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Life on Woodwynn Farms

Life can weave such intricate, colorful patterns if a person allows time to flow wherever it may go. When my own family bought our first twelve-inch screen television in Park Forest, Illinois, in the mid 1950’s, I remember sitting on the floor mesmerized at the majesty of the ceremonies surrounding Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. For me, it was like a fairy tale, replete with a fairy princess and her Prince Charming. Little did I know that my life would wend its way back to the Royal Family some twenty years later through my former husband and a prominent business lady living on a black Angus farm on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. 

My father worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as it was called then, in downtown Chicago, and he accepted a transfer to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, in 1962 where he would act as Officer-in-Charge of U.S. Customs for the various ferries that connected the Victoria Harbour and Washington State. We moved to Canada, found a place to live in Brentwood Bay and I finished my twelfth-grade year of high school at Claremont Senior Secondary School in Cordova Bay on the Saanich Peninsula. I met my future husband at school and, after I attended one year at the University of Victoria and then two years at Western Washington University in Bellingham, we ended up marrying in Vancouver later in 1966. He attended one year at the University of Victoria and then transferred to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver on the Mainland.

Mrs. Ruth Woodward lived on an estate she called Woodwynn Farms which was located off West Saanich Road near the north end of the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The estate overlooked the sheer beauty of Brentwood Bay on the west side while her property stretched from the boat dock all the way across West Saanich Road through the long valley along Mount Newton X-Road and almost all the way to the village of Saanichton, located around fourteen miles north of Victoria on the east side. A person could drive north along West Saanich Road and see the cherry tree lined drive of Woodwynn Farms wending down to the estate behind the gates on the right and the road leading to the actual farm fields and the barns on the right.

Ruth’s history was quite intriguing because her then deceased husband, William Woodward, had inherited a chain of high-end department stores across Canada called Woodward’s Department Stores from his father, Charles, and,
together, he and Ruth had purchased Woodwynn Farms as a retirement estate. My former husband, David, had known the Woodward family for years because my in-laws lived in an English Tudor home on Bardsey Road, which was just up West Saanich Road a mile and overlooked the Woodwynn Farms Valley. Dave had worked as a farm hand on the ranch during the summers to earn extra income while he was in college earning his Bachelor’s Degree in Commerce at the University of Victoria and then the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, so, when we got married, Mrs. Woodward invited both of us to live in her quaint guest cottage behind the garage/carriage house on the estate while Dave helped out on the farm in the summers. In return, she helped him with his tuition, so he could graduate.

Ruth’s husband, William, had been the 16th Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia between 1941 and 1946 and he had died in February of 1957, leaving her to reside on the farm with her long-time friend and her children’s Nanny, Mrs. Lloyd. Ruth was socially active and had her fingers in many events and organizations on the Island. She had also helped Dave and some of his friends form a car club in high school that they called SPAR which stood for Saanich Peninsula Automotive Renovation, I think it was, to renovate and refurbish old cars for resale, parades and the like. I think I might still have Dave’s SPAR jacket patch in my trunk somewhere. Ruth had a kind heart and was a hard worker who never once took on airs because of her financial status. I found her to be as genuine and real as a person could be.

My story began in May of 1967 when we moved in to the two bedroom, fully furnished guest house next to the Woodwynn Farms estate home, and the guest cottage was surrounded by gorgeous gardens and a rock patio. A few days after we moved in while Dave was working up on the farm across the road for the summer, I answered a knock on the kitchen door and it was Ruth Woodward who asked me if I wanted to join her for afternoon tea in the main house. Even though I was wearing my only patched jeans and a well-worn sweatshirt, I quickly agreed and followed her over to the servant’s entrance on the guest house side of the estate, through the kitchen area, and into the living room where large windows overlooked her gardens that wended down to the waters of Brentwood Bay with the Malahat in the background.

Mrs. Lloyd brought us a tea tray with a floral painted teapot, matching cups and fancy little biscuits. While she poured the hot liquid into the cups, I scanned the room full of elegant furniture and my eyes rested on a large, exquisitely framed photographic portrait of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on the wall to my left. I asked Ruth about the picture and she told me that Elizabeth and Philip were dear friends of hers. I asked her if I may walk over to look at it and she nodded as I rose from the padded chair and approached the gold framed photograph. In the lower left-hand corner of the picture was a signature saying “To William and Ruth. Much love, Elizabeth and Philip.” I knew that everyone on the Island knew who Ruth was and respected her, but I had no idea about her and her deceased husband’s connections to the Royal family. Right there and then, I developed a newly found respect for my tea companion. We sipped our tea and talked of children, ambitions, life’s challenges, and the importance of Dave getting his degree before we finished our tea time and I returned to the cottage to make dinner.

