I Want to Love the Country, but ….

The cottage

The cottage

summer 2013 054

I want to love the country. I want to breathe in fresh mountain air, watch the rising sun, hear the water slap the dock and feel sentimentally bucolic – the problem is . . . I don’t. Or, at least, such feelings don’t come easily. Besides, if I really stop to think about it, the stock images I have of woman-communing-beatifically-with-nature are taken straight from TV commercials, probably a few instant coffee, sanitary napkin and car commercials mingled together.
Let me explain: I am a city girl, born and raised in Park Extension. The most nature I saw as a child was the maple tree in our back “yard” (more a dirt square that wriggled with thousands of worms after rain), squirrels, sparrows and the odd weed that flowered between cracks in the pavement and was destined to be plucked or squashed.
My parents didn’t own a car, but every now and then they’d rent one and drive us to Long Sault Beach (which I remember as stinky) and twice to Old Orchard Beach (which I remember as marvelous). But these were not country trips per se. A few times we drove to the Eastern Townships to visit the farmer (Farmer Brown, I kid you not) who gave my father his first job when he immigrated to Canada in 1951. We loved the cows, chickens, pigs, stray cats and horse, and the narrow staircase that twisted up from the corner of the kitchen and was hidden by a secret door. Farmer Brown was so burly he had to duck and squeeze through the hole in a way that reminded us of something out of Alice in Wonderland.
But the only trip to the country country was to visit someone my father worked with at the cigarette factory, a man who had also left Europe after WWll and settled in Park Extension. This man, with whom my father fervently discussed communism, a system they both admired, bought a cottage near Rawdon. We went up with bags packed, expecting finally to have that country experience. The cottage turned out to be a one-room shack with almost nothing in it but a big table (where previous owners skinned animals judging by the stains), and the lake was a dirty swamp. The air was thick with the buzz of black flies, mosquitoes and other unidentifiable flying objects. We stayed a few hours, made awkward conversation, played tag with the son (who later became a gold prospector and bought several swamps in the area) and came home.
In my mind, I cultivated a fantasy about cottage life. It starred what I then thought was the typical upper middle class Canadian family. They owned a cottage on a lake whose water shone like glass and whose shore was ringed with tall shimmering pine trees (the type Tom Thomson liked to paint). Of course, there was a dog, a chocolate lab or golden retriever, and a canoe. The cottage was made of logs, thick and sturdy, with massive black knots, and smoke rose perpetually from its chimney, signifying eternal family warmth. In the summer, all of the aunts and uncles and cousins arrive. The kids spend hours jumping off the long pier into the cool water, holding hands as they giggle and run, their happiness echoing around the lake. Sometimes, a hot and slightly taboo flirtation kicks up between older cousins who lie sun-tanning on the wooden boards in skimpy bathing suits, rotating like pieces of toast to catch an even tan. In the evening, Dad builds a roaring fire in the open pit and kids stick wieners on branches into the flames and roast them for dinner. Mom has made a bucket of potato salad and corn on the cob from the farmer’s field down the road roasts on the bar-b-q. For dessert, the kids make s’mores. An uncle strums a guitar and the aunts sing in harmony. Everyone goes to bed feeling slightly drunk, giddy with food and sun and family bonding. The hot bedroom smells like lake water, slightly fishy, and flies buzz on the walls. Kids fall asleep listening to the crackles of the dying fire and their parents whispering as they twist tops off beer bottles and clink glasses.
It’s a scene I would have died to step into as a child.
I need to explain more: I have no cousins in Canada. My father emigrated alone, at the age of twenty-one. Neither of his siblings came with him, so all my relatives live Germany. We had quiet Christmases; apart from my mother’s mother and her bachelor brother there was never anyone else. I grew up fantasizing about cousins in many settings. The word “cousin” was almost magical to me, like it meant instant happiness, instant family fun. My husband, who has more cousins than he can count, tells me it’s more marketing-induced propaganda (Butterball, Canadian Tire, Dodge Caravan), but the fantasy persists.
So, as an adult and mother, I made sure we took our daughter to the country from time to time. We rented cottages on lakes, roasted wieners, rowed row-boats around lakes, made s’mores. We watched her and her step-sisters capture frogs in jars and uncover mouse-nests full of wriggling babies. We stopped the car on deserted roads and pointed out deer and once, a moose. We did the country thing, not to the same extent as my fantasy family, but more than I did as a child. But, always the fantasy persisted and somehow outshone the real thing (as fantasy is wont to do). Somehow, the country experience has never lived up to its ideal and has always left me slightly deflated, not to mention itchy from bug-bites.
I guess I have to face it: I am a city girl, born and bred. If I were told I could have nothing but culture or nature, I would have to pick the former. It’s in my blood and I cannot change. The country bores me very quickly; it makes me restless, like it’s something I can’t settle into. Admitting you don’t get much out of the country isn’t easy. It’s like admitting you don’t like dogs or babies. It’s something people will criticize you for. So there, I’ve said it: I don’t really care for the country, except for in very small doses.
Still . . .last summer, we rented a log cabin on a lake. It was pretty and peaceful, very close to my fantasy cottage. We drank coffee on the dock and watched the sun rise. We swam and peddled the boat over to the old mica mine. We made fires in the evening and walked in the woods. We watched the full moon rise over the lake and extend a long white arm along the water to our cabin door and heard the bullfrog blast out its song of protest among the water lilies. And on the last Sunday, my daughter and my step-daughter arrived with her husband and three children in tow. The kids jumped in the lake, took turns in the peddle-boat, and hunted for frogs. In the evening, we roasted wieners and marshmallows over the fire. No one sang, but still, there were a few moments when it all became heightened, like time had slowed down, and the air buzzed and it was lovely. It was our little family, cocooned in this beautiful setting, away from all the madness of the world.
And, in those moments, when absolutely nothing was wrong, I almost got it, what it is that draws people to cottage country.
And then the horse flies came . . .

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