sticky stuff. I was so focused on the missing sky that I kept tripping over the stones and branches strewn about. (I was getting tired and I hadn’t seen one rabbit.

Mom kept pointing out all the interesting mushrooms but they could not be eaten or touched, pretty boring after a while. I had hoped for flowers and bunny rabbits, but it was not summer so there were no flowers in the forest and bunny rabbits were apparently very shy around people. We reached a clearing where dad wanted to do some sketches and Jaap sat to smoke a pipe. Mom and I had a small sandwich and she told me forest stories, most probably designed to frighten me into never letting go of her had as we walked through the forest.

I screamed, a blood curdling full-body scream, not a scream that was planned, it had taken even me by complete and utter surprise. Searing pain from my calf had completely consumed me. suddenly there was a whir of activity all of it with my leg at the centre. I kept trying to look to see what hurt, but people were in the way. Daddy scooped me up and ran with me all the way back to the car I could see my mom and Jaap running after us. I leaned a new word “adder”. That’s what Jaap was yelling.

In the back of the car mom told me an adder bit me. Daddy explained that adders were like small snakes, but it could make me very sick so I was going to the hospital. I looked out the window and saw the sky, it was blue and the sun made the drops on the car window sparkle and I fell asleep.

I woke up in the bedroom at Jaap’s, his mother was knitting rhythmically in the chair beside my bed. As soon as I started to get up she yelled for my mom and dad. I was safe and I had no desire to get back to the forest, ever. Forests were not safe places for little children, nor little Red Riding Hood, or Hansel, or Gretel or me. We had bunny rabbits in our community garden and there were lots of wild flowers growing all over the polder. I liked the world inside houses and near houses, familiar sounds like the clicking of knitting needle and the whistling of a tea kettle. The forest belonged to adders and bugs and other wildlife. I would not go intruding on it again.

Sparrow Girl – Easter and the Laws of Thermodynamics

Easter and the Laws of Thermodynamics
The rituals of the Christian calendar were a mystery to me when I was little. I lived in a predominantly protestant part of the Netherlands, but, in my case, my parents raised me without a religious identity of any kind. My parents were not of the same religion, one was protestant and the other Roman Catholic, neither attended church, in fact both had turned their back on the religion of their childhood in favour of those being explored by my somewhat eccentric and always existentialist parents. By age four, when this memory of mine takes place, my parents were following the teachings of the Buddha quite seriously, and also exploring the occult and paranormal as a bit of a hobby.

I had come to accept Christmas as a time for decorating trees and eating lots of good stuff with friends and family, who were rarely seen the rest of the year. The significance of the history of this wonderful feast were not known to me. Easter also was a time for special foods and candies rarely seen at other times.

Eggs of course were part of daily life, or at least nearly so. My eggs were normally soft-boiled and in an egg cup accompanied by a slice of toasted bread. The anticipation of this breakfast was in itself an event. My mother miraculously timed the egg to perfection and the toast had been toasted alongside on the cast iron stove in the kitchen all was warm and fragrant, and the egg was soft and runny.

This was before the mass raising of chickens who never saw the light of day. These eggs came from chickens most often known to us personally or from one of the merchants at the market, who came with cages of birds also sold (unbeknown to vegetarian me, to become meat for soup). The eggs had bright yellow yolks and were mixed brown and white, some had feathers and straw stuck to them so they always required washing before cooking with them.

I very much liked chickens. I had spent much time sitting with them in the chicken house at the back of my grandmother’s house in Rotterdam. Not unlike cats they cuddled of you stroked and petted them, and they made a wonderfully calming sound when you did.

Easter was a time for hard-boiled eggs, lots of them, best of all we painted them. They were boiled with beets and others with onion to turn them red purple, yellow and orange, and the rest was painted with watercolour paint and a fine brush. My mother would meticulously plan the painting and first pencilled the outline on the eggs and then I was allowed to fill in some of them with pain in whatever colour I chose. some also had words on them, but I could not read. Mostly I filled in the circles and flowers and triangles. The eggs were for friends and family and neighbours so there were several dozens of them.

We kept some, of course, and I always hoped some would not be claimed and we would have even more. Hard boiled eggs sliced on toast with mayonnaise and a little black pepper was a bit of heaven and we so rarely had them that way. At new years when there were visitors we had them on small squares of toast with mayonnaise and pickle. Being that we had little money, the slices had to be very thin, as we had many friends and not so many eggs, and pickles. It was not looked down on or thought of as cheap, everyone was pretty much in the same boat, the point really was one of hospitality, sharing, not showing off.

