When I was nine, my parents took me to Prince Edward Island for the first time. It’s a place known for its lush farm fields, its sprawling beaches, its pioneer-era historical sites, an abundance of seafood and the golf courses on practically every block. You can travel the length of the island in about a day, but the stories forged there make PEI seem much larger.
Every town has a history that seems to move in sync with its physical landscape. Every resident knows a slightly different Island, but their stories always return to simplicity.
There was a time before Walmart, a time before the bustling tourism industry; a simpler time full of family recipes, secret fishing spots and storytelling. I haven’t visited there enough to fully understand the island’s rhythms, but you can definitely feel them. They envelop you like a rising sea tide.
My father, who lived there during his childhood summers, and his brother, who currently lives there, both know the island like the back of their hand.
The raspberry bushes he used to pick from have long since died. But Dad told me they were great back then; you could pick a handful of them and put them in a pie. The berries, still warm from the sun’s heat, were dark red and so juicy.
To my Dad, PEI is more than a home. It’s a place of perpetual bliss and innocence. The Island serves as a constant reminder of unhindered joy. His idea of retirement, for the longest time, was buying a Lincoln Town Car and a small plot of land on the Island. He could then revisit his favourite places there and let the rhythms once again consume him like they did in the ’60s.
The raspberry bushes he used to pick from have long since died. But Dad told me they were great back then; you could pick a handful of raspberries and put them in a pie. The berries, still warm from the sun’s heat, were dark red and so juicy.
In hindsight, I feel like my first trip to PEI was fuelled by Dad’s memories. He knew the best places to go, and the rest of us—myself, my two brothers and my mother—trusted him.
Those were probably the best nine days of my life. We swam at Cavendish Beach and dried ourselves while sitting on a red-tinged bluff; we visited Point Prim Lighthouse and combed for shells until the sun went to sleep; and, of course, we visited my grandparents, aunt and uncle at their home in Orwell Cove, taking in the earthy scent of freshly fertilized farm fields.Orwell Cove is one of those places that shows up as a grey mass of land on any online map. It’s easy to miss.
My grandparents lived in the middle of some sprawling fields, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. We knew we were there when we drove up to the old schoolhouse, turned right, and saw a simple, red-roofed home with weathered off-white siding and a big red deck. An orange and white long-haired collie greeted us. Her name was Reddy and she loved to run.
Reddy passed away a few years ago. At that point, age had caught up to her and her running days were long over.
Conversations with my grandparents were short and weren’t particularly memorable to me, but for some reason, everything physical about the visit has stuck with me like glue. Memory is funny like that. It picks and chooses what’s important, often without conscious effort.
Eating food was one of those many physical experiences. One evening, we had lobster casserole. Normally, Mom wasn’t a fan of my grandparents’ cooking, but that dish was delicious. Dad went for third helpings! Mom, who seldom had an appetite to finish one serving, finished at least two big plates.
I don’t remember particularly liking the casserole, but many nine-year-olds are picky eaters. My brothers and I often left the dinner table and ate Peek Freans while leaning up against my dad’s white 1996 Chevrolet Lumina.
Today, I think back on that lobster casserole and imagine just how good it must have been. Mom wrote down the recipe, but my family lost it years ago.
Food is arguably my most vivid memory of the Island and of my Mom. A few years ago, my wife wrote a cookbook that was a compilation of most of my mother’s recipes. Every time we make my mom’s mac and cheese, chicken tetrazzini, oatmeal muffins or any of our other favourites, it brings me back to a simpler time when I didn’t have to worry about putting food on the table. The food was there. My parents were there. Unconditionally and forever, I thought.
Other recipes of my Mom’s, such as her tuna casserole, Irish soda bread and chicken pot pie are lost forever, probably due to one of our many moves since her death.
Childhood has a feeling of permanence until, seemingly overnight, you’ve experienced so much. Now, I notice my Dad’s thinning grey hair—and that even my hairline, too, is receding. This might be due to stress, or it might just be due to age. We’re both chronic over-thinkers, and when we struggle mentally, it can be comforting to reflect on good times gone by or fantasize about the future.
Still, I remember my childhood after-school rituals like they were yesterday. My brother and I would walk home to our house on Augusta Drive, a small street in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, and Mom would greet us at the door and offer us a snack. Sometimes it was fold-over peanut butter sandwiches; other times, we’d open the front door to the smell of freshly baked brownies.
Afterwards, we’d play road hockey until it was dark. Augusta Drive was perfect for road hockey because it was a dead-end street. Traffic only came from one direction, so we seldom had to move our nets aside for cars. Some days, we also went on long bike rides around the neighbourhood. Our bike treks felt gigantic, but I’ve since walked the same paths and they were actually only a kilometre or two in length.
The only time we stopped playing was when Mom opened up our screen door. It was an unforgettable sound: metal clasps scraping against each other and a squeeeaaaaaak, followed by Mom putting her foot down on the top step, which was on uneven ground and tended to teeter back and forth, making a loud brick-on-concrete sound.
“Ian, Andrew, time for supper!” Sometimes she’d have to call twice or three times. Or she’d get angry and tell us that whether we were there or not, she and Dad were going to sit down to eat.
