Of Bird and the bees – Part 2

Standfast Billings, a cobbler living near Amherst in Nova Scotia in the 1700s, had a wife who appeared to be near the end of her days.  Since there were four small children, Billings decided to prepare for the future by writing up an advertisement to be made public in Halifax, and he entitled it “To Any Capable Healthy Middle-aged Female Willing to Wed an Honest Cobbler.”  He gave the letter, unsealed to save the posting fee, to the postman and waited for his wife’s passing and the arrival of a new bride.

The postman sneaked a peek at the letter before leaving town and must have let word out because Mrs. Billings soon found out about the contents.  When she heard of it, she became furious at her husband, the anger giving her the strength and motivation to leave her bed and get better.  Of course, it was too late to recall the letter.  The postman reached Halifax, over forty miles away by foot and ferry, and found a “healthy female” working at a coffee house, who jumped at the opportunity of having her own house and family.  Nearly two weeks later, after completing his other business, back came the postman with the bride in tow, wrongly assuming that the first wife had by this time departed.

When the “bride” found out differently,  she shrugged and decided she might as well stay.  She found local work for four years, until the recovered Mrs. Billings took ill again and really did die.  The cobbler waited a bare-minimum of five weeks and then married his mail-order bride, and “as far as the records show, they lived happily ever after.”

It may be difficult to put such a story into a modern context.  So much has changed in life and attitudes. not least with the presence of rapid communication, Hollywood movies, internet porn and what-not, that perhaps only the “dating sites” could provide a similar scenario.  Even then, I wonder how many people today would accept a quick wedding without a trial relationship or with the very practical considerations that were common in older days.  But here follows another love story from the often-published Canadian author Will Bird (seen in the picture above).

Among the first Scottish settlers to reach Nova Scotia were many bachelors who worked hard to clear land and begin the long task toward some prosperity, but who had no chance to do any courting as there were hardly any young ladies with whom they might come in contact.  Therefore, three of the young men, named Donald, Malcolm, and Sandy, one day went out together on the lengthy trails and horse tracks from Pictou County to Halifax, where eligible Scottish lassies were known to arrive at the port.

In the big town, the boys were scouting out possibilities when Donald happened to overhear the name of a young woman who had caught his eye, as well as the name of her female travel companion who stood a fair distance away, possibly guarding the luggage.  Immediately Donald approached his prospect, introduced himself and proposed.  The startled woman, called Jeannie, flatly refused him. But Donald slyly said that since his friend Malcolm was going to marry her friend Maggie, he thought that his proposal might at least warrant consideration. Jeannie responded to this with shock, wondering why her best friend had kept this from her.  Well, she wasn’t going to let Maggie show her up, and so Jeannie accepted Donald’s proposal after all.

Donald then made an excuse to leave for a few minutes while he quickly found Malcolm and pointed out Maggie to him.  Malcolm stepped up to Maggie and told her that since her friend Jeannie was going to wed his friend Donald, he would much like to have her as wife in the same location.  Maggie could see some sense in that and it would mean she would not need a low-paying job in Halifax, so she agreed.  Maggie then introduced him to another girl who had come over in the same ship, and soon the third boy Sandy was proposing to that young woman.  All three new couples were married the very next morning at the court house.

After the brief ceremonies, the young men picked up the ladies’ luggage and all started walking on their way out of town because the boys had told their brides that their homes were situated “just outside of Halifax.”  When the group had trudged on for six miles or more in the summer heat, the women refused to go any further until they knew how much longer they still had to walk.  The boys then confessed to the “little” lie, and fortunately the lassies took it all in good humor.  For two nights the group slept outside on beds of brush and moss before they arrived at last at their Pictou County homes.

Will Bird adds that the “story of their romance has lived down through the years, and many descendants of the trio are in Pictou County today.”  So perhaps the most important thing is not how a marriage is begun but how it is lived.

See the next blog next Thursday.

Of Bird and the bees – Part 1

The boundary between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia is the Missiquash River, although it was briefly called the Marguerite, and how the name was changed is a “love against family wishes” story.  Not far from the river lived, in 1676, the French nobleman Michel Le Neuf, overseeing his feudal possessions in the New World. His beautiful daughter graced the new settlement with her courtly manners and charm.  Her father showed his great appreciation of his genteel daughter by naming the river after her.  He had chosen a young titled man in France for her to wed, but the beautiful young lady was more than genteel.

