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Despite the headaches, my family’s cottage is too valuable to give up

Facts & Arguments

Should we keep our summer home?

As the season ends, Jane Hillard wonders if her family's humble, crumbling place is worth the upkeep

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The boathouse contractor, arms crossed severely across his chest, announces to me that he's not willing to do any more "quick fixes" to our aging structure. It needs to be emptied, raised up and mostly rebuilt. The "around $30,000" price tag worries me less than the thought of emptying the contents, which includes, among the boating paraphernalia, a propeller collection and dad's old workbench surrounded by hundreds of tools.

News that the boathouse needs significant work shouldn't surprise me. The structures on this small island are showing their age. Painters are already hard at work, between rain showers, prepping the 70-year-old cottage for its new grey colour.

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The painters are also spraying bleach on the trim in an attempt to kill the mould. My retired-accountant husband is on the other side of the island rebuilding the dock, which we discovered at a jaunty angle following spring flooding.

Our family lives in Calgary, but, every summer, most of us return to the small island on Lake Muskoka near Gravenhurst, Ont., which my dad bought for $400 in 1949. He lost a lot of sleep over this extravagant expenditure.

A builder by trade, he toiled in Toronto during the week and, every weekend, ice-out to Thanksgiving, he, my mom and I headed north to the cottage, the station wagon fully loaded with leftover building materials. Dad's Depression-era attitude was that nothing was to be wasted. The cottage slowly evolved from a tiny sleeping cabin into a modest but comfortable space.

Mom passed away 20 years ago and, since then, Dad has spent about six months of each year on the island. Isolation was never an issue for him. He had kind and watchful neighbours and he was content to spend part of each day puttering and doing cottage maintenance.

Around the age of 80, however, he started to slow down and, wisely, decided to forego any tasks involving ladders. His philosophy of "if I can't do it, it's not getting done" is now staring us in the face and beginning to hurt our pocketbook.

At 89, Dad left Ontario to live near me, his only child, in Calgary. And for the first time, this summer he did not head back to the island. He felt too frail for the rigours of plane travel and the realities of island living. He was surprisingly accepting of the fact that we'd be leaving him behind, declaring he's had "a good run of 90 years at the cottage."

The cottage, still legally Dad's, is now mine to maintain. At night, I lie awake listening to the water lapping against the shore and wonder, "Can we afford to keep it?" We have to fly here and rent a car to reach it and island living is not cheap. Boats need to be professionally put in and out of the water and you need to rent space at the marina for your boat and vehicle.

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But then I weight all the memories against the bottom line. I reminisce about rowing around the island and exploring neighbouring bays in the small punt which Dad built. As an only child, I often played alone and my imagination was a close companion. In the punt, I was often a pirate; in the forest, I was a pioneer.

I remember when Uncle Gord went water-skiing in my granny's skirted, cotton bathing suit. As young boys, my sons delighted in repeatedly throwing and rolling their complicit grandpa off the dock.

Splashing others was an obsession with one son and we ultimately made him sign a non-splashing agreement. It's still framed on the wall of his bedroom at the cottage.

Then there was the year we had a big family Thanksgiving dinner out front by the lake. It was a hot summer-like day; the lake was smooth as glass and the trees were at their peak of red and orange. Dessert and coffee, as is the cottage custom, was served on the pontoon boat as we cruised around the lake.

I drop the contractor back at the marina and, as I slowly cruise back to the island, I spot my younger son and his wife setting off in the canoe. They're off to revisit the distant, uninhabited island where they got engaged. They recently told me that they want to bring their unborn children to the island every summer and that they'll do anything to keep the cottage in the family. They've offered to pay the property taxes. More importantly, my son has spent many hours of his precious vacation time sledgehammering rebar into the new dock timbers.

That evening, I make my way to my favourite spot on the island, the lakeside swing. Dad built it from two discarded telephone poles and heavy rusted chain, rigging together a unique ball-bearing swing mechanism. I settle on the wide wooden seat and, as the swing makes its long smooth arcs, I savour the smell of water and vegetation, so unlike the dry air back home.

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The frogs and crickets start up their evening concert. The lights slowly begin to come on in cottages on the distant mainland shore and a few stars appear through the pine branches. I'm deeply content and overwhelmed with love for this humble, crumbling place.

My eloquent elder son said it best: "I think that part of my soul is attached to that island."

Yes, despite all the work and the money, it's a keeper.

Jane Hillard lives in Calgary.

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