Reflections from the Swamp
This is a true story, although many of the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Some names may have been changed because I’ve forgotten them. At least I didn’t forget the story. The story is a bit cheesy, but that can’t be helped.
In the early days of immigration from Holland to Canada, church bazaars were a common occurrence. Money had to be raised to build a church or start a Christian school. It was mostly women who baked or made doilies, woollen socks, or mittens. Men like Hans Holfleur always brought a load of cow manure in a trailer; everyone had a huge garden, and manure was always sought after.
Dutch backyards usually had more aroma than most others. We all spread manure on the garden in the spring. It’s an acquired taste. Better keep your shoes on. Used toys were popular with the kids at the bazaar. I was looking for a cowboy hat that would match my imagination of gunfights and rounding up cattle. The Lone Ranger needed my help.
McMillan & Chavis (1986) define a sense of community as “a feeling that members have of belonging, and a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group. A community has a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to being together.” This is the kind of community that I lived in as a youth in an immigrant family.
I don’t remember if I found a cowboy hat or not. Still, I do remember the bazaar with the wheel of Gouda Komijnekaas. There were farmers such as the Volker’s that made wheels of cheese. We’d buy a half-wheel-cheese every month, which was used to make sandwiches for lunch. My mother sliced the cheese so thin that you could read the Calgary Herald newspaper through it. Baloney and cheese on white bread were ever-present in my lunch pail. A few friends ate Velveeta cheese on their bread. My mother said Velveeta was made from the leftovers at the oil refinery. I believed her; we ate the real thing. The Volker’s had a string of the most beautiful girls in the community, maybe the world. What could be better than a beautiful girl who knew how to make wheels of cheese? I was in love with all of them. I meet a few of them on the 50th anniversary of our old school. Something happened to those beautiful girls that changed them into a bunch of old grey-haired grannies but, that is another story. I think they may have thought I’d lost my sex appeal too, but I’m not sure about that. I never asked. I didn’t dare ask.
At the bazaar, Abraham Kuiper brought in a wheel of cheese. He donated a genuine wheel of Gouda cheese with cumin and caraway seeds floating all through it. A real Komijnekaas from Gouda! Back then, it must have been worth at least $20.00. After auctioning some of the socks and mittens, speculaas, boterkooks and home-baked goods, Phil Vanderveen, the auctioneer, held up the Komijnekaas as if it was the Holy Grail.
A hush fell over the crowd as if we had seen an apparition of The Messiah. Phil, with his long beard, looked like Moses holding up the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The rinds of the cheese wheel glistened with wax as an unseen spirit passed over the cheese, illuminating the wheel. The yellow wheel glowed like a full moon at harvest. This was a tribute to the sphere made of cheese that had filled our night sky like a giant Komijnekaas. This was a massive cheese like the moon that guided our ships to the Promised Land. Yes, this was a big deal. Not even a case of pickled herring could compare to a Komijnekaas.
We have seen thee, Queen of the Cheeses! We are unworthy! Only say the word, and we shall be yours! I thought of the 10th commandment. Covet, not your neighbour’s wife, his house, his ass, or his wheel of Komijnekaas. (new-age translation still to be published).
Hamstra opened the bidding at 25 dollars. The biding was feverish as the price jumped to 40, then 50 and finally 75 dollars! Fred Postma came to the front amid a deafening chorus of applause, put down his 75 dollars and returned to his table. Biding for cakes, cookies, and socks resumed. He cut a 1/8 wheel out of the wheel with his jackknife, rewrapped the wheel, and placed it back on the table auctioned once again.
Moments later, Vanderveen again held up the wheel with Van Stratten starting the bidding at $50. The biding for the cheese continued until it wobbled and staggered at $80. Wagenaar walked away with the cheese, sliced off about another 1/8, rewrapped it and put it back on the auction table. Again and again, the altered Komijnekaas was auctioned off. Each time the biding went higher, with bids now surpassing the $100 barrier and steadily moving towards the $200 mark. Back then, you could buy a used car for $200. Wives openly warned their husbands not to go crazy with the biding while husbands pulled down their frenzied wives’ arms to prevent bankruptcy. The quiet, reserved temperament of the Dutch gave way to the mayhem of uncontrolled auction fever. Or did it?
All of the adults were huddled up near the auction table. This left the table full of cookies, cake, and plates of pickled herring near the back of the room unprotected from the mass of kids who collectively broke the eighth commandment, (Thou shalt not steal).
I filled my pockets full of cookies and picked up a bottle of pickled herring and stashed it behind a row of hymnals. It was still there a month later when I remembered placing it there. I didn’t dare take it home because that would really be stealing.
A bunch of us guys were determined to eat the pickled herring before Sunday school started. We didn’t have forks so we just picked out the herring with our fingers, and wiped the juice off on our pants. The herring came in long rolls so we took as big a bite as we could and passed the pieces on. Herring juice got all over our Sunday clothes and on the floor. Johanna Postma saw us and moved in on the leftovers. She stuck her arm in the jar and swished around for smaller pieces. We were late for Sunday school and our teacher knew there was something fishy going on. How our Sunday school teacher knew that we had all eaten a jar of pickled herring I’ll never know. 50 years later I met Johanna at a reunion. I thought I could detect a faint odder of herring on her arm, but I might have imagined that.
Finally, there was only a small sliver of what was once a majestic wheel of Komijnekaas left. The piece of cheese was just big enough to cover a portion of Melba toast. Vanderveen looked at the hushed crowd and said, “Who will start the bidding at $200 for this fine piece of Gouda cheese?” Yolanda van Artevelde raised her hand, giving her husband Tony a look, the look that said, don’t you dare pull my hand down, or you can sleep in the garage. Tony was familiar with that look and kept his place. Hendrika Dykstra put in a bid of $250.
We could hear an audible gulp before Yolanda countered with $275. “That’s good enough,” said Vanderveen, the auctioneer, trying to save his friends from financial ruin. “The biding is over, congratulations to Yolanda; we know she really wanted the last piece of cheese. Thanks to all who have bid on the Komijnekaas. You have made this bazaar our most successful one ever.”
Over a thousand dollars was made on that wheel of cheese at the auction that day. Maybe more than that, perhaps it was closer to $2000. I think of this story whenever I buy a piece of Gouda cheese. Sometimes I remember it when watching a full yellow moon hovering over the marshes. The moon, made of Gouda cheese, is one of my favourite places. No two lovers are ever the same. No two pieces of cheese are ever the same. No cheese has ever been as memorable as the wheel of Komijnekaas at the church bazaar. The strength of the bonds of community experienced by those immigrants as they struggled to find their place in the new world was deep and real. This story defines what community is and what it can be.
I learned firsthand just what community means. A community can be as beautiful as the Volker girls, a full yellow moon, or a Komijnekaas radiating with soft orange light during a church bazaar. This memory has placed a picture in my mind that the cameras missed. Smile and say cheese.