The most often seen wildlife in the Netherlands was the bunny. Rabbit was a frequent pet and a staple meat, across the street one of the families who lived in a house with a yard used the bunnies to keep the lawn trimmed and every spring there would be a new set of bunnies doing the moving. It did not occur to me then but I suppose the previous year’s bunnies were used in soup and stews through the winter.

At the baker and the local candy shop (Jamin’s) bunnies, chickens and eggs appeared this time every year in chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate and even white chocolate. some were covered in tin paper, pink and blue and green. Baskets holding several confections on a grass made of stringy tissue paper and tied up with a bow was the thing of dreams. I’d never had a basket like that and I was jumping up and down in front of the window to see it better. Oh if only I could have the pink basket with the chicken and little eggs on green grass tied up with a bright blue bow.

Easter morning my feet hit the cold linoleum but the cold was not a concern, I was wholly focused on what the Easter bunny might have brought me. I peeled around the corner to the living room and there sitting on the coffee table was the most beautiful basket with a big brown chocolate chicken surrounded by a variety of little chocolate eggs, some in tin paper and others covered in a sugary shell of candy pink and robin’s egg blue.

After breakfast consisting of the treasured toast with hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise and black pepper we were going for a walk. The day turned out o be very sunny and quite warm. I only needed to wear my green cardigan over my lilac dress. I wore my Sunday best shoes and little white gloves. I would not leave the basket with the chicken behind. I carried it proudly over my arm. I resisted eating any of it since it looked so beautiful just as it was and I wanted to be seen with it.

As no day is entirely perfect it was inevitable some part of the day would not deliver only that which was good. The sun, the warm and wonderful sun, alas proved a little too warm. slowly during our walk on the sunny side of the street had melted the chocolate chicken into the green tissue paper which looked like grass. I noticed it only when we were nearly home. I was inconsolable.

My parents who were not made of money, and even if they were there was not one candy shop open on a Sunday, would and could not replace the chicken, or the one or two eggs that had also melted. Instead, very patiently my parents sat with me several hours, and slowly peeled the tissue paper away from the chocolate as best they could. The smallest bits of chocolate found their way on a thickly buttered slice of fresh bread, happily consumed by a little girl. A little girl who’d just learned something about sunlight and the effects it can have on substances such as chocolate. Happily the bow and basket were spared being mucked up with melted chocolate so the basket was entirely useable still and for years to come was taken shopping to the market (real and imagined) and later would house my Lego. We received many compliments on our painted eggs, and received so many eggs in return that happily there were many more days of eggs on toast than I dared hope for. What a lovely holiday!

Sparrow Girl – The School Bully

The little boy across the street was quite horrible to me when I was in kindergarten, and his older brother would stand and laugh as he kicked and hit me. Prompted by my father one day to say what was bothering me I spurted out “the boy across the street hits me”. Dad asked me to point out the boy next time he came by.

A few weeks later, there he was, walking by with a sneer on his face. He was quite the mature bully for one no more than 6 years of age. He was walking along the dyke road, alone but as was often the case carrying a whipping stick. It must have been something he used on other children and quite probably the neighbourhood cats and dogs. I know that hat my dog didn’t like him one bit and would growl as he came near.

“That’s the boy” I told my father.

“Hey”, said my father in one of his most commanding tones, which was rare and I was quite taken aback by it. The boy reeled round, and his mouth was falling open with that look of not knowing whether to stay frozen or turn and run. He stayed frozen on the spot. For what seemed like a very long time as my father slowly came toward him.

My father was a tall and lanky man, and this weekend was still in his army uniform which must have added considerably to the impact. “I hear”, he said, again at a most commanding tone and clasping his hands behind himself, “You’ve been hitting my daughter.” He motioned to me and stayed glued to the spot also, not knowing whether it would be acceptable to smirk or not.

“My daughter is not allowed to hit anyone, and she is a good girl”. Well, now I was positively gleaming with something very near pride. “However, I should have told her she can hit back if she is hit first.” Then daddy turned to me. “Aletta”, which was my cue to come near, “Aletta can really hit quite hard, did you know that?”

By now the little boy’s eyes were flitting around, making eye contact with dad and the ground ahead of him equally, not looking at me at all. “No”, he answered.


“Yes, dad”

“Show this boy how hard you can hit”

I made my best fist, just as daddy taught me with my thumb on the outside. Clenched my jaw and threw an air punch.