A vacation of firsts
This cycle would repeat. Days flew by, but I didn’t care because everything was fun and innocent, especially in elementary school, before I started to get bullied for a childhood speech impediment.
The summer of 1999 was especially exciting, because of our trip to the Island. From September of ’98, I counted down the days until we went to PEI. It was a vacation of firsts: first time out of Ontario, first time in Quebec, first time in New Brunswick, first time in Prince Edward Island, first two-day road trip.
It was really the first time I found myself doing something exciting and outside of my comfort zone. I was a reserved kid with tons of phobias, but leaving Ontario sounded like an adventure I was ready to take.
My role on the drive was easy. I sat in the backseat, cramped together with my older brother and my twin, and we’d either sleep, eat or play on our Game Boys. Meanwhile, my parents would do all the navigating. In a time before in-car GPS systems, they’d use a TripTik, which was a map arranged like a novel. I’m pretty sure you can still call CAA to order one if you want to take your own trip down nostalgia lane.
Every time you arrived at the top of the map on one page, you’d flip it over and start navigating from the bottom of the next. Occasionally, Mom and Dad argued back and forth after taking a wrong turn.
Since then, we’ve visited the Island as a family three times, in 1999, 2002 and 2005. My parents even visited PEI on their honeymoon, as did my wife and I in 2014. It’s been sort of a family tradition. Yet, it wasn’t pure interest guiding my wife and me across the island on our honeymoon. It was mainly me telling my wife where all the good spots, remembered distinctly from my childhood, were. I wager it was the same for my parents: that when my Mom and Dad went on their honeymoon, Dad was probably giving Mom the grand Island tour of his childhood summers, too.
These memories seemed naïve, because I’d grown up so much, but I still had this insatiable urge to relive them. Still, the Island wasn’t exactly as I’d remembered it. There were big box retail stores in Charlottetown, and consumerism had stripped away some of the raw folksy atmosphere I remembered from my childhood trips. Plus, there was one event in 2005 that had threatened to forever tinge my outlook towards the Island.
Basin Head Beach is known for the sand that squeaks under your feet. It also has considerably less jellyfish than the more popular Cavendish Beach. We went there instead of Cavendish to try something new, and were pleasantly surprised. The ocean floor was as soft as a pillow, and the sand, true to its word, squeaked under our feet.
I never thought Mom enjoyed going to beaches, but she definitely enjoyed sitting and sunbathing. She smiled and waved at us whenever we got pummelled by a rogue wave. Sometimes I saw her dozing off peacefully until we threw sand at her feet.
Three hours later, we were all tired—but we wanted to go a second time that week.
When we returned a couple days later, there were more jellyfish this time, but there still weren’t as many as there were at Cavendish (where I’ve been stung a couple times, and learned that applying either wet sand or urine is the best way to get rid of the rash). Plus, all the first-timer tourists had probably gone straight to Cavendish, because they could get their beach time in and satisfy their Anne of Green Gables addiction all in one trip. Basin Head, compared to Cavendish, was practically deserted that day.
We didn’t stay for nearly as long, because Mom was feeling tired. As we began our walk back to the car, she had to stop multiple times to catch her breath, but my brothers and I didn’t think anything was wrong. After she passed away, Dad told me that at that point, both of them knew something wasn’t right … and they both believed she wouldn’t survive it.
They were right.
A week later, mom went with us to the doctor to have some tests done. Dad told me later that she was hemorrhaging badly. However, I thought at first that these tests were just routine ones you needed to do when you got to a certain age. More of my innocence was shot out the window when a doctor came out and told us the news.
“Colorectal cancer,” the doctor said. I forget his or her name. That wasn’t important. I also forget what else they said. Those two words slipped from their tongue like haze approaching from a distance, blocking out the sun and causing ships to run aground. Colorectal cancer.
The clouds, the ocean and the squeaking sand—they were all hiding something more sinister. Our bliss was hiding a darker reality that I couldn’t quite see yet.
Today, the words sound like they’re made of iron. They slam around heavily in my head every time I think of them. Colorectal cancer. Iron-on-iron, like two swords clashing. Colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer, colorectal cancer. It was treatable, the doctor said.
Obviously, I was sad, but I didn’t cry. It was treatable. Right? A few rounds of chemotherapy, some radiation, a surgery and then you’re cancer-free, right? Colorectal cancer is treatable, I was constantly reassured.
Everything during the next five years was a blur. In the coming months and years, I constantly remembered and relived that one day on Basin Head Beach. The clouds, the ocean and the squeaking sand—they were all hiding something more sinister. Our bliss was hiding a darker reality that I couldn’t quite see yet.
Even Dad’s undying childhood nostalgia couldn’t shield our family from the reality that we could lose Mom. My memories of the Island were scarred, like the weathered pier overlooking the horizon at Basin Head, from which adventurous kids sometimes jumped and drowned before lifeguards could save them.
I felt sorrow, but I was mainly confused by the idea that after those happy years, something so random and horrible could happen to one of the greatest people I knew. PEI wasn’t where bad things happened. It was where you played at the beach all day, and then came home and poured hot butter on massive lobsters with tails the size of your forearm.