Firecracker Day!

Today is Victoria Day in Canada, otherwise known to one and all as Firecracker Day. The post below was first published a year ago, in May 2020.

The twenty-fourth of May is the King’s birthday,

If you don’t give us a holiday, we’ll all run away…

Those were the opening lines of a schoolyard rhyme we kids would sing joyously as the long holiday-weekend drew near.

…We’ll break all the rules and tear down the schools,

And call all the teachers silly old fools!

The King, of course, was George VI—by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith.  His picture adorned the walls of every classroom, and every morning my classmates and I joined voices in mostly off-key renditions of God Save the King, the Canadian national anthem way back then.

For some years, we also recited a pledge of allegiance to the Union Flag, known to us as the Union Jack, then still the flag of Canada—I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the empire for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  Or something like that.

None of us really knew the significance of any of it, of course—the King, the anthem, or the flag.  But we dutifully manifested our loyalty and obeisance, proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Strangely enough, although we didn’t know it, the twenty-fourth of May wasn’t really the King’s birthday at all.  Rather, it was the day named to honour the birthday of his auspicious great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, born 24 May 1819, who reigned for more than sixty-three years (a record currently being extended by her great-great-granddaughter, King George’s daughter, Elizabeth II).  As such, it was known officially as Victoria Day.

Adding to the strangeness, the need to ensure a holiday-Monday in years when the twenty-fourth of the month fell on another day of the week meant that we often celebrated the occasion on a different date, usually the Monday preceding the actual twenty-fourth.

To us kids, however, none of that mattered.  For us, it was always just Firecracker Day!

Because we could hardly wait for darkness to descend on the big day, that Monday would seem like the longest day of the year.  In my neighbourhood, five or six families would pool what were often meagre resources to purchase a package of fireworks.  We’d gather in someone’s backyard, the kids and mothers safely removed from the launch area, the fathers bustling about as if they knew what they were doing.

The fireworks were nothing like the fantastical pyrotechnic displays we have become used to over the past few years, of course.  These were much more modest.  The usual format would see a few low-rising pinwheels set off at the beginning, some in vivid colours that drew oohs! and aahs! from everyone assembled, our faces craned skyward.  They made sounds like phoomph! and peeshhh! as their glowing embers drifted up and up, and then inevitably down as they died.

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The second group included firecrackers shooting higher into the night sky, exploding with more force and noise—takatakatakataka! and bang-bang-bang!  Blossoms and plumes, the white ones so bright they would make us squint, would rain down, miraculously extinguished before they ever reached the ground.  I can still hear the squeals and shouts of delight and awe from everyone, and see their faces lit up by excitement—even the fathers, normally so macho and reserved.

The last batch would be the ones we all had been waiting for, the boomers and cannons that seemed to climb impossibly high before exploding in huge, fiery blooms and streamers.  Ka-whumph!  Ka-ba-blammm!  Boom-boom-boom!  Even when we knew what was coming, we’d be startled by each successive percussion, plugging our ears, almost feeling the sound pounding physically into us.

The very best one was always saved ‘til the end, and one of the fathers would make sure that everyone knew this was it.  It felt like no one was breathing as he bent over, ignition stick in hand, touched the fuse, then leapt back out of the way.

Whooooshshsh!  The powerful rocket would burst from the ground, trailing fire and smoke, the mightiest of any we had seen.  The plume from its tail would flame out, we’d wait, we’d wait…and then KABOOM-KABOOM-KABOOM!  The multi-coloured contrails would zoom higher and higher, arching and spreading wider than any before, like a tablecloth being floated high overhead, before settling down upon us.

Most of the time, as I recall, we were struck dumb by the spectacle.

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At the end of the evening, every kid would get a sparkler, a long wand with which, once it was ignited, we could write our names in fiery letters in the dark (those of us who could write, anyway).  And then the night was over, a night that always seemed incredibly short after such a long day of waiting.

It’s been sixty years and more since last I was part of such a celebration, and I won’t be out in anyone’s backyard on Firecracker Day this year, either.  But I’ll almost surely enjoy a quaff or two, and will probably raise a toast to the Crown.

For old time’s sake, I may even sing a chorus of God Save the King.

But quietly, for those days of my youth are gone forever.

Pooh and I

Way, way back, at the earliest, foggy frontiers of my memories—at about the age of four—I received a storybook from my spinster aunt.  Entitled Winnie-the-Pooh, it was my introduction to literature, and to the wonderful world of reading.

I couldn’t read the stories myself, of course, not then, but I spent countless happy hours listening to my aunt read them to me, cozy on the couch in front of the warming fire.  That book was soon followed by its sequel, The House at Pooh Corner, which I also loved, and later on by two others by the same author, A. A. Milne.

