The rain has stopped for now although it still falls in the woods that surround me, rolling off tree leaves. Except for this uneven spatter, it’s quiet. Occasionally a bird chirps in the distance. A squirrel crashes through the upper branches. I sit on the porch, contemplating the mosquitos trying to battle their way through the screening that separates us. To my left, I can see the lake down the hill and through the trees. The earthy scent of wet cedar envelops me. I breathe deeply, taking it all in. It must last me for the many weeks ahead.
Sitting here in the porch off the log cabin Sweetie and I rent each summer, I am transported. To a time that has, for the most part, receded so far in my memory that it takes this intense sensory experience to bring it forward. In my mind, superimposed over the trees around me, images begin to form. Of children racing out of a ’59 Chevy to take in the smells and sounds around another log cabin. Of the anticipation of scrambling out of shorts and t-shirts into bathing suits and running down another hill to another clear, cold lake. Thumping down the dock to dangle feet in the water. Jumping in, shouting against the cold and dog paddling furiously, proudly showing off the newly acquired skill. Shivering when it’s time to come out, teeth chattering, lips blue. In moments, out of the wet suit and into dry clothes. Off once again… to chase chipmunks or climb a giant rock or follow an older brother down a narrow heavily treed and spooky path if only to show girls can do whatever boys can do.
The cabin of my youth is tiny. No running water. No electricity. Water comes from a hand pump, lugged in buckets uphill and through the woods. Evening light from the fireplace or candles. Heat from the small wood stove in the tiny bedroom. Meals made on a giant wood stove. Every visit is an adventure.
Well, except for the outhouse. The biffy. It’s down a path that’s scary enough during daylight and terrifying at night. Trips to and fro are made running. A good opportunity for a brother to tease a little sister. The building stinks. There’s always the fear of falling in. Yet it doesn’t quite deter a good look inside from time to time, accompanied by disgusted groans and giggles.
We are a family of amateur fishers led by my grandmother who is often the last on the lake, ignoring the mosquitos and the fading sun to take advantage of what is apparently the best time to catch fish. During the day, my parents load up the motor boat with kids, a cooler, assorted bait and tackle and head to wherever we believe the fish are that day. To my ten-year-old thinking, fishing is intensely boring. Talking is strongly discouraged. But sitting in a boat, bobbing on the water, scooping the minnows up in the bucket and releasing them, trailing a hand until my father tells me to stop scaring the fish, watching the clouds and making up stories in my head… are part of being together as a family. As I get older, I bring books and sit in the middle of the boat reading. Periodically food is handed around and once or twice a day my father grudgingly heads to the nearest land so we can take care of nature’s call. I have learned about burying waste under leaves and how to squat without getting my pants or shoes wet. Must be quick about it though. The fish are biting. At day’s end, we return to the camp. (No cottages in Northern Ontario, just camps.) Tired, sunburnt, more often than not with fish to be cleaned for supper. After supper, my brother and I roam around camp until it’s too dark to see. When my mother calls us in, even washing up is a novelty. Bathing in a basin of warmish water heated on the wood stove. Brushing teeth in a glass of water. Making one last (scary) trip to the bathroom. Wearing pajamas outside! Then tumbling into bed, drifting to sleep to the soft murmurs of my parents in the other room, the hoots of owls and the occasional howl of… something.
The cabin, on a lake about 30 minutes from our home, was originally owned by my grandparents on my father’s side. Over time ownership passed through the hands of my father and his siblings until finally, it was sold out of the family. To the family of a high school friend of mine, no less. It was heartbreaking and seemed so unfair at the time. But the cost and time it required annually had become more than the siblings were prepared to take on. And so it was passed on. But while it was ours, it was more than a childhood delight. We have never been a family comfortable with open expressions of affection, my parents, siblings and I. This togetherness, this companionship helped serve instead. And it’s a place I can revisit in moments like this.
The clouds are beginning to recede now, sunlight glints off the still-wet leaves. Activity in the woods is picking up. The woodpecker is back. The path down the hill to the lake is inviting. I have replaced the boat of long ago summers with a Muskoka chair on the dock. My book awaits. The images of the past are fading. But the feelings, the closeness remain. And I am grateful.