My Grandparent’s Attic

by | Oct 1, 2023

Little girl with arms around older man

As a child, my cousins and I loved sneaking up to m grandparents’ attic to see what treasures we could find. Dell and Elizabeth Spencer (Nan and Pup) have always been the most involved and loving parents and grandparents anyone could hope for. We loved spending time at their house.

The top floor of the log house that Pup built himself once served as a general store but had become home to boxes of holiday decor, family heirlooms, and mementos from decades past. It was there we played hide and seek, crouching in the cobwebs behind
old inventions and woodworking projects that Pup had built years before. A door at the back of the attic led to the deck where Nan could be found in a sun dress, hanging laundry to dry. In the winter, she would take us
up to the big attic window to watch deer on the front lawn or to guess the colour of each car driving by.

We never kept track of time in the attic, only coming down when the smell of sweet and sour meatballs wafted its way up from the kitchen to signal it was time for supper. On nice days, Nan would often pop up from the large wooden hatch door to usher us outside.
Sitting on 80 acres of land in Boiestown, their property left much for us to explore.
A large hand-carved wooden sign reading “Spencer’s Hunting and Fishing Lodge” sat at the entrance of their driveway, welcoming travelers from near and far.

To the left of the house was a trail leading half a mile back through the woods to a beautiful log cabin camp that Pup also built himself. When hunters or fishermen weren’t renting the camp, it was our own special getaway. Armed with bear spray and whistles, we would walk the trail to the camp, stopping to admire the lady slippers that grew in the forest and pick berries.

Before reaching the camp, we often took a detour down the pine needle-covered trail to the swimming hole. The cliff overlooking the river was once a favourite spot for my mom to lay tanning with her friends in the 1980s, but time had eroded it to a steeper rock wall we had to carefully climb down to get to the water. Their property included a piece of the river and a small island to where we loved to swim.

These 80 acres represented a dream retirement. After working a full career at Coca-Cola in Peterborough, Ontario, Pup planned to move back home to the Miramichi to build a campground. The move did happen, but when legalities and logistics halted that dream, he shifted plans, opening a general store and eventually creating the hunting and fishing camp.

Pup was a guide and could often be found in the woods or on the river, and Nan took care of admin work and keeping the camp beautiful and clean. When winter came, Pup would cut down Christmas trees to sell and boughs to make wreaths. The hill leading up to the trees was perfect for sliding, of which we took full advantage.

This land became our second home, and we visited whenever we could. The trail leading back to the camp was the first place my cousins and I learned to drive. When my little brother came along, these woods became his first taste of outdoor adventure, and he always wanted to help Pup with whatever he was working on.

The camp became our vacation home for holidays, special occasions, and weekends away. On rainy days, we loved renting movies at the Taxis River Convenience store, browsing around McCloskey’s, or heading into Doaktown for whatever small amount of shopping the area had to offer.

Although I grew up in Woodstock, most of my core childhood memories happened along the Miramichi. Because this magical place held so much nostalgia for me, I was always trying to take a piece of it home.

Looking through old boxes in the attic was a cherished activity of mine. My mom’s hope chest was a favourite, in which I pilfered (with permission) anything she no longer wanted. Sitting there amongst old Coca-Cola signs, antique furniture, and dust, I could be transported to multiple places in my family’s timeline, and I loved it.

We know that all good things must come to an end and that ending came in 2011 when Nan and Pup decided to sell their house, camp, and property and buy a house in Woodstock. They wanted to be closer to my mom and uncle. Now entering their early 80s, Nan dreamed of getting out of the woods and having a house with a parlour, like she had in Peterborough.

I was in my early 20s at the time and living in Fredericton. Due to my work schedule and the life of a 21-year-old, I didn’t get a chance to go back to Boiestown to help clean out the attic. It is something I deeply regret. We all felt a sense of loss  in saying goodbye to Boiestown. Two years after it sold, my cousin and I went tubing down the river to catch a glimpse of the camp. We parked our tubes along the cliff and climbed the old familiar trail to the camp road, exploring the entire property. We left with souvenirs: a couple of rocks, leaves, and the broken wooden grave marker for my dog, Jak, who passed six years before. Bouquets of silk flowers that Nan changed every season still decorated the spot where he was.

The house in Woodstock was the beginning of another dream. It was a place where Nan and Pup could grow new roots and settle into their golden years together. In my first visit there, I was relieved to see that much of the contents of the Boiestown attic made their way to the new garage. My mom’s hope chest sat along the back wall, my great grandmother’s buffet along another. Boxes of knickknacks, notebooks, and pictures were piled neatly in various places.

After my son Mason was born, the parlour at the new house became Nan’s favourite place to host his birthday parties, and it became our favourite spot for holiday dinners.

We discovered that it was never the attic, the woods, or even the camp that made life so magical as a child – it was my grandparents. One Thanksgiving weekend, my brother and I decided to take a peek through some of the boxes in the garage. Amongst a box of books Nan had saved from our childhood, I found an old blue Hilroy spiral notebook. The front had my mother’s name, “Delight E Spencer,” written in blue pen. The notebook was full of lists from her high school days, information about extracurricular activities, and stories she had written.

Tucked between the pages was a folded-up piece of paper with a poem Pup had written about life. I took the old notebook home and put it in a safe place, knowing I would want to revisit his poem someday.

On June 9, 2022, on my mother’s birthday, Pup sadly passed away with my mom and Nan by his side. He was 90 years old. In the week leading up to his death, I pulled out the tote where I stored the notebook eight years ago. I re-read his poem. He wrote about the short journey of life, spreading kindness, and the importance of stopping and looking up every once in a while. Mom read him the poem at the hospital. He told her there were other poems, but we haven’t found them yet.

After he passed, we helped Nan organize the garage and storage spaces. We quickly discovered Pup was just as sentimental as I am. We found his old guide pins, a box of business cards from the original campground concept, his grandparent’s family bible, his Coca-Cola service pins, and the harmonica he used to play when we were kids.He had neatly organized boxes of paperwork that contained their old mortgage from the fifties, report cards from my mom and her two brothers, and family photos over a century old. Although, in the end, he was not ready to go, and we weren’t ready to let him, we found comfort in seeing these wonderful items laid out before us – evidence of a life, complete.

I now have my great-grandmother’s buffet in my own home. I’m going to refinish it to its original glory. Pup felt it was special enough to keep all those years, and I agree. Nan is about to begin another journey. For the first time since her teen years, she is learning to live without Pup by her side. We like to think he is still out there, somewhere, fishing again along the Miramichi. He’s no longer with us in the physical world, but through our memories, love, and the keepsakes he saved for us, we will always hold him close.

This article first appeared in ageless New Brunswick magazine in October 2022.

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