By Greg Clark, June 30, 1945
“Don’t forget,” reminded Jimmie Frise, “overalls.”
“I’ve got them down,” I replied, checking the list. “And how about nails. Three-inch nails?”
“Aw, there’s a whole pailful of nails underneath the cottage veranda,” said Jim.
“Those old rusty things?” I snorted.
“We don’t want to be too finicky about this job,” reasoned Jimmie. “First thing you know, we’ll be spending our whole holiday building that summer kitchen.”
“Look,” I asserted. “We’ve been planning this back kitchen on the cottage for nearly six years. We’ve had the lumber under the cottage for five years. It’ll be getting mouldy. We’ve drawn and redrawn the plans dozens of times. We’ve gone up to the cottage every year with the fullest intentions of getting to work and building the kitchen. But every time, we’ve put it off.”
“For good reason,” said Jim.
“Aw two days would do the job,” I insisted. “Yet we’re so excited when we arrive at the cottage, we’ve got to drag the skiff out of the boathouse and go fishing even before we get the screen doors on.”
“Well, you remember 1939,” reminded Jim. “We went up fully prepared to build the kitchen. But what happened? The first three days it rained steadily. Now, rain is no good for building. But it is swell for fishing.”
“Yes, and then it turned hot, you remember,” I recollected. “And it was no good for fishing. But too hot for building. So we just snoozed on the veranda. Before we realized it, our holiday was over. And no kitchen.”
“Nineteen-forty,” recalled Jim, “you were overseas.”
“That was your chance,” I inserted.
“I didn’t like to do it without you being there,” explained Jim. “After all, this is a joint effort, this kitchen.”
“I think we drew our first plans about 1936,” I said. “We bought the lumber in forty-one.”
“Well, you were overseas in forty-two, forty-three and forty-four,” counted Jim lamely. “I thought of starting it each year. But I didn’t like to take advantage of you.”
“Hm,” I sniffed. “I’d have been glad to come back and find it done. But this time, my boy, there will be no ifs or buts. We’re going to get that kitchen annex built. It is going to be first consideration. In fact, what do you say if we make a pact right now that we don’t even hitch up a fishing rod until the last nail had been driven and the last brushful of paint has been applied?”
“Do we have to paint it the first year?” protested Jim. “Isn’t it a bad policy to paint newly built wooden structures right away? Shouldn’t we let the wood set at least one year?”
“We paint it,” I informed him. “The paint is up there. In the boat-house.”
“I bet that paint has perished, after all these years,” said Jim.
“How about it? How about a pact?” I demanded. “Not one cast, not even a fishing rod rigged up, until the kitchen is done.”
“Suppose a great big lunker,” submitted Jimmie, “were to come and start jumping right off the end of the dock? Suppose we arrive in the middle of the swellest fishing weather we’ve ever seen in our lives? With a soft little fitful southwest wind, and overcast sky, kind of warm and humid…”
“Kitchen first,” I stated firmly.
“Well, I’ll trust to your common sense,” concluded Jim. “Or I should say, I’ll count on your weakness of character. Let’s agree to put the building job first. Priority Number One. And then see how strong we are at withstanding old and familiar temptations.”
“I’m determined,” I said, returning to the list. “Let’s see. Ten pounds of three-inch nails. A pound of assorted screws for making shelves, etc. A couple of new paint brushes. How about the saw?”
“The last time I saw it,” said Jim, “It was hanging on the usual nail in the boat-house.”
That Cottage Feeling
I gazed into space, picturing in my mind’s eye the old crowded boat-house with the skiff and the canoes turned upside down on the floor, the rough shelves sagging with old paint, cans, bottles, old rusty screen door springs. I could see the paddles hanging from their double nails. The oars laid across the rafters. The cartons full of badly neglected decoys. The canoe carriers on the wall and, hung from nails, the rusty old saw, the rake and sundry other tools.
How is it that a summer cottage seems so much dearer to our hearts than any city home? It may be that while we shift and change from house to house in the city, the summer cottage was the one we went to as children; that we grew up in as boys and young men; where we took our young sweethearts and did our courting. For a great many thousands of us, the summer cottage is more really our home than any other.
“What’s the matter?” inquired Jim, noting my expression.
“I was just thinking of the cottage, and the boat-house,” I said. “I go all weak inside when I think of them. Jim, it’s a queer thing, but I’ve been all over the world, visited every country in Europe, spent months on end in the great cities of the world, seen all the famous sights like the Bay of Naples, the Highlands of Scotland, the Alps and the Rockies. But I wouldn’t trade a little area of about four miles square, up on Georgian Bay, with that cottage in the middle of it, for all the rest of the earth put together.”
