Septuagenarians in the Wilderness: part 3

Everything changes.

The cast of characters first. The young family exits. Errant parent is waiting in the parking lot of the hibachi restaurant to carry partner and children off. The next day, the twenty somethings rush back to their busy lives. On the holiday Monday, two more leave with the dog, so for one night, Georgia and I have the cottage to ourselves, while my niece retreats to the cabin. No dog, no kids! Not even any trains hooting at the crossing!

On Tuesday the cast begins to swell again as two of Georgia’s friends arrive. On Wednesday, I sit by the phone waiting for my brother to fly in from Europe. His first call on landing assures me he had lost his luggage. On the next call, he has found his bag, but his rental car has no GPS. On the third call, he is on the road, ignoring my route instructions and on a highway I don’t even know. Here is a man who can fill all dog/kid/train deficits. (See post I dream of Etherica.)

And the season changes.

What had been high summer abruptly becomes early autumn. The temperature plummets overnight and it begins to rain. It hasn’t rained for nearly 3 months. It is so dry there is a fire ban and holiday fireworks are cancelled. It is so dry that some trees have already turned orange in early August. Now it rains steadily. One could say relentlessly.

This doesn’t stop the daily production of gourmet meals nor even shut down the barbecue on the deck. Rob grills teriyaki salmon while someone holds an umbrella over him. Nor does it stop great conversation. He hasn’t come home for 3 years, so we have a lot to catch up on. And it doesn’t stop reading. I finish an early Lynley mystery by Elizabeth George in record time. There is even some canoeing, which involves much tipping, drenching and subsequent recovery. But it puts an end to beach sitting. The canopy and umbrella -wearing an improvised neck brace- look sad and wet. No high flying sallies!

Even the birds seem too wet to fly. I come upon a covey of quail feeding on the edge of the woods, softly mewing to each other, utterly unafraid of me. It’s their woods.

Driving back from the village I drift to a stop: there is a deer standing in the middle of the narrow dirt road, calmly gazing at me. By the time I have found my iPhone, she has quietly vanished into the trees.

I stop before I go up the steps to the cottage and enjoy the trees, tall, slim, steadfast in spite of human intrusion, breathing peacefully, exhaling something healing.

Then it is Friday, time to go. Time to pack the cooler, the suitcase, the duffle bag and the dozen or so bags of groceries, pills, books. And that’s just my list. There are 4 cars to load. The fridge has to be sorted. My niece sits in front of the open door and Rob holds a garbage bag. If food is still edible, it goes back to whoever brought it. Some of it is unidentifiable and that goes into the big garbage bag. When they need someone to break a tie, they appeal to me.

When the fridge is empty, Rob and I suit up for a rainy run to the dump. When we arrive we study the sign detailing hours of operation. The landfill site is open 6 days a week. Can you guess which day it is closed? We decide not to tell Georgia. When I talk to Rob on the phone next day, and ask what he has done with the garbage, he replies he’s just going to leave it where it is and return it with the rental. As usual, I believe him for a split second.

Meanwhile Georgia and my niece have been cleaning the bamboo floors and making the beds with clean sheets. The beds are no problem, but carrying that mess of bags out to the cars involves a good deal of wiping up footprints. By now we don’t notice how wet we are, but an idea is blossoming in our minds: for the price Georgia paid, she shouldn’t have to play char as well.

We are ready to go, standing in the rain, realizing we don’t want to head off in three different directions yet. We decide to eat lunch together. We form a caravan, Rob in the middle, Georgia in the lead, to look for a restaurant up Parry Sound way. As soon as we hit the highway, Georgia jack-rabbits off so fast that Rob can barely keep up with her and he’s a European. I squint through the rain to keep them in view and we race up hill and down dale on rain-slick roads. So much for the stereotype  of doddery, slow old drivers! It goes on and on. I’m getting hungry. We pass a closed restaurant. We pass a boat dealership in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, a sign tells us we have arrived at Highway 400. We pull onto the shoulder. Georgia and I get out and converge on Rob’s open window. We cancel lunch. Anything to stop the rain pouring down inside our collars.

One by one, we head south on the freeway. Slowly I am remembering that there are no exits with services for many miles and I am down to 2 bars on my gas gauge and starving. Half an hour later, I see an exit offering gas and food. It’s the exit to the railway town we left an hour ago. CANNOT go back there.

