The summer always makes me want to be at the beach, and the beach makes me want to go to my grandma’s cabin in Grand Marais, Manitoba. It hasn’t been her cabin for probably nearly a decade, and she’s been dead nearly a year. As I write this, her 77th birthday approaches in four days, and the one year anniversary of her death just six days after that. The cabin was small, but it used to be smaller. I’ve been told it was once just a living room and a bedroom, one parallel to the other, but the porch has been transformed to a sunroom and an additional bedroom, a third bedroom added and then later transformed into a bathroom when grandma got her compost toilet and no longer had to use the outhouse, and of course, perhaps my favorite room in the cabin, the kitchen was also an addition.
I don’t even know if that cabin is still standing — to be honest, it shouldn’t be, I’m sure it had all sorts of foundation problems and other maintenance that my grandma failed to upkeep; as of a 2014 Google Maps image, the building is still there — but it stands out in my mind as one of the pillars of my childhood. Going out to her cabin for a day, a weekend, the one time I got to stay there with her for a whole week, have added up in my mind to the ideal summer portrait and with the coming of the solstice, I’ve felt an urge to write these memories down while I still have them. Perhaps Grandma is telling me to do so.
The drive out to the cabin is the worst part of the experience, especially as a child. It felt like it was several hours away, but it was probably just over an hour. [Google Maps confirms; from my childhood home, the town is one hour and four minutes away.] To soften the blow we would definitely always stop at Tim Hortons before leaving town. We’d get a large box of donuts and save grandma’s favorites for her — maple dip if memory serves.
The drive is easy, were I to do it today — north on Plessis, west on Grassie, north on 59 and keep going until you see the signs. Once you get into the town of Grand Marais, you’ll see a mini golf course, a general store, a motel, and not much else. There used to be a restaurant infamous in our family called The Blueberry Patch, known for their hamburger cabbage soup (it’s in our family cookbook), and there used to be an arcade where I once played Ms. Pac-Man and the Friends theme song from the jukebox on loop until I’m sure I drove everyone crazy. I haven’t been there in a long time, especially not since I moved away, but there is one thing I know for sure is still standing, and will likely stand until the end of time: Lanky’s. Lanky’s is a hot dog stand, known for their foot-long hot dogs. I’m sure they also serve other food of the fried variety, but I’m pretty certain I’ve only ever had hot dogs that snap when you bite into them, fries with lots of salt and vinegar, and ice cream scooped straight from a deep plastic pail from Lanky’s.
Lanky’s is directly across the street from her cabin. The cabin side of the street is lined with trees, and peeking out from the greenery was a fragile little red gate with peeling paint. I have a memory of it being tied to a bush with white string and that’s how it was held up, as she didn’t have a fence, but I’m not sure if that’s what actually held it together. Going to Grandma’s meant going to Lanky’s, at least for ice cream, if not for the whole meal.
I have to stop this passage right now to inform you, reader, that the road directly north of Lanky’s — it’s a dead end road and probably doesn’t serve much purpose except for parking, but it’s there — is called Madeline Avenue. I had no knowledge of this prior to looking up the area for this essay.
The side of the cabin that faced Lanky’s was technically the front yard, though it felt like the backyard since we always pulled up to the other side of the cabin. There was no driveway, just a dirt road and then her property, and we’d park in the grass. She had a concrete pad that served as her patio and had lawn chairs spread out in a circle, awaiting company. Her water jug, charcoal grill (we’d make steaks on it after a day at the beach), shed and outhouse were on this side of the property. She also had a wooden cutout of a dog, named Relish, leaned up against the base of a tree. The patio is where the adults would have morning coffee — I didn’t reach the coffee-drinking age during my visits there, I write as I sit here now in my adult life, drinking coffee — and gab about their adult lives and their adult things. I don’t remember how I filled my time in the days before internet and without cable TV; I likely had a coloring book or some Barbies or sidewalk chalk or something like that.
My uncle had the cabin next door to my grandma’s, and he would often be over to visit when we were there. I don’t have very many memories of his place, except once my grandma and I went over to look for packets of ketchup in his kitchen drawers. I think we found some expired ones.
There is a single small step up before the door that leads into the kitchen. If you turn to the left, you find the stove and the fridge, side by side in the small space. The stove is where my grandma taught me how to make breakfast sausage (we made it for dinner, and to this day it’s one of my favorite things), and the fridge is where the powdered orange juice is stored (to this day it’s still one of my favorite things). If you turn to the right, you find the sink, the dishes, and the small bowl and mirror where you can wash your face. I became obsessed with that mirror and the different lighting settings to make your skin look better. At the time I hadn’t even experienced my first pimple yet. The morning light bursts through the kitchen windows and captures the dust in midair. The kitchen is where the food is, so it’s naturally my favorite place.
