When the cottage is off limits
By Janet Trull
In troubled times, the family cottage seems like a sanctuary. But last week Doug Ford asked people to stay away from their seasonal residences so they do not overwhelm small communities with limited resources. Wherever you are sheltering this spring, keep a little Highlands in your heart. It's here, waiting for a summer that we will all appreciate more than usual. From personal experience, I know that just thinking about the cottage can be a great comfort.
When I was a little girl, growing up near Lake Erie, we experienced a similar kind of generalized anxiety with riots, protests, lynchings and wars. Bad things south of the border were brought to us every evening at six o'clock, courtesy of Irv Weinstein, the pock-marked newscaster on Buffalo's Channel 2.
Those events didn't seem any more real to me than the gunfights on Bonanza. Kids don't get worried until the adults get worried.
In 1963, they got worried. My teacher cried and sent us outside for an early recess after announcing that President Kennedy had been shot. My father sat in his big chair and wept during the president's funeral. For baby boomers, Kennedy's assassination marked the moment we noticed that the grown-ups were shaken up. The world must be coming to an end.
There were weekly siren drills. Wednesdays at noon, the town siren would blast its emergency message. If it wasn't Wednesday at noon when you heard the siren, you'd better kneel down and tuck your head between your knees and start praying. The bomb was already whistling through the air, coming direct from the U.S.S.R. to blow up Niagara Falls.
When Channel 2 showed people digging holes in their backyards to build bomb shelters, my dad got busy. Our house had originally been heated by coal. Big old dirty coal furnaces were nasty things with pot bellies that lurked in the corners of dark, spider-webby basements. Coal trucks emptied their dusty black loads into a coal bin. Our coal bin had been sitting empty since we installed a new oil furnace.
Dad swept out the bin. He put a few cases of canned goods in it, and a bench along either side, and a flashlight. I'm guessing the coal bin measured about six feet square, and four feet high. He invited us to try it out. I remember the horror of considering that we should all enter this cement tomb and close the heavy door.
"I'll take my chances with the bomb, Bob," my mother told him. "Kids. Don't you dare go in there. It's dirty. That coal dust will never come out of your clothes. Really, Bob! What were you thinking?î
When it came to commands, my mother's trumped my father's every time. He knew better than to argue. "Well, kids," he said. "It's here if we need it."
I looked at my mother. She shook her head.
The coal bin created in me the same kind of anxiety that many people are experiencing today with the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents want to reassure their kids, but they are not entirely convincing. The schools are closed. Schools! Those institutions where generations of parents have sent their children, knowing they will be safe. All the crafts and Disney movies in the world cannot fool the kids into thinking that nothing is wrong.
One day I asked my father what we would do if there really was a bomb. And he said, without hesitation, "We'll go to Haliburton."
Now, as far as nuclear fallout goes, we would have been no safer in Haliburton than if we stayed in Dunnville. But I did not know that. The cottage was "way up north." A magical place with a hammock and a climbing rock and deer who visited in the early morning mist. Lapping water at the end of the dock. A crackling fire in the grate. Cozy beds with flannel sheets and bedrooms without ceilings, so we could fall asleep to the reassuring sounds of grownups playing gin rummy. It would be a safe place to wait out any global threat. I felt better just imagining myself there.
Here in Haliburton County, the snow is slowly melting. Lakes are awakening with sonic rumblings. Yesterday we saw bear paw prints in the snow. Hibernation for the bears is over. They are out of quarantine!
And, before long, we will be too. The lights of the cottages will wink on. Children's laughter as they jump off the end of the dock will sound especially joyful. There is nothing better, after being away, than seeing the "You are Entering Haliburton County" sign. Like a refugee crossing the border into a bountiful land of blue lakes and rocky shores, it never fails to flood me with the feeling that everything will be OK.
Stay safe, summer friends. See you soon.