By Catherine Lodge
Sam sank into the Muskoka chair and uttered a deep sigh.
He was already there, down at the lake ahead of her. She knew he would be. In the early morning light the fog was lifting across the water, motionless and still as piss on a plate. Everyone was sleeping up the hill at the old cottage. When she arrived at the dock she timidly sat down beside him and following his gaze, looked out in the direction of the sunrise. She whispered ‘good morning Uncle Gil’ in a soft, hushed tone. They sat there together in quiet solitude, watching the morning unfold around them. Stirring from his silence, he looked across at her and nodded back. She could sense his sadness, his thoughts drifting between spaces and places in time, between the present and the past.
The year was 1945. Sam’s Uncle Gil had not spoken a word to anyone since he returned a month earlier from the war. Everyone was concerned. He had been away for 5 years and even though he was only 25 – just 12 years older than Sam, he looked tired, weary, broken. There was no light in his eyes; the once familiar spark was gone. “He has simply seen too much pain, horror and violence”, she had heard her parents say the night before. “We need to give him time. He will come back to us”. They talked into the wee hours and before falling asleep that night, Sam had overheard and perhaps understood more than she wanted to of what her Uncle Gil’s long journey home to Muskoka must have been like. When he left to go overseas in 1940 he was only 20 years of age, just 8 years older than Sam was right now. She was intrigued by that. She remembered how much she missed him when he left. At the tender age of 7 she couldn’t possibly comprehend the magnitude of what took him away. As she sat there beside him in the early morning light she wanted to reach out and touch his hand. To let him know how much she and all of them had missed him. How happy she was just to have him back, home, safe, secure, enfolded in the arms of those who loved him more than he could know. But she couldn’t reach him. He was lost and alone in his thoughts and even at her young age, she knew instinctively to keep a distance and leave him his space until he was ready.
Her childhood cottage memories were indelibly wrapped up in her Uncle Gil. Over countless summers at the lake he taught her how to dive off the safest spot on the dock where the water was the deepest. How to fish, to swim; how to chase and catch fireflies on hot, sweet summer nights. How to identify and thus avoid Poison Ivy. He often took her, her 2 younger brothers and the cousins on hikes across dusty fields behind the cottage, equipped with maps and Scavenger Hunts 1. Find a rock shaped like a fish 2. Devils Paintbrush 3.Queen Anne’s Lace 4. Robins feather 5. Buttercups. The lists always went to 10. Following the hike all would come running, breathless back to scatter their treasures across the Harvest kitchen table where he would keep score. The winner was awarded a night sitting up late at the cottage with Uncle Gil munching on popcorn while watching an old movie of our choosing.
Those magical times were forever embedded in Sam’s memory. But Uncle Gil, she knew, had ventured to places where chasing fireflies on hot summer night was not in the equation and Sam understood that. He could not and would not ever talk about the atrocities of that wretched war. Glimpses of bombings on nightly newscasts were enough. But how could he know, how could she know the losses that time could never erase.
The early morning fog was lifting as they sat there on the dock, each lost in their own thoughts. The haunting cry of a loon echoed from across the lake. Uncle Gil looked towards Sam beside him on the dock. With tears in his eyes he asked her “do you know what that sound is Sammie? Can you tell me what that is?” It was a test, a typical Uncle Gil test.
And Sam knew in that instant that the healing had begun. Muskoka had spun her magic. Uncle Gil was coming home to them at last.
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