Through the kitchen “door” — in reality, it was a hard plastic divider, checkered brown and white — is the main living room. The couch is against the wall to the right. There I would lean over and watch hummingbirds drink from the feeder that was hanging outside the window. On one particularly rainy day, the trees looked extra green from this view. Near the couch in the corner is grandma’s china cabinet. Maybe it wasn’t china, maybe it was other knickknacks or plates or something. Sitting on the couch, to the right is a small kitchen table that seats four at the most. To the left is another couch, less comfortable but sometimes utilized if lots of people are sleeping over. Directly across from the couch on the opposite wall is the buffet. “Buffets” are one of those old people pieces of furniture that my generation will never own — maybe because of the stupid name. If for whatever reason this piece of writing survives me, a buffet is a long, deep, but not tall, chest of drawers, like a big dresser. Grandma kept pictures of her family and her TV on the buffet. She had a VCR, and once we watched “Hope Floats” on it, and eventually she would get a satellite dish with limited channels. We would eat dinner on the couch and play crossword puzzles and word games on the coffee table that sat in front of the couch. The living room is where the donuts were eaten.
The one original bedroom was directly behind the buffet wall. The walls didn’t go all the way to the ceiling, so in between the space of the wall and the ceiling, Grandma would put more knickknacks — gravy boats, teapots, breakable things that naturally go up in high places, I suppose. The bedroom, separated from the living room by a curtain, could not have been more than seven feet wide. The open closet was at one end, but the bed took up most of the space. At the head of the bed was a window that looked out onto the porch. I took a lot of post-beach naps on that bed.
On the other side of the closet is the former second bedroom. It has another beautiful window that brings in the morning light, the same as the kitchen. It was a bedroom up until a compost toilet was introduced, which made the entire cabin smell like butt. This room was also only separated by a curtain, not exactly ideal for keeping your business private.
On the porch, which is called the porch because it was once outdoors, but is now screened in, is where the second bedroom moved. Grandma put her bed out there, in the north corner, and it is the perfect spot for a bed. The screen window right near your pillow, you can fall asleep to the sound of the rain or the light street traffic or best yet, the breeze. On the opposite side of the room, she had a big chair and this is where she kept her yarn and her crochet hooks. Grandma didn’t ever not have an afghan in the works. She had a tension that only comes with crocheting for decades. One day I will achieve it, but for now I can only dream it. Her squares were so smooth and so perfect, and I still don’t know how she weaved in her ends to near invisibility. Grandma magic.
If she was sitting on that chair, right near her head on her left was a little shelf that looked through into the living room. There sat more knickknacks, but also her radio, which was always playing CJOB. In fact, after spending a week out there, I couldn’t fall asleep without listening to CJOB.
My memories of events that happened in and around the cabin are not as vivid as the cabin itself. There are flashes here and there — my dad shocking himself on an electric fly swatter outside. My brother stepping on my glasses. Dropping my ice cream right outside of the gate and the nice lady at Lanky’s giving me another one for free. Grandma taking me to bingo at the community center and her friend winning $80 and giving me a pair of toonies from her prize money.
Within walking distance of the cabin — looking back and knowing her at the end of her life, it is amazing that Grandma was ever able to walk that far — was Grand Beach. It is my favorite beach. The sand is so soft and so hot, and it becomes so smooth in the water. As I type this right now I can feel it between my toes and in my fists. The water is cold, as all beaches that belong to Lake Winnipeg are, but it’s refreshing when the sun is beating on your shoulders and it becomes an escape. The beach is long and seemingly goes forever, and on the right day, the wind can kick up and whip sand at you, but on the right day — the right day is what I dream about. There is no summertime activity I crave more than eating white bread cheese sandwiches and red licorice at Grand Beach.
My grandma’s cabin is gone. The building may still be there for all I know, but it’s not her cabin anymore. Her knickknacks are gone, the hummingbird feeders are gone, CJOB is no longer playing round the clock. But Lanky’s is there. The beach is there. The sign of the street that bears her name, nearly directly across the street from where she spent half her year, is there. Somewhere on that dirt path with the tire tracks in deep parallel lines, somewhere in the double scoop of butterscotch ripple ice cream, somewhere in the hot sand, she is there. She is there in her chair, snacking on sunflower seeds. She is there with the coffee on, ready for friends to arrive. She is there.
Addendum, June 25, 2019:
My uncle visited Grand Marais on her birthday, and took this photo of what the cabin looks like now. It is indeed still standing.