Chapter 2: October 24, 1939
Earlier that morning, after Jan and Rennie went to school, Pa and Jan’s 14-year-old sister, Thea, rushed around the house. Mu sat on a kitchen chair, her dark, wavy hair combed and neatly pinned in back. Around the houseboat, Mu couldn’t care less about how she looked. But whenever she went out, and even now when she was in labor, she made certain she looked respectable. She wouldn’t have any of the neighbors looking down on her or her family
“It’s time! Johan!” she called between contractions. “Help me up!”
“All right,” Pa said in his quiet, calm voice. He helped her up, and she stood a little taller than he did. Mu and Pa left Thea in charge of the house and went to the hospital in Utrecht . As Pa ushered her out the door and into a neighbor’s waiting car, Mu couldn’t resist one last instruction. “Don’t tell the children until we call you,” she gasped.
“Yes, Mu,” whispered Thea. Her stomach rolled in waves of fear and excitement. Thea tried to keep busy. She washed the breakfast dishes. After washing the dishes, she started at one end of the 48-foot-long, railroad-style houseboat and swept each room, starting with the kitchen. Then she moved to the dining room. She walked over to the bed closet in that room and secured the door that stood ajar by an inch or so. She swept through the hall into the living room, carefully going twice around the coffee table and around the stove. She heard a sound outside and stopped sweeping. Where they back yet? She concluded it was just a bicycle going by and resumed her sweeping. The closet door in the living room was already closed, so she swept straight down the hall and into the back bedroom. Her parents’ double bed fit in one side of the room and the crib was tucked in a corner on the other side. When she finished she waited for a moment. When nothing happened, she started sweeping again, working her way back to the kitchen.
She’d kept the secret from Rennie and Jan for many months. They never noticed their mother’s growing belly under her loose-fitting clothing. When Pa and Mu first told her Mu was going to have a baby, Thea was so excited because she had been asking them for months for a baby. Other families had ten and thirteen kids—why can’t they?
And now it was true. “Can I tell Tonni?” Thea had asked. She wanted to tell her best friend.
“No,” said Mu gruffly. “I don’t want anyone to know, not even Jan and Rennie.”
And so Thea had held the secret in all this time. Just as she realized she was washing the window for the third time, she heard a voice outside.
“Thea, Thea! It’s a boy, a big healthy boy! And your Muder is fine!” It was Mrs. van Pelt from town who had a phone. Pa had just called from the hospital. “You are so fortunate,” said Mrs. van Pelt.
“Thank you so much for telling me,” said Thea as steadily as she could. Her heart pounded as she prepared lunch of buttered bread and cheese. She couldn’t wait for Rennie and Jan to get home to tell them. Her usual impatience with having to watch them vanished as thoughts of the baby filled her. Thea heard Jan and Rennie outside and hurriedly finished making lunch. When Jan and Rennie walked in, they expected to see Mu and Pa fixing lunch, but instead they saw only Thea.
“Something special happened today,” said Thea. Jan and Rennie looked at each other.
“What is it? Tell us, tell us
“We have a baby brother. His name is Louis!”
They stood in stunned silence for just a moment, then Jan burst into song and Rennie danced around him.
“Mu and the baby are in the hospital in Utrecht, and maybe today or tomorrow we can see them,” said Thea over their joyous shouts. They quickly gulped down the lunch and couldn’t wait to rush back to school and tell all of their friends.
The next day after school, Jan and Rennie ran all the way home. Their classmates called to them, “Jan! Rennie! Come play marbles with us!”
“I have a new kite,” another yelled.
“We’re going to see our baby brother today,” Jan shouted back as he and Rennie disappeared down the road
They were surprised and excited to see a taxi from the Bos garage in front of the house
“Come on,” said Pa. “Get in. We’re going to see Mu.”
“In the taxi?” they cried in unison.
Jo Bos, the driver smiled at them. They piled into the taxi and listened while Pa and Mr. Bos talked about how he had won second place in the prestigious Elfsteden skating race the previous winter. The Elfsteden (Eleven-cities Tour) is a speed-skating competition and leisure skating tour held whenever it’s cold enough to freeze the canals in Friesland, where Pa and Mu had grown up. Racers from all over the country skate about 125 miles along canals, rivers, and lakes between the eleven Frisian cities: Leeuwarden, Sneek, Ijist, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bol sward, Harlingen, Franeker, Dokkum and finally again, Leeuwarden. Jan and Rennie were very proud that one of their village neighbors won second place, and the listened eagerly to the story all the way to the hospital. Pa told them that since 1909, the race had taken place only about five times!
When they saw the baby that afternoon in the hospital they couldn’t speak. His mottled red and white skin was so soft, and his tiny hands curled up in fists on his chest.
“He’s like a doll,” whispered Rennie.
“We’ll teach him how to sail boats on the canal,” said Jan
“And how to swim.”
“All right, now. We don’t want to tire out Mu now. Let’s go,” said Pa, running his hand through his hair that was thick in back and receded from his hairline.
The next week and a half passed quickly for Jan and Rennie. It felt strange to have Mu gone. She was still in the hospital with baby Louis. But some things stayed the same. On their way to school, they still saw some of their classmates, many of them farmers’ children. These children had to get up very early and help feed, clean, and groom the animals and milk the cows. The most Rennie and Jan had to do was help Pa bring up merchandise from the storage room in the hull of the houseboat in the mornings. The other thing that didn’t change was that Thea, Rennie and Jan still had to go to church every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning before school. Jan and Rennie didn’t mind so much, but more often than not, Thea fainted during the church service. Catholics weren’t allowed to eat before Mass if they wanted to receive Holy Communion. Last week was the worst episode so far. Thea tried to listen to the priest and not think of her empty, begging stomach. Her hunger and excitement about the baby were too much, though, and sweat started beading on her forehead. Then came the black spots dancing into her vision, obscuring the priest and the world.
“Oh-oh! Here I go,” she thought, as she slipped into the blackness and down the hard pew. Jan and Rennie were used to Thea’s fainting spells and barely looked, as the nuns, who were also used to the spells, carried her into their garden. Thea woke up there, knowing the first thing she saw would be the sacred heart statue of Jesus looking as if he were standing over her and pointing to his heart. The sister came out with tea and a cookie for her. Thea didn’t like to faint, but she liked all the special attention afterward. It was almost worth it. She heard Sister Eveline talking once again to the Father to ask permission for Thea to eat before Mass.
“She’s so hungry, and you see her. She faints almost every time!” pleaded Sister.
“I’m sorry,” answered Father. “We can’t allow her to eat.”
Sister Eveline was sorry when she had to tell Thea the bad news. Thea herself wanted to sneak a few crackers on the way to church, but she didn’t dare disobey God. She imagined eating the cracker and then the sky opening up above her with rain and lightning and God thundering punishment upon her. “At least,” she thought, “when Mu and Louis come home, I won’t have to do this anymore. “It was sooner than she thought, though. When Pa found out about her fainting spell, he let her stay home. Jan and Rennie continued to go to church and school, but Thea busied herself by putting up wallpaper in the small room that would be Louis’ and arranging the small carriage that would serve as his crib. Pa helped a little when he could, but he was busy selling on the canal. Thea finished the room by herself the day before Mu and the baby were due home.