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Sesekinika Memories Arlene Wright

by: Arlene Wright

Since I've spent every summer of my life at Sesekinika, some of my earliest memories are the stories my parents told Don – (my brother) and me. Because I am deluged with memories, perhaps the best way to start down memory lane is right at the beginning: the road to the lake.


In the 1930’s the road was a challenge both to Dad, the driver, and to his children, Don and me. It was narrow, almost one lane, bumpy, logs were laid over the low spots, and it had two ruts for the car to follow; grass grew between the ruts.  The driver hoped never to meet another car since it meant backing up to a spot wide enough for the two cars to squeeze by each other.  To children the road was a game:  who could grab the most branches from the car window.  But the road took us to the village where my memories of Sesekinika people began.


The village, populated mainly by Scandinavians, had the most interesting and unusual people; all of them honest, reliable, hard-working, and soft-spoken with a distinctive drawl and accent.


Upon arriving in the village, the first building awaiting you was the general store.  Inside     0lie, Olaf Olsen the owner, waiting to greet you.  Olie was Norwegian, a tall, slim, good-looking gentle man who, to me, was always the same age - old.  He had bushy eyebrows and a lot of salt-and-pepper hair which never thinned or turned grey.  His glasses sat half way down his nose. When he looked at you, he lowered his head a bit and peered at you over the top of the glasses. Nothing about Olie ever changed, not even his glasses.


He never rushed either in movement or speech.  Actually, he didn't have to.  People talked; Olie listened.  People moved; Olie sat. When he did speak it was short and in a slow drawl:  "wa-a-11 yaass." His cash register was an old box.  He seldom had to move from his seat behind the counter.  Customers wandered around and piled their order in front of him.  Although we always thought of Olie as old fashioned, he was probably the most progressive man in the north he had the first self-serve store in the area.


The inside of the store was large.  There were counters on three sides, shelves and boxes were behind the counters.  In front of one counter was a bench to sit on.  In the spring and fall, a pot-bellied wood stove was set up with a card table close by. There, in the evenings, Olie and his friends played bridge.  The store didn't close until Olie went to bed.


The store contained almost everything needed to survive -if it could be located.  Olie would give general directions but by the time you moved and peaked into all the boxes, you usually forgot what you wanted and bought something else you had come across in your hunt.  He stocked groceries, soft drinks, coal oil ice, clothing, blankets (pure wool from England) stationery, pharmaceuticals.  Best of all, the store had the only telephone on the lake.


It was a wooden wall phone.  To use it you held the receiver, pushed in a button on the left side of the phone while turning a handle on the right side.  When successful, you were connected to the operator to whom you gave the number you were calling. Then, you waited for the connection to be made. While waiting you could either talk to the operator or to the people in the store. A long distance call was rare and particularly exciting.  Since the audience in the store was party to only one side of the conversation, when the phone call ended it was the duty of the caller to report the other side of the conversation.  There were few secrets.


Olie's store was the gathering place for the lake.  You were not expected to return for at least an hour.  People sat and visited on the benches inside the store or on the steps or pop cases outside.


It 'was on this porch that Don and I learned a lesson in social behaviour.  One of the men who often sat on the porch of the store was a handsome, tall, slim man.  He had fine features, clean skin, rosy cheeks, deep blue eyes, white hair and a white moustache. I don't remember his name; as we got older, Mum called him "Spittin Mac".  He chewed tobacco (we thought it was gum).  Don and I were fascinated; he chewed and spat - never once did he hit the porch; it was an act of perfection, a graceful arc that landed farther and farther away, exactly where he aimed.  Don and I studied the mechanics carefully.  We were ready.  There was one problem:  in our family gum, although not exactly prohibited was also not encouraged:  ladies don't chew gum was the reason I was given; Don was too young for a reason.  That day we coaxed and Mum relented.  We were each given a stick of gum.  While she was in the store, Don and I sat in Mr. Mac's spot.  We chewed and spat, improving our distance consistently - until Mum came out. It did no good to explain that we weren't really spitting; we were trying to out-shoot Mr. Mac.  Mum was adamant:  Mr. Mac spits because he obviously has a problem swallowing, no lady chews gum, no one ever spits, and no one mimics someone else. Since then neither one of us has had any interest in gum.


Another of our favourite people was Lillian Ashby, the postmistress for the lake. Her little post office and apartment were at the back of Olie's store. As you walked along the side of the store to the post office, you walked between two gardens. Mrs. Ashby loved flower and vegetable gardening. In fact, Mrs. Ashby loved everything and everyone. If she couldn't sell you her vegetables, she would give you some.


