This morning, in a lovely little restaurant called Presence in Schoten, forty-two women gathered to celebrate the American Women’s Club of Antwerp’s 91st anniversary. With feathers in our hair and jazz music twinkling, we embraced, remembered, and honored our members celebrating mile-stone anniversaries and our club.
Ariadna, our 2nd VP of Membership, worked tirelessly over the past few weeks to create the most amazing program. Constant phone calls and whatsapp messages flew between us. “Where are you now?” I’d ask as I sat at my computer updating luncheon payments. She was hopping all over the city – collecting videos and memories of our honorees.
“Ah, I’m on my way to see. . . and then. . . and then. . . but I have this and this. . .”
“You’re going to stress yourself out! Take a breath!” I said.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she responded – her thick Venezuelan accent weighing down my phone. Leisbeth, one of our Philanthropy Directors said to me a year ago, “Give a busy woman something to do, and she’ll get it done,” and Ariadna is no exception.
Considering today’s date – 2.20.2020 was all about the 20s, and we dressed accordingly. Women arrived with authentic mink stoles belonging to their mothers – some complete with heads and paws from the 1920s. Feathers, fringe, and sequins abounded. Strings of pearls and black feathers surrounded golden vases of cream-colored roses on the tables.
Ariadna checked the computer and screen while I tested the microphone. “Are you ready for this?” I raised an eyebrow to Ariadna.
She fanned herself despite her sleeveless flapper dress. “You’re not the only one that doesn’t like public speaking,” she smiled.
“What!? Who said? Oh. . . okay yeah, maybe so,” and I shrugged.
“Breathe, just breathe,” Linda said to me as she arranged books for the book sale.
“I know. I tried to do yoga this morning and I said, ugh! I don’t have time for this,” and we both laughed.
“You’ll be fine. Everything will be fine,” she reassured me.
After welcome cava and photos of the club, we jumped into the void. Surrounded by our friends and what has become family, we addressed the room. For the next three hours, we were inspired and filled with love and encouragement.
The American Women’s Club of Antwerp is more than a club, but a camaraderie of women – accepting our differences and embracing our similarities. Every day, the women of our organization put their own needs aside for the benefit of something more – whether that be to make a newly-landed expat feel welcome in a foreign country, to stitching a pillow for a woman recovering from breast cancer, to bringing awareness and contributing to global issues affecting women and children beyond our borders. I’m honored and proud to be their President. I’m humbled by the beautiful women in the room and the rich history that surrounds me. I’m awed by the energy and the dedication of the women on my board. Thank you for the privilege.
Welcome Ladies of the American Women’s Club of Antwerp to our 91st Founders’ Day celebration. It is with great honor and privilege that I, Celeste Bennekers, President of the American Women’s Club of Antwerp, stand here before you. Today, we will remember the past, honor the present, and dream about the future of our amazing organization.
It begins with a headline:
“Ijs op de Schelde!”
(Ice on the Schelde – the river which runs through Antwerp)
The article which follows illustrates a relentless winter storm which has descended upon our city.
“There is a lot of ice floating in the river. There is a lot of ice in the docks. The barges are frozen in the ice and the hungry seagulls are flying around to find some food.
It was said yesterday that it was the coldest day of winter, but what do we say now?
Most years in mid-February, we can gradually start thinking about softer, warmer days. But for the past three days the thermometer has fallen in the night to 16-18 degrees below zero. The traffic in the city itself is a bit of a mess, but since the cleaning service performs miracles of rapid removal of ice and snow, it still works.
But in the suburbs? Disaster! The trams are packed because the train traffic is disrupted. Because of the snail’s pace of the trams through ice and snow, the traffic towards the metropolis is not accelerated, but on the contrary!
30 ships are frozen in the Baltic Sea. The 30 ships (English, Swedish, Norwegian, Estonian and Polish) signal for help. Aircraft deliver their food.”
– Historical Archief, Gazet Van Antwerpen February 13 & 14, 1929. (Google Translated)
On that miserable, snowy day, February 14, 1929, the American Women’s Club of Antwerp held their first meeting. Despite the freezing temperatures outside, forty women braved the elements and gathered to lay the foundation of what we are still celebrating today. They established their ideals – providing a place for women to share common interests, broaden outlooks, extend knowledge, and provide community service.
A friend once told me, “Dahling. . . sometimes you think you have what you need until you’re forced out of your comfort zone. And then you’ll see. Outside of Everything-You-Know? Everything-You-Think-You-Want. Everything-Is-A-Predictable-And-Perfect-Life? Well. . . that’s where the magic happens.”
I imagine those forty women second-guessing themselves. Each of them repeatedly going beyond their comfort zone. Comfort being their home city or state in America. Comfort being their family and friends they left behind. Comfort being their language and their culture on the other side of the ocean. Comfort being their living rooms on that icy day in February 1929. But they persevered. Would not be deterred. And today, we celebrate the magic they created by being courageous. As we all know, courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.
Today, as a club and individuals, we take the ideas of Mrs. Henry H. Halstead, our founding President, and challenge ourselves to move beyond our comfort zones. Comfort again, being defined in many ways, each unique to ourselves. With courage and conviction and a sense of togetherness, I see the Club growing each day – with hearts full of purpose and connecting with each other, our community, and beyond our borders.
Thank you for being here today. And thank you to the amazing women who made this day happen – women of the past, women of the present, and the women of the future. May you always persevere and feel the magic.