Highlands’ own dares to go home

May 2 2017

They say muscle has memory. That first summer at home in the wilderness my body proved this to be true as it magically regained its athletic form from years past. Despite my cumbersome third trimester belly I was springing stairs and slinging firewood within weeks of arriving to my childhood cabin by the lake. Diving into the still-pristine waters of Redstone like I did when I was 12 surrounded by the familiar unbroken tree line my heart was full. It had been 17 years since I left.

I was 35 years old and heavily pregnant with my second child when my son and I boarded our flight from Vancouver to Toronto. At 34 weeks I was far enough along for people to ask questions and so carried a letter from my midwives confirming that I was fit to fly. As I fielded the stares from other passengers familiar anxiety blossomed in my chest. Did people usually do this? Fly across the country to their tiny hometown baby on the way in their mid-30s? Leaving hard won careers behind beloved friends reliable caregivers? And as nobody could resist reminding me a temperate West Coast climate? Recalling the infamous Thomas Wolf quote cast the most doubt of all: “You can never go home again.” We would give it a year we decided. One year to see if we could fit together the pieces of our life we had gleefully scattered everywhere.

I nervously stepped out of the doors of the Toronto airport terminal my son squinting in the sunlight and awaited our chaperone. Piling into my stepfather’s narrow little pickup truck and driving three hours north to cottage country I found distraction in his small-town anecdotes and assurance in my mother’s beaming face. We would stay at their rustic old farmstead until my husband completed his own cross-country trek in our car. In the meantime I busied myself investigating my grandmother’s old cottage which would be our family’s new home until the snow came.

I was relieved to find the key to the cottage still hanging on the bent old birch tree. Gingerly opening the door I took in a waft of old cedar and musty blankets and crossed the living room to the little studio overlooking the lake. My grandmother’s rickety easel stood in the corner boasting a landscape painting that was still in progress. A well-worn art smock hung on a lonely hook nearby. The scene suggested that she had just stepped out to run an errand. I wondered about the very last time that she hung up that smock. How strange still that she was gone her ashes spread on the bare granite island I could see through the trees. How strange that a person could be living and laughing one moment and then dust – to be scattered or buried or placed in pots. The sight of the island gave me sudden resolve: I would not waste this wondrous opportunity.

Despite my being in the late stages of pregnancy my new midwives welcomed me with open arms and I managed to develop a warm relationship with them in the eight weeks before my second son was born. They spoke longingly of the birth centre they wanted to build so that women didn’t have to travel an hour to the nearest maternity ward while in labour as I was expected to do. Indeed the trip to Orillia while in the throes of labour was as joyless as I had anticipated. Reminiscent of a Road to Avonlea episode the midwife arrived just in time to catch the baby. When the drama was over and my son was finally placed clean and content in the little cot next to me a sense of accomplishment and sweet relief swelled from within. Despite all the chaos of the preceding weeks he had arrived safely; we could now close this chapter of worry and speculation and move forward as a family of four.

As the haze of newborn exhaustion slowly lifted I set my sights on exploring. Though at first I felt comforted by the familiar surroundings I was also startled at how little the landscape had changed.

The old "cat house" abandoned 20 years before still loomed eerily from atop a small hill on the side of the highway the faded brick barely visible through all the boards. Even the athletic field where I once played field hockey looked exactly as I’d left it; the first time I drove past my breath caught and for an instant I was 17. The field was invitingly empty the impossibly green grass contrasting with the scarlet goalposts. Were there really adolescents the baby-faced sons and daughters of my old teachers and coaches playing there now?

Having left behind the comfortable anonymity of the city I had to learn the skill of small talk again. Although I was mildly fearful during my first few trips to the grocery store I began to treat it like an art that could be perfected with practice. Bolstered by a bright-eyed baby in tow it wasn’t long before elaborate weather predictions and neatly parceled family updates were rolling off my tongue.

Incredibly I found myself beginning to even seek it out. Previous high school teachers old acquaintances and former coworkers would be the target of my overzealous greetings wherever I saw them. And I saw them a lot. We found common ground in the easy comfortable flow of high school chatter and also used it to bridge the yawning gap between us the product of years of divergent experiences. My newfound extroversion was perhaps a subconscious effort to assuage the looming fear of a friendship void.

I had been looking forward to reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances living here – those souls who had stayed after high school and those who like me had returned after decades away. Social media had given me the illusion of knowing them intimately but the more I used it to connect with them over the years the more distanced I felt and the odd phone conversation felt awkward after a decade of private messaging.  Still I told myself we’d get back into a comfortable rhythm now that we were close again. We would meet for coffee in our old haunts and laugh because nothing and everything had changed. We’d host pizza nights babysit each other’s kids and go on trips together.

And while we managed to accomplish some of these things the novelty of being close again was soon eclipsed by the demands of modern life. Yet while not all these relationships played out as I initially saw them in my head my loyalty and devotion to these old friends the anchors of my youth has never wavered. It remains a comfort just knowing they are there every evening sitting by the fire doing the dishes reading those bedtime stories a few miles away.

While my husband and I were instantly entranced by all the potential the move had offered it took longer for our oldest son to come around. As anyone who has been through the experience can tell you moving is tough on school-aged children. It turns out that not being able to search for snails on the sidewalk after a long rain dash to the apartment down the hall for a spur of the moment LEGO session or walk down the block with his dad for avocado sushi is a big deal for a five (now six) year-old.

But it also turns out that ice fishing after-school playdates and homemade sushi nights are pretty good substitutes. And who knew that watching dead ducks being catapulted in the air for hunting dogs to retrieve at the fish hatchery is just as fun as watching racehorses sprint around a track? Perhaps most importantly he’s thriving at school and enjoying a closer relationship with his grandparents.

As for our baby he’s now a very active toddler and has never known anything different than small town country life. He is totally in his element when playing outdoors in this incredible natural environment which we need only step out onto our porch to enjoy. It’s something we never take for granted.

“Community cannot for long feed on itself” wrote Howard Thurman. “It can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond their unknown and undiscovered brothers.” Indeed my sudden return after a long absence has sometimes made me feel like an imposter of sorts an unknown "other" from beyond stubbornly trying to prove that I still belong.

But all that time away also made me realize what we were missing. While I once plotted an escape from this place now nearly two decades later it has become a sanctuary full of hopes and dreams for my own children. It’s been nearly a year since we decided to stay for good and while the initial high –  that intoxicating mix of freedom and nostalgia – has predictably begun to diminish I’ve never regretted getting on that plane.

For the first time in my life I’ve dared to set the bar to happiness a few notches higher. In defiance of the old saying if we let our hearts make room for both old and new we can all go home again.