“and,” he continued “she can hit even harder if she stands with her knees slightly bent”.

Suddenly I remembered the last time dad tried to teach me fighting styles, he knew some jujitsu and savate. I put my feet slightly further apart and bent my knees slightly, digging the balls of my feet into the gravel on the dyke road. My fist was tightly tucked into my waist and I looked the little boy (who was still quite a bit taller) straight in the eyes. I was feeling very ready and able, but also a bit nervous. As all the possible bad things that could happen, were flooding through my head. I could fall, and look foolish, was the most horrifying. I’d take my lumps happily, but not have to look foolish, not in front of my father.

“Well, Aletta, hit him.”

Remarkably without hesitation my fist sprung from my waist and exactly in the little boy’s mouth. His tooth grazed my knuckles. I had hit him just hard enough to make him groan and yelp. He looked at my father, wondering if he could run or should continue standing there for another. I was winding up for another, he had hit me plenty. He wiped a tiny bit of blood from his lip, but all the teeth were intact. Strange but I wouldn’t have been happy if any of the teeth were damaged. That would have been too much. Even this had sickened me slightly. I really didn’t like hitting at all.

“She hits pretty well doesn’t she”

“Yes Sir” the boy said, nervously changing his weight from foot to foot.

“From now on, if she hits you, she will hit you back, understand?”

“Sorry sir.”

Well, that took me by surprise, sorry, he said, “sorry”. My dad released him by telling him to go home and tell his dad what happened. I had no idea then, but now, it must have been the worst of it, to tell who’d hit him hard enough to bruise and make him bleed. Punched by a little girl. He never hit me again. He was at times even quite nice to me. Best of all, it stopped the other kids picking on me as well. It was for the longest time, the last time I hit anyone.

Sparrow Girl – Daphnia


After we had moved to our second apartment in Hoogvliet, and my father had finished his studies, we suddenly started collecting pets. We had a dog, Cerbie (Cerberus) since I was about two, a half chow, half wolf puppy, ferocious to others but my very best friend. Dogs are the sort of friends only children value above all others. I could dress him up in clothes or endlessly throw the ball or a stick. Because of his fierce loyalty to my well being I could go anywhere in the neighbourhood if I took the dog. The dog was a given, he was family, not really a pet.

My father’s new self indulgence was collecting up birds and fish. The first bird was Oliver, a handed down canary my dad brought home from work one day (for mom, said he, but…). It was a lovely yellow bird with a ring of black around his little head like the hairlines of a Franciscan monk. He sang with my mother as she did her morning voice warmup or as she rehearsed at home. He also whistled along with my father, who could only carry a tune when he whistled, singing was something we did not encourage in my father. I didn’t much care for birds in cages, I preferred the ones I saw everyday outside, like my little sparrows across the street every morning on the way to school for as long as the bread crumbs held out.

The aquarium on the other hand was much more to my liking. I was forever fascinated by the new fish my father would bring home on pay cheque days. Neon tetras, zebra fish, danios, loaches, and the one Siamese fighting fish, a big ruby read one with a streaming purple tail. It was probably about a 10 gallon aquarium, for me it was huge,, my own personal marine world. It was one of those family projects, and much more interesting than television those days. Tonnie had a television, and occasionally I would watch a show with her family. It was black and white and not very interesting compared to the colourful ever-changing world in the aquarium. Tonnie thought so too and often came to sit with me watching the parade of finned beauties. We made up stories to go with what we were watching.

Occasionally a fish would die, usually a zebra fish, they were temperamental and did not deal well with temperature changes in the water. I did not deal well with dead things. I was frightened of all dead things. He could not get me to fish out a dead fish with the net. Whenever he tried to coax me into it I would end up running off and crying in bed for some time. I could however flush them away, after uttering a few words of respect, a fish funeral rite.

There was no heater in the aquarium. It was set up near the warmest inside wall and occasionally on cold days tepid water would be run into the aquarium as the coldest water was siphoned from the bottom. Consequently the aquarium was spotless during winter. None of us minded the extra work at least not that I noticed, and I could not get enough of the aquarium especially in winter when there was not much daylight for playing outside. We had the basic little pump and used sand found around the polder and plants from the slough not far away.

Every few weeks my father would go to the slough for daphnia, little red ones. My father had a small microscope from when he was a boy and we’d look at the organisms he scooped up with the daphnia, another world to explore. I grew up thinking that my father had the be the most knowledgeable person in the whole world. He knew something about everything.

