By Corrie ten Boom
Five . . . six . . . seven . . . eight . . . the chiming clocks in the shop told me it was eight o’clock in the morning. What a wonderful way to start the day . . . with the graceful Frisian clock singing the hour, the sonorous grandfather clock vibrating its bass melody, and a dozen or more pendulums joining the chorus. I hummed a little tune under my breath as I poked the fire under the coffee-pot, and brought one slice of white bread, and one of brown bread, out for Father’s breakfast. He would descend the narrow staircase in exactly ten minutes. You could regulate your watch by his arrival in the dining room each morning.
This was the day Father wound the clocks in the homes of his wealthy clients. His breakfast must be prompt, for he was as disciplined as the timepieces he treated.
8:10 A. M. “Goede morgen, Corrie. You have been busy already, I believe.”
He looked at the sacks lined up against the cupboards and knew that I had been up preparing meals for the day: meat, vegetables, potatoes, and stewed fruit, started cooking before breakfast. I would begin the food in boiling water and then remove it from the stove for a special long-cooking method. Each pot would be wrapped in sixteen newspaper pages and then enclosed in a towel, sealing in the heat. It was a very effective and efficient way to cook and store food.
After breakfast and prayers, Father would go to our astronomical clock and check his pocket watch. The clock was impressive, taller than Father, with an accuracy which demanded synchronization with the Naval Observatory clock in Amsterdam. Neither cold nor heat affected the astronomical clock.
“Mmmm . . . two seconds fast,” Father commented. He adjusted his own timepiece precisely in preparation for the work of the day.
His bicycle was dusted, his hat adjusted, and off he went, pedaling intensely down the narrow Haarlem streets, until he reached the homes of his clients in the suburbs of the city. He was an aristocrat and a servant, a gentleman of dignity, and a confidant of the most lowly. Class distinction was very strong in Holland, but to him every human being was someone of value.
As he whirred through the streets, he waved to many townspeople, endangering the security of his hat in the wind. When he arrived at the first house, breathless, but prompt, he would go to the back door, ring the bell, and greet the servant girl who answered his summons.
“Hannah, how delightful to see your shining face this morning,” he would say with a manner as gallant as one approaching royalty.
“Oh, Mister ten Boom, I’m so happy to see you. I’ve been reading the Book of John—just as you told me—and I have so many questions.”
“Good, Hannah. I shall come to the kitchen for coffee at 11 o’clock. Perhaps some of the other servants will want to have a little talk, too!”
Father made everyone feel important, and in a home where there were twelve or fourteen servants, a downstairs maid or cook’s helper might not have too much feeling of self-worth. Many of them looked forward all week to the arrival of the watchmaker.
His clients were people of means, many of them in the import business or owners of sugar-cane plantations in Indonesia. The mistress of one mansion asked him which dancing school he attended, in order to learn how to bow in such a courtly manner.
Dancing school! Imagine such a thing. Father answered, “I never learned to dance, nor did I attend such a school. My father taught me manners.”
Formal training had not been a part of Father’s background. He left school when he was fourteen years old to become Grandfather’s helper in the workshop. He attended night school for a time, but his training was not of a highly intellectual level. He was self-taught, especially from theological books and magazines. Sometimes when Willem explained to his fellow students at the university Father’s answer to a problem, he would be asked, “Where did your father study theology?”
Father’s horizon was wide, and he talked with even his most outstanding customers with wisdom and insight. He was equally at home in the kitchen and in the beautiful sitting rooms. He understood all these people because of the love in his heart, received through the Holy Spirit as the Bible describes:
And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. (Romans 5:5)
Among the customers whose clocks he had to wind, was a distinguished pastor and philosopher, Dominee de Sopper. Father often asked him probing questions. After some months, the Dominee offered to give a course in philosophy in our home; although Father’s beliefs didn’t agree with this scholar’s liberal views, the disputes between them didn’t spoil their warm friendship.
For several winters, this pastor, who later became professor of philosophy at the University of Leiden, had a weekly study group in our house. There were agnostics, atheists, fundamentalists, and liberals in this group, all with a quest for knowledge and none able to escape Casper ten Boom’s direct answers to complex problems. “The Bible says . . .” he would say when the arguments became involved.