I happened to be pregnant with my son at the time and was due sometime in June; consequently, I had the urge to arrange, sort, clean, and move furniture in the second bedroom in the cottage to make room for the new baby. It was maybe a week after my afternoon tea with Mrs. Woodward when I apparently did too much lifting and bending because I started hemorrhaging, the blood running down my leg onto the wooden floor. Grabbing some baby diapers from the drawer, I stuck them between my legs and hobbled out the back door, across the drive and knocked on the servant’s entrance door. Mrs. Lloyd, or Nanny as she liked to be called, answered the door and, when she realized the gravity of the situation, yelled out for Ruth to come to help me. Ruth came running and hustled me down the hall to a rather large bedroom. She grabbed the fancy comforter, flung it back to reveal monogrammed silk sheets on the bed and told me to climb right in. I hesitated because I did not want to get blood on those beautiful sheets, but she told me never to mind because she could always buy more sheets. Must be nice, I thought to myself as I climbed in.

After she tucked me comfortably in bed, she left the room to call my family physician while Nanny stayed in the bedroom to help. Ruth came back to tell me Doctor Groves would be at the house in a few minutes and she had also called the farm manager’s office to tell Doug about my emergency, so he could pass it on to Dave, but said she and Nanny would handle everything and Dave could keep working. When Dr. Groves arrived (and B.C. Medical doctors did make house calls back in the day), he assessed my situation, told me that it appeared a piece of my placenta had pulled away from the uterine lining and I was hemorrhaging placental blood, so I needed to go to the hospital right away. Before he left, he said he would meet me there after he finished his appointments for the day.

Ruth and Mrs. Lloyd hustled me out to Ruth’s big Buick to drive me to Resthaven Hospital in Sidney with Nanny riding shotgun. Ruth could have purchased a Mercedes or a BMW easily with her wealth, but she loved her Buick and reasoned there was no reason to trade it in. It was May 24th, 1967, and a couple days after the Victoria Days celebration downtown, not that I was thinking about that at the time. Only a few years prior to that day, I had been one of the ten contestants for the title of Miss Victoria and it seemed so far away now. I will never forget that trip to the hospital that day because it started snowing … and it hardly ever snows in that area, especially in May.

Ruth pulled out of her long cherry tree lined drive, turned left on West Saanich Road and then right on to Mount Newton X-Road toward the east side of the peninsula and Sidney. I was huddled in the back seat with towels under me and starting to feel minor contractions, but was thankful for the help. Ruth must have been very nervous about my condition because she ended up turning the wrong way near the Anacortes Ferry terminal and we got lost on a dead-end road. I could hear Nanny chiding her that she had lived on the Island for decades and should know where she was going. As they chatted with each other like long-time friends do while turning on the wind screen wipers and the heat, Ruth kept asking me if I was alright over her shoulder and she seemed engrossed in getting me to the hospital as quickly as possible since her mistaken detour. Feeling very scared and bleeding onto the towels on the seat under me, I remember peering through the windows at the snow falling down and hoped that was not a premonition of what lay ahead.

We finally arrived at the one lane bridge which led out to Resthaven Hospital, an old British Tudor facility that used to be a sanitarium built on an island in the bay in the North Saanich Peninsula. At least, it was an island when the tide was in and a peninsula when the tide was out. Two cars were coming across the wooden bridge, so we had to wait until they cleared before driving the one lane with railings on either side over the water to the hospital. The emergency room was in the basement and both Ruth and Nanny helped me out of the car and into the hospital where a nurse directed me to sit in the wheelchair she held. The registration nurse at the counter started asking me questions and instructed me to sign a bunch of papers, but Ruth pushed the papers back, saying that I was in pain and needed to get upstairs to bed and she would sign everything … which she did. The registration nurse knew who Ruth was and just kept saying “Yes, Mrs. Woodward … Yes, Mrs. Woodward.” I figure somewhere in the archives of the B.C. Medical records lies micro-fish copies of all of those papers for Leila Howe signed by Ruth Wynn Woodward even to this day.

Resthaven Hospital and Sanitarium was founded in 1921 and operated at that location until 1978. It was owned and managed by the Seventh Day Adventist Church and, little did I know they believed in natural childbirth and suffering based on Eve eating that apple because of the sins of the first woman on Earth. If my Lutheran soul had known that, I may have walked out the door and hitched a ride to St. Joseph’s Hospital or the Royal Jubilee Hospital in downtown Victoria instead, but Resthaven was the closest facility and I was bleeding heavily. Seventh Day Adventists used to believe that the woman was not to be helped by pain medications or any bleeding interfered with because whatever happened in the childbirth was God’s will. So, the medical professionals let me bleed for two days before my mother threw a hissy fit in the lobby downstairs, telling the hospital administrator and my doctor that they had damn well better induce my labor because her daughter was bleeding to death. Dr. Groves overrode the hospital stance on the issue, moved me to the operating room immediately, and his gloved finger broke my water. I swear the power of it shot out six feet, smashing against his chest and face as he jumped back to avoid getting wet and that decision started my labor immediately.