My father would often take me along on his daphnia expeditions. The dog would run alongside the bicycle and I would be in the basket on the handlebars holding a big jar and the net, a fine net made with one of my mothers old stockings and a wire. We’d be off o the slough near Spijkernisse. I liked it there, I could see the windmill nearby and there were lots of wildflowers and tall grasses. My father liked to take his time and fish out examples of this and that small fish or creature to show me. Those expeditions could take a long time if he found much to show me. On the way back I would hold they day’s catch of red daphnia.

One day in particular we had caught an exceptional amount of daphnia, the intent being to keep them alive in the jar and feed them to the fish in smaller pourings from the jar. That was the theory. What really happened on getting them home was a slip of the jar and a large cloud of oxygen hogging daphnia threatened to asphyxiate the fish, the beautiful prized collection of tropical fish my father had so lovingly looked after.

Eventually the fish would have eaten them and the supply of oxygen the small pump provided would be ample again. Right then, however the little fish were struggling for every breath between meals. Some were beginning, after an hour or so to swim sideways and jerking about. My father had set up a temporary solution, explaining the physics of it to me while doing it (he could have done it faster without the explanations). The bicycle pump and an inner tube with a hose running to an air stone he would pump up the inner tube and slowly release the extra air. It was working the fish were recovering and slowly the red mass was getting thinner. The dedicated teamwork of my parents had all but one fish survive the ordeal. My mother heroically, while hugely pregnant stayed up the night with the bicycle pump and inner tube, giving up sleep to save the fish as my father who had to work the next day slept. It was an error never made again. Still, my father was right, the daphnia made our fish spectacularly healthy and colourful.

Sparrow Girl – One Night Accross the Street

One Night Accross the Street

Across the street in a modest townhouse lived a family with three sons. The middle son was the one who would bully me at school. I didn’t, beyond the bullying, know any of them well at all. All I even knew about them was that they had a television, which on rare occasions, my parents and I had been invited to watch. Usually when something of earth shattering importance had happened somewhere in the world and there was extended news. News such as throwing a satellite into orbit or a man, monkey or dog into space.

These homes were newer than our apartments and had central heating. Very few homes those day had anything other than a cooking stove from which ambient heat was derived. Looking back I would assume that these families had a higher standing economically as most of the housing was company owned for the express befit of keeping their employees happy. Each house had a small tree and a little yard in front and back.

I had no reason to think about them at all until one day their lives became important to me and all the other people in the neighbourhood. I had been fast asleep all night happy in knowing that I would not have to wake up early in the morning because, after all it was a Saturday. My parents were far too happy having a couple of hours extra themselves to wake me up. It was not they who woke me the next morning. It was still quite dark out, a cold day in the late autumn. The apartment was still cold. Apparently my father, who would normally be first up to start the coals burning, had not yet started up the coal stove.

I had been awakened by a lot of noise outside on the street. There was the howling siren of ambulances. Police were at the house on the other side of the street. My parents stood silently by he window. I knew something was wrong. If something pleasant was happening outside they would have noticed me and happily pointed out whatever might be of interest. Instead they stood like statues by the window. There was something were alarming about that. So much so I could hardly bring myself to ask what all the fuss was. So I didn’t ask. Instead I quietly walked up the big picture window in the living room. Carefully, as not to destroy what might be a solemn moment for my parent, I tiptoed to the edge and looked.

Suddenly my presence was noticed. My mother immediately stood beside me. She said nothing, but knelt beside me and held my hand. That wasn’t something I was used to. Mams wasn’t given to moments of mushy physical demonstrations of affection. My father was still standing exactly where he was. I could not escape the feeling that whatever was going on out there had my parents quite upset.

I knew a little something about ambulances. I knew they came to get sick people and took them to the hospital. I knew the police came to catch bad guys and to help lost children find their way. The only time I had ever seen and ambulance and police in the same place was when we passed an automobile accident on the road to den Hague. Obviously here it had to do with quite something else.

As we all looked down, a stretcher carried by two ambulance attendants came out of the house. My mother was biting her lip and her eyes looked like she might cry. So I held her hand a little tighter and looked at her. She remained quiet. My father let out a spontaneous “oh”. Something he was not usually given to doing either. There was someone on the stretcher, all covered up. Completely covered, even the face was covered. I assumed it was because it was a cold day. Faces get cold too.

Then came the second stretcher and now I was getting a strong feeling that this was more than a sick person going to the hospital. I could not stay quiet any longer, I just had to know what all this was about. “Mams,” I asked, “what is going on over there”. I was feeling quite anxious as I asked, frightened actually.

