While our children were growing up, we had the use of the my husband’s parents’ cottage in the Gatineau Hills. Those days at the lake are my idea of heaven. Getting there, however, was a major undertaking. In the early days, we had a compact car into which we had to load four children, one furry dog, all our luggage, plus food and water for two weeks. It was not the most comfortable of rides. It certainly illustrated what made a compact car compact.
After packing everyone’s swimsuits, toothbrushes, towels and shorts and baking up a storm, not to forget cleaning the household to impress the mice while we were away, I would roll into bed exhausted so I could drag myself out of bed a few hours later for the car loading. We never got out of our laneway when planned. Something always needed more attention or we’d get on the road and half-way down, remember that we’d forgotten to drop off the key at the neighbour’s or we’d left something vital at home. Our neighbours must have been amused at how many times we’d return.
Inside the car, we’d have three children in the back seat, one in between my husband and I, as well as the dog at my feet. Our trip into the hills from the country took us two hours. That is two hours of children complaining about elbows in their ribs and feet on their side of the car. Then, just to make things even more comfy, we’d stop half-way to buy groceries. We squeeze back into our car, but now with the added weight of a grocery bag on each lap, because the trunk was already full. The unfortunate person who got the milk bags had to endure freezing legs (usually in shorts) all the way up to the cottage.
The road to the cottage was accessed through a farmers yard and so the gate had to be opened before we could continue. This meant that someone had to get out of the car to do the deed and there were always lots of volunteers. The road in was a gravel one with many twists, turns and dips with the children getting more excited at every landmark. Once at the cottage, we didn’t so much step out of the car as launch from it. The car doors would explode open and the children would shed their grocery burdens to rush down to the dock. At this point, their father would issue a sharp,”Hold it! No one goes anywhere until we carry in our bags.” Reluctantly, our troops would return to the car so they could hustle the groceries and luggage inside. The dog, oblivious to all the ado, would trot down to the lake to check out the frogs and fish. He never caught any, but he spent days staring into the water, fascinated by their movements.
Now, this cottage was functional, not palatial. The cottages on either side boasted running water and electric lights. Not so ours. Well, electricity did come later, but for awhile it was strictly gas lamps or kerosene. The only water we got for washing hands and dishes, came up from the lake carried by child labour (when they were old enough to carry the buckets). We had no television there, no radio and all our entertainment was found in the book case where there were stacks of board games for rainy days or books to be read aloud. Otherwise, we were in the lake, on the lake, by the lake or in the deep piney woods. Oh, yes, there was also a huge sand pile behind the cottage where to this day a number of rusted Hot Wheels may still be buried.
The heat for the cottage was supplied by a pot bellied Quebec heater stove into which we shoved logs from the woodpile beside the cottage. There were three bedrooms off the main kitchen/living room. The walls of these rooms did not go to the ceiling, so when the heater was stoked the warmth spread throughout the cottage. At night we snuggled down into our sheets under a couple of blankets and some quilts. In the morning, my husband got up and started the fire, while we all stayed under the covers, waiting until the air warmed up enough to brave the cold linoleum floor. Most mornings, father and kids got into their swimsuits and went dashing off the end of the dock, headfirst into the cool water.
After breakfast, the children would disappear out the door to explore the wilds of Quebec within a whistle’s distance from the cottage. When we eventually got a truck that could hold bicycles, the distance of their travels increased, and occasionally included a steep hill they nicknamed “Suicide hill”. A ride down this hill sometimes resulted in a few bruises sustained in a crash landing. The children also had a favourite rock they named “The Rock of Giboulder” where they would play knights or outer space. It was a wonderful playground for children.
Fishing was a great activity. The children took turns going fishing with their father, while I curled up in one of the adirondack chairs to read. My summer reading never got very ambitious beyond romance novels, of which there was an abundance. Otherwise, I would wander down to the dock and dangle my feet in the water or go in swimming with whatever children hadn’t made the rowboat. When the rowboat returned, we were all very excited to see the catch which was afloat in a bucket of water. The anglers were anxious for applause, but leery of my motives, as I am a lover of fish as a food. Unfortunately, my children did not share my epicurean enthusiasm, and most of the fish would be named and duly returned to the deeps of the lake with a sore mouth.
Rainy days at the cottage were spent with cards in our hands or around the Monopoly board. Our games tended to be loudly hilarious with the dog curled up under the table on the screened-in porch while the rain made polka dot splashes on the lake and drummed on the cottage roof. Our meals were whenever we got hungry. We had stopped looking at our watches two days into our holiday. I made simple meals; I knew a hundred different ways to cook ground beef. Clean-up meant boiling the lake water on the stove, so it was best to keep the dishes to a minimum. When we finished eating, we all returned to whatever activity we’d been doing before.
As the sun went down, my husband would light the gaslights and get out the latest book he was reading aloud to the children. He read fantasy books by Terry Brooks or by Robert Asprin , giving all the characters a voice or accent of their own. We all enjoyed those times and went off to bed happily tired from laughing.
Then again, getting ready for bed, required a trip to the outhouse with a flashlight. Not everyone’s best moment. An outhouse during the day was scary enough, as there were huge spiders lurking or maybe a wasp. At night the trip to the outhouse was just plain unnerving. It’s one thing to see and know what might lay in wait, it is quite another to imagine it. Most of us would drag our feet out there as if going to the gallows, and return at a gallop. No one ever lingered.
Oh yes, I love those memories: the cook outs, the marshmallow roasts, the long walks down shaded lanes, the serene swim at dawn on the silky smooth lake, the happy shouts of children as they splashed off the dock, paddling the canoe up behind a turtle or a loon, the mist coming off the lake, the crackling of the logs in the stove, and even the clean-up before heading home. Yes, definitely heaven. I don’t know why I’m thinking of this tonight, but I suppose the smell of spring in the air and the return of all the songbirds, makes me nostalgic for the coming of summer and summer used to mean a trip or two to the cottage. Happy days indeed.