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Oh happy days!

Written by Mary Sandor in English -

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My feet sunk into the soft sand as the gentle waves flapped against them. I just stood there and looked around, rejoicing in the sight so very dear to me. It was a place where sight and memory merged, that was soon to became even more special to me. I let the scene soak in slowly.

Nearby, and reaching out to the distance, the water sparkled beneath the sailboats that quietly glided on its surface. The sun was hot in the cloudless sky. There was little wind and the temperature of the lake reminded me of a warm bath as I reached its shallow edge fronting the sandy beach. To my left, a few kilometres away, the Blue Mountain looked serene as the sunshine of high noon warmed its gentle slopes.  At Collingwood, by the foot of the mountain, as always, the old shipyard building looked like an enchanted castle from this vintage point. The horseshoe-shaped Georgian Bay waters opened wide and became one with the magnificent Lake Huron. The lake could be dignified as a sea, owing to its size, save for its fresh, unsalted waters.

I stood at the southernmost part of Georgian Bay, called Nottawasaga Bay, the world’s longest freshwater beach. It held a collection of several small sandy beaches with cottage communities to the east and an array of charming small towns, resorts and ski chalets to the west. The place we came to this morning was called Allenwood Beach, one of those many skirting the clear, clean blue waters of Lake Huron.

Georgian Bay is a vacationer’s paradise. The water is shallow and clear, with a smooth, velvety bottom. The sand is white in colour and powdery to the touch.   It is a safe place for children to play, to run around the edge of the beach, happily splashing each other, building sandcastles or digging into the wet sand with their miniature pails and shovels.

My husband Charles, the children and I have spent many summers vacationing there. I fell in love with the place a long, long time ago. The first time I saw Georgian Bay was the summer of 1961. We rented a small cottage on the Nottawasaga River, a couple of miles from the beach – which, every day, meant a very long walk to the lake, not only for Charles and me, but also for the children. Charlie was three years old and Pete only a year and a half, but he was able to walk by that age, so the children ambled along with us on those long journeys everyday, twice, back and forth between the cottage and the beach. My memories are very special of that first family vacation. The first time I saw that water, it took me back to my happy childhood days spent at Lake Balaton.

The Balaton is a beautiful Hungarian lake, the largest in Central Europe. Owing to its size, it is referred to as “the Hungarian Sea” by many visitors. Its waters are turquoise, and the shores are dotted by picturesque villages interspersed with world-class, elegant resorts. It is the foremost vacation destination for Hungarians and for many tourists from various European countries. Situated in the south-western part of Hungary, it covers an area of 594 square kilometres. The northern shores are hilly and mountainous, while the south is flatland. It is a paradise for boaters and sailors. Our family from back home, my mother, father, my brothers and I had spent at least two weeks every summer there. It was a part of our lives. Usually we travelled by train and spent time at various resorts or in rented, private houses. We always had the best of times there and, even after we left Hungary in 1956, the image of Lake Balaton, along with many other very precious memories, remained forever locked inside of my heart.

And then, some years later, in the summer of 1961, I stood on the shore of Georgian Bay at Wasaga Beach, breathless with joy, for I felt that thousands of miles from Hungary, at this shore of one of the majestic Great Lakes, I found my Balaton. The still blue waters in the vast bay, the flickering golden sparkles of sunshine on the surface, the vista, with the blue-coloured mountain of Collingwood —  a tall sentry standing at the end of Lake Huron — mesmerised and transported me back to the treasured summers of my childhood.

After that first time we came back to spend our summer vacations here. We found a place to stay in Oakview Beach, which was a quieter area of Wasaga Beach, frequented by families. The place we found on 11th Avenue consisted of detached cottages, each surrounded by green space and a small private patio. These small buildings were of white clapboards, and looked very pretty. They did not face the road, instead they faced each other in a wide, spacious, semi-circular manner, enclosing a garden full of flowers and evergreens. It was called Sunnidell Cottages. The owner was a very old, still hard-working Polish lady, kind and very talkative. She was as brown as a nut and as fast on her feet as the incoming wind over the bay before a storm. We got to know her, and told her about us, as well. Her “cottages” were not luxurious; we had two small rooms, each with a double bed and a kitchenette, combined with a small dining area. Through the well- kept garden we found the communal building for shower stalls and toilets. Today we could not imagine spending our holidays in that manner, but then it was just fine. Actually it was more than fine. We were very happy there, my husband, our children and I. We came back year after year to that kind little Polish lady’s place. The children learned to swim there and also learned to ride bikes — in those days bicycle riding was allowed on the very wide, sand packed beach. Not only could you ride a bike, but you could drive your car up and down this same beach, leisurely, while you listened to hit music on your car radio. There was a restaurant on the shore, just beyond the wide sandy beach, its all-encompassing picture windows facing the water. They served the best burgers and fries we had ever eaten. The place was called The Mark Twain, don’t know why, perhaps the owner was really into American literature. Perhaps he just named it to attract American tourists, and make them feel at home. Usually, it was packed with vacationers or weekenders, wearing nothing more than their bathing attire, but at night the beach-goers dressed up and went into the town for square dancing, bowling or to enjoy a film at the local drive-in theatre.

