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Syndic Literary Journal

Memoir ~ Henriette von Trapp ~ Chapter One

 

The Memoir of a Survivor

by

Henriette von Trapp (1927-2013)

edited with an introduction by

Paul M. Levitt

Narrated by Kelly Riordan

Published by LeRoy Chatfield

2021

 

Chapter One

The Lajoies Meet the Trapp Family

Although The Sound of Music portrays the eldest child as a girl, the firstborn in fact was my husband, Rupert von Trapp.

     The Trapps had bought a rundown farmhouse in Stowe, Vermont because the countryside reminded them of their Austrian homeland.

At the time of the purchase, not far away stood a former CCC Camp owned by the government.  The Trapps decided to lease this ground for ten years to run a music camp.  My family, the Lajoies, had learned of the camp through a circular distributed at a concert the Trapps gave the previous year in Fall River, Mass., my hometown.  I spent a summer at the camp, but actually met Rupert through my father, who helped him obtain an early discharge from the Army so that he could attend the University of Vermont to resume his medical studies.  Having been away from his Austrian medical training for over six years, he felt the need of a refresher course and also wanted to qualify for an American degree.  Father, chairman of a draft board in Fall River, wrote Rupert’s board in Philadelphia.  Rupert was discharged and thanked my father.  In the ensuing correspondence, father issued one of those polite invitations:  “If you are ever in our area drop in to see us.”  Those words helped to shape my life.

Cinderella Meets the Handsome Prince

     In August 1945, with workers now accustomed to high wages, domestic help was impossible to find.  Even though I was a very good student—first in my class most of the time—I felt I needed a break from my studies.  I therefore offered to assist my mother with the seven younger children.  And why not?  I would receive a first-rate course in home economics, be home-schooled on how to run a household, and learn to raise children, all skills that I would need in my lifetime.

     Staying home helping Mother proved invaluable, though at times I found it rather difficult as my mother, going through an endless menopause, was exceedingly moody.  I am sure she had reason to be unhappy and depressed, but I felt sorry for my father.  It was during this period that my father and I became very close, a closeness that lasted until his death.

     The summer of 1946 we spent in our large new summer home in Swansea, among lovely farmland, on the shores of the Taunton River, across from Brayton Point.  One day towards the end of July, with all her children sitting around her in her workroom, mother was opening her mail.  Suddenly she said:  “Here is a letter from Baroness von Trapp.”

     Immediately she was surrounded by her excited daughters who had had such a marvelous visit the previous year to the Trapp music camp in Stowe.  Too late, my mother realized that this letter was not meant to be read by the entire family.  Apparently, Rupert was having difficulty accepting the fact that his French fiancée, Madeleine, had jilted him and married a Frenchman during the war years.  He met Madeleine in the early 1930s when she came to his family’s home in Salzburg as an exchange summer guest.  He had visited her over the years in France and actually had been engaged to her for ten years, the long engagement in part owing to the war.  He was convinced that her parents had pressured her to marry a Frenchman because they had disliked Austrians, considering them first cousins of the hated Germans.  His well-meaning mother felt it important that he meet a young lady who could capture his heart and make him forget Madeleine.

     Remembering the Lajoie family who had so many things in common with the Trapp Family, especially their European background, she decided to try her hand at matchmaking.  Unbeknownst to Rupert, she proposed on some pretext that my parents send Marguerite, the eldest Lajoie, for a visit to Stowe.  With Rupert spending all his weekends at the farm on breaks from his medical studies, she hoped that Cupid would weave a spell.  Although my parents were flattered, the whole family was very busy with the new summer house.  They therefore declined.  Maria Trapp, accustomed to getting her own way, was not happy with this refusal.  Her return letter was extremely curt.

     One night, as I returned from night school in Providence, father informed me that he had received a letter from Rupert von Trapp asking to come to visit the next weekend.  He was in his senior year of medical school and for two months he would be on affiliation in Worcester, Mass. studying pediatrics and psychiatry.  He had weekends off but did not own a car.  Upon studying a map, he had realized Fall River was easily reached by bus from Worcester.  Remembering father’s invitation and wanting to check on the Lajoie family that had so impressed his mother, he took the plunge and wrote, inviting himself.  Father felt it would be rude to refuse and agreed to his coming.

