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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

Cottage ownership is about family ties and emotional connection. It’s not logical.

I moved to British Columbia from Ontario several years ago. I happily sold my house, and many of the things in it, though I was unable to part with my cottage. In fact, selling it didn’t even occur to me.

My father’s family came to Canada from Scotland in the 19th century. They settled in a small town in Southwestern Ontario, and built a cottage three miles west on the shores of Lake Huron. The cottage they built at Inverhuron has remained in my father’s family for generations.

Inverhuron is integral to my family’s identity. We have returned to its rocky shores every summer for almost as long as Canada has been a nation. Our collective history was shaped by this landscape. It’s the backdrop of more than a century of family photographs. It’s the place that my family, no matter where we live, call home.

The cottage is what I remember most about my now distant childhood. The anticipation, the promise and the miraculous reality of endless unstructured days spent by the water.

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My two sisters and I scattered in the morning. Our days were spent swimming to the reef or sailing with our father. We built forts, spied on older kids and looked for pop bottles which we would exchange for candy at the general store. We washed our hair in the rain, went shoeless and wore bathing suits all day long. There was no television and we didn’t miss it. (The internet was nascent and smartphones had yet to be invented.) My best friend lived next door. We spent every day and night together and never ran out of things to say or do. The cottage made our otherwise unremarkable childhood magical.

When I was 8, my parents divorced and everything changed. For a few years, they shared the cottage, each spending a month at Inverhuron with us, though this arrangement was short-lived. My dad fell in love, remarried and had a second family. He sold the cottage we grew up in and purchased the one our forefathers built from his brother for his new family. Although my sisters and I were welcomed there, we required an invitation as we were no longer members of my dad’s nuclear family.

My sisters and I were displaced by our parent’s divorce. We lost our birthright, though as soon as we were able, each of us chose to reclaim it. We all purchased our own cottages at Inverhuron. My father and his second family had their cottage, and we each had ours. Separate and together is a dynamic that works for our family.

I was in my early 40s when I purchased my cottage. I went to Inverhuron to stay with my father and his wife after my husband died. Walking alone along on the beach I became aware of the warmth of the sun on my back and the coolness of the water splashing my ankles. Inverhuron spoke to me. It pulled my attention away from my grief and reawakened my senses. Surrounded by my family, held by a landscape I had known all my life, I was again able to feel how beautiful it is to be in the world.

I also felt safe. Inverhuron gave me the sense of security I lost first when my parents divorced and again when my husband died. It offered me sanctuary as I moved through unimaginable grief. My cottage became my oasis and touchstone.

When I was 50, I fell in love, remarried and moved across the country. The cottage was no longer an accessible retreat. Getting there became expensive and infrequent. I knew selling it was the logical thing to do, though I could not imagine putting it on the market. Just the thought of doing so made my stomach drop. It was impossible to contemplate.

It took years and a great deal of self-reflection before I was able to sell. To move forward I needed to distinguish between the things I value and am committed to, and the things I was attached to and needed to let go of.

I was attached to Inverhuron. My attachment came from a nostalgia for the freedom and security of my childhood. To let go I had to work through the impact of losing my nuclear family at a tender age, the unexpected loss of my husband as well as the more recent death of my father. It sounds absurd to talk about coming to terms with events that happened years if not decades ago, though I think many of us don’t address emotional issues until circumstances force this difficult work upon us.

Selling the cottage has been the catalyst for a long-overdue reckoning and release. It’s motivated me to work through losses I had internalized without accepting, and given me the perspective to fully embrace and be grateful for the modern family created by my parent’s choices and my own life experience.

COVID-19 prevented me from having a final stay at my cottage. A team of gloved and masked strangers packed up my belongings and shipped them West. I’m not sure if this has made things easier or more difficult, though I do know that the process of letting go has been both painful and liberating, an ending and a beginning.

I look forward to returning to Inverhuron as a visitor and know I will feel a deep sense of kinship when I am able to walk along its rocky shores.

Alexandra Montgomery lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C.

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