When a nasty fall sidelines her father, can writer Andrea Curtis step in to take his place as the family’s handy cottager?
The morning had the makings of what is known in my family as a “perfect Georgian Bay day”—bright, clear, a hint of a breeze. My seventy-something dad was on the south side of our small island, scrambling, as one does, over juniper bushes and rocks. He planned to unclip a motion-sensitive camera strapped to a pine tree just above eye level and slightly out of reach. The camera was focussed on an open compost pit that he maintains near the cottage—despite requests to move the pit (or lose it) because of its history of attracting bears. There had recently been some, uh, deposits elsewhere on the island, and he wanted to confirm that Yogi was visiting not just to relieve himself but to enjoy the delights of the free buffet.
Standing on a low web of branches, my dad was reaching for the camera when a grouse flew up out of the bushes right in front of him. Startled, he lost his footing and fell forward, turning to his side just in time to clip his ear on the bushes and roll onto his back. He lay there for a second, looking up at the puzzle pieces of blue sky through the tree canopy, his left leg feeling strange, as if it were cramped. He tried to straighten it and realized something was off. He couldn’t move it at all.
When my mom and my teenaged son heard his cries they figured he’d confronted a bear. They ran from the cottage, my mom wielding pepper spray and the closest thing she could find to a weapon: a five-foot-high hand-carved staff, which we call the Gandalf stick because of the large, polished piece of white quartz my brother wired on top like a magical charm.
Now, you may wonder why my dad didn’t ask his tall, capable grandson to unstrap the camera in the first place. I certainly posed this very question when I heard the news that his fall had resulted in the rupture of all four parts of the tendon attaching his quad to his left kneecap and that he would need immediate surgery, then a rigid brace for three months, plus six to nine months of rehab.
But even for me—especially for me—it’s a rhetorical question. My dad is the kind of person who rarely asks for help. He moves quickly and efficiently and doesn’t like to wait. He’s fit and active and has had little reason over the years not to trust his own physical abilities. Instead of walking back and forth from the main cottage to the boathouse, where he keeps his many tools, my dad runs. He hauls wood and water. He paints. He fixes whatever’s broken and crawls around beneath boats and buildings taking care of pretty much all the maintenance at our off-grid cottage. The man gets stuff done.
It kind of tells you all you need to know about how our cottage operates that when we picked up our other son at camp a few days later and told him what had happened to his beloved Bopa, he said, “But who will do everything at the cottage?”
Now, the rest of my family are not incompetent boobs. My mom has a full plate taking care of the food, stocking supplies such as toilet paper, Band-Aids, and sunscreen, plus child-minding and organizing most social occasions. My handy older brother does what he can—chopping wood, fixing sailboats—but only gets up north once or twice a year. And my husband, my kids, and I, who are there more often, are certainly capable of hauling the docks in and out, putting away boats for winter, and doing some (very) minor repairs. We offer to help all the time. Sure, it’s from a reclining position on the dock, book and/or fishing rod in hand, but that’s because my parents are always encouraging us to relax. They’re retired, they say, and have all the time in the world. We’re so busy with work and school and life that we should use our limited vacation time to take it easy.
With a certain amount of guilt (though not so much it can’t be drowned in a cold drink or a nice, leisurely swim), we have agreed with this assessment. We pitch in—making meals, carrying stuff—but have few genuine responsibilities. It’s been a pretty sweet deal to say the least.
So it’s not hard to imagine that with my father sidelined with a grotesquely swollen knee, braced and held uncomfortably straight 24 hours a day, the rest of the summer was something of a rude awakening. A crash course in Cottage Maintenance 101. And though no one said it—or even implied it—for me, more than just the smooth running of the cottage was at stake. Our worthiness as future cottage owners was in the balance.
The first test was the weekend we all returned after the accident. My father was hobbling around on crutches, a tote looped around his neck like a feed bag so he wouldn’t have to go searching for his glasses or crossword puzzle. Several times I found him, feed bag swinging, trying to balance hot coffee and crutches, despite the entire family nearby, ready and willing to help. So when the water system stopped flowing, we knew we had to act quickly or he’d try to fix it on his own.
I began by doing what he would do: I (literally) ran to the boathouse to collect one of his tool boxes. When I realized that I didn’t have the right tools, I ran back for another tool box. In the meantime, my husband had discovered the problem: a black PVC pipe had cracked, and water was spraying into the air like a firehose. We turned off the solar-powered pump, and, with my dad calling instructions from the porch where he was convalescing, we managed to cut the splintered pipe and fit it back together. The fact that the fix required the use of both a retractable saw and a propane torch made us feel inordinately pleased with ourselves. Can we fix it? Yes! We! Can!
The ongoing challenge of dealing with three active composting toilets proved slightly less pleasing. Turning the drum, adding the peat moss (one cup per person per day, I repeated like a mantra as I ran from cottage to boathouse), troubleshooting clogs or excess water, and harvesting partly composted remains—it’s not a job for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. But knowing my dad does all of these tasks without complaint or even the use of gloves, I resisted the urge to don a haz-mat suit while crying like a keening widow. Instead, I put on my oldest cottage clothes and a pair of latex gloves and practised not breathing. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen, but it was while doing toilet duty that I began to wonder for the first time—cottage sacrilege!—if there might be other, possibly even better, ways to do things. For instance, do we really need three toilets? Is it normal that the compost is so, uh, slushy? And, besides, shouldn’t tending composting toilets be a job for teenagers?
As summer wore on, and various minor repair issues came up, my husband and I managed to sort them out. Just doing the job, even if it wasn’t perfect—or the way it had always been done—made me less fretful about our cottage-worthiness. The next time a crack appeared in the pipes, we executed the repair without my dad’s assistance. We didn’t even ask for a pat on the back.
Now that my father is recovered, we’re talking about what it might look like for us to take on more cottage responsibilities. Of course, there are some jobs we’ll probably never do: electrical wiring, fixing marine motors. We’re unlikely to do roofing, either, and I can see why a person might farm out exterior painting rather than spend precious summer weekends on a ladder. Finding a reliable handyperson was definitely on my personal to-do list this summer. I’m pretty sure my parents still want us to enjoy our time up north more than they want to see us carry on their DIY legacy.
Still, the other day, when I mentioned this to my dad, he shrugged. Life is long, he told me, you never know: you may want to learn electrical wiring someday. Anyway, he said, he’s not quite ready to give up his role as chief cook and bottle-washer. I laughed. I hope it muffled my sigh of relief.
This essay was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Cottage Life. Andrea Curtis is Toronto-based freelance writer. Her first book, Into the Blue: Family Secrets and the Search for a Great Lakes Shipwreck won the Edna Staebler Creative Nonfiction Award.