In 1960, the year Mark was a born, my parents with my paternal grand-parents, bought a 21-acre piece of lake-side property north of Huntsville, Ontario. The Camp, as we came fondly to call it, has ten cabins, each on private, wooded lots, most with their own water frontage and docks, on beautifully picturesque forested property beside the soft mineral waters of Eight-mile Lake. The lake is part of a very long and historic river system. The camp is still up and running but is now owned and operated (since the mid 80s) by my eldest sister, Eva and her family.
The Camp was an integral part of my childhood and it was instrumental in my becoming an outdoor, nature and wildlife enthusiast. You see, as soon as the school year finished, Mom and Dad would have us packed up in the huge boat they called a car and we would move, lock, stock and barrel, up to the camp for the two months of the summer holidays. We never returned to the city during the summer. The City, in the summer, was a place where the less fortunate had to live.
Driving to the camp was always an undertaking. There would often be five or six of us in one car at a time for two hours straight. Once we were in, it was the lake or bust. Dad didn’t dare stop for anything. He had already gassed-up the boat and if one of us had to pee, it would be at the side of the highway, no kidding. That two-hour drive seemed to last forever, such was my happiness and eagerness to get there. Once we would pass Gravenhurst, we would be into The Rocks where the Canadian Shield would start to show its lumpy head. The Rocks was the first milestone that proved we were making progress. The Rocks we would say to each other and grin and point, then poke at each other in anticipation of all the fun the summer would surely hold for us.
The lake was the best place in the world to be in the summer and oh, how we pitied, for once, our neighbours, The MacNeils who only got to go on a short summer holiday somewhere closer to Walden. One or two of the MacNeils would usually come to visit at the lake and stay for about a week. Never the whole family though.
Once at the lake, life became a little simpler and a lot more basic. We would shed our shoes and heavier clothing and run around for hours at a time in shorts, tee shirts or just bathing suits. I can remember days filled with hours of swimming, canoeing, running back and forth to the trampoline, playing outdoor games and having the time of my life. All of us became expert swimmers, canoeists, fishers and water-skiers thanks to the black, soft water of Eight-mile Lake. I was swimming by the time I was three. I would spend hours in the water and became such a great underwater swimmer that people would often think I had drowned because I could hold my breath and swim underwater for so long.
The Camp had a built-in source of friends every summer. Nine of the cabins would be rented out to various families who had usually made bookings for them in the winter months. The campsites would also be filled up with people on vacation from the hotter, muggier climes of southern Ontario and of the northern United States. The odd time we would have customers from somewhere exotic like Germany or France. We would make friends one summer and then see these same people and their families return for several summers to follow. Together, my friends and I would explore the camp and surrounding area. We would swim, trampoline, canoe to town, walk to town, go for a hike, go fishing, go bull-frog catching, play hide-and-go-seek and have amazing sing-songs around the camp fire and under the vast starry sky at night. We were constantly on the go. We had a lot of good times. On rainy days we would play board games and spin-the-bottle above the work-shed that we called The Shop. Dad didn’t like us to have friends into The Office where he was trying to conduct business. (There were many fights about keeping The Office – our house where we ate and slept – professional and quiet. It was very difficult to keep it so serene especially with the screen door always slamming on the way out.) Slam it! Dad would sarcastically yell from his inevitably prone position on the couch, with the newspaper. Conducting business was exhausting work. Meanwhile, Mom had already probably cut three huge grassy cabin lots, cleaned and dug four grimy, foul outhouses and had nothing but an open-face sandwich, a cup of black coffee and a gingersnap for lunch.
Saturdays were the worst days of the week at the camp. Saturdays were turnover days. All of our friends would be leaving and because we had so many chores on Saturday, we often didn’t even get a chance to say our good-byes. From the crack of dawn, we would be tasked with cleaning the cottages, picking up the garbage, cutting the grass, painting and making repairs. Of course, we had many of these same tasks on a daily basis but on Saturday we had a new element involved: time constraint. We had to have it all done before the new customers would begin to arrive and would be expecting their cabin or site to be absolutely sublime. When I was little, I would work closely with Amy, Eva or my mom on cabin cleaning. I would marvel at how quickly and efficiently they could complete a task. I would wish and wish that I was older and more capable, and I would try very hard to keep up with these experts but, I was a child and had the attention span of a child so I would find myself wishing I were swimming instead. Mom knew my love of the water and so would give me a task that would take me down to the dock. I would be given a large blackened kettle to scrub with sand or told to sweep off the dock! A few years later though, I was in charge of cleaning some cabins on my own, or with Luke as my assistant. Wanting to do the very best job, we drew up a list of the various tasks that would have to be completed in each cabin. It went something like this:
Make the beds. Wipe the bedroom furniture down. Sweep out the bedrooms. Clean and sanitize the fridge. Remove any left food and bait. Organize the cupboards. Blacken the wood stove and empty the ashes. Sweep down the cobwebs. Clean and sanitize the sink
Clean out the outhouse and drop ashes down the hole. Sweep and mop the floor. Sweep the porch. Sweep the dock. Tidy up the outdoor firehole.
Dad was very proud of this list that we drew up and he would show it to some of his friends and they would all have a chuckle over it – especially the sweep down the cobwebs line. Even now, when I sometimes help Eva with the cleaning, I mentally run over this list as I lovingly go about the task of cleaning those rustic, very special but ancient cabins.
