A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES
The Boys of Summer Have Gone Forever
We arrived late Saturday afternoon. At first Ann thought that maybe nothing had changed, but then maybe everything had. We wrinkled our noses at the smell pervading the village and agreed it was disgusting, something akin to the steaming waft of a city sewer or a stink bomb. So picturesque, this place, but no scratch ‘n’ sniff postcards, please.
The village of Ma-Me-O Beach is a modest little rectangle imposed inside of and upon the edge of Cree reservation. A band of soft sand recedes from the shore to parallel two avenues intersected by nine one-block streets. Ma-Me-O is an English bastardization of a Cree word or phrase that may have meant ‘woodpecker,’ ‘white pigeon’ or ‘many shore birds.’ My admittedly cursory research opened up a linguistic rabbit hole of meaning. (If you’re prone to thumping your particular holy book, you might do well to be mindful that oral tradition transcribed later from memory and then repeatedly translated may not always be entirely accurate.) The village was founded in 1924.
Ann’s grandfather erected his family’s Ma-Me-O cabin by the water in 1922. Four generations of her family came of age in the Eden of Alberta’s premier cottage country. No one is certain but the land may have been obtained by virtue of a principle of British common law known as adverse possession, essentially squatter’s rights, one of the conditions of which is ten years of uninterrupted ‘ownership’ or squatting. Ann’s father, a World War II veteran, a lawyer, a judge and a humanist used to wonder when the Cree would “take it all back.” Ann and her siblings sold the property in 2008, a sensible solution to shifting family dynamics and usage informed by geography, her two brothers ensconced on
her sister with another rural acreage of her own.
Our Ma-Me-O event was a reunion of the kids who spent their summer wild years by the lake. The old friends in the group were aged 60 and over, not 16 anymore by any means. Nature and suicide have exacted their tolls on the gang. The survivors spoke of hemorrhages and heart attacks. One impossibly thin woman trembled with Parkinson’s, spritzing up her goblet of wine. A bald, heavyset man with a fondness for pedicures announced that he’d ceased munching through bags of potato chips and had instead switched to pepperoni sticks for health reasons. One fellow who doesn’t drink anymore drank wine because it doesn’t really count, not like beer or whisky. Some guests had travelled a long way, some had never left; Ann from
now and Camrose then was from
somewhere in between. Everybody paid too much attention to their phones making
it even more difficult for an outsider like me to make a connection. Edmonton
Too many people talk too much about nothing. Then they show you pictures on their cell phones to add another thousand words. I was staring up at the almost invisible darting bats above us, reminded of the ghostly hares that motor down our street during wintertime (Did I really see what I thought I saw?), when Ann asked me if I’d like to go for a walk in the twilight. Yes. Please. Thank you.
We strolled in step and held hands. I peered around as Ann reminisced about the teenage wildlife here back in her day. I’d just met some of the players and I tried to compose the tableau. The dance has begun but the room’s so hot the doors are wide open. Light and sound leaks out. There are muscle cars cruising the only avenue that matters, driven by boys in tight t-shirts who are too young to drink. Barefoot girls lean into the driver’s side windows for a puff of a half-smoked cigarette and a swig from a sweaty brown stubby bottle of beer. Eight-track cassettes blast Deep Purple and Foghat. Everyone is either good looking or better looking and they are immortal even as a Barracuda hits a highway ditch and somersaults. That’s just all part of growing up.
Ann and I found a public access pathway to the beach. She wanted pictures of what was once her family’s cabin. Where the water lapped the beach the sand was blue – and not just because of a function of the light. The inch-thick layer of blue scum on the placid water was like a crust. The smell was almost unbearable. The warning signs about toxic blue-green algae posted around Ma-Me-O suggest that the bacteria smells musty; it doesn’t: it smells like organic rot and death. Ann said, “When Grand Dad was here… it, well, we used to be able to drink the water. And we did.” She dropped her chin to her breastbone and exhaled. “I cannot imagine bringing kids out here and then telling them not to go near the water.”
Even the thickest child would hesitate before wading through the blue sludge encroaching the once pristine beach. The blue-green algae in Pigeon Lake is a bit like a glutton at a buffet in that it has overfed on everything that has found its way into the lake that never should have been in it in the first place. When we reached Ann’s family’s former property we saw Pigeon’s problems on a micro scale. The lot had been cleared of the trees and bushes whose root systems would filter the runoff from a fertilized lawn. There was a fleet of motorized water toys. There was no shade near the shore to prevent the muck at the waterline from photosynthesizing.