Father had nothing against philosophy, for he believed in a philosophy of living based upon the Word of God. However, he would express his differences when others would base their beliefs in such men as Kant and Hegel. Kant, the eighteenth-century German philosopher, had introduced a way of thinking which influenced many in the intellectual community. He did not believe in absolute right and wrong, and questioned whether people could accept things which were beyond their five senses. This would rule out spiritual realities or biblical truths. Hegel pursued the philosophy of relative thinking, which led to the basic political and economic ideas of Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler.
Without formal educational training, Father could debate with the most brilliant from the Book he knew so well. He baffled some, converted others, and had the honest respect of all in that unusual study group.
When Father returned home after making his clock-winding rounds, I was anxious to hear what had happened.
“What did Mrs. van der Vliet say today? Did you see Pastor de Sopper? What about the cook at the De Boks’—has she been reading the Bible we sent?”
“Oh, Corrie, Corrie,” Father laughed, “let’s wait until after supper. The thought of the food you prepared this morning sustained me for the last five miles.”
My job for many years was to assist Tante Anna in the housekeeping, cooking, cleaning, and nursing. Betsie worked with father in the shop as a book-keeper, and I pursued the household tasks. I loved housekeeping; I found it challenging and creative. For instance, I tried to beat my own time records in washing and ironing. On Monday my goal was to have the clothes folded and put away by 4 o’clock. If I could make it by 3:30 or 3:45, I would reward myself with an extra fifteen minutes to half an hour of reading. I learned to bake bread, churn butter, and stretch a little to make a lot.
The division of labor at the Ten Booms was suddenly changed by a flu epidemic in Holland. All the members of the family became ill. When Betsie was sick, I had to do her work in the shop; this was something I had never done before. I felt as if I had two left hands. It was a different world meeting people, remembering their particular likes and dislikes, seeing in facts and figures the precarious balance of the family business.
When Betsie was well again, I made a suggestion. “Why don’t we exchange jobs for a few months, so I can learn more about shopkeeping? I’m so terribly ignorant of what goes on in the business.”
And so we switched. It was 1920, Willem and Tine had their own family, Nollie and Flip had been married a year, and the little German children had returned home. It was time for a change.
I loved the work in the shop. The only thing I thought unpractical was that when a customer brought in a broken watch I always had to ask Father, or one of our watchmakers in the workshop, to look at what repairs were needed or broken parts replaced.
“Father, I believe it would be useful if I learned watch repairing—will you teach me the trade of watchmaking?”
Immediately Father agreed. He had a great trust in my abilities.
“Of course I can teach you—and after some time, I will send you to Switzerland to work as an apprentice in a factory. I hope you will become a better watchmaker than I am.”
Dear Father, he was one of the best watchmakers in all of Holland; he wrote a book about the exact regulation of watches; he edited a weekly watchmaker’s paper; he had been a pupil of Howu, one of the world’s best clockmakers in his time. How could Father expect me to become better than he?
Tante Anna overheard his remarks and said, “Cas, I must warn you—Corrie will never give her full time to her trade. She always tries to do six things at a time.”
Tante Anna was right. She was a woman with singleness of purpose: the comfort of our family. It must have been difficult for her to cope with the many directions of my attention, those ambitions of my heart which ignored the circumstances of our lives. I knew I was the youngest child of a respected businessman who did not have much money, and I was happy and content as such a person. But I believed there was more for me to do.
“Dear Lord,” I would pray in the privacy of my little room, “can You use me in some way?”
It only took a week for Betsie and me to know that changing jobs was right for both of us. Betsie, with her natural flair for beauty and order, added a new spark to the household. Cupboards were rearranged more efficiently, flowers appeared on the table and in window boxes, and even the meals seemed to have more imagination.
I loved the store and workshop. It had a very special atmosphere, and gradually I began to overcome my shyness and insecurity in meeting people and enjoyed selling the watches and clocks. There were many ups and downs in the watchmaking business, but Father seemed to have a keen understanding of the economic situation of our times. In his weekly paper, Christiaan Huygens, he wrote information and suggestions for others in the business. Since he read all other papers about his trade in German, English, and French, he could adequately fill his paper with important news about trade and business.
