Henry, who often sought out quiet, comfy places to curl up and snooze, didn’t wake up from his spot near the book case and piano when the heat shut down that night; nor for that matter, did Carl. As attached as Henry became in his later years to my mother’s warm lap, for the better part of his long life he was singularly disinterested in our human activities. He probably concluded we weren’t very interesting. Once we all settled into living at Berner Brothers Resort, Henry exited and entered the Old Lodge as opportunities presented themselves, usually by hiding in a dark corner, under the back steps, or behind a rocking chair on the front porch while waiting for almost anyone to open a door. Then he’d scoot in or out, dash around a corner or down some stairs, and disappear into a thicket somewhere or seclude himself in the basement. For a too-well-fed cat, he was surprisingly quick.
My mother left food and water for him in black plastic bowls near the foot of the basement stairs, and oftentimes those dishes were the only sign that Henry existed at all. Cat box, poop pan or turd tray, Henry had little use for it. He much preferred to do his business outside, and when for some reason he couldn’t, well there was always that deserted corner in the basement. That first spring, once the snow cleared, Henry took a particular liking to the gigantic sand box on the resort playground; so checking and raking that became one of our chores during what all of us quickly learned to call “the season.” It wasn’t too long however before my father devised a heavy canvas cover for the sand box, a mechanism that operated like a huge horizontal roller shade that we pulled over the sand box and latched at dusk or before a storm and had to crank back in the morning. It went a long way toward keeping the sand box clean and dry and keeping Henry out. The first time Dad gave us a demonstration, my mother marveled at it and pronounced it a stroke of genius. Then she marched back into the kitchen and baked a banana cream pie to celebrate Dad’s invention. Carl and I kept pumping Dad to come up with new inventions so Mom would make more desserts. But Henry protested Dad’s genius by pooping on and then scratching up the cover. Soon after however, Henry got a front claw caught in the canvas fabric as a large deer approached. Carl and I heard Henry howl, and we ran outside just in time to see him panic and tear off across the playground, leaving a streak of blood and a claw hooked in the cover. The next day, Dad and I took Henry to the vet in Orillia because he was limping and that paw looked swollen and inflamed.
And as for Carl, unless he was sick, he was the soundest sleeper I’ve ever known, not even stirring through thunderstorms that flashed and boomed across the resort. But then he always was first to rise, the first out of bed, first to get dressed and eat breakfast, and the first one out of the house. It’s just the way he’s always been, a morning person his whole life, like my mother. When I was in high school and Joanna already was in college at McGill, I’d wander into the kitchen an hour or more after my mother and Carl, who were immersed in conversation, typically about volcanos, earthquakes, the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak Bears or other peculiarities of my mother’s childhood. One such morning Carl was intent on proving that life in Muskoka, compared to my mother’s childhood, was just plain dull. “I grew up thinking it was all quite ordinary,” she told him.
Carl had this sweet disposition and enthusiasm for just about everything he did, and my memory is that he always had a hoard of friends. Often it seemed like Carl’s entire childhood was spent attending birthday parties, sometimes for kids he barely knew. People just liked Carl, liked having him around. Despite his consistently good grades and acceptance to the University of British Columbia, at the end of his senior year in high school Carl was voted “Most likely to sell you a used car.” When my mother heard about that, it took half an hour before she could stop laughing and dry her eyes. Carl had a certain charisma, and I never heard anyone say they didn’t like Carl; not that he couldn’t irritate one or the other of us, especially Joanna who often was “so sick of his positive attitude.”
* * *
Honestly, I think Joanna resented, for a while, the ease with which Carl made friends. My mother used to joke that Joanna resented Carl’s mire existence, and that by the time I was born, she’d given up on our family. Years later, when I asked Joanna about this, she told me about walking through the halls at school and passing a crowd of kids with Carl in the center. “He was always so F-ing popular. And I just didn’t get it!”
“He’s your brother. You’re protected from his charisma. But he’s not a bad guy.”
“No, he’s not. I know that. But sometimes he’s careless.” Then she paused while she considered her next thought. “And he gets the benefit of the doubt, when other people don’t.”
* * *
Carl was up really early that second morning at Berner Brothers; it still was dark outside. But he didn’t leave the lodge, not with more than half a foot of new snow. He got dressed and came into the back office where Joanna and I were asleep. Through the blanket, he poked me in the back with a finger, almost like he was twisting a knife, and whispered sharply right in my ear “Emily, get up! You gotta see this!” Joanna heard him too, and rolled over only long enough to say, “Carl, shut up! Get out of here!”