“That sentiment,” agreed Jim, “costs human nature billions of dollars every year. Rather than get up and go and conquer the world, people prefer to snuggle down in their own little old familiar spot.”
“Travelling is a great mistake, Jim,” I assured him. “Nobody should travel. It is the greatest disillusionment of all.”
“I’d love to travel,” said Jim. “To see the world.”
“The world as you imagine it,” I informed him, “is far more beautiful and wonderful than it really is. Wait till the boys get home from Italy. They’ll tell you. When you think of Rome, what do you imagine? You imagine what the poets and painters and great writers have done. You imagine a very ancient, historical city, filled with magnificent churches and buildings, with bridges heavy with story, glorious classic fountains hundreds of years old, made by the hands of artists whose names are remembered with the names of kings and heroes. Keats, Shelley, Browning – all our greatest poets lived in Italy and sang its beauty and its splendor. Keep that, Jimmie! Stay right here in Toronto and cling to the beauty those poets created for you. Because of all the dowdy, ramshackle, junky old cities on earth, Rome is the champion.”
“No!” cried Jim.
“It stinks,” I said, “It is huddled and muddled. In the same city block will be all that is left, a few jagged scraps of untidy wall, of some historic ancient building, along with enormous bright pink stucco apartment blocks in the latest Mussolini tradition.”
“But,” protested Jimmie, “I’ve seen photographs! Not just paintings. But photographs of Rome!”
And Texas, Too
“And to get that photograph,” I assured him, “the photographer working for the highly capitalized tourist industry, the railways of the world, the great shipping companies, had to crawl all over Rome to get that one decent shot. He had to scramble up over quaking roofs of smelly tenements, he had to wiggle and wangle and scheme and get ladders. He had to get that picture from just certain angle that would show none of the incongruities all around. That’s part of the disillusionment. Not only did the photographers take trick pictures that show only the one perfect angle of some noble building or ancient relic, but the painters and the poets all stood in a special spot in which to behold the beauty they have made imperishable. But when you go travelling, you have no time to climb tenement roofs or to get step-ladders or wait until a special sort of moonlight comes to soften and spiritualize the view. No. You go to see the Colosseum, and it looks like the back end of the Exhibition Grand Stand in Toronto. You seek out the palace of some ancient duke on one of the seven hills of Rome. You find the hill all right. It has a lot of those pines of Rome and plenty of those skinny black cypress trees that remind you of cemeteries. And there, half hidden amid the brush-wood of the noble garden, with a lot of rather weather-eaten statues standing stupidly about in frozen attitudes, is a house about the same as the house of any well-known biscuit manufacturer or cough syrup patentee up in Forest Hill Village here in Toronto.”
“Aw, no,” protested Jimmie.
“Italy!” I snorted. “It’s a fleabitten, shaggy, grisly gray country, about the same as Texas.”
“Texas!” cried Jimmie. “Why, what’s the matter with Texas? It’s one of the greatest states in the union and the biggest.”
“Texas,” I submitted, “is the biggest lot of nothing I’ve ever flown over. Parched, bitter, greenish gray, a sort of mouldy color. Mile upon mile, hundreds of miles, as far as the eye can reach, of moon-like desert, stuck with oil derricks, pocked with dry concrete cisterns, the poor Texans try to catch rainwater in, if ever it rains …”
“Say,” Interrupted Jim. “You’re attacking some of the most touted scenes on this earth.”
“And California!” I cried. “The droopiest, shoddiest, beaverboard civilization I’ve ever seen. Everything droops. The palms droop, the poor, stiff, enslaved palms that stand like pitiful servants just wherever some silly property owner wanted them – and no place else! The palms droop, the people droop. Their houses all look like temporary movie sets they built for one show, a long while ago. But they’re living in them yet. Shoddy, gimcrack, fake …”
“But how do you explain the worldwide reputation of California?” demanded Jim.
“The poor guys that found themselves stranded there,” I explained, “had to make up a lot of stuff to tell each other, in order to keep sane. They made up this imaginary stuff and finally began to believe it themselves. Then they started spreading it. It’s the same as with the poets and painters who wrote about Rome and the Alps and Paris – in the spring! They got stranded. And had to make some money to get back home. Or – they made it up to escape, in their own imaginations, from something pretty grim. Or – best of all, perhaps, they followed the old human custom of telling fabulous tales about some place they’d seen which the home folks had never seen. Everybody loves to impress the neighbors. The poet Browning, as you know, got in wrong at home in London. So he and his wife spent a lot of time in Italy, writing beautiful poems about Italy in order to make their friends and enemies back in poor old frowsy London feel sore …”
“Now, you’ll admit London…” began Jimmie, who has been there.
