My father was tall -- six-foot, one -- and blond, with dark, sparkling blue eyes set a little too close together, a sharp nose and chin, a rapidly receding hairline and very fair skin. My mother once told me she could look at him and sometimes imagine a gigantic and gentle owl. His entire adult life he used steel rim reading glasses with Coke-bottle-thick lenses, so keen and far-sighted he could spot an immature eagle hidden in the shadows of some far-off tree where the rest of us could not isolate the tree. He rarely used or even needed binoculars. But in the shower or swimming in a lake, he operated almost entirely by touch because anything nearer than three or four feet was just an indistinct mass, a patch of dense fog. As he got older, he became almost compulsive about his glasses, insisting, for instance, on wearing shirts with pockets so he’d always have a place to stow them. And it rattled him whenever he misplaced his “readers,” because he knew how dependent he was on them and because he feared losing them was a sign of senility. When, for his birthday, the four of us pitched in for a pair of corrective swim goggles, he thought that was just fantastic.
In a bathing suit Dad revealed a big-boned and mostly lean body, which together made him appear a bit awkward and ungainly. Truly he was neither. I suppose I could call him sinewy, built like a sprinter. Still it always surprised me when he demonstrated great strength. The first thing he’d done when we stepped inside the lobby of the Berner Brothers lodge was lift one end of an old, faded-green and tobacco-smelling couch that faced the fireplace and drag it out through the front doors, leaving it on the covered front porch. “No one’s going to sit on that again,” he said coming back inside.
But just a minute later, when Carl and my mother pulled up to the lodge, Carl sprang from the station wagon, ran up on the porch, and belly-flopped onto the couch. In the headlights from the station wagon we saw a cloud of fine black dust explode from the couch. My father yelled out “Get off that thing!” and Carl jumped away, came inside, and then started coughing. “He’s so excited to finally be here,” my mother said. “The last ten minutes he’s just been crazy, twitching and shaking in the car.” The air outside that evening was so still and cold, the dust from the couch was suspended there like a cloud of gnats, trapped for hours under the porch ceiling. And Carl coughed until long after dinner and sporadically during the night.
It wasn’t until many years later, during one of our frequent father-daughter sessions in the boathouse, that my dad told me he thought the old Berner Brothers lodge was a fire trap, but also that it was the only building at the resort with a furnace that could keep us warm that winter. Despite this, the Old Lodge, Annex, or whatever name it goes by now, always will be near and dear to me, the way the old house in Livonia is for Joanna. That first night in the Old Lodge, we took up residence in what my mother dubbed “the Cave.” Despite the large picture windows on either side of the double front doors, the lobby of the lodge was dark with walnut-stained paneling, old thread-bare upholstery, nicked and bruised tables, and lamps with dingy, tasseled shades. It’s an image that brings to my mind the home of an old widow perhaps, someone who no longer can judge the state of her surroundings or no longer cares.
The lobby of the Old Lodge included, along the long wall to the right, the front desk where guests checked in, a red brick fireplace on the wall opposite with built-in bookcases on either side, double glass doors straight ahead opening into the large and well-lit dining room, and to the left of those doors an old upright piano, then mostly hidden beneath several dark blankets. Mounted above the fireplace was a huge, dusty, stuffed Muskellunge, a Musky, with a mouth full of sharp, yellow-brown teeth. Stairs leading to the guest rooms on the second floor rose behind the front desk, and tucked behind the stairs was a small office with a private washroom. Joanna immediately claimed this office as her own; and my father said, “You and Emily.” Joanna looked to the ceiling, rolled her eyes in distain, and said to me, “Oh come along,” like I was her disobedient puppy.