     On October 19, 1946, I drove with three younger siblings—the two older girls were away in college—to the corner of Gardner’s Neck Road and Route 6 to pick him up.  This became known as the Fatal Corner, because it was there that I first laid eyes on my future husband.

     That weekend is one that I shall never forget.  The family entertained him.  Rupert was extremely charming and handsome, even though he was losing his hair.  After a wonderful French dinner, my grandmother, a good pianist, began playing different kinds of music, and Rupert and I danced all evening.  I never slept a wink that night; I was madly in love—but what of him?

     He never ceased to mention his age—34 years, 35 on the first of November—perhaps because I was a mere 19.  The next morning, we went to church and in the afternoon drove around Swansea with all the kids but sans my parents.  When we returned home, I proceeded to clean the kitchen and Rupert helped me, wiping the dishes, an activity that, looking back on my married life, was completely out of character.  Obviously, he was trying to impress the family and me.  When we were all at the front door saying goodbye, Rupert put his arm around my waist.  It was as though an electric rod had given me a jolt.  I dared not move, so as not to break the spell.

     Father and I drove him to the Providence bus station.  No sooner in the car—all three of us in the front seat—Rupert casually asked, “What are the ages of all the children?”  My heart sank.  I started with the youngest who was two years old and went up the ladder.  He never said a word.  Two weeks later, he came again, and on his third visit we kissed.  I realized he was as smitten as I was, although the age difference clearly concerned him, frequently talking about it. 

     That same summer, Rupert asked a family friend, who was traveling to France, to visit Madeleine in Paris and find out the status of her marriage.  Madeleine was honest and said that she had married of her own free will, and via the friend returned Rupert’s engagement ring and gifts of jewelry.  It was then he decided he had to get on with his life.

     After I had spent a year as mother’s maid, father suggested that I take a few night courses at Providence College and eventually earn a college degree.  Presumably he felt I needed “seasoning.”  I agreed and drove to Providence two nights a week.

The Engagement

     Rupert’s frequent weekend bus trips to our house caused my parents some concern because of my youth.  Fearing Rupert would lead me on and then break my heart, they were not ready to see their young daughter married.  But I was a mature 19; moreover, my ambition had always been to be a wife and mother.  My parents decided to seek the help and advice of our pastor, Father Landry, who had recently been appointed pastor of St. Anne’s Parish.  Though only in his late thirties at the time, mother had already sought his counsel on various matters and liked his manner.  Three decades later this same priest became my nemesis.  Rupert agreed to meet with Father Landry.  As a result, we both agreed to a separation for three months.  We were not to write or call.  If at Easter, when the three months were over and our love had survived the test, we would become engaged.

     Few men of 35 would have agreed to such an arrangement, but Rupert had Maria for a stepmother and her word was law.  I had no choice.  On Valentine’s Day, in the middle of our forced separation, Rupert did break the rule.  He sent me a dozen red roses, the best Valentine’s Day gift I ever had.  What I never knew until our children found it two years after his death was that Rupert had kept a diary of beautiful love letters written to me during those three months.  Why he never gave me the diary, I will never know.

     We passed the test and became engaged at Easter with the wedding date set for September 17, 1947.  At least, my parents reasoned, I would then be 20 years old.  One disadvantage of the three-month separation was that it left us only a few months to become acquainted before our wedding. 

The Engagement

     About three weeks after our engagement, Rupert graduated from medical school.  His family, giving concerts on the West Coast, could not attend.  My mother felt bad for Rupert and accompanied me.  A few weeks later, at the end of May, the concert tour ended, and the family returned to Stowe.  The Baron, or the Captain as he preferred to be called, became ill.  To this day, a controversy exists about whether he was suffering from congestive heart failure, which is what Rupert believed, or whether he had lung cancer.  The family absolutely refused to hospitalize him, and more or less insisted Rupert run a one-man hospital at home.  He had hoped to earn a little money before starting his internship in Hartford, Ct. to defray the expenses of his forthcoming marriage.  But now that was out of the question.

     The Captain did not improve, passing away on May 30, 1947.  It was the first time I witnessed someone dying.  Mother joined me the following day at the funeral.  The Captain was buried right behind the small apple orchard in a plot of land that the family had had consecrated for this purpose.  Rupert and I went into the surrounding woods, dug up two birch saplings, and planted them on each side of the wooden cross.  In later years, the cross was replaced with a beautiful wrought iron one from Austria.  This became the family cemetery.

