Jennifer Cockrall-King | Traditions and Transitions – Cottage Life West May 2018
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Traditions and Transitions – Cottage Life West May 2018

Every year our whole family looks forward to summer at the lake. But, this year, there’s one crucial difference

This spring, it will not be business as usual at the lake. My father, the man who built the cabin, took care of the landscaping, maintained and gassed up the boat, and stacked the firewood, succumbed to a merciless, unblinking cancer. His diagnosis to end-of-life was a matter of seven weeks.

Our family closed ranks and held tight as we reeled in the wake of Dad’s death in December.

Yet, in the space of a week, we managed to hold a funeral attended by hundreds, and I delivered the eulogy despite a quaking voice and buckling knees. On behalf of the family, I talked about the dad we loved so much. Most of the stories revolved around the sanctuary he’d created for our family at the lake.

Afterwards, my mom, my brothers, and I thought about retreating to the place that had always been our refuge. The problem was that that refuge was loaded with memories of him. Already it felt like we’d been hit by an eighteen-wheeler of grief and emotion. Would going to the lake be too much to bear?

The cabin is only 45 minutes from Edmonton, so Mom and Dad used to shuttle back and forth regularly year- round. When they left that fall day so Dad could have a “few tests” to determine why he was so lethargic, they imagined they would be back right away. They left the cabin as if they were going out for an afternoon, not a few months. Little did any of us know—let alone Dad—that he wouldn’t get the chance to return. In other words, that first trip back for Mom, my brother, and me was a difficult one.

Not just difficult, it was surreal. For a few hours after we got there, he was still with us. His jackets and hats hanging on the hooks in the back porch entrance. His corduroy chair. The hot tub, from which he’d point out the wildlife happenings around him, always with a funny quip or a comment. His workshop full to the brim with woodworking tools. His handwritten notes and reading glasses on his desk.

We got through the day by sticking to a list of specific tasks—from retrieving clothing and medications Mom had left, assuming she’d be back much sooner, to resetting mousetraps. We understood it would take time until reminders of him would bring smiles rather than tears, and the overnights and longer stays would have to wait a while longer.

But before that first trip back to the lake, in those weeks at the hospital and the hospice, our talks with Dad—and amongst ourselves—revolved around how unified we were in our decision to keep the cabin after he was gone. We knew

it was rare and special that we had the time to tell him about our love for that place and how grateful we were to him for having given us that gift.

We even joked about how he and Mom had shaped it over the years, by the sweat of their brows, as their self- absorbed, motionless teenagers suntanned on the trampoline. And how practically every baseboard and door frame had his touch on it.

The lake cabin was a family treasure, but Mom, though a tireless worker bee, is 76. Despite our busy, scattered lives, my brothers and I would have to step into caretaker roles as needed.

Fortunately, the cabin’s traditions and rhythms that we all know so well are already woven into the lives, and hearts, of the third generation as well. My brothers’ kids have their own plots in the garden, and they proudly plant eclectic assortments of pumpkin, peas, and sunflowers in sort-of straight rows. (Once planting is done, they delegate the watering and weeding to Grandma and call for midweek crop updates when they’re away.)

So we knew that our family needed to get its cabin groove back—for many reasons, but especially one very important one. For the past decade, Mom and Dad have thrown a rather epic summer lake party. It’s a much bigger deal in our house than Christmas or Thanksgiving, and it’s definitely more fun. Mom cooks for two days solid, and the rest of us bustle around sweeping cobwebs, unfolding lawn chairs, and buying up a small nation’s worth of ice, beer, and wine. It has become a touchstone of the season for the 50 or so friends and relatives— with their children, their children’s friends, and even, one time, my uncle’s pet goat—who attend. One of Dad’s final requests was that we carry on with the tradition and that, this summer, we “say a few nice words about him” at it.

A few days ago, Mom settled on a date—the last Sunday in June—and the invitation emails went out. There’s a lot to do between now and then to get the place stocked up and party-perfect, and this has been a very useful project to get us out of our grief and into the important work of doing Dad’s memory justice.

Not much about the event will change. As soon as the parade of cars starts to arrive, the cottage will be upended with bags full of towels, swimsuits, sunscreen, and bug spray. It’ll be as full as a frat house and bubbling with laughter and conversation. The kids will rotate through the continuous soccer game, take turns riding in my brother’s boat, paddle around in the old Alcan aluminum canoe, and jump off the pier.

We adults will find our chairs and shade as we eat and drink and catch up with one another. Finally, we will light a fire late in the evening, and the last of the stragglers will pull benches and chairs into the circle. As the night goes on, we’ll honour the man who was the consummate party host by swapping stories about him and shedding some tears.

And once the big party is over, I know that there will be the smaller, daily reminders of him everywhere. In time, we’ll take over the wildlife colour commentary when the blue heron glides into view and stalks its meal in the shallows, or when the muskrat makes its daily commute between the stands of bulrushes each morning and evening. Not business as usual, maybe, but we’ll carry on with the business of appreciating the beauty that he taught us to see, in a place he loved so much.

From Cottage Life West May 2018 ©️ Jennifer Cockrall-King. Please inquire about permission to reprint / reuse.