Marguerite very much loved the broad marshes in that part of the world and was often out alone, riding her horse over its vast domain.  She could not resist the endless wind-swept fields, and the joy she had in riding over them was her way of escaping the physical and social stuffiness of her father’s house.  And so it happened that one day Marguerite did not return home.  In time, her father received word that she had eloped and had been married properly by a priest to “a widower from a tiny settlement up the ridge, a man who already had six children and no more than a rude log cabin for a home.”  The disappointed, if not enraged, father promptly renamed the river the Missiquash, which was probably its original Native designation.

My wife and I just celebrated our 31st anniversary and this is the year that both our children are getting married, so a focus on love and marriage seems appropriate.  The story about Marguerite appears in one of the many books written by Will R. Bird, who was a celebrated Canadian author, though not so well known anymore.  In 1949 he received a Doctorate in Literature from Mount Alison University, and that seems to be about the year that he first traveled through Nova Scotia, collecting local tales from all the people in the little villages and towns along the way.  A number of these colorful accounts tell of the fun and foibles of love in the province’s early days of settlement.  I will share one of my favorites, and add a couple more next week.

A young man from Yorkshire in England left his girl behind in the old country, promising to send for her if Nova Scotia turned out as hopeful as was being said. Later, having scouted the rich marshland near Amherst, he wrote his girl the promised letter, not realizing that the mail would be even slower than usual unless an extra amount was paid above the usual rate.  After the letter had been posted, he spent many an hour in day or evening regaling the settlers with descriptions of the extraordinary beauty of his beloved Mary, the girl with sumptuous long tresses.

As Will Bird tells it, “The winter passed, spring came and went, so did the summer and fall, and no Mary arrived … for the very good reason that the letter was lying in Halifax for many months before someone troubled to hand it to a sea captain proceeding to Liverpool.  At Liverpool the letter rested again until the second year, when it was sent on its way.”  In the summer of the second year, a friend hammered on the young farmer’s door at midnight, shouting that Mary had just arrived on a schooner.  This should have been happy tidings but “lack of news from Mary had discouraged him so that he had let things take care of themselves until his house was like a pig sty and he looked little better than a tramp.”  His friend worried that Mary would not wait but would find someone to take her to the unruly farm, so he suggested a plan. “Why not get married to the girl before she sees your house?”

People say that all is fair in love and war, and though that is dangerous advice in both cases, it did not stop our young farmer from agreeing to his friend’s idea.  He dressed and groomed as well as he could in a hurry, and went out to rouse from bed a very reluctant parson.  After he offered the man a gold coin, the poor-as-a-church-mouse parson agreed to go with him.  But Mary appeared anxious when she was met with the suggestion of an immediate wedding.  She tried to talk but the young groom, equally anxious, kept interrupting, saying, “After we’re wed, lass, we have all our lives to talk things over.”

And so, says Will Bird, after all protest from Mary had been smothered, the midnight wedding took place with the friend as witness.  “Now,” bragged the new husband to him, “I have the handsomest wife in the country.  Show him thy hair, lass.”  Mary, sobbing, tugged off her bonnet.  She was bald, scarlet fever having made her so, and it was this tragedy that she was trying to break gently to the groom before the knot was tied.

More of Will Bird and love next Thursday

Underground in the war – Part 2

Significantly different from the book of Loek Caspers is the one written by my aunt Susan, even though both cover the lives and actions of members of the Dutch resistance.  As Susan said in her book, “I am not focused so much on the war itself, but rather the experiences, the emotions and feelings amongst members of my family…”  This she does quite well, allowing us to feel the dangers, to undergo the surprises (both nasty and pleasant), and above all to reflect and ponder what motivated the family to involve themselves knowingly in life-or-death situations.

The book is called  Memoirs of the war years: The Netherlands, 1940-1945 — a Christian perspective.  From the subtitle we realize we are in for some evangelization, and in reading the book we are not disappointed on that score.  Of her parents’ work in the Underground, Susan says plainly, “As Christians, we are obligated to reach out to those in trouble and danger,”  and she expands ably on that point every now and then.  There is no politics in her book, nothing about supporting a State of Israel or a conservative election agenda.  At the risk of their own lives, this family helped save the lives of Jews and others, simply from an ethical call of duty and a spiritual desire to “set an example in Christian living.”  They did not try to convert the people they were hiding from the Nazis, notably not even the Jewish orphan boy, though he did attend church with them, pretending to be a relative.  The congregation must have known better, but no one said anything to betray them.

