Friday, April 19, 2024

Baby visit

 Baby visit


Nijsterweerd is a bustling Dutch village teeming with children. The lone school is bursting at the seams, and maternity visits are a near-weekly occurrence. Initially, my husband, Pastor Kees, and I would attend these together. However, Kees found that these visits often devolved into too much “women’s talk.” Consequently, we decided to make these visits separately. Kees had hoped to avoid the detailed birth stories this way, but alas! Few women in Nijsterweerd can resist sharing their dramatic birth experiences, even with their 25-year old newlywed pastor. “I should have become a baker,” Kees would quip; “at least bakers don’t have to listen to such stories. But Fransje, when are you going to visit Griet?”

That question puts me squarely in the middle of a dilemma. “I’m apprehensive,” I admit. “What if she thinks I’m visiting out of mere curiosity, Kees? She might not appreciate it.”

“You must, Fransje,” insists Kees. “Your absence would not be seen as tactful, but rather as if you’re looking down on her, just like the other women. Just be yourself,” he advises. “Follow your heart.”

Poor Griet. A year ago, she moved from the southeastern corner of Friesland to our village of Nijsterweerd in response to a housekeeper advertisement. She found herself in the remote area of Bergwier, a village down the road from ours, a place seemingly near the end of the world. Her only company was her employer, Meindert, a deaf, inflexible, bachelor farmer in his fifties. Griet married him three months ago, and they welcomed a baby last week.

I’ve never met Griet, but I feel like I know her through Kees’s  stories. Griet is an unfortunate soul, somewhat of a social outcast who has never had anyone care for her. She lost her parents at a young age and has never had a place to call home. Kees has spent a lot of time talking to her and has grown fond of Griet. However, Nijsterweerd can be harsh, even towards those who have admitted their mistakes. It will take time for the village to accept Griet.

As I stand in front of my dressing table drawer, I ponder over the gifts for the newborns. I need to choose something for Griet. They’re just small, homemade items—a terry cloth bib, a knitted cap, a pair of baby socks. If I had known Nijsterweerd would have so many babies, I might have reconsidered. I chose something special, a little outfit I had sewn.

The road to Bergwier is barren and exposed, with a biting sea breeze. Despite my apprehension, I know I must bring the visit. In my bicycle basket, I carry the little package. I had sewn the outfit as a gift for Kees’s sister Ina, who is expecting her fourth child. But Ina will receive plenty of gifts, and Griet has no one.

Meindert is chopping wood outside. He mumbles under his breath and gestures towards the door of the house. I carefully navigate my way past the dog frantically barking and pulling at its chain.

The small room is stifling. Diapers are drying around the wood-burning stove, and a coffee pot is simmering on it. Griet lies in the bedstead, the bed built into the kitchen wall, her gaunt, yellowish face hidden among the checkered cushions.

“Ma’am,” Griet says, visibly distressed. She sits up halfway, tucking her dark hair behind her ears. “Ma’am, please excuse the messy kitchen. Geertsje from Minke, our neighbor, is coming to help this afternoon.”

I take a seat by the bedstead. Griet nervously fiddles with the sheets, chattering incessantly in an unfamiliar dialect. I can only comprehend half of what she’s saying. Eventually, she leans back into the cushions, exhausted. 

“Could you please pick up the baby? My husband won’t hear me if I call.”

Relieved that the intimidating Meindert will stay outside, I lift the sleeping child from its crib. Griet tucks the baby under the covers next to her with shy pride, and I get a glimpse of the wrinkled little head through a gap in the shawl.

I place my package on the blankets. Griet picks it up and unwraps the paper with trembling fingers. She holds up the outfit and looks at it in silence. Then, unexpectedly, she bursts into sobs.

Startled, I sit on the bench next to the bed. “But Griet,” I stammer, “why are you crying?”

“Oh,” Griet sobs, “such a beautiful gift! And the women said: You probably won’t get anything from the pastor’s wife.

When I return home, Kees has tea prepared. My chair is by the stove, the table lamp is lit, and my slippers are warming on the hearth. I almost feel guilty for enjoying such comfort and coziness, such care and love. I think of Griet in her cramped bedstead, with a deaf, gruff man as her only company, and a neighbor’s child as her only help.

When I recount my visit, Kees has only one comment: “That's cruel.”


From Fransje en haar dominee (Fransje and her pastor), 1953, by Margaretha Elisabeth Gilhuis-Smitskamp (1908-2008). The book is made up of 25 short stories about life in the village parsonage in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Mrs. Gilhuis-Smitskamp was a pastor’s wife and writes from that perspective. Tr. George van Popta, 2024.