Friday, August 21, 2009

Olivek Christensen Myers

Olivek (or Olivia) Christensen was one of Honoria and Janet's two nurses during their childhood, and of the two she was at Clermont the longest. Her close interaction with the children and Alice has made her story the best known of any of Clermont's servants.

Before coming to Clermont, we know that she emigrated from Jutland, Denmark in 1906 at the age of 25. A quick search of the Ellis Island database suggests that she came on a medium-sized steamer called the Hellig Olav out of Copenhagen. By that fall she was working as a nurse in a hospital in New York City, and within a few years Ollie was hired by Alice Livingston to leave the crowded, bustling city and move to the comparatively quite estate of Clermont on the Hudson River.

At Clermont, "Ollie" slept in a sizable attic room, probably with the second nurse, a German woman named Madeleine Bocbel, and they spent their days with Alice's two infants. Though wiltingly hot in the summer, the room boasted bright morning sunlight and a beautiful view of the gardens.

At Clermont Ollie was part of staff of eleven people, including gardeners, a cook, chambermaids, and butler. There were several other Scandinavian servants, two Finish women and a woman from Norway, but only one other woman from Denmark with whom she could speak Danish if she ever got homesick. Common practice for the era suggests that she and the other servants had their Sunday afternoons off which would have given them time to walk the 2 1/2 miles to Tivoli, the nearest town--if they'd cared to. As the children got older, eventually Madeleine left, but Ollie staid on. Governesses soon joined her in supervising the children's growth and education.

We get snatches of Ollie's personal life through the Livingston's oral history just as we get glimpses of her face in the backgrounds of their photographs. For instance, at Christmastime, Honoria and Janet put up the "Ollie tree," a second Christmas tree for their beloved nurse, who once told them that she missed the tradition of handmade, natural tree ornaments from her homeland (the staff still carry on this tradition, making new ornaments for it each year).

Another story, recorded by Alice, referenced her uniform. Janet was once extolling her highly fashionable aunt when she saw "Nursie" surveying her own white uniform. When Janet declared "I love aunty because she is so stylish," Ollie asked what this meant about her status. Janet replied exuberantly, "Why, I'd love you if you were bare!" Dressing in the white uniform of a nurse every firmly declared her job to both coworkers and visitors. Ollie was aware that everyone who saw her at Clermont would see her first as a nursemaid and second as Olivek Christensen.

In Clermont's collections a small stack of post cards remains a reminder of Ollie's relationships with friends and family both in America and back in Denmark. Most have only short notes on them (reminding me very much of the brief entries on a Twitter or Facebook page). They say things like "Olivia, Hope you are feeling well --A.C. or "Cleaning to receive company." Others are written Danish and have not yet been translated. They were little momentos that reminded her of the outside world, or of people she missed. I wonder whether she reciprocated and what her notes looked like?

Sometime between 1915 and 1921 Ollivek married Christopher Myers, the Livingston's coachman, and left the service of the Livingstons. In her mid thrities, Ollie would probably have been happy to finally have her own household and hopefully children to care for. Unfortunately, we do not know what became of her after this. I can only hope that she went on to do the things she wanted.

While it is fairly uncommon to have the personal stories of the servants of a large estate such as Clermont, stories like Mary Poppins and even Peter Pan indicate the difference in status held by a nursemaid and remind us how important they were to the families that hired them. Often spending as much or more time with the children than their own parents, it was a position of responsibility and hopefully one that held some some personal rewards, as working with children often does.

As with most recollections of servants, what is sadly absent from our understanding of Ollie is her own voice. Currently, I know of know notes or letters that she wrote, and she left few belongings behind when she departed for married life. Most of what we know of her comes from her employers. Not only that but Clermont took only about ten years of her life. What of the rest of it?
What we know of Olivek Christensen Myers is limited, but valuable because it makes up another piece of the rich history of life here at Clermont. I often wonder what she would have to say about life at Clermont? What stuck in her mind about Janet, Honoria, Alice, and John Henry? What stories could she add about evenings in the attic servants' quarters or lunch around the servants' table in the kitchen? Sadly, I will probably never know.

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