Reflections from the Swamp
Richard van Duyvendyk

Dear Readers

I thought I’d share a letter I wrote to Queen Victoria. I’m not sure she’ll get to read it, so I hope you will. Happy planting this weekend,

Victoria must be out in the garden planting potatoes. She never answers my letters.

Dear Queen Victoria,

Thank you for keeping Canada on the list of places in the Commonwealth that celebrates your birthday. I believe we’re the only place left. Even Britannia abandoned the fold. What a fickle bunch! I want to formally apologize for not getting the garden planted on time this year on behalf of my bride and ourselves. I know you have high expectations and value tradition. It has been unseasonably hot. So we quit gardening around noon and have a siesta.

We recently enjoyed seeing a TV series on your early life as a Queen. In the film series, you were quite the babe. Being just 18 years old and queen of the largest empire in the world must have been a challenge. You were short but every inch a queen. You really did love your cousin Albert had nine kids and influenced choosing Ottawa as the nation’s capital. Take that, you Habs and Leafs fans! Queen Victoria chose Ottawa, and Queen Wilhelmina decorated the city with tulips, quite the pair of queens.

Celebrating a Queen’s birthday was a big deal for my parents. My mother’s birthday was on the same day as Queen Wilhelmina’s in Holland (August 31st). Being one of a dozen kids, her own birthday was often overlooked due to the excitement of dressing up in an orange sash or dancing on the streets with her family and friends. The party was held on ”The Dike” and had music and parades, but no fireworks.

When my parents came to Canada, Victoria Day filled the role of Queen Wilhelmina’s birthday. We had mocha cake and always planted the garden. The whole garden was planted as if there was some sort of blessing associated with getting it done on time.  Victoria Day was changed to the closest Monday to May 24th; this was considered disrespectful by my mother, who continued for years to speak of “the May 24th birthday”. “Who do they think they are? You can’t just change a Queen’s birthday! I suppose they’re going to change Ash Wednesday to a Monday so we can have more long weekends.”

I got a handful of English Victorian pennies from my friend Boomer’s English grandmother. The pennies were still in common usage in Britain during the ’60s and were larger than a toonie. Boomers grandmother had a small hole drilled into the pennies to attach a chain and wear the coin as a necklace on Victoria Day. We have continued the tradition with our kids and grandkids. You can usually find the Victorian pennies in the bin at the coin shop in Almonte for a quarter.

We didn’t grow tomatoes, peppers or corn in our garden. Cold-resistant or quick-growing varieties hadn’t been invented yet. We knew of one man, Mr. Heerima, who grew tomatoes in pots indoors and brought them out when there was no danger of frost. He also had a lemon tree growing in his house. I associated tomatoes with lemon trees and all things tropical. Western and Northern Canadians still pray that they can produce a tomato before the first frosts of fall. Like hockey, trying to grow a ripe tomato is a quest that unites Canadians.

We grew potatoes and ate them almost every day; the potatoes were kept in a massive pile on the cement floor of an unfinished basement in a far corner. I hated getting potatoes from the cellar. The cellar was incredibly dark, with only one light bulb that required you to pull a string to turn it on. I’d have to run into the middle of the basement, flail my arms around to find the string, turn on the light, and then fill a pan with potatoes. The basement was full of all kinds of bogymen determined to kill and eat me in the dark. The spiders always seemed to have a national convention going on in our basement. After getting the potatoes, I’d run up the stairs, narrowly escaping the monsters who were after me. The worst part was being sent back down into the abyss by my mother to turn off the light. I knew the demons were waiting for me. It’s a miracle that I’m alive to tell the story.

We used to be able to buy real firecrackers for Victoria Day. I can still smell the sweet aroma of dynamite smoke wafting through the air. If you were brave enough, you could stick the midsized firecrackers in a hanging wasp’s nest and blow it to kingdom come! The big ones were called “blockbusters,” probably because they could blow up a city block, but we never found those. I think the big ones were reserved for the army or blowing up beaver dams.

The smallest firecrackers were called “ladies fingers” and came in packets of 50 bound with a piece of extra-long fuse. Once, we took apart the ladyfingers pack, put one cracker in each tulip head in Mrs. Vandenaaker’s garden, and attached all the crackers to the long fuse.

We lit the fuse and ran and hid in some bushes and watched in awe as the tulips exploded one at a time. Mrs. Vandenaaker came out after hearing the noise from the first few, watched in shock as her tulips were blown to smithereens, and screamed bloody murder. A scream that could be heard all over the neighbourhood. The news went all over town, but the terrorists went undetected. I heard about it from my parents at mealtime. “Kids nowadays, they have no respect! What kind of families do they come from?” It was hard to hear, but I was too embarrassed to fess up. I’m surprised now that I would do such a thing. I knew and liked Mrs. Vandenaaker. For years I’d feel guilty when I saw her. The firecrackers seemed to want to be destructive and enlisted boys with creative minds to do their bidding. There were many cruel things boys did with firecrackers. I won’t list the things we did here in case a kid reads this story.

As it turned out, the hippy movement arrived just in time to temper my destructive instincts, so I spread peace and love around instead. “Make bagels, not bombs” was the slogan on my favourite tee-shirt. I’ve since eased up on the bagels to fit into my tee shirts, but that’s another story.

Queen Wilhelmina’s birthday (Aug.31st) marked the time to pull most of the garden in before the early Alberta frosts of fall. We could look forward to many meals of kale, sausage, and potatoes called Stompot. Alberta was named after Prince Albert. One queen for spring and the other one for fall bookended my gardening life as a child.

Life itself is a gift full of wonder and miracles. When you find something worth celebrating, whether it is the birthday of a long-deceased monarch or the day your kid learned to ride a bike, you join the celebration of our lives and of those around us. Thanks, Victoria, for giving us the celebration of planting gardens. Most of us Canadians love gardening and will be out in the yard on your birthday. Happy Birthday!