The frail lady’s resistance

The private beach overlooked a small island in the middle of Cook pond. The beach was ours during the two weeks swap we had arranged with a couple from Massachusetts. They moved to our brown stone building in Holland and we settled into their blue wooden house in New England.

Worcester – The water was clear but cold. Once it had been full of beavers, but mean snapping turtles had taken over the idyllic pond. Though situated in the middle of a suburban community, Cook Pond is privately owned. The shore is private, the beach is private and so is the island. The pond itself is public.


The only problem is how to get in? An owners’ association sees to it that what belongs to the happy few, remains with the happy few. For those wondering if they belong to the chosen ones, the trees are adorned with signs. Stating firmly that neither you, your dog, nor any of your cigarette butts are welcome.

There are other signs as well. Signs meant for those who will enter anyways. If you do, the signs say, and you happen to drop dead, trip over a turtle or are being hit by a calamity of any sort, then just for the record: you will be shot.

Frail lady

That morning there was nobody on the beach. Water nibbled softly at the shore. The only noise came from birds rustling through the leaves. An American Indian in a canoe could complete the picture any moment now.

The frail woman in bathrobe, that all of a sudden stepped out of the bushes, however, was completely out of place. She was aged  and in a state of being severely wrinkled. She wore a bathing suit with legs and a  small belt around the waste like they used to wear in the 1920’s.

A rubber cap covered her head. The ribbons were tied underneath her chin. The cap pushed down on her eyebrows which made her look slightly distorted. She didn’t say a word but walked around us, waving her arms in circles.

King poodles

After a while she reluctantly walked into the water, foot by foot, until the water surrounded her at breast height. She then moaned and let herself fall over. Slowly she swam laps in front of the island. I stared at her, mesmerized by this ancient water creature, when once again the bushes were pushed aside and a tall man came through.

He was followed by two king poodles. On his head he balanced a red canoe. His face was hidden by an enormous moustache hanging down and then -as if it changed its mind- curled up again almost reaching his eyes.

He looked as if he had a horizontal figure eight stuck to his face. He growled, in what seemed to be a greeting, and quickly moved on to the shore where he dropped the canoe into the sand with a thud. “Fascinating moustache”, I murmured.

The man turned around abruptly. “I beg your pardon?” he said in perfect Dutch. “Nice canoe”, I said quickly, wondering whether members of a the Dutch Moustache Gang were known to be violent.

The man pretended not to have heard me and introduced himself as Hein. Son of Dutch immigrants who moved to Worcester in the fifties. He had done the trip in reverse by marrying a Dutch woman and settling in the Netherlands.

The beach belonged to his parents. And a handful of other people, he didn’t mention. Now owning a beach was nowhere easy we soon understood. Their private possession was constantly besieged by idiots. At night there were teenagers copulating, smoking pot. During the day mothers secretly took a bath.

Not to mention the dogs that were walked right here.Not to mention the dogs that were walked right here. Every year they had to order clean sand, take out all the cigarette butts and clean up the dog shit. But hell someone had to do it. No really, owning private property was not to be underestimated.

“But uhm, by the way who are you?” We explained that we had swapped homes with people who had filled out an application to be co-owners. Technically speaking that gave us the right to be here, until someone might find a blot on their escutcheon, but by that time we would be back home.

Forbidden for dogs

As the king poodles were happily shitting under the forbidden for dogs sign, Hein saw me staring at the old lady. “Eva, 90, has been coming here for the last 50 years swimming her laps. Crazy as a soup sandwich”, he informed us.

All of a sudden the poodles held their heads tilted. Before we even heard what had caught their attention, we saw two chocolate brown Labradors entering the beach, followed by a golden retriever, two yapping Jack Russell’s and a cripple German Shepperd.


Exuberantly and savagely barking, the dogs jumped over one another. Soon after, a group of men, leashes around their necks, followed them. Lively octogenarians in shorts. Some holding a coffee cup in their hand. The owners association had arrived. Hein introduced them one by one. They had old Dutch names and shiny American teeth. Their roaring laughter drove back the images of Indians and beavers.

Suddenly they fell silent. Even the dogs calmed down, when for the third time that morning the bushes were pushed apart. This time a stout woman appeared in a caftan embroidered with flowers. The gran’ ole lady of Cook Pond, Hein’s mother. We were introduced to each other but not once did she look at us. She sharply reminded Hein of the fact that it was time for lunch. For a moment her eyes rested on Eva still doing her laps.

Slow circles

Then she turned around and disappeared. As if a some sign had been given, everybody disappeared from the beach. And then Eva stepped out of the water. She picked up her bathrobe and again walked around us in slow circles. She spoke English that sounded German but turned out to be Hungarian. Her voice was stronger than might be expected from her appearance.

She had fled Hungary shortly after 1956. Saved by her talent for languages she had wandered around and finally ended up in the United States. Every day she committed the same crime by trespassing the private property of Cook Pond. “That woman”, she said while her eyes rested on the bushes through which Hein’s mother had disappeared, “possesses a lake she never uses, a beach she never enjoys.


I come from a place  where everything was shared, now I live in a country where everything is privatized. Even lakes are private.” Slowly she walked towards the bushes, carefully evading the dog’s poop. Just before disappearing she turned once more: “Communism, capitalism, it is all the same you hear! No matter who’s in charge: dogs will always shit all over the place.”

Text: Anneke de Bundel – Illustration: Flos Vingerhoets

This story was awarded first prize in Dutch travel magazine Reiz&Magazine.

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