Queen of spades

Kids! Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday.

To celebrate this day, I would like to share with you a memory I keep close.

(As re-imagined as my grade-two self.)

I am seven.

My mother isn’t home very much.  We live in Vancouver but she works in Ottawa from Sunday until Friday.  She’s writing a very long decision that will make sure that all Canadian women are ensured equal pay for equal work.  I think the whole thing started with a nurse who made a complaint, but I can never be sure because I’m still suspicious about why someone would need to write a decision. 

They are usually things you just “make.” 

Then I get sick.  Like really sick.  I burn so hot that when I take a bath the water feels like it comes from an iceberg.  Sometimes I imagine I am mutating.  After I shed all of my blistered skin, I’ll emerge taller, sleeker.  I’ll be a superhero, more powerful than ever.

I can’t eat very much and when I do I throw up.   

When my mother tells me that she’s taking a week off to look after me, I nearly jump off the bed with excitement.  

I spend the week wrapped in blankets and fleece, flushed and feverish, my mother sitting next to me.  I wear and wash my favourite pajamas every morning so I don’t have to wear something new.  It is a long dress and it is light blue, with a sleepy but stern looking owl printed on its front. 

It is my favourite.

In between my ice bathes and simple mouthfuls of vegetable broth, we take turns reading aloud from The Secret Garden. 

My mother doesn’t ever do voices when she reads, but her tone is soothing. 



I want to run away to the North of England.  I want to skip rope amid the twists and turns of a sprawling manor estate, fall in love with gentle Yorkshire boys who can tend to the earth and talk to animals, and eat hot, crunchy biscuits smothered in butter and jam.

I want to be friends with Miss Mary, learn to plant seeds, feel fresh earth between my fingers, and chirp at cheeky robins that flit and flutter under a low-hanging sky.

But mostly I want to find a garden of my own.  I want to discover a place that has been shut up and forgotten and reawaken the magic, magnificence, mayhem and majesty that once flourished there.

A place where I will be safe and strong and smart and stupefying in my splendour.

A place where I can be free.

Growing up my little sister and I spent every conceivable minute playing outside.  And when we weren’t outside, we were building forts in our basement. Our overactive, bizarre and totally bonkers imaginations ensured that we were never bored and never without a storyline to pursue.

And yet, despite the number of times I played in our garden, or the front yard, or at the park, or in the school yard, or the overgrown alleyway, I never truly felt how I had hoped to feel, when reading about Mary Collins’ adventures in her secret place.

Now, as a bizarre, slightly bonkers adult, I still search for that feeling, this tangible moment of discovery and awe.

Last summer I had the chance to visit a garden where I had, for an all too brief a time, that moment.

It was a place of magic and mayhem.

(But the good mayhem, not “the Bay is being looted and my car is on fire.”)

It was a place of discovery and awe, governed by a beauty tied to a nature no one believes in anymore and the stories of the all too few that do.

Dreaming of a garden for you today (and tomorrow) momma!

Happy natal day to you.

Published by

Vanessa Woznow

Writer, runner, ranter, reader. I write about all things.

22 thoughts on “Queen of spades”

  1. Congratulations, Ethel’s Mum, on raising someone who has turned out to be such a crazy and inspiring (and funny!) adult! And you, Ethel, well dun dear heart on this memory piece. Loved the bit about your seven-year-old self being suspicious of the concept of ‘writing’ a decision (I assume your Mum worked in the legal system in some capacity?), and the all too memorable details of being horribly ill as a child. Do you remember how time almost stopped when you were seriously feverish? I remember the seconds slowing down with an awful dragging feeling – a physical sensation as if the world, the air, hardened around me and the space between tick and tock of the second hand on the clock in my parents’ bedroom (where I was never allowed unless I was Really Ill, when I got ceremonially tucked up in the centre of big high double bed that smelt of wintergreen) stretched out in nightmarish tension.
    Or maybe that’s just me! Sheesh, I really hope so.
    On a brighter note, gorgeous pics of that garden – where is it? My own fave rave in the secret garden stakes is Cragside Gardens in Northumberland. So. Awesome. Go there if you EVER get the chance.

    1. I think a lot of it had to do with her being all of those things – talk about a great role model growing up. I am so much of who I am today (especially the fearless feminist) because of my momma. She was a lawyer, arbitrator and mediator and believe you me, she’ll get ‘er done!

      Yowza, that description is incredible (not to mention incredibly bang-on!) Especially during the night when you couldn’t quite fall asleep because you couldn’t breathe properly, or were so thirsty but didn’t have the energy to make it to the bathroom to get a drink of water. Urg, the absolute worst feeling ever!

