Pelee Island, Ontario, Canada.
When I was nine, I first visited this island that would become a home away from home for my family. We stayed with friends, roamed the beaches, jumped in the waves of Lake Erie.
That was nearly forty years ago. We've forged a ton of memories over four decades.
When I was ten, I spent two weeks here swimming and exploring with my sister, Kate, and our two best friends, Adrienne and Susan. I rode my pink bike with three stripped gears and no working brakes all over the east side of the island, hunting frogs and turtles, looking for sea glass, exploring the lighthouse (and unlocked cottages!).
The lighthouse, circa 1973, was in ruins. To be a true Pelee Islander, according to our friend David, you had to climb the rickety and rotted ladder to the very top of the lighthouse and shout out a curse word.
By that measure, I guess I'm a true Pelee Islander.
More than the lighthouse was in ruins during the summer of 1973. Savage storms had rocked Pelee Island that spring leaving a string of cottages reduced to rubble, a testimony to the fury a storm on the Great Lakes can effect.
When I was twelve, once again, we came to Pelee Island. I was at that horrible in-between age -- desperately wanting to fit into the teenage crowd with their poker games and crushes, their long legs and tan lines. Sadly, I found myself firmly plunked into the ranks of the younger set with my little sister, Karen, and her sweet friend, an even younger Karen. I watched my older sister meet (and quickly dump) her first boyfriend. I saw our friend Lisa kiss her boyfriend good-bye as he left the island. I was so ready Not To Be Twelve.
Some wishes are better left unfulfilled.
Not all Pelee memories are pleasant ones. My father had his first heart episode here. He spent three hours in tachycardia before being air-lifted to a hospital in Cleveland. When your heart crosses into fibrillation, a remote island in Lake Erie is not the place you want to be.
When I was in my twenties, Pelee was the place all of us spent time with boyfriends and girlfriends who would ultimately become in-laws. Pelee Island was our destination when my father, sister, and tiny niece took our sailboat on its maiden voyage from Lake Saint Clair, down the Detroit River, and across Lake Erie. Tiny Megan napped in the cabin in her puffy life jacket.
Here I enjoyed some of my happiest memories as Auntie Kelly. We caught toads and roasted marshmallows, doled out sunscreen and cavorted in the waves. We built a zillion sand castles. (Note to my sweet niece, Megan: You actually won that last contest, but I knew you'd be the more gracious loser. So sorry, Peanut!)
Our Lady Star of the Sea is a tiny, clapboard church on East-West Road. The congregation of Not Many sees a deacon on a good week, a priest once in a blue moon. Twenty years ago, Star of the Sea had a resident pastor who would process into church with his dog, a mixed-breed terrier named Alouette. One Sunday -- in the middle of the prayers of the faithful -- Megan grabbed Alouette, and Alouette bit her. The priest -- whose name I've forgotten, but whose dog I remember -- continued our general intercessions. "For Alouette's manners to improve," he said, "let us pray to the Lord." We dutifully responded, "Lord, hear our prayer."
When I was thirty-three, I came here with my small family -- husband, Dave, and baby Tim.
In the interest of full disclosure, Pelee Island isn't exactly Martha's Vineyard. The water isn't potable. Milk is pushing $10.00 per gallon. When the wind dies, the heat soars, and biting flies go for the jugular. The roads are mostly dirt and plenty dusty.
Like fine wine, Pelee Island is an acquired taste.
Years ago Dave and I were hiking through Yosemite National Park. As I took in vistas that were truly awe-inspiring, I commented to Dave, "This is the third prettiest place I've ever seen."
Numbers one and two? Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland, and East Shore Road, Pelee Island.
My parents now live on Pelee Island. Three generations of Regans have caught minnows and hauled in walleyes. Some of us have jumped off the North Dock. We've baked lots of cupcakes and downed our fair share of Mike's Hard Lemonade. We have probably invested a solid decade in Scrabble and Euchre. Yesterday my mother scored 118 points with Grainier. Game over!
These days nieces and nephews occasionally bring along assorted girlfriends and boyfriends who might one day be in-laws. Ainsley digs in the sand, and John begs to swim in The Deep End as he calls Lake Erie. We bike and tube and zip across the island for over-priced ice cream. We fish and hike and collect more sea glass. We spot a painted turtle attempting to lay eggs.
As we rode the ferry back to the mainland last night, I watched my oldest boys playing Go Fish. Is it a sign of a good vacation, I wondered, if I haven't seen my boys just sitting together for two weeks?
So long, Pelee Island. We'll see you in 2012.