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With the loss of a heartbeat, everything has changed

It’s Christmas Eve. I gaze at the little cabin nestled in the snow that has been our family’s retreat for more than 40 years. Surrounded by snow-laced evergreens, not a single footprint marring the pristine perfection of the dooryard, it appears untouched by the cares of the world, as if nothing could ruffle its ambience of the sturdy security. But that’s a myth. With the loss of a heartbeat, everything has changed…

I think back to that spring day when my husband Ron found the dilapidated little shack that became the first section of the cottage. He’d been walking in the woods when he’d come across it. That evening he told me about his discovery, excitement lighting up his face. We’d wanted a cottage in Tabusintac, but with three small children and college loans, we’d believed there was no way. Ron was confident he’d found the perfect solution. What he neglected to tell me was that the cabin already had residents—birds, raccoons, and more than a few mice.

With the optimism of youth, we had the old building pulled out of obscurity in the woods and down to the corner of a hayfield on a back road. After evicting the majority of its wildlife tenants (I’m sure a few wily mice remained) we set about cleaning and doing rudimentary repairs. Cobwebs were whisked from the rafters, board floors swept, and glass restored to windows. Our resources couldn’t extend to a new door so at night we shoved the included warped closure shut and pushed the scarred table that had come as the cabin’s single item of furniture against it. Plank bunks build against the walls completed the décor.

For several years indoor plumbing and electricity were mere dreams but, as a family, we didn’t mind all that much. We loved being outdoors in the country and together to enjoy fresh air, blue skies, green fields, and the evening songs of frogs and crickets. Our stove was a hibachi outside the door, our facility an ancient outhouse we’d discovered abandoned in a landfill. Tall and never quite mastering the art of standing upright against the wind, it had the disconcerting habit of toppling over in every gale. Toilet paper was sent soaring like disoriented herring gulls high in sky above our small estate. Ever ecology conscious, I comforted myself that wherever it made landfall, it would be absorbed in the environment.

Our neighbors were astonished that we could live under such conditions, and they told us so. It was the late 1960s and I think they regarded us as remnants of the hippy era. Our kids didn’t care. They loved being able to run free in the many hayfields and woodlands surrounding our summer place. Each spring, as the school year drew to a close, they couldn’t wait to get back to the cottage.

Ron and I were also eager to return. We loved the freedom from all but family responsibilities the old cabin afforded. We regarded the lack of a telephone as an asset. As a teacher, Ron had summers free to indulge in his favourite hobby, gardening, while I sat on the cottage’s sagging plank steps and wrote my first novel in long hand on a foolscap tablet.

Summer nights were pure pleasure. After a supper of hot dogs cooked on the hibachi, we’d throw green grass onto its embers and use it as a smudge pot to keep mosquitoes at bay. Listening to frogs and crickets, we’d watch stars appear in the soft, black velvet above us, point out the constellations to the kids, and savor the peace and quiet.

Joan, Carol, and Steve learned to swim in the river behind the cabin and to appreciate the flora and fauna of the area. No book lessons could have taught them so much respect for nature in all its forms as the hands-on, actual encounter experiences they had during those times. They never picked wildflowers and were content to watch frogs, rabbits, and other small creature in their natural habitat. Isolated from other children, they shared adventures and formed deep and lasting bonds of sibling friendship. They became at home in the woods, water, and meadows, wise to the ways of the land.

Today it’s the winter adventures at the cottage I’m especially remembering. Those days glowing with crackling cold and glittering snow, those times when we’d desert the amenities of town for a few precious days at the cottage. With snowshoes, cross country skis and poles on the roof, we’d pile winter clothing and food into our Volkswagon, somehow managing to squeeze three kids and two dogs as well as ourselves inside.

Winter forays to the cottage were important, especially those immediately after the hubbub of Christmas when the need of peace and quiet were very much needed. The car loaded with whatever new outdoor equipment the season had produced, as well as the old, we’d set out for Tabusintac, eager for fun and adventure but mostly for the bucolic tranquility. The initial gust of icy air that burst from the doorway, the still cold of a building unheated in the depths of winter, didn’t deter us. Ron would have poured oil into the old space heater and shortly warmth began to emanate.

