A few days ago, after she finished work, my girlfriend invited me out for a drive into the mountains of Quebec, so I suggested taking a tour of my childhood.
For a lot of reasons, like I don’t have a drivers licence, I haven’t been able to get back there in a long time. The closest I’ve come over the past twenty years has been tagging along with my grandfather on his visits to his farm.
He has been renting it out to the same family since the late-80’s, but every other month my grandfather likes to visit his friends in the area, and walk some of the fence line he built. Basically I’d be there to make sure he got back okay.
He has slowed down on the visits over the past few years. A lot of the men he’d visit have passed on. He only gets up there once or twice a year now. And I’m not part of the trip anymore.
It’s a beautiful part of the country. I think the only reason it’s not part of a tourist plan is the roads are half as wide as they should be, they haven’t been repaired since the mid-50’s, some of the hills could be mistaken for walls, and coming back you’d be riding the brake the whole way.
But, in my opinion, facing death at every corner would just add to the tourist charm.
The farms are patches of brown hay in valleys of lush forest. You’ll be driving, surrounded by thick green forest, when one side just falls away and you’re staring at 800 acres of mountainside farmland. The farm houses and their outbuildings are all taken care of.
Every community has a brilliant white, one room church built close to the road.
Once we actually got up and into the mountains I started pointing out all of the farms my grandfather would stop at on our way back from church. My brother and I were always under strict orders to be as quiet as possible while my grandfather and the home owner talked about cattle, gossip and hockey.
The first girl I can remember having a crush on spent her summers with her grandparents just one property away from my grandfather’s farm. When we were all about eight to twelve-years old she and one of her friends used to walk over and the four of us would play together.
I was crushed when I found out she wasn’t interested in me. But intrigued when I found out she had been bringing her friend because her friend had a crush on me.
My time at the farm was a love-hate relationship. I loved working with my grandfather, baling hay, following him around his workshop, driving the tractor or truck through the fields, feeding the cows.
But I hated being stuck with my grandmother, weeding her huge vegetable garden, or being relegated to a corner of the house to play quietly, and the punishments if I couldn’t.
I hated going to the French Catholic church with my grandfather, because I didn’t speak French, but I loved stopping for a hotdog or ice cream on the way home. I hated visiting his friends on the way back because it meant sitting still for thirty minutes per visit, but I always liked the pie the wives offered us.
The next place I asked my girlfriend to stop was at the river where my mother took us swimming. It’s a fast river, so we always had to stick to the shore. The girl I had a crush on, her mother had a small cottage along the river, so having the opportunity to see her in a bathing suit was always a highlight.
With or without my crush we’d spend entire afternoons in or beside the river. We weren’t there a lot, and it’s possible my attraction to the river was somewhat based on being away from the farm, but I can’t think of many other places I’d rather be at any given time.
When I was seventeen my mother became engaged. Her fiancé, Doug, had already been an important person in my life for close to two years. He had a home on a large property on the river I used to swim in, but above the falls.
After they had dated for a while we’d spend alternate weekends at his place. I don’t remember there being much for a teenager without a licence to do, they tried to get me involved in their Scrabble marathons. But I sucked at Scrabble. Still do.
Doug was the first father figure, or father substitute in my life. He’d ask for my help doing odd jobs around his property, and once he found out I knew nothing about engines — despite having an engineer for a grandfather, and a master mechanic for an uncle — he tried teaching me about the parts.
Anyway. He was important to me. And he died of an aneurysm near his heart, in October of 1987. He was thirty-seven years old.
I was a pallbearer at his funeral. I remember the cemetery was small, and it was raining a little so some cars needed to be pushed out. I remember, as we were leaving, some of his close friends and his brother were replacing their shoes with work boots and picking up shovels.
I went back and helped a little. That was the last day I saw his grave. There was no stone yet, so it was just a hole with a pile of dirt beside it.
So I asked my girlfriend to stop at the cemetery. It was built into the eastern part of a large hill, so the older graves are down a steep hill. Our son had a great time trying to walk the downward slope. He’d speed up, lose control and finally plant himself into the ground. Over and over again. The kid doesn’t quit.
Finding his grave was a shock to me. Someone had planted wild flowers around the base of the black stone, and there were nylon flowers attached to the top.
I had wanted to visit his stone for twenty-four years, and it was just as emotional as I thought it’d be. I held my son close to the stone and he hit it a few times.
The view from the cemetery was incredible, a few valleys, a few mountains, some fields dotted with sheep, a tiny white chapel, a small community carved into a distant mountain.
We raced our son back up the hill, and then we left.
We took another road to leave the mountains. It’s the one my girlfriend and her family use to get to their cottage. So she shared some of her memories with me.
Getting into the mountains, on the road we took, is like driving in a game of Snakes & Ladders. The road we took to get out is one of those “extreme roller coasters” engineers need ten years, lasers and several mainframe computers to design.
By the time we made it back to the main road our son had let us know it was time to go straight home.