Friday, March 7, 2014

BOISSEVAIN | Olga's Letters from East Java, 1908-1909

Olga Boissevain van Stockum, seated,
with her husband Bram and their
first two children, Hilda (b.1908)
 and Willem (b.1910).
Hilda van Stockum lovingly preserved letters to and from Olga Boissevain van Stockum when the van Stockum family was in Indonesia in 1908-1910. The Dutch Navy sent Olga's husband, naval officer Bram van Stockum to Java to captain a ship to ferry soldiers around (small rebellions required a response) and supervise target practice with large guns. The family of three – Hilda was just a few months old – traveled by commercial ship together to Java. Then they had to separate while Bram took command of a ship. Olga was left to care for her infant daughter. Here are some letters to her mother and husband about the experience.

Olga Boissevain van Stockum to Her Mother Emily,  Middle Fragment, November 1908 

[Baby Hilda, now 9 months old, gets into…] a sitting position all by herself. She sits alone too. But she doesn’t creep yet. She prefers rolling herself to wherever she wants to be.

She has such a sweet way of crinkling up her nose when she laughs. She has the most delightful laugh I ever heard: it comes deep out of her little tummy and rolls and ripples so that her whole little body shakes.

She strokes me so gently sometimes, her little head to one side and her hand on my cheek. She is admired by every one who sees her– such a curious contrast between her dark eyes and dark curling eyelashes and her golden fair hair – very pretty. She is a tremendous fatty and so heavy. The doctor was in raptures about her, said he’d never yet seen such a healthy child in India.

I’ve now decided not to wean her till she’s ten months. Then I’ll take three or four weeks to do it, so she’ll be weaned when she is eleven months. Mind you tell me when Teau [Caterina Boissevain de Beaufort, the youngest of the 11 Boissevain children and by most accounts the most beautiful, who nonetheless, sadly, was the first of them to die, in 1922] is going to wean hers [i.e., Nella, who was a near-twin of Hilda because Olga married late]. They don’t as a rule feed babies here longer than nine months themselves, but I prefer doing it, because November is so unbearably hot and I think it silly to change in the worst month.

I was so awfully pleased with baby the other day. I showed her a picture book and at each new picture I showed her, she shrieked with joy. I was thunderstruck at it, because I didn’t think a child of 8 months would be able to recognize things on a picture. So to see if such was the case, I showed a page with nothing but writing on it…and her joy was just as great!!

She gets half a pisang [fried banana] every day and some stewed rice with bouillon and a few spoonfuls of egg. She enjoys it all very much. She is not a bit shy, and laughs at everyone.

How I do wish I could see her beside Nella and Alfie. I am sure they’d make a trio anyone might be proud of. Hilda sings and shouts the whole day long “Buwa, Buwa!” Is her favorite cry. The baboe [Indonesian nanny] thinks she calls her doll “Buwa!” but it is only a cry of joy.

She is never out of my sight, except for half an hour in the morning while I dress, breakfast and bathe and then I am the whole time inclined to run and see if she is all right. She is absolutely the joy of my life, for it would be like a prison here if she wasn’t there to rejoice me.

But all the same I’ll be terribly happy to have Bram once more and be able to speak with someone. I miss him terribly. He is such splendid company and keeps me alive and full of interest in the world's goings-on. He always has theories or plans or thoughts to speak about.

Now the only sound there is in the world for me is baby’s laugh and baby’s talk. She can play like a big child already - bites my cheek and blows on it. The first time she did it accidentally, thought it funny, laughed... and immediately did it again on purpose.  [End of fragment.]

Olga to Her Husband Bram, December 1908

Dear Bram,
Here we are, oh how I wish you were with us! Jan [one of Olga's three younger brothers] was at the station to help us, the darling. We were within an hour at Modjokerto, having taken two badots there. We arrived in five more minutes at the steam tram.

For two hours we rode in that tram. It was full of gentlemen, which was embarrassing as I had to feed the baby. Hilda was sweet and coquettish with the gentlemen. Everyone admired her.

At Modjewarrow I was supposed to find a carriage with a boy, sent there by Stine, but when I got out of the tram there was no one and I heard to my dismay that there wasn’t a carriage to be had. I looked at the nameplate to see if I was at the right station and got a fright when I read Modjowarnie. I thought I’d made a mistake. I felt very lost in the wide wide world, not knowing the language.

After a long anxious wait the man came with two dogcarts and it seems I got off at the wrong stop. We had a ride of an hour along bumpy roads – the horses that pulled us were wild and full of tricks–sometimes they balked or went backwards.

At last we got to Karengan. There Stine sat on horseback, wearing a white divided skirt and a big tjappel [container of food] on her head, a monkey on her shoulder and a great welcome in her mouth. I had to get with Baby in the tandoe [rickshaw or sedan carriage - see photo] because we had to cross three rivers – but afterwards we got out and walked up the mountain with Stine.
COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Draagstoel Tjiandjoer Preanger Tandoe TMnr 10013866
Tandoe like one used by Olga and baby in Indonesia.

