Saturday, March 25, 2017

Cherrywood Cottage

My blog about my grandparents' cottage at Sylvan Lake got my ex-Sun colleague Mark Falkenberg thinking about his own grandparents' cottage there, and how his experiences with them shaped his life. He sent me this 1973 photo of himself at Cherrywood  Cottage at age 7. With him are his father, Eugene Falkenberg, and his Grandma Ruth. 

"Sylvan lake was our family gathering spot when I was growing up," Mark Falkenberg wrote after he spotted my blog entry about my memories of Grandpa and Granny's cottage on Sylvan Lake, Alberta. "I still remember Cherrywood Cottage, where my grandparents lived, very well. Sometimes I will close my eyes and walk around the place, touching the fireplace bricks, sitting for awhile on the Winnipeg couch, turning on the light in the bathroom and waiting for the fluorescent bulbs to flicker on. Unfortunately my grandmother sold it when she was around 90 years old, and it was bulldozed for condos shortly after that."

Messages like this from a former Sun co-worker are the best things about writing a blog. I never know who's reading it and what they may be taking away, but in this case, Mark saw my nostalgia and raised me one.

I was surprised to hear from him, but not surprised at what he had to say. Mark, 15 years younger than me, was always far more deeply engrossed in the past than I was. I liked old houses; he liked really old houses. I remember him arriving at work brandishing old 78 rpm records, which he had just received after ordering them online. They had strange titles, and Mark would read them out lovingly, laughing at the sheer wonderfulness of these mementos from a bygone world.

Intrigued by his initial description of his grandparents' cottage, I (ever the editor) sent him some questions.What I got back was an essay on transience, the meaning of the past, and how our pasts can shape our lives. Here is what he wrote, along with some photos from the past:

Mark's mother, Margaret Staples, with her brothers (left to right) Baird, Jim, David and Brian, in front of the fireplace at Cherrywood Cottage, about 1946. The family began spending time at the cottage around 1940 and continued to meet there, with children and grandchildren, for another half a century.

Your question about how I felt about my grandparents' place and how it contrasted with the home I grew up in made me reflect that Cherrywood Cottage gave me my first feeling for time passing -- that is, that a past had come before, and was a different place than the everything-new, vacu-formed, shag-carpeted world of my everyday experience.

I was used to my parents' then-new 1960s ranch house with its mid-century-modern fixtures and furniture. Cherrywood Cottage was a window into another time and another place. It was smaller and had big old trees around it -- birch and poplar, mostly -- and a big kitchen garden dug into the rich black parkland earth in the yard. Where I lived in Lethbridge the trees were then spindly new things tethered to stakes to keep them from blowing away in the wind.

The cottage at Sylvan Lake was an earthier, smokier place -- to this day the smell of a lighted match instantly summons memories of my granddad Lloyd lighting big kitchen matches with his thumbnail, and lighting his hand-rolled cigarettes (a habit I'm sure he picked up in France in the First World War). It was a place with old gas heaters -- none of your modern central heating here -- and wood crackling in the fireplace. In the late autumn and winter you made sure you had extra blankets on the bed -- especially if you were sleeping in the one-room outbuilding beside the cottage -- though it was kept tolerably cozy by an old wood-burning cast-iron kitchen stove. There were old books everywhere (both grandparents were teachers and avid readers, especially Lloyd, who was an amateur linguist and always had books on German or Estonian or Russian lying around).

I was also fascinated by the framed photos my grandma had -- family photos going back to the 1930s; her children's weddings in the 1950s and '60s; one or two of herself growing up in Stettler, Alberta; and one of my granddad in his uniform -- kilt and all -- probably not more than 18 years old, around 1916, about to be shipped over to France with his Nova Scotia regiment.

Mark's grandfather, Lloyd Staples, of Staples Brook, Nova Scotia, about 1916, after enlisting in the 193rd Battalion  of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. 

Mark's grandmother, Ruth Ziegenbein, at about age 14, ca. 1919.

I also liked the sentimental ceramic things my grandma had -- little figurines/lamps/plates (I think in my generation, everyone's grandma had them). She also had a few things a little out of the ordinary -- such as a framed lithograph of Mary Pickford in the bathroom (I have since seen the same print come up on auction sites -- it was a popular one ca. 1920). Also there was a Victrola in the outbuilding -- though no records. I regret that I didn't ask my grandma for it when she finally moved out of the cottage around 1990.

