It seems no matter what time I’m awake, simply not sleeping or wakened by a noise (the sick dog, the snoring mate), if I come downstairs I see that the lights are on in two or three of the four houses I can see from the kitchen window. No-one sleeps along the river here and I wonder what’s keeping them up?
I don’t know if insomnia runs in families. I think my brothers sleep pretty well if they ever get the chance. My mother has had some trouble sleeping in recent years. Myself, all my life, I have never had an easy time getting my thoughts to go to bed when I do.
Grandpa Waldon, my mother’s father, had trouble sleeping. He had his reasons, some of them physical. There was a problem with a leg that used to swell up. There were some asthma-type symptoms as well. The leg injury was caused by shrapnel, and the breathing trouble was from being gassed in the trenches in World War One, so there might have been some things on his mind, too.
At this point you’ll need to know a couple of things about our family cottage. It’s on a sweet little lake in the Whiteshell, Canadian Shield country. A Tom Thompson painting every way you look. The cottage was built by my grandparents in 1939 and it is a beauty. It is roomy but uninsulated and the living room has windows all along three sides. It’s really just a big, lovely, well-appointed wooden tent with very little to come between you and the forest. When the rain hits the roof it sounds like it’s inside you. At our lake there is no electricity so everything is run on propane. The lights, the fridge, the stove. Back when they built the place propane wasn’t yet an option so it was a wood stove and an ice box and kersosene lamps. Woodstove toast is the best, and I still light a kerosene lamp once in a while, just because they’re nice. The following are the kinds of light that are lovelier than kerosene lamplight:
- Moon, and
- No, just moon.
The dark at the lake is dark, and if you are up in the night you need a flashlight to find the matches to light the lamps. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It used to be that you could only get to our lake by train. There’s a road now, but the trains still go by and at night they are loud. You get used to it. You get used to it so thoroughly that one summer there was a rail strike and everybody at the lake had trouble sleeping because it was too quiet.
I love trains. I love the colours of freight cars flashing past through trees and I love the lights of a passenger train – an endangered species in Canada, don’t get me started – across the lake at night. My first kiss was on a train. I love the noise when you stand close (but not too close) while you are waiting to pick up the pennies you put on the rails, and I love the ringing silence, the hole left in the air after the train has passed. Like this:
When we were kids we used to argue about why it was illegal to put pennies on the rails. It was either because you couldn’t put any object on the rails in case of derailing the train, or because you couldn’t deface a picture of the queen. Either way we didn’t care.
If you stand too close to a train you get sucked in underneath. They used to tell us that, but I wonder if it’s true. Let’s not try it and see! People that have survived a tornado at close range say it sounds a little like a freight train.
The cottage has those interior walls that don’t go all the way up to the ceiling. This should be Canada’s National Wall Style. The bedrooms have curtains, not doors, so you can hear everything. As a child I used to love to lie in bed looking at how the lamplight cast shadows on the rafters and listening to the grownups talk. Sometimes they’d sing. Then I’d hear them go about their bedtime routines, and say goodnight to each other over the walls. Later in the night, if Grandpa wasn’t sleeping, he would get up and light a lamp and play solitaire, maybe eat a fig newton. If my mother heard him she would get up and they would play cribbage.
I never used to like card games, but one summer when my kids were little it suddenly seemed vitally important to take my mother to the cottage, sit her down, and get her to teach me to play cribbage. I felt like I was being initiated into a secret society. I like the board and the little pegs, of course, and I like that there is some thinking to be done in the game but not too much. Mostly I think I like it because it’s such an evocative little dialogue for me, having heard it over the cottage bedroom wall so often:
It’s a go.
Thirty-one for two.
Fifteen-two, fifteen-four and a pair is six.
The last couple of times Grandpa was able to get to the cottage, his memory had become unreliable. He remembered who everybody was, I think. He called me Sunshine as usual, but it occurs to me now he might have called all young ladies of his acquaintance Sunshine and I was the only one around. I am not always a real sunshiny person and I loved it that he called me that. Like he was only looking at the sunny side and there was no need to worry about the dark. I felt encouraged.
He was confused. He couldn’t sleep. Did the freight train wake him up? Did he think it sounded like a tornado? He would know, having survived a tornado that hit Vita, Manitoba, the little town where he was a doctor. He and the nurses took the patients down to the basement, and he calmly doctored on while the tornado took the whole roof off the hospital.
Or was he already lying awake when he heard the train? You can tell a lot about trains from their sound and he would easily have known without looking if it was freight or passenger, east- or west-bound. His breath was short and the shrapnel was stinging in his leg, and maybe the train put him in mind of the sounds of Passchendaele. I’m speculating, of course. It is a great pity that so many grandparents die before we are old enough to formulate a really good question.
He would sit at the end of the table by the lamp with his head in his hands. Lying in bed I heard him ask Grandma “and you say we’re in eastern Manitoba?” as if the whole thing were simply too improbable. Eastern Russia would have been as likely. He still remembered all the hymns he ever knew, and could recite reams of poetry, and up until nearly the end of his days he could still play crib.
Time goes by. How’s that for an understatement.
One night several years ago there was a storm. I had been at the cottage with my kids and my mother for a couple of weeks. My kids were maybe five and eight, and my Mum was around 80. When it storms in the Whiteshell the thunder booms and echoes off the granite cliffs. The lightning strobe-lights the trees all around and you can see them bend and thrash. The windows rattle, the wind drives the rain through the cracks in the siding and everyone rushes around mopping up. Now that’s a STORM. This particular storm, we found out later, felled about sixty trees across our access road and was the next thing to a tornado. Everybody at the lake argued about it for days, was it a real tornado or not? Sort of like arguing if that’s a passenger train or an east-bound freight that just sucked you under.
I was lying in bed listening for a tree to fall on the roof and trying to decide if I should mop up the floor now or wait ‘til the rain stopped. I was wondering which of my kids would be the first to wake up and come through the bedroom doorway curtain and ask to crawl in with me. Sure enough after a time I saw a flashlight coming down the hall and the curtain opened…and it was my mother. Age has rendered her a little less fearless than she once was and as I have mentioned, this was quite a storm. She was frightened.
So we got up and lit the lamp. I poured us some wine and we played a couple of games of crib, counting calmly to fifteen while we counted the seconds between the lightning and the thunder. Is it getting closer? More wine? The kids slept through the whole thing so there was no-one lying awake on the other side of the bedroom wall, watching the lamplight on the rafters and listening to the litany:
Thirty-one for two.
Fifteen-two, fifteen-four, fifteen-six and a pair is eight.
The trouble with writing these stories is that there is always more. There’s always some other door you can open. I phoned my mother to ask her a couple of questions. I wanted to make sure I was right about the fact that Grandpa could play crib right to the end, for instance. She said he could play just fine, but he would get mixed up about which way his pegs were headed. Don’t we all.
She told me that it was during the War, in the hospital in London after he was injured, that he learned to play cribbage. That’s also when he decided to become a doctor.
Also: the day after the tornado blew the roof off the Vita hospital, Grandpa spent most of the afternoon stitching up the feet of young mothers. They could not be prevented from walking down the hall to check and re-check and check again that their babies were okay. Broken glass everywhere.
The moral of the story: never phone your mother if you’re trying to finish a story in under 1500 words.
©2016 Ellen Peterson. Photos by Carly Peters, cribbage board by Lucas Roger, with pegs by Griffin Peters.