I have always known how to make bread pudding. I learned it from my mother when I was a child. She was a house maid like I am and she was as hard-working and honest as any other. When my father died at the hands of some merciless Spaniard in the terrible Eighty Years War, my mother fell into depression and the only thing that cheered her up was cooking.
One of my first memories came to me when I was five years old. I was playing in the backyard of the house with my older sister Kathie and other children. We were playing knucklebones with the leftovers of the Vermeer family’s previous day dinner. Although, Kathie was seven years older than me and was much better at that game than I was, she always let me win. I loved her with all my heart and soul. As we played a sweet essence came into our noses and my sister suggested we went into the kitchen to see the delicious dessert that was being cooked. We entered the kitchen and we saw mom carefully pouring milk into stoneware while he hummed a tune. As we got nearer she told us: “I’m cooking bread pudding, your father loved it, she used to have it for breakfast every Saturday”. We sat there and silently watched her moisten the pieces of bread into the milk with the restraint and dedication of a physician. When she had moistened all the bread pieces, she took a pair of fresh eggs and cracked them into an earthenware bowl, beat them hastily and finally took the pieces of bread out of the milk and put them into the bowl. Then, she bake them in the oven. When the bread pudding was finished, she took a branch out of a copper container; it had a sweet, penetrating and pleasant perfume. She told us that she had bought it at the market on a whim, with the little money she had and that it was her secret ingredient to the recipe – later I discovered that the precious branch was nothing less than cinnamon, a spice that had been taken from India to Europe by traders—Then, she smashed the branch and sprinkled it along with some sugar over the bread pudding. Before serving it to her master she let us taste that delightful pudding. We ate anxiously and with great appetite in order for not to be caught by our mistress and get my mom into big trouble. That dessert tasted like heaven! It melted in our mouths like the snow melts in the roofs of Delft in a winter afternoon. That was also one of the last memories I have of my mother for she died one year after.
One night she left the house while I was sleeping. She talked to my sister and told her to take care of me. Her eyes filled with tears, no matter how hard she begged her not to go, mom had already taken a decision. She departed for the sake of her daughters and the family that so kindly had taken her in. We never saw her again. Some years later, the reasons why my mother had left were revealed to me by my sister. She died victim to the plague of the Black Death, that had taken away so many lives in the city of Delft. Numerous times I sat looking at the empty street from my window of the attic and thought about my mother’s end, feeling helpless and sad. Wondering where she died, if she suffered or if she died alone. I tried to ease the pain imagining that my mother had not died and was living in a far away land married to a handsome and rich count or prince. But inside of me I knew that mom had an awful dead. She probably died in a sick house along with other victims of the plague, suffering terrible pain due to his internal hemorrhages, her corpse being later burned in a pile.
Once, my sister told me to accompany her to the ‘markt’ something I did with great pleasure for most of the time I was locked at home helping with the housework or reading to the light of a candle. When we reached the square, we saw men with pieces of cloth covering their mouths and noses, picking corpses from the ground and throwing them into a big pile along with other dead bodies to burn. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the hand of one of the corpses move. I grabbed my sister’s hand and exclaimed in astonishment: “Kathie, that man is still alive I’ve seen his hand move! We have to do something”. My sister pulled me close to her side and replied “Death people can’t move, you know that Tanneke…” We never talked about it again. I know what I saw; some of them were burnt alive!
After mom’s death the Vermeer family gave Kathie the chance to take over the housework, becoming their new maid. As I grew older I started to take more and more responsibilities in the house’s daily tasks. One day as I was doing the washing up in the banks of the Schie river, my sister – who now was twenty-two years of age– arrived at home from the butcher’s totally emaciated, her garments torn and ripped, nervous as she was, trembling and staggering. I noticed by looking at her face that she had been crying.
Months passed slowly like the memories of leaf floating in the wind. My sister’s belly was increasingly growing bigger each month, until it reached a day when the old corset, could not bear the protuberance in her stomach anymore. My sister was clever though, and carried the creature in her inside with honor and secret proud. She started to wear loose dresses and the wicked rumor that “she had given in to the pleasures of drinking and eating” were spread by other maids across the neighborhood. Some of them even stated that they had seen Kathie frequenting the local tavern.
My sister broke waters one Monday afternoon as we were hanging the clothes of the Vermeer family in the backyard. She gave me a sweet kiss on my cheek, put me in charge of the house and left in a rush heading to the midwife’s house. It was the last time I saw my sister. Both, my sister and the baby died while she gave birth. According to the midwife, my sister arrived at her home exhausted and weak. In addition to that, the baby was facing in the wrong way and consequently, she lost a great amount of blood during labor. I felt overwhelmed by the devastating news. I cried and I cried and wished it was I and not her, the one that passed away.
Ten years had passed since Kathie’s death. I am now the maid of the Vermeer family and I eventually help Master Vermeer with the cleaning and polishing of his studio. I must confess that it is something that releases me from the pressures of the house’s tasks and the requirements of my mistress and her daughters. Apart from that, I can sometimes have a glimpse at some of Master Vermeer’s paintings.
One evening I was cleaning the dust from one of the tables of Vermeer’s studio, it was really late, but that had been an extremely busy day at the house and I had many work to catch up on. Suddenly, Master Vermeer entered the room and watched me work from a distance, silently. Finally he spoke and with no noticeable movement on his face he said abruptly: “I want you to be the model of a new project I’m working on at the moment, I’ll pay you”. I must admit that at first I felt overwhelmed and scared by his proposal for I knew the reputation that models usually had; but as he explained his ideas so clearly and with such enthusiasm, I felt incapable of refusing his proposal. His aim was to capture the essence and beauty of an everyday task that I enjoyed. Suddenly, the image of my mom cooking bread pudding came to my mind.
Now as I am steadily holding this pitcher of milk I feel happy for I leave myself to the judicious good hands of Master Vermeer whose aim is to depict an honest and hard working maid performing his everyday labor. But it fills me with pride and satisfaction to know that not only am I perpetuating a family tradition, but a linage of women who fought and worked for their beloved. Like my mother and my sister did before me and that is invaluable.