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"Born in Rotterdam, of Dutch-Irish parentage, Hilda van Stockum was one of the leading pupils of Patrick Tuohy and Seán Keating at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. She later emigrated to north America where she has since earned a reputation as a leading author and illustrator of children's books, whilst also maintaining a career as a painter. Her works can be found in many major collections including the National Gallery of Ireland."

Full family tree for HvS. Her uncle Eugen Boissevain was married to Edna St. Vincent Millay from 1923 until he died in 1949. Millay wrote the foreword to HvS's first book, A Day on Skates.

by Prof. Randal Marlin, Carleton University, Ottawa

Unlike Granny, Mom did not have a scientific mind. I can recall Granny trying to impress me with the truth of the idea that a straw with sufficient velocity would penetrate a human body, despite my disbelief. There was never any of that from Mom, who always focussed on the ordinary world of experiences and the human drama relating to them.

Granny was a source of puzzles and paradoxes, of bridge and chess, while Mom had not time for those things, though in the end she joined the legions of Scrabble players and became reasonably good at it.

A source of great merriment for her children all through her life was her tendency to mis-pronounce words, thanks to her Dutch background. So in the case of Scrabble she would speak of "triple word score" as if the pronunciation were "try-pull word score."

Some of the rest of us would repeat the wrong pronunciation as if it were the correct one, exchanging grins with each other in doing it. Mom generally took this with exceptionally good grace but "up to a point" (Evelyn Waugh, Scoop) only, and one learned to be sensitive to when the limit was being reached.

Mom did however have a very philosophical mind and in retrospect I marvel at how she was able to deal with difficult philosophical questions very simply but so penetratingly that I still come back to her answers for enlightenment, because she got to the nub of a problem and seized on the key point or image from which a solution was forthcoming.

On the matter of the problem of evil, her answer was that a good novel couldn't do without evil somewhere, and a good painting couldn't do without darkness to contrast with the light. So the Creator of the world could not produce moral goodness without giving us free will and the means to avoid evil, without forcing us as if we were automatons. In that set-up evil becomes a necessary part of a whole better than one where we do not have free will.

I express this in ponderous language, but Mom could put it in simpler language without missing anything that the more technical language conveys.

In making her philosophical points, she always had good illustrations from literature, and often her own children's books provide some fine philosophical teasers. In "Kersti and St. Nicholas" Kersti throws a real curveball at St. Nicholas when she argues that the good kids are already rewarded with praise for their goodness. It's the bad kids who need to be given a boost from all the reproaches they get. Some reward might be the incentive they need to turn their lives around. As one who identified with the bad kids I saw some merit in that argument.

Mom said she had found Nietzsche more optimistic that Schopenhauer and related to him better. I see here that Nietzsche's opposition to the urge to punish may have been influential. He thought one should try to bring out the best in people rather than giving vent to the desire to "get even" with wrong-doer through punishment. Once again, I would like to look again at Kersti, because I have a feeling she argued better than my attempt to summarize her argument.

Mom encouraged my philosophical and theological speculations from the earliest days. When I was introduced at age 3 or so to a friend of Mom's I was told she was Mary. Thinking of the Mother of God I was inclined to disbelieve this, so I responded with "and I'm Jesus" as if to say, "gawan, you're pulling my leg"). Mom was very approving of this reference to the Holy Family, showing that I was getting the priorities of my world view right, and I was to bask in weeks and years of praise for this -- indeed, at the time of writing I can say a lifetime.

I can recall that if I raised the question of causation, whether the moving trees caused the wind or vice versa, she seemed very pleased. I was showing an inquisitive mind.

Later she was to encourage my study of philosophy as distinct from physics. Her reason was that scientists were inventing things like the atom bomb whereas philosophers could be working at peace.

She thought the post-World War II period was a world in need of philosophers.

Living at home and studying for my M.A. in philosophy brought me in closest contact with Mom from 1959 to 1961. She enjoyed meeting Professor Raymond Klibansky when we had him for dinner one evening, and there were lots of good discussions. She and Phonsine Howlett both attended Thomas More Institute lectures.

