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dushan milic The Globe and Mail

When I was young and the grim reaper came calling in cottage country, he looked an awful lot like Walter, who ran the general store.

Walter and his family had the type of store that was ubiquitous at one time, a place where you could get gas for the boat, minnows for fishing and ice cream for the kids.

Groceries were limited to the basics: a few loaves of white bread, milk, some canned goods and a small variety of chocolate bars.

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No shoes and no shirt were practically a requirement, not a prelude to no service. To this day, I can close my eyes and feel my sandy bare feet on the tiled floor, ice cream dripping onto my sunburned chest.

And I have another, more bittersweet, memory of that store and of Walter.

Typically, it would be mid-afternoon. We'd be lazing in the hammock, or playing badminton or splashing our feet in the water off the dock, perhaps getting the barbecue ready. Suddenly, Walter would materialize at the end of the driveway.

I have a lot of memories of Walter: fetching bait fish, filling our gas cans, counting out the change for a popsicle. Every recollection has him dressed exactly the same way: work boots, dark brown pants and tan shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows.

But when he appeared in your yard on a Saturday afternoon, he might as well have been dressed in a black cloak, holding a scythe in one hand, while summoning you with a bony finger on the other hand.

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That's because the general store had one other important function besides supplying goods you had forgotten or that couldn't survive the long drive from the city. For cottagers in those long-ago days before cellphones, the phone number of the local store was what you left with friends and relatives, to be used "only in an emergency."

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So when Walter turned up in your yard, you knew he wasn't delivering groceries or coming to wish you a nice weekend.

It was amazing how quickly the mood of one of those days would turn when Walter appeared. His visits always seemed to happen in the middle of a beautiful afternoon with everyone enjoying the outdoors. Almost as if bad news couldn't be wasted on a rainy day or a cool evening.

He never actually told us the bad news itself. It was always something simple, such as "Richard, call your brother" to my dad, or "Janee, phone your mother" to my mom.

But it was obvious there would be extremely unsettling news awaiting whoever went with Walter to place the phone call.

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Off to the store they would head, while the rest of us tried to go back to whatever we were doing. We were really only killing time, our stomachs churning, until Mom or Dad returned with the dreaded information.

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If we were "lucky," it might only be a trip to the hospital for an aunt or uncle or cousin, because of a fall. Often it was far worse. Over the next few days, conversations would take on a hushed tone and bathing suits and shorts would soon be exchanged for clothing more suitable for a funeral.

One time, Walter must have been tied up at the store. One of his older sons appeared in the yard with the message to call a relative back in the city. I sometimes wonder whether that particularly unpleasant task was the reason none of them took over the store after Walter retired.

It was just as well. General stores in cottage country have gone the way of the outhouse. The lake where we spent our summers once had half a dozen; now there is only one. Cottages today have all the appliances of the kitchen back home, meaning trips to the store for ice cream or milk aren't essential.

Technology has also eliminated the necessity of leaving a number with those back in the city to be used "in emergencies." Many cottages have land lines and everyone has a cellphone. There is no longer a need for cottagers to have the Walters of cottage country serve as death's emissary.

Well, no need for most people.

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My wife and I recently joined the cottaging ranks. We purchased a place in what seems to be one of the last areas of this country without dependable cellphone service, which to me is actually a plus. It's pretty rustic, and we have no intention of getting a land line for the few weeks a year that we are there.

At the same time, we're on a lake where the last general store disappeared many years ago. We'll have to figure something out. Maybe a neighbour with a phone will unwittingly take on the role of our Walter.

Barry Ward lives in Barrie, Ont.

Illustration by Dushan Milic for The Globe and Mail.

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