Back to the Elephant’s Tail
I was invited to a friend’s cottage this past weekend. My friends, D and Alpha, were driving and I was just riding along in the backseat – perhaps this is why I didn’t pay that close attention to the details.
I assumed the cottage was in Muskoka. So when we turned west at the top of highway 10 in Brampton, I was a bit confused. I wanted to be polite – perhaps Alpha, being a cop, knew a secret way to beat the Muskoka traffic. When we passed Orangeville though, I had to comment, “Um, this isn’t the way to Muskoka.” D laughed. “The cottage is up near Wiarton” she replied pulling out the directions. I was instantly excited. Heading to Wiarton would take us past my old stomping-grounds in Owen Sound and Shallow Lake. My family had spent nearly 10 years there and between the ages of 10 and 19, I’d done a lot of growing up there.
It was ridiculously thrilling. Simply to drive the familiar strip of highway through the towns of Markdale, Flesherton, Shelburne, and Holland Center brought back a wave of memories. I had to teach D and Alpha the horse and dog game that my grandma and my dad had taught us. We had to stop at Superburger to eat. We had to take pictures by the little white chapel and sign the visitor’s book. I couldn’t help but skim it for names I’d recognize, of course, seeing none. All the local friends I’d had, if still around, wouldn’t be signing a guestbook in a tourist attraction like the little chapel. I felt like a tour-guide revealing a mystical culture as I explained why some farms had tiny outhouse-like shelters at the end of their driveways for kids to stand in as they waited for their buses. We even stopped to take a picture of the round house – the one that Bev and Dorothy Cruickshank owned – the place where I first saw a border collie at work herding sheep.
We turned down Keppel 15/16 and stopped in front of our old house. According to the mailboxes, the Anderson’s still live across the road. The maple tree in the front yard is tall and happy next to the familiar rock by the driveway (or should I say “laneway”). The doors have been carefully painted dark blue to complement the paler blue siding. The decorative screen door my father crafted and painted white is still there welcoming visitors into the home. I couldn’t see into the back yard. But there is a camping trailer nestled and tucked in beside the house. The lawn is healthy and green. A few green muskoka chairs along the other side of the house hint of its occupants stealing moments of reflection and appreciation of the beautiful outdoors, the quiet neighbourhood and perhaps this beautiful home.
I had to tell D and Alpha about playing baseball in the front yard and how, if we hit the ball across the road into what was then the Maynard’s yard, it was automatically a homerun. But I couldn’t even begin to recount all the other memories – how Phil and and his oldest daughter Carla would walk together every night, how I’d bike my entire summer away with the neighbourhood kids (Alicia, Tracy, Travis, Trevor, Josh, etc.), about dirt-biking with the Bakers, about riding on the back of the Cunliffe’s riding lawn-mower while Travis mowed the lawn, about walking through the “crick” up to our waists in water, about my hamsters buried beneath the Elm tree in the back yard, about Silvey’s old run built along the side of the house, about Silvey on the roof with Dad, about thunderstorms, about the finches who would visit our feeder, about hanging up laundry on a sunny summer day and pausing to admire this piece of heaven that was ours, about planting rose bushes, about building teepees and having campfires, about tenting it in the backyard, about exploring through the forest, about crazy birthday sleepover parties and my father’s scary-hand story, about sleeping in the Johnston’s treehouse, about waiting for the bus with the big kids, about biking into town in the summer or to Allan’s store for ice-cream.
These were all lovely and comforting memories. Yet they didn’t make me long for the place. Even as I looked around, I was astonished at how isolated and barren the surroundings of Shallow Lake seemed to me. They weren’t at all the way I had remembered them. I knew I would never again want to live in the place where I grew up. I realized how you can always come back, just to rekindle those memories, but everything changes. The place will have changed. And you will have changed.