I spent my childhood summers in Canada’s Laurentian mountains, finding meaning in the shadowy faces of the clouds and marveling at the occasional mole darting through the dew and under the cedar trees. Mom boiled our sheets in a pot on the stove and my job was to fetch water from the spring. It was “Little House on the Prairie” in my head. I pictured myself wearing ruffled pinafores and cork screw curls. I secretly wished it was the 1880s, forgetting women had no rights then, but it was the 1980s and this wasn’t lost on me. My Madonna tapes and Judy Blume books were purposely left home in the city, as was my former self — eager to forget the school year and the whispering flautists from band.
My escape to Canada every July had an uncanny way of letting me start over. Eventually. The transition was riddled with stomach aches that my family chalked up to the minerals and sulfur from the lake water. Dreaded dreams of missing a final exam or showing up at school with no shoes were finally over when I started in on a good book. By day four I was good and munching on a Coffee Crisp, an exceptional Canadian chocolate bar that they should share with other countries.
Spring water is cold and ours bubbled up from the ice age bedrock in abundance by the lake, which was down an overgrown path by the house and past the woods. Someone, maybe my great grandfather, who had bought the property after a forest fire, had built a wooden box to house the spring. I had to lift the top carefully, for one of the hinges had fallen off. Wild roses and raspberry bushes surrounded the spring and I was weary of thorns and daddy long legs as I stooped down and scooped the water. I used a mustard-colored ceramic pitcher engraved with daisies that felt too heavy to hold on the way back as I stumbled and spilled cold water on my bare feet. This is when the chore became less Norman Rockwell and more Call of the Wild because I was alone in nature and that is scary. Fear washed over me as I dodged the possible wolverine lurking by the maple tree. Wolverines can really hurt you. Then I’d freeze mid-step as snakes rustled in the tall grass. Toads of course are harmless but not when you step on one so I was alert. If it was dark, I’d duck so the bats wouldn’t brush up against my hair, or worse, get tangled in it.
Time with trees and space and quiet means thoughts and that can be bad. You can feel restless, morose, bored. If you can actually get past that and resist the distraction of say, anything electronic, you end up getting creative. That can also be bad. But if you get past that, then you have created an inner world, and that’s great. A cushy sanctuary in your head is a place to chill when you’re feverish and searching for the cool underside of a pillow. Or when your boss gets up to close the door. Or when you’re just so upset over– blank. To create that inner world takes slow living, like slow food. And who has time for that? I did back then and it has helped me now.
My Canada. Oh, Canada. Those mountains, the butterflies on the golden rod, the rhubarb and pea soup. The smell of hay and cedar and freedom. This feeling continues to act as a calming balm today when life speeds ahead like a gazelle, as it often does. Not sure how I keep this with me. My mom’s unwavering dedication to spend every summer with her kids in the wilderness was clear because she was always happy and content. We had a poster of birds flying on the wall. It said, “we can because we think we can.” That was mom’s positive attitude and it rubbed off on us. I asked her recently if she was ever bored during those long days, being a non-driver and spending so much time with her five kids. There was no TV or local camps. Mom’s answer was simply put: “I loved it.” I needed more from mom because I’m not so sure I can totally hack the wilderness now, with the kids. “It was beautiful. I was in nature,” she added. It was preposterous to think there was any other way to live when we were with her, sitting hours in the row boat, waiting silently for the otter to emerge from his watery den. We’d pick lettuce from the garden and walk a mile to the store to buy food when dad was home in the city. “I’m not sure what we ate,” mom recalls nonchalantly.
This remote Canadian spot surfaced on GPS recently. Sears successfully delivered a mattress (not sure the truck liked getting stuck in the mud). If we pay $1,000 Canadian dollars, a technician will climb to the top of the giant spruce tree in front of the house and weave an antennae into the branches for possible WIFI. Possible WIFI, meaning spotty, meaning what’s the point? We have made numerous attempts to get better communication. Really. It’s pretty baffling that we can’t seem to get internet here because we do like people and we want to get our work done. It just hasn’t happened yet and so we remain remote. None of this is ludicrous. It’s our normal for a bit and we all hope the new generation gets something from this.
When I kiss the kids good night, smelling of lily pads and OFF, I wonder if they are working on their inner world, their comfy sanctuary. They can if they think they can.
Molly MacDermot is a noted expert on teens and has served as Editor in Chief of the teen magazines M, QuizFest, AstroGirl, and J-14.