Sunday, 30 December 2012

'Their Sound Is Gone out ...'

And their words unto the end of the world. (Handel's Messiah)

In 1997 Radio New Zealand invited writers to send short stories based on the text of G.F. Handel's Messiah.  Both Bart and I had often sung the choruses as members of Dunedin's Schola Cantorum (now City Choir Dunedin) and I submitted a story with the title of 'Their sound is gone out into all lands and their words unto the end of the world.'   This was aired on Boxing Day 1997, and beautifully read by Kate Harcourt.

 The story is about a Dutch woman (Juulke) who decides to visit her dying mother in Holland, and the extended stay waiting for the quiet ending of life.  Flying back to New Zealand Juulke thinks about her mother's life, about the village where she was born with its legends, its history and the lonely graveside she has left behind.  She remembers her own experiences as a young immigrant. 

 The story is probably too long to put out as a blog but I have thought a lot about the above words of the chorus and about the words we use when we face new challenges.  Sometimes we are fortunate to share our fears with friends, sometimes we have to dig deep to rely on our own strength so that we can cope again, to find meaningful living at our own end of the world.  Here is an excerpt from this story:
"She thinks back to a Christmas story her mother told her years ago. She thinks about the legend and its tale of love. Her stay in the area of her birth has made this story alive again.

  Think back child, her mother had said when she sat on Juulke’s bed on a cold Christmas Eve, telling her the story from the past about a girl named Stella. Think back to the days when there was no electricity, no running water, only wild morasses and forests around the small huts in which people lived. There were the landlords but they were a law unto their own, they had servants to do the work.

 But there was one family who were set as an example for the other villagers. The father and mother went to church, the children attended school and did their tasks in the house. Then one day the mother died and however hard the father tried to keep his family together, he found himself wanting. There was the washing, the scrubbing and the cleaning, how could he do it all and work so hard on the land as well? He found a woman to marry him who turned out to be a bad stepmother for the children.
 On Christmas Eve one of the daughters escaped from her stepmother after she finished her duties in the house. Stella had polished the furniture, washed the floors and peeled the potatoes for the evening meal. She wandered over the fields, far, far away, all the time dreaming about her real mother, talking to her in the cool frosty air, her breath showing from her mouth.
 As she approached a mound in the clearing of the forest, she heard the sound of Christmas bells ringing beneath the piece of elevated soil covered with small bushes and trees. Stella could hear her heart beating, when she heard a voice saying:

Move on Stella, do not be afraid, we bring peace.”

  Slowly she moved forward until she stood in front of the mound.

 Oh, but then, she saw something she could not have imagined in her dreams. Through the wide open door she saw a long table, decked with a white damask cloth on which stood tall silver candelabras, their candles flickering softly, gently in the quiet winter air. Around the tables women danced, floating in white robes, a pure and heavenly radiance around them.

  With their hands they invited her to enter and together they sat at the table with its pure white tablecloth and ate the most beautiful meal she had ever tasted. There was tender white roasted pork, its crackling glistening in the candlelight, there were the freshest of green vegetables on gold dishes, the juiciest of bright orange carrots, roasted chestnuts. They laughed together, the air was cold outside but inside the mound it was warm, cheerful and merry.
 When it was time to go, the women gave her a silver candelabra with three candles to light her on the way home. Stella walked carefully, clutching the precious silver in her hands and hardly dared to breathe for fear the flame would be extinguished. As she walked she remembered the words of the women in white : you will find peace.

  As the plane moves through the still night, close to the silver stars, close to the white moon, Juulke remembers her mother’s voice, all those years ago when she was a child listening to the words of the Christmas story. Even now her mother’s words are with her, unto another end of the world.

  She thinks of the warm summer Christmas she will have. There will be enough food on the table, the wonderful spring lamb with its mint sauce, a decadent dessert. The Dutch Christmas cake with its golden pastry and rich filling of ground almonds.  She thinks of the story she will tell her grandchildren at Christmas, a story from the other end of the world about a girl finding silver and gold beneath a plain looking mound and taking the treasure home.

Their sound is gone out into all lands and their words unto the ends of the world.

She thinks about the riches her mother gave her, the wealth of silver and gold stored within her which she will take to her new home to treasure and nourish. This will be a wealth created from inner richness found in the darkness of death and loss, in the shadows and in the light of Christmas."

Rowan berries, Autumn 2011
 Warm wishes to you all for a blessed New Year.

Thursday, 20 December 2012



It starts in October: 'Mum, Advent Calendar!'   'Yes, darling, I'll start looking.'
On 1 December she opens the first window of her Advent Calendar and from then on every morning I get shown the picture she has just retrieved.  There's hope.

It is unbelievable touching to see Miriam's face whenever I mention anything with a connection to 'Christmas.   Our 50-year old daughter still likes me to put out a saucer with milk for Father Christmas on Christmas Eve.  She believes in reindeer who travel on roofs.  She categorically denies any suggestions that there is no Santa Claus.  And I have never wanted to break that faith. Who am I to suggest something differently? Others have tried but I am glad she believes in magic, in wonder and in looking forward to receiving gifts that are given lovingly.   The child that slumbers in my soul also wants to believe in good things.  To wake up on Christmas morning with joy and wonder to receive the gift of still having family, friends and good neighbours.

