Around the Oval Table by Corrie ten Boom
Can a piece of furniture be important? The oval table in our dining room was the gathering place for hopes and dreams, the listening place for prayers and petitions, and the loving place for joy and laughter.
But Sunday, it was something more—it was the special place for family and friends.
Sunday was an important day for us; it was a day when everything—from the clothes we wore to the spoons we used—was distinctive. My Sunday dress was the new one I received for Christmas, so I seldom had a choice about what I would wear to church. Tante Anna could work magic with that dress, adding a colored sash or a ribbon in a way that improved my rather careless appearance. It was another of her small gifts of service which said, “I care.”
When we were ready for church, Father would lead the way to St. Bavo’s while we trailed along, trying not to scuff our shoes or soil our Sunday outfits.
After church it was good to go home, especially when the weather was chilly, for St. Bavo’s was unheated, and there were days when my teeth would chatter through the entire service.
At home, I would help with the Sunday dinner, first by smoothing a beautiful white cloth over the oval table. I tried to do this carefully, because I knew that Betsie wanted it to hang evenly, and it was a great desire of mine to meet her standards. Everything about Betsie was neat and I was . . . oh, well—just Corrie.
“Good work, Corrie,” she would say, and that was all I needed to encourage me for the rest of the day.
The delicate china, which had been brought from Indonesia by father’s older sister, Tante Toos, and Tante Jans’ ornate silver service—a gift from wealthy members of her husband’s church—were placed on the table. Then Tante Anna would emerge from the kitchen, wiping her hands on the generous apron she used to cover her black silk dress, and ring a little bell.
“Come to dinner, everyone.”
When we were seated, Father would remove his fresh Sunday napkin from its holder, place it carefully on his lap, and bow his head.
“Lord, we thank You for this beautiful Lord’s Day and for this family. Bless this food, bless our Queen, and let soon come the day that Jesus, Your beloved Son, comes on the clouds of heaven. Amen.”
Our table talk on Sunday sometimes centered around the sermon we had heard, but usually Father was cautious not to say too much. He attended the cathedral near our home because he felt that God had called him to that place, but he didn’t hold any position in the church. His views were not accepted by the liberal thinkers who were in positions of leadership.
Conversations around the dinner table were lively because we all had stories or experiences we wanted to share. I believe that the great enjoyment of a family eating together is having this time when each person can be heard.
Father had a special talent in directing our talks so that no one would feel left out. We loved to tell personal stories, but were taught to laugh at ourselves and not to make fun of others.
I remember one time when Nollie was telling about a painting she had done in school.
“I thought the drawing was rather good,” Nollie said, “but when Mr. van Arkel walked over to my desk, he held up my picture and looked at it one way and then another, scowling all the time.”
“Maybe he just wanted to get a better view,” Betsie offered.
“I’m afraid that wasn’t his reason,” Nollie answered.
(Studies were important in our family, so each one of us received special attention when we talked about school.)
“What did Mr. van Arkel say, Nollie?” Mother asked.
“He said, “Do you know of which Proverb your drawing reminds me, Nollie ten Boom?”
“I told him, ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense.’ [Disgraced is he who thinks wrong of it]. It’s from a motto on a badge of knighthood. Boy, did Mr. van Arkel laugh!”
Nollie’s eyes twinkled when she told the story. Father really enjoyed a good joke, as long as the girls didn’t giggle. Laughter he loved, but giggling was verboden.
On Sunday afternoons, we frequently had visitors who would stop for a cup of tea and conversation. Sometimes we would go for a walk, but we didn’t study, sew, or work on the Lord’s Day. The only work allowed was winding the watches, which were in the shop for repair.
Father said, “Even on Sunday, I must milk my cows.”
Fellowship around the oval table was more than just a family affair. Throughout the years, there were many people, young and old, rich and poor, who contributed so much to the richness of my childhood. I loved to have some of Father’s friends visit our home, because they laughed a lot and always told wonderful stories.
When Father was a young man in Amsterdam, he worked in a mission called Heil des Volks, which was in a very poor part of the city. There were three other men who gave their time and energy to this particular outreach, and they all became fast friends.
The four men would meet often, sharing their burdens and triumphs, studying the Bible together, and discussing many topics of interest. As a child, I was always happy when they came to our house; it was a time when I loved to listen to the conversations of these great friends and learn from their experiences. The children were welcome to stay during their discussions and encouraged to participate if we had something we wanted to ask. I can still recall the fragrant mixture of cologne and good Dutch cigars which lingered in the room.
