Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"Cottage and Camp"

It is generally understood that summer in Toronto is a sweltering sweat bath.

I say this with the experience of a person who spent not a single youthful summer in Toronto. Why would I want to? It is generally understood that summer in Toronto is a sweltering sweat bath.

Till the time I was nine, I spent my summer vacations at a small, rented cottage in Jackson’s Point, an easygoing community fifty miles north of Toronto, (and incidentally the home town of comedian Jim Carrey.)

Alspector’s was a complex of about eight or so cabins of varying square footages, surrounding on three sides (the fourth side was the road) a sodded, communal courtyard, behind which, after traversing an intervening wooded area – which felt a mile long when I was kid but was actually fifty yard – sat Lake Simcoe.

A noteworthy fixture was an outdoor pump, to which residents, pails in hand, would pilgrimage over and crank up their drinking water.

Just south of Alspector’s loomed the venerable Tides Hotel, which featured an expansive front verandah, bedecked with white-painted, wicker chairs and ottomans one could imagine comforting emigree Southerners, mint julips in hand, sitting out the Civil War in small cottage town in Northern Ontario.

The Tides was owned by bald-headed Tommy Brown, who was also the proprietor of a heavily frequented Toronto eatery called the Noshery, whose irresistible specialty dish was Kishka-a-la-Tony. Tommy Brown’s other claim to fame, at least for me, was that he was the older brother of one of my Day School Hebrew teachers, Mar (meaning Mr.) Brown, who was similarly bald-headed.

On the other side of our cottage complex was a private cottage belonging to the Gordons, whose parents were longtime friends of our family. I remember making my way through a well-worn opening in the property-dividing hedge, to spend time with a Gordon daughter my age named Roesa (that spelling may not be correct), whiling away balmy (and stormy) summer afternoons, intensely engaged in card games, like Go Fish and War.

When the heat became too oppressive – air conditioning being unavailable, though there was a man who regularly tonged in breadbox-sized blocks of ice – we would slip on our bathing suits and race to the lake. (I’ve never really “raced” anywhere. It just seemed like a colorful descriptive.)

As I mentioned, to reach the lake, it was necessary to walk through a, what seemed to me as a child to be a forest, but it wasn’t. There was a cleared pathway bisecting that “forest”, which delivered us to the water. I was constantly instructed to wear some foot covering when heading to the lake, not only because there were pointy twigs on the pathway, but because, Lake Simcoe, by the shore, had a stony bottom, and it was necessary to don protective footwear while bathing.

I recall once, in my haste, or as a frail exercise in childhood rebellion, crossing the “forest” barefoot. The next thing I knew, a local country doctor was wielding a pair of sturdy pliers, extracting about a thousand splinters from the bottoms of my feet.

Don’t expect any more drama than that in the “cottage” posting. That was about as exciting as it got.

Another highlight of the “cottage experience” was my bath. (I’m telling you, not a lot happened.) Our cabin was not provided with a bathtub. So my ever resourceful mother would arrange two chairs in the kitchen so they were facing each other, and on top of them, she’d set a large cast iron tub, which she used for scrubbing dirty clothes and also, if memory serves, the Sabbath chicken.

My mother then filled the tub with water that she’d heated on the stove, after which, I would climb in, unclothed of course, though entirely lacking in privacy – I was sitting in the kitchen! – and dutifully take my bath.

Seems a little archaic doesn’t it?

“Excuse me, Mum. There’s a Mr. Dickens at the door. He would like to check out your bathing arrangement for his book.”

And so it went. For two months, I would happily squander my summer days vacuuming down comic books – my favorites being Uncle Scrooge and Tarzan – playing card games with the neighbor girl, and splashing away in a shore-hugging area of lake, as I, as yet, did not know how to swim.

To break the monotony – though I never once viewed it as such; I have a high tolerance for “sedentary” – my Mom and I would venture into town, where, for a reasonable fee, you could rent a horse and buggy, and for half an hour, you could clip-clop around the environs, all by yourself. (I imagine liability concerns would preclude such “lawsuit waiting to happen” activities today.)

Traditionally, late Friday, Mr. Dad, who died when I was six, would drive up from Toronto to spend the weekend with his family. Friday evenings, I can remember an excited, five year-old Earl, stationed on a white-painted rock, situated directly out front, by the side of the road.

I recall a shack-like concession stand directly across the street that sold Saratoga Potato Chips in a shiny, silver bag, and my favorites, shoestring potato chips, packaged in clear cellophane, allowing you to savor the enticing, crunchy potato sticks inside. I’d pick up a bag of one or the other, and just sit there on that rock, munching my snack, and waiting for my Dad.

During those early years, from I don’t know when to age eight, my summer cottage experience was invariably relaxed, uneventful and calm, which suited my activity-averse personality just fine, in contrast to my impending summer camp experience, which did not.

Though it did change my life.

Tomorrow: The antithetical antidote to “cottage.”



Michael Charters said...

Very nice, Earl. Sounds a lot like my childhood in Bermuda. Maybe the British influence. One of our most exciting events was when we would all pile into my Dad's Sunbeam Talbot and drive from Somerset all the way (10 miles or so) to Hamilton to buy cases of orange soda.

JED said...

The image that affected me the most in this story was that of an excited five year old waiting for his father to arrive for the week-end not realizing that he would lose him in the next year. That is just so sad and it makes me choke up every time I think about it.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; summer in Toronton is best taken somewhere other than the city. Lake Simcoe is a good bet because it beats the hot and humid of Toronto. Do you remember cicadas?

Mac said...

Brings back great memories. I had a holiday in a lakeside cottage up there about 15 years ago. Near a town called Sudbury, but it was way out in the woods. Idyllic place, swimming in the lake every morning.
I also hired a canoe and got lost (on a lake, I know) and my girlfriend at the time told me we'd probably get attacked by snapping turtles in the water or eaten by bears if we landed. But as she was in a hell of a mood I couldn't work out if she was just trying to terrify me, or if we could realistically get mauled to death (or snapped to death).
Apart from that, it was a fabulous holiday - beautiful part of the world. Thanks for sharing.

PALGOLAK said...

Come on Earl! You are baking your cake and eating it too.

You are allowed to whine about winters in Toronto or summers in Toronto, not both!

I used to complain about the winters, but as I age I have switched and complain exclusively about the summers.

Kathryn Hartog said...

I assure you that summer in Toronto is indeed a sweltering sweat bath. A few summers ago I went to the ROM and immediately went inside where the nice, nice air conditioning lives.

Zaraya said...

Dear Palgolak; fall is the only good season in Toronto and as a child it's ruined by the start of school. Maybe Earl will have a reminiscence about the Don Valley's Fall Colours.


Anonymous said...

I just Googled The Tides Hotel and found your blog. It brought back great memories. Mind you, I never wandered next door to Alspector's because it looked kind of creepy to me, but I'm surprised we didn't cross paths. Or maybe you were too busy hanging out with Roesa.

Anyway, to set the record straight, my dad owned the Tides--and nobody called him Tommy. Not even my mother. He was Tom to everyone who knew him. Plain Tom Brown, and proud of it because that was the name he received from the immigration officer when he arrived in Canada--and he had great respect for uniforms. I admit he added a middle initial in high school to give himself a dash of penache. He was a champion penman and a W allowed leeway for style.

But Tom was bald. I'll grant you that. Very bald. As was my uncle Alex, whom you remember fondly as your Hebrew school teacher.

Of course, Uncle Alex was an academic, which may explain why he wasn't satisfied with Al and gave himself a three-syllable name.

Just thought I'd mention it. Thanks for the memories.