However, when it came to making money in his own shop, it wasn’t always so simple. He loved his work, but he was not a moneymaker.
Once we were faced with a real financial crisis. A large bill had to be paid, and there simply wasn’t enough money. One day a very well-dressed gentleman came into the shop and was looking at some very expensive watches. I stayed in the workshop and prayed, with one ear tuned to the conversation in the front room.
“Hmmm, this is a fine watch, Mr. ten Boom,” the customer said, turning a very costly timepiece over in his hands. “This is just what I’ve been looking for.”
I held my breath as I saw the affluent customer reach into his inner pocket and pull out a thick wad of notes. Praise the Lord—cash! (I saw myself paying the overdue bill, and being relieved of the burden I had been carrying for the past few weeks.)
The blessed customer looked at the watch admiringly and commented, “I had a good watchmaker here in Haarlem . . . his name was Van Houten. Perhaps you knew him.”
Father nodded his head. He knew almost everyone in Haarlem, especially colleagues.
“Van Houten died, and his son took over the business. However, I bought a watch from him which didn’t run at all. I sent it back three times, but it was just a lemon. That’s why I decided to find another watchmaker.”
“Will you show me that watch, please?” Father asked. The man took a large watch out of his pocket and gave it to Father.
“Now, let me see,” Father said, opening the back of the watch. He adjusted something and returned it back to the customer. “There, that was a very little mistake. It will be fine now. Sir, I trust the young watchmaker . . . he is just as good as his father. I think you can encourage him by buying the new watch from him.”
“But, Ten Boom!” the customer objected.
“This young man has had a difficult time in the trade without his father. If you have a problem with one of his watches, come to me, I’ll help you out. Now, I shall give you back your money, and you return my watch.”
I was horrified. I saw Father take back the watch and give the money to the customer. Then he opened the door for him and bowed deeply in his old-fashioned way.
My heart was where my feet should be as I emerged from the shelter of the workshop.
“Papa! How could you?”
I was so shocked by the enormity of what I had seen and heard that I reverted to a childhood term.
“Corrie, you know that I brought the Gospel at the burial of Mr. van Houten.”
Of course, I remembered. It was Father’s job to speak at the burials of the watchmakers in Haarlem. He was greatly loved by his colleagues and was also a very good speaker; he always used the occasion to talk about the Lord Jesus.
Father often said that people were touched by eternity when they have seen someone dying. That is an opportunity we should use to tell about Him who is willing to give eternal life.
“Corrie, what do you think that young man would have said when he heard that one of his good customers had gone to Mr. ten Boom? Do you think that the name of the Lord would be honored? There is blessed money and cursed money. Trust the Lord. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and He will take care of us.
I felt ashamed and knew that Father was right. I wondered if I could ever have that kind of trust. I remembered myself as a child, when I had to go to school for the first time. My fingers were tight on the railing again, not wanting to go the direction God wanted, only to follow my own stubborn path. Could I really trust Him—with an unpaid bill?
“Yes, Father,” I answered quietly. Who was I answering? My earthly father or my Father in heaven?
As I continued working with Father, we both realized that our characters were formed by our job. Watch repairing is a training in patience. How Father helped me when I had difficulties in the work!
“And who in the whole world should I help with more joy than my own daughter?” he often said.
The workshop was opened every morning with prayer and Bible reading. If there were problems, we prayed over them together. Father practiced what Paul advised:
Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ . . . that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel. (Philippians 1:27)
These simple things kept morale high, but also it was such a joy to experience Jesus’ victory. He is a Friend who never leaves us alone.
When my hand was not steady and I had to do a very exacting piece of work, like putting a frail part of a watch —the balance, for instance—into the movement, I prayed, “Lord Jesus, will You lay Your hand on my hand?” He always did, and our joined hands worked securely. Jesus never fails us for a moment.
I experienced the miracle that the highest potential of God’s love and power is available to us in the trivial things of everyday life.
This is an excerpt from Corrie ten Boom’s book, In My Father’s House (a Lighthouse Trails book)