My sister Gilly and I closed up the cottage last week. It’s slowly becoming a tradition; we take my niece with us and hit the road at 9 a.m., female chatter welcome company for me as we retrace the steps of our shared history. With families of our own, we no longer make this trek together in summer, though the innumerable trips made throughout our childhood fill the car.
I watched in the rear-view mirror as Katya, 14, darted her eyes between the rapid-fire conversation that took place between me and her mom. We were laughing and stepping on each other’s sentences, often telling the same stories over and over. This is how they become embedded; this is how they become the tent poles of a childhood.
“Oh! I meant to tell you,” said Gilly. “We found out the best time to leave to head north is before 6 a.m. We got there in no time, and had the whole day.” For our entire lives, travelling to the cottage has been about finessing the best way to beat traffic, avoid traffic, predict traffic, all to get precious time at a place we never get to often enough.
“Do you really not remember dad getting us up at 4 a.m. to go to?” I asked her. It’s not surprising. We would often be bundled in our pyjamas straight from our beds into waiting nests in the back of the station wagon, little girls with no concern for the activity going on all around. My father, agitated and impatient, would be willing my not-a-morning-person mother to finish off the cooler as he crammed more tools into the car. Kids today are snuggled into bolstered car seats; we slumbered next to axes and bow saws.
The final closing-up trip always had a different feel. It’s taken me years to appreciate why my father hated it so much. He’d wait longer each year it seemed, until we’d be chipping ice from the cat’s water bowl and shivering as we’d pretend to be smoking, exhaling in the weak morning sunlight. It’s a one-season cottage he tried to stretch to three. We’d burrow under piles of blankets at night and dare each other to hold our hands in the water, the frigid lake a world away from the one we’d been jumping in just weeks before.
In his final years, we would do the closing-up, sparing him the drive he could no longer make and the chores he could no longer perform. He’d still get antsy, because he was certain we would forget to lock the shed, and someone might break in and steal 30-year-old life jackets or oars to a boat that no longer existed. Reassurances didn’t work, so several times I just plunked him in the car with his oxygen tank, and hit the road with him so he could see for himself that he’d taught us well.
With my dad, I was only a driver by proxy. He would tell me what lane to be in. He would tell me when to stop. He would tell me what that jerk up there was about to do. He would tell me where to exit, as if the route wasn’t branded into my brain. He would tell me where we could gas up, because the station farther up watered their gas. He would sigh a little as we passed the stand where we could get corn in season, because my dad believed buying a dozen ears of corn a year made him a regular.
We’d pass by the roadside landscape littered with shuttered businesses that would come back to life next year, often with new owners who believed they could make a go of it where so many others had failed. Some of the most hopeful ones – the largest, the fanciest – remained vacant the longest.
Sixteen years on, he wouldn’t recognize half the route. They’ve doubled the highway as well as the numbers of places to stop, and as far as I know, nobody waters the gas any more.
My final trip north with dad was the best one and the worst one. I didn’t know it was the last, and from the snow on the ground to a speeding ticket, it was like the planets aligned to test both of us. I got stuck as my dad used his keen hindsight to tell me I couldn’t make it up a steep snowy grade, and we snarled at each other in obvious frustration, but more likely in fear. Maybe we did know it was the last time, after all.
I glanced at Kat again in my mirror, and wondered what she’d be telling her own kids one day about a drive she’s taken so often with a man she never got to meet.