[Emily Héloïse Macdonnell]
To me she was always a little, but formidable old lady, who was the heart of her family, adored by husband and children, but a little daunting to the grandchildren, all fifty of them. Maybe the older ones knew her as a younger woman; I came at the end of the family. Luckily my grandmother lived long enough for me to get to know and love her, but when I was a child we were always at odds. I was not Irish-looking: I took after my father. I had few “feminine” qualities. My grandmother liked to see girls doing needlework, but for me the needles never did anything but prick. I was a bookworm, which in those days was frowned on, because girls were supposed to be playing and exercising in the fresh air to get nice complexions. But I was too fascinated by the bound volumes of the “children’s corner” of my grandfather’s newspaper, and could not wait to read the next installment of the current adventure story. I was introverted in those days, and found it difficult to make conversation with my Granny, who spoke Dutch with an accent. I was my grandfather’s favorite, and was placed beside him at table. He encouraged me to write verses and stories and declared that I had inherited his talents. But the great attraction I felt for him was because of his naughtiness. He was always doing forbidden things: putting marmalade and cheese on the same piece of bread and then declaring with a naughty twinkle and a sigh of satisfaction, after consuming this concoction: “It was just as if an angel peed on my tongue”. That is the sort of thing that I loved Grandfather for. Granny was not angry. She laughed, but we were not allowed to imitate him. I do not think my grandfather ever knew that my Granny ruled him: she was so full of deference and respect!
He met her in Ireland where he had gone as a young and handsome reporter for the little commercial paper which employed him (as he worked his way up he made it into the most important Dutch daily newspaper). He reported some trade event, on the lines of the modern expos, and probably it included the annual horse show. My great-grandfather Hercules MacDonnell invited him to stay at his home, Sorrento Cottage, in Dalkey, where he met the numerous family. The oldest girl, Emily Héloïse, was strikingly beautiful. As it happened, my grandfather got ill, and he was nursed by my great-grandmother and her daughter Emily. Perhaps it was not surprising that my grandfather fell in love with the charming young nurse. At any rate, married they were. I asked my granny once what made her marry a foreigner like that. Was it not a big step for her to take?
“Oh,” she said, “he made me laugh so much I hadn’t the breath to say ‘no’.”
My grandmother had had a glorious youth in Ireland . My grandfather wrote a poem about her, in which he describes how she jumped from the rocks into the sea and rode bareback on her pony. She herself wrote my mother about her teen years and all her admirers. With one she went for walks, with another she practiced archery. One she always met accidentally on her way to church and with one she went to visit the poor. But she did not like that much [visiting the poor], she added. She must have missed all that freedom later.
They were married in London and there is a legend that they quarrelled after they left the church, because my grandfather claimed her arm, as was his right as a husband in Holland. But granny acknowledged no such right and refused to allow anything so immodest.
So the Irish rose was transplanted among the stiff Dutch tulips, and not without friction. She did everything wrong, and as the Boissevain family consisted of endless cousins, aunts, uncles and great-aunts, their disapproval made a big noise. In those days the activities in Holland of a proper lady were greatly restricted. You could not go out in the mornings because then the domestic servants did the shopping and it would be awkward to meet them. You can imagine the horror the family felt when they saw Charles’s wild Irish wife out at eleven in the morning, skating on the canals arm in arm with her cook.
However, nature soon put an end to these exploits. My granny presented my
grandfather with eleven children: five boys and six girls, one more clever and
handsome than the other. She acquired a Yorkshire nanny called Polly, who
became such a member of the family that she stayed with them till her death.
And she made the clothes of the children and grandchildren out of the then
so-popular Liberty cottons. There must have been lean years, but my grandfather
describes his home life in these words:
“I am always struck anew by the intimacy of our family life: I see the family sitting by lamplight, in the room with red drapes, grouped around their mother, who is their spring of action, their source of love.”
It is a vivid picture by a fond family man. He was so proud of his family he
kept their photographs in his pocket to show at the drop of a hat. He was
nicknamed “The Kangaroo”. Once he visited a Turkish Emir and boasted of his
“That’s nothing,” said the Emir, “I have 26.”
“Ah, that is a large number,” said my grandfather, impressed, “but I have only one wife!”
It was the Emir’s turn to be very impressed.
There are charming letters of my grandmother to my grandfather, which tell of
her difficulty with such a large family. One problem was the noise at table
when they all talked at once, and the dreadful stillness when no one talked.
She tried to let them talk one by one, but only Mary, the oldest girl,
responded and in the end she gave up: rather the noise than the silence. On
another occasion she had to punish her second son Alfred for teasing the little
girls, and she locked him in a room. He kicked at the door until he kicked out
a panel. Then he stuck his handsome head through the opening and cried:
“I didn’t do it, Mother, I didn’t do it!”
She writes that it was difficult for her not to laugh. Yes, we get the feeling of an Irish household rather than a staid Dutch one.
Once my uncle Alfred had a serious quarrel with his wife. He had been given a
little inheritance and he proposed to give his wife half for new slipcovers and
with the other half they would go to Paris and have fun. Aunt Mies was aghast.
To spend money for fun when they needed new sheets as well was wicked. She went
and complained to her friend, my mother.
“You are suffering from different religions,” said my mother.
“What do you mean?” They both belonged to the Walloon church (rather like the Anglican).
“Yes,” said my mother, “you were brought up to feel that in order to be a virtuous spouse and housewife you must think first of the necessities of your home, and last of all of your own enjoyment.”
“That is truth,” said aunt Mies seriously.
“So my brother is very fair,” said my mother, “he gives you half for your religion. But he, on the other hand, was brought up to think that the one thing we must do is to enjoy ourselves in the beautiful world God has created for us, and that the last thing we should do is to bore ourselves with necessities.”
Aunt Mies looked at my Granny and thought, and then agreed: “That is true too,” she said.
“Therefore,” said my mother, “aren’t you a little mean not to enter into his religion while he generously enters into yours?”
They had a wonderful time in Paris. My granny was always ready for a lark. She went to football matches to see her boys play, and later, when they were young men, she would sit up with them talking and drinking whisky till late at night. Her husband’s numerous admiring females did not bother her at all.
“Isn’t it time you wrote to your Scottish Thistle?” she would ask.
“Who was that?” grandfather would ask.
“Oh, how shameful of you Charlie, have you already forgotten her?”
Her morals were very broad too. She wanted my grandfather to smuggle wine to her
relatives in London and Ireland. My grandfather said he could not do it. He was
known everywhere to be an honest man, he could not let himself down.
“Nonsense,” said my Granny. It’s just because they trust you that you can smuggle so easily”. My grandfather remained adamant. But the next time he crossed the North Sea and was bowed past the customs with by deferential officials he opened his suitcase in his hotel room and right on top, without any attempt to hide them, lay a row of bottles. I do not know what happened to my granny, but she survived. My granny did not believe in illness. If her children chose to succumb to such an indignity, she did not cosset them – that would only encourage them to be ill again.