“Aw,” I scoffed, “what is Piccadilly Circus but a wide intersection with a bunch of retail stores around it? What has Piccadilly Circus got that Queen St. and University Ave. hasn’t got?”
“Well…” said Jimmie, scandalized.
“Three days in New York is enough for anybody,” I assured him. “Paris is just a lot of self-conscious wide streets full of foreigners who seem to all have their beady eyes on you. Algiers? About like Winnipeg with a Shriners’ convention on. Madrid…”
“What’s the matter with you?” cut in Jimmie hotly.
“I’m just thinking about Georgian Bay,” I confessed softly.
Well – we got the nails, the paint brushes, the screws and a lot of little odds and ends like coat hangers, shelf brackets and stuff. And the great day came. And we drove to Midland and got the livery launch that takes us 30 miles up the shore amid the myriad islands. And we hove in off the wider spaces of the open bay into the channels that led us through ever more familiar scenes until, rounding a lonely bend, there, snuggled down on its rocky promontory was our well beloved cottage.
Its screens were all on.
“Jim,” I cried, “who could have put up the screens?”
We stared. The cottage had a specially happy look.
“Why,” I exclaimed, “Jim, you old rascal, you’ve painted the steps!”
“Not me!” assured Jim, staring.
Something Had Happened
The livery launch wheeled wide to pass a shoal that stands in front of our landing. And as it did so, we caught a glimpse of the rear of the cottage.
It was decidedly unfamiliar.
The kitchen had been built!
There, where the back door had formerly opened out on to a flat bare rock, stood a fine lattice-sided kitchen, painted the very green we had always planned. It was exactly the kitchen we had sketched and planned and drawn amateur blueprints of for the past six years.
“Why, Jim,” I shouted above the engine, “you old scallywag! Letting me believe, all this time …”
“I swear,” declared Jimmie with astonished eyes, “I know nothing whatever about it…”
“The dock!” I yelled.
Instead of the old dock, high at one end from the passing of many a winter’s ice, was a level one, with a massive new pine log bolted across its fore edge.
In complete amazement, we drew in, tied the launch and while the driver unloaded our luggage, we hastened up the slope to see the marvel.
There was the kitchen, perfect in every detail. With shelves, exactly as we had sketched them. Painted our own shingle green. The lattice strips expertly laid on, to allow the breeze to blow through. A professional, a workmanlike job.
“Did you speak to anybody in Midland,” I inquired, “about going ahead with this… maybe …”
“To nobody!” assured Jim.
The woodpile was higher and straighter than I had ever seen it. It had one section of almost all birch wood. Then another section, beautifully piled, of nice shiny pine cut into neat little sticks. Kindling.
We unlocked the back door and went into the main kitchen. It was spotless. All the pots and pans were hung more neatly than we had ever left them.
We went into the living-room.
“The fireplace!” gasped Jim.
Our old fireplace, with a lot of the mortar gone from between the rocks, with a couple of the end stones, in fact, in danger of falling out, had been transfigured. It was re-mortared throughout, a fresh set of fine stones had been fitted along the top.
We stood speechless before our beloved fireplace, and gazed around the shining room.
“The note,” said Jim.
For from the mantel hung a large notice.
“The five undersigned are members of a bomber crew that had to bail out due to engine trouble on Feb. 23. We all landed in sight of your cottage and took the liberty of breaking in as it was extremely cold and we did not know where we were. We trust we have done you no injury. We are extremely grateful for all the things you left, the firewood in the fire, the canned food in the cupboard, the tea, sugar, and the big tin of flour. We caught some rabbits in the stamp and all in all were very comfortable for five weeks until discovered last night by a passing party of lumber scalers. To pay for the supplies, we have done a few odd jobs for you. We found several different sketches and plans of the summer kitchen, so combined the best features of all. We hope you like it. And we left a fire ready for you too in the fireplace.
Very gratefully yours…”
And then followed their five young names, each with his trade and calling: Student of architecture, carpenter’s apprentice, stone mason, investment broker and student of theology.
“Jim,” I said huskily, “what kind of an afternoon is it outside?”
“Soft,” said Jim, “a southwest breeze, kind of fitful, humid, and a little overcast!”