Kanaalstraat 17, Gouda.
17 November 1964.
In a simple room sits a lonely woman with white hair, lost deeply in thought.
Those thoughts go back to fifty-four years earlier.
What a wonderful mechanisms people’s brains are, allowing you to relive your whole life, as it were.
Is this silent figure alone in the world?
Has she no-one left and is that why she looks so pitiful?
No, dear reader (male or female), this woman recalls, today that fifty-four years ago, she took the most important step of her life.
She married then, the man of her choice and now that she sits there, so alone, thinking about everything that happened, should anyone ask her if she has regrets, then she’ll say:
“No. I am grateful that I have had the good fortune to have experienced it. I have had very many worries but also very many blessings.”
Naturally there was sorrow through the death of her husband, after having lived together through a marriage of fifty-three years, in very good harmony. Which is a great privilege, but still she feels her loss, daily.
It was in the very cold winter of 1891, that on the sixth of January of that year, that born into the family of postman, Johannes Schoonens and Allegonda van den Hoven, a child was born.
They called her Elisabeth Geertruida.
It was a very weak child about whom the parents were very worried but, although she had little vitality, the weak child survived.
The family in which the little girl grew up had many worries through the fact that in those times, the wages of a postal worker were very low, as were the wages of all the lower public servants, in the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Betsie grew up, indeed, not in luxury but, fortunately, certainly in love.
She had a dear mother and a kind father, two brothers and two sisters. A very cosy family.
How lovely it sounded when her parents sat down together with the children and sang in their truly lovely voices that beautiful song
: “_I see the gates wide open, through which the light can stream from the cross, where I can truly find peace._”
Yes. Then passers-by stopped to listen. That’s how beautiful the songs sounded.
But the joy in her parental home was not to last, as nothing does, in this world.
Betsie had to find this out early.
Until her twelfth year, she had never known her mother to be ill, but, after suffering for two years, her mother passed away, aged 48.
Betsie was then fourteen years old, at an age when a child cannot do without her mother.
The family split up – father and a younger sister went to live with a married daughter but Betsie went to The Hague, to married cousins, where Betsie did not like it at all and missed her mother very much.
She also could not settle in because she was not allowed to attend meetings of the Salvation Army, as she had been accustomed to do.
Thus she was doubly unhappy because, instead of the meetings, she had to go twice, on Sundays to the reformed Church, where she did not feel at home, at all, as the meetings of the Salvation Army had been far more cheerful than in that church, where the booming voice of the minister made her feel sleepy.
Her father remarried, after only seven months.
No. In The Hague there was nothing for Betsie and after a year, she returned to Breda.
But, because a sad time does a fragile girl of that age little good, she had to be admitted to a day-care centre for weak children, where she was nursed for eight weeks and given very good care.
That day care centre was located in the middle of Mastbos, in Breda, providing good, healthy air.
And, when the eight weeks were over, the chairwoman of the Green Cross, which ran this shelter, asked Betsie if she would like to become her second maid.
She worked there for four years and was very content, in Mrs Bannie van Haefte’s service.
But, life must run its course, according to its plan. When Betsie once went to a shop on an errand, she met one of her acquaintances, who told her that she was leaving Breda because her master had been transferred to Hillegom and that therefore she would go with the family.
The acquaintance asked whether Betsie would like to come along, as kitchen maid.
She said Yes.
She would therefore leave her mistress, whom she really liked very much, to become a kitchen maid, in Hillegom.
Thus, on 1 May 1910, Betsie went along to Hillegom.
It was a handsome villa, which was called Werestein, situated on Werestein Avenue.
The house had a beautiful garden and Betsie was certainly happy there.
The staff consisted of a nanny of 18 years, a second maid of 18 and Betsie as kitchen maid, 19 years old.
A youthful threesome therefore. Furthermore, there was a gardener.
The family of Court Registrar, Kuipers Hacke van Mijnden, consisted of the master, the mistress and three children.
Betsie was certainly happy there but yet, she would not stay long.
This is why.
In Hillegom she had become acquainted with a girl, Marie van Wonderen, a telegram delivery girl.
This Marie knew that the new kitchen maid of Villa Werestein had caught the eye of a road worker.
She would act as matchmaker.
Betsie had learnt to ride a bike and, on Sundays, she regularly rode to Haarlem to attend the meeting of the Salvation Army.
Marie arranged a meeting and thus it happened that when on Sunday, Betsy rode her bike again to Haarlem, she met the road worker at the Bannebroeker Bridge. (Bennebroeker Bridge, perhaps?)
The road worker was waiting for her there and thus the pair met each other.