Her life had had many sadnesses.  She had been raised as a foster child by an elderly couple.  Her husband had drowned on the lake leaving her to raise two small children.  Her son, Barry, had died in his early 20s of carbon monoxide poisoning when his car got stuck in a snowbank.  Her daughter, Gail, lived in Montreal, a long way in the 1930s.  If Mrs. Ashby was ever sad, lonely, or unhappy, no one ever knew.  She hugged and kissed us all every spring, always hummed to herself, smiled, bubbled with enthusiasm when talking, and seemed to flutter and  float whenever she walked. I was always her little butterfly.


Every day, except Sunday, a half hour before the mail train went through, Mrs. Ashby hung out the mail bag.  Beside the tracks was a tall metal pole with an arm extending from the pole towards the track.  Mrs. Ashby would climb up the steps to the platform around the pole and attach the bag to the arm.  When the train approached, a metal arm extended from the mail car, snatched the hanging bag and swung it into the train car.  The incoming Sesekinika mail bag was thrown out at the same time. Someone usually carried the mail bag back to the post office for Mrs. Ashby.  Then, while Mrs. Ashby sorted and stamped the mail, we would visit in the post office.  In about 20 minutes the little panel would slide back and Mrs. Ashby's beaming face would appear. The mail was delivered via the friendliest mail service in the world.


Even before Olie and Mrs. Ashby, my first childhood memories are of Gus.  He was a Finish man who built on the shore of the lake. After Gus died, Ed Bartell bought the house and property.  It now belongs to Brian Landers.  Gus did odd jobs for people.  He looked like an outdoorsman, tanned, wiry, tough.  One eye was slightly smaller than the other.  He must once have had teeth and hair, but not in my memory.  Whenever he laughed, which was often, one big grubby hand reached up to cover his nose and mouth, then moved down seeming to stroke his chin and chest.  Gus never had any fondness for water, but he did for whisky and garlic which made us grateful that he covered his mouth when he laughed.


Gus, like most of the men in the village, was a bachelor. The work he did for people was tremendously hard, tiring and dirty. He seldom wasted water on himself, at least not on the outside of himself.  He had a garden, a cow or two and chickens.  The animals shared the house with him.  He owned a little boat, never a motor.  He rowed everywhere.  His rowing was as unique as he was:  the boat faced frontward; Gus rowed backwards.  To earn extra money, he would fill the boat with vegetables and cow manure and row past all the cottages calling out "vegetables and cow shit".


Gus enjoyed children.  We were never chased away when we followed him as he worked.  Don, particularly, trailed after Gus trying to do everything he did.  If Gus scythed grass, Don swung a stick to cut grass; when Gus chopped down a tree, Don pounded a stump; when Gus moved rocks, Don moved pebbles.  When Gus rubbed on fly dope, Don lathered it on, too, on everything - his face, clothes, and shoes.  The day Gus needed more and the bottle was empty, Gus, with Don in tow, went to the back door and asked my grandmother for some "gris".  Grandma, a very proper lady, always had trouble understanding Gus.  Gris had to be something no woman would keep in the house.  Gus patiently repeated himself until, in exasperation he hauled out the empty bottle and said "the leetle bugguh used it all” and he needed gris to keep the flies away.  Grandma gave him the grease.


Another day, Gus was moving the outhouse.  Grandma was again looking after us.  Gus came to the back door, told my Grandma to "teel de meesus de crappuh ees done".  Grandma, of course, didn't understand.  Finally, Gus said, "de shit house -shees done".  Grandma's arms flew up, scandalized, "thunderations" was her response.  But, she got the message.


Gus never had much money but often talked about his wealthy brother who was a butler in New York City.  One year he received word that his brother had died and had left Gus some money.  He was advised to go into town and see a lawyer.  He rented a room for the night over the steam bath, took a bath, dressed up, saw the lawyer, and died in bed that night. Since Gus never took baths, my childhood wisdom told me he should never have taken that steam bath; he was allergic to water.


Sam Ivars, also a bachelor, replaced Gus in doing work for people.  Sam built his house at the end of the village.  Gord Klockars now owns it.  Sam was a good-looking Fin-Swede, hard-working and a good worker, but oh, so stubborn.  Mr. Cramp called him Sam-Mule.


Sam owned a little flat-bottomed boat and a small motor. He couldn't swim, but he was fearless. In rain or wind, empty or loaded with lumber, that little boat would be driven across the lake.  Sam never thought of danger.  He did swamp his boat once when delivering a load of lumber to the Neelands.  Fortunately, he was close to the dock.  With Dad's help, and guidance from Don and me, he was able to get to safety, bail out the boat and rescue the lumber.  Whenever islanders saw Sam, in the boat, they all kept watch until he had arrived safely at his destination.


Sam had learned English late in life.  He spoke easily and well, although not often.  Writing was another matter.  He wrote words the way they sounded.  Every winter he kept in touch with us especially if he had done work after we had closed the cottage. At Christmas we would receive a pretty card (from Olie's store) with a brief message, such as:  “the scul has a nu teechr”, “Mery x-mus Yu oe mee $50”.