I unfurled the blanket that I’d rolled around myself during the night and went into the lobby where my parents still were sleeping too. I remember thinking the furnace must still be working because everything was very warm. Henry was nowhere to be seen, but Carl was quietly waiting in the lobby for me, but fidgeting with excitement. Then he took my left hand in his right, led me out into the dining room, and then quietly closed the glass door behind us. He’d already pushed two dining room chairs from a nearby table up against the radiator under one of the picture windows on the east side. We stood on the chairs and he took my hand again, either to make sure I didn’t fall or because it was part of the way he shared his enthusiasm.
We stood there on the chairs and looked out into the surrounding darkness that soon would soften to dawn. Fresh snow covered everything like a pristine and puffy quilt. We looked through the forest, the balsam and white pine branches bent low supporting inches of crystalline powder, the ground sloping gradually down and away to Pike Lake.
“Look higher up,” Carl said. “Do you see the clouds?”
Through the trees and across the frozen snow-covered lake a few disintegrating bands of clouds from the night’s storm glided away from us. The Sun had not yet cleared the horizon, but the first inklings of daylight had set the retreating edges of these clouds glowing, tracing them in a fiery line of peach that broke quickly against a sky of midnight blue.
“Look at that,” he said. “Look at the sky! Have you ever seen anything like that?”
I’m not sure I even understood what I was seeing, so all I said was “Wow.” But remembering it now, it looked like frozen lightning. We stood there on the chairs a little while longer holding hands. Carl had taken a glimpse of something wonderful, and had come back for me so I could see it too. He always wanted or needed someone with whom he could share his triumphs and his disappointments, and I’ve always cherished that he included me among his close friends, that I was not just his little sister.
When we’d taken our fill of the emerging day, Carl helped me down from the chair and said, “Put some clothes on, and I’ll show you all around upstairs. And don’t wake anybody up.” Wasn’t he the one who woke up Joanna? It took me a while to get dressed because the office, on the west side of the lodge, still was pretty dark, I had no idea where my mother had packed my clothes, I had to be so quiet with Joanna sleeping, and I was only six. Dressing myself still was a hit-or miss business. Most school nights my mother or Joanna would lay out clothes for me to wear the next morning. That hadn’t happened, so I put on what I found first. There’d been so much talk about how cold it was, I must have put on multiple layers of everything -- underwear, shirts, and socks -- to the point where I couldn’t fit my feet into my shoes.
By the time I walked back into the dining room, Carl was gone. I took myself into the kitchen, and I called “Carl, Where are you?” Fortunately, my parents didn’t hear me; I’m sure they didn’t want me, or Carl for that matter, wandering unattended around that kitchen, with all its sharp knives, propane-fed stoves and ovens, and restaurant-size mixing equipment. The resort kitchen baked its own bread, so there was a huge steel bowl with an angry looking dough hook resting in the bottom; and I recalled Joanna’s warning the day before not to fall in. “Just one more way to die,” she’d whispered. I kept my distance from the bowl as I navigated my way to the foot of the back stairs. I called out for Carl again, and he called back down to me from the landing at the top of the stairs. “Come on up Emily, it’s really something up here.”
The maple plank stairs were narrow, steep and very slick from decades of heavy traffic, housekeeping staff going to and from the guest rooms. I carried my shoes, one in each hand, which meant I couldn’t hold the handrail, and I felt my feet slip again and again with each step. Slowly, nervously climbing the stairs that way, making certain each foot was stable before I took my next step, it seemed to take forever, especially with Carl calling “Come on! Come on!” from somewhere on the second floor. By the time I got to the top, Carl had just come back to see what was taking me so long. “Finally!” he exclaimed. I know I stood there for a time exhausted, panting with my mouth open. My undershirt was glued to me, my legs were shaking, my lower lip was quivering, tears were welling up in my eyes, and my face felt like I’d got sunburned. I tried not to cry, I tried to hold it in; but I couldn’t, and the tears streamed down my cheeks like a dam giving way. Then I started wailing and gasping for air. Carl kept asking, “Emily, what’s wrong? What’s wrong?”
I can think of dozens of more dangerous things I’ve done in seventy-plus years, but I’ve never felt as frightened as I did climbing the back stairs in my socks that morning. I threw down my shoes, yanked off my socks and most of my clothes until I was down to a T-shirt and underpants, crying the whole time. And then I started beating on Carl’s chest until he pushed me away and I fell on my bottom. Neither of us understood what had happened to me, so Carl turned away, walking into a nearby guest room, and I sat there at the top of the stairs crying. I remember how hot it was on the second floor, and how long it took me a to regain my composure. It is one of those moments in my life I’ll never forget, and yet Carl, so caught up in his own world, forgot about it within weeks. “I guess so,” he said once when I recounted the events.
“I was so frightened that morning,” I told him.
