No one makes it through childhood unscathed but sometimes I wonder how me and my brothers made it through alive! As I feel the first hint of summer this year, I am filled with visceral and indelible images of my grandmother’s cottage at Waubaushene, Ontario, a small town on Georgian Bay about one hundred miles from Toronto. The times I spent there in the 1950s and early 1960s remain crisp and clear to me complete with pungent smells of cedar and shrieks of seagulls. These memories are more vivid than any others from my childhood.
Our family at that point consisted of my mother, Doris, me aged 8 and the three boys, Timothy, Jonathan and Christopher, ages 2, 3 and 5. We took up residence at the cottage for a couple of months in the summer of 1959 on our return to Windsor from Toronto. As described in other episodes, Jean Kaine or Nan, my maternal grandmother, believed that women should have an education and profession so we lived with her in Toronto for 2 years while my mother attended teachers college to be able to support four children on her own. My father, Peter Churchill, by then a journalist at the CBC, was pursuing a life different from that of family man. He could be described as a “beatnik” or member of the Beat Generation, a precursor to hippies. As described on Wikipedia, the members of the Beat Generation developed a reputation as new bohemian hedonists, who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity. Good description of my father, while a fascinating person, he was very unreliable on the domestic front. My mother also dabbled in that lifestyle so for stability, we relied on Nan. Her cottage was haven for us.
The cottage was at the end of the main road right beside the railroad tracks and there was nothing more thrilling or terrifying to me and my three brothers than to hear the whistle blast and feel the train rushing so close to the cottage that we felt we could reach out and touch it if we only stretched a little bit. We confronted more danger when one afternoon Mum took us on a short cut from the centre of town to the cottage, along the railway tracks and as we picked the wild strawberries that nestled in the gravel and coal around the creosote soaked railway ties, we had to suddenly jump into the poison ivy filled brush beside the tracks as a train was barrelling toward us. Disaster averted. Well almost, because while the train did not get us, the poison ivy did. Calamine lotion eased our suffering.
Another disaster averted was the drowning of my 3 year old brother, Jonathan. The boys and I were whiling away the hours on a hot summer afternoon in a pastime loved by all children, the building of an indoor tent out of summer sheets and quilts in a bedroom. We, or most likely me, convinced Jonathan to hide in the tent and not make a peep. When our mother came to check on us, we said we had not seen Jonathan for a while. To our great shock and dismay, Mum shrieked and ran from the cottage down the road and over the tracks to the newly built public dock. She was terrified that he had wandered off and drowned! A few days earlier, we had been at the dock when somehow, Jonathan plunged into the water and a family friend dove in and rescued him. I loved my mother deeply and to this day feel badly for scaring her so much. It was one of the first moments in my life that I experienced that there can be unintended consequences of one’s innocent actions.
Of course, there was fun to be had at the cottage as well. Like the time that Nan took me and the three boys fishing. The adventurous and confident spirit that had taken her so many places in her life was definitely in evidence on this expedition. The family owned a heavy, green wooden rowboat that stayed on the beach next to the water. It was a leaky old boat so every time it was used, paraffin wax was melted in a tin can and the cracks carefully sealed so Nan had to go to a lot of effort to give the grandchildren the experience of fishing from a boat. Nan was only 4 feet 10 inches tall with the arthritic joints of a 62 year old so I am not sure how she got that boat into the water but I do recall a trip to a lighthouse on a rock covered with snapping turtles and a lovely afternoon of successfully catching lots of sunfish with our bamboo poles. Sunfish are quite small so it took Nan a long time to gut and clean our catch and we waited with anticipation as she cooked them. Being fussy eaters as children can be, we took one look at the plates of freshly cooked fish and refused to take a bite. The neighbour’s cat had a real feast that night!