(Did you worry I would forget to write Part II?)
The cottage is what we call it. Like it's ours. It actually belongs to my sister and her husband, but for years before they had kids, they encouraged us to use it when they couldn't, so we feel a strong sense of attachment to the place.
But that's not quite it. Eight years ago, I had hurt my back two weeks before we were scheduled to go for our first visit. It became a goal for my physios to get me there: fourteen hours away. It probably helps to give a physio patient a goal. So, that became it for me. I was sternly told to stop every 1.5 hours, get out a little yoga mat on the side of the road and do my exercises. Which I did. I saw a lot of Ontario and Quebec from ground level. I remember though, after three days of driving and stretching, getting out of the car and walking straight past the house down the steps to the beach, standing there and surveying the sweep of the St. Lawrence at half-tide. I felt triumphant that I had made it. I felt home. Right from that first moment.
The cottage is in a curious situation. Bear with me if you've heard the story before. In the mid-19th century, a number of English Montreal elites sought a restful summer place with good air for their families in the summer. They settled on this place and built their three-story summer homes along the curve of the bay. Their heirs, by birth and sensibility, still return each year. They golf and play tennis, hold dinner parties and tournaments, engage locals to weed, mow lawns, maintain homes, serve food, and care for children. A read through the golf club membership directory reveals celebrated last names - and often first names that sound like names I would give only to a pet. All this in the midst of a separatist region of Quebec where even the tourist centre staff may speak no English.
My sister often encourages us to get involved at the Club, but we have no interest at all. For us, it is and has always been about the natural beauty and the isolation of the place. It is a dramatic contrast to our regular life and it refreshes us like nothing else.
After our first visit to the cottage, I started a novel set there. And then another. I am about to embark on a third. I spent a good deal of time this past year revising my books for (hopeful) publication. In a sense, I have come to live in this place (although I decided I like my fictional town even more).
This summer when I returned, it was as if someone had fine-tuned my every sense. I started carrying my notebook around like Harriet the Spy, observing every little smell, sight and sound. I realized that this place is my muse. It inspires me and speaks to me at a very deep level. It's the ground of my stories for now. No matter that my sister now has three loud preschoolers who spend the entire summer at the cottage. I would wake at 5 most mornings and write. I had a sense of incredulity the whole time - "I really get to be here. Right now, in this place." - as if it were life imitating art.
But the other source of delight was that we did all our favourite things and every new thing we did was wonderful. As usual, we visited the honey place - finding the queen bee and squeezing samples onto popsicle sticks before choosing a box filled with jars of different varieties; we went to the steamy bakery and bought cream buns; we went to the little store for candy; we made stores on the beach (this year they sold hot stone massages and skipping stones); we walked and walked the beaches. But, we also discovered the 50,000,000 year old fairy caves on a half-washed out gravel road inland from Ste-Leandre, at the northern edge of the Appalachians. It was a wonderful challenging hike, complete with swimmable waterfalls, piles of deer poop and wild blueberries. We found an organic herb store that made and sold knots of soap that smelled like every good Gaspesian thing. We found a new bakery. We tried wines and ice wine at a winery we had heard of but never found before. Best of all, we discovered the Jardins. I had assumed that the Reford Gardens would be snobby and boring. Their signage was muted and tasteful. I had been in their high-end gift shop before. But this year we went inside and we discovered the International Garden Festival they hold every year. And we discovered that it was the most playful, creative place. It was delightful in every way. I laughed and gasped and held my breath. I got glimpses of the St. Lawrence through the trees. It was stunning.
Probably best of all on our trip, I had the sense of being utterly outside time. From the start to the finish. I more or less knew what day it was but that was all.I even had none of the usual sense of melancholy as our trip drew to a close.
I was very low when I got home and everything - the washing machine, the hard drive, the modem - broke in very quick succession the next morning. I wanted to be in a place where I could speak French and smell sea air and eat sugary things. I didn't want to be in poky, landlocked southwestern Ontario. If I could bring the sea and the French here, I would be okay, I though, or if I could bring my friends and family there. I started looking at Quebec real estate and to make a case for a job exchange. Not one family member would agree to consider it.
And then, I was brushing my teeth, and I suddenly thought about my fiction: I can live there, I thought, even when I'm here. And the bliss seeped back in.