To this day, I can remember my aunt’s husky voice speaking for the various characters, can hear her uninhibited laughter at the situations they found themselves in, can feel her warm breath on my cheek as we avidly devoured the pages.  Given her happiness during those times we spent together, it would have been impossible for me to grow up not loving the joys of reading.

Among my favourite recollections of those books, beyond the stories themselves, were the illustrations—pen-and-ink drawings lovingly composed by E. H. Shepard.  In my mind’s eye,  I see many of them still, though I have not cracked the covers of those books in more than seventy years.

It occurred to me recently that many of the values and attitudes that I grew up with, and have clarified and refined during adulthood, were first suggested by Pooh and his friends.  For example, understanding others’ points of view, and being tolerant of differing opinions, have always been important attributes to which I have aspired.  And I have always believed patience is a virtue, even if I was not always able to adhere.  To that end, these statements still ring true

When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.

A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.

What’s wrong with knowing what you know now and not knowing what you don’t know until later?

Pooh and his friend Christopher Robin seemed always on the cusp of an adventure, something that appealed to me as a child, and something that continues to motivate me into old age.  A partial list of chapter headings from the first book clearly illustrates their spirit—

In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets into a Tight Place,

In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle,

In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump, and

In Which Christopher Robin Leads an Expotition to the North Pole.

The adventurous spirit of these boon companions can also be seen in these statements—

You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.

Before beginning a Hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it.

They’re funny things, Accidents. You never have them till you’re having them.

If the string breaks, then we try another piece of string.

If it’s not Here, that means it’s out There.

Rivers know this: There is no hurry. We shall get there some day.

I particularly love that last one.

Perhaps the two greatest attributes I absorbed from these stories, the ones that underlie all the others, are the gift of friendship, and the joy of love for one another

It’s so much more friendly with two.

It isn’t much good having anything exciting, if you can’t share it with somebody.

I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long.  If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.

If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart; I’ll stay there forever.

Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.

Some people care too much.  I think it’s called love.

Love is taking a few steps backward, maybe even more, to give way to the happiness of the person you love.

How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

I cherish that final thought, even while acknowledging I have never had to say goodbye to Winnie the Pooh.

There is one picture I love more than any other from the book, however, a picture of Christopher Robin and Pooh coming down the stairs together, and I can still hear my aunt’s hearty laughter upon reading the accompanying plea from Pooh-— 

If possible, try to find a way to come downstairs that doesn’t involve going bump, bump, bump on the back of your head. 

Winnie the Pooh was my first and abiding friend.

Whose Truth Will Survive?

It has been stated countless times, including here in this blog, that history is written by the victors.  Whatever any of us knows of the past has been determined by what we’ve been taught by our parents, teachers, and elders.  And they have simply passed down to us their own understandings, their own truths, based on what they, too, were taught.

In short, what we think we know to be true about our society has been filtered through many lenses—cultural, racial, gender, socio-economic, and political.

There have been attempts at presenting alternative-history scenarios, fictional representations of what might have been, ‘if only…’.  Harry Turtledove, for instance, has written books about what happened after the South won the U.S. Civil War, and after Germany won WW II.  H. G. Wells wrote about an alien invasion of the planet, The War of the Worlds, which, when adapted by Orson Welles for radio in 1938, caused near-panic among the populace.  In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth described events after Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated in the 1940 U. S. presidential election by Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh.  And Margaret Atwood devastatingly described the misogynistic society of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, about subjugated women in a patriarchal society.

These alternative histories are fiction, of course, although all too real in their telling.  But across the millennia, there actually have been innumerable alternate realities experienced by people of the time—realities which, although true, were never recorded and passed down the generations because they were on the losing side. 

For example, I was taught, as perhaps you were, that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492; in truth, what he did was discover it for the white, colonial, commercial powers of Europe.  The Americas had actually been discovered eons earlier, maybe 33,000 years ago, by Asian nomads who crossed what was then a land bridge where the Bering Straits exist today.  I was never taught about those people and their descendants, nor about that version of history, true though it is.

I grew up with an implicit understanding that the great figures of the past were men, not women—white-complexioned, European men who stood fast against the barbarian hordes, mostly people of different colour and religion, who were intent on assailing the established order.  It remained for the adult me to learn about such people as Gandhi, Mandela, MLK, Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Tommy Douglas, Gloria Steinem, Cesar Chavez, Germaine Greer, Nadia Murad, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and others too numerous to list who have fought for equity for all.