     The day after the Baron’s death, I ran into my future mother-in-law.  She took my hand and said:  “Do not change any of your wedding plans or the date; the Captain would not wish it.”  The thought had not entered my mind and I certainly did not intend to postpone the wedding.  Rupert felt the same way.  However, she probably regretted those words later, because she was most uncooperative about our wedding plans, even though she engineered his meeting the Lajoie family and me.  I think she realized that Rupert, being the first to marry, would set a precedent for his brother and sisters, and eventually cause the breakup of the Trapp Family Singers.  In fact, marriages did. 

     I have always felt that the Trapp family blamed Rupert for the Captain’s death, even though there was little he could do without the support of a hospital facility.  Maria had been adamant that he should die at home, when in fact if he had been hospitalized, he would probably not have died at all.  He was only 66 years old.  Maria’s attitude toward Rupert during the funeral preparations was distant.  She acted as if she resented his having become a physician.  It was Werner, the younger son, who accompanied her to pick out the casket.  Rupert was repeatedly slighted.  My heart ached for him, and I tried my best to support him.

The Royal Wedding

     Father felt that since I had not gone to college, I deserved a lovely, big wedding.  Mother took charge.  I was not even consulted on the dresses for the bridesmaids; in fact, when the dresses arrived, ten days before the ceremony, they were a total disaster.  I always wondered why mother left me out of the planning.  Did she think I was too young, or too much in love to make decisions? 

     September 17 dawned bright and clear after days of hot, muggy weather.  The church ceremony was set for 9 o’clock.  In those days one had to be fasting to receive communion, which made for early services.  It was a Wednesday.  In Europe it was not fashionable to marry on Saturday.  The word had spread that the Trapps were going to sing at the wedding, and many people asked their employers for an hour’s leave to attend the wedding.  St. Anne’s Church, which holds approximately 3,000 people, was full.  The traffic cop had to call police headquarters for help.  I must say that when I arrived with my father, my heart sank; I did not know how I could possibly walk down that aisle.  But everything went well.  I had 14 bridesmaids, my seven sisters and seven sisters-in-law; my two younger brothers were pages and carried my train; Francoise, age three on this very day, was my flower girl and Johannes, age 8, was the ring bearer.  Werner was Rupert’s best man.  After Mass the wedding party lined up in the large sacristy, and the whole congregation walked by extending their best wishes.  The reception was held in Swansea at the summer home, catered by Carr’s of Providence, the same caterers of John Kennedy’s wedding.

     The one flaw in an otherwise perfect and memorable day was the fact that Maria did not come to the wedding.  At the last minute, she pleaded illness, even hinting at a possible miscarriage, which I never believed.  The Captain had been dead for four months.  Why she felt the need to boycott the wedding, which she had more or less instigated, remains a mystery.  Perhaps it was because I was the first stranger to become part of the family, the first in-law, the first Mrs. von Trapp besides Maria.

Life as a Doctor’s Wife

     During the summer preceding the wedding, Rupert had started his internship.  His first priority, other than his work, was to find an apartment we could afford.  But by the time of the wedding, all he had located was a one-room place with a shared bathroom.  Although he made a down payment on it, the apartment fell through.  Our income was extremely limited, Rupert was paid $35.00 a month as an intern, received $90.00 from the GI bill, $125.00 a month in all.  Obviously, I had to work, which I did as a secretary in the out-patient department of the hospital.  The job enabled me to bring home another $120 a month.  We were certainly not going to live luxuriously.  To save money, Rupert ate all his breakfasts and lunches at the hospital and, when on night and weekend duty, his dinners as well.  As a result, I became addicted to radio soap operas.

     Lacking a home for his bride when we returned from our honeymoon, Rupert went back to Hartford alone and I remained in Swansea with my parents; it was definitely a letdown.  Two days later, Rupert called with good news.  Because of the Trapp name, he had been interviewed by the press upon his arrival in Hartford, and a gracious lady had seen the article in the newspaper.  She had just renovated her third floor into a lovely little apartment and was looking for prospective tenants.  The apartment was comfortable and the price was right.  The following day I was on my way to Hartford.      

