Remember When

“Remember when the sound of little feet, was the music we danced to week to week.” (Alan Jackson)

What I will call the ‘quiet season’ is upon us, as our kids are back to school.  For us, that means we are down to one left at home – the other three are off in different directions.  It is just my wife and me at the cottage this weekend.  I remember when we looked forward to getting some alone time here.  Years ago when we were surviving the hustle and bustle of a particularly wild and chaotic week at our island escape with the whole clan, we would look into the future with envy.  “It will be nice when we can have the place just to ourselves,” we would say.  “It will be so peaceful.”

 

Well, those days are here.  The kids have grown up – they grew up so fast that we almost missed it.  Now, even in the summer, they don’t make it to the cottage as much.  They no longer enjoy the uninhibited freedom of youth; the reality of grown-up life is upon them.  They have to work through the summer to make enough money for the next school year.  Now they are off again to university.  So, my wife and I sit with our morning coffee, amongst the peace and quiet of a cottage morning.

“Remember when?” we will say, first one of us and then the other.

“Remember when,” I reminisce, “your oldest daughter, (they were always my wife’s kids when they were misbehaving or careless), fell on that rock when she was running through the water.” She had casually commented that she had cut her leg, when in fact her shin was slashed so badly I almost passed out looking at it.  She needed a major stitch job.  A beauty mark we call it now.

“Remember when,” responds my spouse, “the girls would spend the whole afternoon snorkelling off the shoal on the point in search of treasure.  Oh, the trinkets and fishing lures they used to find.”

Remember when they stumbled over that wasp nest while playing in the forest.  It was like a cartoon, the kids came screaming and running towards the cabin with a swarm of angry wasps hot in pursuit.  Remember when our son built that raft out of logs and rope.  We thought it would never float, but there he was, like Huck Finn, paddling his homemade raft around the bay.  Remember when the cousins came for a visit and we would practically never see the kids, except when they were hungry.  They would have their own games, and their imaginations ran wild.  All we would hear from them was hollering and laughter, and every once in a while we would catch glimpses of them running through the woods like ghosts.

Remember when Grandpa and Grandma would join us. No matter how hard the children tried, Grandma would always trick them and be first into the lake for a swim.  Remember when we would sit around the bonfire in the evening and Grandpa would pull out his harmonica.  Or we would play a board game, something we only did at the cottage when the family was all together, and everybody, young and old, looked forward to it.

In the boathouse my wife has arranged a collage of old sepia-toned black and white photos set on colourful pallet frames.  The photos are all cottage scenes, snaps of the kids having fun, laughing and smiling in the midst of all sorts of cottage activity.  Many of the photos were taken years ago, when the children were much younger – well, I guess we all were.  I often stop and pause in front of the pictures; they bring a smile to my face.

My wife and I sit here on the dock as another cottage season speeds away, and share the memories.  We look at each other, laugh and say, “Remember when?”

Into the Blue

“Remember when we said when we turned grey, when the children grow up and move away; We won’t be sad, we’ll be glad, for all the life we’ve had – and we’ll remember when.”

To Fetch a Pail of Water

It was snowing when we opened the cottage on the long weekend in May.  Now, while it was not exactly snowing when we came to close the place, it was far from warm summer weather.  Things were so busy at home, that I grabbed my dad and a couple of dogs to head up to the lake mid-week, driving through the beautiful colours of a spectacular autumn day.  We looked forward to this visit.  It would be a great bonding time for father and son, and we wondered when, if ever, we had been to the cottage together like this, just the two of us.

It was cold.  We awoke the first morning to see our breath.   A heavy mist rose from the lake, and the dock was covered by a thick, white frost.  We had already dissembled the pump, so I wandered down to get a bucket of water for the breakfast dishes.  My dad’s footprints were clearly etched on the frozen pier boards where he had grabbed a pot of water for morning coffee.  It made a beautiful photo, the swirling fog, the white frost on the dock and boat, footprints of dad and dogs, and the distant beams of light from a sun trying to poke through to lend a little warmth to the scene.

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Our cottage is a little remote, so we tend to close up the cabin like a fortress.  Our main intention is to protect the place against intruders, from vandals, but more so from furry trespassers.  We bolt heavy wire mesh on all of the windows.  Seldom have we had much trouble with the cabin from people.  The mice and squirrels have at times left a mess in the interior, as they have enjoyed the run of the place through the cold months.  Over time we have learned how to close the place to minimize the damage.

We secured the cabin, packed up any food stuff that remained from our summer visits, put anything that might freeze over winter away in our bunker below frost line, and stowed all the bedding and towels that the mice might find inviting into secure closets.  We worked our way through our closing checklist, and by evening had pretty much everything done.

We had a nice steak dinner, and dad and I talked about all the great years we had enjoyed in this place.  We reminisced about the adventures and the misadventures, the lessons learned, the fun times and the growing up that we had done here.  After dinner, I settled down at the table to work on this narrative, it was my last column of the season, and I was unsure what to write.

