Have you ever smelt a certain smell, or heard a particular song and felt as if you were instantly thrust back into childhood? Almost as if you never left. Sometimes all it takes is one whiff, one melody, one moment of nostalgia and just like that, you’re swept right back into the abyss of youth, hot dog relish dripping down your chin, dirt caked to your feet, eyes bloodshot from swimming all day, hair permanently damp, your front teeth wobbly and the oily glean of sunscreen soaked right through your skin.
Nothing else in the world has the power to transport me right back to that dreamy kingdom of girlhood quite like returning to a small wooden cabin on the borders of Ontario and Quebec.
An impossibly fertile terrain etched with rugged forests of fir, beech and pine, pastoral lands and glacial lakes, saccharine maple syrup, wild deer and brown bears, friendly neighbours and canoe rides, of cold beers and campfires, nature and silence.
The children of parents hailing from different countries are often privileged in that they possess a unique insight into two profoundly different cultures. Two parallel worlds, each brimming with their own special magic, their own languages and cultural norms, art, music, people. Growing up in London, my sister and I were lucky to find ourselves whisked away on a plane, twice yearly, once to the native lands of my father, to the wild shores of Cape Town for Christmas, which entailed meanders along the shores of Clifton, cable car rides up Table Mountain and hours splashing about in chlorinated pools while the hot African sun crisped our British skin.
And then again, every July, to a cabin on a lake, hidden amidst a cluster of tall trees, where we’d idle away the hours reading novels or playing board games, devouring blueberry pancakes, or swimming for hours off the dock until our fingers were wrinkled into prunes, while the sound of a motor ripped through the air or a screen door slammed in the distance. Tractors and dirt and skunks and bug spray, barbecues and popsicles, crackling fires. Hot rain on asphalt, vinegary fries, dill pickle potato chips and a million precious memories.
These two destinations, so far from the dreariness of suburban England, felt like our own little clandestine pockets of sunshine and happiness, secret worlds of pure escapism.
Canada was my mothers birthplace, a world where her roots ran deep. The cottage, a small timber log cabin my parents bought in 1987, the year they married, was their first property together, their own little corner of the earth where they returned each year, with my sister as a baby in ‘90 and then again, with me in ‘93.
The cottage became a time capsule. A place in which every object, every mismatched cushion, every antique lamp, stuffed toy or old story book, every musty sleeping bag and garage sale collectable was soon personified, all playing a role in the elaborate narrative we’d replay in our minds every year while dreaming about those emerald waters. Every worn chair and rusted pan, the old brown shaggy carpet or broken gas fridge became a reminder of the years that have passed, the clock that has continued to turn, as we have morphed from babies into teens, to young adults who now have partners and husbands, who have businesses and responsibilities and real lives to return to.
Time moved so slow in the beginning and then inexplicably fast as if seemingly overnight and without warning we were plunged into the world of adulthood. And yet, as soon as we exit out of the airport doors and breathe in the smell of wood chips and pine trees – here we are again, right back in the glory days.
Imagine we could stay forever floating in the light of our childhood, protected from everything big and heavy, everything that feels too much. Wouldn’t it be glorious to be eternally at ease with the world, oblivious to the goings ons of adults, the discussions about surgeries and backache, pensions and budget cuts, black outs and hip replacements, climate change and corruption? To always sit at the children table, to splash in the lake all day and then for someone to peel off our wet clothes, bathe us in soapy suds and stick us in front of a bowl of mac and cheese, while our lids grow heavy.
Albeit, this would also mean we’d miss out on all the joys of companionship, the wonders of growing older, high school and heartbreak and the satisfaction of hard work, the joy of doing whatever we want, making out and making love, and eventually making a family. There is so much privilege in growing older. The surface of life would only just be scratched if we never changed.
And so we learn to accept our aging faces, the ever present wrinkles and achey limbs, we learn to find delight in each stage of our journey. We learn how to listen, how to be the bigger person even when we desperately wish to stamp our feet and sulk (at times we still allow ourselves the pleasure), we learn how to budget and pay bills and be the boss when the time calls. We learn how to face a mountain of grief, a reminder of all the love we once felt for those no longer with us and then, miraculously, on the other side, we find there is more life to be lived, there are more blue skies and sunny days to be submerged in, there are more moments of joy to visit. There are new silver linings to be noticed, hidden within the gloomy grey of passing thunder clouds.
And so, after 5 years away from our cabin, we returned. This time with new partners, new loves, a new chapter for each of us. This time missing our matriarch, our mother, an angel who left us three years ago in May.
But on our last morning at the lake together, my father, sister and I, paddled out in the green canoe which my parents bought all those years ago, and we sprinkled her remains into the lake, as if scattering stardust back into the night’s sky.
And after so many years living with our grief, we whispered our goodbyes into the wind. While paddling back to shore, we noticed the presence of a loon watching us from just a few meters away.
“Hi mom”, we said, laughing together at the mystery of life and death.
To the mother who was there through all those summers by the lake, her crooked toothed smile and moisturized hands, her forever warmth. The Canadian born, honey-sweet artist, wife and mother, who gave us this holy cavern in the woods, where I lost my first tooth and had my first period, where I cut my knees and climbed a million trees, where I got my first real job and recovered from chemotherapy, where I have laughed and danced and cried and played the fool, where I became the women I am today.
Some places in life are more than just places. They are more than objects and things and destinations. They are seemingly religious and ineffably sentimental.
Let us we never forget the places that have made us who we are.
Let us never take for granted the the smells that remind us of being five years old again, the music that reminds us of our mother, clicking her fingers and sashaying her hips in the kitchen of that old wooden cabin, country music reverberating out of the radio, whisky, gasoline, sunscreen, butterscotch candies and a place where I am forever young.