“Well,” started Mams, stroking my hair and biting her lip, “there was an accident, the gas was left on and everyone died.”

Well, that was to the point. I had some notion of what Mams was saying. I knew, for instance that gas could explode. It was not long after the night the nearby refinery blew up. Obviously here there was no explosion, the house looked fine. So I blurted”but the house isn’t blown up!” this was a cue for my dad, who loved explaining things, anything, and he could go on about almost anything for much longer than most of us had the stamina to listen. In this case no one minded he explain it. Mams was obviously deeply affected by all that was going on, Dad never failed to be absolutely calm (unless there was a drop of blood to be seen, then he would faint dead away).

“When the gas is left on and there is a lot of it in the air it is poison for people to breathe, and since they were sleeping they just never woke up.”

As if it would all change just because I asked the question “All of them?”

“Yes, all of them”

For about another hour we all stood by the window as the other stretchers came out of the house. Eventually as the sun was starting to warm us through the window, the police locked the door to the house, and the small crowd gathered on the street started home. It was comforting to see my father start-up the coals in the stove in the kitchen. I didn’t see the benefit of having gas if it was just going to kill you. That was the day I stopped complaining about being cold first thing in the morning I had warm clothes and fat knitted socks to wear.

I was very sad because children should never die, but at least these children would go to he next life with their parents, they would not be alone. For weeks it as talked about. The teacher at school tried to explain how gas was dangerous, but my father had explained it much better. The women in line at the stores poke tearfully and at time weeping.

In time it was spoken of rarely. It made an impact. For the rest of your life I would dislike the us of gas, and appreciate just how easily one mistake can have fatal consequences, a lesson best learned early.

Sparrow Girl – The Night the Refinery Blew Up

The Night the Refinery Blew Up

There are certain sounds you wake up to feeling inexplicably fearful and sickened. Long before knowing the why’s of it your stomach is already in great big knots. Very few events in my life had prepared me for waking up like this. In that split moment of waking up from what was my first experience with concussion from an explosion I had nothing on which to base my fear other than just knowing instinctively that this was a very, very bad thing. Before that split second was over I had already called out to my mother.

My mother had much more experience with waking up as a result of bombardments having survived several of them in the ruins of Rotterdam during the second world war. She had learned to respond to her sense of survival and not her sense of fear, to her absolute credit. Mams was opening the door to my room before I managed to bring myself to the sitting position she scooped me up from. She took me to the inside hallway and we sat in silence for several moments. Waiting I suppose for a second explosion. None came.

Thee were also no air raid siren,no overhead aircraft. From where we were sitting in the hallway we could see the kitchen facing the courtyard. The floor was covered in glass, the small bits caught the light and were twinkling like so many little diamonds, like little stars. Looking through the kitchen windows at the sky which was blood-red triggered a fearful response the like of which I had never known and which to this day stands alone, the highest level of dread and fear I have ever experienced. Perhaps because my mother was suddenly wailing and crying and because my daddy was not home, he was at work..

My mother was not alone, there was much crying to be heard from the entire apartment complex. Other women whose husbands were not at home, other people who had already lived through quite enough blood-red skies for a lifetime. The dog had come to sit beside me in his usual sweet and protective manner. I hugged my mother, knowing she needed it, and perhaps a bit selfishly because I needed it too.

Beyond the courtyard facing much further east was the Shell Refinery where my father and the fathers in all the families here worked. This was a company town. Everyone knew that refineries are highly volatile workplaces. We were close enough that when the explosion happened many of the windows facing the refinery had blown out. There was glass in the kitchen, the hallway, and the hallways outside the apartment and more still in the courtyard.

We stood on the long communal balcony, facing the reddest sky I have ever seen. Silently, holding the hands of our loved ones and wondering whether those of us missing were going to be alright. We were wondering, will they come home. I seem to have inherited the tendency to do something when I am terribly upset, to not sit still, inherited from my mother. After we had stood there is silence for some time, and realized that nothing would be changing anytime soon, we started cleaning up the mess inside.

An hour or so later the sky was still blood-red with a more orange colour right behind the trees. Our kitchen was completely tidy. We had dressed more warmly, the room was cold with the missing window. Neighbors appeared at the window now and again wanting to know if we had heard anything. We did not have a telephone, so the only way to find out anything was through the sharing of information by the few in the apartments who did have a telephone. Daddy was not home yet. That was the only thing we knew. No-one working at the refinery that night had come home. By now we were all aware that dad might be hurt of worse, never coming home. Mams was very reassuring, although unconvincing, saying over and over that daddy would be home any minute and not to worry. She had nothing left too clean inside, so we both went outside and cleaner the gallery outside our apartment of glass. After that she started the coal stove, to warm up and have a hot chocolate. I think she knew I would not be able to sleep without daddy coming home. Exhausted I lay bundled in my blanket in Mams arms until morning.