The kids didn’t even wait for the place to heat up. Clutching skis, snowshoes, and crazy carpets, they were off to find adventure in the pristine surroundings, to make the first human tracks in the snow in the field behind the cottage.

At night, after a supper of canned beans, cheeks glowing from their forays in the winter air, they’d be content with an early bedtime. They didn’t complain about the hardness of the plank bunks nor that the space heater, on especially cold nights, didn’t prove all that effective. They simply donned toques, jackets and woolen socks and snuggled deeper into their sleeping bags.

Of course, there were especially memorable events of those wintery days and nights. One occurred on a crackling cold January night when Steve, the two dogs, and I snowshoed down to the frozen river, and the northern lights unexpectedly decided to put on one of their amazing displays. As my son and I gazed upward, the heavens danced. Even the dogs, standing at our sides, appeared mesmerized by this display of nature’s grandeur.

I particularly remember one winter’s night at the cottage when a blizzard-type storm overtook us. Ron and the kids were nestled snug in their sleeping bags, but for some reason I remained wide awake. Sitting by the cottage’s front window watching and listening to the storm rage around us, I watched our Volkswagen Beetle slowly disappear beneath drifting snow. Instead of feeling alarmed or trapped, I was filled with a feeling of cozy security, confident in the ability of the old place to keep us safe.

Over the years this feeling persisted. In times of trouble, whenever we retreated to the cottage, we found peace and stability. It was a calm presence in our world that offered comfort no matter what the problems and pains. When Carol and Joan were diagnosed with rare blood disorders, when Ron faced quadruple bypass surgery… each time troubles overtook us, we retreated to the cottage. Our family’s anchor in the ebb and flow that is family life, the old cabin held us fast and reminded us that it was love and laughter and sharing the hard times as well as the good that really mattered. Each time we returned to the old cabin, we gathered strength and confidence to continue, no matter what the obstacles.

The July/August 2006 issue of Saltscapes chronicled the evolution of the cabin from bare bones living conditions to comfortable retirement retreat. Although as the years passed, added amenities were welcome, they didn’t increase the basic pleasure we found sheltered inside its strong, old walls.

I’d never envisioned a time when the cottage wouldn’t be there for us, but life sometimes offers unexpected and heart wrenching curves. Late last summer [2016], Ron became seriously ill. After a week in hospital, he passed. It was all so sudden, so shocking that for days, weeks, and even months afterwards, each time I heard a vehicle drive into the yard or the front door open, I expected to find him arriving home. I lived in a fog of disbelief and misery.

Finally I had to give myself a severe mental shake and begin to face the harsh realities of life alone. I was left with my dog and memories and a bewildering mass of paperwork. Feeling utterly lost, I set about doing what must be done to probate Ron’s will, change deeds, and even master the mundane tasks of putting gas and windshield wiper fluid into the car. The winter was a maze of stumbling, learning, despairing, and carrying on.

I was faced with another challenge, this time an excruciatingly painful one. What to do with the cottage? Carol and Steve lived too far away to help maintain it, and Joan had a cottage of her own. I couldn’t manage its upkeep, physically or financially. I recognized the painful reality of what I must do. Contacting a real estate agent was a gut wrenching experience. As I listened to her giving her estimate of the old cabin’s physical value, my heart ached. No one, absolutely no one but our family could truly estimate its true worth.

With a price set, the kids and I began packing up what we planned to take away with us. As we laughed and cried over each item, as we recalled those wonderful times, I realized that we weren’t simply packing bits and pieces. We were packaging memories...

This Yuletide Eve, the peace and promise of Christmas envelopes the old cabin. I take a last look and turn away. Albums of photos, words in a collection of journals, and memories held deep in my heart will hold the cottage forever near and dear.

Certainly it will never, ever be truly lost to the children and me. It has played a much too integral part in our lives to ever be forgotten.

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