BY TERRY KEENLEYSIDE
My father grew up in Regina deeply influenced by the economic hardships he experienced there in the 1920’s and 1930’s. In his late fifties, living now in Toronto with his Depression-era mentality somewhat tempered, he and my mother began looking for a summer cottage. Their initial intention was to buy one in Muskoka, but they couldn’t find anything that appealed to them and that had the view that my father in particular was looking for.
Then, in 1957, they visited West Carling as my mother’s sister and her husband had recently purchased Hoppner Island on the small-boat channel opposite Esther Island. Dad, who had never been on Georgian Bay before, climbed out of the boat at their dock and walked across the gently undulating granite rocks to a promontory on the island’s western shore. Shielding his eyes from the glare off the water, he gazed across the rolling sapphire bay past a string of low-lying islands to the distant horizon. There, just out of sight, he was informed, stood Red Rock Lighthouse, stalwart and alone, like an old grain elevator carefully positioned for perspective. He shifted his attention to the broad blue blanket above him, turning his eyes in every direction. No obstructions, no difficulty in forecasting the impending weather. He dipped a hand in the cold, fresh water and watched it run cleanly off his fingers. He took a deep breath of the sweet air, tinged with the perfume of pine. Then he turned to the others and pronounced, “It’s just like Saskatchewan.”
My aunt and uncle were baffled, speechless, but my mother looked at him and smiled. She understood. And she knew that before long they would have an island of their own on the Bay. And Dad would be back home in Saskatchewan.
On a visit the following summer, my parents spotted the “For Sale” sign on near-by Rocko Island, and that winter, over the phone, Dad and the vendor struck a deal. My father had a habit of shouting and stuttering when he was excited and listening to his end of the conversation, I heard him stammer, “W-w-well, I’m not going to quarrel over $250. So let’s s-s-s-settle at $5,250!” Done! Some thirty years later, it cost almost four times as much just to put in a new septic system.
My father had only ten summers at Rocko, but they were unquestionably the happiest of his life. In fact, he loved the island so much that, in the middle of the winter, in anticipation of the coming season, he would take the three-horsepower engine he purchased our first summer, attach it to a washtub in the basement of our Toronto home, and fire it up for several minutes. He said it was good for the engine to get a little work, but really he just wanted to imagine himself in the spring, driving out to the island once again.
The cottage came fully furnished. There were several leaded stained-glass windows in the living room; handsome but rigid wicker chairs; a wind-up gramophone complete with records, and rectangular wooden crates—now used as kindling for the fire—that originally were packed with turkeys, canned vegetables, and fruit, delivered by steamer to a dock at the front of the island. There were, as well, such memories of the thirties as a topless Johnson outboard engine that looked more like a sophisticated Mixmaster than something that could actually push a boat, an ice house with the floor still covered in sawdust, and a tall oak ice chest that stood in the pantry off the kitchen like a faithful servant, oblivious to the precariousness of his tenure.
We ate simply in those early summers, meals cooked by my mother on an old woodstove. Canned chickens, canned new potatoes, Brussel sprouts, squash, and cabbage were all staples because they lasted well. In those days it was a long drive over rough dirt and gravel roads to Parry Sound to augment our supplies. Until 2008, we dined on the porch at a white-painted art deco table with loose-jointed legs and a peeling top. Although inadequate for our steadily expanding family, there was a certain appeal to the table’s cramped character; to the scramble of empty pots, pans, and dishes that made the end of every meal look like the remains of an enormous celebratory feast; to the sight of lightly-clothed bodies perched on stiff wooden chairs with broken and missing spokes pressed tightly together around a table that wiggled and sighed with age. The porch and its simple table engendered an atmosphere conducive to animated conversation, to stories retold and recollections revisited.
Now the old porch is gone. The new one is almost twice the size, and we eat at a long pinewood dinner table with a top fashioned from old barn wood. With its leaves in place, it can accommodate all three generations currently at Rocko. Already the table is taking on a history of its own and adding to our family’s deep connections with the island.
It was at “the bathtub” on the western side—the “Gold Coast”—that I first told Dot I loved her. It was there that our daughters, Deb and then Karen, got engaged, and both were later married on the island. And it was here that we held the engagement party for our son, Tim.
I love Rocko at all times of the year and in all conditions, but perhaps best on what we call a “typical Georgian Bay day.” Under a sun slipping toward the outer islands, the sky and water are the rich, deep blues of a Van Gogh painting, the tall, dry grass the colour of his cornfields, and a westerly is pounding in from the open at twenty-five or thirty kilometres per hour. On those late afternoons, I like to walk along the “Gold Coast” and survey the blue, undulating wheat fields that sweep before me to the distal, teasing open. I glance up at the big sky above me. Long, tangled threads of white cirrus clouds are riding high—up there where a passenger jet is streaking westward—towards Saskatchewan.