Dutch Neighbours

by Wendy Everitt from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta

Newcomers and neighbourhoods are always changing. I remember the houses on our street in Edmonton in 1954. Some were brown stucco bungalows with charming entrances that gave a visitor shelter. Some had sun rooms in the front, small square panes of glass looking out to the street. Others were three stories tall with mysterious looking windows in the attic rooms. Ours was a war-time house. They were built in response to the shortage of housing for veterans who had returned from World War II.  
It was a simple, solid, white clapboard house with bedrooms upstairs, a front lawn that led to a boulevard, lined with great protective elm trees. In those days, when I was about five, it seemed as if children played outside all day long.  

Although I didn’t know the world had changed, I could see that our street was changing. There was a surge of new people moving into basement suites, upstairs apartments, and spare rooms. Families were arriving from the Netherlands, and for us, it was wonderful because there were so many new children to play with. 

The Dutch kids didn’t speak English, so initially we experienced the graceful dance of smiling, nodding, and curiously staring at a sweater or shoes that were different. A girl named Heddy was my age, and she laughed hysterically when my brother made silly faces. She ran to get her sisters; then motioned to my brother to do it again. He was pleased to have such simple silliness be so entertaining. 

Before long we were showing them our best climbing tree, or where we might find a discarded pop bottle that could be taken to the corner store and exchanged for candy. They would point at things, then motion for us to say the English word and then they would repeat it: . . tree . . . tree. . . grass. . grass. . . window. . . window. We too, would get them to say Dutch words that we could repeat; not one of which I can remember today.

My dad was a harsh man. His voice was loud. There was also a great sadness about him that of course, I didn’t understand at that time. I remember telling him about our new friends. He said he had been to Holland and told us we were to be good to those children. Once I overheard my parents talking. My mum said, “You should see the garden. . . the fences are covered with peas and beans. Every inch of soil in the back is planted . . . Potatoes to the very edge of the alley.” In a low voice, my dad said.. . “they know hunger.” . . . and then the mysterious chasm of silence. 
One day, Heddy’s mum said I could join them for lunch. I was delighted. We went to the back door of the house across the street, and as we stepped inside – the melting aroma of freshly baked bread drifted up to meet us. The stairs creaked as we descended to the suite in the basement. Their home was two rooms – a tiny kitchen with white and yellow cupboards, a glistening linoleum floor, and crisp yellow curtains separating the kitchen from the bedroom. The small table was set with a sparkling white table cloth and everyone squeezed a little closer to make room for me. I imagine we all felt shy that day.  
Heddy’s family bowed their heads, and in their language, said a gentle murmuring grace. Her mum got up and brought food to the table. Fresh, warm, white, home-made bread; soft butter; sliced hard boiled eggs; a plate of Edam cheese; and a bowl of chocolate sprinkles. I watched the others put together a sandwich and I followed. I had never tasted home-made bread. I had never seen white cheese and I was astounded that people would be so brilliant to think of adding chocolate sprinkles to a sandwich!! . I think they were surprised at the look on my face of pure pleasure. It tasted heavenly. Like the day my brother made them laugh, Heddy’s family leaned back in their chairs and laughed out loud at how their lunch had so pleased a little girl. 

That winter, Heddy’s family moved to a house in St. Albert. For over 40 years, on hot summer nights, my mum would sit on her front steps and watch the world go by. One night we sat together and she asked me if I remembered the Dutch families. I thought about how it is children, who reach out innocently; and in peace, touch the familiar and the strange; the old world and the new.

My mum remembered their garden. I remembered chocolate sprinkles.