We were just clearing away some breakfast dishes when an exited neigbour came to the door. Mams spoke to her and by the tone in her voice I knew all at once that daddy was going to come home, he was alright or she would not be sounding so happy. That’s pretty much what she told me. Someone from the refinery had called the neigbour to tell her which of the men were seriously hurt or dead, and my father’s name was not mentioned. That could only mean that he would be alright and coming home soon.

It was many hours yet before he came home. He looked awful, his face was scorched and much of his hair had gone missing, he no longer had eyebrows or eyelashes, and his eyes were hurt. All of which he kept reassuring my mother would heal in time and not to worry. He was silent on the subject of what had happened exactly. He healed, but never discussed it. His eyebrows did not grow back and few of his eyelashes did. His eyesight was as good as ever, but the worst of it for him was the loss of much of his hair.

For many years dad saw all the best doctors to see if anything could be done, to recover some of his hair growth, but benzine poisoning is not reversible completely. I think he would have been less affected if he had lost a leg or something, he grieved the loss of his hair his entire life. A few decades later he might have had a transplant, that would have made hi happier. When daddy came home that day I knew my father would always come home. Dad attained superhero status that day, although inexplicably my nightmares, where I was chased by a tiger through the streets of Rotterdam to find my father dead at home, continued into my teens.

Still, I was never frightened to see him leave, not when he was in the army and possibly going to Indonesia, not when he worked late at night at the refinery. I just knew he would always come home and read me stories, or concoct some of his own stories which he would illustrate for me on a large drawing pad.

The explosion was soon a part of the past, the air had cleared, injuries had healed, and the dead were buried. Business at the shell refinery was as before. I can’t say, although I do suspect, that this is when my father started looking for a position elsewhere, away from Shell and some memories which he never shared.

Sparrow Girl – Bandages and Red Tulips

Bandages and Red Tulips

My father, the devout pacifist that he was, nevertheless had his duty as a Dutch citizen to spend at minimum a year in the service of his country. Mostly Dutch conscripts served within the country, disaster relief, that sort of thing. Because my father had a family and a job to support that family. Secretly my father had hoped to be sent away to Indonesia. Pirating ancestry had given him the wandering gene I suppose. To him the world outside Europe was one great Tarzan movie. He drew fantastic comic books of adventures through jungles meeting exotic tribes-women. I wasn’t supposed to leaf through them, but they were just so marvellous and I was very careful.

Maybe he had thought they’d toss him out for being a pacifist. The very beginning he had already been thrown in detention for refusing to carry a loaded weapon. My father had an uncanny way of making everyone he met bending over backwards to make him happy. It was really quite beyond belief what he could get away with. Obstinately he refused again and again until finally it was negotiated that he carry an unloaded weapon and go from regular army to medic. this was particularly laughable since my father fainted at the sight of even a little blood. In battle I could only imagine him utterly useless passed out somewhere, swooning on waking to find his bloodied comrades.

My father was however unaffected by notions of inadequacy. Instead he threw himself into all facets of being an army medic. And my life as a four-year old became infinitely more interesting. Every weekend when he was allowed to come I would wait on the balcony for his slim, fatigue clad body to come from the bus stop, pulling along an over-sized duffer-bag and in his arms a generous bouquet of bright red tulips. I jumped up and down until he saw me, then ran down the stairs to meet him. I knew I was not allowed to cross the street, but I had the routine fully times just so. With magic only fathers have he would scoop me up, keeping stride and not dropping a single bloom.

The first hour I had to keep my mouth shut. That was understood. Daddy would hug mommy and I would drag his duffer-bag to their bedroom. As tempted as I was I did not open it. I did not have a clear notion of just exactly what soldiers did. soldiers wore uniforms, itchy woollen uniforms. They carried guns, and they were apt to get injured. That’s why my daddy had a duffer-bag with lots of different bandages.

After mommy and daddy had finished their hugging and chatting I would implore him to show me the bandages. Now it was my time. Mam would obligingly stay in the living room and happily play the piano or sing, and we would sit on the floor and play with the contents of his duffer-bag.