Oh Bram, it is so curious here! The house is a row of barns of woven mats with openings for doors and windows and made very cosy by Stine. The primeval forest is quite close and sometimes, very seldom, they hear tigers. This morning there was great emotion because a snake was discovered close to the veranda where Baby sat in her playpen. But luckily it was not a poisonous one. Stine has seen small poisonous snakes here.

Her husband seems nice; quite and content, but taciturn. Stine I love. She is so calm and efficient. She is sweet to Baby. I am sorry for her to see Hilda after her own loss. It is nice that she knows all the van Stockums.

The only drawback here is the monkey, which has attacked me twice already and which goes along on all our walks. His teeth have been shaved off but he managed to wound me all the same. Yesterday evening Stine and I took a beautiful walk to a meadow with a view on the mountains.

In the morning and evening it is nice and cool here, without mosquitoes. It is such fun to see Stine pottering around all morning: making butter and mincemeat, feeding beasts and in between gossiping with me. She doesn’t wear a sarong or kabaai.

I wish you were here, the primeval forest makes me think of you all the time. But for you it will be nice to hear how much I enjoy all this. Stine is so sweet to me.

To Family,  December 1908

Dear Freddie, Maurits, Johnny, Hilda, Maurits, Tom, Alfie, George, Valti, Gemma and Tollie. Good Heavens! I’m out of breath writing all your names! It’s quite a job writing to so many nieces and nephews at the same time. Thank you for your letters.

I’ll try to take care, John, but it is difficult for our Baboe is very strict with Hilda and me. Of course Uncle Bram’s ship did not founder; he is much too good a sailor. But it NEARLY happened, for he went with his ship where sailors seldom go and got close to a reef that wasn’t on the map.

Tom and Alfie, nice of you to write me. I liked your drawings. Did you hear I’ve been to a primeval forest? Just like Uncle Bram! There were all sorts of scary animals. It took a long time to get there. Mrs. Nering Boegel waited to conduct us to her house but because we had to go along narrow paths she straddled a horse like a man. So she cut her skirt in two. It looked all right when she was riding but when she walked you had a peep of her legs all the time. She wore a large native sun hat and a monkey sat on her shoulder, called Jacko.

We had to climb the mountain and because we had to cross rivers and there were no bridges I had to sit in a rickshaw and was carried up by the natives. Hilda loved it and kept saying “buwa, buwa,” which meant, I think, “How beautiful it is here and what an interesting life I have.”

When we approached the forest we had to get out for we had got to Mrs. Nering’s house. It really isn’t a house at all, just some sheds made of woven whattles, so you could see through the holes between the weaving. In the bathroom was a little brook that came from the mountain into one side of the bathroom and went out another. It was quite cold for Indonesia. It was a very decrepit bathroom for as I washed myself in the stream I could see through a hole what was happening in the kitchen. And sometimes the wind blew the roof up into the air and then you could see a big bird flying over your head. You get a fright when that happens to you.

From Villa Wedom, Lawang, Java, December 1, 1909 

Dear Family,
I must again thank you so many dear people for their presents. So I’m sending one big letter to you all.
Mary, I’m delighted with the dresses… they fit me beautiful and look elegant.
Rosie and Mies, your dressing gowns were most welcome.
Hilda, I thank you in the name of our daughter for the brooch.
Mary, thank for the little doll.
I congratulate Robert and Rosie [Phibbs] with their new daughter Kathleen (what a sweet name) and Alfred and Mies with the birth of Herman.
And I thank Charles not only for his sweet letter, but especially that he sent on Hessie’s letter and for everything he did for Hessie. If everything Charles did for her gives Hessie back her old vitality, then Charles has earned his place in Paradise.
Polly, you too have been splendid. The black dress fits beautifully and our admiration for all the little bits you transformed into sleeves knows no bounds. The little pinafore for Hilda fits her exactly so you see, we are simply overwhelmed with splendid apparel. I was going about in rags so it came in the nick of time. Most of the white shirts I took with me are in rags and the only proper dress I had left was the green voile and that would burst open occasionally as the silk lining was worn out, so you can understand how well off I now feel.
And Hilda, your scarf looks so neat, thanks very much.
And Em, how sweet of you to send me Adama van Scheltema’s poetry. What a lovely family I have!

But now I want to tell you about our gala week.

Hilda and I stood at the station to fetch Fik and Teau. I’d been busy all day decorating the house with flowers and making a delicious sponge cake for them, and arranging their room… but I was ready much too early, and I’d been pacing about impatiently. Teau was hanging out of the window waving her arms and Fik was looking a little bit less dangerously out of another window. It was a tremendous emotion when they at last embraced me.

