Skirts tell a story
‘Jetlag hit me today, I need to get an early night.’ Sophie stood, ‘So if you’ll excuse me, I need to unpack then I’ll be back to cook dinner.’
‘Perfect. I can have my nap.’ Bea headed for the natural leather couch.
Taking separate plastic bags from her suitcase, Sophie plodded up the narrow staircase to a bedroom with a small single bed along one wall. The space beside and at the foot was only a metre wide. After a couple of trips with smaller bags, she carried the almost empty suitcase up and slid it under the old school desk.
Thank goodness Tante Bea is positive and encouraging about helping me write this book, she reflected as she went to gather empty hangers from the unused guest room. She breathed in the familiar, slightly musty scent, remembering how much she had enjoyed staying in this room until the neighbours had renovated so their daughter’s family could move into the upstairs level on the other side of the adjoining wall. Sophie almost salivated as she stroked the smooth French-polished wood of the wardrobe where Bea stored her ‘out of season’ clothes.
There was no room for a wardrobe in her little room, so she put the hangers on the antique, leather-backed wooden chair. More hangers balanced on the edge of the small school desk.
She opened her own window and leaned out over the garden, consoled by the blissful silence and the gentle chugging of barges on the canal beyond the meadow below. The large guest room opened onto a relatively busy road joining all the villages along the west bank of the canal. Gosh, Alida couldn’t even choose her room, let alone hang out of it in that place. Poor Alida was so alone being cut off from her family for the last forty-eight years of her life – but I bet she wished to be away from many of the other people in her situation.
Tiredness swept over Sophie, so she withdrew, wedging the home-made wooden fly-screen in the aluminium window frame to prevent mosquitoes entering her small room.
Downstairs, she hurried through the kitchen to the fridge in the outside passage, to search for dinner. The minced bacon, no longer pink, she wrapped in a coloured plastic bag, so Bea wouldn’t notice next time she went to the outside bin, feeling guilty for wasting food. There was an open tin of camp-pie partly consumed. With so many preservatives, it’s worth risking, she thought, heading to the lounge to check with Bea.
‘Yes, that will be good, thank you.’ Bea followed Sophie into the kitchen and gazed out the window. ‘I wonder if there is anything to eat in my garden yet.’
‘I’m amazed you DO have a vegetable garden. Did you plant it before your accident?’
Bea smiled mischievously, ‘The lady who does some of my housework helped me, even though she is not supposed to. Otherwise, I would have to cycle to Maastricht too often to get fresh vegetables.’
Sophie laughed with Bea, shaking her head at the same time. ‘Yes, these community service workers have strict rules to abide by. You are lucky you have such a good relationship with your lady.’
‘Cycling seven kilometres on icy winter roads is becoming too dangerous a journey for me.’
‘So how is your leg after your fall off the bike?’
‘It still hurts me at night if I do too much walking, but otherwise as you see I walk without a stick anymore.’ Bea lifted her trouser to show the scar.
‘Oh, my goodness,’ Sophie gasped at the number of stitch marks.
Bea frowned, ‘I’m very glad to still be here. During these last four months while my leg needed so much attention, some of my children put pressure on me to move closer to them.’
‘Yes, I was pretty worried about you too. I was absolutely overjoyed to read in your letter that you were back cycling to get your own shopping. Your recovery is just amazing.’
‘Life just goes on as normal.’ Bea waved away the admiration.
‘What a great life it is here. How lucky I am to have this second home to enjoy such easy holidays, with such a wonderful aunt.’ Sophie stood. ‘I’d better start preparing you some dinner.’
‘Oh, are you going to do all the cooking again? Let me help you.’ Bea cleared her sink.
‘You need a holiday too. Why change a good habit?’
By the time Sophie brought in a simple dinner composed from what remained of her aunt’s frugal store in the cellar and fridge, Bea had set the table with a cloth she had embroidered whilst expecting her first baby in 1954.
‘Would you like wine?’
Sophie laughed, ‘I didn’t buy any wine yet.’
Bea zipped across the passage and reached inside the cellar door, then hoisted a wine bottle in the air. ‘Tahdah! Always wine here.’ She filled the glasses that she’d included in the table setting. After a few minutes quiet eating, Bea asked, ‘What did you find out about your Oma Alida on my daughter’s computer?’
‘The wonderful internet shows pictures of Dutch women’s clothing and other things from the era when Alida was a young lady.’
‘That saves me finding my old photos,’ Bea laughed.
‘Or me tramping around museums!’ added Sophie. ‘But I have two photos of Alida; one taken in 1923, and one perhaps earlier.’
‘I’m very glad of that, and I promise if I ever sort out my collection out again, I’ll give you any I find.’
Skirts worn by Alida
Sophie opened her tablet computer, found the electronic copies of her two photos and turned it to Bea, ‘This photo seems to be taken earlier. Her outfit looks more like the old-fashioned long, dark skirts and blouses.’
Bea peered at the tablet computer as Sophie opened a document she’d saved off the internet.
‘The information described how, in the 1920s, skirt lengths began to creep up the lower leg and became slimline.’ Sophie’s face lit up. ‘So, Alida’s outfit in the photo with their first two babies showed she may have had one nice dress for special occasions.’
Bea leaned back and raised her index finger, ‘Alida was lucky to have that nice outfit, but it is possible it was only on loan.’ Bea frowned, ‘I’m so glad that by the time I had to scrub floors, we could wear trousers. When I was cycling as a social worker to the families in the community, I had a special kind of trouser made. They looked a skirt, because women were still supposed to wear skirts at that time. Slacks are still my preferred clothing.’
Sophie burst into laughter, ‘I don’t think I can picture you in a long skirt!’
Bea frowned. ‘With Opa being unemployed, Alida probably still wore her old skirts.’
‘It must have been difficult to do all the cleaning in such a full skirt, especially kneeling to scrub floors by hand.’ She showed Bea the pictures of cooking stoves in the 1920s and 1930s. ‘Do you think they might have had gas because they lived in Amsterdam?’
Bea scoffed, ‘If they lived above the shops, it would be a very old part of the city. And being poor, and in a rental – I don’t think the solid old stoves would have been replaced.’
‘It makes sense, because the heavy metal also held the heat to warm the room long after the fire went out.’ Sophie gazed into the distance as she reminisced, ‘My mum insisted on having a solid wood stove in all three houses they built from 1960 to the end of about 2010, when the last one’s firebox bottom rusted and collapsed into the oven. She didn’t have it removed, just cooked on her electric stove and used the wood one to put hot things on.’
‘It sounds like your mother resembled her own mother, Alida, in regard to not wanting to change things,’ Bea mused. ‘It seems to help some people cope with the unbearable.’