No one in the world could bandage body parts faster and better than my dad. He would practice on me and then I’d get to practice on him. He was massively entertaining, he would limp, and collapse and I got to fix it all up. In between he would tell one of his delightfully silly jokes:

“Aletta, how does a cow catch a bunny rabbit”, this was my favourite…
“The cow sits behind a blade of grass and makes the sound of a red cabbage”
and he would leap out and grab me over his shoulder.
“Do you know why a red cabbage and not a green one?”
“Green cabbages”, and here is where he would shake with laughter and he had to be prodded to finish the sentence “don’t make sounds, you silly girl”.

In silliness he would bandage my feet together and have me hobble around being just as silly as he. Quite the feat really, I was always painfully self-conscious, that was my natural state, only with him could I be so silly. My Mam was completely devoid of silliness. Neither of us was comfortable being silly when she was in the same room, a strange sobering effect. Mam walked in and a quiet matter of fact mood suddenly predominated. Neither of my parents was very physically demonstrative with their affections. Affection in our house was mostly verbal. I was told they loved me, I did not lack compliments, there was lots of attention, easy as I was really an only child for seven years of my life.

The times he was on call to go to Indonesia he took weapons home as well. A machine gun and a sidearm. This is when I learned all about keeping guns clean and oiled. In time he came to like his guns, but not to use against people, just inanimate targets. I don’t think my dad had it in him to shoot another human being to save himself, but easily would have to save others.

Some weekends army buddies would gather for coffee just before they all took a train back to base. Huge bonus for me, most did not have children, I reasoned that is why brought me chocolate. If they had their own children I would not have got all that much. Mam would collect up the chocolate so I could have a piece each day that week. diving in and finishing the lot was not an option. The whole lot of them would clown around as they left. They disappeared in the shimmer of the sunset, laughing loudly, and our evening at home would be terribly silent and sullen. Every night I would think of dad as I bandaged my dolly Maggie as dad had taught me. One day I could be a medic, after all I had the bandaging down to an art.

Sparrow Girl – Oome Leen and the Whatjemecallits

Oome Leen and the Whatjemecallits
“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

Sparrow Girl – The Taai Taai Pop

The Taai Taai Pop

“Aletteke, kom hier” mum stood by the school fence waving her arms in the air with the enthusiasm most adults no longer possessed. This was the good kind of “come here”, this was a child to child “come here.” I ran toward her. I could hear my shoelaces clicking against the wet brick path dragging along as I’d not managed to tie them.

Judging mum’s from her enthusiasm she would not yell at me. I rarely ran. I wasn’t any good at it. My right foot always dragged a little and the foot was turned in. Ballet lessons has really paid off. Now I could run, trip in mid-air and have it all sorted out by the time I landed..

Mum caught me at the end of the little walkway. “We have to hurry”, she said it with a most triumphant smile. The smile that could make me forget all the cruel little things four year olds can do to each other. Mum could tie my laces, fix my coat, put on my mittens and kiss my cold little face seemingly all at once.

Something good was happening and I wondered what it was. I’d have asked but we were moving quickly and I had no breath left for asking. We were not going home, we were facing the wrong way for that. We were going toward the shops. Magically as we came close to the shopping streets the street lights lit up, including the decorations. Seasonal sparkly stars and banners with the friendly face of St. Nicholas and his faithful companion Black Piet. I wanted to stop and take it all in but we were still flying and I hadn’t caught a breath.

I was beginning to sweat uncomfortably into my knitted scarf. “There”, mum’s gloved hand pointed at the bakery window. In the window was the largest Taai-Taai Pop (doll) I had ever seen. Taai-Taai is a thick chewy molasses and spice cookie/cake traditional during the festive holidays. Most were shaped as St. Nicholas, horses, Christmas trees. This one was the mitred saint and his companion, four delicious feet tall. I gasped. “It’s beautiful, and so big.”

“We have to take it home, and you have to help”. She hustled me into the bakery. Mum fumbled through her purse as she excitedly announced to the lady behind the counter that she had won the Taai-Taai pop. We were congratulated. The roly-poly baker came from the back of the store and took a picture of us by the window, where there was just enough light. I was dwarfed by a pastry, wow. We were urged to stay for a coffee and a cookie, I was given a little milk. I felt very special. I would have something to tell the rest of the kids tomorrow. While we had our cookie and beverage the baker and his lady wrapped the doll in cellophane topped off by a large red ribbon. Several customers came in and noticing that the doll was won and by us we were congratulated.