It was a good place to hole up when it was raining, or to spend an evening drawing spaceships or tanks while the grownups watched Ed Sullivan or the National, or very often, hockey, and talked and drank Old Style beer.

I have strong memories of the lake itself, too -- as I write this I can almost feel the hard sand ripples under my feet, in the cool, shallow water, and sniff the weedy smell in the air -- but most of my memories centre on the cottage itself.

The more I think about it now, the more I see how much my grandparents influenced me -- both directly and obliquely, through genetics and by example. Looking around my own little ramshackle cottage as I write this, I see how much it resembles Cherrywood Cottage. It is about the same age (107 years and counting) and about the same size. A gas fireplace is the sole heat source -- not counting a portable heater in the bathroom, and the walls have strayed out of plumb over the many decades. A wind-up phonograph -- full of 78 rpm records -- stands against the wall. There are books spilling off counters and shelves everywhere.

You asked how I felt about the cottage being sold, and I had to think for awhile about that question. The honest answer is that when it happened, I just accepted it. I might have felt a twinge of regret when, as my family gathered outside the church for my grandma's funeral in 2001, across the street from what had been Cherrywood Cottage, I saw the condo that had erased the home and its trees and bushes. But it was like a door that you close and walk away from. I didn't understand that it's not that simple and that memory and aging will often compel you to retrace your steps and reopen doors. I think I started having dreams about it once in awhile around the time I turned 40. I started daydreaming about it, too, recalling how it looked and felt. Smelling the washing soda my grandma used to clean things with; seeing the rusty stains -- very hard Sylvan Lake water -- in the tub; looking around the kitchen and seeing my grandma's salt and pepper shakers -- white ceramic with "'Sel" and  "Poivre" -- maybe souvenirs of Ruth and Lloyd's trip to Europe in the late 1960s.

I wish the family had saved the place. At the very least I wish they had saved, say, the door on the outbuilding, which was covered in pencil and pen marks charting the heights of the Staples kids through the 1940s -- and that of the next generation in the decades after. So my vivid daydreaming about the place is bittersweet -- it brings back happy memories, but also a pang about how transient things are and how the pace of our existence nowadays seems to have revoked a way of life forever.

As to Sylvan Lake itself and environs -- my impression when I was last there, 15 or so years ago, was that it had been wiped out just like my grandma's cottage. Savaged by snout houses, jet skis, waterslides and other outrages -- at least on the town side. I hadn't been there for years, and seeing it again made me feel like the Jimmy Stewart character in It's a Wonderful Life, when the angel conveys him to the dissipated, sleazy version of his hometown.


  1. I think grandparents had a lot to do with our magical memories of childhood. I wonder if this pace of life is forever gone. One of the highlights of an Open House Canada Exchange I did with my students to a small village called Boucktouche in New Brunswick was a “sugaring off party” at a “sugar shack”. The big thing is to eat the syrup poured onto clean snow so it makes a kind of popsicle and then you have meal where everything is made with maple syrup. It was quite a sugar high! The cabin had no electricity and there was no TV, not even a radio as I remember….long before cellphones. After dinner, there was 5 hours before the sponsor families were due to pick us up. Our city slicker kids became very antsy and wondering how the time was going to pass, pleading with me to make some special arrangements so they could escape what seemed like an unbearably boring time. All the Boucktouche kids were happy and contented and obviously looking forward to the evening. Eventually, they opened cupboards and closets and out came the guitars and boardgames. They began singing and playing games and our kids settled down and everyone had a warm cosy peaceful time. Would they all be on their phones now?

  2. I have always felt honored that Mark and I crossed paths back in my Montana days, and I sensed back then that Mark had an attachment to place rooted more deeply than mine. As a transplanted southerner, I only claimed connection to natural places and relatives living far from me. The window into Mark's soul revealed connections to the wonderful home environments he has described here. Mark, you are so fortunate to have these memories. I find myself now building the memory as I go, searching to plant the life that will provide my son with the kind of fond memories he will recall long after I am gone. Yes, this new life has been worth waiting for, but if part of my rootlessness led me to Mark's world, then it was worth the journey. Mark, you continually amaze, my friend. Thank you, Carol, for sharing.