Returning to Our Roots

In the fall of 2005, my sister and I visited our family cottage with my dad. He was dying and wanted to go there for the last time with his daughters. As we sat in the small living room, autumn leaves falling outside on a gray day, I asked, “Dad, what would you like us to do with the cottage after you die?” He listed three things: keep it; buy the adjacent piece of land so we would have a larger footprint; and, plant a tree behind the cottage in his memory.

Twelve years later, we did two out of the three things. We kept the cottage and my sister purchased the land next door. I feel guilty every so often that I did not plant a tree as per my dad’s dying wish. But I never really understood his request. The cottage is in the middle of an already dense forest.

My parents bought our cottage, in the Gatineau Hills, in the 1970s while they were still married. My memories of us there as a family run hot and cold. There were many good times, especially on hot summer days when we spent most of the day liberated outside — sunning on the dock, waterskiing, picking raspberries. But in winter, our cottage was too small to absorb the negative sparks generated by our parents. And there was nowhere to go.

Visiting our cottage is like stepping back in time. It has changed barely at all in the forty years it has been in our family. Just an older version of the original, like me and my sister who inherited it. The siding has faded, the all-weather carpet is worn, the mesh in the windows is ripped. But for the most part, it looks the same as it did decades ago.

Anita has been the primary caretaker of the cottage and my dad’s legacy there. She has a bigger dose of my dad’s pioneering spirit and engineering genes. She loves to solve problems whether it’s how to replace a busted door in a frame that has long shifted from any standard size, rescue a runaway dock, or fix rotting stairs. She dutifully opens the cottage at the start of every cottage season, encouraging family and friends to use it. She is in her element there; much like our dad.

I have mostly ignored the cottage, both when my dad was alive—there was one decade where I didn’t visit at all—and since he’s died too. I’ve often wondered aloud, to the consternation of my sister, why we keep the cottage despite my promise to my dad. It’s a five-hour drive from our Toronto homes and in dire need of a reno. But two weeks ago, I saw more clearly what the cottage means to Anita and perhaps what it means to me too. On the last Saturday in September, Anita asked me to go to the cottage with her, to close it for the season. It was her birthday so I was hardly in a position to refuse.

Normally, it would be cool up north at this time of year, with a growing bed of crimson leaves gathering on the ground. This time it was insanely and very unseasonably hot. The lake was buzzing with activity—kids in paddleboats, their little dog along for the ride; a man trying to stay upright on a windsurfer while his friend coached him from his canoe; us swimming to the rock at the end of our bay, our limbs occasionally tangled in the long stems of water lilies. Anita saying over and over again, “This is the best birthday.” I know she was talking to me but also to our dad. It’s impossible to miss his ghost.

On Sunday morning, Anita insisted we do a run-walk around the lake. She has an impeccable sense of direction, again inherited from our dad. She can navigate the unmarked roads without missing a turn. We bumped into other women running solo or walking in small packs. Everyone stopped to talk, and we found ourselves asking the others, “How long have you had a cottage here?”

We weren’t really interested in their answers, predicting correctly the longest tenured cottagers had been here barely more than a decade. But we wanted them to ask us about our history with this place. And an opportunity to mention, “These are our roots.”

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