From rustic to retirement, and some of the changes in between: how a renovated little shack nurtured the stuff of family legends.
My husband, Ron, stepped into our cottage and bumped into the shiny, new, freshly delivered appliance.
"It's a dishwasher," I said proudly, caressing it lovingly. For me it was the crowning touch, the pièce de résistance of 30 years of renovations.
"Things sure have changed around here," Ron said as he detoured around it. I detected a hint of wistfulness in his tone…
Three decades earlier he and I had desperately wanted a place in the country. With three children under the age of five, substantial student loans and little more than our clothes and a second-hand Volkswagen Beetle as assets, however, our dream of owning a rustic retreat seemed destined to remain in the realm of wishful thinking.
Ron had been principal at Tabusintac Rural High School in New Brunswick, and we were living in a rented, furnished house near the school. But the school had just closed in an amalgamation that would see students bused to Newcastle (now part of Miramichi City), 38 miles away. Ron would have to find work elsewhere, and we'd have to move.
We loved the pastoral beauty and gentle pace of Tabusintac, situated at the mouth of the Tabusintac River where it empties into Miramichi Bay, and had a dream of our very own country retreat burning in our hearts…
Then something wonderful happened. On one of his walks in the woods beyond our house, Ron discovered a small, abandoned cabin. Even though its windows had been broken, its door sagged inward on a single hinge and numerous squirrels, birds, and a raccoon couple were in residence, it appeared structurally sound. It definitely "had potential" Ron decided, and quickly offered the owner half of our vacation home budget: $100.
Astonished that anyone would want it, she was quick to accept.
Ron convinced a friend to pull the little shack out of its isolation and down to the small corner of a hayfield we'd purchased with the remainder of our cottage fund. I can't say I was overjoyed when I saw it but it was the best we could afford. And, as Ron had said, it had potential-or at least four walls and a roof.
While Ron put glass in the window frames and another hinge on the door, I tried to sweep and scrub away the evidence of its former tenants. It wasn't easy. Bird and animal droppings can harden into the consistency of concrete, I discovered.
Then we moved in for the summer-with no electricity and no indoor plumbing. A couple of oil lamps illuminated the place at night. An outhouse we'd salvaged from the local garbage dump became our toilet, and all five of us helped carry water from a spring a quarter of a mile away.
We modified our diet to suit the lack of amenities as well. Fruits, vegetables, cereals, bread and cookies kept well without refrigeration and, of course, we always kept a variety of canned foods on hand. Milk, meat and butter were kept chilled in waterproof containers placed in the ice-cold spring that supplied our water. On fine days we cooked on the old charcoal-burning Hibachi; on inclement ones we used the ancient wood stove indoors.
Our neighbours were astonished that we could live under such conditions-and they told us so. It was the early '70s, and I think they regarded us as remnants from the hippy era. But the kids didn't care. They loved being able to run free in the hayfields and trees that surrounded our summer home. Each spring, as the school year drew to a close, their anticipation mounted. Busy planning new activities and adventures and reminiscing about previous summers' fun, they couldn't wait to get back to the cottage. Ron and I were also eager to head back to the country. We loved the freedom from all but family responsibilities that life at the cottage offered. We regarded the lack of a telephone and other creature comforts as an asset. Ron, as a teacher, had the summers off. I, as full-time wife and mother with a fledgling career as a writer, was available. (With three small children, back-to-basics living conditions and a challenging career choice-I wrote in longhand in a loose-leaf notebook, sitting on the cottage doorstep, and later transcribed my stories using a manual typewriter - I hesitate to say that I had summers off.)
When the big day arrived, we'd pile a summer's supply of clothing, blankets and books into the Volkswagen. The kids and our two dogs (a beagle named Brandy and an 80-pound Labrador retriever named Jet) would squeeze into the back seat. Finally, with a smile in our hearts and a song on the breeze, we were off.
The first meal at the cottage traditionally had to be wieners and marshmallows roasted over the Hibachi, pulled from under the front steps. No matter how blackened the food became in the cooking process, it always tasted like haute cuisine.
As darkness fell, we'd slather ourselves with insect repellent and huddle around the Hibachi-turned-smudge-pot, created by adding handfuls of green grass. Then we'd listen to the frogs' medley in the magic country quiet and watch the stars appear out of the soft black velvet-the summer night sky.
"Look! There's the Big Dipper!"
"I see the North Star!"
In the warm, gentle darkness, we'd gaze upward and find (or at least believe we'd found) the various constellations.
Days at the cottage were never dull. Without television and with no space in our vehicle to bring toys, Joan, Carol and Steve had to use their imaginations and what they could salvage from the surroundings to amuse themselves. They made swings in the trees using discarded tires and rope, and rafts for the river from driftwood they found along the shore.
Enthralled with the birds and animals that lived in the woods, fields and on the riverbanks they called their playground, our children also developed a deep and lasting respect for wildlife and its habitat. This fascination inspired Ron and me to teach them to appreciate the environment that supported these creatures and ultimately, ourselves. We explained the evils of littering, the necessity of obeying the golden rule of camping ("Pack out what you pack in and leave only footprints behind"), and how wildflowers and creatures should be enjoyed and left in peace in their natural setting.
