Comes to Visit
t happened on a bright summer day in 1943 during World War II.
I was seven and staying with my grandparents on vacation at their estate in a village in the vicinity of Arnhem (a city in the center of Holland), later known for the famous movie A Bridge Too Far.
The day before, I stood in the vegetable yard watching the sky when a squadron of bombers coming from the west, probably England, was slowly moving east high in the cloudless blue yonder, surrounded by a pack of protecting fighter planes. Suddenly, a bomber in the center burst into flames with a loud bang. Strangely, the fighters didn’t move while the debris was falling to earth, and the pack went stubbornly forward towards Germany without spreading apart. We didn’t know what had hit the bomber and couldn’t see any further attacks. It gave me the shivers. My grandmother, an imposing woman dressed in a flowery blouse and a dark-blue skirt, who was tending her roses, had seen the whole thing, too. “Go inside!” she yelled.
A day earlier, planes attacked a train coming down the track a half mile behind our house, diving from the sky, shooting and shooting, moving back up and coming down again. We heard explosions that shook the earth and made the windows rattle, and we saw huge clouds of smoke billowing up into the air. Later in the day the news spread that the planes had blown up a German ammunition train.
My grandmother remained unperturbed. “We have visitors for tea this afternoon,” she said during my daily piano lesson. “Family. Mr. van Heemstra, Aunt Ella, and her daughter Audrey are coming.”
“What will the soldiers do?” I asked. I meant the Germans who
had taken shelter in her large yard underneath the beech trees and oaks. Tanks and other armored vehicles were everywhere. Many of the German soldiers stayed in the manège in the back of the estate where my grandfather kept his horses.
“The soldiers won’t bother with us,” my grandmother said. “We
have one of them staying in the house. She is very important to them.”
It was a German woman. I never knew who she was or what she was doing. She stayed in the guest room. My grandparents were forced to provide lodging for her. She always wore the same spicy-woody perfume and I still smell it today in cheap department stores.
I was glad to have a break from my monotonous daily routine and stood on the balcony, looking out for the visitors. Near teatime, a carriage entered the gate. In the war this was the only transport available, as the Germans had confiscated all motorized vehicles. My grandfather had buried his Ford together with all his hunting rifles underneath his garage that also stood under the beech trees. So far, the soldiers hadn’t discovered the cache.
An older man and a woman sat on the bench with a young girl between them. The man held the reigns. I ran downstairs when they stopped in front of the veranda.
“Hello there, young man,” the man said. “Can you hold the horse?” “Sure,” I said, taking the halter.
I’d been around horses almost since I was born. Whenever we went to my grandparents’ house, it was horses front and center. I’d learned how to ride a pony and to drive my pony wagon and even sat on my grandfather’s big horses. I loved them because they were strong and protective of me.
The man helped the woman and the girl down from the carriage. My grandmother came to welcome the guests. My grandfather’s helper, Hulleman, a funny little man wearing a cap who came from the circus, loosened the horse’s girth and led it away from the carriage, then stopped, looking at me.
“Take the horse to the meadow, Johnny,” my grandmother said. Hulleman smiled and let me do it.
I took the horse by the bridle, walked it to the meadow in front of
the house, let it loose, and ran back, looking at the girl. She was a bit older than I, had dark-brown hair, and wore a grey jacket with a white blouse and a dark skirt. She was slim and pretty.
“Mr. van Heemstra is Audrey’s grandfather,” my grandmother told me. Turning to them, she said, “And this is Johnny, my grandson.” At this point, my grandfather joined us, still wearing his white riding breeches, red jacket and brown boots, and sat down with us.
I dutifully shook hands with the older people and then with Audrey. She was tall and had a lovely smile.
Mr. van Heemstra, a friendly-looking gentleman with a moustache like my grandfather’s, and Aunt Ella, a stately lady having her shiny brown hair shaped into a chignon, had already taken their seats at the tea table.
Audrey stood near them, gazing at the wide panorama of farm lands and trees. She came to me, smiling, showing sparkling white teeth. I remember her long and slender fingers till today when she shook my hand.
“Would you like to show Audrey the stables and your grandfather’s
horses?” Mr. van Heemstra asked me.
I walked her to the manège. The soldiers weren’t there, and I was glad because I was afraid of them. When I opened the stall of Martena, a large, proud grey horse with a beautiful head, Audrey stepped back, afraid he would trample her. But I knew that Martena would never do that with me standing beside him.