While I lay in bed huffing and puffing with every pain, a kind nurse attended to my needs. I think her name was Clara Taylor and I really appreciated her help during those hours. It took twenty hours for the final three contractions to set in before they wheeled me into the delivery room. While I was groaning, grunting, and screaming, I could vaguely hear my husband and my doctor talking calmly about investments and the stock market with Dave yelling at me to take a breath every so often. Truth be known, the contractions are all automatic and I had no control over them, but was too busy and could not talk. Dr. Groves even gave me an episiotomy without any Novocain and I must admit it was easy because the pain of natural childbirth made the cutting feel like a scrape on the skin.

Natural childbirth is doable if the birth goes smoothly, but I would not choose to do it again if I had any say in it. Of course, at my current age, I don’t have to even worry about it anymore. I gave birth naturally to my beautiful son who was healthy although a little small because he had been born at least a month early, and we named him Troy after a celebrity, Troy Donahue, because we thought it was a unique name. I found out later that everyone was naming their sons, Troy, after the same celebrity around that time. I remember Dave buying a dozen red roses for me which the nurse set on the side table next to my bed in the hospital room. When they brought Troy out so I could hold him, he stretched his little neck around to look at those roses. From that day forward, red was his favorite color.

We were released a week later and my mother-in-law gave me her beautiful baby pram from England to walk Troy along the cherry tree lined drive and over to the barns to visit with Dave during the day. I have owned more than a few cars that didn’t have the high-class suspension that the Pram had! We had a few parties down at the guest house that summer with the music blaring and friends parking their jalopies and trucks along the estate drive, but Ruth let us have fun and we danced well into the early morning. I also became friends with Mrs. Woodward’s gardener who tended all the beautiful flowers and plants every day and he would stop to chat when Troy and I were sunning on the back patio. Truth be known, Dave married the gardener’s daughter years later after he and I had divorced. They were grade school sweethearts actually, are still married and living in Victoria to this day. Life does have a way of coming full circle, it seems.

It was later that summer that I had a surprise. I woke up one day to feed Troy in the kitchen and took him out to lay him on a blanket in the sun on the patio when I saw dozens of people in the backyard of Ruth’s estate home. The women were wearing silk flowing dresses in pastel colors and gorgeous garden hats, and the men wore what looked like tuxedos. I walked to the corner of the garage to peer down the drive to see Rolls Royce’s, Mercedes, limousines, BMW’s, and every manner of quality vehicle you could imagine. They lined the driveway on both sides all the way to West Saanich Road. I made myself scarce because we were pretty poor and I owned one pair of cutoffs which I had on and one pair of old jeans with three stretch tops and that was about it. Even my cutoffs and jeans had patches and the last thing I wanted was to become visible to the obviously elite friends of Ruth Woodward. 

Dave came home for lunch and I asked him what was going on at the main house. That is when he told me that Princess Margaret was staying with Ruth for a few days. Gasping, I realized that explained the fancy party decorations and dress, and I did entertain the notion that she might have been staying in that very same bedroom where I was before Ruth and Nanny took me to the hospital. The very next morning, Ruth took Margaret to the Victoria Airport, so she could return to London; then came back to her estate, quickly changed into denim coveralls, drove up to the farm, and was spreading manure by noon. She had class, but she was also down to earth and she loved that farm. We stayed one more summer at Woodwynn Farms before Dave graduated and then we moved to Denver, Colorado, where he had gotten a managerial job at a life insurance company.

Ruth died in 1972 and her children inherited the Woodwynn Farms. Her daughter, which everyone called Rusty because of her red hair, built a beautiful modern home on the hills overlooking Woodwynn Farms on the opposite side from where Dave had lived. Eventually, the Farms were taken over by an NGO, a Non Government Organization as they call it in Canada, which decided to turn it into a residence for the homeless and the addicted. The non-profit entity worked on providing addiction recovery programs, and mental health services for the homeless in Victoria and on the Saanich Peninsula. The name of the program was The Homeless Feeding Themselves because they could also grow their own food to eat and to sell to the public on the farm fields and the non-profit entity was also trying to get approval for homeless housing on the Farms. My former husband ended up back near his hometown of Saanich and he served as the Director of the Capital Regional District for the Southern Gulf Islands. He was also a member of the Board of Directors of the Provincial Waste Water Treatment and had involvement with the problem of homelessness in Victoria as well as the new purpose of Woodwynn Farms. Like I said before, life does seem to come full circle in a way that is almost karmic.

On one of my trips back to Vancouver Island years later after Dave and I had divorced, I drove along West Saanich Road past the estate drive and wended my way along Mt. Newton Crossroads to the turn off to St. Stephens Anglican Church surrounded by trees and which was more like a chapel down in the valley next to the property line of Woodwynn Farms. I had heard through relatives that Ruth was buried next to her husband in the small St. Stephens cemetery. Finding her grave, I realized how appropriate the spot was because it was as if she could look down over her beloved Woodwynn Farms Valley for eternity. Looking at the scene below me, I could see that the fog hung over the fields now and all that was left were ghosts of memories long past.