I can recall Klibansky taking great amusement on hearing that Phonsine Howlett, on hearing Pascal's "Man is a thinking reed" responded with "I'm a broken reed." There were many philosophical quips and discussions that took place at the time.

I was involved in the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, comparing it with logical mpiricism and linguistic analysis. One of Mom's priest friends (Father Dickenson, S.J.) wanted to know what I thought of Bernerd Lonergan, and when I answered that I didn't think he had much to say that I didn't find in Cassirer he seemed relieved, as if he didn't want to invest much time in Lonergan and I had given him a good excuse not to.

Much later, Mom was still a good ource of philosophical gems. I pass on to students today the insight of Hans Urs von Balthazar that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are jealous sisters, and you can't raise one above the other two without them pulling it down. In other words, start deceiving in the name of some good to be achieved and the truth will take its revenge. Ignore beauty, and ugliness will have its effect on truth and goodness. When I was lucky, as in this case, Mom would give me the name of the source and I could track it down, as one can easily do today with Google. But I've had more difficulty finding where Heine wrote that the legacy of Kant's philosophy would have the German hordes marching all over Europe.

I also recall benefitting from her ideas about propaganda, though sometimes we were at odds. I have to agree with her that in some cases I was expressing matters in a needlessly complicated way, but at the time I thought otherwise. It's sad that Mom is no longer able to give her criticisms, but I know that a whole philosophy is contained in her stories, essays, interviews and notes, and it will always be inspiring to re-visit these to mine their insights.

by Prof. Elisabeth Paice

Mother was never bored. She was far too interested in everything, and health was one of her passions. She was a devotee of Dr. Bircher's nutritional theories, now shown to have been ahead of his time. He ran a clinic in Zurich that Grannie went to when Mother was five, and Mother went back to whenever she could, often once a year. Her view was that she had delicate health. Her longevity is proof either that she was mistaken, or that the diet was indeed most effective. She was careful what she ate and had regular days - or even 3 days - in bed taking nothing but fruit juices, whenever she felt she had overindulged. After that she would go on rohkost- a diet of raw fruit and vegetables. She liked her children to eat healthily too, and we all grew up with a taste for plenty of fruit and vegetables.

When I had rather severe eczema as a child in Ireland she treated me with strict rohkost for a whole year. It cured me, although I walked the five miles from Dalkey to Blackrock to school in order to spend my bus fare on toffee. And to my shame, I sometimes helped myself to more than my bus fare from her purse, and bought utterly delectable cream buns at the Palm Grove in Dun Laoghaire to eat on the way. Later I heard that she and Dad had fallen out on their honeymoon, because she felt a bag of cherries represented an adequate supper. He did not. Along the same lines, I remember her saying, 'If you aren't hungry for an apple, you aren't hungry at all!'

She was firm friends with Dr Liechti at the Bircher-Benner clinic, and only agreed to have her first hip replacement when Liechti said that raw food wouldn't cure it. Apart from having two hips replaced and two cataracts removed she was rarely ill. At 98 before her stroke she was taking no medications of any kind, used no glasses and had no hearing aid. I wonder what her health would have been like had she succumbed to toffee or cream buns. She would have liked me to become a nutritionist like Bircher, but I had no interest.

Any time anyone she cared about was ill or had an operation, they would be offered a few days in bed in her house, on juices. It always baffled me that she had any takers, but she did, from Bridie Murray in Dalkey, following her gall bladder operation to Father Potter when he had his lymphoma. Health and diet fascinated her, but she had the lowest possible opinion of doctors.

HvS with Fr. Potter and Prayer Group. Fr. Potter was a frequent visitor to the Berkhamsted home. He was unabashedly full of admiration for HvS. She in turn found a spiritual kinship with him. HvS drew a series of humorous allegorical pictures of both of them, with her in the role of a broom (as in BroomHilda).

When I qualified, I soon learned to turn the conversation onto safer subjects. However, when she needed surgery for her hips and eyes she accepted it gratefully and presented her two surgeons with a painting after each operation.