      The garden is just north of seattle, in Washington state. One of M’s professor/mentor’s owns the land and invited us out for the weekend late last August. What an amazing time!

      I MUST make it to our your way. Did I tell you that a good friend of mine is now teaching at the Uni of Newcastle? Just another reason to get my arse out the door and over to Northern England!

  2. Please, if you ever make it to New Jersey, visit Grounds For Sculpture. It is a huge sculpture garden with three dimensional original art as well as giant sculptures based on famous works of art (notably Monet’s and Manet’s work). It is absolutely incredible. There are dozens of doors and one is encouraged to try all of them. If they open; one is invited to explore a new grove or check out hidden works of art.

    1. That sounds amazing! I would love to visit that place. Okay, between the cider you previously mentioned and this garden, New Jersey is steadily rising in my favour (not that I held it in disfavour before. Let’s just say it was a non-issue-vour.)

      1. It happens to be about 45 minutes from Philadelphia and around an hour and a half from New York City (maybe less, that’s how long it takes the train to get to NYC from the station in Hamilton, NJ which also features some sculptures from the nearby Grounds For Sculpture) so if you ever travel to those metropoli you’d be close. It is definitely worth the visit. If I were a better photographer (I am absolutely awful) I would take some pics and do a post about it.

      2. This is some of the stuff by J. Seward Johnson (obviously this doesn’t fully capture the three dimensionality of the work) http://www.groundsforsculpture.org/c_jjohn.htm and I would hazard to guess you’ve seen his work before (he has sculptures in Vancouver according to the link). My favourite of his is the Copyright Violation which is pictured on the site but another personal favourite of mine is a giant grotesque tooth that sits near the Hamilton Station. It was originally commissioned by the American Dental Association for their headquarters and upon its presentation the deemed it so ugly that they refused to pay him or display it. Win.

        1. What an enchanting place! I would love to visit it so very much. I am curious to see the tooth, but oh man, rotten tooth creep the absolute bejesus out of me. It may just cripple me.

  3. This is beautiful! Your mama sounds like a truly amazing lady. Wishing her a very happy birthday.

    The photos of your garden are stunning, I could see why those feelings of pure inspiration and exploration were awakened in your.

    Lovely post, amiga! Love getting to glimpse your heart and mind. Hugs!

    1. Thank you love! I will be sure to pass along your lovely wishes :)

      E-mail me when you have a pretty good of your itinerary for August and we can set up brunch/coffee/what have you! Really looking forward to it!

  4. Happy Birthday, mom!

    I used to spend every weekend at my grandparent’s house, and every Saturday night my nanna would read The Secret Garden aloud to me. It’s the reason that I still call daffodils daffo-down-dillies. And, have you seen the movie? There are several, but the one directed by Agnieszka Holland, with Maggie Smith, has the BEST representation of the secret garden I’ve ever seen. I’ve watched it every spring for the past 12 years (God, has it been that long???) and it never ceases to take my breath away. Check it out!

    1. I love that movie! I remember seeing it in theatre with my mom, the same year we read the book! I remember hating Maggie Smith, and so loving the young actress who played Martha. It truly is a fantastic adaptation. The cinematography alone is spectacular.

      Daffo-down-dilles always brings a huge smile to my face.

      Thank you for such a lovely comment Ms. Laura!

      1. I’m super jealous, as i never saw it in the theater, for some reason. But I’m with you, I adored Martha, and had a magnificent crush on Dickon…I think he may have been the first in a long line of crushes I’ve had on literary characters. I’m such a nerd.
        And, p.s., I went babysitting Saturday night, and pulled out The Secret Garden to read after the kids went to bed, just because of this blog post and conversation. :)
        Happy week!

        1. Dickon was a total fox! Totally NOT a nerd, you are exceptionally cool (at least in my books!)

          That’s so lovely! I can totally picture you curled up reading, as the house grew quiet. Ahhh, nothing better.

          You too toots – have a great week!

  5. When were were still young enough to be read to, but too old to be read picture books to, mom would take us into her bed at night and read us a chapter – or if we begged reeeeally hard *sometimes* two – out of a chaptered children’s book. Secret Garden was one of the first ones I remember her reading, and it absolutely enchanted me. I’d had a sampling of very simple fairy stories, of course, but until she started reading me that sort of book, I didn’t know stories could be like *that*. I believe The Secret Garden was what started me on my lifelong love – or really addiction – for books. I constantly search for new and unread stories that touch me like Secret Garden did, and I thrill whenever I find a new one – on the other hand, I also constantly go back to FHB to reread her, again and again, because her stories really are definitively timeless.

    1. What a fabulous story! Thank you so much for sharing this.

      I know this feeling so very well. It’s pretty darn magical when a work of literature can touch so many people in such unique and positive ways.

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