“Can’t help you there,” says my dad, and then disappears outside to grab a kettle full of water for cleanup.

I work away, writing down little notes and trying to find some inspiration.  I was unaware that while I was agonizing over a storyline for some time, my dad was outside doing his best to supply it.

The two huskies had wandered down with him and watched from the end of the dock as he leaned over to scoop some water.  It was dark and the water was smooth and black, it was hard to tell where night air ended and cold lake water began.  The dogs watched him tumble into the water and splash around trying to find his footing and to struggle back to dry land. In the movies they would have raced up to fetch me, offered up a bark of danger, a yelp that said,  “Put your pen down stupid, the old guy is in trouble!”

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When the door of the cabin swung open and he stood there dripping on the stoop, this was the point that seemed to disconcert him the most.  (Well, besides the fact that he realized immediately that his exploits would be in the paper in a week).  “They just stared down at me,” he complained, “ I’m sure wondering what I was up to.  They stood there side by side with their heads cocked to the side and an inquisitive expression on their faces.  When I got out, they ran away scared, like I was the creature from the black lagoon.

That made me laugh – he looked a little like that.  His sweatshirt was soaked, stretched long and dripping.  His hair was in a soggy state of disarray.  His shoes squelched as he walked, and he left a long trail of water behind, like swamp ooze.  He shivered uncontrollably, but tried to tell me that the water was actually quite beautiful.

“I’m not going for a swim dad.”

“No, it felt surprisingly nice, and I feel clean.”

I think it is great when you feel so good when you should really feel ridiculous – but I don’t tell him, of course.  After all, he is my dad.  Besides, it kind of scares me.  What if he had hit his head and drowned?  What would I tell my mom?  “Sorry, but I had to leave dad in the lake, he was too water-logged for me to lift.”  Would I ever get a lecture.  “See,” she would probably tell me.  “I knew your lack of enthusiasm for doing the dishes would someday lead to trouble.”

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It will be another cottage tale.  It will be a story made better over time.  Someday I will be closing the place with my son.  How special is that?  I’ll grab a bucket and head out in the evening for some water.  I will pause on the front porch, remembering adventures from days past – then I will slip on a lifejacket and head for the dock.

 

 

Left in the Dark

It is another thing I like about the cottage – I love escaping the city’s lights. Our cottage doesn’t have any electricity, so at night it is lit by propane globes and oil lanterns. They illuminate the cabin’s polished wood interior in a warm soft glow.

There has been much talk about light pollution in cottage country. At our lake, this has yet to become a real problem. Here, the night sky still exists, and has not been lost in the lights, street lamps or general glow of civilization. Often we can look along the more populated south shore of our lake, and see only a dozen or so distant cottages with their lights on. And, while looking up at the sky from many places often comes with the restrictions of buildings, hills or even trees, lying out on the rocky point of our island, the sky is big, a total dome overhead, and the starry display on a cloudless night is often spectacular.

I love the total darkness that we have here, and have summered at this place for so long, that I can find my way around the trails in the night without need of a lamp. And, if one needs help, a simple flashlight will do. During a recent family gathering at the cottage, my kid sister and brother in law decided to make the place a bit more resort-ish. They had brought a couple dozen solar lights with them, and had spiked them in an organized fashion alongside the trail that led from the cabin to their bunkie. I was horrified. Our island had taken on the look of a tropical resort with Tiki torches, or perhaps of an airport runway at night.   Though their scheme was reasonable and sound, meant to make the journey from main cottage to their bunkie easier in the dark, I found that the shadows cast by the dim lights had me tripping over roots or stubbing my toes on rocks.

Rather than acting mature and simply talking to them about these glowing standards, I decided my best and most practiced strategy was to act childish. While everyone sat around the evening fire, I snuck off and moved the lights, changing their path, so rather than leading down the trail, they curved off into the middle of some rough bramble. Then, quite pleased with myself, I hid behind a tree and tried to control my juvenile giggles. I heard someone approaching, then the rustle of leaves and the snapping of branches.   There followed the thump of someone falling and the oomph of landing hard – all the calamity capped by a sharp and unsavoury exclamation. I felt bad for a brief second.

“Which one of you fool kids moved my lights!” my sister’s husband cried. I chortled through my nose and ran back to the cottage through the darkness.

I felt a bit sheepish and foolish on the following morning in the light of day, especially when I saw my fine brother-in-law, his arms and legs scratched from prickles, taking down his trail of lights in a huff and storing them away in the shed. Still, I am happy to be rid of them. I guess my point was taken.

