Each summer my parents would take my brother and me to ‘the lake’ for our two-week vacation. ‘The lake’ was different from year to year, one of many lakes in the Whiteshell region of Eastern Manitoba, a couple of hours from where we lived in Winnipeg, or a little further East on the Ontario border at Lake of the Woods.
In 1965 I had just turned fourteen, and my parents’ choice that year was Green Bay Cabins on Caddy Lake. It had not been a good year for me, and like a lot of fourteen-year-olds I was pretty sullen. Two years earlier our cat Blackie had disappeared a few days before we left for ‘the lake’ and I had been distraught that my parents refused to cancel their vacation to look for him. Now going to ‘the lake’ had become an annual reminder of that trauma. That same year I had gotten my first glasses, and in the past year my acne had worsened (this was before retinoin and even tetracycline was prescribed for this condition). I hated myself, my genes, and my dependence on my parents and their stupid traditions.
This year two couples, best friends of my parents, had agreed to rendezvous with us at Green Bay, and they had just arrived, their four children, all younger than me, in tow. The cabin was full and noisy and smoke-filled, and I took my transistor radio and fled, wandering down by the rocks and along the tiny beach of the resort. My interest in fishing with my father had disappeared, since I had concluded that the barbed lures hurt the fish, but I still collected the lures, dozens of them, displayed in my own tackle box.
As long as I could remember I had collected things: Matchbox toys, bottle caps (if you timed it right the pop vendors would give you full bags of them when they emptied the machines), comic books (which I used to read and re-read, and then re-sort in the order I like them, writing down the lists with last week’s and this week’s ranking, just like the hit parade charts). And of course ’45’ records, which we kept in specially-designed boxes with handles so we could lug them to friends’ parties.
That year I’d bought Help Me Rhonda (Beach Boys, a disappointment), My Girl (The Temptations), Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter (Herman’s Hermits), and my current favourite Tell Her No (The Zombies). Because everyone else was buying Satisfaction and every other Rolling Stones song, I refused to, just to be different. I was still thinking about getting What the World Needs Now, which seemed kind of wimpy to me, but I liked the message. The newest hit, one that I couldn’t get out of my head and which got airplay everywhere, even in cottage country, was I Got You Babe, by Sonny & Cher. I was walking along the rocks singing along with it (another insult in my life was that my voice had changed the previous year, and my celebrated boy soprano voice had given way to a warble that was missing half an octave) and wishing it was dark so the more faraway radio stations would start coming in, like WLS Chicago with its R&B songs, that I listened to every night, the transistor playing through my pillow until I fell asleep.
After I Got You Babe the cottage country radio station played the inevitable campfire song, Michael Row the Boat Ashore. I turned the radio around, trying to reduce the static, and sang: “Like a rose upon the shore, alleluia”. Suddenly a girl’s voice interrupted:
“It’s not ‘Like a rose upon the shore’, silly, it’s ‘Michael row the boat ashore.'”
I spun around. She was about my age, maybe a year older, wearing jeans and an off-white fisherman’s sweater. She was beautiful. She had breasts. And she was talking to me! I smiled, embarrassed, stunned.
“No it isn’t.”, I replied. “That doesn’t make any sense. Who’s ‘Michael’ and why would he be rowing ashore?”
She giggled, delightfully. My heart was racing and I was dizzy. She replied: “I don’t know, but at camp we had all the words, and that’s what they were. It’s religious or something.” Then, after a pause, “I liked you singing ‘I Got You Babe’ better.”
I blushed. She’d been listening to me. “It’s a better song. But it’s kind of confusing because their voices are so similar it’s hard to tell them apart”.
We introduced ourselves — her name was Barbara — and wandered across the large rocks along the lakeshore. I was nervous, not knowing what to talk about, so I went faster and faster, sometimes slipping in the pools of water that had collected in the ridges of the rocks. It was like a tacit dare to see if she would try to keep up with me, but she did. At one point, I climbed onto a rock that was a couple of feet higher than the one before it, and I offered my hand to help her up. She accepted without hesitation. We were both breathless, and we stopped and sat on this, the tallest rock. I stared at the lake, and Barbara started telling me about lichens and other stuff she’d learned from reading about biology.
For half an hour we sat cross-legged facing each other and talking about different things, mostly subjects she introduced. I hated myself for not knowing about anything interesting, for not knowing how to tell jokes, for not putting my Phisohex and my Acne cover-up cream on that morning. I tried not to stare, but at the same time I tried to memorize everything about her, not ever wanting to forget this moment or a single detail of her features, especially her waist-length sun-bleached brown hair. I was shaking, and it was not from the cool breeze coming in from the lake.
Then Barbara said she had to go. They were packing — this was the last day of their week here, and I cursed my luck and my parents for not coming a week earlier. But at the same time I was in a way relieved — what would I have found to talk to her about for a whole week? She would have become bored and then I’d be even more miserable. She touched my hand as she rose to go, and said: “Maybe I’ll see you here next year or something. Bye.”
I rose and watched her go, taking in every nuance of the movement of her body, and smiled as she turned back and waved.
I raced back to the cottage, elated, making a mental note of the date and to ensure we returned to Green Bay a week earlier next year. I stood looking out the window at the rock we’d been sitting on as my mother offered me a Coke and some cheese and crackers.
“Who was your friend?”, she asked. “You two seemed to be getting along very well together.”
I told my mother her name was Barbara and that she was just packing to leave, and I moved away from the window to get some more cheese from the tray, left over from the lunch that I’d missed.
“I can’t remember seeing you sit still for that long at one time. Is she from Winnipeg, too?” my mother asked. “Did you get her address and telephone number?”
“Mom, we just met“, I replied. I was spinning around, pacing, sitting on the table kicking up my legs, singing:
Then put your little hand in mine
There ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb, Babe.
I got you babe, I got you babe.
I got you to hold my hand,
I got you to understand.
I got you to walk with me,
I got you to talk with me.
I got you to kiss goodnight…
“Well it wouldn’t have done any harm to at least ask for her address. You don’t know if you’ll ever see her again.”
She was right, of course, and this just made me feel worse. My mother was looking out the window.
“There she goes, I think”, she said. “She’s carrying her suitcase to the parking lot. Last chance to ask her.”
Of course I did not move. I stood there leaning against the table, staring at the cheese, and trying to figure out what I could do, what I could say, that would have any chance of ending up any better than our already memorable parting. I came up empty. I was paralyzed, already nostalgic. Pathetic.
For the next year I imagined what could have been, what might be the next summer. I sang a hit from the previous year “Wonderful Summer” in my head, and bought the ’45’ at a used record sale:
I want to thank you for giving me
The most wonderful summer of my life
It was so heavenly
You meant the world to me
And anyone could see that I was so in love
I want to thank you for giving me
We strolled along the sand
I want to thank you for giving me
At my insistence, we took holidays the next year a week earlier, and returned to Green Bay, but of course Barbara was not there. So I sang all the bitter, cynical songs instead: “It Ain’t Me Babe” by the Turtles and “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan.
Go lightly from the ledge, babe,
Go lightly on the ground.
I’m not the one you want, babe,
I will only let you down.
You say you’re looking for someone
Who will promise never to part,
Someone to close his eyes for you,
Someone to close his heart,
Someone who will die for you and more,
But it ain’t me, babe,
It ain’t me you’re looking for, babe.
(photo off the Internet by Chris Chin)
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