Dad had a few nicknames that were given to him by the older boys: Cheapskate, Tightwad, Lard-ass, Oaf, Ogre, Moose and Minnie. Moose and Minnie were the ones that stuck although, on occasion, when Job was mad about something, and he was often mad about something, he would refer to Dad as that cheap tightwad or that Lard-ass or something akin to that. Nicknames were big in our family. From the second my Dad laid eyes on me he nicknamed me. I had all this black hair and my skin was a little brownish in colour. I was not cute. I became known as Petite Laid, meaning little ugly and later this was shortened to just Titty. I can still feel the humiliation, as a young girl, perhaps just starting to develop, Eva would holler across the aisles of Woolworth’s, Titty, come over and take a look at this. Just the other day, when on the phone, long-distance with Eva, she slipped and called me Titty. Oh my God, where did that come from? she asked. We just had a chuckle over it. Now, a couple of decades later, I think it is a cute nickname. Back then, we all had a nickname, except for Eva. Amy was Doobie and Big Sweets. Matt was Feebert and then just Feeb and then Feb. Mark started out as Goobie-Goo and then got Bert. Job got Bert as well. I got Titty and then Ditch. Luke got Bert then Bertrum Brothers then Buttox. Mom was Big Bubbles. She used to leave the kettle on until there were lots of big bubbles and Dad used to goad her about that calling it a waste of energy.
Raising a family of seven kids, on a teacher’s salary, means that frugality is necessary. One day, at the lake, Job climbs out of bed and down the ladder from the loft. He decides to cook up some breakfast before starting on his morning chores. Noting that Dad is on the riding-mower out front, he decides to take some extra time and savour the peace of being alone in the office. He can just about taste the crispy bacon and eggs he will make.
Job pulls a pound of bacon out to the fridge, takes one look at the generic brand, and is so disgusted by how fatty it is that he flies out the screen door and whips the pound of bacon at Dad on the riding mower. The pound of bacon hits Dad on the back of the head while Job yells, Minnie you’re such cheapskate!
Dad would try very hard to stick around The Office most of the day. He liked to be there to collect the mail and to answer the phone and to sell a bit of ice and worms or gasoline to the customers. Of course whoever paid in cash made him very happy. Dad had a perpetual role of twentys in his pocket and would often get one of us, especially me, because I was honest, to count it for him.
Anyway, during the warm afternoons while the Northern Canadian sun danced on the large south-facing windows of the office, and the house flies buzzed angrily on the fly-catchers, Dad could invariably be found snoozing on the couch with his newspaper on his chest. Dad had bought a couple of massive, partially rusted deep freezers second-hand and they lined the north-facing exterior walls of the office with ICE printed on front and each sporting a Yale pad lock. Dad would tediously freeze huge blocks of ice in discarded fridge crisper bins. He’d then put the bin up on its edge on the kitchen table and it would begin to thaw and drip on the kitchen floor and then finally, it would yawn and tumble out. Dad would most often be there to stop the block from smashing on the floor. Here we go kids, another couple of blocks of ice to sell. Make sure to tell the customers that we sell ice down here at the office.
Mom would just watch this process and tisk, tisk at the water she would later be seen mopping up. That Man. She would mutter under her breath. Dad would then, almost lovingly, wrap the blocks in old newspaper and sell them to the customers for a buck or two, as inflation dictated. Dad seemed to enjoy the process of making and selling ice and could be seen smiling dreamily as he slid the beef-laden freezer baskets out of the way and lay another completed block in its bed in the bottom of the massive freezer.
One afternoon, while Dad was snoozing on his back on the couch, a slim, curly dark-haired, handsome seventeen-year-old Mark decided to have a steak dinner. At that point in time, Mark was on the outs with Dad and was staying in one of the unrented, less popular cabins. Mark or Job and even Matt were often on the outs with Dad. Usually it was over a lack of respect. Personally, I don’t think there was much respect flowing in either direction in these relationships. Mark sauntered up the office screen door, to verify what he suspected would be the scene at that point in the afternoon. He then whipped out a screwdriver and proceeded to work the screws out of the latches on one of the freezers. He was successful. He opened the freezer. Squeak, the old hinges complained loudly. Oh Shit! Sure enough, Dad had heard his freezer door opening when it had been locked. He was up and he was mad and he was coming out of the screen door. Mark had already snatched a couple of steaks and was running through the trailer park up into the camp and yelling, I got some! I got some! Dad never saw those steaks again. Dad didn’t like to run and especially didn’t like to make a scene in front of the trailer park.
The trailer park was located beside the office on the way up to the rest of the cabins and other wooded camping sites. There was one older couple who used to always take the first site and were, therefore, closest to the office. The Pattersons were excellent fishers and liked to be close to the office dock where their boat and motor was tied. Every time we would have an argument or a kafuffle in the office, which was usually a couple of times a day, Dad would say: Keep it down, The Pattersons will hear. One of these fights got pretty bad one day. Fights were about money, nick-names, laziness, poor grammar and lack of respect. This time the fight involved Mark and got extra bad and very loud. Lots of harsh words were screamed in each direction and, of course, Dad said: Shut up! The Pattersons will hear. At that point Mark flew out the front screen door, slammed it loudly, jumped off the porch, ran down past the shop and right past The Patterson’s tent-trailer and screamed, at the top of his lungs, FUCK THE PATTERSONS! A few years later Mr. Patterson died of a heart attack while seated in his lawn chair. He had been looking out at the lake. His ashes were scattered over his favourite fishing hole.