When Teau saw our darling little daughter she did have to cry a moment, thinking of Nella left behind in Holland. Hilda did not understand it all. She never saw me act so familiarly with people and she was much impressed. I thought Teau changed… but advantageously so. She looks more like Hessie. Her face has lost something piquant she had but something more beautiful has taken its place.  She told me that Jan had also said she was looking like Hessie. They loved our little house and we had a gezellig tasty meal. Afterwards we went to the cupola on the hill and enjoyed an Indonesian night. The Smeroe (a volcano) was spitting fire and Teau was enthusiastic. I too, for it was the first time I had seen it, but for the honor of my house I pretended it was a daily occurrence. Only the next day I told them it had been new to me too. Teau was indignant and when Bram heard about it he called me a volcanic snob.

The day after their arrival we made a beautiful trip to the waterfall. First we drove and then we walked for half an hour where we could see the falls. We stood at the edge of what looked like an extinct volcano. It was a kind of hollow formed by mountains and at its rim, opposite where we stood, a little river rushed down. The walls of the crater where grown over with ferns and flowers and trees, reminding us of the Glen in Sligo. At the bottom was a little lake, which churned and danced and chuckled with pleasure under the continuous stream of wild foaming river water. First the little river curled calmly over the edge and then you saw the drops beginning to realize how lovely it was to fall through the air and they became wildly enthusiastic and disappeared in a mist, but the others went on falling, more and more quickly, till at last they reached their gay little brothers in the lake.

It was a lovely sight. We saw all this best when we were down near the lake, but it was difficult for us to reach it, as we had Hilda and no help, and the path was so steep that many ladies gave up.
Fik carried Hilda first, but both he and I were very nervous and so I took her and went as best as I could, slithering down with her. At a certain moment I could no go any more, my knees wobbled and my arms were aching. I sat down in despair while Teau and Fik went on. Then an Indonesian rescued me. He put Hilda in a slendang and went down with her.

We had a lovely morning there. Teau and I sat on rocks, chatting, Hilda throwing her shoes in the water (which Teau had to rescue with great danger to her own shoes) and Fik searching for and finding rare fishes. It was so lovely and gezellig! Hessie will be able to imagine it for she must have been as lonely in Ruxton as I was here. The next day the trunk came with my new clothes and as Fik had to go on business to Sourabaia, Teau and I fitted and sewed and chattered.

You should have seen Hilda’s beaming face when she saw all the beautiful things and was given Mary’s doll! She was sweet.

The day after we did another beautiful tour. We drove to a sacred wall which had formed a little lake where one could fish and bathe. It was surrounded by monkeys. Fik started fishing right away. Teau amused herself, letting Hilda wet herself in the lake, but with tragic results, for though I’d brought a clean suit for her it began to pour rain and we had to seek shelter with Hilda. We fled to a house in the vicinity that then turned out to be a hotel and we plopped down only to be ousted by the proprietor who said he’d rented everything. We had to wrap Hilda in a towel and Teau carried her to our carriage and there we sheltered in a little Indonesian shop that Teau thought most interesting. We then had a cold, wet, long journey home.

It was a lovely change for me but Teau and Fik want all the warmth and sun they can get. We walked with them also through primeval forest, but saw no monkeys. They were enthusiastic about the lovely landscape here. I told them of the only visit I made here. I live a very lonely life here. Hilda and I are usually alone in the house and if I need help, I have to go a little farther to where my servants live. So under those circumstances I thought it wise to pay a call to my nearest neighbour. Teau though it so interesting that she wanted to come with me.

My neighbor is a widow and when I first arrived at her house I suddenly wondered whether I had to speak Malay or Dutch to her. She wore a sarong and kabaai and her face looked brown and wrinkled but luckily she said: “What do you want?” in Dutch.

I then asked if I could pay her a visit the next day. I came and she had provided a banquet… the most lovely tartlets, cookies and cherry cobbler, and she beamed with pleasure when she saw how I enjoyed it all. She told me she made everything herself. For a time she made all sorts of Indonesian and European sweetmeats which she sold. Once she had 60 florins worth of stuff in her larder, when people burgled her house and made off with it. Now she doesn’t do it any more because she doesn’t want to tempt the natives.

She cooks her own meals on a paraffin stove and her sister tells me it is always delicious. She was flattered that I wanted to visit her. A while ago she had prepared a feast for 20 widows in Lawang and everyone had been delighted. But she thought the life of a widow very difficult. You were facing everything alone, though she told me in confidence that she hated all men.

She is English–that is, her father, she says, was an Englishman–but she does not know the language. Her mother married her father when she was only 14 and had 24 births and two marriages. When I told all this to Teau, she wanted to visit her too. We’ll go there on her return. The days have fled by and I am longing for Bram. The nice days are gone before you realize it, while the boring ones drag.