This will be a poignant Christmas for our family.  Miriam believes in those miracles created by love.  Unconditional love.  But now we have reached the stage in our life where we have to let her go - today we heard that her name has  been placed on a waiting list to go into permanent residential care.  It will be so hard to let her go.  I can only do this by believing in the miracle of receiving strength, wisdom and grace.
Miriam's Madonna

The following is an excerpt from my book The Madonna in the Suitcase (2009, pp92-93)

 One Saturday morning in September, while you were sipping your cappuccino, I asked, ‘Would you like to make me a painting of a Madonna? I thought it might be nice to send it as a Christmas card to our family and friends. Everybody loved the other card you made.’

Your body language and the expression on your face was clear enough.

 I said, ‘Of course I’ll pay you!’

Your face changed into a smile.

‘Think about it.’

 Nothing more was said about your plans for a Madonna Christmas card.

 In October you were invited to be a delegate at an IHC conference in Tauranga where you would be interviewed about your art work. You’d had quite a bit of publicity by then: the IHC in Dunedin had bought a number of paintings for their office and for some flats and the clients enjoyed your work.

 I’d also written an article about you and your art which the Australian Women’s Weekly published in September 1997. A similar article was published in the IHC’s Community Moves in October 1997. Later I used some of the material for a short story which was produced by National Radio. Although you enjoyed hearing about these exciting happenings you stayed calm and focused and did your work.

 After you’d told us about the invitation to go to Tauranga you said, ‘Can I get a suitcase, please?’

 The day before you left for Tauranga we dropped off a suitcase for you. You straightaway packed it with everything you'd need for the next few days. I wanted to ask you about the Madonna but thought the better of it. You had enough on your mind.

 You rang us soon after your return, your voice full of excitement about the conference. ‘I’m home! Can you pick up the suitcase? No room for it in the flat.’

 ‘We’ll be over after dinner. We want to hear about the conference and the interview.’

 We arrived in the early evening. You beamed as you and Janine gave us a cup of tea, and, once we’d heard about your experiences Dad picked up the suitcase and put it into the boot. I hugged you and Janine, and after we’d settled ourselves in the car I wound down the window ready to wave goodbye. But I knew there was something you wanted to tell us. And then you said, an edge to your voice, ‘The Madonna is in the suitcase.’

 My mind jumping from Tauranga to a Madonna, I said, ‘What? Oh, I see! You did it? That’s wonderful! Thank you! I’ll ring you.’

 When we got home we opened the suitcase and I cried. There she was: your Madonna, proudly showing her child to the world. There was no meekness, but only a mother holding her child safe in her arms from where it could look out into the world.

 I said to Dad, ‘Aren’t we lucky she told us about the painting? We would’ve put the suitcase into storage and might not have seen it for years.’

 ‘She would have reminded you about the money!’

Remember how we sat down together and wrote those Christmas cards, you writing your name on them as well? The cards went to our families and friends in New Zealand and overseas. And even now, each year we get cards saying, ‘Miriam’s Madonna will have pride of place again amidst our Christmas decorations.’

Tuesday, 18 December 2012


 Approaching the longest day

 After having celebrated Christmas for 53 years in the southern hemisphere I still have this quiet longing for a winter Christmas.  As a young mother in the early sixties I was quite homesick until I realised it was up to me to start 'traditions' rather than long for the way I had perceived the festive season of my childhood.  Guided by the Dutch 'Margriet' Cookbook I learnt how to make Weihnachtsstollen and Gevulde Speculaas.  I defied the challenges of working with flaky pastry to make almond rings (Kerstkrans) but sometimes the almond mixture would burst out of the pastry - to great delight of the children who could nibble the sticky sweet mix left on the baking tray.  Later I became more sensible and now I use ready-made pastry to make long 'sticks' which I spread with apricot jam and decorate with red and green dried cherries.   And each year we say: oh, this is good!

Made in Germany, the Christmas Star below (small light bulb inside) was given to us in 1992 by Bart's sister Lien and her husband Piet.   Each year on the first Sunday of Advent we hang it in our window with Flagstaff (see blog 'A Certain Hill') in the background.  A huge Herrnhuter star hangs high up in the renovated Frauenkirche in Dresden. 

Our Herrnhuter Christmas Star
Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve
I put candles in the windowsill
For a few hours their shape is safe
Until the sun contorts them.
Midnight is the best
Time to burn candles in a window sill.

Contrasts of hemispheres
come together
In memories and food.
For tea we eat home-made Christmas bread
Thick slices of
Covered with brandied butter and icing sugar.

Darkness brings an image of closeness,
A forgetting of bright sunshine and bended wax
But sometimes memories come back of
Walking my dog in thick snow on Christmas Eve
Going home to
A house with a roaring fire and aniseed milk,
And candles in a windowsill.

Huberta Hellendoorn
December 2012

Late summer sun disappearing behind a Dunedin hill