That first evening, after a dinner of cold roast beef sandwiches, carrot sticks, apples and oatmeal-raisin cookies that my mother had packed for all of us that morning, my father built a fire in the fireplace, even though the heat in the lodge was working well and “the Cave” was pretty cozy. I had never been anywhere with a fireplace before, and Carl and I were transfixed by the flames that hissed and jetted out from between the logs, the curling plumes of gray smoke that rose up like dreams to the chimney, and the radiant warmth. All evening long my father managed the fire with heavy, wrought iron tools and fed it from a stack of wood set in a huge wooden box by the front doors. Carl and I got a thrill from each flair in the fire and each time the charred logs collapsed like a house of cards. For us it was as good as fireworks. With the heavy fireplace screen in place, Carl and I kept inching closer to the flames. Then there’d be another burst of sparks, we’d squeal like frightened piglets, and my father would tell us again to back away. We’d brought in cushions and pillows from the truck, and rolled out thick blankets over the worn and faded area rugs. My mother also made sure Joanna and I were situated just as comfortably in the small office.
For Henry she’d made up a cat pan, though Joanna called it a turd tray, which my mother thought was pretty clever. It was just a shallow cardboard box filled with shredded newspapers that she set under the sink in the washroom and that each of us kicked accidentally that night. Henry never used it, at least not as my mother intended. We found him curled up asleep in it a few times. He’d been an outside cat in Michigan and he would be an outside cat in Ontario. If he couldn’t get out to do his business, he would find a private corner somewhere. He’d found a corner in the lodge basement already, and the next morning when my mother moved the cat pan there, he used a different corner. Henry was the only one of us who willfully disobeyed my mother and got away with it. When I was in high school and Henry was by then very old, nearly blind and failing in other ways, I remarked to my mother that she loved that cat more than she loved her children. She smiled at me and replied, “Not all the time.”
After dinner, Joanna spent that first evening in the lodge mostly by herself reading Gulliver’s Travels in that small office, except to come out for handfuls of popcorn my father made in a heavy cast iron kettle he set up in the fireplace. He must have carried me back into the office after Carl and I fell asleep by the fire. He told us at breakfast the next morning, while we ate at one of the large round tables in the center of the dining room, that Joanna fell asleep with her face in her book. “Well I hope she didn’t lose her page,” Carl said. The day before we moved, in another fit of frustration, this time over having lost her place in the book, Joanna accidentally ripped a page from that old disintegrating copy with its fraying black cloth binding and brittle, yellowed pages. It was a book Dad had received from his grandfather, and he was very unhappy with Joanna’s careless treatment of something he considered a personal treasure. Carl snickered about all that again, and so I watched as Joanna skillfully nudged her spoon off the table with a sharp elbow; then leaned over to pick it up, and with her long right arm reached behind me and slapped the back of Carl’s head. Carl winced and Mom said, “You’re both lucky she didn’t whack you with the spoon.”
Aside from breakfast -- scrambled eggs and stacks of “Mrs. Chelimers,” (large, thin and tender pancakes my mother learned to make as a child) -- the next day felt like an endless succession of trips to and from the truck and the station wagon to retrieve the rest of our clothes and possessions and stack the boxes in the corners of the dining room. A moving van loaded with our living room sofa, dressers and our other large furnishings would not arrive for another week. In the afternoon my parents made a more thorough assessment of the kitchen at the back of the lodge because my mother was not going to feed us cold sandwiches for dinner again, especially if she could use a large, well-equipped and functioning kitchen thirty feet away. My father had wondered out loud about cooking in the fireplace, and my mother replied, “Nothing doing. You built a fire last night the whole time telling me how this place will light up like a box of matches.” Growing up, she had witnessed enough cooking over an open fire to know there was little that was comforting or quaint about it, not for her, not anymore. At one point in their kitchen exploration, my mother said, “Darn it Charlie, you didn’t tell me this range had a big griddle built into it. If I’d known, I could have made the Mrs. Chelimers in half the time!”
“Oh I forgot about that. But with a kitchen like this, even I might learn to cook.”