“I didn’t know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
When I did eventually calm down, I walked into the guest room where Carl was sitting on the edge of the bare mattress waiting for me. He asked, “What happened to you?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Then why’d you hit me?”
“I don’t know.”
“You hit me and you don’t even know why.”
“No, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
I didn’t have to use the back stairs; I easily could have climbed the carpeted stairs from the lobby behind the front desk. I could have dropped my shoes at the foot of the back stairs and used the handrail. I could have climbed the stairs on my hands and knees. I could have asked Carl for help. I did none of these things. I learned in time that I have a deep-seated reluctance to asking for help, and changing my path; and the more difficult the original decision, the more fiercely I defend it. I do not abandon a cause or a friend. I will not let go. For better and sometimes for worse, it is one of the character traits I’ve inherited from my father.
* * *
What seems so ordinary now, were -- no, are -- vivid and wonderful memories from my childhood: the long, narrow hallway on the second floor of the Old Lodge with tall double-hung windows at either end, and its shiny, slick floor of inch-wide maple slats, where Carl and I spent hours that first winter running back and forth, sliding in our socks, playing with toy soldiers, bowling with stacked blocks as pins, or playing hide-and-seek in the empty guest rooms, in the empty closets, under the beds and behind the dressers.
The Old Lodge, which was “really something” that Sunday morning, was, in fact, a very plain and simple construction. On the second floor, thirteen small rooms, all but two with a single window looking either east across Pike Lake or west toward Big Crescent, each with a small closet behind its door, each with a dresser and a small desk and a chair. The men’s and ladies’ washrooms, with a couple of toilets, shower stalls, and sinks, were across the hall from one another and above the kitchen. All the guest rooms were the same size, about eight feet across by twelve feet deep, except for the room at the front of the Lodge above the lobby and small office, which was twice that size and had its own bathroom with a bathtub. Our third night there, that larger room became my parent’s bedroom, just as it had been Helen Berner’s bedroom years before. Carl was given the guest room next to the men’s room and Joanna and I took the room across the hall and next to the ladies’ room. But our room was impossibly small with two beds, dressers and a desk; so a few days later, Joanna got her own room next to mine.
* * *
To be fair, and notwithstanding Carl’s and my parent’s enthusiasm for it, I was frightened about moving to rural Canada. For the most part I kept my fears to myself. I still do. I had started kindergarten in Livonia the previous August, and I worried about going to a different school with kids I didn’t know. Before, I’d usually walked the four blocks to kindergarten with a hoard of friends, but now I worried about riding the school bus, getting lost in the snowy forest and freezing to death, falling through the ice, and all the other catastrophes Joanna recited before we went to sleep. In the weeks before we moved to Ontario, she’d reminded me every night that I was only six and that I’d probably be dead before summer.
My mother overheard Joanna say this once, and that was the only time I really thought she was going to hit one of us.
“If I ever . . ., if I ever hear you say that again . . .” She was so angry she couldn’t finish the thought, and we could see the anger burning through her pale complexion.
“Emily, you’re going to be just fine; trust me. I grew up happy and healthy in places far more wild than where we’re going. You are smart and you will learn what to watch for. I wouldn’t let us move to any place that was dangerous. And I’d bet my life that you’ll love it.”
"And you . . .” she said shaking a threatening finger at Joanna, who already had rolled over in bed and turned toward the wall, “you can have all the opinions you like, but you will not terrorize your sister with your ignorance and your adolescent self-pity. I’ve had enough of it. You’d better grow up. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?” She had raised her voice again.
“Yes, Momma,” Joanna replied quietly.
“Now go to sleep,” my mother said sharply. There would be no bedtime stories that night. She kissed Joanna on the top of her head, rubbed noses with me, and then kissed the top of my head; it was her custom. She turned out the light, closed the door, and left us there in the dark. I whispered to Joanna that I was sorry, and Joanna told me it wasn’t my fault.
We had called her “Momma” when we were toddlers, before we were old enough to go to school; but even I had unconsciously advanced to “Mom” by the time of this exchange. And here Joanna had retreated to “Momma” in the blink of an eye. I’d looked up to my older sister as almost an adult since she read thick books that didn’t have pictures and she got all “A” s in school. I’d overheard Joanna’s adult-like conversations about school and the news, or conversations with her own school friends; so there was something frightening for me about this confrontation between my mother and Joanna. After my mother left us there, I began whimpering, and then I climbed into Joanna’s bed and hugged her for comfort. She probably thought I was trying to comfort her. At some point during the night, Joanna must have climbed over me, crawled into my bed and gone back to sleep there.
Miles Ducore is a retired packaging engineer and member of the Barrington Writers Workshop. Born in New Jersey, he attended college in the Midwest, including the Iowa Writers Workshop. He and his wife have lived in Palatine, IL for more than forty years.