I assure myself that I still have a quarter of a tank and surely it can’t be that far to the next gas station. It is. I do see an exit to the Wahta Mohawk cranberry barn, a source of cranberry muffins perhaps but not gas. I sail past. It’s no use, music doesn’t distract me. Anxiety is creeping up on me in spite of self-talk. I can’t talk me down. Well, it’s 2 p.m., me answers back. You haven’t fed me. What do you expect?

Much later. Much much later, a gas sign and a fork and knife sign – the bed sign is irrelevant – and I swing off the highway into Port Severn. Which way to go now? Something tells me left. Yes, following a curving street, I come upon a marina advertising the Driftwood Cafe. Me first, car second.

The Driftwood Cafe has a screened porch for a diningroom. Very chilly. But look, I am being ushered onto a side porch with closed windows and heater. Oh, bliss! I am looking out on the marina basin where a fountain of water is rising in graceful curves and falling back to its source. A mist hangs over the boats. Here the Trent-Severn Waterway ends its 400 kilometre journey from Lake Ontario, in Georgian Bay across the highway.  I am in a watery world.

While I wait for my hot Tom turkey sandwich on ciabatta, I register my dismay at being on my own so suddenly.

When I was 2 years-old, I lived in an old farm house with 3 generations of my family, the only child. I liked it. When I fell head over heels downstairs, my great uncle caught me in midair. When my mother got sulky, my great grandmother helped me set my doll’s table. When we moved into our own house, I used to build domino towers with a level for each set of grandparents. My mother hated the idea.

Perhaps we have lost the knack if we ever actually had it. I noticed that someone turned the toilet paper roll the other way around every time I put it on. Correctly of course! Or was that just paranoia? I did catch someone rewashing the sink I had not only just washed but announced as well. How do the sister-wives manage?

So I await my lunch as the rain does its pathetic fallacy thing and mirrors my mood.

I will no doubt see Rob several times before he flies back. I will talk to Georgia several times a week as usual. I will go back to the tai chi club, which is family in its way. I will have Blake for dinner. I may even go sailing with him, but just for now, melancholy settles in.

In the kitchen 6 young people, the cook and wait staff, are drawing straws for some unpleasant job and shrieking with laughter. They’ve got plans for the late night hours after closing time.

Oh, give it up my friend. There will be warmer, dryer days. There will be other summers. There will be other burning chef’s hats. We’re a good way yet from closing time.

Septuagenarians in the Wilderness: part 2

There is, thank heavens, no 15 minute wait at the train crossing. The crews apparently take the opportunity to climb down from their freight trains in this little town. Unfortunately, this means that the train’s mile-long tail blocks the road to the cottage. Today I quickly turn onto the road that runs parallel to the tracks and it changes from pavement to black top to gravel, getting ever smaller. Signs warn me repeatedly that the tiny dirt road is now private so what am I doing there and, moreover, I am ordered to stop for snakes and turtles neither of which I see. Finally, after the usual panic that surely I have missed the hidden turn, I find it and bump over rock and hillocks into a clearing in the woods where the cottage sits basking in the sun.

Beach picture from previous year

I step out of the Yarris into 95 degree heat with my usual grace after long sitting and hobble around until I can get things stretched and operational. Then I carry my Tim’s tea around the cottage down to the beach where I can see the others. On either side of the clearing, a 50 or 60 year-old wood of birch and maple and beech stands, unmoved and calming.

There are 4 children playing in the water and 5 adults sheltering under a white canopy, one of whom is my sister, Georgia, the founder of the feast, for it is Georgia who has rented the cottage with her carefully saved substitute-teacher’s pay.

The cottage can sleep 12 in its 2 bedrooms and loft, but there is also a brand new cabin hidden in the woods where the children and their parents are staying. It, like the main building, is fully screened against insect predation. Both have screened porches and the larger one has a big deck looking out on the lake.

A group of 6 has been there already for a week. Georgia and my older niece arrived yesterday. My niece moves from the bedroom she has shared with Georgia and re-makes her bed in the loft, not an easy choice to make because the loft is open to the noise of the main room below. She is honouring her elder.

The Wilderness Effect

I have shared houses with my daughter’s family and never experienced the wilderness effect in them. They were in Los Vegas, however, the last place on earth for the wilderness effect. Even though there were just as many people and emotionally charged events – a memorial service for grandpa and a wedding, there were no meltdowns. Plumbing disasters, inconvenient babysitting expectations, varying standards of housekeeping, but no need for interventions or group therapy sessions.

