There is a woman who lives on the fourth story of our four story building. Above her there is a zolder, an attic, with three storage rooms, and there are actually only three small flats through the first steep stairway that is our entryway. The first time I climbed it, I felt two things: I was in a dollhouse, and the stairs were so steep they had the effect effect of climbing a ladder.
Long ago, there was an ancient man who lay with a stone for a pillow, and dreamed strange and wonderful dreams about God standing on a ladder. And Genesis tells the story like this:
“And behold, the Lord said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth… Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.”
I was dating Frans then, in what felt like the safety of a happy anticipation. It was five months after our first conversations, and I was climbing those stairs toward what would become my new life.
When I reached the top after that first climb, I looked in the middle, between the rails, where the stairs overlap and you can see them winding up, because I like that kind of architecture. It’s an architecture you don’t find much past the 1930s, which was when our building was built. Nowadays there are much less romantic ways of getting to floors.
The things we think romantic are the things that existed long before we did, things we don’t understand the nuances of and therefore that carry an aura of ‘meant to be’ without the mess. Like the way our grandparents met, maybe, or the longing of a city couple for a ‘simple’ or ‘farming’ life. The scent and sweat and before dawn hours are taken out by unfamiliarity and allow us to fill in the blanks with romance. And that’s how I feel about the architecture of our building. It’s wonderfully 1930s, but there are no electrical outlets in our bathroom, which makes blow-drying the hair or shaving in the bathroom impossible. The bathroom was built in a time where electrical outlets in a bathroom were considered extremely dangerous, as if people wouldn’t be able to remember to shower without taking their electrical curlers out.
But before I came, and even before Frans or the woman before him, upon the tippy top fourth floor, with a window that faces the top branches of the tree that we all enjoy from our front windows, has always been Mevrouw M.
The house became hers in 1940, when the building still had that ‘brand-new’ feeling, and she lived there before the Tweede Wereld Oorlog* (you can guess this translation) was over. She had two little boys and another one on the way, and her husband was a policeman who retained his job under the Nazi takeover.
At that time, our apartment was at the end of Amsterdam, and the M’s fourth floor window overlooked a newly planted tree and a wide final canal that bordered the city. On the other side of the canal was farmland with koeien. And with koeien comes melk, naturally.
The year 1944 was a terrible one for the Netherlands. Germany had overtaken the country the year the Ms had moved into their new home, although the Dutch had resisted the invasion by destroying bridges and dikes and dams to create mass flooding, a feeble, boggy trouble for Duitse tanks. But those tanks overtook the Lowlands in mere days, with the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina fleeing to England until the war was over, leaving only her voice to remain through secret radio broadcasts. Therefore, because the Netherlands was German property, the Dutch suffered under the tenaciously stupid German army.
The German film De Untergang (The Downfall) depicts Hitler in his last weeks in his bunker in Berlin. He behaves like a caged animal, and the one thing he will never do is surrender or allow any of the officers, or any of his eleven-year-old German boy soldiers, to surrender. If he goes down, all of Germany is going down with him. And the Netherlands, or any other land that he’s taken.
The Hunger Winter of 1944 is an example of what happens to an occupied country with a leader too delusional to face the simple fact that his cause is a dying one. The country becomes like a castle in which there is a siege. The food stores run out, and people begin eating first their stores, and finally, whatever garbage or animals they can find. Regardless of their characteristic resourcefulness, thousands of Nederlanders died during the Hunger Winter. Innocent casualties of war. Many of them were children. Or new babies. Or unborn babies.
Mevrouw M’s policeman slipped across the canal by night on a boat to reach the farm, passed the German soldier guarding, and brought milk back across the canal for his pregnant wife.
Sometimes when I’m sitting at our windows overlooking the water, I imagine Mevrouw M waiting upstairs, her wrinkles gone and skin smooth, her white hair light and short, curled and pinned back in the fashion of the day. Dress or skirt, house slippers, one hand resting on her growing belly, brushing the hair from the forehead of her little boys as they slept, wondering if there would be enough for them to eat tomorrow, wondering when her husband would return with his glass bottle of milk.
The old lady is now ninety-five. Her policeman has long been gone, her three boys have been raised into men with white hair themselves, and she hasn’t left her apartment in a year. Can’t climb the stairs any more. So her youngest son comes weekly, arms filled with flowers and grocery bags of bread and cheese and milk. I pass him on my way up, as he climbs the stairs to his mother.
*This totally might ruin the feel-good ending of this tale, but it’s too interesting to pass up. I haven’t exactly checked this with a good, Dutch, historian (Willem Pieter, others, thoughts?) but the literal translation of Oorlog (War) is “Ear-log.” Like in biblical times when people would decide who won the battle by counting the number of severed ears collected from the adversary. Yuck AND awesome.
**I stand corrected: the etymology for ‘oorlog’ isn’t exactly as literal of a translation as I thought, but I still like my biblical origins explanation.