When she was in hospital, aged 90, there was a woman who spent all night every night shouting 'Nurse!' Mother worried about her and the fact she couldn't get out of bed to give her a hand or talk to her. She always needed to be the carer and the giver. At 98 Mother was still a wonderful advert for the raw diet, and I am sure her ideas improved all our health.

MOTHER'S RELIGIOUS LIFE AND THOUGHT Olga Marlin, Numerary of Opus Dei, Africa

It is not possible to think of Mother without thinking of God. Her faith was the driving force of her life and she transmitted it to her children. For the first twenty years of my life, Mother was my friend and confidante and I grew spiritually by her side. I couldn't imagine anyone wiser, more talented or holier than she.

Mother's spiritual life was a real Odyssey that I heard her tell many times. Her parents were atheists. Her father, an officer in the Dutch Navy, was an inventor and a bit of a genius. He taught Mother for the first years of her life, as there was no school where he was posted at the time, so she didn't go to school (she recorded this experience in Pegeen). Mother always remembered a class he gave her about the universe when she was three. She was left with the impression of a vast empty nothingness into infinity -no God- and she, drifting about in all that darkness, alone. She yearned for God.

One day she was out walking with her mother and they passed what she realized many years later must have been a Catholic Church. Mother was attracted by the candle light and incense, and pulling her mother by the hand she cried: "Come, come, God is here!" Grannie was horrified, and dragging her away, said it was "a dangerous place".

When Mother was five, she accompanied her mother to a Clinic in Switzerland where she needed treatment. Mother was looked after by one of the nurses, and one evening when she was being put to bed, she noticed a crucifix on the wall. "Who's that funny man?" she asked. The nurse looked startled: "You don't know Jesus?", and picking Mother up, she plonked her on the bed and kneeling down in front of her, told her the whole story. Her manner was rough and brusque, so Mother always said that it was surprising that the story made such a deep impression on her, despite the manner in which it was told.

When Mother was 16, Grannie moved with her three children to Dublin, andthere Mother had more contact with the Christian faith. She went to Art School, first in Dublin and then in Amsterdam, always with an inner drive towards God. The people she met were an important influence on her life; they helped her find her own direction. There were Dr. Brouwer and Röling in Holland; Sean Keating and other artists in Dublin. I think it was Röling whom she brushed off when he got fresh. Some time later, when she appeared at a fancy dress party decked out as a holly branch, he exclaimed: "Beautiful to look at, but dangerous to touch!"

Mother was greatly influenced in her twenties by Father Colquhuin, a High Anglican priest. I think it was through him that she made friends with Evie Hone. They both had a deeply religious experience through him and became Anglicans. Mother painted Father Colquhuin in his vestments, and he became a familiar figure, as the painting always presided over the dining-room in our house. Mother read the writers of the Oxford Movement and was deeply interested in religious thought, always moving on in search of the truth. It was around this time that she met Daddy, through her brother Willem, and in 1932 they were married in the Mount Street Anglican Church.

She followed Daddy to New York in 1933 and in November 1934 I was born. I became the centre of her life, as can be seen from my "Baby Book", until Brigid and Randal came to share our parents' devotion. By then we had moved from New York to Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Mother continued searching. She read a lot. I know that at that time she read the works of St. Teresa ("the great St. Teresa", she called her) because that is the name she gave me at my Catholic Baptism: Olga Emily Teresa.

St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, Fulton Sheen, Ronald Knox. but it was Arnold Lunn's "Now I See" that finally brought Mother to the Catholic Church. She always said that when she closed the book it suddenly hit her: "I'm not thinking about being a Catholic, I am a Catholic!" With that she went out into the street and asked the first passer-by "Where is the nearest Catholic Church?" She went up to the rectory door, knocked, and said to the priest who opened it: "I'm a Catholic and I want to be baptized!" After a few enquiries he said: "You're a case for Fr X." It turned out that this was an elderly priest, a bit confused, but eager to make converts. After talking to Daddy, Mother went through the classes and the time came for her to be received into the Catholic Church. "What about the children?" she asked. And Daddy said "You better look after them". So we were all baptized together. The priest was a bit harassed with three children and Mother to baptize, and in the end he asked anxiously: "Have I done them all, or have I done one twice?"