Sam died suddenly in his house.  The words on his headstone:  "Samuel Ivars - A Faithful Worker".  That he was.


From the mainland, memories drift to the island.


Here, from the time Don and I were able to walk any distance, Mum would take us on our annual spring walk from one end of the island to the other.  To be the first over the trail was a great adventure, and a ritual we loved.  We checked all the old familiar trees, watched for partridge, inspected for damage at cottages.  Since boats were used only when necessary, walking was the normal way to visit neighbours.  Children always used the trail.  It was almost a social event because we got to visit with all the cottagers along the way and usually left with a couple of cookies.  Now, sadly, the trail has disappeared in places, some cottagers don't appreciate children passing by, and boats are too readily available for youngsters.


In the late 1930’s the three fastest boats on the lake were 35 horsepower ones.  The "Viking" was owned by Chris Sorenson who owned the docking facilities on the mainland.  "Yankee Boy" was owned by the Thompsons (parents of Mary Celia Moodie).  The "Red Devil" was owned by Bert Elliott, the postmaster in Kirkland. Whenever one of the boats went by, all activity stopped as we gaze in awe at the fearsome speed.  No one ever wanted to be on the water when one of the boats was approaching, particularly when it was the Red Devil.  It was a boat well named:  red, a smaller, lighter boat that seemed twice as fast as the other two/ and driven by a man whose family was never seen in the boat with him.  This fact was not lost on any parents.  I suspect it's why we headed for shore whenever we saw the Red Devil speeding our way.


As I grew older, evenings were busy.  At nights adults gathered at one cottage or another up and down the island to play bridge or gin rummy.  There was also a big summer dance for adults on the mainland at Chris's boathouse {later McGregor's).  Florena Thornham played the piano for the dance.  Many times, too, parents drove to Bourques for dances there.  Bourques was renowned for its good parties.  Saturdays, when teenage boys were off work, we teenagers traveled the lake to our parties.


The annual party on the island was the barbecue put on by the Thompsons (the parents of Mary Celia Moodie).  Uncle Udie (Mary Celia's father) barbecued the ribs; Aunt Ret baked spaghetti; others brought salads and desserts.  Only one year did we have a near failure:  the year Dad forgot to bring out the ribs.  He had to drive back to town, a long drive in those days.  The food may have been late, but the party started on time.


One particularly memorable party was the mock wedding the women gave for Mrs. who was to be married in the fall. It was held at the McGregor boathouse (now the location of Ranta's cottage).  Kath Thompson was the bride dressed in cheesecloth; Isabel Tripp, the groom; Sadie Irwin, the minister; I was the flower girl (in a nightgown).  It was a lot of fun, but the most amazing part was the boat ride home- a motionless lake below the northern lights above.  Never before or since have I seen northern lights as beautiful.  They were in colour - blues, greens, yellows- dancing all over the sky and reflected in the lake.


Every year the island had bears around the cottages.  There were no public garbage dumps, so each cottage dug a pit behind the house and buried its garbage.  The pits attracted the bears.


For many years my niece and nephews spent summers with us. The summer that Sheree was six and the boys younger, we heard that a bear was prowling the island.  Dad decided to shoot it, so he put out a pail of grease beside our garbage pit.  Then he and Mum went into town.  That evening as I was frying some meat for supper, I saw the bear coming towards the kitchen.  He completely ignored the grease pail; the smell of meat was far more enticing.  I took the meat off the stove, closed the door, and called the children to come and watch the bear.   That is just what we did; we watched and watched as that bear got closer and closer.  When I realized the bear wasn't going to stop, I got concerned and began banging the stove pipe with the poker.  It was useless; he kept coming. About 4 feet from the window he paused, kind of nodded his head, then sat down to watch the antics of one wild female yelling and punching a stove pipe with a poker while three little faces were smiling and calling - nice bear, come on little bear.  The children thought I was performing some miracle to make the bear sit. When he tired of the entertainment, he ambled back towards the bush in the direction of the Neelands' (now Caldbick's) cottage.


Then I realized that Peter Neelands three children were outside playing.  There were no phones.  The only way to tell them to bring in the children was to walk the trail.  After warning Sheree not to let the boys out of the house, I dashed out the front door.  With one eye on the bear, I tiptoed over the trail. Halfway the bear spotted me.  He watched me.  I watched him. He turned around.  I turned around.  He stopped.  I sure didn't; I raced back to the front door.  It was locked; to the back door, it was locked; back to the front -shouting to Sheree to let me in. Sheree, occasionally an obedient child, had locked the doors to keep the boys safe.  I was running so fast and frantically from one door to the next, Sheree didn't know which door to open.  To this day, when I expect perfect obedience from a child, a little voice inside me says, "No, make it almost perfect".


There are many more memories, but memory lane has to end somewhere.  This will be the stop sign for now. I am still collecting memories, however, and plan to do so for a long time to come.


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