Memoir Contest Winner: Elsewhere Cove by Heather A. A. Menzies

by Matilda Butler on July 4, 2011

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #105 – Women’s Memoir Writing, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Women’s Memoirs is pleased to present the first of four award-winning stories today. Heather A. A. Menzies is one of two tied First Place winners in this month’s memoir contest — FOURTH OF JULY category. Later this morning, we’ll publish the second winner — Sarah White. This afternoon, we’ll publish two tied First Place winners — Donna Lancaster and Rebekah Varin in the INDEPENDENCE category. Be sure to check back at noon, 2 pm and 4 pm (PDT) for these other three winners.


by Heather A. A. Menzies

July 1st is Canada Day. It’s our version of your July 4th.  Just like in the States, there are parades and fireworks, barbecues and block parties. Everyone is in a festive mood, and people get together with friends for a blow out. But not my family. My family always goes away for Canada Day. We rent some boats and head for Pie Island.

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That’s not our name for the island, that’s its real name. Pie Island is a relatively level, wooded island about six or seven miles east of Thunder Bay, with a big mesa on it. The French explorers who discovered it thought the mesa looked like a meat pie, so they named it Le Pâté, which roughly translates to “pie”.

We camp on the shore of the same officially nameless cove year after year, sheltered beneath the bluffs. The days are spent soaking up the sun, hiking in the woods, climbing the rocks and frolicking in the lake. And the nights are spent around the camp fire, singing and laughing, and telling stories. Our voices echoing off the rocks as the fire crackles and flares, sending sparks up to dance briefly in the night sky.

This tradition was started by my great-grandfather Andrew and his brothers Charles and Albert back in 1908, when they set out on what was originally intended to be a canoe trip to the Sleeping Giant (a famous local landmark about 20 miles further east across the bay). While they were paddling past the island, it began to rain, and they took shelter in the cove. They thought that the cove was a perfect place to camp, and decided to just stay there rather than carrying on. Since it had not been their original destination, they named it “Elsewhere” Cove.

They liked it so much they returned every July, and we have been doing the same thing ever since. Various members of my family have been spending Canada Day (or Dominion Day as it was called back then) camped along the same little cove for just over 100 years. Every landmark has been named by us, and every rock and tree has a story attached to it. I’m not sure who, if anybody, technically holds the title to the land, but it is ours now, it belongs to us.

There’s Bill’s Bane at the top of the bluff, the tree my uncle fell out of and broke his arm when he was six. Bloody Rock, where great-aunt Claire skinned her knee so badly they worried if they couldn’t stop the bleeding back in 1927, is just to the east of the main beach. Partway up the bluff you’ll find Sugar Spring, which is supposedly the source of the best tasting spring water in the world (never having drunk from any other spring I can’t vouch for this, but it is clean, cold, fresh and delicious, unlike any other water I’ve ever tasted).  Just off the rocks that make up the eastern edge of the cove is the Toaster, reputed to be the worst place to sunbath as you are sure to get a sunburn. The Gut Pool, where the offal from cleaning fish is thrown is on the western edge of the cove, and just beyond that, around the point is the “New” Latrine, a site first chosen over 60 years ago.

Past Sugar Spring stands Captain Charles, a withered old apple tree, planted by my great grandmother in 1916 to honor my great-great-uncle Charles who died in Flanders that spring; we all make a point of greeting him and bidding him farewell each year. At the very crest of the bluff is the spot where my grandfather’s first dog is buried. And of course, just behind the beach is The Home Tree, an ancient skeleton of a tree blasted by lightning decades ago that has been “home” for countless games of hide and seek and tag over the years. And Mossy Rock at the center of the cove, and further along the shore you’ll find Gold, Sword and Juno beaches. The list goes on and on.

But these are not just names; each one has a history and a reason. And each has its own traditions attached to it. So, so many traditions. How on the first night the eldest male present has a beer alone with Captain Charles, pouring the Captain’s beer over his roots, and bringing him up to date on the births and deaths in the family. Red (for the Drews) and Blue (for the Berties), the secret fishing spots up the coast known only to the men.

And then there’s the Bush Trek, when the women go for a long hike to a secret clearing with a big flat rock by a stream, where we share and talk and laugh and cry, and nothing said there is ever spoken of anywhere else. We cease to be mothers, aunts, nieces and daughters, and for one day we are all sisters. To this day the men have no idea exactly what goes on. It’s a tradition started by my great-aunt Esmé and her sisters in 1928, and it’s a rite of passage to this day. I still remember how embarrassed I was the summer after I’d started my period, leaving camp for my first Bush Trek, with the men-folk making jokes and slightly off-colour remarks as the women headed off. But also how proud I was, I was one of the women, I was a Trekkerbroad, no longer a girl.

But most of all I treasure the stories, stories going back generations. I never met my great-grandfather, he died long before I was born, but I know him. I’ve heard so many stories about him that I have a fair idea what he sounded like from the impersonations. I know what sort of girls my great-aunts were, I’ve heard all about the first time my grandfather and great-uncles got drunk on homemade whiskey — they stole from the neighbour’s shed. I’ve laughed myself silly over the tale of how my uncle Lew got caught trying to shoplift a basketball when he was 14. I know the cute, embarrassing things my father did as a child, and what a disaster it was the first time he brought a girl home to meet my grandparents.

So many stories; hilarious, candid, revealing stories. Stories full of sorrow and pain, stories of loss and heartbreak. Stories of happy times and rejoicing. And the wisdom as well, the collected wisdom and experiences of so many lives over so many years. It’s these stories, these shared experiences, that bind us together, that give my clan its identity.

Most of my friends still don’t understand why I’m always so excited to be spending the week on some godforsaken island with my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They just don’t understand, and it’s very hard for me to explain it to them. It’s the feeling of continuity, the feeling of belonging to something much greater than myself or my immediate family. I can sit on the same rock and splash my feet in the same water my great grandmother did. And when I do, I can feel her there with me. When the stories are told, I am included as well; my childhood foibles are shared along with those of my grandfather. I am part of a continuum, part of something stretching back over a century now.

One day my children will take a stone from the shore and place it on The Heap of Menzies, where each of us has placed our own stone in turn. And then they will be part of this chain, they will sit in the firelight, sleepy-eyed  but struggling desperately to stay awake to hear just one more tale of their great-great-grandfather, and I will one day be one of the matriarchs telling those tales of a long ago time, of family long dead.

So thanks all the same, but I’ll pass on the fireworks and the parties. I’ll be spending the week with my family, living and dead, at home, along the gravelly shores of Elsewhere Cove.


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