Of Great Aunts and Moss Gardens

The combination of a summer cottage by a lake and a couple of elderly and eccentric great aunts has an irresistible appeal to any child born and brought up in the city.

My own particular great aunts were two spinsters, Olive and Francis, born at the end of the 19th century in Jersey, Channel Islands, the children of immigrants who arrived with their family in 1903. They lived for the winter months in an apartment in Montreal that had been their home since their arrival, but they left for “The Lake” as soon as the weather began to smell of spring. They loved the primitive log cabin they had and the forest with its many and varied inhabitants that surrounded them there. Our rare visits to them changed our lives.

The Lake *

The drive from Montreal to this remote lake seemed to take all day. The car would finally pull up at a basic wharf – nothing more than a dirt parking area really – with a public telephone box for the use of any island or lakeshore inhabitants and a couple of posts to which a boat could be tied.

The car would be parked and we would all pile out to be with our father as he would stand on the shore, cup his hands around his mouth and shout “Woyup! Woyup!”, several times, across the still water.

Lake at sunset- Ellie Kennard 2015
Lake at sunset- Ellie Kennard 2015

This call must have been a special signal for some waiting ear, as after about 15 minutes, a small motor boat could be seen heading across the lake in our direction . We would be greeted by one of the aunts who would bustle us and our belongings on board. We would then chug our way back across the lake to their cabin. There was no other way to get there in the early ’60’s and this was for us a great part of the adventure of the visit.

We didn’t go to the lake often, but these visits fostered a deep love for the simple joys of the country. As we sat in the single log room in the house whose interior walls were covered with brown craft paper, or lay on the canopied swing in the screened off porch at the top of the long wide flight of wooden steps, smelling the forest all around us, we city children learned the value of silence and what it can bring in the way of gentle visitors – squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, birds, snakes, frogs and the occasional deer. There was no electricity in the cottage so the soft glow of the oil lamp would cast just enough light for us to work at our drawings or crafts, or read our books.

The girls’ bedroom, whose walls were also covered with brown paper, relieved only by a single framed display of pressed flowers, had one high double bed with a lumpy mattress. This bed was covered with a puffy eiderdown filled with feathers and we girls piled into it together, giggling as the downy feathers in the cover puffed up around us deliciously warm and occasionally escaped through a hole in a seam, to float around the room. The boys had a similar room and bed for themselves. Along one wall was a dresser with a large porcelain ewer and basin which had a matching soap dish beside it. This had fresh, cold water put in it each day and we used the basin to wash our hands and faces.

Short tailed weasel pup ©Ellie Kennard
Short tailed weasel pup – who posed very nicely for my camera.

There was no bath and no shower. There was only the lake where we could wash more thoroughly if we felt we needed it. If we did, we were hauled out of bed at a very early hour, before daybreak, and marched down to the lake, wrapped in our towels and shivering in the cool of the early morning. The cracked bar of yellow soap was in a little dish on the dock and once we had climbed down the ladder, screaming and laughing with the shock of the cold water, we swam out a little way and dived under to wet our hair. We then soaped all over on the dock and dived in again, our skin tingling but beginning to feel the warmth of the first rays of the sun. Before the sun was properly up and any little boats began to appear on the water, we scampered back to the cabin, wrapped in our rough towels, quickly got dressed and came back downstairs to drink hot chocolate and plan our day.

One special hot summer day, I remember that we were treated to a visit to ‘the Icehouse’. We followed the aunt down a narrow twisting path, deep into the woods behind the cottage until we came to a low stone building, half buried in the forest floor. A heavy wood door opened to reveal heaps of sawdust and, buried there, huge blocks of ice. Large chunks of this were chipped off with a heavy blade and carried back to the cabin to cool the old ice box in the kitchen. My aunt explained that this ice was cut from the lake in the winter and, heaped over with the packed sawdust, was stored in the dark interior for use in the heat of the summer. This was done by a neighbour who had a means of dragging these blocks across the snow and through the forest to the icehouse in the cold of winter.

Rainy days

Red Squirrel eating a seed - Ellie Kennard 2015
Red Squirrel eating a seed – Ellie Kennard 2015

Our great aunts were always making things out of whatever they found or were given. I never saw them knitting, never crocheting, nor sewing, at least not at the lake. In that rustic environment, however, no scrap of wrapping paper, no greetings card, piece of string or wool would be considered too humble to be fashioned into some new creation. No twig, dried leaf or pretty pebble was overlooked, but was scooped up into a bulging pocket to be squirrelled away for future use. We knew that any gifts we received from them would have been made of just such materials and they were always unique and of a slightly bizarre appearance. We were never altogether certain as to their intended purpose but we marvelled at their ingenuity and creativity and tried to copy them in the projects we undertook during our stay.

On days when the rain poured onto the trees above the cottage and dripped onto the roof we would delight in putting together puzzles, reading on the porch swing or, for a special treat, making a moss garden. We would each have a small metal tray or pan and would venture out into the damp forest to collect moss, small perfect stones, ferns, fungi, leafy twigs and pinecones.

Little boy with his moss garden
My nephew Liam with his moss garden, Finland ©Gary Wornell

The base of the garden would be sand or earth from the forest floor. On this we would carefully arrange our precious finds, creating a miniature landscape. The great aunts always found some small china animal – a Bambi or squirrel or the like – to place into the scene, but only after we had collected all of the natural elements we were going to use. If a small piece of mirror could be found, preferably broken and uneven in shape, then the setting would be complete, perhaps with a tiny pebble path around this little pond. Space was limited, so we had to learn to incorporate our design elements artfully, not overcrowding the china figure who inhabited our landscape.

Our moss gardens were precious creations, reflections of what we saw all around us. From our small gardening efforts we grew to appreciate and value the changing beauty of the forest that surrounded the small cabin as well as the vast resource it represented. The old aunts are long gone now, but our rare childhood visits left strong and heady memories of getting very near to the heart of what the country was all about and developed in us children a deep love for it and a sense of real responsibility to that legacy.

*”The Lake” was actually 16 Island Lake (Lac des Seize Ils) situated in the Laurentian Mountains, about 60 Kms North of Montreal.

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7 Responses

  1. I did enjoy reading this and it reminds me of my childhood as well. The happiest hours always were, when i was allowed to go to the nearby edge of the wood. Loved to make “castles” at the roots, collecting all what was around and decorate.
    Greetings Gina

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    1. Thanks Gina
      I am really glad that reading this brought back such lovely memories. Thanks for the lovely comment. Your ‘castles’ sound as if they were such fun and no doubt wonderful creations.
      Have a great day!
      Ellie

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  2. I too would love to have visited that home by the lake, sounds very different from my cousin’s “cottage” and definitely more appealing.

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  3. What a wonderful story Ellie. Would have loved to be there with you. I had a great love of nature and country from my visit to our Uncle,s farm . Wonderful cherishef memories. Thanks for sharing

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