It was cold, but the excitement made it easy to bear. Mum held onto the top of the pop and I kept the bottom from falling to the wet ground. It had to be done with care so the pop would not break before we got it home. Pappa would be so surprised.

We were drenched but the cellophane had kept the pop dry. It was displayed on a small bench near the piano. Guests were invited to come and eat the pop at a drop in party the day after St. Nicholas. The usual oddball collection of beatniks, neighbours and opera singers, they brought wine and beer and hot chocolate. There was dancing and singing until the next morning.

It was a very large pastry it took many people a month to help us finish it. Taai Taai is very chewy, so it was not hard to sit, relax and savour the spicy treat. Saturdays Pappa would make hot chocolate and it was one of the few times I was allowed to dip a cookie in.

I was allowed one piece each day until it was all gone, and is was the most delicious Taai-Taai even on the last day.

Sparrow Girl – First Snow


Winters were long and dreary in the polders. Endless grey and near freezing fog. Round the clock life was comfortable only close to the stove. The stove was a one burner, cola fed, black cast iron model. The apartments on Klaasjezevensterstraat were not centrally heated. Fortunately as an employee of Shell, my father received all the coal we could burn free of charge. We also received all the free potatoes we could eat. during these years of post war recovery that was especially helpful. One less item to stand in line for with rations coupons.

Several times a week mams would standing line with coupons for cigarettes, coffee, tea and sugar. A great deal of noisy trading went on in those lines for cookies and sweets. I was not allowed sweets, I think that helped keep my chain smoking mother in cigarettes. I have no living memory of my mother without a cigarette in her hand, and not infrequently another lit in the ashtray.

Mother could knit furiously with a cigarette in her mouth and keeping up a conversation. Intricate sweaters they were too, and happily very warm ones. I needed those sweater to go to other rooms in the apartment which were stone cold. Thank goodness winters were most often above the freezing point. It was a week after my fourth birthday when it snowed. The first snow I’d ever seen in my life. Magically my mother had anticipated the moment and through some of her own special magic, and probably coupon trading magic at that, produced a green snowsuit with a feathered furry trim around the hood.

Mom did not like me playing outside in winter. I’d had several cases of pneumonia by age four and living in the shadow of an oil refinery made one very prone to lung problems. In retrospect, living inside with a chain smoking mother was no real improvement, but then no-one actually knew that then. The suit was an indication that my playing outside, at least for the duration of the snow, would change.

I was eager to play in it, make snowmen, throw snowballs, just like the ones in my book. I only knew that snow was cold. It did not drop from the sky like rain, it drifted down like leaves falling from trees in autumn.

I had to wait until the suit had warmed by the stove, as with all our clothes, when they came from the closet they were far to cold to put on. At night out next day’s clothes were hung from a chair in the kitchen near the stove. In the morning we would have breakfast and take the clothes from the chair to change into.

In three layers of clothes plus the suit I could barely move . The dog knew we were going out and feeling my excitement was jumping up with full bodied slams against the door. The door with beautiful frost flowers also had snow blown up against it. Mams was furiously loading film in her old twin reflex box camera. She pulled on her wool coat over her corduroy pants and black knitted sweater.

It was unlike anything I could even have thought of. The world was completely changed. sounds were muffled, the air was crisp and easier to breathe and there was no-one anywhere. We walked and ran into the polder the dog ran shovelling the white stuff with his nose. Snow flakes landed on my face and I could feel them melt. It was like a tickle, a tickle from an angel. My mother ran and pelted me with snowballs and I returned fire, Cerberus (my dog) was attempting to intercept each one as we threw it.

Mams was taking photographs as dad came into view, pushing his bicycle through the snow. As soon as he was near he dropped the bicycle and ran over to join in another snow fight. With considerable expertise, which one would expect from someone who once studied at art academy, he had made an enormous snowman, or rather a snow cat, very Egyptian looking.

“There”, he said when he was done, “you’ll see this from our window until it melts”. On the way home dad carried me most of the way, I was exhausted and cold. It was warm in his arms. Mams pushed the bicycle home, Cerbie was still running himself into exhaustion.

There were two more snow days, until the great cat melted away into memory and the virginal white polder was once again grey and muddy with night-falls of frosty fog. All those dutch snow scenes with skaters on those tied on wooden skates were of a time many years before, when it was much colder. Our most famous long distance sating contests – the Eleven cities Journey” was now held in Norway because our rivers no longer froze as they did in my father’s time. I was twelve before the next snowfall, thousands of miles away, thousands of feet below sea level.