'My turn with the power drill!'

Teenage boys

Charlotte Gray

National Post

The National Post asked "seasoned" parents to write about an aspect of parenthood they'd wrestled with or felt strongly about, or something that just seemed to work for them. This is the last in our series.

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In retrospect, I don't think I drew breath between the mid-1980s and the late 1990s. My husband, George, and I had three sons within four and a half years. Diapers, soothers, bottles, walkers, sleepers, strollers ... then we hurtled into the next stage: tricycles, music lessons, kindergarten, bicycles, swimming lessons, birthday parties, peewee hockey. Suddenly, the pace shifted again, and we were accommodating their tastes ... hip hop, snowboarding, hordes of friends in our basement grouped round the computer screen, late nights and mysterious disappearances from the liquor cabinet.

And somewhere between driving lessons and the first girlfriends, I realized they had become young men. They were almost ready to fly the nest.

As parents, George and I have made several dumb choices, such as assuming that high school students will do homework without parental pressure and allowing one son to drive a car too powerful for him. But when the boys reached their late teens, we made a smart decision. We bought a cottage, in order to give our adventurous young men a new reason to revisit the nest regularly.

And not just any old cottage. We bought an uncleared 16-acre island, in the centre of which is an Adirondacks-style log lodge perched on an outcrop of the Canadian Shield. The lake is large, underdeveloped and one hour south of Ottawa, where we live. But there were a few problems. There was no boathouse, an inadequate dock, an unreliable water supply, and no bathroom in the lodge. There was a steep 100-metre hike from the lake, up the equivalent of six flights of stairs -- but with no stairs. On the map, our property was called Pine Island, but locals knew it as Snake Island because of its large colony of black rat snakes. George and the boys all fell in love at first sight -- but I did understand why the island had been on the market for a while.

Pine Island (yes, I insist on that name) allowed us to start a new chapter of family life, when the boys were 18, 16 and 14. This completely new environment required those very characteristics our family had to excess: brute strength, high spirits, and an impatience with social graces. Their loud music and tough-guy look -- leather jackets, pants drooping around the groin (not to mention midnight games of basketball) --annoy our neighbours in the city. But on our island kingdom, such details are immaterial: there ARE no neighbours.

Instead, there is an enormous amount of bicep-testing labour, much of it involving noisy machinery. There is the fast boat on which we reach our property ("My turn to drive!"). There is the challenge of designing and building new decks, docks, furniture, steps and railings ("My turn with the power drill!"). There is the chainsaw with which to clear paths ("My turn with the saw!"). Oliver (now 16) has made several rustic chairs; Nick (18) has cleared an enormous amount of brush; last year, Alex (20) and a friend built a whole new dock and this year they are planning a sauna.

Most important, there is a different set of relationships on the island. The baggage of childhood is left behind, as we communally develop new habits: gathering on the new deck to barbecue and drink beer, playing Scrabble or Diplomacy together because there is no television. The age hierarchy that held sway up to now is no longer relevant. Since the boys were all about the same height and size when we bought Pine Island, there is no automatic assumption that the youngest doesn't have to carry so much firewood, or the oldest is the only one responsible enough to navigate narrow channels. (Ha! If only one of them could get through a summer without damaging the propeller ...)

The payoff for the blood, sweat and toil is seeing that, largely thanks to our group efforts, Pine Island has been gently nudged into the 21st century -- we have installed a new pump, put a bathroom in the lodge, screened in a porch. My regrets for the daughter we never had evaporated as I learnt a lesson well known to 19th-century pioneers: the joy of boys. One day last summer, our three young hunks man-handled an industrial-strength washer and a dryer off the pontoon boat and up the hill to the bathhouse. They had already carried up a fridge, dishwasher and oven. George and I watched them proudly, and George said, "Well, I don't think I could have done this with three daughters." ("Right," nodded Nick. "But you might have had some lovely quilts.")

In the past few weeks, as the snow finally melted, each member of our family began to ask, "When can we go to the island?" Alex, the oldest, is a keen naturalist: He goes there as soon as his university term has finished and enjoys finding large snakes hanging from branches. (I delay my arrival until snake season is over.) Nick likes to take loads of friends for the weekend, and have camp-outs at the island's west end (known as Harrods). Oliver is looking forward to the height of summer, when the water is at its warmest and he can go wake-boarding with his buddy Kyle Kemper, who lives across the lake. Thanks to their contributions to the renaissance of Pine Island, each feels a strong sense of ownership -- a feeling that, I hope, will allow us to enjoy regular island reunions even when they are studying, then working, far away.

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