I’m at a beach near a place where seagull cries and frog songs hang on tall trees like one-of-a-kind ornaments. I’m sitting on rocks studded with barnacles that look more like elephant teeth than skeletons of marine creatures and feeling more and more like a barnacle myself, not wanting to leave here. In front of me the bay waters form long thin waves that carry their golden trim to the shore with gentle lap-lapping sounds. The sun is broken in a million sparkles on the water from where I sit all the way to where the bay opens up to the rest of the world. There’s tall green mountains on each side of the bay cradling its waters like a mom’s loving arms cradle a baby. It’s 5 o’clock and I know I should leave here before the sky sifts darkness over the forest. My friend and I got here before lunch after a long hike on forest trails along a lake with water so still that the upside down mountains with white peaks seemed painted on its dark glassy surface. We came to see Catharina and her beautiful place.
First we have tea in the quaint little kitchen and then Catharina takes me for a walk to the garden she’s worked on for a few years with a neighbor. The garden has teepees of sweet peas and straight arrows of green garlic, it has potatoes and herbs. There’s an army of orange poppies and purple corn flowers that sway in the hot breeze and all that bobbing pollen makes a fat bumble bee unsure of its landing skills.
We walk across fairy tale bridges with little shiny green ivy leaf faces poking out from between the beams. As we pass by a couple of houses Catharina tells me stories of each and the people who inhabited them. There are just a few houses nestled here in the bay. This one is white and drenched in sunlight and I love the way it looks like a giant daisy plopped down to its knees in that bright grass. A rundown abode by most people’s standards but its glass veranda invites to second thoughts. The air is alive with bees and butterflies and frog songs. We talk and laugh and walk through tall grass.
We cross a bridge that was built in haste Catharina says and it’s now arching down towards the fast running stream in a way that makes her feel unsafe. Still she crosses it and takes me to a big carpet of tall grass that rolls along the stream all the way into a beach with sun-bleached logs. Catharina talks of sea otters and seals that catch salmon right there, just a few steps from the beach. The salmon that make it up the fast flowing stream become bear food. With salmonberries for desert. After all, the place is all salmonberry bushes. I show Catharina how to peel salmonberry shoots, the young and snappy ones, they are good to eat, learned that from a Scouts walk in the Musqueam territory with Tony. We walk on the beach and we talk about children and schools and how learning for the sake of knowing is a dying art. And how I want to have my boys’ creative minds to grow tall and daring. She listens and then tells me this place would be good for someone like me.
We walk back to her shy little green-and-burgundy house peeking from behind old trees. We sit on the sun soaked deck and eat sandwiches and cookies and drink percolator coffee. Catharina shows us her paintings, and the afternoon breeze that tugs gently at my hair almost mistakes them for big colourful butterflies and blows them off the table. Later we talk about happiness. I can’t tell you what happiness is, I don’t know, she says, but it’s in me, I am happy. The house she lives in tells the same story, over and over. The door frames have ivy leaves and flowers painted on them, just like the door leading to the upstairs room where old dollies sleep peacefully wrapped in a rainbow-like baby quilt has birds and grass and poppies. You have to get past your fears if you want to be happy, Catharina says.
I pick up a barnacle rock from the beach and take it with me. I am usually the one telling the boys to leave everything the way they find it but I figured since the place stole my heart it’d be fair to take a rock. I’ll bring it back soon. I walk up the narrow dirt path leading to the house. On one side there’s a rusted chain with oversized oval rings hanging between short wooden poles. Rust has eaten away the metal thinning it out to nothingness and the idea of disappearing metal in a place where only living things live and die puzzles me.
I put the barnacle rock in my backpack, and a seagull feather too. Ready to go? Not really, but have to. We hug and smile. The story is just starting. As I walk back to the world I came from, dreams and thoughts fizz through my brain holding promises of crisp mornings by the bay water, kids’ laughter splashing in the stream and long quiet cricket-serenaded nights writing on a deck somewhere here, close to the heart of the place that stole my own. My arms are red and tingly from the sun that licked at them a few minutes too long while I was sitting on Catharina’s deck. There is something inside me dancing and laughing and crying. And then I remember what Catharina said after we met: here’s where I feel alive. That must be it. At 86, Catharina knows better than most of us.