Death by laundry

Mennonite Heritage Tour: encounters with women, Part 2 (of 8). Introduction.

The Honig Breethuis, Zaandijk, NL.

The tour begins while we’re still bleary from the flight to Amsterdam, at the Honig Breethuis (house/museum) in Zaandijk, on the river Zaan and across from the Zaanse Schans where “old” Holland lines up in a series of picturesque windmills and where we’ll go next. I hasten to add that windmills are decidedly part of a Mennonite Heritage Tour, early Mennonites being good drainers of water and makers of dikes! As for a personal connection, my married name Dueck (with its variations Dyck, Dyk, Dick) probably comes from the Flemish word dike or pond and its first bearers likely lived by the sea.

The Honig Breethuis was home to several generations of a wealthy merchant family that happened to be Mennonite. (Our guide, Ayold Fanoy, tells us this; as far as I know the museum doesn’t mention it.) Cornelis Honig owned a paper mill and Jacob Breet, the fourth owner of the house, expanded the business by acquiring other paper mills. Built in 1710, the house is now exhibited as it looked in the mid-nineteenth century. There’s the fine accoutrements of the upper classes. They also lived with steep stairs and the fear of fire.

And water. Contained, but everywhere — water. This is the Netherlands, so I shouldn’t be surprised that Neptune, the god of water and sea, appears as a decorative figure. (Though I am; I’d assumed the Mennonites left Greek and Roman mythology behind.) Then when we view a row of portraits on the wall, I’m startled to hear that one of the daughters – was her name Grietje? and was she 21, or 22? – drowned while washing clothes in the river.

View from the Honig Breethuis, across the Zaan River to the Zaanse Schans.

Death by laundry: if it wasn’t so tragic, it would seem comical. It’s the weight of her own clothes that sinks her. The long skirts, the layers. Carolyn Heilbrun again, reminding in her chapter (in The Last Gift of Time) “On not wearing dresses,” that the purposes of nineteenth century women’s clothing were “to attract attention and impede movement.”

The few sentences I hear about the young woman’s death are a fragment of story that persists in my imagination. In the meanwhile, I find myself oh-so-very thankful for the allowable, generally comfortable, and easy clothing for women today! On this European tour, it’s jeans and shirts. No hat boxes, no trunks to be dragged along with crinolines, stays, ruffles, or satin.

What I like about being a tour-ist

H. and I are back from two-and-a-half weeks in Europe, on a Mennonite Heritage Tour in the Netherlands, northern Germany, and Poland. We were a small group: five of us from Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and Toronto, plus tour leader and driver Ayold Fanoy, a Dutch Mennonite. It was full, varied, and interesting. We visited sites relevant to the Mennonites/Anabaptists, who originated in Europe in the early sixteenth century, and also places of more general interest, such as Berlin, Krakow, and Auschwitz. We drove some 3600 kilometers through cities, towns, and countryside on our way from one place to another.

Can you tell I'm a tourist?

I’d taken along Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, to read on the plane and in rest periods, and discovered she disliked travel, had “never been a sightseer, never understood the attraction of having been somewhere, taken pictures, had the sights pointed out, and then returning to inflict the details of your journey upon acquaintances.”

“Touring” is an odd kind of endeavor, to be sure, for we touch down upon places briefly, and what we snatch up by our “tourist gaze” is usually what we’re told is worthwhile or necessary to see. It’s a visual encounter above all; we arrange our memories with the eye of a camera and our views are numerous and fleeting.

I’m convinced, however, that even first and brief impressions have merit. We may be creating context by what we do and it may be superficial, yes, but in the process we can gain or deepen the context of what we already know. There’s surprise in nearly every day, it seems, and to me it’s the surprises that make travel a pleasure. Best of all, curiosity is aroused for further exploration.

At least that’s what I like to think our weeks of travelling, the six of us looking together, accomplished. We saw many things new to us. Admittedly a great deal of it has already massed — for me, at least — as an indistinguishable clutter of the baroque or monumental or beautiful. But all of us saw some things in some new ways.

I’m still sorting and sifting it all. In subsequent posts over the next few days, I’d like to share a few things that captured my imagination and interest. Mostly, I think, I’ll pick out a few encounters with women, dead or alive.

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And everywhere we turned, it was charming! We stayed two nights in this hotel in Edam, NL.

Our tour group, l-r, P. and A. Wiens, M. Sawatzky, D. and H. Dueck.