ESSAY

POSTCARDS from Paradise

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON August 20 2001
ESSAY

POSTCARDS from Paradise

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON August 20 2001

POSTCARDS from Paradise

Years ago, long before people invented Jet Skis or worried about sunscreen, we spent our entire summers at the cottage

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON

ESSAY

Years and years and years ago, long before they invented GameBoy or Jet Skis, way before people worried about high cholesterol or sunscreen, my mother used to take us to the cottage for the entire summer. Each June, the day after school ended, we would load up the car and head off down the highway, unencumbered by care—or seat belts, for that matter. In the trunk would be our tartan cooler and the Royal Stewart car rug for picnics, plus an entire suitcase of library books that Miss Holden had let us take out for the full two months, warning us that they were not to go near the water. Off we would go, looking scalped in our fresh summer haircuts, jammed into the backseat with the slobbering dog, bickering over endless games of “I spy-—secretly delighted because we wouldn’t be back until Labour Day.

Year after sunburned year, this was our summer routine, one my mother followed without fail. Our family may have belonged to the United Church, but to us cottaging was religion. We were the true believers.

Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do In spiders web a truth discerning Attach one silken strand to you For my returning.

E. B. WHITE

Which isn’t to say that we worshipped in just one spot. As newlyweds, my parents honeymooned at my father’s family cottage, a log cabin on a sheltered teacup of a lake near Algonquin Park, the same lake where Tom Thomson planned to honeymoon before he mysteriously drowned. But after that initial getaway, they spent their vacation time at both their parents’ places. As often as not, my sister and brother and I could be found nesded in the bunks at my mother’s family cottage on a decidedly unsheltered stretch of Georgian Bay, a place where my mother had spent every summer of her life. A place where August storms swaggered in at night, tossing the sailboats at their moorings and working their bonsai magic on the pines.

Thanks to my two grandfathers—both of whom had fought in the First World War, one as a fighter pilot, the other having his leg shattered at Passchendaele—there were two log cabins we called home. During the 1930s, they and their spunky wives had each searched the north country for land, and tented with their children before the cottages were built. In my maternal grandparents’ case, they bought a local farmer’s log home for $500 in 1930, had the thick timbers numbered, and transported by horse and wagon to be reassembled by the shores of Georgian Bay.

My paternal grandparents, on the other hand, built a tidy one-room log place from scratch, adding little pine bunk houses along the shoreline as their extended family grew.

Thanks to their enterprising efforts, we children gorged on summer in two distincdy different places. At the little lake cabin, we would fall asleep to the sad call of the loons, snug under heavy red Hudson’s Bay blankets, in flannel pyjamas my mother had warmed by the fire, our hair smelling of wood-smoke. Snug, and scared, we would whisper by the dying light of the Findlay stove, alone in our little cabin. What was that noise? Was it a bear? What if a bear broke in, just like at Billie Bear Lodge, up the road? Would Grandmother shoot it, like Mrs. Billie had?

Or was it a ghost? For sure, there were ghosts. Poor Tom Thomson, vengeful in his soggy plaid shirt and blurry glasses, rising from his watery grave to return to Billie Bear Lodge, his never-tobe honeymoon spot, wielding an axe. Always an axe, to give us 40 whacks.

Tom Thomson’s ghost never got us. Before we knew it, morning would break with a slam, my grandmother’s screen door announcing she was up, the coffee on, the porridge started, ready for the morning paddle to the lodge to see if the paper had arrived. Within minutes, we would be off, her voice ringing clear across the mirrored water: “By the li-i-i-ght of the sil-ver-ee mooooon....” Another day had begun, a day of snooping in the woods, racing to the raft, and horsing around with the Patterson boys.

At the other cottage, days and nights were different. There, we would fall asleep to the sulky rhythm of Georgian Bay, the tinkling sound of the masts, the taste of marshmallow in our mouths. Our arms would ache from days of rowing The Swallow, our precious bathtub of a homemade boat. Or racing the Y-Flyer. Or batting the badminton birdie at our lanky boy cousins.

But lying at night, under white sheets, little needles of sunburn

pricking our shoulders and our noses peeling for the umpteenth time, my cousin and I would decide that no, we weren’t going to go to sleep. It wasn’t fair. Older kids were still down at the bonfire, and we could hear them laughing, the water carrying their voices up from the beach. So instead we whispered, very quietly, because “for the last time, girls,” her father had warned, “it’s late and it’s time to go to sleep!” But still, I needed to know: did she think Sean Connery was sexy? If she had to choose, would she take Paul or John? Would she ever wear curlers in front of her husband? A bikini like Liz Taylor? Did all divorcees wear bikinis? Would the older kids skinny-dip tonight? Girls in front of boys? And, on another subject, did her brother cheat at Clue? Oh-oh. SHHHH. Her dad’s pounding up the stairs again, FOR THE LAST TIME, girls!

