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My Mum sent me a real-estate listing today. It turns out that my uncle is selling the old family cottage where we spent our summers when I was a kid. And since nobody in the family can afford to buy it, pretty soon it will no longer be a part of the family at all.
It is strange that I’m mourning the loss of a place I haven’t seen in years. The last time I was there, I was 16. It was just after the ownership had passed to my uncle, and Mum had recruited me to help my Gramma pack up the last of her things.
If I had known I wouldn’t see the place again, I might have made a proper goodbye. Then again, with the spirit of cultivated detachment that goes with mid-teenhood, I might not have.
Summers at the lake stretch back in my mind as far as anything. Most of it is hazy – fishing for minnows off the dock; painting the floor of the sleeping cabin; the smell of wet bathing suits and wetter dogs; barbecues; tree houses; cans of pop stored in the cold spring.
In the centre of it all was my Grampa.
If you asked me to relate one complete memory of my Grampa, I might be hard-pressed to do so. But I can tell you that he was there. He was there on the dock in the sun, he was there lighting the woodstove, he was the sound of Nintendo games coming from the living room and the aroma of stew wafting up the stairs from the kitchen.
Grampa was the arbiter of table manners and of saying grace before meals. He was the only grown-up who knew the names of the block-people – the dolls I'd made by drawing faces on wood scraps – who inhabited the screen porch facing the lake.
My grandparents’ bedroom was a sea of books, boxes, papers and oddities – a sprawling collection that has followed Gramma through countless moves, and still survives (and grows!) to this day.
In that cottage bedroom, amid a veritable jungle of stuff, was a tiny, paneless window no bigger than a dinner plate. It was Gramma’s special window that looked over the living room below. She told me once that any time she was feeling sad, she would sit at that window; Grampa would see her, head upstairs, and put right whatever might be wrong. As a child I always believed it to be a sort of magic window.
After Grampa died, the manifestations of his absence happened slowly, in pieces, for our family. There was a sense we had lost our calm centre. I’m guessing that as much as he was the arbiter of table manners, he had also been the arbiter of family disputes.
Minor tensions reared themselves more visibly than before. Most of them resolved with time. One of them just wouldn't.
I am not entirely sure what happened between my uncle and the rest of the family. Whatever transpired ended sadly, in that estranged-relative story that is familiar to all too many people. I haven't seen or heard from him since I was a teenager.
His disappearance from our lives took with it the cottage. But it was always a small comfort to know that, in a very technical way, it was still the family’s cottage. This latest piece of news – the sale, I mean – is the last stage in a protracted process of loss.
I imagine that sometime soon, someone will trek down the rocky dirt road with a realtor to view the cottage. They will see everything only at face value – three bedrooms, two docks, a sleeping cabin and Grampa’s garden, which I'm sure looks nothing like the tended green paradise it once was. But there is so much they won’t be able to see.
They won’t see the piles of junk that once filled the master bedroom, or the ghosts of beloved family dogs whose spirits, I’m sure, still paddle about in the lake.
They won’t be able to see the ruins of the block-people city on the screened porch. They certainly won’t see Gramma’s magic window, which my uncle boarded up in the name of practicality.
These little things are what filled that place for generations, like invisible cobwebs of memory covering every wall.
Nothing is immutable. The people, the places, the things we love can be, and too often are, taken from us. But that doesn’t make them any less enduring. The very lucky among us are left with happy memories in which to carry around the light of other days .
For myself, I know this: that there will never be any overgrown gardens or boarded-up windows in the cottage that lives in my mind. That particular incarnation is mine to keep, untouched by death or change, frozen and unmoving in the crystalline past.
As for the other cottage, the one made of nails and boards, it bears little resemblance to the one I knew not-so-long ago.
But I like to believe that one remaining straggler of the block people remains.
I imagine he's found new employment as a door stop, his marker-drawn façade fading, the last relic of summers that now live in dusty photo albums.
And behind the fading ink of his lopsided eyes is the memory of another, much younger, me, and the people I have been lucky enough to know and love in the house that built me.
Amy Friel lives in Toronto.
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