Some years later we went back to Hungary for a visit and I got to visit the Balaton of my childhood. I was rejoicing in the view in front of me, yet as I let my eyes soak up the long-awaited sight, I suddenly realized that my happiness of seeing the sight came not from my childhood memories there, but from the memories reminding me of my beloved bay of Lake Huron back home in Canada! Little did I know then that the place could become even more significant to me.

It was on the third week of July 2005, now two years ago. We, my husband and I, had a busy summer, but we planned to go up to Wasaga and spend a few days there. When I say Wasaga, I mean it in the broad sense of the word; for we never went to the core of Wasaga Beach, where a kind of merry-go-round carnival atmosphere prevailed at all times, the sound of noisy games and loud music were everywhere. This was a great place for youngsters, but not for us. So we came to Allenwood Beach, a quiet area a few kilometres east of Wasaga Beach, on that beautiful, sunny day in July. With no wind and the cloudless sky, it was very hot on the beach. I packed a picnic basket at home in the morning before we left. It was kind of a ritual with us, to go and find a secluded spot for a picnic in some of the nearby parks that held some picnic tables. But first we were going to swim. My love for swimming was well known in my family. I think that is why we came up that day, my husband knowing how much I like to swim in open water and, in spite of our busy schedules, we managed to come, but only for one day. We were going to the beach, have a swim and picnic, then drive home by late afternoon.

The water is very shallow at Wasaga Beach and most of its surrounding beaches, including Allenwood.  We had to walk quite a bit away from the shore to be able to swim. I was enjoying myself very much as we walked toward the deeper water. The waves surged against our bodies, catching us off balance a few times. Carefree and happy, finally I was able to dive into the water, calling to my husband who lagged behind, “Come on, come on.” He caught up with me and then we swam together, riding the waves. The water was almost too warm and the sun was high in the sky. The lake shined and sparkled, reflecting the sun. It was a heavenly time for us. “Catch me,” I called to my husband as I was running from him in the water toward the shore, looking back and egging him on. But he staggered as some waves hit his body. And I laughed.  He ran after me in the water, and then he staggered again. He stopped. “I am going out,” he suddenly said. “I don’t know why, but I feel exhausted.”

At that moment I experienced the first of my many fears concerning the health of that man I loved so much. He walked out of the water and sat down in a chair on the beach. I followed shortly and, soon after, we got into our car to go and find a good spot for a picnic.

We found a lovely little park further up by River Road, with a couple of tables under high pine trees situated on the far side of the roadway, away from the water. I made a nice table with a linen tablecloth, serviettes and the china from home. We made a luncheon plate of cold meat, cheese and fruit, complemented by a loaf of freshly baked bread. Hungry after our swim, I expected us to have a good appetite. But my husband left most of his food. He did not feel like eating.

Driving home we listened to music from the car’s CD player. Romantic songs from the ‘50s and the ‘60s and later classical music, for we both loved the hauntingly beautiful arias of the Italian operas. It was a beautiful day, a day neither of us will ever forget, and will treasure forever. It was like we somehow knew the importance of that day, somehow knew that our lives will change, that we might not be back for a long time.

And now here I was, at Allenwood Beach again, following a hiatus in our visits here for the last couple of years. I stood on the shore and just looked and felt the scenery welcoming me. The bay, the mountain, my enchanted castle of Collingwood was all there. I dove into the water and swam. I swam alone.

My husband stayed on the shore, sitting in his beach chair. He was wearing a summer hat against the hot rays of the sun. He was too weak for a swim, but when I came out of the water to join him, he got up from his chair and together we went for a walk. Slowly, we walked along the water’s edge, holding each other’s hand, helping each other, like we did for the past 50 years together.And, as we walked in the sand, a mirage seemed to appear in front of us.

Suddenly, we heard Elvis singing “Love Me Tender” from the car radio of a shiny, proudly-owned convertible of the late ‘50s, that was passing us by with its top down. From another bright, all-chrome-and-pink automobile Marty Robbins was heard singing “A white sport coat and a pink carnation…” The cars, filled with young people, were parading on the packed sand, up and down on the beach. The bicycle rental was open, and some children were riding by the water’s edge. Our little ones were building sandcastles and we heard their joyful laughter. Blue sky and blue water flown into each other as we looked at the horizon and above us the many sea gulls cried for attention. We were both transported by the scene. We were certain all was well with the world, for we were joyous and happy, assured in the promise of a solid future, with good health, hard work and prosperity. Around us the tantalizing aroma of grilled burgers from a nearby restaurant filled the air.  A young couple, so very much in love, ran and jumped around as they played catch in the shallow water. We wanted to hold on to that magic moment forever, but felt ourselves slipping back to reality. To two old people in the twilight of their lives,  holding hands, walking slowly on the beach.

Still, I feel comforted that the treasured memories in our mind’s eyes, will be ours for as long as we live and the magic of that place will never change or cease. There will be others perhaps, who feel their spirits being reflected in the playful, shiny waters catching the shores, in the fluffy white clouds riding in the sky, and in the majestic sight of the gentle mountain at Collingwood, while the old, ghostly building of the abandoned shipyard — that enchanted castle of summer dreams — will forever keep guard over times spent there, always remembered, never forgotten.

(Dedicated to my husband, whose courage and strength of character fills me with awe and humbles me. Never change, never give up, never stop fighting!)

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