That was the drill by night. By day, I’d wake to thick wedges of yellow sunlight on the painted floorboards and the whirrrrr-dee-dee-dee of birds outside the window. In a flash, I’d be downstairs, crushed: the others would have cracked open the new variety pack of little boxed cereals, and nabbed both Frosted Flakes, my favourite, which they had now doused with chocolate milk because, SHHHH, the parents were still sleeping.

THE MAKING OF A SUMMER HOME

Meanwhile, there was a plan. First, a quick trip to the corner store to load up on Dubble Bubble, Lik-M-Aid and Grape Crush. Next, a tramp up the beach to our secret hiding spot at The Point, the place where we had caught those teenagers necking. Who knows? Maybe they’ll be back. And off we would go in our stilldamp bathing suits, making our way over the pine needles, past the poison ivy, with what was left of our allowance, game for another day in paradise.

Of course, in paradise it sometimes rained, and those days were often the sweetest. Sweetest as long as my mother hadn’t looked at the sky and said: “Well, we might as well head to town and do the laundry.” But if she stayed put, I was home-free, with a whole day to snoop through the musty bookcases. On days like these, I would hole up in a bedroom with a stack of my grandfather’s ancient New Yorkers, discovering James Thurber, E. B. White, Talk of the Town. One memorable afternoon, I hid for hours, devouring my mother’s battered copy of Little Women and learning the bitter truth: that yes, Beth dies, and no, Jo does not marry the handsome Laurie.

Still, Jo does grow up to be a writer—a heck of a consolation prize, in my books. Writing and painting: these were the dreamy professions. The writing part came from reading. The painting part came from little sketching trips with A. Y. Jackson, a perennial guest at Georgian Bay, and much later, a guest at the little lake cottage, too. A bachelor with an infamous love of my maternal grandmother’s jam—jam that would dribble down his sweater vests along with his cigarette ashes when he laughed at my grandfather’s jokes. Looking at his stomach, I knew why Aunt Esther— having toyed with marrying him— would never go ahead with it.

Or maybe he never really wanted to get married. Maybe he was afraid of marriage like he was afraid of fire. In one of the cottage bedrooms, he had my grandfather install a thick rope, attached at the windowsill, one he could shimmy down to safety in case of a blaze. (Uncle Alec never used it, but the boy cousins discovered it was pretty handy during hide-and-seek.)

A. Y. Jackson, a rambling sort oil guy, had a softness for my grandmother's jam

LIFE AT THE COTTAGE

Clearly, this was a man who liked to escape. He stole my heart because he taught me to steer a paintbrush with my thumb and because he painted a naughty little sketch of a Shell station with the “S” missing. He was just about the only bachelor I had ever met, a rambling guy whose snowshoes hung on the wall beside the cottage fireplace, the same ones he wore in his self-portrait, Père Raquette, which also hung near the fireplace, a portrait of himself painting in the snow.

But I used to think that maybe he’d out-foxed himself, taking all those painting trips and somehow forgetting to have 4his own litde family to go home to. And for that reason, I felt sorry for him, and made him a cake in the shape of his palette.

At that time, I felt sorry for anyone who wasn’t paired up, two by two, like the animals in Noah’s Ark. Not during the week, mind you: then, the cottage was a womenand-children affair. My mother and aunts and grandmother would serve us meals on litde birch-bark place mats that the Indians had sold, door-to-door, when they used to camp on The Point. We’d feast on fresh bread and field tomatoes and corn from the local farmer. After dinner, we’d rush through the dishes, blissfully ignoring the pots. “Off you go, you litde heathens,” the women would say, shooing us back down the beach for one last game before dark. Once in a while, we were enlisted for other chores: helping my mother, in the pre-laundromat days, feed diapers, one by one, through the wringer. But most of the time, our unruly tribe ran scot-free.

That was the way of the week. But on Friday afternoons, the air would begin to crackle. When, did we think, the men would arrive? For hours, we children would line ourselves up on the split-rail fence, chirpy faces trained towards the curve, looking for the first sign of a Buick. Meanwhile, my mother would head into her bedroom to brush her freshly washed hair, put on lipstick and a dab of L’Ffeure Bleu, emerging transformed: burnished, blond and collected for my dad. Looking, as far as I was concerned, as glamourous as Grace Kelly.

WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA

After chopping wood, the handsome dads would drink 'Hey Mabel, Black Label!' beer

And for the next few days, there would be laughter. Games of charades, rounds of bridge, impromptu skits. Tall shoulders to be tossed from, into the water; strong arms to help us build teepees, boats and forts. Handsome men in Viyella shirts, drinking “Hey Mabel, Black Label!” beer with my grandfather after they had cut the logs and stacked the woodpile. But then it would be Sunday night, and we would all wave as the cars, honking, disappeared down the driveway, and the cycle would begin once again.

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Years and years and years ago, long before they invented cellphones and low-fat mayonnaise, way before people worried about zebra mussels or global warming, that was how we spent our summers. Learning how to stalk wild raspberries before breakfast, and how to find a fungus in the forest. Lying under a canopy of stars and parsing the night sky. And at summer s end, worshipping the harvest moon. Because in our family, cottaging was religion. And yes, we were the true believers. EZQ