Peacetime at last, Helen Watson White

Astride a Fierce Wind
Huberta Hellendoorn
Submarine, $38.00,
ISBN 9780473395216

Writing in retirement in the small Dunedin apartment she shares with her husband Bart, Huberta Hellendoorn characteristically uses a domestic metaphor to describe her ever-changing experience:

The revolving dryer reminds me of my life, the moving and whirling of complicated situations, sometimes sudden, other times slow in reaching a climax. Tossed about by circumstances that could only be fully acknowledged by the passing of time and often hard work.

Born in 1937 and brought up in the quiet village of Warnsveld in eastern Holland, the writer has seen more changes than most, during the years when enemy soldiers occupied the area, then in the war’s aftermath, but especially after leaving home with her new husband in 1960 to emigrate to New Zealand. Although she remarks at one point that postwar Warnsveld was little different from the way it had always been, she herself had registered several kinds of trauma in a body and mind still in formation.

As Hellendoorn tells her story – in a non-linear fashion as befits its complexity – it becomes apparent that, after her country’s liberation in 1945, another war continued within her, as she grew up bullied by older siblings and puritanical elders who believed in the soul-strengthening virtues of restriction and punishment. Through the internal and external battles of adolescence, and later the challenges of multitasking as wife and mother, we follow the consequences of early assaults on her sense of safety, fairness and self-esteem. Those assaults don’t stop, actually; it takes until the end of this 360-page memoir for the reader to see past conflicts resolved into peace with herself, her family and her world.

Hellendoorn chooses her words carefully, not just because English is her second language, but because the subjects she’s treating are not always describable in a verbal medium. They are like the events of dreams – did she imagine them or not? Recurring dreams and feelings form a large part of memory, she seems to say, along with events transmuted into historical facts because they were experienced by others and therefore “true”.

The truth – and the joy – of shared experience are well documented by a section of the writer’s historical and family photographs in a pivotal position near the centre of the volume, between two episodes and a poem titled “Life on the Ship”, “Melbourne” (describing a visit to her sister’s family who had already emigrated), “Flight path”, and a crucial chapter, “Welcome to New Zealand”, which takes the honeymooning couple from arrival in Wellington, to Lyttelton on the overnight ferry, and by train to Dunedin, their new home.

Among the illustrations is a starkly factual picture of “Damage by a V1 rocket at end of our street in Warnsveld, 28 March 1945”, with trees stripped of their leaves and houses of their roofs; but there is also a joyful post-liberation image recording a “Palm Sunday procession near the damaged Leestense windmill” in the spring of the following year. Amongst the rubble remaining from recent bombing, it shows a long line of children and smiling adults carrying poles decorated with ribbons and flowers. The photograph both recalls and replaces a description from the first half of the story, in an episode called “The journey”, of the snake-like line of those same families abandoning their homes near the end of the war because, although their village had been liberated, there were still German snipers at large. Everyone, including the children, had seen their neighbours’ bodies bloodied and “crumpled up”, the dead carried away on stretchers; and a man they knew well, a young husband and father, had been killed by a “stray grenade”.

The contrasts continue in a narrative which is not, however, dominated by the past. The writer manages to achieve a balance between the fraught legacy of remembered experience and the mounting evidence from her day-to-day life that she could face and overcome difficulties, start new projects, make new allies and discover new sources of joy.

As for most New Zealand women of her (and my) generation, the 1960s were hardly years of revolution; as I think Nigel Cox remarked, the 1960s didn’t really happen here until the 1970s. While from 1971 she became an employee and later a mature student at Otago University, Hellendoorn had worked just as hard through the 1960s on the domestic front, consolidating her marriage and social relations while bringing up three children – even making concrete for house renovations – in an era when mothers didn’t usually have a job outside the home, yet what they did at home wasn’t called work. The experience of having one’s first child in the suburbs would have been isolating enough without the addition of homesickness and culture shock. On top of this, some of the Hellendoorns’ Dutch friends and relatives continued to apply the scrupulous standards of housework demanded of women back home; the expectations Kiwi women had of each other could be subtly suggested, too, in any number of ways.

A degree of ignorance and prejudice was apparent when, in early 1962, Hellendoorn presented to the world her daughter Miriam, born with an extra chromosome (Down Syndrome), the parents’ initial fears giving way to delighted admiration of Miriam’s strengths. After being gifted a childhood as unlike Hellendoorn’s as it was unique to Dunedin, Miriam proceeded to live life on her terms – terms beautifully described in Hellendoorn’s 2009 book addressed to her daughter. The Madonna in the Suitcase, although it stands very well alone, has been incorporated into this story to the extent it needed to be. Reinforced by the support of new friends, some of whom had sponsored the couple’s immigration through Opoho Presbyterian Church, the Hellendoorns’ creation of a happy, bonded young family seems nothing short of a triumph, which only incidentally shows up the narrowness of society’s attitudes at the time.

Helen Watson White is a Dunedin writer and photographer.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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