Every year for one or two weeks, my family would head up to Waskesiu Lake in northern Saskatchewan and stay at these rented shacks, which were generously called cabins. They were decidedly rustic, but not without their charm if you are like me and think that cheap prints in white plastic frames from the 1950s are charming.
The cabins were set up to resemble a small community along narrow streets beneath a canopy of old pine trees. There was a laundry at one end tucked behind a general store that sold over-priced groceries, beachwear, cheap sweatshop toys, and twenty flavours of ice cream. The bathrooms were shared, as only a handful of the cabins had private ones, and shoes were mandatory if you didn't want the grit of old concrete between your toes. All the buildings - the cabins, laundry, and general store - had the same whitewashed wooden siding, maroon trim, and shingled roofs covered in green moss.
Even as a child, I was amazed at the interiors of the cabins. Every last thing inside them, aside from the mattresses, dated back to at least the 1950s. There were the aforementioned pieces of motel art nailed to walls panelled in that cheap plywood with fake wood grain and the musty smell of glue. The linoleum was that beigish, untextured kind that you can still find beneath layers of flooring in old homes. Most of the plates had moulded lettering on their undersides stating that they were made of something called melmac, and my mother recalled that that particular type of dinnerware came free inside boxes of laundry soap when she was a child. She figured that it was the cabins' laundry that had collected the supply of them thirty or forty years before while they were washing the grey, wool blankets that still sat on the top closet shelf for when the nights were colder.
When there was nothing going on and the laundry was slow, I would sometimes go and sit on the antiquated, wooden pop bottle crates behind it. I could not figure out why they were still there so long after everyone in the modern world had moved on to the ugly red, blue, or green plastic crates already, but I was glad that no one had gotten rid of them. When I sat on them to watch the other cabin-dwellers walk back and forth, I would finger the soft wood along the side and think about the hands that had lifted them off the back of a truck before I was born.
I always imagined that they were men's hands curled into the oval holes at each end of the crate, the kind of hands that farm men had: calloused fingertips, dry and split skin, embedded oil in every crack and cuticle, each finger stuck in a permanent curl from having to grip so many heavy things. I would go into the woods or down to the water and pretend that those were my hands, concocting improbable work scenarios just so that I could exercise my new older, weathered hands against the adversity of cold sand or hard bark.
Later, my mother would hand me a nail brush before supper to work out the grit that had been so hard won, and I would have to scrape it out from under my nails before saying grace. I would make up for it, though, by holding my knife the way my uncle with the heavy hands did, the one who lost his middle finger in a threshing machine, and pushing my peas into lines along the fork tines in his careful way before rolling them into my mouth.