In final episode of the Cottage Life Podcast Season 3, we’ll listen to a piece about the by treasured Canadian writer Roy MacGregor, which first appeared in our June/July 2022 issue. Listen here or visit cottagelife.com for access to all of the episodes.
You see them everywhere when they’re missing. A favourite coffee mug…gardening gloves…an old raincoat…that rose just about to bloom…her paddle…
She’s there even when she isn’t. In fact, in this particular place, she’s here more than anywhere else.
We fell in love here at this little lake at the end of Limberlost Road. We honeymooned here 50 years ago this September. She had the jeweller inscribe a message on the inside of the rings we exchanged: “You and me, buds for all times.”
We were going to retire at the lake—two old “buds” on a last great adventure. Who knew that “for all times” would run out so quickly?
Ellen’s parents built this simple cottage in the late 1960s. Camp Lake is pretty and clean, with a long finger of a bay called Flossie Lake tickling into the western boundary of Algonquin Provincial Park. A lovely falls at the end of the bay delivers water clean enough to drink, and for years the family did. The water streams into Tasso Lake, then down the Big East River to Lake Vernon, where it eventually becomes the Muskoka River.
No running water. No telephone. An outhouse. A dock.
Ellen and her sister, Jackie, grew up here and then brought their own babies here. Ellen eventually inherited the cottage, dramatically improving it over the last quarter-century with our beloved local builder, John Streight. An extension to hold growing grandchildren. New sheds. New docks. A telephone. A pump to send water from the lake up to serve the new shower and toilet.
She insisted, however, that an outhouse was still a necessity—winter visits, summer power outages—and so she made a new one herself. I got to dig out the hole. She built the original deck as well, working a power saw while still managing four youngsters under the age of 10.
She’s everywhere, but nowhere so present as in the magnificent gardens she built by hauling massive boulders out from the bush. The kids always said she had “ox blood.”
Our daughter Kerry called from her home in France in the spring of 2021 to say she knew what the problem was, that clearly the doctors were giving Ellen the wrong blood—human. Never ill a day in her life, she had suddenly become dangerously anemic in the spring of her 73rd year. She fainted one morning at the kitchen table and an ambulance rushed her to hospital.
While they did tests that discovered a dangerous growth in her abdomen, she contracted COVID-19. She never complained. The nurses fell in love with her easy laugh and smile. But she could not breathe and passed on April 13, her family gathered around a cell phone for one last word and far from last tears.
The nurse who sat with her for the final moments later told us that Ellen, ever practical, first cancelled her breakfast, then closed her eyes.
That practical side could be breathtaking. We had, sadly, been forced to put down our much-loved 17-year-old border(line) collie that winter and had planned to take Willow’s ashes to the cottage. “I think you’ll be taking two boxes of ashes,” Ellen said. Of course, that is what she would want.
Grief is a strange animal. It can attack when you least expect it. At a family cottage, it lurks everywhere.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s 2005 book on the unexpected passing of her husband, she writes, “I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.”
Never had the drive up Limberlost Road felt longer than that very first visit after Ellen’s passing. Son Gordon came with me, as I could not bear to go alone. It was the strangest feeling as I unlocked the door that she had last locked at Thanksgiving: fear rising, joy spreading.
Her presence was everywhere; her absence was everything. She was down at the dock teaching children how to swim. She was at the stove, creating one of her magical soups sans recipe. She was reading in the wicker chair by the window.
Even the walls held her. Her paintings of the canoe, of paddles, of the high rocks where the kids, and now grandkids, go to jump in summer. The perfect speckled trout she carved out of basswood. Her art everywhere, including in her daughter Christine, who will carry on the painting.
I go down to the dock where the red Northland Canoe is sitting, waiting. She paddled in the bow seat, me in stern. We have done trips from the mountains of British Columbia to the rivers of Quebec—and, of course, all through Algonquin Park. A perfect tripper, she more than carried her weight.
We had our best talks while paddling. Now the only sound is my paddle slicing through the water. I didn’t canoe much last summer. I intend to get back to it this year.
The old tin boat of her father’s is on its side. A couple of times a summer, she would have me hook up the old 6-h.p. Evinrude, and we would take the tin boat to the falls so that she could pick through the rocks that had been dislodged by winter ice and spring rush. It’s a wonder we didn’t sink on some of the return trips.
There is hand cream by the sink. Our daughter Kerry wrote about Ellen in the Ottawa Citizen and mentioned how she “always puts on too much hand cream. She says, ‘Come here, I took too much!’ and shares it with me, rubbing her hands on mine in a silly, loving manner.”
There is the fireplace and the woodshed, and she would be telling me and son Gord to get the chainsaw and splitter and make sure the new woodshed he built—wonder where that gene came from?—is filled with good hardwood for a winter trip we might or might not make. There is no winter access, so we drive in as far as we can and haul our food and water and supplies for a kilometre, most of it uphill. She would take one of the sleds, tie the rope around her waist, and simply grind it out. Ox blood, indeed.
She left the cottage to our four children. The cottage has known four generations of her family. She wants more. She left plans for a bunkie that she and John had been talking about for years. We decided to go ahead with it and, this spring, “Ellen’s Bunkie” will be open for grandchildren—six of them—and their friends.
There will be a large window with a view of the water. Daughter Jocelyn says there has to be one of her chairs there. “I could too easily see her easing into the chair with a cold drink and an ‘Ahhhh’ after her first sip—after a long day of hard work, of course.”
She will be here, just as her parents are forever here, if you know where to look. Her father’s trolling rod is on one wall. Her mother’s knitting and crochet work is on a table; her tea cozy is still in use.
This cottage was her legacy, where she came with her parents, her sister, her husband, her children, her grandchildren. Soon there will be great-grandchildren, and they will find her here because she is on the walls, in the garden, forever in the stories of the one who always gave.
Jocelyn and her family came from Calgary during the summer. Jocelyn said it was crushingly sad at first, but as the week went on, she found the cottage a comfort. It had the same effect on her mother’s excess hand cream had on her when she was a child.
We said there would be a “Celebration of Life” once the cursed pandemic came to a close, and, of course, there will be—at her cottage.
Only it will not be a one-day event or even a one-generation celebration. Here, the Celebration of Life goes on as long as she is here.
Ellen had a treasured tradition at the cottage, a journal where she kept count of who visited and who did what while here. It is filled with love and appreciation, as it became customary to ask a guest or one of the children to describe their particular visit.
I gave the journal to 13-year-old grandson, Fisher, last August and told him to write about the fishing and the rock jumping and the neighbour’s crazy, bouncy lily pad.
He sat scribbling for a while. I left to do something else, and when I came back the pen was down, the journal open, and Fisher off to play.
“Miss you, Gramma,” he had written. “R.I.P.”
Roy MacGregor has been sharing his insights about life at the cottage with our readers since 1990. This article was originally published as “Rewriting the next chapter” in the June/July 2022 issue of Cottage Life.