In the summers of the 1970s, my parents rented a cabin on Gabriola Island. Woody and dark, the cabin perched at the water’s edge. A small bright lawn, then a rocky shelf of beach. My older brother and I loved the gleaming cove, where we splashed and swam when the tide was high; searched for starfish and bullheads and urchins when it went way, way out. As a family, we made daily trips to the island’s twin beaches, and regularly poked through its Malaspina Galleries: A sandstone headland, carved into a long half-pipe by the waves, and crowned with a grove of twisting Arbutus trees.
I have always loved these trees. They are hardwood, but evergreen. Intricate, arching boughs. Their russet bark is paper-thin, smooth, warm. It curls off, revealing chartreuse wood, peach, pistachio. Arbutus leaves are waxy, almond-shaped, and sea-green. But underfoot, they’re always crackling—brown as roasted chestnuts, as dry as palm fronds. Deep in the island forests, Arbutus grow tall: massive trunks, 50 feet high, reaching for the sun between hemlock and maple and cedar. But right on the beach, they lean into the wind: copper origami, among shore pine, and garry oak. When you drive north from Vancouver, heading for the ferry, you start to see the trees I love along the side of the highway. But if you drive a little farther, you don’t see them anymore. My favourite trees grow only in dry, rocky soil, within a few miles of the ocean. They are called Madrones south of the U.S. border, Arbutus only north of it. The Gulf Islands and facing coasts are their entire Canadian range.
Gabriola was one of the few places where my family could have been called happy. At home, on the west side of Vancouver, we lived in a cycle of tension and violence. My mother, unstable, would bitch and bait and rage. My father, solipsistic, would retreat and resist and ignore – until indulging himself in a magnificent apocalypse. Some of my earliest memories are of crying with my brother at the top of the stairs, while crashes and screams came up from the kitchen. I used to think about the long knives, rattling in their wooden drawer. I was terrified he was going to yank one out and stab her. But he never did; and after each of these storms, we usually entered a period of relative calm. Until the pressure rose again.
In later years, it used to puzzle me how little actual physical damage I could remember seeing on my mother. For that matter, I could hardly remember ever seeing my father strike her – just hearing those crashes and screams. On the other hand, there was that time I saw Dad sweep the dishes from the dinner table, and put Mom in a headlock. And that other time, when he dragged her out of our apartment—during one of our sabbatical years in Europe—roughly enough that my brother went upstairs to stammer in German to the unknown neighbors. And that other time, when she had a fat lip (which she said had been caused by a wasp). And a broken nose, that other time (somehowrother). And that other time, a broken wrist (car accident).
So, in later years still, I realized that I had seen more than I saw.
Anyway, on Gabriola, it was as though those demons were stilled. I don’t remember my parents’ ever fighting there. I do remember them, occasionally, giggling, touching, or even flirting—very unusual, and somehow unfitting, like a toothbrush stuck in an ear. The good feeling was all the stranger, since my mother was an obsessive cleaner, and the cabin was basically a shack: outhouse, grimy kitchen, water drawn from a well. Yet she took it in stride. Maybe these vacations coincided with my parents’ seasons of truce. Or maybe they just made the best of it. Or maybe that’s just what my mind has chosen to remember.
Thirty years later, I visited Gabriola again. I assumed the old rental would be long gone—but I came upon it, while out for a run, on the very first morning. Nothing much had changed – apart from a few progressive details, like the disappearance of the outhouse.
Here was the concrete ramp, where we launched the cabin’s rowboat. My father hated killing the fish we caught; so it died very slowly.
There was the erratic boulder, balanced solemnly on its end. Only the very highest tides came even close to covering it. “Spring tides”: a magical phrase.
Here was the bench, along the mossy side of the house, where my parents told my brother and me that we would be getting another sibling. Aged 10, I was shocked, primarily by their advanced age – my Dad being then 40, my Mom a few years younger.
The place was, if anything, more beautiful than I had remembered it. A shore breeze shook the lush trees along the water’s edge.
I thought: it was a blessing on us. And I experienced that thought, itself, as a blessing.
Then I ran back to start my vacation with my own wife and children.