Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Gathering Place for the Generations

                I had a toy farm when I was a child; a miniature homestead in enamelled sheet metal – barn and barnyard, chickens, cows  and a little red brick farmhouse.  On the barn’s tiny gable wall was the simple title that for generations has evoked vivid recollections:  “Grampa’s Farm”.

                To a farmboy like myself, it all made perfect sense:  this little play-world was the most natural of toy microcosms.  It wasn’t dreamy nostalgia; it was as real as the scene outside the windows of my childhood.

                But that was a generation ago, and the days of the family farm’s presence in the landscape – and in the memory – have faded.  In the process, we’ve been cut adrift from a tangible link to our past.  We’ve lost our ancestral homes and collect antiques to fill the void,  to give us some trace of heritage.  We read shelter  magazines that sell us carefully aged “heritage” by the roomful:  a reproduction past on every page.

                And yet the constant struggle to define a quiet place in the maelstrom of urban life throws us headlong into perplexity:  where to put the antiqued implements that will give our lives meaning?

                Grampa’s farm no longer cuts it because, for starters, Grampa was unlikely to have been a farmer.  And though many Canadians need only cast back two or three generations to identify their equivalent of the ancestral home, chances are the old place is now in strange hands, the solid farmhouse a ghostly ruin, the land subdivided beyond recognition.

                We are largely a nation of transplants, many with only the tenderest of green roots in this country.  We are also a predominantly urban people now, modern nomads following schooling, jobs and recreation.  We breathe portable technologies; we live portable lives.

                So what are we left with?  The family farm has lost its potency, but replacing it is a new manifestation of the ancestral home, a weekend summer place, a haven from modern life.

                The family cottage has become, over the past few decades, the gathering place for the generations.  Unencumbered with the complex realities of the rural farm economy, the cottage has not been squeezed from the grip of a struggling family whose livelihood depended upon its production.  Its image is not synonymous with work, quotas or barnyard smells – it is a summer place, a setting for dreams, the centre of a memory-world of dog-days, sunshine and docks.  The cottage looms much larger in the imagination than a city home ever could.

                One family I know, who live spread across the nation, own an island that is the scene of a massive annual homecoming.  Generations have built a carefree summer architectural continuum.  One family elder, in a moment of solemn reflection, told me:  “Catastrophe? Nuclear war? We’ll all head for The Island, no matter where we are; we have an ‘understanding’”.

                There is really nothing odd in such a notion:  every family would like to have a place to make the ultimate retreat.

                I have visited cottages on the Muskoka lakes that seem out of sync with the apparent needs of their owners – great, sprawling lakeside structures, many a century old or more, whose floor area is more in keeping with that of an Adirondack lodge.  “This is a family hotel for most of the season”, I’m told dockside as an antique boat rocks gently in the evening breeze.  “This is our summer base of operations.”  The family, coming home from Pittsburgh or Toronto, Los Angeles or Vancouver, throw their formality to the smog-free wind, put their feet up and sigh:  They’ve made it back home once again.

                For the architect, the phenomenon of “cottage as family seat” presents its own daunting problems and tests one’s diplomatic skills.  One such place, for which I was hired to design a large addition, is the summer home of one of Canada’s wealthiest families.  And even though expansion eventually leads to some sort of change, the most frequently heard comment when drawings were presented was “No, no – that would be changing it!”  The collective memory of an outspoken family was wrapped up in a certain configuration of wood, stone, water and vista.

                Other clans, such as my wife’s, built a tradition on a more realistic budget, but the “never quite completed” cottage, decorated with dog-eared castoffs, sits on a rocky outcrop as proudly as any baronial castle.  It once looked like the cottage would never be completed; the very presence of builders and architects in the family practically guaranteed it.  But that hardly matters.  The idea of retreat is what counts, the quiet place at the end of a hectic Friday-night drive.  Its pristine setting has been the nursery for my wife’s fondest memories, her family’s best times and the larger-than-life stories that come with days spent between water and woods.

                The fleeting summers of childhood claim a large share of our memory – summer places tend to underline that.  We are perhaps more honest and less guarded as we sit on docks together, half-naked in the twilight; we are less concerned with pretence and ostentation.  We are truly at home with ourselves.

                The cottage has given us that home-fire of refuge we thought we had lost, and has become in the process a guarded and cherished family seat – Grampa’s Farm for  future  generations.

                                                                (first published in The Globe And Mail)

David Gillett