When I look out from the shores of Big Rideau Lake in Ontario, I wonder if I am the luckiest person on earth. I am in a privileged position such that my favourite place of refuge is also a place where I enjoy a precious heritage. I realize that millions in this world can’t enjoy both refuge and heritage in the same place.
I’ve been thinking a lot about heritage this week. Some of these thoughts have been triggered by an upcoming family reunion. Dozens of the descendants of Chester and Jessie Little will gather for a picnic in the lovely town of Stratford, Ontario. We will reminisce and celebrate our heritage – the values and traditions that Chester and Jessie passed on to us.
I’ve also been thinking about heritage because it’s the time of year when we get to escape to a wonderful property on the shores of Big Rideau Lake. The land has been in my husband’s family since the 1930s. When I sit on those shores and look out on some stunning views, I marvel that these same views have been enjoyed by five generations of the same family.
My husband, Pep, spent every summer of his childhood in this enchanted place. Each year, his patient and courageous mother watched over six young children who explored the wonders of this land from the last day of school until Labour Day weekend (with Dad Philpott joining them on the weekends). The traditions of this property were built up from the time of Pep’s grandparents. Pep has faithfully passed on the legends to our children who pass them on to everyone who visits. When we jump off the dock into the cool deep water, we play the “Doom Doom” game. When someone jumps off the cliff, we sing the bumblebee song. When someone dives to enjoy the bubbles that are formed by the cliff jumper, that’s called “getting the ginger ale”.
When we paddle along the shoreline by canoe, there are so many old family names for the earth’s landmarks. “Idol’s Eye” is the piece of rock where a half-almond shaped recession joins its reflection in the water to form a giant eye. “Murderer’s Gulch” is the crevice in the forty-foot cliff. Family legend has it that in the days when this was an old farm, the occasional sheep would wander to the water’s edge and tumble off the cliff to their death. New names for geographic landmarks are added with each generation. Our children have designated Giggle Island and Crooked-Pine Point. The kids (and their cousins) have all love the EMCRs (early-morning canoe rides) with Pep, the storyteller. When there are no landmarks to talk about, he regales them with tales of Bloodless Percy – the ghost who has shared the land for decades.
I’ve joined the wonderful heritage of this lakeside haven through marriage. I have grown to love the place deeply for its beauty and tranquility. It has become my favourite place of refuge. But I also love it for the value of the heritage itself. My own parents, my sisters and their families now come here on an annual basis and they have been tutored in the old stories of the land. It is a precious thing for families to build their own oral traditions and to have a place where memories are shared and tales of the past can be retold to each passing generation.
I have wondered how it would feel if some calamity rendered us incapable of coming back to this property on the shores of Big Rideau Lake each summer. I know that the places and traditions would live on in our minds. But there is something deeply meaningful about being able to come back to the same place year after year to revive memories and build new ones.
Similarly I speculate about how it would feel if our family were forced to flee our homeland. I can’t imagine what would be the hardest part about that. But one of the great losses would be the ability to return to the places where our memories start. The heritage of a homeland can be a priceless treasure. It gives us roots from which to draw nourishment and a foundation on which to build our lives. I have to imagine that even when that homeland is not a place of peace, it is still important to retain the possibility of returning to the place from which we came in order to understand ourselves and get a perspective of our past.
There was an account this week of an Indonesian migrants’ boat that capsized on its way to Australia. Over 200 asylum-seekers were on board. At least four of them died. Reports like this are not uncommon. The stories always make me wonder what life must be like for someone to board such a boat. At worst, you risk your life (and perhaps the lives of loved-ones). At best, you leave behind the possibility of returning to your homeland. I understand that your homeland must be a place of personal risk and hopelessness if you need to make such a choice. I truly cannot imagine what that must be like.
When I read about people who seek asylum in this way, I pray that they will find a place of refuge. And I pray that when they find a place of refuge, they will be able to build along with it, a new heritage in that place.