I recently painted a 30 by 60 inch canvas from a photograph of one of my daughters at ‘The Dunes’ in Bouctouche, New Brunswick last summer. She is standing just inside the water’s edge, looking at her feet submerged along the shoreline. What a nice August day it was, sunny but cool and breezy by the water. Not quite warm enough to swim, but some people were braver than I. Visitors flooded the beach, some walking and jogging on the boardwalk, some snapping photos, some playing ball on the beach, some eating ice cream in the Visitor’s Centre. When I got my own prints back (I know, I know, why haven’t I gone digital?) something about Sophie’s photograph spoke to me of childhood days at my parents cottage.
(I want you to know, I’m a non-artist surrounded by artists…my husband, a close friend, a niece, many acquaintances—all artists. I’ve always held them in awe, but never longed to have their abilities, until now. Maybe it’s a middle-age thing. I’m turning f-f-f-f-forty this year. I never thought that someday I would also dabble in canvas and paint, but here I am. An invisible creative bug flew out of nowhere and bit me. In the last year, I’ve completely run out of wall space—my house is completely covered with my bits of “creativity.” Favourite quotes painted in script on the walls, dusty storm windows from the basement cleaned and painted with flowers and trite expressions, a red door on a stone mansion, orangey poppies, a black-and-white person crawling out of a hole (my attempt at spiritual symbolism), all at varying levels of beginner–“you’ll do better next time…” Each time I paint, I expect the craving to go away, and it does—until the next visualization comes along and I fly at canvas and acrylic like a drug addict at a few lines of cocaine.
Anyway, painting aside, let me wax nostalgic. It was a sad day awhile back when my parents sold the humble cottage on beachfront property they built more than 30 years ago. I spent each summer from the age of five languishing at that cottage. The day after school ended in June, we packed up, lock, stock and barrel, moved to the cottage, and did not return home until Labour Day. As the years saw me develop into peevish adolescence, I became bored and wished Disneyland or the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon or a cruise or even Niagara Falls was our summer destination. But no, to my parents, it was better to spend every summer close to nature, with no running water or electricity, no stores or malls for miles, no telephone, no television or movies. Better to be in a place where there were no people around but relatives and to stumble to the bathroom at night in the dark, amid the snoring, and flush the toilet with a pail of water. Water which you had to pump by hand, pail by pail and carry back to the house. Not just for the toilet—heavens, no. Pails to get drinking water. Pails to heat on the propane stove to wash the dishes. Pails for cooking. Pails of water to take sponge baths. Pails of icy well water to shock your warm, sunny body after a salt-water swim because you weren’t allowed in the house with sandy feet. Pails of water to defend yourself against the silly, peevish Pomeranians owned by the neighbour. They attacked the heels of anyone approaching the hand-pump, which straddled the property line. Their tiny, powder-puff exteriors were reduced to that of drowned rats more than once!
Really, for a bored teenager, the only cool thing about the cottage was the beach. When we were younger, my cousins and I used to smear our bodies with the pockets of sticky red clay imbedded in the dark, wet sand. After luxuriously sinking into it up to our knees and smooshing it between our fingers and toes (and pretending we were being sucked down by quicksand), we took running leaps into the warm, salty water and swam for hours, ending the day going to sleep in our bathing suits. The magnificent sand castles we built so diligently were reduced to Stonehenge-like ruins the next morning by the relentless tides.
As I got older, I grew out of making clay pies, but I never stopped loving the beach. It was a romantic place. I liked to burn dry, weather-beaten wood, which I gathered along the shoreline. Not a huge bonfire, mind you, but a comfortable fire, a quiet, crackling, contemplative fire. The best fires happened at night, when the water was smooth like glass and barely lapped against the shore. The boats no longer whizzed by with their penetrating beams of light and powerful motors to break the calm. The blackest darkness made the stars so bright and clear that it seemed you could reach up and touch them. The loons kept me company as I sat there in the dark. I listened to their songs on the river, and I wondered about the people on the opposite shore, who were sitting on their beach, with their fire. I could hear their murmurs, even though it was a mile across. And I sat and dreamed, picking through the glowing, snapping embers with a stray stick. And in my memories, the girl I was is there still, dreaming about her future, and I think that my childhood was a marvellous gift that went under-appreciated.
Now, when Sophie looks at my painting of her own image at the beach, I hope it stirs the same kind of memories in her as it does in me, the kind that are palpable and breezy and warm and fuzzy around the edges, the kind that transport. The kind that make you want to make more.