Wednesday, October 10, 2012

New thing #50: Everything old is new again

I've been going to our family cottage in Ontario every summer since I was four years old, but I've never seen it in any other season. It's an 8-hour drive if there is no traffic, and with our busy schedules we almost didn't go there this year. But we had committed to closing the place up for the winter (although most of the work is done by our caretaker) and we had some friends with whom we wanted to share the place, so we decided to brave the elements and head up there for a long weekend in the autumn.

The cottage was built by my grandfather and his friends back in 1920, a place for manly men to fish, play cards, drink, swear and not be bothered by any of their women. It has rough-hewn walls, exposed beams, a tin roof, and sits by itself on an island in the middle of Lake Memesagamesing. The only heat is provided by wood stoves, although it has been updated to include electricity and indoor plumbing. Somehow the women wormed their way in over the years, so now it's a family vacation spot. My grandfather passed on many years ago and left the cottage to two of his sons, Dick and Don. Their offspring, known as the Dicks and the Dons, share the cottage. I'm proud to be a Dick.

It's hard for me to put words to all the emotions I feel when I'm at this place. There are so many happy memories. I'm several years younger than my siblings, the dreaded tagalong, but here I had their attention and their companionship. We had swimming competitions, went hiking, played board games and made home movies. We hid from our cousins and smoked weed in the raspberry patch. We explored other islands on the lake, went fishing and frogging, canoed and paddle-boated, and climbed the 'Mountain'.

My father came alive in this place. His stories, his songs, his games and his belly flops have become legend. He would wake us up at the crack of 9:00 by ringing a cowbell and yelling "Rouse out, now, rouse out! Up all hammocks! Show a leg or a Purser's stocking." When I was a teenager, he promised me he would quit waking me up with the cowbell. Instead he would clank and rattle the lid on the woodstove, dropping logs and loudly exclaiming how clumsy he was. Then he would blame the dog, Chip, for making too much noise. He would stomp around outside my bedroom door bellowing "Tippy toe, Chip! Tippy toe!". He would sing along with gusto to the country songs on CKAT, the only station that came in on the radio, even though he didn't know the words. He taught us snippets of naughty songs and nonsense rhymes, and we had a nightly ritual of going out in the boat fishing until the sun went down. He or my mom would stash away some 'fishing chocolate' so even if we didn't catch anything we still came home with a treasure.

My mom, who was pretty easy going and usually up for adventure, would go swimming every day at the cottage. She had the most perfect diving form I'd ever seen, barely making a ripple in the lake. What I didn't appreciate until much later was how much work she did for these vacations, planning food and entertainment and linens for a dozen people every year, cooking the meals, tending to our scraped knees and slivers and chasing away the occasional bat that got into the cabin, unless it happened after she went to bed, where she would just duck under the covers.

I started bringing Senior up when we were dating as teenagers. He loved the place as much as I did. Since my father was getting older and my brothers were more likely to come up with their own friends and family, Senior became my dad's right hand, and soon knew more about the cottage than any of the rest of us.

My father passed away in 1986. I dreaded my first trip to the cottage without him. I thought the memories would haunt me there, but instead I found comfort. I always feel close to him when I'm there. By then, Senior and I had married and, along with my Uncle Don, had taken on most of the responsibility for the cottage. My siblings and cousins had moved away and were starting families of their own, so they didn't take much interest in the cottage. Our vacations took on a new spin. Now we were the ones doing all the shopping and packing, planning and doing the maintenance and keeping the books. But I had a new treasure, as I got to watch my children fall in love with a place that meant so much to me. We taught them the silly songs and stories, explored the lake, fished and ate fishing chocolate, played endless games and woke them up with a cowbell in the morning.

Over the years the vacations have morphed again. My mother can no longer manage the trip. My uncle has passed away. My sister, cousins, and nieces and nephews are again making annual visits and actively participating in maintaining the cottage. Now we have a lot of different personalities trying to make decisions, coordinate vacation time, and generally get along. My sister took over the bookwork, which was a big relief. Occasionally we are able to overlap our visits so we can spend time together at the cottage, but as our families grow and expand it gets more difficult.

So anyway, enough of the old things. This is about New Things, and we had plenty this trip. It was the first time we had brought up our friends from Michigan, the first time The Boy brought a girlfriend up, the first trip we made there without The Girl. It was the first time we'd seen the new wood stove, installed late last summer after the one that had been there the previous 90 years finally had to be replaced. It was the first time I'd been there in the fall, when the leaves were blazing with color and the lake was steaming in the cool morning air, and the first time I had to worry about flurries but not about bugs. It was the first time we drove the entire way there on the highway, which is under perpetual construction and inches along a little further north every year before petering out into a country 2-lane winding through small towns. It's the first time I've ever seen tiny freshwater jellyfish in the lake (thanks to Eagle-eye Kim). And it's the first time I've been conked on the head by a tree limb the size of my arm, requiring a 140-mile round trip to the emergency room to get stapled back together.

It means a lot to me that this trip, to this place, was the final chapter in my New Things project. I've traveled the world, but I think this is the most beautiful and tranquil place on earth. If you ever want to experience Lake Memesagamesing for yourself, contact our friends The Becks at Parolin's Cottages. You won't be disappointed.

This past year has been a great journey. I'm filled with optimism and looking forward to trying New Things until my final breath. And I pass on the challenge to you - go try a New Thing! It doesn't mean that you have to travel the world or conquer a fear or spend a lot of money. You don't need a deadline or a blog. Just reach out and experience something different that life is able to offer, good or bad, and reflect on what you get from it. At the very least, you might get a good story out of it. I hope you've enjoyed reading all of mine.


  1. Loved this blog! Thanks for sharing with us.

  2. After 34 years, you still amaze me. Your New Things touched more people than you can imagine, but no one more than me. The personal challenges I've seen you conquer, the smiles on others I've seen you make, the new memories created for so many to share, and the countless ones you've stirred inside my soul. I am so proud of you, I can't wait for the next New Thing - and if I'm so lucky, to the next 34 years.

    I love you Jess,

  3. I'm just catching up on some of the 'new things' and I have to say this is my FAVORITE!!! Thanks to you guys I was able to spend time up there and I absolutely loved it! (Plus I hear I accidentally left a polka-dotted bra up there that's quite the topic of conversation. Haha!) Thank you so much for showing me your amazing up north Canada spot and I too now have had some fond memories of Lake Memesagamesing!

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