Frits Vermeer was a rather round Dutchman who loved to joke. He was “Uncle Frits” to us, just as the other good friends were called Uncle Dirk and Uncle Hendrik.
One of the first things Father would do when his friends arrived was to bring out the box of cigars from its place in the desk where the bulky ledger of the shop was kept. From his pocket, he would take the special cigar clipper, which had keys for winding the clocks on the other side. It was a very important tool, and many children over a span of half a century sat on his lap and played with it.
Uncle Hendrik was considered the theologian of the group, and was constantly being challenged for a Bible verse to meet some situation or problem. He was seldom at a loss when asked to quote something appropriate for the occasion.
Uncle Dirk, the fourth member of the group, was the only one who wasn’t married. However, he loved children very much and was able to express that love in a special way.
On one occasion, when Father’s friends were discussing their concerns, Uncle Dirk was anxious to tell about an orphanage where he was on the board of directors. I sat up and listened carefully, because children without parents bothered me so much. I thought how terrible it would be not to have the love of a mother and father.
“I decided to become the father of the orphanage,” Uncle Dirk announced. “I have been on the board of directors, arguing for better conditions for those poor children, but I have not seen any positive results. I must get in there and work myself.”
Father was delighted. “Dirk, this is certainly the leading of the Lord for you. He has not given you a wife, but He is going to bless you with many, many children. We will pray about it.”
Father would begin to pray with his friends in an attitude which was so easy and natural that the conversation never seemed to stop; it would flow easily from friend to friend to the Lord.
Many times through the years I remember the wonderful moments I had listened to the stories and experiences of Father’s friends. There is a Proverb which says, “Thine own friend, and thy father’s friend, forsake not” (Proverbs 27:10). I have often thought how wise that is.
Bible Study Was a Game
With the dishes cleared off and kitchen duties accomplished, the oval table could be turned into a place for games. We didn’t play cards (for that was considered a form of gambling), but we had a lasting enjoyment in the type of games which taught us something.
Different languages were introduced as a game, not as a forced study. When I was in the fourth grade, we began to learn French. As I remember, I loved the melodious sounds of this beautiful language, but it was and remained a difficult language for me. The next year I started English, which was easier, but I wondered as I struggled with all the different English meanings for words if I would ever go to England or America and have an opportunity to use the language.
Father wanted me to learn English well, and he gave me a little Sunday-school booklet in English, which was called “There’s No Place Like Home.” I read it over and over again.
The greatest fun in language-learning came during our Bible study. The entire family would take part, each one of us having a Bible in a different language. Willem usually had the original in Hebrew and Greek; I would have the English; Mother the Dutch; Nollie the French; and Betsie or Father, German. It was a special and joyous time for us.
Father would begin by asking what John 3:16 was in English. I would answer from my English Bible, Mother from her Dutch Bible, and Betsie would reply in German.
When I was so young, it didn’t seem possible that Betsie would ever have a chance to use a Bible verse in German. We didn’t know any Germans then! However, God uses such seemingly insignificant ways to prepare us for the plan He has for our lives. Over forty years later, in a concentration camp in Germany, Betsie was able to use that verse—and many more—to speak to the prisoners and the guards about God’s love.
When Father Prayed . . .
Every room in our house heard our prayers, but the oval table probably experienced more conversations with the Lord than other places. Praying was never an embarrassment for us, whether it was with the family together or when a stranger came in. Father prayed because he had a good Friend to talk over the problems of the day; he prayed because he had a direct connection with his Maker when he had a concern; he prayed because there was so much for which he wanted to thank God.
When Father talked with the Lord, it was serious, but unpretentious. He talked to Someone he knew. Once we had a minister in our house, and when his visit was over, Father prayed, “Thank You Lord, for a good day. We hope everyone goes together in the same way.”
The minister left with a puzzled expression on his face. Could this be the Casper ten Boom so many of his parishioners told him had such a deep understanding of God’s Word?
Father always prayed before and after each meal. He included two things in his prayer: the Queen and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The knowledge and anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ was given to me by Father during one of the quiet, thoughtful times before I went to sleep as a small child.
(From Corrie’s book, In My Father’s House)
(Corrie ten Boom and her family hid Jews in Holland during the Nazi occupation. Eventually, they were captured and put into concentration camps where most of her family perished. You can read about the ten Boom’s courage in her book The Hiding Place. In My Father’s House is about the ten Boom years prior to The Hiding Place time period. Lighthouse Trails sought the publishing rights to In My Father’s House in 2011 when learning that the book was no longer in print in North America and seeing how precious this book is.)