For all of August, I lived in New Brunswick. When I say it like that, it sounds a bit random, but I have a cottage there and my paternal family is from there. The story of how my family came to own the cottage is a bit of a tale, but the SparkNotes version is:
My family owned it in the 60’s, somebody else owned it starting in the 90’s and we bought it back 5 years ago.
And because my dad grew up at the very same cottage, there are 100 stories I’ve heard and 2,000 stories I’ve yet to hear. Moreover, the east coast holds a lot of memories for me, personally. When I was little my family would stay with my cousins for 3 weeks and we would visit them, my dad’s friends and my grandfather. We swam and camped and biked and ate two bite brownies covered in icing and drank ginger-ale and played “store” in their basement.
And like I said, we spent time with my grandfather. My grandfather was a character; he had big eyebrows and wore a fishing vest more often than any other item of clothing. My grandfather told stories about everything under the sun, always with a side of vermouth and gin.
Even as we got older, my sisters and I carved out a space in our summers to go see our grandfather and our cousins. Until I was 16. That spring my grandfather passed away and we flew out to New Brunswick to tell stories and pack up my grandfather’s house.
In the coming years my sisters and I got older and we stopped going to New Brunswick as much. We were in university and working jobs and carving 3 weeks into our summers became more and more complicated. But as I mentioned, 5 years ago my dad bought his childhood cottage.
And coming to New Brunswick is different now. It’s more intermittent; apart from this summer I usually stay for long weekends or at most a week. We don’t spend time at my cousins’ house anymore, and I don’t really go into town that often.
However, a couple weeks ago, my dad and I were in town running errands when my dad suggested we stop by my grandfather’s house. I hadn’t seen my grandfather’s house in 6 years, since I helped pack it up after he died. I had heard that the new owner had made some changes, but I barely even recognised it when we drove up. The siding had changed and the brick was painted. The inside had been gutted into an open floor plan. No ginger-ale in the fridge for when we came to visit. No glass figurines in the living room. No walker by the back door. It wasn’t my grandfather’s home anymore. I stood there on the street and looked at the house I spent so much of my childhood in, and barely recognised it. The only evidence that he ever lived there, was the fact that I knew he did.
But one day, I won’t be around anymore to remember that my grandfather lived there. My sisters, my cousins, my aunts and uncles, my parents and their friends. None of us will be around to tell people that my grandfather once lived in that house. And when that happens my grandfather’s memory will disappear, and I think he would be okay with that.
My grandfather lived simply. He wanted to fly fish on the Miramichi and take drives to Freeport. He wanted to eat breakfast at Burger King and drink cheap gin and listen to classical music. You will never read about my grandfather in books or see him in a TV show or movie. People (apart from me) will not write songs about him and you would never be able to recognise a photo of him. On paper, he lived an unremarkable life.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t special.
The month I spent in New Brunswick, every third story was about my grandfather. About bottle openers in glove boxes of cars and getting dressed up in tuxedos to go out to dinner. The time he mucked a bottle of scotch watching Johnny Carson. The times he went hunting and fishing and camping and every story was told with laughs and smiles. The life he lived was incredible, but if I were not telling you about it right now, you would never know.
So, I’m standing there with my dad, looking at the house, thinking about the stories I know and the moments I had with my grandfather, and looking at this unrecognizable, unremarkable house and I realised something. Living an unremarkable life is more than enough.
When everyone is trying to tell you that “special” lives are filled with travel and adventure and wealth, remember that’s not always true. Because I have known people with special lives that had none of that. It’s enough to catch frogs at the cottage and have nachos after skiing and spend time with your family. It’s enough to laugh until you pee because your sister does an incredible Celine Dion impression, or watch movies when it rains, or play boardgames or work on a Friday night for the extra hours or do all the things that people have labelled “mundane”.
And it seems like such a simple life lesson but I forget it nearly everyday. I get consumed by making sure I live the best life. I watch other people have extravagant parties and luxury items and live a life that seems remarkable, and I find myself thinking “I want that”. And I get so caught up in the likes and follows and the shares, that I forget how inconsequential it is. I am so obsessed with living a productive life, I can forget to live a happy one.
In some ways, I think it may be better to live a life that is unremarkable. It might be better to have family dinners and girls’ nights and inside jokes with your coworkers. It might be more important to be loved by 10 people than admired by 10,000.
And it’s so easy to think you know this lesson. To think you understand what it means. But then you’re standing in front of your grandfather’s old house with you dad. And you’re looking at where your dad grew up, the backdrop of your childhood memories, and that place is now someone else’s.
Someone else will live an unremarkable life there, and in 40, 50, 60 years, their grandchildren will look at the house and have the same realisation. And that new family will have no idea that my family ever existed. Even though my unremarkable life overlapped with theirs’. They won’t know about the brown bread and the pies and the Saturday-morning-fried-egg breakfasts made in the kitchen. They won’t know about my aunt’s dog or my dad’s old mustang. But all those things existed, and they were beautiful.
And they were remarkable.
From me, with love, to you,
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