They discovered the succulence of wild blueberries, raspberries and the tiny strawberries that grew in profusion behind the cottage. After we'd assured them that it was OK to pick and eat these tasty treats, each quickly developed a harvesting philosophy of their own. Joan picked and ate. Carol, destined to become a chartered accountant, picked and saved. Steve watched his sisters for a while, then did what he considered the best of both methods. He ate some and saved others.
Their quest for berries took them farther and farther afield. One day in their wanderings they discovered the ruins of an old hunting lodge, which quickly became the centre of many plots and plans. Isolated from other children, they shared many summer adventures and formed deep bonds of friendships. They even devised coded nicknames for each other that still fondly surface whenever they're together. They were as at home in the woods and meadows as the rabbits and squirrels with which they shared them.
Evenings were family times. We'd explore trails in the nearby woods, hoping to see bird and animal life, and return home pleasantly tired and ready for bed. We also invented a unique after-supper game of hide-and-seek. Ron and I would hold the dogs while the kids darted across the field and into the woods to hide in the trees beyond. Then we'd release Brandy and Jet to seek them out. It was never much of a chore for the beagle, given his innate scenting abilities, and Jet usually just lumbered good-naturedly along behind him, confident in his canine buddy's skill.
One summer Ron purchased a second-hand 16-foot outboard motorboat. At first we were ecstatic at the possibilities this new mode of transportation offered. Our enthusiasm was tempered somewhat by the discovery that the old boat had a propensity for breaking down. But undeterred we christened the cantankerous vessel the good ship Undependable and adapted to her idiosyncrasies. We learned not to venture too far or too deep, and accepted the frequent necessity of towing her home as we waded through the shallows.
These occasions, although at times mildly aggravating, quickly fell into the realm of just another adventure of the Canadian Family MacMillan. They became the stuff familial legends are based upon, and taught the kids the importance of sticking together in adversity-and maintaining one's sense of humour.
The years passed. The cottage got electricity and indoor plumbing, and it expanded.
We celebrated when the first light bulb clicked on, shouted as if we'd hit oil when the first water spouted from the hole in the yard, and happily slept on a plank floor on the first night after two new bedrooms had been added. The cottage was maturing.
And so were the children. During their teen and college years, the cottage largely fell fallow. With friends and part-time jobs monopolizing their waking hours, the kids lost interest in life in the country. Ron and I, not willing to leave them at home unsupervised, didn't get many opportunities to enjoy its rural charms either.
During the brief visits we made to check on the old place I sometimes sensed a sadness within its walls. Looking out a back window I saw-in memory-three small and sturdy sun-browned figures in shorts and T-shirts running barefoot across the field, laughing in delight, a beagle and Lab chasing them.
The vision brought the sting of tears to my eyes, a lump to my throat. The days were long gone when the old cottage's board walls echoed with the whoops of children's exuberance and its screen door had slammed often in their comings and goings. Now it sat quiet and subdued in the shade of the trees we'd planted with the youngsters many years ago.
Suddenly, it seemed, all three offspring were out on their own. Ron and I returned to the cottage one spring several years ago, alone except for a new pair of dogs.
As we drove on to our property we were alert for any changes that may have occurred. A new cedar had popped up in the hedge. A pileated woodpecker had made some remarkable holes in the dead tree near the gate and there appeared to be a fresh crop of squirrels and chipmunks.
"The roof looks good," Ron said pragmatically while I searched for tulips that should be coming up near the front step.
With the turn of a key, we opened up a place that had been empty too long. It was as if time had been on pause since our last visit. Dark and silent and chilly inside, the cottage needed to be reawakened, I thought, and hurried to open the blinds and windows.
The old place revived quickly as sunlight flooded inside. Renewed life surged into it as Ron turned on the electricity and the refrigerator began to purr.
We looked around and came to a decision: we'd renovate and turn the cottage into our retirement retreat.
Work began immediately. We put in a basement, new plumbing and electrical wiring, and added a large deck and a gazebo. Phones, televisions and a computer took up residence. The cottage was coming into the 21st century.
Then the kids started returning, fond memories of a happy childhood drawing them back. They brought friends and partners, and our backyard sprouted tents.
They visited their old haunts and were amazed at how high up in the branches their old tire swings dangled. Trees, like children, grow a lot in 15 years. And if I'd feared the cottage would miss the patter of small feet up its steps and across its old board floors, that problem was remedied last summer with the initial visit of our first grandchild, Daniel Wilson MacMillan.
Glancing over at Ron, I see a nostalgic expression settling over his face as he watches the plumber installing the dishwasher. Is he thinking about the lacking-in-amenities good old days? Things definitely have changed around here. Yet as I watch 18-month-old Daniel gently exploring the yard and laughing in delight at the freedom the old place offers, I know this little shack from the backwoods will continue to be a connecting thread in our lives.