I've lived in Toronto for more than 20 years, but some habits die hard. While I usually remember to modify the word "camp" to "cottage" when describing to Southern Ontarians where I spent my childhood summers, I sometimes forget.
"What?" they ask. "You went camping?"
"I mean we had a cottage," I explain.
There is, it appears, some mysterious border that outlines where the phrase "The Camp" is simply not understood. It might be around Algonquin Park, but I don't think the exact spot has ever been scientifically established.
I was born in a small mining town in northwestern Quebec, well into camp country. Every summer, my mom, youngest brother, Paul, and I went to the camp and stayed until September. My dad and two older brothers, Herb and Joe, worked in the mine over the summer and came out to the camp as their work (or social) schedules permitted.
I only realized how special and uniquely Canadian my childhood experience was many years after the fact. How lovely it was to dig in the sand, go on a twilight frog-gathering expedition, pick blueberries and fish off the giant rock at the far end of the beach, with no schedule, no hurry and no goal in mind. How things have changed.
My parents bought the camp, fully furnished, in the early sixties. It was the fifth of 10 camps on a private lake. My father bought the middle one as he felt it had the best beachfront.
Each year before we went to the camp, we stocked up on special provisions, the most special of which were the variety packs of single-serve cereals. Paul and I would fight over who would get to eat the Froot Loops and Corn Pops. The loser would have to eat the Bran Flakes and Shreddies.
The camp was a 30-minute drive from town - 20 minutes on the main road, then a left turn onto a side road, past the convenience store and over a bridge. At the weathered hydro pole where Joe had nailed an orange plastic ring, we turned left and opened the gate to embark on the final leg of the journey. A five-minute drive to the blind corner, honk the horn, coast down a steep hill and glide to a gentle stop at the stump behind the camp.
Our immediate neighbours were a manifest representation of the Two Solitudes. They were, to our right, a French-Canadian family with a teacup poodle named Sniff, and to our left, an Anglophone family, or more specifically a widow whose husband had built their log camp, which had been decorated by her teenage children in years past with beer tab curtains.
The widow had a fondness for du Maurier cigarettes, which she'd smoke during her frequent afternoon visits with my mother.
"It's a filthy habit," she'd say. "Don't ever start." Then she'd simultaneously sigh with pleasure and exhale, the smoke streaming out of her nose and mouth. While she smoked, my mom, who rarely drank, would have her stubby of beer.
The French-Canadian mother next door never came over, but we'd often pass her on the beach where, accompanied by Sniff, she tanned, smoked and applied baby oil.
The camp was painted green and grey, with a screened front porch that housed a large, comfortable hammock. Among the living-room furnishings were a big table and chairs, the scene of many late-night Risk games. It also had a black-and-white TV and a glider sofa that could be (and was) swung vigorously enough to hit the wall. The final item in the room, an ancient refrigerator, always contained large plastic jugs of purple, blue or red Kool-Aid.
My father displayed his weekend art projects, his paint-by-numbers, in between the wall studs in the living room, and miniature oil lamps hung from the studs on nails.
Because the living-room wall adjacent to the kids' bedroom did not go all the way up, the top bunk was an excellent vantage point from which to spy on our parents and neighbours as they played bridge into the wee hours and drank gin and tonic or Labatt 50.
When I was 8, one of the camp's three bedrooms was made into a bathroom with a toilet and a sink. I am sure the resulting outhouse decommissioning was a relief to my mother, since it was mainly her job to empty the bucket. Occasionally she would ask me to help her, and the two of us would drag it back into the bush far from the property and dump it. "Careful not to jiggle the bucket too much," my mother would warn.
We sold the camp in 1978 before moving to British Columbia. All of the contents went with it, save for one or two oil lamps that Herb had asked to keep. In the years since, I've frequented church rummage sales looking for quilts like the ones we had at the camp. I bought a few but they don't smell the same. My new shower curtain has a birch tree pattern and I am thinking of painting my condo summer-sky blue. I don't get out of the city much.
The camp's beach is now public and there's a road that runs through the back of the property. "You wouldn't like it now," a family member who'd seen it told me.
But a friend of mine who grew up in the same area mentioned that camps there were going for next to nothing now that the local mines were shutting down or scaling back.
I wonder if I should try to go home again.
Suzanne Taylor lives in Toronto.
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