On the other hand, not one of our camping trips in the High Sierras passed without it. Others at the same campsite above the Kern River dealt with the wilderness effect by drinking copious qualities of beer and howling like wolves to scare off bears. In our camp, usually on the 3rd or 4th day, we found ourselves sitting in a circle listening to an older child express his angst or holding a screaming younger child or shaking heads in disbelief when gran nearly perished from insomnia. (Something about the altitude and all those stars wheeling overhead.) It must be all that fresh air, all this patient trees, the safety net of the family that brings it on.

In this case, it starts with wind. Saturday morning, Georgia has just come up from sitting under her new orange umbrella, 4 others are sheltered in the shade of the canopy and the children are hunting mussels in the lake. I am in the cottage with a view out the glass front. Suddenly, the umbrella’s neck is twisted and broken and the children watch in disbelief as a great funnel of sand flies up. Those under the canopy shield their faces. The canopy, metal frame and white cover intact rises, hovers six feet over their heads, turns on its side and speeds thirty feet across the clearing to land 15 feet up in the trees.

True the cottage sits at the end of a long stretch of water, wooded on both sides, that forms a wind-alley but this is ridiculous.

Much of the rest of the morning is spent debriefing and fishing the canopy down with oars.

Dinner at a hibachi bar, in a town an hour away, is scheduled this evening, to celebrate Georgia’s approaching 70th birthday. We have reservations for 14. Three more, including Georgia’s other grandchildren are expected to arrive soon.

I am on the screened porch when I hear an uproar from the cabin.  One parent arrives, very het up, seeking intervention. A passionate difference of opinion has arisen over appropriate child discipline.  The most objective of our group is sent forth to reason. One half of the blended family, having secured the car keys, departs precipitously, leaving the other half without transportation. A less objective person, that is to say a mother, makes the trek to the cabin. The remaining children and parent are whisked away for lunch in the aforementioned town.

Those of us left behind contemplate the wilderness effect.

I make a quick trip down the private road and over the tracks, to buy Georgia a bunch of Gerber daisies and a bottle of Moet & Chandron. I stow them in the cabin to keep them out of sight. When I carry them to the main cottage later, I meet an exasperated 7 year-old.

“What are they for?” she asks.

“They’re for Grandma Georgia’s birthday,” I reply.

“I guess you didn’t know my birthday was on Wednesday,” she says.

“I didn’t,” I reply. “Sorry. What would you like for a late birthday present.”

“I’d like to find my pink dress,” she declares and stomps away.

Alas, it turns out that her pink dress had been carried off by the departing parent in hastily packed luggage.

As a fitting end to a perfect day, the hibachi chef sets his hat of fire.

More to come.






Septuagenarians in the Wilderness: part 1

In this part of the True North (strong and free), we say that we are going to the cottage -we never say my cottage or our cottage – as if there were only one and half the population of Toronto ended up there. Well, actually, it felt as if it had last weekend.

And we always say cottage, not camp as my Quebec relatives used to.

We leave Toronto and head north on Highway 400 toward Muskoka, a pleasant trip at 11 a.m. with the aforesaid half of the city’s population and every service centre en route closed for renovation. One has progressed to a well graded site of sandy soil, surrounded by a high wire fence. Factor in my age and you have a tense situation about 90 minutes into the trip. Ninety minutes on the road and I have gone about half as far as I should have, but what the heck, the sky is a beautiful blue with an occasional puffy cumulus or a long thin diaphanous strip of cirrus cloud and the iPod shuffle is mixing things up in an entertaining way: the Rolling Stones, Dylan, Adele, Eric Clapton, Glenn Gould, the Stones again, Bach’s violin concerto, the Stones again. What the!

I battle a woman who is driving half on the paved shoulder and talking on her cell phone. Every time I manage to get out into the middle lane to pass, she speeds up. We are moving  at 60 Kph, half the usual speed, all three clogged lanes. She has left a gap that would fit 2 eighteen wheelers and she is weaving back and forth from the lane to the shoulder. Hey, what’s happening to my sunny-mood-in-spite-of slow traffic. Then mercifully and magically she is no longer there, I have made my way past the only sizeable town and wheeled off to a Tim Horten’s. LIke the cottage, Tim’s is a national treasure. You can use the washroom and buy a beverage, although Tim’s is more famous for its doughnuts.

Good thing I stopped because the land is no longer fertile farm land, but the ancient granite of the Canadian shield, great rock faces that the highway slices through and little lakes. There are no exits at all for many miles and certainly no friendly doughnut shops. But there is almost no traffic and what there is, is moving a good 25 kph over the speed limit. Three and a quarter hours after I left home, I make the left turn that takes me into the railway town, which has re-made itself into a summer destination.