How do we measure time?
Is it with a watch? A smile? Or perhaps the increasing number of grey hairs that look back at us from our morning mirror while shaving? We are taught to count the ways.
Fate has placed me on a dog-walking path that takes me to the banks of the St. Lawrence three times a day. It is a pleasure that is never lost on either dog or walker. Me, because this vista is a never-ending source of wonder. Him, because under any unturned shore rock he might find a dog’s treasure.
But let’s be clear. The dog walking means that we have abandoned island life for yet another season as the insistent grip of late fall’s fingers announce themselves in numbed hands and crisply reddened faces.
We dutifully pull on the chain falls and the boat rises and rises out of the water. Sure, when relatives arrive at Christmas there can be a dash out to the island and a very cold picnic, but it is only a respite that is of the briefest and coldest of kinds.
Two days after Christmas it happened. The Punts lighthouse fell dark. No happy green rhythmic blinking met me during that evening’s walk. I knew the moment had to come. It was accepted even if bittersweet, announcing as it did that winter was finally with us.
This seasonal change always reminds me of Dick and Sally Castle, one-time owners of the Punts. In the early 1970s, when I was a dock boy for Carolyn Castle, on Kalaria Island, her nephew Dick would always invite Carolyn for dinner. I was privileged to join them. Dick was a happy man with an affable smile who didn’t mind in the least that his hairline had receded and his girth had slightly increased. His wife was a gracious and sophisticated woman whose warmth and generosity of spirit was never lost on those who knew her. She was old school, and exuded a measured charm and confidence that women of her age hoped at some time in their lives to attain. Sally was born to it.
So, while the light from the Punts might fade every fall, my memories of it never do.
Which brings us to earlier this week.
There it was again. That cheerful green light, announcing every few seconds that the Punts was back on the boating map for the season. It joined a chorus of new sounds that have informed our walks. The ‘buhreeeees’ from the Red Winged Blackbirds, the honking of either winged or hunkered down for the night, Canada Geese joining the now happy chatter of our winter resident chickadees.
So the winter time has passed. We stand poised on the water’s edge, ready for a new season to unfold.
We are drawn to the lazy flows of these waters off Gananoque. Eager for more summer memories. Yet why is the pull so strong?
For many it is the chance to cast aside the time piece and let the afternoon sun take us away to that place where there is only the wind. Only the water. And only the happy laughter of the next generation as they discover the River joys that we have known for so many of what we call years.
Those young voices invariably remind of a time now behind us. We still feel those stamped footfalls as we rushed from the front porch, down the well-worn track, towards the long catwalk. Then the hardness of those boards as we ran headlong, ever faster. And finally, the concreted dock surface whose pinch on our barefoot feet announced that flight was near. Then, there it is, only a breeze pushing our hair aside as we arc into the air, a smile firmly etched beyond each ear. The water greets us with a clap, and the warmth of the summer waves fill our every pore
It is not a maudlin memory. Because as adults we walk to the tick of clocks, meetings, and train timetables that yell at us that time is one of the few things that really matters. The rush of the city centers. The grime of the subway wheels and the scream that engulfs every car as it rounds another painful corner bring a bewildering cacophony of supposed importance.
Except here, in this place, as the ice recedes and the water begins to ready for our St. Lawrence embrace, we know the opposite to be true.
It’s why we come back year after year. Long after our hair has grayed and the spring of youth has left our limbs.
We know that the St. Lawrence offers a door that can be willingly opened by any islander. Beyond that threshold lies a place where we always go. There is only the gentle march of the sun across the sky toward a westward island where it nestles on the horizon. It is a stillness. A peace that penetrates every cell and tells you that yes, you are home.
Even as winter tries to clap its cold hand, one last time on our River the Punts tell us that Spring is here.
It’s about time.
May the smiles begin.
By Mark R. Russell
Mark Russell first came to Hay Island in 1956, as a six-month-old. The family summered on Hay Island, every year thereafter. His mother and father purchased the Cedar Nook Girls Camp property, originally owned and built by the Lewis family of Virginia Beach, VA, in 1968. Mark and his three siblings continue to spend as much time there, as the seasons allow. His time away from the River has been consumed by raising three, now twenty-something children, and working in industrial investment banking and business development. Today, he not only spends time on the River, but luckily for us, he is writing. (See Mark Russell’s TI Life submissions here)