As a very small child, I remember Mother rocking me in her arms and singing: "Nearer My God to Thee". She also spoke to us about "Mother Mary".

The first lesson that I remember Mother teaching me happened when I was three years old, and we were living in Georgetown. Mother sent me down the road to collect two ice-creams: one for me and one for Brigid. On the way back, with an ice-cream in each hand, I remember licking the top off the one for Brigid and eating the other myself. I had a vague idea that it wasn't the best thing to do. When I arrived at the door I held out Brigid's cone, half eaten.

"Olga, you ate Brigid's ice-cream!" "No, I didn't." The exchange went on, until Mother picked me up, sat me on top of her bed and asked me very seriously: "Would little Jesus have done that?" "No," I replied. Mother heaved a sigh of relief.

From Georgetown we moved to Chevy Chase, where we spent most of my childhood. Mother has written amply about this time in her books and I have little to add. Her life and thought as well as our family stories are there, including the philosophical conversations that took place when we were still very small. In this Randal was most like her, and she captured him beautifully as Kobus, in "Andries".

However, there is one unrecorded incident that stands out in my mind. I was five years old and playing in the back yard with Brigid and Randal. I climbed a tree, and got stuck in the fork of it: I couldn't go up and I couldn't come down. Above me I saw the wide expanse of blue sky with a few clouds and below my sister and brother, crying, because I was stuck. I thought I was going to die there and I cried out "God, I'm sorry for all my sins!" Mother heard me and came tumbling down the stairs to rescue me.

Mother took Brigid and me to Mass with her on Sundays. We would go to the front pew and Mother would whisper to us what was happening and explain the Gospel of the day. One Sunday, as we were walking home along Connecticut Avenue discussing the Gospel of the day, in which Christ is challenged by the Pharisees, Brigid and I flopped down on our knees and shouted up to Heaven "God it's not true! You didn't have a devil!"

Grannie came from Ireland to live with us in Washington, D.C. and a year later she followed Mother into the Catholic Church. However, she was never as fervent as Mother. We gleefully watched Grannie "cheat". Mother would enthusiastically bring her a spiritual book to read and Grannie took it dutifully. Then we saw her hide a detective story between the pages. Some time later Mother would reappear: "Do you like the book, Mother?" "O yes, yes -it's excellent!" and Grannie would shuffle the books on her lap.

Mother had a beautifully bound Bible, with many dramatic engravings by Gustave Doré. We first learned the Bible stories poring over those pictures while Mother explained. There was one of the Flood that Brigid always wept over: the Ark in the middle of huge waves in which men, women and children were drowning. You could see mothers holding up their infants in their hands as they sank, in a desperate attempt to save them.

When I was seven years old, I made my First Holy Communion. I remember with what reverence Mother prepared me: put on me my white dress with flounces, the veil, and a little crown of real lilies of the valley. It wasn't very practical, as it happened, since the flowers faded, but what counted for me was the love with which she had made it.

Mother lived the liturgical year and vibrated with the life of the Church. Every January she would get a Church calendar, with the story of each saint on it, and then tell it to us when the day came...

For one of my birthdays Mother made a little altar. It had everything, only in miniature: altar, candelabra, presbytery with Msgr. Smith (in cassock and white cotton wool hair) sitting in his chair, altar boys, procession of first communicants, etc. etc. I think the one who enjoyed it most was Mother making it!

She made the two great seasons of the year -Christmas and Easter - into great celebrations, after taking us through the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent. She kept the fasts rigorously, weighing the ounces for her light meals on a scale. At Christmas we had a Crib with clay figures that she had made herself and which she carefully brought out each year. We all helped to set it up in the sitting-room, and sang Christmas Carols before it.
HvS with Christmas Tree in Berkhamsted.She loved decorating the tree at Christmas. She especially loved dressing up as St. Nicholas earlier in December. That was a more important celebration when she was growing up in Holland.

At Easter we attended the Holy Saturday services early in the morning and then the Easter Sunday Mass, followed by a festive breakfast with Easter baskets.

