My cottage wasn’t just a vacation spot, it was my childhood.
It’s funny the things you can remember as a child. Although the fine details get lost over the years, there are some memories so vivid that they never leave you. The way the breeze felt, the smell in the air, the colour of the water and the way the sky looked at that little cottage we rented every summer has stayed with me for over forty years. I vividly remember waiting for what felt like forever to finally make the drive to the cottage for our two-week summer vacation.
When the day would finally arrive, I always remember being packed like sardines in my Dad’s old Chevy Impala, none of us wearing seatbelts and not an inch to spare in that car. I was born the youngest of nine to a very Catholic family. As a child in a family that big you can sometimes feel like you’re missing out on the material things your friends from smaller families are getting, but I’ll tell you our summer vacations never felt like a sacrifice. There was never a car that would comfortably fit all of us but my parents found a way. I remember driving down the endless dirt roads, passed the family graveyard where the radio would be abruptly turned off so my Mom could lead the rosary. I call it the family graveyard because both my parent’s ancestors were buried there. She’ll kill me for saying this, but I always thought she sounded like an auctioneer as she belted out the “Our Father” and then the “Hail Mary” but I always knew when we got to the “Glory Be” we were getting close to our destination. As the years have passed, to my parent’s disappointment, we have not practiced our faith like they would have wanted us to but we would all agree that this lake and its surroundings are sacred ground for my family. There is a spirituality to that place that’s hard to describe. There were generations that had been packing up their kids for years to come to this spot. For my parents, it was imperative that we paid our respects every time we drove by, no matter who was in the car and no matter what song was playing on the radio.
After making it passed the graveyard (which for me, became more of a reminder that we were close to the cottage than it did a reason to pray) we’d be just about at my Dad’s homestead. He was one of 12, six boys and six girls. He would tell stories of the dining room table covered in food without a chair to spare for every meal, yet my grandmother would take in borders who worked on the railroad. Can you imagine welcoming a stranger you didn’t know into your home, feeding them and offering them a warm bed? That was the country way and my Grandmother could never see anyone go hungry. I found his life fascinating and always wished I could have had a glimpse of what his dinners were like with 12 kids around the table. Being at that lake made me feel like I was a small part of his childhood.
Once we passed his homestead, it was only about three and a half kilometers until we could take a left down Moran Lane. Moran Lane was where our little piece of paradise sat waiting for us to fill it up with food, laughter and love. Finally, I’d hear the blinker and we’d take one of those slow bumpy turns down the worst dirt road of them all. The kind of road where the grass rubs the bottom of the car and the trees say “welcome back” surrounding you in what felt like a big hug as the car slowly crawled up the laneway. It was at that point that I could barely contain myself because I knew we were finally here. We were finally at the lake, finally at the place where my imagination soared, my heart was full, and for those two weeks we were all together as a family, cousins and all.
I loved the little old cottage with the old uneven knotty pine floors that smelled like sunshine. There was no running water and two bedrooms. There were no doors on the bedrooms, just blankets carefully laid over a string, that Mom would pulled across for privacy at bedtime. It was blueish in colour and to me it was the best place on earth. The lake was so clear, you could see right to the bottom. There was an old row boat close by called the “lolly pop boat.” If I got up early enough my brother Pat would take me for a paddle. At the end of those hot summer days, my Mom used to make us all go in the water before bed so we’d get clean. We’d then hop in Dad’s car and he’d drive us to the outhouse back in the woods. You’d better be sure you peed before bed because once you got into bed Mom didn’t want you to get back out because your feet would get filthy. I’ll say it again, it was paradise. The days were spent swimming until your skin was so shrivelled up you couldn’t feel your fingertips, picnics on the rocks, and running through the path that came out at my Uncle cottage. It was the one place that I was the never more myself, never freer and never happier.
The reason my parents chose this little lake is because it’s where they met and fell in love. My Mom was 13, my Dad was 16 and they met on what we called “Fisher’s Hill”. A beautiful green grassy hill that led to a white sandy beach. I picture them with all their brothers, sisters and cousins swimming, eating, and creating paradise. As the years passed they all started to rent or buy cottages on this lake. Most families had anywhere between four and 10 kids in their family. They all had to say the rosary when they passed the family graveyard – no matter who was in the car, they all bathed in the lake and this was the only vacation spot they knew. Unlike being with our friends in town, this way of life was normal. This was a place full of noise, laugher and more relatives than you could count.
Somehow my parents managed to book our vacations at the same time as their brothers and sisters. That meant we got to spend our summers with our cousins. We could walk into any cottage and be welcomed by a hug and a kiss, an offer of food and doorways strung with blankets with three to four kids sharing a bedroom. At this little lake in paradise we were all the same and we loved each other. As soon as that Chevy Impala came to a stop and the door swung open we’d go running to meet up with our cousins so we could soak in every second of those two precious weeks.
Over the years there were many changes, the little blue cottage was torn down, my parents bought their own piece of paradise across the lake, our aunts and uncles have since passed away and a new generation of kids have created their own memories. This place was much more than a spot to vacation, this place was our childhood and our heart. Anyone who has a cottage will know the feeling of how the weight of the day disappears as you turn down the laneway, they’ll recognize the smell of the sun-soaked wood as you open the cottage doors and the beauty of the campfires at night. A cottage is not simply a place to vacation, it’s a feeling, it’s a best friend, and it’s the fibre of who we are today. My father has since passed away and I’m proud to say that every time I drive by the graveyard with my son, his hat comes off and he presses it to his heart to honour his Papa that brought us to this special place. Generations later this place still teaches us about family, respect and love. A cottage isn’t just a vacation, it’s a childhood.