Today we are driving to the Eastern Townships of Quebec. By the time you read this, we may even be there. It’s a summer holiday, sure, but it’s also just loaded with significance to me. It’s not just a place where I go to get lost and then struggle to get directions in French. It’s not only fields of cows chewing cud, rivers through rural towns, hills or forests or hay bales. It’s home.
We used to go to Quebec every summer, and some Christmases- me, Julianne and Michael, Mom and Dad. It’s an eight hour drive, with stops, from Peterborough to Sherbrooke, the nearest real city to my grandparents’. As kids, it might as well have been a week in that car. As parents to three busy and impatient kids, it must have been closer to a month.
I can see the road now. Down to the 401 and East for the longest leg of the trip, but the easiest. In the pilot’s seat, now, I practise for Quebec’s drivers by attempting to aggressively cut off every other vehicle on the way there. By the time I reach Montreal, the fantasy has become a reality, and we struggle to remain on track and in one piece, horns going off like the voices of angry herd animals all around us. It’s survival of the Frenchest, and I only took it at school.
Of course it was Dad driving. After the concrete madness of Montreal, our station wagon proceeded yet further East, seeking refuge in the long green roadways of the Townships. Mountains- Orford the greatest among them- would rise and fall before us, and the tall trees of Quebec would rise to greet us as we approached our goal. Steadily the towns grew smaller- Sherbrooke, East Angus, Cookshire, Sawyerville.
An abandoned sugar camp lies outside Sawyerville on the way to Chemin Riviere du Nord. Closed in on two sides and overhead by the darkest old trees, the fabled Wolf House- a tree fort built by who knows what now-elderly Quebecois children- came and went on our left. Now we were close, so very close- road weariness fell away and blossomed into anticipation.
Now, as I take my kids to my grandparents’ place for the second time in their lives, I once again feel the old familiar flush. My heart rises in my chest and I know that after crossing over six hundred fifty kilometers, I am nevertheless back home.
Gordon and Audrey Bowker are my grandpa and grandma. For the boys, they are great-grandpa and grandma. It is my intense pleasure to be able to share this. Aura has no living grandparents, so I love that I can provide her with a couple as well.
Grandma- whose middle name is Mabel, which she despises- rules the kitchen. From it come forth the fruit of flour, sugar and oil; it flowers with pea soup and boiled beans and homemade mayonnaise. Cookies dance behind Grandma’s eyes and on her counters.
It’s Grandpa, however, who works the earth. His gardens spill out across the enormous back yard. A greenhouse sits well back, full of tomatoes. Potatoes wait silently in their places beneath the surface, and blueberries climb skyward in their wide bushes.
We used to go hunting for pyrite in a shale deposit nearby. I don’t think the deposit is there anymore, although I have yet to revisit the site. I’ll have to have a look this time. There was an endless supply of those deceptive treasures- Fool’s Gold- when we went out with our hammers in years gone by.
The neighbors are nice folks, too. As a matter of fact, Grandpa and Grandma’s youngest child never moved away, and Jeff lives there now with his family- his wife Carolyn and his boys James, Tim and Josh. I am waiting to find out when James starts going by Jim- that will mark the ultimate exit from childhood for me. My little cousins are so big now- not boys, but young men. We all do that sooner or later, though.
The old house is built on the site of its corresponding farm. Jeff runs the farm, now, and the grandfolks have moved next door to watch. Cows come to the edge of their field, just across the road, to mooch apples from suckers like us city folk. The boys had a ball last year, feeding these big goofy-looking animals. You just have to be careful not to lean onto the electric fence, something that drove me nuts as a kid.
When I was a boy I would bury myself in the basement for hours, losing all track of time in the pages of a vast trove of Reader’s Digests that reside there. These magazines date back to the seventies, if I remember correctly, and I never got tired of the feature pages of jokes and anecdotes. I used to devour the thriller contributions- stories about plane crash survivors, mountain climbers, encounters of the bloody variety with nature’s denizens. I still check on the collection whenever I stop by.
There are so many aspects of this visit I value. Sugar on snow in the middle of summer, thanks to snow kept in a freezer for months on end. Rows on rows of canned food, pickles and sauces from Grandma’s kitchen. Grandpa slaving away over his geneology research. Doing small jobs around the farm with Jeff.
What I really want to draw your attention to, though, is the tradition of love and the security of persistence that exists in this material dream. Violence can move down through the generations, spreading its rot through hearts that did nothing to instigate it. We hear about that sort of perpetuation all the time. But the propagation of love across time is also real, and my grandparents embody that. The reason I’m so happy to take my boys there is not just a nostalgic thing, but one that stems from my desire to continue this precious tradition.
Grandpa and Grandma are living much closer to the triple digit years than to their youth. Sooner or later, I will not have the substance of this dream to cling to. I want to be ready, when the time comes, to provide the same environment of affection and dependability to my own. Eight hours away is my second home- but I don’t need to go that far to feel the love.
My family rocks.