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On an Island in Midlife. How we helped my father weather middle age in the middle of Big Lake, Ontario

AS my friends and I turn 40, I like to think of the way my father weathered midlife. He didn't have much money, and it wasn't cheap, but he bought an island. He was 42 when the fellow next door told him about the island. Another fellow in the neighborhood gave moral support by going with him to look at the island. My mother went along too, and a small black and white snapshot made in the winter of 1953 shows her standing alongside a pontoon plane with skis, wearing a dress, in front of a landscape encumbered by deep drifts of snow.

The dress says it all. You don't wear a dress to visit a frozen island in a frozen lake in frozen Ontario where the midwinter temperature sometimes sinks to 50 below. Even today Mother grumps about the island. It was not her thing, and she would have preferred that my father weather midlife on a shore lined with sand and palms, not granite, pine, and late-blooming ladyslippers.

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I'm pretty sure that midlife lasts awhile, because my father owned that island for 10 years. In late spring, as soon as school was out in Kansas, we loaded the car-top carrier, packed up the utility trailer, and slowly made our way northward, ``Grapes of Wrath'' style, Skipper the dog, Mother, Daddy, Grandpa, my sister and me, past Tuttle Creek Reservoir in Kansas, through Wahoo and Fremont, Nebraska, invariably getting lost in an unending muddle of highway construction at Sioux City, Iowa, stopping briefly to visit relatives in St. Paul-Minneapolis, past Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox in Bemidji, through the desolate muskeg bogs of Minnesota, across Rainy River in Baudette, turning right at the Marvin Window Factory in Warroad.

Following a restless night in Warroad's downtown hotel, a place where elderly men rocked in the lobby and the floors of the wide bare halls creaked crazily as my sister and I tiptoed around, we unloaded our belongings onto a crumbling concrete wharf at daybreak, parked our car in a dusty garage for the summer, and all got on a boat.

Two boats held the monopoly, public transportation-wise. The Resolute was white with red trim and captained by a crotchety old white-haired skipper. The Bert Steele was gray and blue and captained by a crotchety old gray-haired skipper. On alternating days, one or the other would shove off from Warroad Harbor at exactly 8 a.m. to cross the Big Lake, the open, vast lower reaches of Lake of the Woods.

The crossing took four hours, one hour without land on any horizon, and even in the best weather these boats rolled maliciously in the deep trenches of the constantly undulating water.

Passengers had three options: Sit in the tiny stuffy smoke-filled cabin and listen to the crotchety captains (who when faced with heavy seas would cease talking and let passengers stare tensely at their silent backs). Or one could prowl the outer deck and breathe fresh air and get cold and wet from water slapping over the sides. Or one could join the unsavory types down below, in a small cabin just behind the cargo compartment, and play cards and breathe diesel fumes. Mother never let us play cards down below.

After about three hours, small gray fingers of land became visible. After four hours, the boat began stopping at the islands. First, always, was Oak Island, with its post office and general store, where on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays precious mailbags were thrown from the boat. Then, usually, the boat took us to Canadian Customs, where our family was known and where the customs agent would wave us through upon my father's promise to pay a visit within a day or two. Then, finally, we chugged up the channel to my father's island, whose pines were darker than those on the surrounding islands, whose top was higher and gently rounded, whose memory makes my heart pound.

The boat swung wide of the reed bed with its ducks and lily pads. Then the brown-shingled house came into sight, jutting out into the water on the reef upon which it was built. Then we could see the tip of the dock, and the sagging boathouse, and then we were gliding up alongside the dock, whose deep heavy cribs always survived the upheaving ice of winter.

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The first time we arrived, we made what is known as ``a Landing,'' US citizens bringing their household belongings into Canada on a one-shot duty-free deal. But every year we made an unofficial ``landing,'' Mother, Dad, Grandpa, my sister, the dog, and I piling off the boat, the crotchety captain's browbeaten cargo boy throwing our stuff in surly silence out onto the dock, Daddy jiggling a big ring of keys and striding off happily to open the house, the shop, the power plant, the ice house, the gas house....

The air was always crisp, even though this was the week of Memorial Day, the sky gray, and often in the afternoon a shower splattered through, big drops punching holes in the lake. So we hurried to carry our boxes and suitcases indoors from the dock, and Mother in her sensible island clothes would hurry to wipe the kitchen counters free of mouse droppings and fix us a hearty lunch.

By midafternoon there would be fires in the stoves and fireplace, frogs singing in the marshes, the power plant sputtering to life, and two children, a dog, and a grandfather - and occasionally even a wife - profoundly happy to tag along as Daddy weathered midlife.

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