Mother was very generous. She never wanted anything for herself. She was concerned about giving tithes to the Church and I remember her seated at her desk, calculating the amount to put into the Church envelope. She got plenty of requests and never refused any. Every year among the Christmas cards Mother displayed on the mantelpiece, there was always one from Boys Town. She saw Christ in everyone who asked and never turned anyone away.

Each baby that came brought new joy to the family. Mother did up my parents' bedroom with fresh curtains and bedspreads and then prepared the baby's crib with a canopy, in pastel-coloured dotted swiss. There were spring flowers on the window sill: jonquils, daffodils, hyacinths... The last two children were born at home, so we came from school to find the little cot already occupied by a pink little baby. A special sense of God hovered about the room.

Mother moved in the world of God and related everything to Him. She loved His Creation and she painted, reflecting the glory of God. "There is beauty even in a garbage bin!" she said, and in fact she painted one. It was like a challenge - to find God in unexpected places.

She had the heart of a child and her relations with God were simple and transparent. She sometimes commented that she felt before God "like a doggie wagging its tail!"

In 1945 we moved to Canada. Mother immediately empathized with French-Canadian Catholicism as we found it in Ste. Marguerite and later in Lachine. She recorded all that in her book Canadian Summer. We were there for six years.

On one of our Christmas vacations in the Laurentian Mountains, Mother managed to fulfill one of her dreams: to go to Midnight Mass under the stars in a sleigh with jingle bells. It was not a huge success, as we were freezing cold, despite the bearskin rugs provided by the sleigh driver - even Mother found it daunting. We were late for Mass, and the little Church was packed so we attended the Mass from the sacristy.

Mother noticed the parish orphanage and took a great interest in it: the small, pale little children smote her heart. One of the older ones, Ephrem, came to visit us regularly until he and John accidentally started a forest fire. The story is told in Canadian Summer. While the fire raged in the direction of our house, and Daddy was furiously working with the Mounties, Mother had us all kneeling around the bed saying the rosary. The fire suddenly changed direction and we were "saved by prayer", as even Daddy acknowledged.

Mother loved the Rosary and tried hard to keep the Family Rosary going. While we were in Lachine, she took us to Father Peyton's Family Rosary rally in Montreal ("The Family that Prays Together Stays Together").

When I was 14 I had a serious abdominal problem that eventually led to a major operation. I always remember Mother during one of the worst attacks pacing up and down the room, with pursed lips, saying the rosary, while I writhed on the bed waiting for the doctor.

While we were in Montreal Mother brought us to a Carmelite Convent to be enrolled in the brown scapular, as she had just read about the importance it has. While we were on holiday in St. Adele, she introduced bible reading at table. Johnny was quite impressed - but it didn't last long.

It was while we were in Westmount, Montreal, that Mother confided to me one evening as we were walking home in the dark "I'm expecting another baby! You must pray a lot, because I'm not so young anymore. I'm entrusting the baby to St. Gerard, the patron of expectant mothers". I was delighted at the news! Unfortunately, Mother miscarried at five months. I visited her in the hospital. She told me that my little brother had lived for a few minutes; enough time for the nurse to baptize him "Gerard". I have always thought that this little brother will be so grateful to our Mother for giving him life, and life eternal, on account of he/r faith.

When I was 16 we moved to Dublin, Ireland, where I went to Trinity College for my university studies. That was a time of deep conversations with Mother about the experiences of life; listening to her conversations with other people on all kinds of intellectual topics, and always with reference to God. Mother was all of a piece and focused everything from the standpoint of faith. I admired her very much and wanted my college friends to benefit from her wisdom. Whenever I could, I would ask her to join in our discussions. I remember one night in Beulah, when my friends and I were talking around the fire in the sitting-room (Mother had already gone to bed - it was about 2:00 in the morning) I thought we needed her input, so I woke her up and asked her to come. She did!

Mother went to daily Mass and the rest of us joined her. She also went for weekly confession to the Carmelite Convent in Clarendon Street. Following her example, Brigid and I also went to Father Pius.