The Cottage at the Bonfire

The Cottage at the Bonfire

To celebrate my small victory, that night, after the sun had disappeared in the west, our bonfire had been doused, and the lake was dark once again, I gathered everybody on the rocky point. Adults and kids lay out on our backs like tumbled bowling pins, helter-skelter, staring up at the brilliant canopy of stars. My son used me for a pillow, and my wife and daughters snuggled in by my side. Only a few cottage lights were to be seen on the mainland. With no lights, clouds or moon, the display of stars was amazing. We watched overhead for hours – as falling stars lit a comet-like trail and flashing satellites drifted slowly past. We lost ourselves in the wonder of the Milky Way and tried to pick out the constellations.   The dark night was beautiful, and peaceful.

When you venture to your cottage, try your best to leave the bright urban glow behind – the city lights are pretty there, but not here. Make a point of turning off unnecessary lights, not just for yourself, but also for your cottage neighbours. And, most importantly, don’t forget to look to the heavens. Some people never see that sight. It is sometimes nice being left in the dark!

*For those who love technology, there are “Night Sky” apps available for your phone to help you identify stars and constellations – and then you can use your device’s flashlight to find your way back to the cottage at the end of the night.*

True Love, Old Age and the Cottage

“You’ve got to be kidding,” states my teenage daughter. “I thought we were going to watch a cool movie tonight … who are these old farts?”  She is holding up the DVD case, on which is a sepia-toned photo of an old Katharine Hepburn and an equally ancient Henry Fonda.  All my kids are staring at me, as is my wife.  Well, actually, my son is taking advantage of the disruption to cram as much of the popcorn into his mouth as possible, without his sisters seeing or complaining.

I try to explain who they are – “You know, she was in African Queen.”  “What?”  “He’s Jane and Peter’s Dad” – blank looks, “you know, the Jane Fonda workout!”

I realize I may have made a bit of a mistake here.  On a cold, rainy, miserable Spring evening, a rare night when there is nothing else on the go, I had received a call on my cell phone asking me if I wanted to pick up a movie on my way home.  “There is nothing on tonight, so we thought we could watch a good family film,” says my wife.

I perused the new releases, the action thrillers, vampire movies, love stories and comedies, and found nothing that quite struck my fancy.  I began glancing through old releases, and that is why I came across “On Golden Pond.”  It seemed inordinately dusty.  That should have been my first warning.  The second should have come when the young female clerk began punching it into her register, stopped, looked at the jacket, scowled and shrugged.  “Hmmm, never heard of that.”

I remember that my parents loved the movie “On Golden Pond.”  She was Hepburn, he was Fonda, and the cottage played the starring role.  Well, my dad has never been as cranky and cantankerous as the old curmudgeon Norman Thayer in the movie, nor my mom as dotty as Ethel Thayer, but it was the idea of the cottage and a summer at the lake that caught their fancy.  My mother took to calling my dad an “old poop.”

I remember my parents trying to get us teenagers watching the movie when it first came out.  We were equally as mortified at the prospect.  Where was the action?  Where were the car chases, gun battles, secret agents and scantily clad ladies?  (Well, Jane Fonda in a bikini … if I’d only known).  I had felt my own kids were more mature than I was.  I put the movie in and we all start to watch.  I bet they’ll like it, I thought.  They barely make the opening credits.  As I’m laughing at Fonda’s telephone antics, my oldest gets up, looks disgusted at me, and then turns to the others, “Who wants to play PS3?”  They file out, my son taking the popcorn.  I’m glad my wife remains, that is, until I throw a sheepish smile her way and notice that she is sleeping.

It is a dream many of us have.  We long for that day when our work-a-day world is winding down, and we can head for the cottage shortly after the loons return to the lake in spring, and stay there until all the colourful autumn leaves have tumbled to the ground.  There will be no work forcing us to commute, no soccer matches and hockey camps to schedule our cottage time around.  We will be able to head up for most of the summer.

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The trouble is, of course, that there is a short window between retirement and old age, when the daily rigours of camp chores and maintenance become harder to achieve.  My folks still love to play the roles of Fonda and Hepburn, they love to head up to the cottage stage.  They love it when the whole family is there, but it is hectic.  They prefer being up there on their own. Frankly, we worry about them a bit.  There are many things that could go wrong.

They relish the routine.  Dad gets up early and delivers a coffee to mom in bed.  He makes his famous cottage breakfast and they eat on the dock.   They jump in the lake to cool off and do the front crawl out a hundred metres from the dock and then back.  While they used to spring nimbly up on the end of the dock, they now walk out a little more gingerly to shore.  Friends pass in boats and pull in for a chat.  Sometimes dinner invitations are made.  Mom sews new curtains for the cabin.  They cease all work at 4 o’clock, the cocktail hour.  Like Norman and Ethel, they hear their loons and grab the binoculars for a look.

We needn’t worry.  They are fine at the cottage still.  They have good friends who watch out for them.  More importantly they have each other.  Years of cottage experience more than make up for aging muscles.  There is something to be said for true love, old age and the cottage.

4. Still - Cottage Chair for Two