A time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you
(Paul Simon, Bookends)
Bruce Fogle had the sort of summer vacations that every child today desperately needs. His family would pack up and leave Toronto for the Kawartha Lakes and the cottage his father had built for his family. Bruce, his mom and older brother would remain at the cottage for the summer, while his dad–and the other dads belonging to the cottages around theirs, came on Friday night and drove back to the city early Monday morning.
With the only car back in the city with Dad, the little trio were left to their own devices. Of course things were a bit different back then. A bread man came selling bread door-to-door. The dairy delivered milk. And other things could be had by taking the boat across the lake to a small town. Television wasn’t part of things at the lake. Nor were phones. The internet wasn’t around yet. The only game system was the Monopoly board. Swimming lessons were the only organized sport and those were taught in the lake.
One thing though marked the Fogle “trio” of Mom, Bruce and his brother, Robert. That was the fourth member of the all-summer-long family, Uncle Rueb. Over the course of this coming-of-age story, Bruce begins to understand that his Uncle–a doctor–has had a breakdown. It is Reub who is the guiding force in Bruce’s summer–not his elder brother. Bruce explains:
I never did anything with my big brother. If we played together we ended up fighting. We had the parents and lived in the same house but that was the extent of our shared togetherness. (p. 20).
But Uncle Reub was gentle and tells his nephew stories of Native American culture. A young Jewish boy, living in a Gentile world, is guided to manhood by stories of the first nations to live in North America. Reub is accepted by Bruce and Rob and their friends–almost as another boy. He goes to their forest hide-outs and helps keep tempers cool on long summer days.
Bruce prefers his friend Grace to many of the boys on the Lake. He and Grace have their own adventures. He begins to feel she is special. Don’t worry, there is no exploring of the kind mandatory to such stories today. It is a feeling, not a physical act here. Everything about this story conveys the morals and mores of that time–not of today.
For me Bruce’s story was sweet and gentle, but the parents appealed to me each in their own way. It wasn’t just his mom packing peanut butter and banana sandwiches with a thermos of Kool-Aid or her lack of micro-managing (she didn’t micromanage except over water safety–a valuable lesson for today’s Moms) it was the way marriage worked for her and the other women. They ran their show (the house and kids) and the husband ran his. “Parenting” wasn’t yet a verb. This is how I grew up. The Dad’s were involved–they played catch, they cleaned the garage, they set an example of decent manners and generosity, the kept the yard and the trash cans immaculate. They washed and waxed the cars. The moms did the rest. On weekends they turned back into husbands and wives, lovers and companions with parties all their own.
Weekends were extra special. They didn’t just feel different, they looked different, too. …there was a car behind every cottage sometimes two….The mothers looked different, too, especially mine. During the week they dressed any old how. Grace’s mother did her gardening or hung out her laundry or just lay there on her lawn chair browning herself in the sun in her bra and shorts. During the week my mum only mentioned our dad when we misbehaved….On weekends the mothers looked prettier. Anyways, that’s what I thought. Each Friday morning my mother washed her hair…..She spent the rest of the morning in curlers then after lunch she put on her makeup and did her hair. On Fridays she changed the bed linen and in the afternoon ironed the dress she put on for my dad’s arrival… (p. 84-85)
This was my childhood. The men in my family traveled for work–my Grandfather, my father and my Uncle all were away from home up to four nights a week–my grandfather even for several weeks at a time. Like a short version of a Marine or Army family with Dad on a safe military deployment we’d grow slack eating dinners Dad couldn’t stand, spen evenings doing what we liked, watching what we liked and having Mom to ourselves. Then the house got picked up, round steak got cooked and quiet was the order of the day. I loved the passage above because I understood it to the core.
I also understood this passage which perfectly illustrated the men in my family–and many of the men of that time. Bruce was in a dreamy mood, waxing lyrical about preparing a garden:
“Did God make all the plants and flowers and seeds in the kitchen?” I asked.
“I got them from Canadian Tire,” [Dad] answered.
I could almost here the church key split open a can of Hamm’s with that remark. Men didn’t do “spiritual” in my family, regardless of what they believed inside.
By the time the summer ends, Bruce has his Intermediate Red Cross badge from the swimming lessons lady, Uncle Reub has guided him thru an important rite of passage and his father has given the only voice he can to his pride in his son by having a fish stuffed and mounted in memory of Bruce’s first real catch. The “Brucie” at the beginning of the story is gone and “Bruce” now moves forward into the life of a teen.
Don’t let the summer end without reading this quiet gem.
Barefoot at the Lake: A Boyhood Summer in Cottage Country by Bruce Fogle