author: Conrad Beaubien / photos: Conrad Beaubien
Sweeping the leaves off a roof at this time of year isn’t a regular thing for me. From up here I can almost touch the ‘honkers’ that skim the cedars and willows, landing with ease onto the polish of nearby Roblin Lake. The reflection on the water of the church steeple in Ameliasburgh takes on a ‘house of mirrors’ image in the wake of a noisy geese arrival.
A corn broom in hand, I clear away the remnants of autumn as I recall a time in my early teens when ‘The Country North of Belleville’, a poem by Al Purdy dropped into my lap. It would have been impossible to imagine back then, that one day I would find myself shuttling leaves off of the roof of the writing cabin where that poem was born. It’s one of those moments that dumbfounds.
Eurithe was clearing overgrowth by the laneway when I arrived at the Purdy home. An electric weed trimmer and pruning sheers lay nearby. “The sumacs!” she proclaimed. “You cut one down and then two appear,” was how our conversation began.
And then the subject of the roof came up. The task of sweeping it was overlooked when the group of dedicated supporters came by on a Sunday to help out.
“It’s very easy to get up on the roof,” Eurithe mentioned, “I don’t know why everybody gets so excited when I do it.” That’s when I agreed to take on the task.
The A-frame house on Roblin Lake was the centerpiece in the life of Al and Eurithe Purdy. It was also a centrepiece in the Canadian literary scene when, like the geese, writers and poets landed here to take in Purdy hospitality. “Our place was midway between Montreal and Toronto…we had friends in both cities,” Eurithe explained. “I enjoyed it. We ate a lot of spaghetti…spaghetti with meat sauce was easy and we could feed a lot of people. I baked pies and cakes and tarts and Al baked bread and made sticky buns …they were really sweet and very sticky.”
Eurithe and I moved to Al’s writing cabin where the sunlight filled the western window. “It was a job taking out the ceiling tiles,” Eurithe told me, pointing to the bare wooden framework overhead. “The squirrels made quite a mess,” she added. “Al would come out here every morning and come back to the house for meals. This is where he worked.”
I took in the sanctuary of the space, once layered in books; his grey Royal typewriter waiting at his desk; “He mostly wrote by hand,” she shared.
We headed back to the main house, where we sat and chatted by the north window overlooking the lake. Nearby was the dining table of a million stories. I was curious how the seasons unfolded for the Purdys.
“This was absolutely home base, the anchor in our life. Even when we purchased our place in B.C., we still spent more time here. We would drive out west in the fall and drive back in the spring. We only spent a few winters here.”
Eurithe was born near Bancroft, Ontario in 1924 and met Al during the Second War while he was stationed in Trenton. The couple lived in various parts of the country but in the 1960s they bought the lot on Roblin Lake and built their home. “We were just people who lived here…if we were church goers or joiners of any kind of club, we probably would have been a little more part of the community. I’ve never joined a club and neither did Al; it’s a part of our nature.”
The list of those who befriended the Purdys, who spent evenings at their table or long afternoons on the porch, reads like an anthology. “I don’t have a literary bone in my body. I’m a very practical, pragmatic soul,” Eurithe admitted. “I appreciated poetry but I couldn’t write it and I don’t have the deep understanding of it that another poet has. I didn’t feel left out but I was not able to contribute at the same level as other people. All of our friends, practically everybody belonged to the writing community.”
Eurithe offered tea and returned from the kitchen with two mugs. “Al and I were very different, and I guess one regret is that I was not able to communicate with him at his level. For a while I also regretted that I had not continued teaching…because I think I was fairly good at it. I became more focused on Al and what we did as a couple…my horizons kind of shrunk…I was part of…” Eurithe paused and looked far beyond the lake. “I can’t imagine any other kind of life than the one I have lived. I guess if I have regrets, they are few.”
She contemplated before continuing. “I’m quite thrilled actually at the number of young people…students who have become interested and write about the place and have school projects about it. Recently, a professor from Japan found the place.” Eurithe then showed me some souvenir clippings. “Al hoped his poetry would live for awhile. If we can get this place operating as a writer’s retreat I think it will…maybe a longer life than he thought it would.” She smiled and glanced to the room: “I love it here and think about it when I am away.”
It has been twelve summers since Al has been gone. Eurithe remains the ‘keeper of the fire’ at Roblin Lake.
And now the roof of the writing cabin is swept clean for the season. I toss the broom to the ground and as I ease myself down the ladder, I hear the geese call. Soon they will be leaving. Any day now the ice will take hold, another winter will come and go and somehow I can’t stop thinking about sticky buns and moments that dumfound.