     We did not own a car, and it was a 20-minute walk to the hospital, good exercise for both of us.  However, when Rupert was called in on an emergency, it was a bit hairy.  That winter was one of the snowiest and coldest in years.  In order to dispose of all the snow, the city had to dump it in the Connecticut river.  Late that fall, the Trapp’s inherited some money from the sale of their home in Salzburg, and Rupert’s share was $5,000.  What a windfall!  During the war, this home had been Himmler’s headquarters.  After the war, it was returned to the von Trapps.  With the money, we immediately purchased a cute, maroon Plymouth sedan for $1500 and banked the rest, which we used the following year as a down payment on our home in Adamsville.  Rupert used the car and I walked to work.  My working days were numbered, though, as I became pregnant.  George was due nine months after my wedding (my father kept repeating:  “Please make it legal, Henri.”)  I had a very easy pregnancy, but for some stupid reason, the nuns who staffed St. Francis Hospital informed me that I would have to resign my position when I reached my six month of pregnancy.  That was a blow to our income.  For three months we really had to tighten our belts.  But we were happy and contented in our little world, and much in love.

     Just a few months after our wedding, the Baroness’s fears of losing her singers became a reality.  Johanna, who was the lead soprano, fell in love with an Austrian who visited at the Lodge, Ernst Florian Winter.  A few months later, in late May, her wedding took place in Tenafly, NJ; Rupert and I were her only relatives present.  In fact, Rupert gave her away.

     Our first summer was so unbearably hot in our third-floor apartment that baby Georgie and I went straight from the maternity ward to my parent’s summer home in Swansea and spent the whole summer there.  Rupert would come down weekends.  I greatly enjoyed being with my family; the seven aunts and grandmother doted on George.  This was also the summer we decided where to settle.  Rupert intended, after his year of residency, to become a General Practitioner.  At times he toyed with the idea of living in Vermont, but I was opposed for three reasons:  I did not want to live near my in-laws, Rupert would not have a minute to spend with me, and Vermonters had a reputation for settling their bills with produce.  Potatoes and carrots would not pay the mortgage or clothe my children.

     One evening, we read an ad in the local Herald News.  A house was for sale in a location that needed a doctor, Adamsville, RI.  When Rupert came on the weekend, we visited the house, and both fell in love with it.  With my father’s financial help (he held the mortgage with the Lafayette Bank, where he was the president), and the money left over from our windfall, we bought the house for $11,000.00.  We now knew where we would live the following year.

     In early May, even though Rupert still had two months left in his residency, we moved to Adamsville.  To prepare for the opening of Rupert’s practice in a few months required a lot of work.  He spent weekends at the house, and I carried on alone during the week, dealing with all the necessary workmen:  plumbers, electricians, carpenters, painters.  Only 22-years old, I felt rather inadequate, not always knowing how to impress upon these people the urgency of the job. 

     On July 11th we were ready, hung out our shingle, and waited for the first patient.  Our only competition was an elderly doctor, retired from his Boston practice, whose fee for an office visit was $1.00, while Rupert’s was $3.00, $5.00 for a house call.  The local gentry, of Yankee background, felt why pay $3.00 if you can get the same care for $1.00?  But gradually many came to realize that they definitely got more for their money with Dr. von Trapp, and Rupert’s practice grew.  We could not afford to hire any sort of help, so when Rupert needed assistance with a screaming child who needed sutures, I would become his assistant, leaving George in his playpen.  In the evenings after office hours, I would clean whatever needed cleaning—syringes, pipettes, speculum, and the like.  We did not have our own autoclaving or sterilizing equipment or a bookkeeper.  So, I looked after the accounts, becoming rather good at it.  We were busy and happy—and drenched in sweat.  To cool off, I remember showering with the garden hose in the dark backyard before heading for bed.

     It was Labor Day weekend, September 4th 1949, on a Sunday, when Monique Marie-Agathe, my second child, made her appearance at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon.  As she was a Sunday child, she was indeed fair of face, a beautiful little girl weighing over eight pounds.  In those wonderful days, one could remain as long as you wished in the hospital, and when you were a doctor’s wife it was all free.  The care at St. Anne’s Hospital was marvelous; there were embroidered sheets on the beds, special snacks prepared by Sister Bea, a lively nun.  You had back rubs at least twice a day.  Who would rush home from such a vacation?  We decided to have Monique’s christening while I was still in the hospital.  My mother-in-law, Maria, was the godmother and Rupert’s brother, Werner, was the godfather.  It was held at St. Anne’s Church across the street, with a lovely family party in my hospital room afterwards.  Little did I know that the end of my good times was fast approaching.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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