|Left to right, Grandpa Allen, Granny Allen, Aunt Louie (Granny's sister) and Uncle Tom.|
|Our family at the cottage: Left to right, Betty, Carol, Diane, Larry, Grandpa, Granny, Brian, dad. I guess mom was taking the picture.|
Walking across the Burrard Bridge in a certain week of the spring, I smell Sylvan Lake, Alberta. Something in the budding trees carries the scent of my grandparents' property on the lake, with its backdrop of trees, its cottage just feet away from the shore, its little array of outbuildings and most important -- a dock to jump off all day long.
My family only spent a week there every summer, but its sights and smells, the feelings it evoked in dryland prairie kids, lasted a lifetime. So I wasn't surprised to learn that when Virginia Woolf was 57 and urged to get on with her memoirs before she was too old, her first and most important childhood memories involve the beach house in St. Ives, Cornwall, where her family spent every summer.
"If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills -- then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory," she says in Moments of Being, writing about waking up in St. Ives the morning after the family's arrival from London.
"It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach, and then breaking one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive."
Another memory, of walking down to the beach, "still makes me feel warm; as if everything were ripe; humming; sunny; smelling so many smells at once," she writes. "The gardens gave off a murmur of bees; the apples were red and gold; there were also pink flowers and grey and silver leaves. The buzz, the croon, the smell, all seemed to press voluptuously against some membrane; not to burst it; but to hum round one such a complete rapture of pleasure that I stopped, smelt; looked."
It would be hard to compete with Woolf in any description of Sylvan Lake. Suffice it to say that it had its own sights, smells and sounds that still return to me at odd moments, like crossing a Vancouver bridge in the spring. I'm reminded of the comment Woolf put into the mouth of her mother-figure Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse: "Children," Mrs. Ramsay said, "never forget."