Omar Mouallem confesses his cottage sins: Envy

illustration of the word envy with people in park around it Illustration by Sam Island

Pride, wrath, envy, sloth, lust, greed, gluttony—the cottage can bring out the best and the worst in us. We asked seven of Canada’s top writers to come clean about their cottage sins.

I Have a Confession to Make…

My mom always has something on her phone to show me. It’s guaranteed to be pictures of children, usually mine, caught looking adorable yet again. But last spring, she surprised me with a photo of a big RV.

Had my parents already reached the point of retirement when, having run out of things to do, you join a Boomer colony? Truly a shocking turn of events for two people who’d never slept in anything less than a three-star hotel.

But the RV wasn’t theirs. It was my older brother’s. He’d bought it used with plans to park it on his new lake lot in Shaw’s Point Resort, a campsite 30 minutes outside of our hometown near Lesser Slave Lake, Alta.

I was happy for my brother’s family and proud of him. Nobody deserved a big-ass RV and leisure property more than his family. Around the time that I moved to Edmonton, he moved the other way, back to High Prairie, in order to steer my parents’ diner back on track. He and his wife took the diner to a new level of success with a modern rebrand, but he was starting to lose patches of hair from managing it seven days a week. I was glad to hear that he was slowing down to look after himself and his family.

And yet, looking at that photo on my mom’s phone, I felt a drop of jealousy spoil my blood. It’s not that I wanted an RV myself (I’m more of a rented cabin guy). I wanted something lost and far gone: the memories that the lake lot was about to make for his family.

The only apparent travel blogger to review the rural Alberta resort where my brother was setting up likened it to a “trailer park” with golf carts in lieu of bicycles or one’s own feet. But for me, Shaw’s Point evokes Shangri-La.

Despite the short distance, I’d never seen it with my own eyes. I’d only heard about it in school hallways on Monday mornings when I was younger. A place of fishing tales and first kisses, it sounded like a parallel universe where only the town’s most comfortable rendezvous.

Not that we wouldn’t belong. My parents sweat their way into the town’s upper class. Their ambition allowed for many luxuries, often making me the only immigrants’ kid who played hockey and took long summer vacations.

Granted, the summers were in Lebanon, and sans dad, who was busy running the family business back home. But we leisured domestically too, often to West Edmonton Mall, four hours away. My family relished the expensive pleasures of tropical-themed hotels and the world’s largest indoor wave pool, but didn’t see much point in spending weekends, and rarely an afternoon, at the lake close by.

The beach in our backyard seemed a highway too far for my parents. On a handful of occasions, their better-integrated Palestinian friends dragged us out to one of the public beaches. Our families attracted onlookers with our hookah and bedazzling music. Sandy beaches and clean swims didn’t feel like a reasonable trade-off for potential teenage embarrassment, so I rarely asked to go and never lobbied for a resort lot.

I didn’t realize what we’d deprived ourselves of until my twenties. Camping trips to the Rockies with my wife and friends eased me into the wild. Now I’ll leap to any campfire invitation, even if it means driving two hours back to Edmonton the same day.

I also realized why my parents avoided the rugged outdoors. It dawned on me once while reporting about a free camping workshop for immigrants where the seminar used many of the same persuasive techniques as a time-share presentation, with only slightly better results. By the time the park ranger rolled out the sleeping bags and tent canvas, the room was half empty. Sleeping in compromised conditions, believe it or not, lacks cachet for many people displaced by war.

Camping just didn’t work with my parents’ cultural baggage. But I also realized that their baggage wasn’t ours to carry as second-generation Canadians gifted a charmed life. And so, when my brother invited me and my family to the lake, this time, I said yes.

My wife and I were able to introduce our two-month-old son to the outdoors, while our daughter ran amok inside the RV with her cousins. I felt a tinge of envy when she stuck her head out to ask why we didn’t have a “car house” of our own, but it was quickly inoculated by the joy in her voice and the realization that this lake lot would make memories for my family too.

National Magazine Award-winning writer Omar Mouallem is working on a new book, Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas, due out this fall.

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