August 20, 2014

How To Explain A Whole Island?

I've spent the last two days* trying to think of a way to explain Manitoulin Island to you.

I'm not really sure that I can. In fact, I'm fairly certain that I can't. But I'm going to try really, really hard.


First, a warning: My parents grew up there. I grew up going there. I have the rosiest of memories, and can really only think of two bad(ish)** things that happened to me in 35 years of going to the Island. So what I'm about to describe in no way resembles reality.


The Island is about a five hour drive from us - five hours of slowly moving back through time, until you reach approximately 1962. That's where you stop, before JFK was assassinated, before the FLQ, before all sorts of initials, actually. It's the largest freshwater island in the world (so I've been told. I haven't bothered to ask Wikipedia, who surely knows better than me), and it's the most astonishing mix of farm land, bare limestone slabs, and cedar trees so thick that you can't possibly push through them without losing a(nother) eye. It's full of it's own lakes, some of which have their own islands.

I realized something on the trip home Monday, and if you've never read any L.M. Montgomery this won't make any sense to you...but nothing about me has ever screamed sense, so here goes: when Rilla Blythe or Jane Stuart or Patricia Gardiner**** talk about how special the Island is, and how the people of the Island collectively have a character that seems all intertwined with the character of the Island itself, I've always unconsciously imagined Manitoulin (not Prince Edward) and agreed.

I've never been there without my parents. I'm not sure I'd know where I was without them - every house and barn and field and pond has either a story, a relative, or a nickname. It's to the point now where I've heard the stories, relatives' names, and nicknames so many times that I think I could take over and orient myself in the landscape, but when I try it all slips away.

When I run into people here in the real world who come from the Island, or who've been there, I get inordinately excited and start babbling like a fool (stop acting surprised), but when we get to the part of the conversation where they say they're from the so-and-so family in Gore Bay or wherever I realize that - while my parents could immediately connect the dots - I'm hopelessly lost.

I'm thirty-five. My parents are sixty-two. If I don't do something to write those stories down, or - better - follow them around with my phone and get the real, honest-to-goodness verbal accounts, cadence and all - I'm going to be hopelessly lost forever. Woe, etc.

In so many ways, my perception of the Island last weekend and every other time I've thought about it or been back as an adult is coloured through and through by by my own happy memories of childhood visits, my parents, and their stories, and - like everything else in life - trying to recapture that exact feeling is silly and impossible.

I think where I'm going with this is that this trip was particularly meaningful to me, because it's the first time I've been there with my kids, and as we all know, travelling with kids - no matter how idyllic the destination - is about the furthest thing from the halcyon golden memories of past visits as one can possibly get.

(The potty breaks alone...)

And here's the thing: Manitoulin (experienced) stands up to Manitoulin (remembered, even idealized). I have experiential proof that it does. Because it rained, Lucy got sick, the kids had very little sleep, and I slept in a tent, on a couch, and in a tent again - a tent built for two very small people, mind you, and occupied by one large and two small bodies - and still had a perfect time.

That's the Island.

*A few minutes here or there, mostly thinking "I should write about Manitoulin" before lying back down again because tired.

**I broke the branch off my Grandpa's apple tree*** by swinging on it after he told me not to, and I ripped a leaf that my brother found and thought was cool. Both times my Grandpa said my name like he was a little disappointed in me, and both times his disappointment was The Worst Thing That Ever Happened To Me.

***The apple tree that now produces so many apples that they multiply overnight even after you pick them. You're welcome, Grandpa.

****But not Valancy Stirling - she's from Muskoka, and I'm from Muskoka, and my ironic, sarcastic little soul still gets a ridiculous thrill from all the sincerity and whole-heartedness of it. Also, these footnotes are getting ludicrous.