The meeting was quite satisfactory but Betsy put up the condition that he would come along to the meeting.
And what one doesn’t do for love!
The young man, who had never set a foot in a Salvation Army meeting place, went along.
All that happened in 1910 and it was a coming together for life.
The road worker could be appointed bridge-keeper in Vianen but had to be married.
Now, Betsie and her road worker were as poor as Job but both had no cosy parental home and always sitting at another’s table is not satisfactory.
So Betsy agreed that they should marry in a very short time.
He put Yes on the application for bridge – keeper and got the job.
Thus, on 17 November 1910, the wedding took place.
To the bridge keeper’s house of the Biezermolen Bridge, in Vianen, also belonged a piece of land of 250 rod (2500 metres). Well, the road worker was not lazy. He had to start on his bridge 1 October 1910 and Bets stayed for six more weeks at Villa Werestein.
Of that stay she had good memories because she got on well with her employers.
Her future husband was, as stated earlier, as poor as she. Yet, this was not completely true.
His mother passed away, in 1905 and his father fell under the tram, in Amsterdam, passing away, three days later.
The family was therefore parentless and out of that Betsie’s future husband had been left with some furniture and linen, plus a feather bed.
Although it wasn’t much, they could manage.
2nd November, they went to Breda, to register and on November 17, 1910, they climbed the steps of the town hall of Breda, to be married.
It was on a Thursday and the following day, they caught the train to Gorichem.
There they hired a bike for Bets and the journey continued towards an unknown future.
Before Bets became acquainted with her road worker, she did not even know that Vianen existed – a place with no land behind it.
She had not seen her marital home beforehand. There just wasn’t any money to go and have a look.
Now the reader may think, perhaps, that Betsie must have had a very unhappy marriage. But, while it wasn’t easy, it turned out surprisingly well.
Just because a person is poor, it doesn’t follow that they have to be unhappy.
Money doesn’t always bring happiness because happiness is not for sale.
They had their own table and were content with a piece of fried bacon. It tasted good because they were young and healthy.
There were certainly worries because twenty-eight guilders per month was very little and was also, in those days, a starvation wage.
But the young people pulled themselves through and accepted everything the way it was.
There was a large piece of land with it and her husband was certainly not lazy or afraid of work.
Even when they had been married for a few weeks, Betsie began looking for dandelion salad. That may seem strange, but she did that because she was pregnant and she found that salad tasty, with the fried bacon.
After having been married for nine months and ten days, they were delighted by the birth of a stout son of eleven pounds.
That happened on 27 August, 1911.
Yes. It had been a heavy load to carry for the young mother but everything happened smoothly. It was as if he was already three months old. That’s how heavy he was.
Fourteen months later, their second child was born, a darling little daughter.
They had to find their happiness indoors because outside was very lonely.
Imagine a state-owned dwelling. On one side of the house lived the assistant and, on the other side the bridge-keeper.
The bridge was close to the house.
One of the two had night duty and had the lantern in front of his door (paraffin oil).
During the daytime, they were both on duty because it was a large bridge, across the Merwede Canal. In this way, there were thirteen bridges, between Gorinchem and Vianen, at equal distance from each other.
They had one day off, once, every six weeks, as long as there were no winds, because, if there were, you couldn’t be missed.
Some distance from the house there was also Bart de Jong’s windmill but they hardly ever went there.
After 1910 Vianen did expand, compared with our first years there._ "
One gentleman helped both these young people, on whom he probably took pity, quite a bit.
He was a librarian and they were allowed to borrow books every week, at no cost.
Both were very keen on reading and were, therefore, very grateful.
Yes. Also in 1910 there were good people.
One book in particular gave them a great deal of pleasure. It was called Robert and Bertrand, the merry vagabonds.
The first winter of 1910 to 1911 was the most difficult. It was very cold and although coal cost only one guilder per hectolitre (anthracite was still unknown), heating was still an expensive pastime.
The coal was ordered from the captain of a ship, which travelled backwards and forwards, between Gorkum and Vianen, bringing five hectolitres at a time.
Oh, what a worry, to have to part with those five guilders, from a monthly wage of twenty-eight guilders.
Groceries, clogs, everything they bought from Wout Veen. He delivered monthly to all the public servants operating the country’s bridges.
He also hird out to the heroine of this story a little heater, for two guilders, per winter, to warm the room.
In the kitchen there was a little stove that belonged to the house which was owned by the state department for roads and waterways.
There was no plumbing. They had to make do with a well.
When they had been living there for a while, a pump was installed and the water could be pumped into a tray which ran to a tap.
In that tray lay a layer of sand, with gravel, through which the water was filtered. It was certainly a primitive arrangement.
