Sunday, October 9, 2011

Starched Caps and Aprons

Grandma Van den Bergh was born Elisabeth Daams in Loosdrecht, Netherlands, in March of 1886. At the age of thirteen she was sent out to work as a domestic servant along with her sister Hendrina, probably after the death of her father. Her first job was at the home of the local Pastor, where she started out as a scullery maid, scrubbing pots and pans in the kitchen, and eventually worked her way up to pastry chef. You may already have seen the photograph of Elisabeth and her sister Hendrina in their white starched maids’ uniforms, looking like characters from that old British drama, “Upstairs, Downstairs.” The neatly creased and starched aprons and caps must have been pressed with an antique iron heated by charcoal, such as you see in museums or old historic homes.

Hendrina and Elisabeth circa 1900

How many skinned knuckles and calloused fingers did Elisabeth endure before being allowed to learn other household skills such as baking and cooking? We may never know, but one story from this era has been handed down by my mother’s generation: “Lijse” (Dutch for Lizzy, pronounced “Lisha”) was apparently a spunky young lady, unafraid to ask for what would enable her to do her job properly. The Dominie or Pastor, being a frugal Dutchman, was a bit too thrifty in his purchase of household soap. The amount rationed for washing the dishes was not sufficient to get them clean, and Lijse informed him of the situation in no uncertain terms. He was probably taken aback by being accosted by such an outspoken servant. Household servants did not talk back in those days. I can picture the scene, he in his stiff black clerical garb, she in her starched white apron. Perhaps for once the sermonizer was left speechless, his pipe dangling from mute lips. And I’m sure that Lijse got the soap she needed. 

Later, as a pastry chef, Lijse understood that her success depended on fine ingredients and the right tools, well maintained. She grew to be a very good baker. The Pastor’s wife frequently entertained the church ladies, and Lijse had to prepare special pastries for these tea parties. She would often be summoned to the parlor at the close of the occasion to receive compliments from the stiffly corseted visitors: “Lijse, het was lekker!" ("The cake was delicious"). Perhaps she prepared Dutch apple cake or sand cookies  -- rich with butter, sugar, and cinnamon.

It may have been while working at the Pastor’s home that Elisabeth met her future husband Barend Van den Bergh, perhaps at a village festival. We don’t know as much about our grandfather’s early life. He may have worked as a gardener on a wealthy family’s estate, perhaps cultivating the tulips we know so well in the Capital Region of New York State. Or perhaps he was a carpenter, since he worked for a wagonmaker once he and Elisabeth arrived in Albany.

Unusual for a Dutch woman, Elisabeth never learned to ride a bicycle  --  it was something about not being able to get the hang of balancing on the two-wheeler. So she would walk everywhere, and plot the distance to various destinations by how long it took to walk there. Barend lived in s’Graveland, a village about 6 kilometers (4 miles) from Loosdrecht, so although today one can drive there in not much more than 10 minutes, perhaps a hundred years ago it took an hour or more to walk there, maybe less if you could take a shortcut through the fields. 

Early on, Elisabeth made up her mind to emigrate. She told Barend, “Ik ga naar Amerika”  --  “I’m going to America.” Relatives in the Netherlands have asked me why I thought our grandparents wanted to leave their native country; after all, life is good now in the Netherlands, a prosperous and forward-looking country with a long reputation for tolerance and liberalism. But Elisabeth’s young adulthood around the turn of the 20th century was an era when great waves of immigrants from all parts of Europe debarked on American shores. Perhaps like so many other immigrants of that era, Elisabeth was hoping for a better life in America, where her own children would not have to work as servants. 

With that goal in mind, Elisabeth worked hard and saved every guilder she could in hopes of purchasing passage to the New World for herself and her future husband. At the end of each week when Lijse received her meager wages, she would wait until no one else was upstairs in the house where the family lived next to the smithy, and conceal a portion of her earnings in a can up under the eaves in the room she shared with her sisters. 

One day, at the end of a particularly long and trying workday, Elisabeth tiptoed up the stairs in her neat white apron and cap, checking over her shoulder to make sure that no one was following. She reached up over the bed to the secret cache of savings. But no coins jingled in the can this time. The money she had worked so hard to save was missing!

To be continued . . . 

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