A View of the Ocean
A View of the Ocean
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Jan de Hartog grew up in a Dutch seaside village–a cabin boy at ten, then a sailor, war correspondent, and, during World War II, a secret courier for the British Royal Navy. In 1940, ten days before Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands, de Hartog published a novel, Holland’s Glorie, which became for the Dutch a symbol of their resistance to the occupation. Forced to flee Holland because he had rescued the babies of Jews deported to Auschwitz, de Hartog escaped to London and eventually came to live in the United States, where he wrote twenty-one more novels, including The Peaceable Kingdom, and the play, The Fourposter, which was produced around the world. De Hartog died in 2002 at the age of eighty-eight.
Chapter OneMy mother died at the age of seventy-nine. She was a gentle, saintly woman who had always seemed somewhat intimidated by her husband and her two sons. My father was a giant of a man, a professor of theology at the University of Amsterdam and a famous Protestant pastor. He could be considered one of the last Victorians, as Holland, up to World War II, was a generation behind the times; social and philosophical problems that had obsessed the world at the turn of the century were still tackled with crusading fervor in Holland in 1925.
My parents first met in 1903 when she was in her early twenties and he was approaching forty. He was a big, swarthy bachelor, pastor of a hamlet in the backwoods of Holland, and one morning he went to visit his uncle—a more dignified clergyman in a neighboring town—riding a bicycle, a big floppy black hat on his head, an umbrella in two saber clamps on the front of the bicycle, and a roll of piano music on its carrier. My mother, as he described it to us later, was sitting in his uncle’s orchard, underneath a flowering cherry tree, dressed in blue shantung with white lace cuffs and ruffs. Her burnished golden hair glowed in the sunlight, her blue eyes looked at him gravely, and he instantly realized that this was the woman he had been waiting for. Her version was that she was sitting reading underneath the solitary tree in the front garden of his uncle’s vicarage when, suddenly, a huge man on a woman’s bicycle came careening through the gate and skidded in the gravel, and for a heart-stopping moment she was afraid he was about to slam into her. Then he let himself fall sideways, which seemed to be the only way of alighting from his machine, came towards her, and said, “Good morning. I am Arnold de Hartog.” He did not ask her who she was and she did not tell him; she instantly realized that he was a sweet, quasi-masterful man who was badly in need of care, with his frayed trouser cuffs, tangled hair, and dirty fingernails, which would not do at all for a clergyman.
They fell in love, became engaged, were married, moved to the city of Haarlem, and had one son. He upset the household profoundly, because my father did not like having someone else around to claim my mother’s attention; my brother had a thin time of it until I arrived to help him out some years later. My father adored my mother passionately, wholeheartedly, totally, but his love claimed complete possession of the object of his adoration. He was at heart a simple man, bighearted, big-stomached, big-muscled, who might have turned into a brute if God had not dominated his life. He often said that, but for God, he would have become a pirate, or a general, or a teacher of gymnastics. He moved through life with the gusto and the commotion of a wagon train. The stories my mother told us later about our family vacations in those early years make them sound like troop movements.
Every summer we used to go to a hotel in Königswinter on the German Rhine for six weeks; I vaguely remember traveling there by paddle steamer. I remember the smell of German cooking and the tinkling sound of the trio that played during dinner; I remember the ruins of castles on high, somber rocks dominating the river. To go on vacation was not, in our case, a simple matter of moving to a hotel with a few suitcases; we had to bring along the things without which my father could not feel at home. These included a hip bath, a tea service, his own silverware, three footlockers full of books that he never looked at but had to have around because one never knew when inspiration might strike for a philosophical treatise. We also had to include, for a reason known only to him, a life-size plaster bust of the philosopher Schopenhauer.
One thing became obvious after two or three weeks: He was bored to tears in Königswinter. But each year he would book our rooms for six weeks, in advance. It came as a tremendous relief to everybody when we could make our way back to our own house, where he could relax at last, with his silverware, his tea service, his books, his plaster bust of Schopenhauer, to say nothing of the hip bath, which my brother and I remember vividly because of the hippopotamic sounds that came from the bathroom as my mother poured water over him and they both scrubbed away at his huge body with long-handled brushes.
I suppose it is a mystery to most children why their parents love each other. As we grew older, my brother and I occasionally discussed the enigma of our mother’s devotion to this man. We never questioned his devotion to her; she was really a saintly woman, she had better be, for no one but a saint could have stood a lifetime shared with Arnold de Hartog. To us he seemed at times a monster of egocentricity, a tyrant, a blustering bully; to her he was always a sensitive, shy, and helpless man with a mission.
She believed in his mission from the first moment she saw him until the day he died, even until the day she herself died, some twenty years later. She was convinced that he had a message to give to the world, that his theological system was an innovation, a new and indispensable help to the understanding of the nature of God. Even so, she had to get away from him occasionally, if only for a little while, alone, to do some digging for her own soul. As wives of the period were not entitled to a yearly vacation like any other member of the free professions, she had only one way out: to fall ill. She was purported to have some mysterious gastrointestinal ailment that no doctor ever could quite diagnose; the recommended treatment was for her to lie flat on her back for a month in some serene surroundings every year or two. During that time, my father went out of his mind with grief and anxiety, a stumbling, whimpering colossus in a panic. He went to see her every day, with gifts of little works of art that I still remember clearly. We came across a hatbox full of them when we sorted out my mother’s possessions after her death. They were useless, monstrous objets d’art, wooden boxes in unnatural shapes such as horses’ hooves or pretzels, tiny vases for midget flowers, doll-sized household objects made of brass—milk jug, coal scuttle, miniature pots and pans. I remember that as a child, I longed to play with them, but Mother said, “No, no! Those are not toys! They are gifts from your father!” So all I could do was scowl at them.
The internationally best-selling novelist, playwright Jan de Hartog, author of The Captain and The Peaceable Kingdom, moves and inspires us with this simple, elegant story of his mother and himself.
She was a quiet, unassuming woman married to a giant of a man, a famous Protestant theologian and pastor, simple, bighearted and big-muscled, who moved through life with gusto and the commotion of a wagon train and who, but for God, might have become a pirate or a general. He adored his wife and didn’t like anyone else around to claim her attention. Their sons saw him as a monster of egocentricity, a tyrant, a blustering bully; to her he was a sensitive, shy, helpless man with a mission. She believed in him from the moment they met, and under the wings of her faith in him as a philosopher, he became one.
During their thirty years of marriage this woman’s only concern was to enable her husband to hearken to “the voice of God.”
After his death she discovered somewhere deep inside a core of drop-forged steel. She rose to the challenge of widowhood and, continuing his work, took his place in the world. The full splendor of this tiny, frail woman’s character, intelligence, and courage became evident during her World War II internment in a Japanese camp in the Dutch East Indies, when she managed to arrange a cease-fire between the Dutch Army and Indonesian guerillas.
After her release from prison camp, she returned to Amsterdam, and resumed her simple life, offering spiritual advice to those seeking solace. Finally, she was faced with the ultimate test of her spirit: a diagnosis of a cancer too far advanced for treatment.
De Hartog tells us how his mother’s blazing courage through it all inspired his own spiritual awakening as he found, in her final months, the strength, the power, and the acceptance to see her through to the end.
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