Soup and Tea Lights, A Christmas Story in Two Parts

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Part 1

By Miriam Van Erp

The Wednesday before the 1998 Christmas break.
Busskol, Bergen (New Hampshire).

07:00

Almost on the last day before the Christmas holidays, I crept into the schoolyard. It’s dark. Put the key in the lock, enter the alarm code and make coffee in the kitchenette. Then I walk to my room. “Fifth group, Miss Miriam” is written on the yellow door. I put on Christmas carols and turn on the lights on the Christmas tree by the cozy sofa.

07:30

“good morning Miss.” “Hi dear Pippin, did you sleep well?” Pippin, as always among the first, takes a book from his drawer and lies down with it on the sofa. I look around the room. Stained-glass panels with silhouettes of Christmas trees hang on the window. Homemade placemats for tonight’s class Christmas dinner are ready and on the group tables are empty tins we have punched holes in Christmas scenes. Steve enters. “Can we light the candles, miss?” They work together and the eyelet cans quickly spread a warm light across the room.

09:15

After the Christmas story on the tree where my darlings sat next to me on the couch and on the chairs and cushions in the circle, they continued their weekly assignment. I take a break from my work and look around. All these children are eight and nine years old. What size is it really. I hope they can stay healthy. And happy. That they end up somewhere they will be loved. To be able to pursue their passions and have their desires fulfilled. My imagination is interrupted by someone running through a fully automatic Santa with a sensor in the lobby. “Ho ho ho… Mèeè’rry Christmasss.” Charlotte looks up from work, rolls her eyes, and sighs.

10:30 am

“Miss, Tom’s dad is already making soup in the kitchen!” “Oh, can we watch, miss?” Group by group, I let them into the kitchen to check on Jaap Stroomer from the Prins Maurits beach hotel. According to tradition, the day comes to make soup for the children’s Christmas dinner tonight, so that the school will soon be filled with the most delicious aromas. What an atmosphere here and how happy I am to be able to work in this school.

12:00

Dantje, Claire, Claire and Jade stay at the school for a while to make the room comfortable for the night. Yes, they can play music and yes, they can also make a Christmas drawing on the chalkboard. And no, I put matches in my pocket.

After coffee, my high school classmates and I work on our number for the Christmas celebration that precedes dinner tonight. I can solo on “When the Lights Go Out” on my new saxophone. Twenty-five years later, this single still gives me goosebumps.

4:45 p.m

This is where they all get to. The superstructures flow into the corridor via a path of tea lights in the square. They all look festive. We direct them to the playroom. My kids can sit in the front and suddenly they look so small and vulnerable in the midst of all these older kids. Mr. Rene—his appearance is best described as Mr. Art—tells a Christmas story in near darkness. Then some lights come on and music plays, we sing, I play solo and I tell some kids from group eight that today we mainly think of children in the world who are not as rich as we are.

5:30 p.m

“Ohhh Brechtje,” I say when we’re having soup on the thirty of us. “What a beautiful lipstick you have.” “That’s glitter. Don’t you know the difference? Hey, the teacher doesn’t know the difference between gloss and lipstick. Doha.” “Who’s going on vacation?” Robin yells and cuts his soup off the table with a single arm motion. “We are going to Kuala Lumpur.” “We go to Fort Laura, but is that near Rotterdam?” “Wow, I went to Fort Lauderdale, my dad played golf there that day.”

My school is in Bergen, on a street of villas worth about a million with thatched roofs and winter institutes. Will my treasures realize how rich they are? “Miss, where are you going for Christmas?” In the kitchen, take Reuben’s soup off the mop. “I’m going to Groenlo, to my parents.” “Not with ugly Suzuki, eh? You need to fix that scratch.” “Oh yeah, didn’t your mother die last year when we were at camp?”

Part 2

Christmas Eve 1998. On my way to Christmas at my parents’ house in Groenlo.

My heart beats faster in Faresfield. In my ugly scratched Suzuki, I’m trying to maintain speed and not be disturbed by the tractor in front of me. Jun Hyatt loudly asks me to have a little faith in him. I’m done with Faye Lovsky and Chris Rea now. There, residents. Almost at home now. Exit Groenlo. sawmill. Turn left at Winterswijkseweg. In parallel, Calixtus the Savior showed his luminous cross in the dark evening. Then suddenly the nerves kick in. My heart skips a beat, and chills run down my spine. In China I park my car.

For the past week I have been looking forward to my days in Groenlo. In my opinion, Groenlo is one. Everything I own and have been there falls under one denominator. I love Groenlo, and often long for it, and when I leave again, and return to the West, I still have a lump in my throat.

But now, suddenly—and my heart seemed to know it even before I did—I’m at a crossroads. I am in Groenlo, and my father still lives in Buitenschans. But mom no more. Mama is now alone in the dark, under her garden in Lichtenvoordseweg.

I swallow a big piece. I look at the seat next to me. I had already finished wreaths for my dad at Veenendaal. There are white spots everywhere. Now I have nothing with me. And I don’t have anything for my mom either.

Get out and open the back door. There, my schoolbag. So tired from a busy December, I haven’t unpacked yet. I am now happy about it because at the top I find my package with the holes and the tea light.

Turn back and turn left at Lichtenvoordseweg. I park my car at the cemetery. I walk first to the place where the tractors are. Lots of lights illuminate pictures of loved ones on this night of anticipation, and Christmas pieces add some ambiance to the room. There is a lighter. Might borrow it for a while. I walk in the cemetery.

When I get to my mom, I squat on my ass. I put the can down and light the candle. The rays shining through the holes cast a soft light on the red berries of the gaultherias that my father had put there. I warm my hands over the flame. Then the calixtus bells struck at half past six. “Merry Christmas, Mom,” she whispered. The light gets blurry.

I returned to the parking lot in my car. I dry my tears, blow my nose, and drive to Buitenschans. I walked in through the garage door and into the utility room hanging my coat on the old children’s coat rack. I open the kitchen door.

“Hey, child of the wind, it’s time for my first cup of excellent pea soup, if I do say so myself.”

It’s a pleasure in the kitchenlook hot. On the blue and white tablecloth is a Boerenbont plate with meat soup. A cloudy gray enamel soup pot stands on Grandma’s chafing dish. We will sit down. Dad scoops and we taste. He looks at me over his glasses.

“Make soup, child, make soup… This is the best medicine. Of all.”

Christmas can begin.

Merry Christmas.

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