Stories from our Land: Celebrating Canada’s 150

The Douglas House

EDITOR’S NOTE: In conjunction with Canada’s Sesquicentennial in 2017, members of the Manitoulin Writers’ Circle are crafting stories and poems to pay tribute to our country on this pivotal milestone birthday.

by Evelyn Cardiff

Canada’s Sesquicentennial is an open invitation to think back through our personal memories of Manitoulin Island and its people.

Driving down the side roads of Manitoulin, crumbling foundations, tumbledown barns and houses are a common sight. Sometimes the structures are completely gone, but hedges of lilacs, overgrown rosebushes, clumps of lilies and daffodils mark the perimeters of the lawns and laneways of long ago. I find these old homesteads beautiful, as they lie slumbering, bearing mute testimony to lives lived and times passed.

In Ice Lake, there is a thick grove of brambles, trees and tall grasses well back from the road down an overgrown lane. Anything that might have been there is protectively shielded from the prying eyes of casual sightseers. But I remember.

If I close my eyes I can see the cozy home, the neat yard, the flower beds and the vegetable garden. Something fragrant was always blooming—essence of apple blossoms, lilacs, honeysuckle, and roses filled the air and drifted on the breezes through the screen door as we entered the kitchen. No air freshener today can compare to the aroma of those blossoms as they met and mingled with the wonderful fragrance of freshly baked homemade bread.

The kitchen was the heart and soul of the home in most Manitoulin houses. I remember the kitchen of the Douglas house as if it were yesterday. Despite the big woodstove fired up to bake those mammoth loaves of bread and pans of rolls on a hot summer day, it never seemed uncomfortably warm there thanks to the fragrant breezes wafting across the room. Here Mrs. Douglas presided over her domain. She was a wonderful lady. She had snowy white hair wound into a neat bun at the nape of her neck, rosy cheeks and lovely eyes that twinkled kindly. She would likely be considered plump by today’s exacting standards, but I thought she was beautiful, and loved the pretty print of the house dresses she wore—always carefully covered by a big sensible apron.

In the tradition of Manitoulin ladies, she was a very good cook. No matter what day of the week we dropped in on her there was fresh bread cooling on the counter or dough rising in the huge mixing bowl under a crisp tea towel. She didn’t seem to mind having a quiet, stodgy little girl curled up in her rocking chair watching her every move. It was in her kitchen that I was introduced to a treat that, to this day, is one of my favourite comfort foods. She would cut a thick slice from one of those huge loaves of bread, spread it with butter then sprinkle it with either brown or white sugar. My mug of milk, fresh from their contented old cows, was delicious, and a perfect accompaniment to my snack. On the stove the tea kettle would be simmering, ready to make a big pot of tea for the adults.

Mr. Douglas, after having a “man talk” with my Father, would come inside to join us, bearing goodies from his garden just for me. Sometimes it would be my all-time favourite vegetable—peas. He showed me how to pop open the huge green pea pods and together we would count the peas to see which pod held the most, before I happily crunched them up. Even vegetables that I would normally turn my nose up at tasted wonderful when they came to me in his big gentle hands out of his magic garden. And the strawberries! He grew tame strawberries—huge red berries unlike anything I had ever seen, and the special ones he picked just for me tasted incredible. I was used to wild berries, and it was amazing to me to eat a berry so big that it took several bites to finish it, and so juicy that I almost needed a bath afterwards.

Such wonderful memories, of a completely happy time in my life. It was a simpler time, and the boundaries of my world were very narrow by the standards of today’s children. Today, to be able to recapture the warm sense of contentment experienced by my four-year-old self, I can take a ride down Robertson Sideroad and imagine the Douglas House is still there and as it was 60 years ago, hidden by all those trees I am sure that Mrs. Douglas is still baking her wonderful bread and her husband working in the magic garden.

People and places such as our Island are worth celebrating.