A country house for a lifetime of summers (National Post, August 02, 2003)

'It's strange to be in a country house that isn't held together with duct tape," says my friend Barbara as she appraises the smartly stained exterior of our Laurentian retreat. ("Country house" sounds grand, but it is what we Montrealers call cottages.) Ours is eight years old, on a tiny lake nobody has heard of, near St. Sauveur, Que.

Our previous country house had been cheap ($13,500 in 1968, on a sweet little pond), and child-friendly, but eventually I yearned for charm and a lake view. When we left, I never looked back. In a lifetime of summers that began on Ontario's Lake Simcoe, I've occupied five different dwellings.

This geographical inconstancy would not compute with Barbara -- nor with her brother and sister. The Hart country house was built in 1949 by their parents and there they have been every summer since they were toddlers. The year 1949 is the grain of sand in the Hart family pearl. Every year adds new lustre to the story. The three siblings' permanent homes are in Israel, Ottawa and Seattle, but they re-assemble in St. Donat -- about an hour and a half north of Montreal -- every July through September. Barbara has five children, her sister has two, and most of them now have children of their own, so the rambling family bungalow now annually welcomes its fourth generation.

Visiting Barbara's country house is like entering a time warp. Nothing is allowed to change. The public space is one large room facing the lake through picture windows on one side, with a huge stone fireplace on the other. The original teak furniture is scattered around the original yellow-and-green checked linoleum featuring a flying duck in a centre medallion. Remarkably, not a single tile has ever lifted. The Electrolux dates from the 1930s, ditto the toaster. From a small, dark, inconvenient kitchen, gourmet meals issue forth (mainstream, vegetarian or kosher according to demand) to feed upwards of 19 family members of all ages for weeks on end.

On the wall near the fireplace are the "ancestor pictures." Every year at the same time the clan enthrones itself on the dock in tiered rows and a visitor is pressed into service as photographer. The mounted sequence "tells" the family narrative of grandparents, parents, children, marriages, births, deaths, even the succession of dogs.

My now-adult children get their nostalgia fix there because the Harts are master archivists of childhoods past. Their juvenilia collection from the 1950s and '60s is archaeologically awesome: Jack and Jill, Little Lulu, Mad magazine, Archie, Tin Tin, Asterix, Photoplay, 1955 ("The Secret of Doris Day's Popularity"!), Modern Screen ("Ed Sullivan tells you how to get a job in TV!"). Each artifact in this cultural reliquary may be read but must be handled with worshipful care. The house isn't maintained so much as curated.

I am not personally archival like Barbara, but I do like traditions. We two Barbaras are united in our fascination with the Royal Family. We often recall our Coronation memorabilia and the excitement of the televised event itself. We both get a kick out of finding antique china commemorating Royal occasions. I drink my morning coffee from the 1951 Elizabeth and Philip Canada tour mug.

When Charles and Diana got engaged, we knew what we had to do. I drove to Barbara's country house with the kids for a sleepover the night before the July wedding. At 4 a.m. when broadcasting began, sitting on the faded old sofas that had been spanking new for the Queen's coronation, everyone watched the fairy tale unfold. And as the Royal family waved goodbye to eat their post-wedding banquet, we sat down to our own English-style breakfast.

A visiting anthropologist, assessing the phenomenon of ancestral-domain worship, might begin by noting that this multi-generational home has morphed into a sacred icon with the perceived capacity to make time stand still. The house's scars, its genteel shabbiness are cherished as testaments to the family's vigorous diuturnity. Once inside it, the family turns tribal, wanting and needing nothing from the outside world. Neighbourly contact is gently discouraged. Within the house it is safe to be eccentric, each kinsman in his or her own way, without judgment or even comment. Alone or in murmuring pairs they drift in and out, swimming, grazing, reading, boarding (not sails but Scrabble, Boggle, Squad Leader), as the spirit moves them. The rhythm of life is Samoan in its simplicity. Every summer's return leads to a happy state of regression inducing a mild euphoria, a collective inkling of immortality.

For some, a new house serves the changes in a life. For others changelessness serves the life in an old house. I begin to have a clearer understanding of the Queen.


© Copyright  2003 National Post