Early Mentors – by Victoria MacDonald

In the spring of 1958, just before I turn eight, my mother announces at the dinner table that we own our very own cottage. She has found a great bargain, and the lady who sold the property is leaving a kitchen table, dishes, some cots, a dock and a boat.

“We’ll drive up north to see it next weekend,” she adds.

Bursting with excitement, I want to jump up and down, but proper table manners are never disrespected.

I count the sleeps until it’s time to venture north. My brother and I have to share a room. Three years older, he isn’t happy with this arrangement.

“Why do I have to sleep with her?” he grumbles.

“Unless you want to sleep outside, where else is there?” remarks my mother in her matter-of-fact way.

My feelings are hurt, but I don’t let on.

Our cottage is built at the north end of a small island on Lake Catchacoma in the Kawartha Highlands. The baby-blue cabin is nestled among fresh smelling cedar, hemlock and birch trees. White window frames match a picket fence that hugs the base of the building. Steep stone steps lead up to the front door. At a four-seater kitchen table, we eat beanie weenies and hot dogs, play crazy eights, and gaze out a picture window at our slope of land which leads down to the shoreline of a narrow bay. The gentle splash of waves or buzz of a passing motorboat sound so different from the rattling and screeching of Toronto streetcars. At nightfall we listen to the crackling of the fire in the pot-bellied stove, or the haunting call of a loon. Our dog, Jane, claims the one, sagging couch. Two cramped bedrooms separated by a cardboard wall are furnished with foldout cots, tiny bureaus and orange-crate bedside tables.

Pine needles, moss and tree roots layer the ground. A dock, tethered to two sturdy evergreens, floats at the base of the hill. A wooden boat, with a six-horsepower engine, jostles against the edge of the wharf. Edward is allowed to run the motor by himself, provided he wears a life jacket. When my brother returns from circling the bay, Daddy shows me how to tie the boat to the dock again so it won’t float away.

Starting in late May, we drive to our getaway every weekend. Trilliums border the country roads, blackflies torment us. In July, when school lets out, Mommy, who is a psychiatrist,goes back and forth to the city because she has to work. Daddy is a cartoonist, so he stays at the cottage with my brother and me. Every Friday evening, my mother arrives at the mainland dock, the car full of supplies. I give her a bouquet of buttercups and daisies that I’ve picked just for her.

Soon after she receives her flowers, however, I’m told to amuse myself outside.

“Mommy, Mommy, come for a swim!”

“Not now, maybe later.”

“Can we play crazy eights?”

“Victoria, your father and I are having a ‘grown up’ talk. Stop interrupting.”

“But I’m bored.”

“Stop pestering your mother. Go outside. There’s plenty to do.”

I scale shoreline rocks, build forts, fish off the dock and swat mosquitoes. My brother and I, forced to share our insect-infested bedroom, think nothing of squishing them against the cardboard wall to create a splattered mural.

Edward finds a friend on the other side of the island, and I’m not welcome. I’m allowed to swim endlessly without supervision in shallow water with a life-jacket. At bedtime, Mommy wrinkles her nose when I kiss her cheek. “Your braids are still damp. They smell like your bathing suit when you forget to hang it on the clothesline.”

 I love to collect little toads to keep me company. Building them homes made of sticks, pine needles, leaves, and moss, I try to feed them ants, but they aren’t hungry. Some escape and the rest die. Bereft, I hunt for more.

Daddy makes me let them go. “You cannot keep wildlife in captivity,” he lectures. “It’s cruel. I forbid it!”

The thought of giving up my new friends is unbearable. As soon as Daddy isn’t watching, I find another toad and hide him behind the outhouse, on a stump under a plastic cup.  I plot to build a special, secret fort first thing in the morning.

I awake to bright sunshine, the promise of a new and exciting day. Edward is still asleep. Scampering out of my bedroom, I’m eager to retrieve my new toad. My father intercepts me beside the woodpile at the back of the cottage. His face is ruddy red. Not good.

 He grabs my arm and yanks me towards the tree stump. The plastic cup is still there. So is the toad, baked under the cup in the sun like a strip of bacon.

“Poor thing suffocated! Go to your bed and stay there!”

I am imprisoned all day. At dinner, nobody talks to me and after eating, I am sent away. They play cards and board games without me. I cry into my pillow.

The next day, freed from captivity, I try to redeem myself by staying quietly out of the way, oblivious to the irony of my reality. Exploring the shoreline, I find some sparkly rocks. A ripple of excitement energizes me when I spot an enormous toad squatting on the sand. Its tongue darts out to seize passing ants. I want to possess it, in spite of what has happened. This time will be different.

My grasping hands reach to capture it around its tubby tummy. It leaps out of my grasp and lands with a thump.  Its bulging, beady eyes challenge mine.

A prickle of fear skitters up my spine. Nevertheless, I persist with my plan of capture. It lunges, grabbing my thumb in its gaping mouth. I shriek, shake it off. It falls at my feet. I back away slowly, full of newfound respect. Never again do I terrorize toads.

Perhaps I can make friends differently, I ponder, as I observe the comings and goings of chipmunks. I sit, still as a statue, at the top of the cottage steps with popcorn kernels in my outstretched palm, resisting the urge to swat mosquitoes. I have laid an enticing path of treats all the way from the tree roots at the bottom of the hill, up, up, up, to where I perch.

Finally, a chipmunk creeps towards me to snatch the kernels out of my hand. Eventually, my new friend Chippie comes whenever he hears the sound of my clucking tongue. I adore his fat little cheeks and giggle when he jumps on my shoulder. He disappears down a small hole beside the roots of a nearby pine tree with his stash. I wonder if he has a family or if he lives all alone in the dark. I know better than to dig around his shelter. I have patience and respect for his autonomy. Our relationship is reciprocal.

One day, when I run out of popcorn kernels, I decide to watch ants. Fascinated, I track the arduous journey of a lumbering black ant as it drags a dead beetle three times its size up the hill towards the cottage. Pine needles, rocks and crevices impede its way. In spite of the obstacles, it finds ways to proceed with amazing strength.

After struggling for several minutes, it encounters a deep hole between two tree roots. Having seen pictures of the Grand Canyon, I imagine this challenge from the ant’s perspective. It drops the beetle and runs in circles near the edge of the precipice.I consider helping by placing the ant’s cargo on the other side. But then, what would happen to the ant? Should I then try and capture it in my hand, and transfer it over as well?

Suddenly, two other ants arrive out of nowhere. The three of them flip the beetle to form a bridge and then march across, like soldiers, in single file. Incredible! Safely over on the other side, they flip the beetle again. The original ant continues on its way alone. The other two disappear as quickly as they’d arrived. Fascinated, I continue watching until the ant drags its cache under the cottage.

My interference, any attempt to “help” the ant, would never have measured up to Nature’s Plan.

A few days later, a garter snake captures a tiny toad in its mouth.

“Daddy, make that horrid snake let him go!” I wail.

“The snake must eat. You have to let nature take its course.”

“But it’s not fair!”

And when I hear my own words, a bigger truth sets in. I watch the snake slither off with its prey and realize its intentions, unlike mine, are pure.  

Victoria MacDonald is a retired Special Education teacher. In addition to tutoring, she loves to write memoir. She has recently self-published a book entitled Coming to Terms with Friesen Press, and one of her short stories has been awarded “Editor’s Choice” and was accepted for publication in the Spring 2022 edition of Inscape Magazine.

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