“Come here, I said. “Pet him, he won’t bite you.”
She lifted her hand to Martena’s nose. He sniffed and sniffed at it, maybe hoping she was giving him a sugar, and nibbled at her hand. She shrieked and pulled it back hastily. Disappointed, Martena shook his head.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “He’s friendly. Give him this sugar.” I pulled
a small square from my pocket.
She hesitated but tried again and Martena lifted it carefully from her hand with his lips. In truth, Martena was not always that friendly. No rider other than my grandfather or I would dare ride him. He only allowed me to mount him because after he once tried to throw me off my grandfather scolded him, shaking his bridle, growling at him, “Don’t you ever try that again.” Since then, I had become Martena’s friend.
“I have a pony and wagon,” I told Audrey. “You want to come for
“You can do that by yourself?” she asked, in disbelief.
“Yes, my grandfather taught me. I do it all the time.”
We went to another stall where Romeo, my pony, stood. I shoved his bridle over his head, put the girth around his body, led him to a little wagon outside the manège and fixed him to the beams.
“Come, sit with me, I’ll drive you like your grandfather does.”
Audrey climbed onto the bench and sat at my side, looking a little
We waved at the grandparents in the veranda and took a path along
“Don’t go too far, Johnny!” yelled my grandmother after me.
“Where do you go to school?” Audrey asked.
“At home, in Amsterdam.”
“You don’t live here?”
“I come here every summer on vacation, to learn to ride. My
Grandfather teaches me. My grandmother gives me piano lessons.”
“Where do you live in Amsterdam?”
“On the Emperor’s canal. A big house. My father has a brewery
“And your mother, where is she?”
“She’s in Amsterdam. She sings at the music school. Look! Look
there, you see that deer?”
I pointed to the left of us. Two deer and their fawn were following
us at a distance, curious, but staying safely behind the bush.
“Oh!” she said, her face awestruck. “Is there a zoo here?”
“No, they are wild,” I explained. “There’re many in the woods.
“Swine?” she yelped.
“Don’t worry; they’re deep in the woods. We won’t go there. Are
you on vacation?”
“No, we’re staying with my grandparents. We lived in England, but
we were afraid of the Germans. My mother thought Germany would not attack Holland, so we came here, and then they invaded Holland anyway.”
“Where’s your father then?”
“He’s away.” “Away?”
She didn’t answer.
“What do you do at home, do you ride horses, too?”
“I dance,” she said. “I like to dance.”
“You know, dancing to music,” she said, as if I was the stupidest boy
in the world.
“Oh, yes,” I said, proud that I knew, “I’ve seen that in the Amsterdam Theater.”
“Romeo, no! This way!” I yelled, pulling the reins to the right when
the pony went the wrong way at a fork in the path.
“I’d like to dance the rest of my life,” Audrey said, in a dreamy voice.
The house came back in sight.
“You had a nice ride, Audrey? You weren’t scared?” her grandfather
“I liked it. We saw deer.”
“Really? They are that close here, Mary?”
“Oh yes, and they eat my flowers, the devils,” my grandmother said.
“You want some tea, Audrey?”
“Please, Aunt Mary.”
“Your mother told us you like ballet and have lessons in Arnhem. We love ballet. Swan Lake by Tjaskofsky, wonderful,” my grandmother said.
“Tchaikovsky, Mary,” my grandfather interrupted, his eyes twinkling
while his fingers rolled the end of his moustache.
“Oh, I know,” she said, annoyed, waving her hand at him. She could
never pronounce the name right. “Where do you dance?”
“Arnhem Conservatorium, Auntie. I want to be a ballerina,” Audrey
said, her eyes gleaming.
“She’s doing remarkably well,” her mother said. “Her teacher is
very happy with her progress.”
“Aren’t you bothered by the Germans doing that?” my grandfather
“We enrolled her as Edda van Heemstra to make sure they wouldn’t
find out she was British,” Aunt Ella said.
“I hate that name, mother,” Audrey said.
Her grandfather smiled. “It keeps you safe till the war is over,
sweetie. And you, Johnny, how is your piano coming along?”
Excerpted from "Some Women I Have Known: John Schwartz" by John Schwartz. Copyright © 2015 by John Schwartz. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.