Reflections from the Swamp
Richard van Duyvendyk

Dear Reader

Springtime brings everything back into life. The Sun rises earlier, warming the earth, and setting the life forces on a fast track towards rebirth. The birds and frogs in particular, show no discretion in their amorous calls and mating gymnastics. Unlike humans, there are no inflationary costs associated with building materials for homes and nests. Twigs, mud, and fine grasses are as plentiful as they were last year. Home Depot hasn’t controlled the price of housing and every bird is a homeowner. Birds all have their carpentry papers and can build a nest like the fine crafters they are. The early Robin gets the worm, especially after the ample rains that showered the landscape. These spring times were created for love.

This spring feverish eruption of love is the moment from which this story unfolds. Many first loves amongst us occurred in spring. Maybe it’s because we could shed the layers of parkas and sweaters and reveal who we really were. Few if any of us forget our first loves, the thoughts and feelings are just too powerful. It’s as if we are all filled with Love Potion Number 9 and can’t help kissing a cop on 44th and Vine on the way to work. Most of these highly charged loves don’t last for long, and our hearts end up being broken. Regardless of the anguish caused by lost love, we become believers and will try again because we know how great it feels to be in love. Once you’ve experienced first love, your perception of the world changes into a brighter more vibrant space.

Betty

My first, knock your socks off first love was with Betty. Although this happened over 50 years ago, the memory is still clear and alive. The more philosophical of us grade seven and eight boys would have heated discussions about the attributes of Betty and Veronica from the comics.

In my class of thirteen or fourteen kids, perched on the edge of the foothills in Calgary, overlooking the mountains from our classroom window in the west, there was no debate. We had our own Betty and in our class Betty was it. No girl on the planet was as beautiful as Betty. Having Betty acknowledge her undying love for you was like finding the Holy Grail, the Lost city of Gold, and the Ark of the Covenant all rolled into one. No, it was better than that.

One of the quirks of human development often finds girls a few years more mature physically and mentally than boys.  It was during these years of my education in grade seven and eight that the Spirit of Betty walked among us lowly mortals. Like the gospel writers, I’m recalling these events fifty years after the fact, and some of the love expressed may be more apocryphal or at least influenced by a perspective seen by a 13 year old boy.

Betty blossomed early, like the first prairie crocuses, even compared to other girls in her class. In grade 6 she was already genetically endowed and looked much older than her eleven years. This blossoming continued into grade seven and eight until she reached the perfect proportions of the goddess Venus. Her blue eyes and blond hair just added more to her beauty. She was also one of the brightest ones in the class; in English she could spin straw into gold. She got straight A’s on her report card.

While walking with a few guy friends around the field during lunch break, an emissary of Betty’s delivered the message that Betty liked me. Protocols dictated that I should respond to the message and thereby seal the relationship. I feared “Fake news” and like the Virgin Mary, I pondered these things in my heart until a new messenger arrived with the same message. I acknowledged that I liked her too and the news flew around the school like a murder of crows. Like many who find each other on online dating sites, I was going steady without ever having discussed the arrangements with Betty. I depended on social first hand media to find out what was going on.

Shortly after finding out that I was going out with Betty, some little understood chemical changes must have occurred. My head had no room for any thoughts that weren’t directly related to Betty. Once I was sitting in math class, totally lost in love when my teacher noticed that I wasn’t paying attention. He fired off a math question to me several times before I realized that he was speaking to me. My response was something like,” Gee I don’t know, I’m in love and really don’t care about math anymore.” The class burst into fits of laughter. For the next two years I was often called “Lover Boy” by friends and teachers alike. It was only by moving out east that I lost my nickname. For any young readers in love, I don’t recommend responses such as mine to math questions. Just say, ’I don’t know’ and return to your love struck thoughts discretely.

Betty had a girlfriend named Hetty who had a boyfriend who was in grade nine from another school. The four of us started going on double dates on Saturday afternoons and had a great time. I related much better to Betty when she wasn’t surrounded by her gaggle of friends at school. The four of us went roller skating, to movies, to church, swimming at the local pool and for walks.

Inevitably the emissaries returned with the message that I was no longer going out with Betty. Betty had moved on; I think she started going out with Hetty’s boyfriend but I’m not sure about that. I think his name was Judas Iscariot but I could be relying more on emotions than on facts. There were no legal grounds of appeal. I was quite devastated. I even thought of riding my bike down Suicide Hill. After a few weeks I found it easier to talk to Betty than I did when we were going out. We returned to the familiarity two young people have when they have been in the same class for a long time.

I moved to Ottawa with my family when I was 14years old. A year later I got a phone call from Betty in August of 1969. She was on her way with a boyfriend to Woodstock, for that most famous of all concerts in the muddy fields of Yasgur’s farm. She asked if I wanted to come. I still lived in the world where you had to ask your mom permission for things like cookies, if your friend could sleep over or if you could hitchhike to the USA, and go to the rock concert of the century! I knew mom would have reservations and kibosh any idea of going so I didn’t even ask. Man I wished I could have just blown the Popsicle Stand and gone! Compared to Betty, I felt about three years old. It would be another two years before I packed up my bags and hitched hiked in Europe.

Like many girls who blossomed early, Betty’s life got complicated with older boys who were drawn to her by her beauty. She got married early at 16, divorced, and lived as a single mother before marrying again a few years later. Life was difficult for a number of years; however she matured and quickly grew up to face the challenges that she had to meet.

When I see young lovers today, I always smile. Hopefully their first loves will give them the experience of joy that will keep them searching for love and meaning in their lives. First love can be so sweet that you’ll always carry the experiences in your heart. Your first love creates an energy that makes you want to start truly living your life to the fullest.