By that time our future directions were beginning to take shape. Mother knew that I wanted to dedicate myself to God somehow. She was eager to encourage us along our different paths, and she eventually became a Cooperator of Opus Dei. She painted altar pieces for different Centres of the Work in Washington, D.C., Montreal, Nairobi, Manchester, Ivory Coast, Congo.)

She always fostered our talents, encouraging us. It was her pride at my talent for teaching my brothers and sisters that led me to discover my vocation for teaching at age nine. She also encouraged me to write and in the last years of her life helped me to write my book "To Africa with a Dream".

Mother grew closer and closer to God as time went on. She was convinced that when God keeps us alive, it is for a purpose, and she was determined to fulfill that purpose. After her hip replacement at age 90, finding that she could walk without discomfort, she exclaimed "I am no longer a human being, but a hymn of praise!"

As I write, Mother is suffering the effects of a stroke, and it seems that the end is near. Her last days are in tune with the rest of her life. Brigid writes: "She radiates love for everyone near her and her smile is radiant." And Liz wrote these words from Mom: "I think this is going the way He wants it. Calm and happy. I won't be long now," with a beaming smile.

Olga Marlin
Nairobi, Kenya
24 October, 2006

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Many letters of Hilda van Stockum to her mother Olga van Stockum and other relatives are being transcribed and annotated.

The letters that Hilda wrote to her mother from art school (the Rijksacademie van Beeldende Kunsten) in Amsterdam include mention of the following people:

Cast of characters


Hilda van Stockum, author of the letters
Olga van Stockum, Hilda's mother
Bram van Stockum, Hilda's father
Emily MacDonnell Boissevain, Hilda's grandmother (widow of Charles Boissevain)
Cornelis, Emily's chauffeur
Willem and Jan van Stockum, Hilda's brothers
Mary ("Mies") Boissevain, Hilda's Aunt (widow of Alfred Boissevain)
Han and Hilda Boissevain de Booy, Hilda's Uncle and Aunt
Herman, Robert and Ralph Boissevain, children of Mary (Mies) Boissevain
Engelien de Booy, Hilda's Cousin
Harriet ("Harrie") Crichton Kirkwood and Violet Crichton, related through Emily MacDonnell Boissevain Mies and Jan Canada Boissevain.
Tilly den Tex
Charles, Ella and Hansje van Hall, all cousins of André van Hall, son of Hilda
Boissevain de Booy.
Nella Boissevain Hissink, living in Leeuwarden.
Nella was one of the two younger sisters of Olga Boissevain vS.
Polly was the nursemaid for all the 11 Boissevain children, and then for some grandchildren.
Trot, Hilda's aunt on the van Stockum side

Art Professors and Staff

Prof. Roland Holst.
Mr. Westerman
Prof. Bronner, taught modeling with clay
Prof. Wolter
Mrs. Der Kinderen, widow of the former Academy director Prof. V. d. Pluym

Fellow Art Students

Nini De Boer, who unfairly had a bad reputation
Maria/Mariette, engaged to cousin of Nini, had to be spoken to by Prof. Holst
Victor de Winter, first de Winter, a persuasive young male art student, then Victor, then Vic, Hilda's boy friend and then briefly her fiancé
Edelman had an "ugly leer"
Alma de Ridder says she was proposed to by someone she met the same evening
Han Hulsbergen
Nicky Liebman, male


Locations from Which Letters Were Sent

Holland - Amsterdam: Balthasar Florin St.
Hilda's residence as an art student.

Holland - Amsterdam: Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunst
The State Academy for Fine Arts, Amsterdam Holland - Hattem: "Astra"
"Astra" and "Kleine Astra" were the residences of the van Halls. Hattem is near Zwolle, which is in northeast Holland.

Holland - Blaricum, Houten Huis
Blaricum is near Bussum where Drafna is located. It is a suburb east of Amsterdam.

Ireland - Sligo, Crichton Home
Vacation home on the west coast of Ireland.

Other Locations Mentioned in Letters

Holland - Leeuwarden
Home of Nella Boissevain Hissink.

Holland - Zandvoort
Seaside resort west of Amsterdam.
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