Her name was Klara. She was a true Amsterdammer who rowed the Amstel and cruised the cobbled streets, stylish and carefree on the back of her paramour’s motorcycle.
That was many years ago, just after the second world war, long before she succumbed to old age and a mind stripped of precious memories.
I thought of my deceased great-aunt this past trip as I strolled from my hotel to the FIGT Conference in Amsterdam. I not only luxuriated in the cool air, but in the Anton Pieck perfection of doll-like houses along serene canals. I take my level of comfort here for granted, yet I owe much of that to Klara who shared it with me eagerly from my first visit.
Not long out of college, I fell head over heels for this city of Rembrandt and Golden Age architecture, of stout upright bikes and tulips in infinite bunches… of tall homes with gables of necks, steps and bells.
From her simple, postage-stamp sized home, Klara seldom joined me, but would send me forth with explicit directions to explore. Then on my return would relish in every little detail.
To my delight, Klara’s book-shelf was stuffed with musty history books about Amsterdam. After thumbing through them, I would return them exactly to where I had found them. In a small space, everything has its place and Klara liked things just so. Klara could be stubborn and delightfully opinionated (a little like all of the women in our family) but she grabbed life and dangled it enticingly before you.
I keenly felt Klara’s absence one chilly day while exploring. I warmed in a simple cafe; one that serves mushy pea soup and burns long stemmed candles on scratched, worn tables. One where velvet curtains encircle the entrance to keep out the draft – where locals linger over a Heineken.
I found myself in the Jordaan. This had been a working class neighbourhood where tanneries once bustled and where masons and road builders had lived. A place where still today, stone carvings on building fronts tell stories. Ah, there lived the cobbler, a builder, a mason, a cooper, or a seller of hot water and heated bricks for warming your feet. Much needed when the fog and damp settled over the canals and froze you to the bone.
These chiseled cartouches implore us to slow down and conjure that time. I also come across shops that aren’t fancy and offer ‘stuff’ spullen, places where one can browse endlessly. I see a vision of Klara’s home that once proudly displayed all the trinkets gifted to her and wonder where it had gone.
Yet as much as I miss Klara, I hear her Dutch accent echo in other women that I have the pleasure of meeting during my stay. One another day, I’m befriended by Patricia at the Van Loon Museum; her English has the same cadence and warmth.
“Are you enjoying the exhibit?” the stylish woman asks as I’m intently perusing faded receipts from Parisian corset and lingerie shops. They’re arrayed beside an ‘evening wear diary’… so vital was it to not repeat frocks and evening gowns in the social whirl of a wealthy Dutch family at the turn of the century.
Patricia and I continue together, marvelling at the exquisiteness of The Mode Exhibit. We appreciate collections of jewellery and fine beaded handbags, then transfix on the lush fabric wall-covering that adorns this stately mansion. We admire the chandeliers, detailed family portraits and even modern-day tulips and perfumed roses. It all brims over with the richness of, simply… beautiful things.
I sense Patricia is familiar with the giddy lifestyle of cocktail parties, soirees and lovely homes as she relates her swinging Paris days. She’s a striking, refined lady of a ‘certain age’ and reveals more about herself over a cup of strong Dutch coffee.
“I’ve had it all,” Patricia tells me, “now my life is art galleries, museums and concerts.” It seems this cultured life suits us both and as if to prove it, she implores…
“If you like this, you must see the Catwalk Exhibit at the Rijksmuseum.” Off we go on the sun-drenched yet brisk day, to soak up yet more exquisite fabrics and designs. Gathered from centuries past and as early as the Golden Age when Dutch culture was at its zenith, the creations rotate slowly on a long oblong stage as if on a sumptuous sushi belt. Enthusiasts of all ages sit at this avant garde fashion show, coveting the delicate, aged designs.
“Oh how my Tante Klara would have loved this,” I proclaim to my new friend. I relate how years ago Klara had given me a black lacy dress, sleeveless and hand-stitched. She had once worn it with panache; I was thrilled to have it as mine and wore it with infinite pleasure. Klara’s seamstress eye would have devoured this collection that was swirling slowly for appreciative fashion- lovers.
Patricia and I admire the ‘poster’ of the exhibition. Model Ymre Stickma’s image is super-imposed into a print of the voluptuous wedding dress, the elaborate masterpiece of the collection. Captured by the renowned Dutch photographer, Erwin Olaf, her hair is deliciously coiffed and her décolletage devilishly exposed; it was the ankles during that period that were seductive and kept hidden under heavy hems.