Another thing I appreciate a great deal about my aunt’s book is its utter lack of vague mysticism or sentimentality.  The family knew there could be fatal consequences to their beliefs and actions, and therefore they planned and thought carefully about their steps.  As I was reading, I felt the fear my aunt had felt, shared the pangs of hate as she described the Gestapo, knew twinges of conscience as she pondered the need to use fire-arms on people, and grew disgusted with certain farmers from her own church who would not share their food with the needy unless they were paid black market prices.  These farmers justified their greed by mentioning the risks they were taking.  However, Susan writes, “My parents never once asked for money for housing and feeding their ‘house guests,’ and as a result they lost everything they had.”

Among the several frank and realistic descriptions she offers, is a story about a woman who came to them for help but whose behavior seemed a bit strange and suspicious.  Susan’s father decided to ask a trusted police officer about her, and was informed that the woman was a cocaine dealer who often traveled to Mexico for drugs and sold them to both German and Dutch officers.  Says Susan, “…for some reason she was in trouble with the Gestapo, (so) here was a woman who could put us in real danger.”  It was not the danger itself that worried her, for the family had already put themselves at great risk, but if the Gestapo interrogated the drug dealer, she could jeopardize everyone in the local resistance movement, along with all the people they were hiding.  The matter was discussed and the “decision was made not to help her and that she ‘had to go.’”  Certain trained men came, took the woman to an outlying farm and killed her.  Later, the woman’s parents sorrowfully agreed that their daughter could not have been trusted.

“Needless to say,” Susan adds, “such decisions were extremely difficult and morally at odds with our beliefs, and consequently resulted in many sleepless nights.”  It was a time of war, a time when nothing in life was “normal.”  The fact that she includes some stories of this type, even though the book was written foremost with her own children and grandchildren in mind, gives her writing a sense of genuineness and authenticity.  On my part it also evokes a deep respect for those otherwise ordinary people who found a strength to meet the great needs of an especially dangerous era.

 PHOTO ABOVE TAKEN IN 2011:   Left to right  – me, my aunt Susan, and her husband Burt whom she met in the war while he was in hiding.  His entire family, except for himself and a sister, died at the Auschwitz concentration camp.  His story is not in book form but was recorded for posterity by film-maker Steven Spielberg.



Underground in the war – Part 1

It is understandable that when people have gone through a very difficult time they don’t want to talk much about it.  That has been the reported situation in many familes who lived through the Second World War.  In many cases, stories have not come out until a generation or two later, and that was reflected in a 2008 Dutch volume about the Nazi occupation in the central Netherlands, a book which published some wartime experiences involving members of my family. Over the years there had been hints, bits and pieces of the puzzle, but no detailed personal story to give these glimpses much context.  Today I will mention one significant family event as discussed in Vechten voor vrijheid (Fighting for Freedom) by Loek Caspers.

From an early age, I was made aware that my grandparents and parents had played an active role with the “Underground,” the Dutch resistance movement.  My grandfather, as custodian, lived in a small house attached to the old Christian Reformed Church at the edge of a picturesque small town.  The children of our family often played in the empty church building when we were visiting the grandparents, and we knew that somewhere in that building Jews had been hiding during the war.  Other than that, it was not until my father’s sister published a personal account in 2002, followed by the Caspers book, that I began to grasp the trials and accomplishments of those terrible days.

Caspers relates that the Stroomenberghs (note the old Dutch spelling) were part of a sub-cell of the resistance that numbered twenty-one members, some of which were already hiding Jews and other Dutch people who were trying to avoid arrest by the occupying German forces. It became known that several Jewish people were being detained in the police station of the nearby town of Zeist, for probable transport to concentration camps in Germany.  The local Underground decided they had to make a move to free them.

“It was necessary to get a vehicle for transportation and about four men in German uniform or in Dutch police uniform,” writes Caspers.  The police clothing, with weapons, were acquired through former police officers, and, “with great difficulty a German uniform was found for Jan Stroomenbergh.”  That person was my 24-year old father, rather thin because of the famine then raging, as well as a serious illness he had recently fought off  (a later photo of him appears in the picture above).   The group also included a real German who had deserted from the Luftwaffe.  Everyone in this group of four learned German phrases they would need in the operation, and how to scream in the offensive Nazi manner.  A graphic artist among them produced official-looking documents for the transfer of prisoners.  When a German military truck became temporarily available while it was under repair by a local auto mechanic, the stage was set for action.

