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Summers in New Brunswick are short and, in my hometown ringed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Fundy, almost endlessly fog-bound.
By the time I was 8, my parents had grown tired of spending summers amid the tidy lawns of our neighbourhood. Their search for a quiet retreat in the country led to the purchase of a ramshackle structure and several acres of dense forest that we’ve always referred to as “the camp” – a Maritime-accented equivalent of what most of the rest of the country refers to as “the cottage.”
Our camp was not quaint or rustic in the Muskokan or Laurentian sense of the words. Our A-frame was undeniably shabby, with a tin roof that rang with the echoes of heavy rain, and a bathroom that consisted of a tiny water closet on the porch with a crooked door.
My father is fond of recounting a story, well embellished through the years, of arriving at the camp after a week at work to find his wife and three city-raised children wild-eyed and ravaged by early-June black flies.
Undeterred by our rookie mistakes – arriving in the midst of black-fly season, swinging screen doors carelessly wide, taking a seat on the smouldering lid of a Coleman camp stove – we settled into an easy rhythm, and the chasm between our city selves and our camp selves widened with every passing week.
On the drive to the camp that marked the beginning of each summer, my siblings and I would be crammed in the back of the minivan with coolers full of groceries and a yowling cat, unhappily confined to a carrier.
We’d gleefully take note of the passing landmarks. Wisps of fog snaking across the highway as we approached the frothing expanse of ocean bordered by New River Beach marked the halfway point of our trip.
The first person to spot the neon sign of the fish-and-chip stand at the exit off the main highway was obliged to alert the rest of the car with a shout and swift punch to the upholstered roof overhead.
When the van turned onto the narrow, tree-canopied dirt road that led to the camp, the simultaneous click of our unbuckling seatbelts and whoosh of my parents’ unrolling windows signalled that we hadn’t just got there – we had arrived.
At the camp, we were wild children. Slick as minnows under the lake’s surface, we spent hours underwater in our protected cove, emerging ravenous and exhausted. In the evenings, we played cards and poked at the embers in the wood stove, our faces flushed from the radiating heat.
The nights were often cold, and our parents, relishing the novelty of rustic life, heated bricks on the stove for us to place at the bottom of our beds to warm our cold feet. We slept soundly, close enough to hear each other’s breathing slow into sleep.
By the time I turned 14, the mercurial moods of adolescence made me dread our weeks of family togetherness at the camp, though my parents were kind enough to euphemistically refer to my bouts of irritability as me simply “getting unhinged” after too much time in the country.
The ongoing joke in my family, that I wasn’t cut out for camp life, was seemingly confirmed by my decision to leave the East Coast after high school and head for Montreal, and later Toronto, where my big-city peers cheerfully describe the place I grew up as somewhere they “drove through once.”
When I met my partner several years ago, we revelled in the differences in our childhood landscapes.
She was raised in downtown Toronto, her summers filled with trips to art galleries, museums and music camps. She was endlessly bemused by the image I painted of myself as a child: fearless and unkempt, jumping from the back of pickup trucks.
I brought her home to meet my parents, who were eager to offer her the full Maritime experience and insisted we spend several days at the camp.
Unspoken in the invitation was this: The suitability of potential partners is determined by a camp-based litmus test conducted by my family. Does the person complain about a lack of privacy, a hairdryer or an indoor shower? Most important, can they get up on a pair of water skis behind a speedboat driven by my father? My sister once lamented that she couldn’t possibly imagine herself with a man who couldn’t water-ski as well as my father or brother.
Luckily for both of us, my partner showed unflagging enthusiasm for the idiosyncrasies of camp life, which immediately endeared her to my family. She even water-skied.
When we announced that we were getting married, my parents bought a rainbow flag, and in their very conservative part of the country, they flew it proudly from the top of the camp’s boathouse.
At our wedding in Toronto, my sister and father both gave speeches punctuated with anecdotes about our summers at the camp.
Far from the coast of my youth on my big day, accustomed to the unceasing thrum of the city, my eyes stung with tears at the memories of us as children – our hands skimming lupins, the smell of blackened kindling and the view of five birch trees outside our front door that my mother always said represented each of us.
Margo Foster lives in Toronto.