Eight years after I successfully self-published The Madonna in the Suitcase I was extremely fortunate to have another book launch. Nearly three months ago Makaro Press published my memoir Astride a Fierce Wind.
I'd like to share Paddy Richardson's words at that amazing launch on 17 May 2017, attended by more than 120 people. It was an enriching feeling to be surrounded by so many well-wishers, people who have meant a lot to Bart and me during our life in Dunedin for the past 57 years. It was special that Mary McCallum from Makaro Press in Wellington could be with us, and special too that Lesley Marshall from Editline in Whangarei was part of the celebration in Dunedin. Lesley became my mentor when I was awarded an NZSA mentorship. I am grateful to both Paddy and Lesley for stirring me along on the writing track.
A while ago after reading a memoir I’d very much enjoyed about a New Zealand immigrant, I asked Huberta, why don’t you write your own memoir?
There was horror in her voice. Who would want to read it? I haven’t done anything. I’m not important.
The answer to her first comment is very obvious in the number of people who have come to support Huberta in the launch of this memoir and, also, in those who were entranced as Huberta read from it in the Atheneum.
But – I haven’t done anything?
Years ago I taught a communications paper at the University of Otago and a woman, quite a lot older than the 20-year olds mainly in the class, and most definitely quieter, stood to give her oral presentation which was one of the assessments. She spoke of her daughter, Miriam, of her uniqueness and creativity, and of Miriam’s Down syndrome condition which Huberta and Bart had made sure would not prevent her from having a rich and fulfilling life. I thought, this woman has a story.
Later, after she told me she wanted to write but could never go to a creative writing class - I could never read out my work to other people - Huberta became my one and only private writing student. I discovered she had other stories; wonderful stories which, as she began to write, came almost in a torrent. Stories from a childhood in Holland: decorating the bread swan with fluffy chickens for the Palm Sunday parade, the honour of the responsibility of becoming her Oma’s bonnet bearer – which meant biking through the village carrying a cleaned, pressed and starched bonnet to her Oma for her to wear for church every Sunday.
And then there were the stories of the child who lived through a war, sheltering in the darkness of a cellar while bombs fell on the village with their neighbour, a young husband and father, going outside to ensure his sisters were safe. Stories, also, of fleeing the village with her family, her baby sister in a pram, amongst the long line of neighbours and friends who were now refugees and the fear, the hunger and the uncertainty which remained, even after the war ended. In all of the stories there was a wonderful humour and the sense of an unquenchable personality.
I understood that I wasn’t the only girl to begin a normal life again when the war ended. Following the liberation of Holland the three real Dutch princesses returned to their home country after having lived in Canada during the war years and they spoke a few words on Dutch radio: ‘We’re so glad to be back in Holland again. We missed you all and have looked forward to our return.’ Ans and I sat on the floor in her house, glued to the old-fashioned radio, listening with awe to the young royals.
We went up to the attic, took an old blanket and made holes in it. We tucked the blanket over the seat and armrests of an upside-down chair. Wrapped in an orange flag, Ans whispered, ‘I’ll be Princess Beatrix and you can be Princess Irene.’
‘Children of the Netherlands, we are so happy to be back in our country.’ Ans's voice wavered with importance. ‘We enjoyed living in Canada – it’s such a beautiful country with its mountains and lakes. We had our own swimming pool. There’s so much snow in winter. And we rode with the Mounties. But it’s good to be back in Holland. Flying to Holland from Canada I asked a hundred times: Are we over Holland yet?’
Princess Huub chipped in: ‘It’s so nice to be back. Our grandmother will soon open Parliament and we will wear crowns and sit in our golden coach.’
After a while we forgot that we were speaking to the nation. ‘I’ll wear the golden crown and you can have the silver one,’ said Princess Beatrix.
‘No, I want the gold,’ Irene replied. ‘You’ll be queen one day and then you’ll have plenty of time to wear gold crowns.’
‘Just wait until I’m queen! I’ll do everything I like and marry the best-looking prince. And then you’ll have to do everything I tell you to.’
Later, in her adolescence, she took music lessons with a rather attractive young man – I don’t think Huberta’s mind was entirely on the hymns her father wanted her to learn to play in his church. She had found out about ‘types’- but, is he my type? she wondered to her friends. And then she found her ‘type’ and married Bart and they made together the courageous decision to change their life path, to leave behind all that was familiar and to make a home on the other side of the world.
Then came the loneliness and losses of immigration, the waiting for letters from home but also the excitement and challenge of this new place of bush and harbour and hills. While they found support within the Dutch community here Huberta was also looking beyond that community for new friends, new ways of living; Huberta did not want to be bound by the strictures of routine- her washing out on the line, her baking completed at the same time each day.
And, after those early days of immigration, come the stories of becoming a mother – first to her own unique and special Miriam and then – well, she had twins – of course Huberta had twins! - this woman never does things by halves. Nurturing and loving the children alongside Bart and, as a family, they explored this new world they had come to – the beaches, the hills, packing up a picnic hamper on a winter morning and driving to Naseby to ice skate. Then, in her middle years, Huberta returned to education, juggling completing a degree with a job. And then, as if all that was not enough, she became a writer – a published writer.
With all of these challenges and triumphs and joys, Huberta has combated the kind of health issues both for herself and her family that would annihilate a less vigorous spirit. This is what makes this book – beautifully, lyrically written in Huberta’s distinctive voice – a book which not only portrays the story of one woman but tells also a universal story of the resoluteness of human life-force.
Huberta’s story cuts away the superfluous – the dross – to gently remind the reader of what really is most important in our short lives; love, friends and family. This wonderful memoir celebrates the ability of the fundamental spirit to stand steadfast during the winds of adversity and change and to seek and embrace the joy and the goodness of the every day.
17 May 2017
Mary McCallum speaking at the launch.
Christopher Moore writes in the Listener (8 July 2017)
'In Astride a Fierce Wind Huberta Hellendoorn gathers together the threads of a life that has taken her from the reassuring familiarity of a small Dutch town to the challenges of a new beginning in Dunedin. It's a richly Proustian voyage in which, to quote Proust himself, memory suddenly reveals itself. There have been similar books but rarely ones written with such a vivid sense of time, place and people. Hellendoorn's solid Dutch pragmatism and lack of cloying sentiment are tempered by a deep awareness of the human experience. ... But it's the fierce sense of belonging to a place, to a family and to an individual and collective past that makes her book so memorable.'
Lesley Marshall, Huberta Hellendoorn, Paddy Richardson, Mary McCallum