We are all at the lake for the May long weekend. My mom. My sister Joan and her family. Me. My girls. And my eldest daughter’s new partner, who has bravely taken on “meeting the family” in this rather intense, total immersion setting. This is Sunday dinner on steroids, folks. Three days and two nights of togetherness in a log cabin on a small island in the middle of the Canadian shield.
My family has been coming here since this cabin had no neighbors. Since there was no government dock a handy 5-minute dash away in a motor boat. Since my 80-year old mom was barely toddling. For my children, this place IS summer. For my entire lifetime of summers, “going to the lake” has been the default vacation plan.
And now we’re here to say goodbye, on the very weekend that has traditionally been all about saying hello to the lake after a long winter. This spring the cottage is changing hands. My mom has decided it’s time to divest herself of the responsibility – the expense – the worry every spring about whether the ice has crumpled another dock, or the wind felled another tree across the roof. And, much as we might like to, neither my sisters nor I are in the position to take over ownership, each for our own assortment of reasons. It is some consolation that the buyer is a member of the extended family.
To my delight, the loon eggshell that I found the previous summer is still in the dresser drawer where I had stashed it. I make a mental note to remember to take it home as a memento.
We’ve brought my little city-cat along. Her interaction with the natural world normally happens from one end of a leash, and to date her whole experience of stalking and hunting has involved crumpled wads of paper or the red dot of a laser pointer. Nonetheless, I am woken midway through the first night by the sound of her scrabbling under the empty bed across the room from mine. I am fully conscious just in time to witness her hop backwards with a mouse clamped firmly in her jaws. I discover that, despite its size, a mouse is able to let out a pretty impressive scream. Startled by the mouse’s defiance, the cat drops her catch, which then alternates between playing dead and leading my inept huntress on a frantic chase around the dining room. Just when I begin to think the cat may have finally pinned the mouse once and for all, the mouse makes a break for it and sprints the entire width of the dining room and under the sofa, out of reach.
Joan says, “All we need now is a moose and a broken window.”
We all have our own set of iconic lake memories. For my sister the broken window goes back to her pre-school days—back to a spectacular thunderstorm that knocked out first the power and then the bathroom window, the latter discovered when my mom waded into what turned out to be a carpet of broken glass and hailstones. The sound of the hailstorm on the uninsulated roof that night found its way into my sister’s dreams as a recurring nightmare of “flying cars.”
There have been various moose incidents over the years, but the one that always leaps to mind is the afternoon spent gathered at the window starting at what we were all certain was a moose swimming out in the open lake. Until someone finally observed that the moose appeared to be swimming backwards. Until we finally deduced that the “moose” was actually a floating tree stump.
The lake was a good place for making us laugh at ourselves. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you look at yourself in the mirror right after getting caught in a rain shower while canoeing. Or when wearing that favourite work-shirt that you wouldn’t be caught dead in back in civilization.
Your high school English teacher likely taught you that pathetic fallacy is a literary device in which the weather or other natural conditions echo the emotional state of the characters. For example, something sad happens to a character and it coincidently starts to rain. Or, say a group of characters have gathered for the weekend to say farewell to a place that has been the source of three generations of summer memories, and on the last day of the last visit they wake up to snowfall.
Good thing there’s lots of firewood.
My brother-in-law James’s annual birthday apple pie is in the oven the first time the lights flicker out.
“Noooooo!” I yell, and thankfully the power snaps back on. Wind like this is hard on the power lines. The lights flicker briefly once more, but to everyone’s relief the last pie is cooling by the time the full-blown power outage descends.
“Probably a tree down on a line somewhere,” my mom says—unnecessarily, since we all thought it. It’s late afternoon but so overcast that without the benefit of electricity the cottage is dark. I light the first of the oil lamps, reflecting as always on how much better equipped we are for managing without electricity at the cottage than we are in the city. When it becomes apparent that the power is not coming right back on, we slide into problem-solving mode. Do we have enough propane to barbeque the chicken? What else do we have that can be prepared on the barbeque? A lot, it seems. And there’s still plenty of cold lunch meat if we need to resort to that.
Joan volunteers to bring up a pail of water from the lake to start warming by the fire for washing dishes. Without electricity the pump will not bring water from the lake up the hill into the kitchen via the small hot water tank in the bathroom cupboard. We’re channelling my grandmother Alice now, figuring out how to do the day’s chores the way they were done before the power lines reached the island in 1964.
Barbeque sauce in hand, James heads out into the icy wind storm to start the chicken while I improvise around the green beans with olive oil and aluminum foil. My little nephew, who is very adamant about his food preferences, declares he wants a “baconator.” Not only do we have all the components (his mother having been in charge of groceries) but it turns out you can even barbeque bacon.
It also turns out that drizzling green beans with olive oil and grilling them in foil packets is a menu item worth repeating even when cooking with electricity is an option. We feast on my pies which, like the beans, have also been an improvisation. A lot of things are improvisational at the lake, where it’s a major outing to go get a missing ingredient, if indeed it is something that can be purchased at all at the tiny local shops. This afternoon I’ve improvised 2% milk in place of condensed milk in the pumpkin pie fill and concocted a blend of apples and strawberries when I ran out of apples before the last pie shell was full. Somehow it all seems to work.
The water sitting on the hearth in a big enamel basin is getting surprisingly warm. I stack up the dishes and start by scraping them thoroughly. Realizing that my hot water supply is not going to go far, I splash some cold water from the pail into the kitchen sink and do a preliminary wipe to remove the worst of the barbeque sauce and pie crumbs. For the final wash, Lauren lifts the basin up to the counter and I swirl in a squirt of dish soap and a drop of bleach—just on principle. The twice-wiped dishes are quickly cleaned and Joan has them dried and put away by the time I’m wiping down the counter.
Meanwhile, my niece has organized a multigenerational card game. This, I realize, is the biggest loss. As close as we all are – as involved in one another’s lives – there will never be any amount of coordination and organized city togetherness that can replicate what happens when are all just AT the lake. Not doing anything particular. Just being. Together. In the city we are in and out of each other’s homes all the time. But this place has had a way of being everyone’s home that we won’t get back.
Monday afternoon is the real farewell. As I empty the porta-potty canister down the outhouse hole for the last time, I think to myself that there are some things I won’t miss.
In 53 years of summer vacations at this cottage, this is the first time I have ever had to brush snow off the boat. After the battering of yesterday’s wind the air is still. The snow blanketing the shoreline absorbs what small sounds remain. Even the yodelling loons have fallen silent. I imagine them, huddled at water’s edge, guarding one or two grey-spotted eggs against the unseasonable chill. They won’t be out to say goodbye, but their spirit cries will follow me, along with their images tattooed on my skin.
I surprise myself by not crying when we leave. Once I am back in the city, however, it dawns on me that I have navigated the emotional minefield of the departure by refusing with unnecessary stubbornness to prolong the process with an ice cream stop.
In the end, I have decided not to bring the loon eggshell home. It belongs at the lake. It would be out of its element in the city. I am carrying the memory of it with me, and that is enough.