Thursday, February 28, 2013

Out of the porthole

Gerard, Daddy, Janie and Mother and Louise's ghostly face through the window.

Card sent to Family Roos on Zandhofsestraat 86, Utrecht (Dad's writing)

Certainly boarding The New Amsterdam for New York is "the zigzag bolt dividing all that went before from everything that comes next" in my history (Barbara Kingsolver).  The photo of my family looking through the porthole is iconic, and I am not in it.  Maybe, I'm holding the 7-month old Toni down on the floor behind them.

Gerard and Janie had to wear leashes,  Toni was carried everywhere and I had free reign.  I was five and a half.

Because tourist class was filled, we went 2nd class.  I remember a red carpeted, curving stairway that led to the dining room.  I remember eating vanilla ice cream for the first time in my life.  It was served in square stainless steel dishes and it was divine.  I remember seeing a Hoover vacuum, the kind with the bag that blew up when it was turned on.  I had never seen a vacuum like that.  My mother beat rugs on the back line and made do with a carpet sweeper and broom.

Mid-week a storm hit and I got sick at dinner and felt like throwing up.  One of the ship's crew ran me down to my room, anxiously instructing me not to throw up until I was in the bathroom.  I threw up right in front of our door.  I can still see the disappointment on his face.

I walked on deck seeing the ocean through the railings.  I remember a drill where we identified our boat and lifejackets.  I practiced putting one on with my father's help.

And if I wasn't lifted up to look through the porthole, my father did lift me up one early, foggy morning at the end of April, 1948, to see the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.  I felt his emotion and it became my own.  I never go to Manhattan without taking the Staten Island ferry to have a long gaze at the lady with the lamp and the New York skyline in the background (best seen at night).

We stayed in a hotel one night.  My father went out with a friend and brought back candy bars and potato chips (another first).  When he saw the candy bars, he asked, "Can you buy these?" because nothing had been available after the war in the Netherlands.

The next day we left on a train for Chicago and then Salt Lake City.  My mother threw Toni's diapers out the window, since there was no way to wash them.  It took days and we slept seated .  Once my mother smacked my bottom as I ran down the aisle and I remember feeling completely humiliated that she would do that in front of strangers.  It's the only time I remember being spanked.

I don't remember entering Salt Lake or who met us, but we went to live with Om Gov and Tante Fred and their boys, who lived on a dead end street that opened into Fairmont Park not far from the fish pond.  Fairmont Park was our extended playground.  We even played in the swimming pool with the 5000 other kids in the pool. (And we didn't get polio!)

I slept in the basement once and was terrorized by a lizard on the cement floor and didn't dare call out.  Finally, they missed me and came down and got me.

All of us got chicken pox, and they put us in dark bedroom with wall to wall beds where we jumped up and down on the beds until we were exhausted.

We stayed there for months.  I never asked my mother what that was like for her.  I never cared what the adults thought.

Come back, Mother.  I have questions.


  1. So fascinating. Keep writing. I just want to keep reading.

  2. Check out that porthole picture-there is a ghostly figure of a little girl at the bottom. Could that be you? You are in the picture!

    1. My face is in the glass. I've never seen that before. My face is in the glass.

  3. Your life is like movie or something Louise. My life story, by comparison, will be so blahhh. ie Mercedes spent her childhood going to swimming lessons and watching fresh prince of bel-aire (against her mother's wishes). I need to go to something scandalous or adventurous so that readers won't die of bordom.

  4. I see the little face in the glass, too!

    Your mother is beautiful. What a great family history. Screenplay, anyone?

  5. How old were your parents during this Adventure with Children?

  6. Loved this. Have you ever read BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin? The ship scenes reminded me of this a little.

  7. I love seeing that little Louise face in the glass.

  8. This conversation is magnificent! I can imagine your reaction at home seeing yourself in the picture for the first time. :)