Growing up in the 1950s, I was taught that communism was the great evil of our time—the relentless enemy of capitalism, the system I was taught to believe would raise us all to a marvellous standard of living.  Today, for many of us, that has proven to be true; but what of those for whom it has not?  What will be written of their history, if anything is written at all? 

I would never proclaim myself a communist—the whole ideology has become irredeemably politicized and villainized.  But I confess an affinity for a socialist-democracy, where every citizen is considered worthy of support and respect, over what has become a capitalist-democracy, where the very few prosper, a larger number just get by, and the majority contend with poverty.  For those whose motto might be I’m alright, Jack, such a status quo might be fine.  But any society, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link.

I wonder, too, about the history my great-grandchildren (and their children) will learn, beginning perhaps thirty years from now, about the times we are presently living in.  Will it be a history of the life I am living?  Will it be a history of the lives led by the homeless in our cities?  Will it be a history of ethnic minorities who are being subjected right now to genocidal actions by oppressors?  Will it be a history of the demise of democracy in favour of authoritarianism?  Whose truth will survive?

More existentially, I wonder about the future of the planet itself, and whether our depredations will allow it to sustain human life as we have known it over the past hundred years.  I saw two pictures recently, taken from the same location one hundred years apart, that drove home the point very viscerally. 

Just as our human species has evolved (for better or worse) over the span of our history—and continues to evolve—so too does the planet continue to change.  And not necessarily for the better.  Are such evolutionary changes inevitable, beyond our ability to control, dooming our descendants to a dismal future?  Or is it within our capabilities and purview to act now to preserve a habitable planet for them?

Most of us govern ourselves by the values and truths we have come to accept, based on our accumulated experiences, which for the most part is conducive to social order.  But danger arises when we close our minds to the values and truths espoused by others, without trying at least to understand them.  At such times, we need to de-centre from our own perceptions of things, and try to see the world as those others see it, based on their experiences.

We need not necessarily accept those alternative views, but by understanding their genesis, we can contribute to a more harmonious existence.

And then, with any luck, we can acknowledge our differences, while at the same time recognizing the perils we face collectively.  That is how we shall survive.

And that is how there will be a history to pass along to those who will come after us.  Whatever the truth will be.

Remembering My Mother

They were fifty-six years apart, the first poem I wrote for my mother and the final one.  I read them both aloud to her, the first as a second-grader when she was thirty-five, the last on her ninety-first birthday.

The first was entitled simply Mother’s Day, and it went like this—

Mother’s Day comes in May,

So here’s a card to make you gay.

I imagine, but cannot remember for sure, that I read it word-by-word—as. early. readers. do.   I like to think—but do not truly remember—that she praised me fulsomely when I presented it to her, and hugged me tightly.  Perhaps it was even taped to the refrigerator door for a time.  That thought pleases me.

For the second one, however, I know I delivered the reading with all the emotion and sentiment she deserved, and again with all the love I felt.  She was more subdued this time, listening carefully and nodding as I read, her glistening eyes fixed on a distant past only she could see.  Her smile when I finished was enough.

The second one was titled My Tree—

For ninety years and more, my tree has spread her boughs across my yard,

Festooned with leaves providing shade, standing tall and proud, on guard.

When I was young, and climbed up high into my tree, carefree and fleet,

Her branches hugged me safe and close, held fast my hands, secured my feet.

As I grew braver, I would stray beyond the fence that kept me in.

But at day’s end, I’d rush back home to settle ‘neath my tree again.

Her boughs would gently bend and blow about my head, and whisper soft,

And tell me of the wide world they had seen from high aloft.

Sometimes she’d bend, tossed by storms that raged around us, blowing fierce,

Yet, ne’er a storm could match her strength, nor past her loving shelter  pierce.

Then, all too quickly, I was gone to seek a new yard, far away.

Yet always I’d return to hug my tree, and feel her gentle sway.

Too big by then to climb once more her branches, high o’erhead,

I still found comfort there, among the fallen leaves my tree had shed.

Past ninety years, yet still she stands, her canopy now drooping low,

Creaking, bending, in the winds that shake her branches, to and fro.

As spring and summer fast have fled, and fall has turned her leaves to gold,

My tree displays a majesty that can be neither bought, nor sold.

And I’ll remember all my days her love, like ripples in a pond,

Because I’m sheltered now by younger trees—the seeds she spawned.

For ninety years and more, my tree has spread her loving boughs each day

Above my head, to nurture me, and gently send me on my way.

My mother has been gone for several years, and as I creep inexorably closer to her venerable age, I scarcely believe the passage of time.  It has been said that a boy’s best friend is his mother, and even now, that adage rings true.  She will be with me ‘til the day I die.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mum!