At dawn on a winter’s day early in 1945, the impersonators arrived at the police station in Zeist, the driver fearful that the old truck would stall (the better military vehicles were all at battlefields along the front).  Inside the building, release of ten Jewish prisoners was demanded and the “proper” papers shown.  When the Dutch policeman in charge hesitated, he was met with loud and fierce orders in the German language.  The prisoners were then handed over and were roughly herded into the truck.  After a short drive out of town, the vehicle turned into a wooded area, away from public view.  It was all wrong, thought the prisoners anxiously.  Some figured this was the end; they were to be executed on the spot.

Imagine the prisoners’ surprise when the tailgate was let down and they were informed in Dutch that they were free and would be escorted in small groups to safe-houses.  Awaiting them were bicycles and packages, so that as they went about town, it would appear they were just shopping.  After Jan had changed clothes and had spied out the road by the railway, the group got underway, quietly biking along the tracks out of the woods.  Three of the Jews were taken to the church where the Stroomenbergh family lived and were placed in a meeting room that contained a hiding place under the floor.  The “guests” did not know they were not the only Jews in the building.

“Things also went well for the police,” says Caspers.  The officer in charge at the prison “appeared before a hearing but no disciplinary measures followed.”  The resistance group had produced excellent documents with appropiate signatures and the police had followed standard procedure correctly.  Our family at the church just went on as they had throughout the war, having so-called “relatives from Amsterdam” staying with them, keeping up their resistance efforts, and even offering cups of coffee to a local German officer to avoid suspicion.

To be continued next week.



The mystery of the 20 per cent

For those who have been following regularly, this will be the final installment  of Alistair Moffat’s book called Before Scotland, and I think it will be a dilly!   You remember from the previous blog Phil Harding of Time Team.  It seems he was raised near the famous “Stonehenge” monument in southern England.  He says that as a child he watched the archeology being done there and that appears to have influenced his choice of occupation, much to his mother’s chagrin.

Most of us will be surprised to learn that throughout Britain there are or have been hundreds of these circular structures.  In one county alone, Aberdeenshire in eastern Scotland, there are about seventy of these ancient circles still visible!  Many of the circles used to be of wood, though obviously the material could not survive the decaying effects of the centuries.  A few of these wooden circles have been recreated from soil stains which were made by the wooden posts that used to stand there, so now we have a Woodhenge within sight of the more well-known Stonehenge.

One day I came across a quotation from an old Roman writer  (Tacitus in his book “Agricola”) that said the following about Celtic tribes — “The [sacred] grove is the center of their whole religion, regarded as the cradle of the race and the dwelling-place of the supreme god to whom all things are subject and obedient.”  That sentence made me wonder if symbolically the circles  (the wooden ones especially)  represented an original grove where the first people had met with their god.  But that was just speculation, and what was needed was some scientific basis to it or to any theory about the circles.  So I went back to Before Scotland and its mention that 80 per cent of modern Brits are descended from ancient hunter-gather-fishers who came to the British Isles many thousands of years ago.

That certainly begged a question — “What about the other 20 percent?”  The author Moffat is very emphatic that most of the 20 percent had their origins in (of all places) Mesopotamia,  which we know as Iraq and part of eastern Turkey. These ancient people (not the much later Arabs and Kurds who live there now) arrived in Britain not long after 4,000 B.C. and introduced there the practice of agriculture — they were farmers, shepherds, gardeners.  Gradually, these early settlers transformed the whole culture, including for the first time in Britain the building of large monuments of wood and stone — the now famous circles.

These immigrants with Middle-Eastern DNA would have brought with them many ideas from the ancient Middle-East.  Among these ideas would perhaps be the notion to use monuments as reminders of the origins of the race, that is, of a very ancient grove or garden.  Indeed, we know that such a story of origins appeared in the ancient Middle-East.  What’s more, many of Britain’s stone circles, especially in Aberdeenshire, contain two tall upright stones within the edge of the circle (see photo above).  Two tall stones within the place of origins? Put there by people familiar with Middle-Eastern legend?  Could these two stones possibly represent the two special trees in the Garden of Eden?  Hmm.

I couldn’t help but follow the thread.  The DNA evidence about the 20 per cent appeared to lead to interesting possibilities, and now it will have be researched further by experts in the field.  Time to get Phil Harding working on the case!