I take a photo of Olaf’s work, brilliant in its marrying of classic fashion with the vitality of a beautiful, empowered young woman. Prachtig, prachtig, I hear Tante Klara’s approval… superb, superb!
Through the following days I meet many empowered and interesting women. The Families in Global Transition Conference brings many together; they thrive in careers and raise children globally, they are entrepreneurs, authors, publishers, educators, life coaches and more. We network, learn from each other, dine, laugh, lament and celebrate as one. We comment on how fortunate we are to come together, how marvellous it is to share stories of womanhood against the backdrop of a global life. We hug our farewells, restored and uplifted.
The company of these kindred spirits comforts me in this first return to Amsterdam; the first time that Klara is no longer here. The last few visits dementia had stolen her spirit, her creative and inquisitive mind, and just a few months ago her life.
Late one afternoon a few of my friends and I are on our way to dinner. “Come with me,” I say, “there’s a special place I want to show you.” I guide them off a busy street through a carved, stone archway that reads… Begijnhof. We emerge into a serene setting, the rattle of trams and the whirl of bicycles disappear. The courtyard is quaint with churches and houses that beg you to whisper and reflect.
This tucked-away sanctuary was similar to a monastery for women, the Beguines, a Christian religious order whose members lived in semi-monastic communities. First mentioned in 1346, the Begijnhof is the only medieval almshouse founded in Amsterdam. The last Beguine, Sister Antonia, died here in 1971 and still today, all the inhabitants are female.
Klara first introduced me to this serene oasis, and as I was then, my friends are charmed with its beauty and calm. The houses and churches that line the square are mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries; beautiful in their aged grace as is the elderly lady we encounter.
Shielded from the chilled March air in a camel-coloured fur, an elderly lady has just placed her walker at a solid wooden door. When we ask if she’s fortunate enough to live in this lovely Begijnhof, she nods and points to the first floor. Books crowd her window sill along with one of those simple brass candle holders… all framed by delicate lace curtains.
We introduce ourselves. “My name sounds much prettier in Hebrew,” she says with an engaging smile. We’re pleased when she lingers to speak to us.
“Where are you from?” she wants to know and her eyes twinkle even brighter when she hears that we come from various continents and live in others. Susan is inquisitive and delighted to hear this, then earnestly tells us to enjoy our time together. We bid her a fond farewell and agree that it’s good to know these hofjes were once scattered throughout the city, sanctuaries for women. They still are it seems.
A few days later I spend the day with a dear family friend, we were both fortunate to have been like the children that Klara never had. Hetty tells me of her final days and the peaceful end.
We had planned this gathering to reminisce about Tante Klara. “These are for you,” Hetty says softly, motioning to an array of ‘stuff’ on her dining table… it is heartwarming that it remains.
There are photos albums with dried flowers from my wedding and pressed heather from a trip to Scotland. There’s a tea cup from a visit to Canada and tarnished silver spoons embellished with Delft blue and white. All precious moments in time.
“Choose some jewellery,” Hetty continues, “and I think you’ll like these.” A passel of thimbles lay close by and my finger-tips brush over the dimpled silver. I know that Klara used them often. She loved stitching and creating of all kinds; it’s what she ‘did.’
Just one woman’s pursuit that fulfilled and gave satisfaction. No, her creations weren’t as beautiful as the lovely things this trip has put before me, but that isn’t what’s important. Engaging in anything from stitching to poetry, from reading to golf, to quilting to hiking… anything that we women pursue for pleasure, for the joy of womanhood, is to be coveted and embraced.
The first thing I had done when I arrived in Amsterdam was buy tulips. “I’ll need a vase for my bloomen, please Meneer,” I had said to my host Pierre when I checked in at the charming Seven Bridges Hotel. As if by design, my room had thick velvet curtains, an armoire and an antique oval table for those tulips. I felt as if I was back at Klara’s.
Before departing from the city that I adore and returning to my new home in India, I posted a card to my mother in Canada.
As a ten year-old, she had waved farewell on the S.S. Waterman as her family sailed away for a new life, leaving not only country but their family. She remembers wondering she’d ever see them. Happily, they have all been a special part of our lives through the years.
That card to my mother was decorated with tulips and I penned details to her; of remembering Klara, the lovely mementos and time with Hetty, and that she had most certainly been there with me in spirit… it seems that Klara had been as well.