Memories of a childhood in Paradise
Memories of a childhood in Paradise.
By; Will Johnson
These memories of an idyllic childhood On St. Maarten are written by Elisabeth Soeters-Hudig. She was born on St. Maarten in 1881 and died in The Netherland in 1955. She was the daughter of Ing. Cornelis Johannes (Kees) Hudig (1846-1930) born in Rotterdam and Ann Sophia van Romondt born on St. Maarten on January 18, 1877 and died in The Netherlands in 1926.
Elisabeth (Bessie) attended the art academy in The Hague; in Indonesia she married D.H. Soeters in 1907 and there her three children were born.
She wrote these memories on block note paper on both sides in 1945. Memories of her youth on St. Maarten. In connection with the war she had been evacuated from her home in The Hague and had moved to Arnhem. In September 1944 she had once again been evacuated. At her multiple addresses she turned to writing her story. Parts of these memories follow here.
‘In my memories St. Martin is one of the most idyllic places on earth for children. So many times I have said, if I ever return to this earth, then I would like to spend my youth once again on St. Martin, under the same circumstances. St. Martin is a jewel of an island – the sea with its fantastic colors on the one side, with the pretty white sand beach, and the mountains on the other side.
We lived in a large house with a large garden, in which there were many fruit trees. From the garden we could walk right out to the beach. That expansive, that limitless sea charms me still.
On the island we were one large family, the children always played with each other, each afternoon we would wander off and would undertake long walks. Each morning we would join each other in the sea, while my father stood watch to see if any sharks were coming after us. We climbed the rocks by the beach, fell off the rocks sometimes into the sea, we then ran home to change our wet clothes. I believe that this was never believed to be something awful. I cannot ever remember once getting a reprimand from my parents for this.
On our outings we were always accompanied by our Nannie a black lady named Nen (Ellen Nadoll). When my parents got married Nen came to work for them. She remained with us until we left St. Martin to go to live in Holland. Nen was much loved by us, we all cared very much for her. She was the one who gave us a sense of a religious feeling. She had a childish belief that is why we understood her so well. She could neither read nor write; as children we taught her English, she was already so advanced, that she regularly wrote us letters when we were in Holland. The letters which she wrote I had saved, now they will be floating around somewhere in between my other letters which remained behind in Arnhem.
I was around eight years old when our Grandmother passed away. I don’t remember her very well, I only know that she was very loving with us. One thing I do remember very well, is that every Sunday we would go to visit her. We all climbed up in the colossal mahogany bed on decorated high legs. The bed was so high that we had to run towards it in order to get up into it. Then Grandmother (‘Miss Gina’) would open a large press where all kinds of goodies were displayed on one of the shelves. We were allowed to eat as much as we wanted and so each Sunday was a big feast day for us.
My grandfather (George Illidge van Romondt 1809-1854 who was a Medical Doctor, died age 44) when my grandmother(Angelina Peterson (1819-1889) was very young and she remained behind with four children. When her eldest son reached the age where he could go out into the world she gave him an expensive diamond in the event he ever got into financial problems he could sell the diamond. Fortunately this was never necessary – but the diamond disappeared, either stolen or lost.
We received a very liberal upbringing, played a lot in our garden, my sisters and I climbed like boys in the trees, we were allowed to pick the fruit and eat them. When we learned to read we would take a book with us in the tree and looked for a good spot where we could sit and read for any amount of time.
Our parents played a great deal with us; in the evening my father always found time to play with us. One of the finest things was to turn somersaults – the furniture in the room were pushed aside, pillows were brought out, and placed in a circle on the floor and there we turned somersaults from one pillow to the next one, with Father in the lead
We always had the greatest pleasure among each other, I have the feeling that we could do anything that we liked; on the other hand we had a strong sense of duty, we did not make misuse of our freedom.
And then our school. All of us sat in the same class-room, pupils from 6 to 15 years of age. We got lessons from Mrs. De Koning. Her husband was alchemist, and during his stay on St. Martin he was constantly trying to make gold, unfortunately without results. The school was one of the most original ones of which I ever heard, so completely different from the normal elementary schools, which are so dull compared to our liberal school in the West. I can still see Mrs. De Koning sitting on a high stool in front of her desk, a ruler next to her to bring us to order when it became too noisy in the class. Everyone had their own desk, and when he was finished with the assigned work then he brought this to Mrs. De Koning, it was looked over and we got a figure. If we had completed our morning task then we could do what we wanted, everything went quietly and orderly.
We also got lessons in ‘good manners’. Two pupils played the role of host and hostess, the other pupils were the guests.
We were taught how we should enter a room, how we should greet the host and the hostess. We learned how to converse with one another. One of us who could play the piano, was led by the host to the piano, and someone else had to do a recital. And so from an early age we made acquaintance with Madame Etiquette.
We also had Bible lessons, and we sat next to each other on a very long bench. The first one began with reading something from the Bible, and as soon as he made a mistake number 2 had to take over and so it continued. Regrettably this sometimes resulted in a discussion because we could not agree on the mistake which had been made, but then the ruler was produced which warned us to be quiet.
Next to the class room there was a second room, which was completely empty, that was the punishment room. If one of us had been naughty then we had to spend some time in this empty room. I have often been in that room, yes nearly every day, not because I was naughty but for another reason. I was very fond of my older sister Nellie. When she had to read off her lesson to Mrs. De Koning then I disappeared in the other room without asking if I could, that was not necessary, then I knelt and prayed to God that Nellie would not make any mistakes with her lesson. I remained kneeling until she had read off her lesson. Later I often thought: Nellie was so smart, that she really did not need any help.
Until I was ten years old I was in that school, of which I have the most pleasant memories. My father however was not so impressed with the education which we were receiving there. Through his inter-mediation some nuns came from Holland and opened a school there. The instruction was always given in English, the education was also better, but oh how much we missed that pleasant carefree school of Mrs. De Koning.
After about three years or so there came yet another change in our lives. We would leave St. Maarten namely to go to Holland. To Holland, to the unknown, yes that seemed great to us, but more sadly did we find it to leave everyone who had been so precious to us and especially from Nen our ‘Nanny’, who did not want to go to Holland. I remember that each night before our departure for Holland we would gather by Nen, to cry our hearts out. In my entire life I did not cry as much as I did then. It was for us an enormous thing to leave so many behind, perhaps we would never see each other again in life, and then to go to a strange country, where we did not know the language.
In April 1893 we stepped in the row boat, St. Martin does not have a harbor, so the row boat brought us out to the mail boat, and our journey to Holland began. My parents with seven children, of which the youngest was 4 years old and the eldest 15, completely without any help. After a week we arrived in New York, from that small island suddenly into a world city. We stared our eyes out, all together we went strolling and we stood in the streets with our heads bent backwards looking up at those tall skyscrapers. All nine of us went out together, we ate much ice cream and delicious chocolates. When we had to cross a street then my father crossed first with some of us, then he came back to fetch the others, and then the cortege continued on.
Two nuns had made the voyage with us. They often went out with us in New York, but one day while crossing a street we lost them because of it being so busy, and we never saw each other again.
After a week we also left this city, and boarded a ship of the Holland-America line which was to bring us to Holland. It was a sad feeling we had how longer and further to leave St. Martin behind, where we had such a pleasant carefree youth and where we had left behind so many dear friends. We have the loveliest memories of those years which we spent there, so that St. Martin will always be a ray of hope in our lives.
Translated from the Dutch by Will Johnson.