After they’d inspected all the equipment and appliances and searched each kitchen cabinet, my mother said, “I’ll cook. You’re so much better than anyone else washing dishes, it would be a shame to waste such talent.” He grinned. My father accepted his place in the kitchen just as my mother understood her status as a “visitor” in the boathouse. We all were visitors there for the next forty years until my dad handed over the reins to Harry, by then my husband. For dinner that night Mom made baked chicken, oven-roasted potatoes, and coleslaw, nothing too complicated really. She had not yet really learned her way around that kitchen, but she had somewhere and somehow learned her way around food. Twelve years later, when I left home for college, dorm food tasted only salty, or at best peppery, but never “well-seasoned.” Fish was the worst, I think, because my mother’s preparation of fresh local walleye, bass, and whitefish spoiled us for almost anything else. And despite the dorm’s twice-a-month Saturday night steak dinners, I sometimes begged to come home on weekends. Even my mother’s simple meals -- hamburgers or pork chops -- seemed unbelievably delicious by comparison.
The twin brothers, the Berner brothers, from whom we bought the resort and who still lived in their own cabins within the resort boundaries, had left a welcome note for my parents at the front desk, but hadn’t come by yet to formally introduce themselves to the entire family and give us what they called “the owners’ tour” of the resort. My Dad had visited the property twice, once each with Uncle Samuel and Uncle Frank. Without the promised tour, my parents were uncomfortable with us wandering around the property. But it was pretty cold, so we were told to stay in the lodge or stick close to it. Under these circumstances, Carl chose to spend the afternoon exploring the lodge from top to bottom, and we kept hearing him bound and clop about upstairs like a team of Clydesdales, opening and closing closet doors and dresser drawers, and running water in the bathrooms. At one point Joanna said, “You’d think he’d never seen a toilet before.”
Joanna hardly left the little office; she wasn’t going to put much effort into learning about a place she had no intention of staying. I floated back and forth between my parents who were busy sorting through boxes of our clothes and personal items, deciding what we needed immediately, what we would need soon, and what could wait. Or I wandered back to Joanna who had a pile of books and magazines to keep herself busy. For the umpteenth time we read The Red Balloon and Babar the Elephant.
Sometime during the second night the heat went out and the little office got very cold very quickly. I woke up shivering in my pajamas and made Joanna get up too. We went back into “the Cave” and found Carl and Henry curled up asleep near the fireplace, which by then showed only mounds of soft ash with a few glowing embers. My father and mother were not there, but the doors to the dining room were open, so we followed the faint light from the wall sconces through the dining room, into and through the kitchen, and then halfway down the narrow cement stairs to the basement. My mother in her heavy, yellow terry cloth robe and slippers was standing near the furnace, hunched over and holding a lantern for my father, who, in a similar brown robe, was on his back with his arms reaching into the furnace. He was tapping lightly on something with a small hammer he’d pulled from a heavy metal toolbox that was his loyal companion whenever household repairs were underway. He muttered some words to my mother about a corroded thermostat. “Oh really,” she said. “How much will that be?”
“These things are simple and cheap,” he said as he got back up to his feet, “which I hope is the problem. Otherwise, it could be chemicals in the water, and that’s a bigger issue.” He freed-up the thermostat, reinstalled it, and we watched him relight the pilot for the oil-burning behemoth that distributed hot water to cast iron radiators throughout the lodge.
Then I heard myself say, “It’s cold, Daddy,” and they both turned toward us. They hadn’t heard us come down the steps or noticed us standing there. “Well, we’ll see if this old thing starts up,” my father said. It did, and he kept it running long enough to drive down to Barrie later in the week and pick up a new thermostat for the boiler. Joanna had taken herself back to the office without a word to anyone. Having restarted the furnace, my father was very pleased with himself, and with a big smile he picked me up and carried me back upstairs like a fireman. As she came up the steps behind us however, my mother, with shoulder-length, jet-black hair like mine, smiled at me but shook her head slightly from side to side in a way that always meant disappointment. She had taken these events as the first sign that the whole enterprise would be more trouble and more expensive than they had planned. As usual, she was right.