Gas or electricity were not there either. Only oil. But one gets used to anything.
Outside there were also no lanterns on the dyke.
No. Behind Bets’ and Joop’s land, there wasn’t much else and no diversions at all.
But the sun also shone in Vianen. They survived four years there and then a notice arrived offering a bridgekeeper’s position, in Gouda and Betsie’s husband applied for it.
Fortunately for these young people, he was appointed. Then things were a lot better for Bets.
There was also a housing shortage in 1914 but, through a conversation with two women, overheard by chance, by Bet’s husband, they learned that the husband of one of these women would get a position at the cemetery, along with an official residence. Therefore, her house in Gouda would be vacant.
Having overheard that Joop spoke with the woman and asked if he was allowed to know where she lived. In this way he got the dwelling and was lucky.
In Gouda they found good neighbours, who, just like them, were not very well off, with daily care for nine children and a small wage.
The neighbour was a well-behaved man who worked hard and who in his free time did wall papering to ease the burden of worrying a little.
When their sons, later, grew up and learned their father’s trade (tin smith) these people did well and started their own business, which still exists to this day.
Unfortunately, in 1914, the first world war broke out and although the Netherlands did not enter the war, it was still a bad time.
There was general mobilisation and that meant that all those who were eligible for national service were called up. Betsie’s husband too.
In Gouda it happened to be annual fair time and Betsie’s husband who was certainly not a disagreeable person, went to hang out his military clothes to air them and get them ready.
One day, before his departure, he passed the fair with a colleague and he had a ride with him in the whirligig.
He was in the national-service for one and a half years. Looking back on it, it had not been necessary. It had, in fact, been a mistake made by a supervisor in the department of roads and waterways.
Employees of the department had to remain available in case something went wrong with the water and defence line of locks and bridges. Thus Betsie’s husband returned home after only one-and-a-half years of mobilisation.
In that time he was happy enough. The war lasted until 1918. During those four years there was distribution of groceries through a system of ration tickets.
After the birth of Allegonda, on 26 October 1912, after the move to Gouda, the family was expanded through the birth of seven more children. (See below.)
With the birth of Margaretha Julia, the family was complete and consisted of three sons and six daughters.
But, sadly, the war of 1914-1918 was not the end of it, because in 1940, World War II broke out. Fortunately, Bets and her family of eleven people stayed alive.
She has had the great fortune to have been married to her man for fifty-three years. Her husband was sixty-five when he reached the pension and enjoyed being retired for twelve years.
He worked for forty-three years for the state and provincial department of waterways.
He passed away, at the age of 77.
(With my daughter, I stood, in 2005, where the Rode Brug (Red Bridge) used to be, in Gouda. The last one where he worked and I, like my cousins, was sometimes allowed to stand with him, while he turned the bridge.)
Betsie was very upset but found much love and comfort through her children, for which she is very grateful.
Written by Frans Kokken, retranslated by Jo Mulholland (a.k.a., Joop Mul)
Five of the nine children. My mother was Jacoba, born, in 1917. Passed away, in 2004.
Julia was closest to my mother. Julia came and visited us, here in Sydney ten times, from Gouda, where she had lived in her parents’ (Betsie and Joop Postma) house after Betsie, my grandmother passed away.
Anna Katrina and her husband (the author of this story) visited us too. As did Luyt and his wife.
A younger sister, named after Betsie, decided to visit us, in 1974, with her husband.
Their visit opened the floodgates. Julia ten times. Luyt and Toni, once. The daughter of Bep (the first to come) once and Annie and Frans, once. Also the youngest sister, Margaretha, with her husband, Koos. Two younger brothers had been in Australia, around 1950.
My recollection of family gatherings is of a very lively group of people. Extroverted. Noisy. My father and the uncle who was the first to visit here, had fun being married into that family. They loved showing off at parties.
Betsie, my grandmother was kind and caring but not particularly involved with my cousins and me.
She was reported to have said that managing, feeding and clothing nine such lively children had been enough to do.
Nevertheless, visiting. Smelling the home-made bread, getting presents on St Nicholas Day, together with cousins, Willie and Coen de Haan, are good memories.
11 April, 2008
On a recent broadcast of the Conversation Hour, with Richard Fidler, I heard Don Akenson, professor of history at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, say that genealogy is made up of stories.
The husband of one of my aunts, gathered my mother’s mother’s memories and wrote them in an exercise book, in November, 1964.
I translated them, in July, 1992, to ensure that my son and daughter will have an insight into their great-grandmother’s life.
They have seen where my grand-parents lived, in Gouda, The Netherlands.