Molly Lamb Bobak was a celebrated painter, the first woman to travel overseas as an official Canadian war artist, and a member of the Order of Canada. She was also mother and friend to Victoria author Anny Scoones. In her fifth memoir, Scoones pays homage to Bobak by sharing heartwarming memories of their inside jokes, lively conversations and quirky adventures, including road trips on Vancouver Island.
Mum and I began embarking on short road trips when she came out west to visit. My green Mazda van smelled terribly of wet dogs, but we didn’t care. My friend Jane had given me a funny book with a pink plastic cover about road trips for women. The book suggested that you adopt an alias for road trips, what the author called a “road sister name.” Mum and I thought this was hilarious. You came up with your road-sister name thus: your first name had to be the name of the first pet you remembered owning, and your surname was the first street you recalled living on. Mum’s road-sister name was “Old Pup Raeside,” and mine was “Gracie Grey.”
Two of Mum’s favourite road trips were to Long Beach, in Pacific Rim National Park, and to the American San Juan Islands, about which Mum said on every visit: “These islands should belong to Canada. What a stupid decision to give them to America just because somebody shot their pig.” Apparently, on these charming islands, which are so close to us in the Salish Sea just off Sidney, a settler’s pig escaped and was shot by another settler, and that set off the “Pig War,” a conflict that ended with Canada losing the islands. At least, that’s the story told on the plaques and display boards in the park at the fort on San Juan Island.
We liked San Juan Island because, although we could drive the length of it in 45 minutes, the landscape was very diverse. It was wild, bleak and barren at one end, with nothing but sparse grass and tough, dry, windswept shrubbery. In the middle were golden, rolling meadows and a beautiful coastline — that’s where the forts were. At the other end, where we always stayed, there were gentle forests and a wonderful old hotel at a place called Roche Harbor.
Mum and I found the drive to Long Beach as enjoyable as our destination. We’d pack up my van with the bare necessities and then drive north over the Malahat highway. The view from the top was magnificent, with breathtaking scenery for miles. Little green farms, minuscule white ferries in their berths at the Swartz Bay terminal, small shoreline communities across Saanich Inlet.
We’d drive through Duncan, known as the City of Totems. The main highway that ran through Duncan was lined with fast-food outlets and big-box stores, but farther back was a charming historical town with used-book shops, cafés and a lovely, quaint train station. Ladysmith, farther up the road, stood on a hill overlooking a sea dotted with fishboats and log booms.
We always stopped for gas on our way to Long Beach. Mum loved one particular station on a wooded stretch of highway, big and clean and run by the local First Nation. It had hanging baskets of flowers, a grassy dog area with bowls of water set out, spotless washrooms and interesting things to purchase, such as Cowichan sweaters and smoked salmon. In the picnic area, which was landscaped with boulders, a bird bath, benches and wild shrubs, stood two totem poles, locally carved, depicting whales, an eagle, salmon and other symbols of our West Coast. A plaque described the Tseshaht First Nation culture, and I would it read aloud to Mum.
That was also the gas station where we bought Rita MacNeil, Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Tyson CDs to play in the van on our way over the mountains to Long Beach. All her life, Mum would hum Bob Dylan’s song Blowin’ in the Wind — and then say, “That Tyson fellow was a genius.”
Coombs was the halfway point of our trip, and after that the scenery became hilly and forested. Around every turn were clear, cool lakes and shallow, pebbly streams. In spring, waterfalls gushing from the snowmelt tumbled off rocky ridges among the dogwoods and flowering currant shrubs. In an area of massive old-growth trees called Cathedral Grove, people would stop and wander along the shady paths. Sometimes Mum and I stopped at Cathedral Grove to stretch our legs, and if it was close to noon, I’d take a glass out of our cooler and pour Mum a vermouth, adding a small chunk of lemon. She’d marvel at the strands of sun filtering through the towering trees, which, I said, to her agreement, looked like a painting of the Annunciation.
Then away we’d go toward the town of Port Alberni, just over the next ridge. We usually drove straight through town and stopped for a picnic at Sproat Lake instead. We always had a chuckle when we passed the driveway with the two massive cement lions stationed at the gate, flanked by mildewed urns full of plastic geraniums.
Once Mum and I left Sproat Lake, we were on the last leg of our journey. Sometimes there was snow on the high peaks above us as we drove over the summit and along the narrow road that curved around the great rock faces. After a while the road flattened, and there was a place to park beside a rushing river with flat pinkish boulders you could walk across. That was our other vermouth stop.
Then, finally, we’d wind our way down toward the sea. The forest became sparser, the road became wider, and we’d turn the corner toward Long Beach at the information cabin. Our hearts would rise, and we’d both have a surge of excitement when we saw the huge plumes of white spray on the silver beach and heard the crash of the waves. “Oh, what heaven,” Mum would gasp. Even before unpacking, we would put on the yellow slickers and walk the beach. We could hardly wait.
The dogs were always glad to see us coming up the driveway after one of our road trips. To recover from the long journey home, Mum and I would stroll around the farm, stretching our legs, or take the dogs on a walk behind the old barns at the racetrack.
That afternoon, Mum walked down to see the gardeners. We’d finished our lunch of nettle soup, vermouth, a big luscious tomato from the Healthy Harvest plot and some strawberries. The day drifted gently along.
When I glanced out the window after a satisfying hour of sorting twist ties, pet-food lids, corks and broken wine stoppers in the kitchen drawer, I saw two figures slowly coming toward the house along the driveway. Once they got to the rockery of old roses and lilacs, I recognized the two as Mum and Dale. Dale was one of the gardeners, tall, clumsy and shaky, but he and Mum were walking in quite a comfortable fashion.
I went out, and Dale said to me, in his great booming voice, his jeans all twisted around his waist: “Your mother got lost, so I’m delivering her.” He gave me a little grin before he hobbled away, saying: “I have to get back to my cabbages.” Mum looked a bit dishevelled and seemed distant. “I should lie down,” she said.
I got her settled in the living room on the green couch. The light was fading, but I decided not to light the candles. Fading light would be soothing, I thought, whereas a flickering candle might be jarring in the dimness.
Just before dinnertime, Mum said: “I should phone Bruno.” I dialled the number for her. There was a four-hour time difference, so if Dad wasn’t still at the cabin, he would most likely be watching reruns of Fawlty Towers and eating a grilled cheese sandwich before bed.
When Dad answered, he and I chatted for a moment. He’d been fishing all day up at the camp. I passed the phone to Mum. “Hi, Bruno,” she said. As I went into the kitchen, I heard her say, “I don’t feel very well,” then “I’ll see if I can get a flight back sooner,” and “Really? An old cat?”
After Mum hung up, she told me that someone had given Dad an old cat, and Dad had named him Ernie. She had to get back to Fredericton as soon as possible to take care of them both, she said. The real reason she wanted to leave, I thought, was that she didn’t feel well, but Mum was always very stoic.
So we changed Mum’s flight, and she departed for Fredericton earlier than planned. I was disappointed, and a bit worried, but not surprised. I adjusted quickly, as I had done all my life — with artists, you have to go with the flow. And as it turned out, that would be Mum’s last visit out west.
In the years to come, whenever Mum was grumbling about Dad, she would say: “Remember that time Bruno lured me back to Fredericton with Ernie?” And then she’d add: “I don’t think Ernie likes me — he’s a man’s cat.”
Excerpted from Last Dance in Shediac: Memories of Mum, Molly Lamb Bobak by Anny Scoones, ©2015 TouchWood Editions