In 1960, my father moved his young family from Peterborough to Gravenhurst, the little northern Ontario community where he was born. He bought a plot of land in the bush outside town, and a road was cut through the trees, and there he and his two brothers built us a home. The road went to our house and nowhere else and for a couple of years we had no neighbours at all. Those are the first times I remember as a child – living at the end of a dead-end dirt road, in a house all alone in the middle of the forest.
There was a lot of snow in those days and my dad rigged a hand-built wooden snow plough to the front of his old Chevy, put chains on the tires and cleared the road to our house himself. Needless to say, we were sometimes snowed in.
We had a well and for the first year a hand pump right in the kitchen. Later he hooked up an electric pump so we had flowing water but no hot water except on Saturday nights when Dad fired up a cast iron wood-burning water heater in the basement so we could all have baths in preparation for church the next day. I loved those Saturday nights in the basement, shoving kindling through a little door into the roaring fire while Bill Hewitt and Brian McFarlane called the Leafs game on CBC radio.
“I wrote it and read it at bedtime to Daniel and Helena. But nothing else happened with it at the time.
That was 1992.”
It was an exciting place to live for a six-year-old boy. One afternoon, a bear reared up on its hind legs right in front of our house, and one morning we discovered moose tracks cut into the snow through our backyard. We watched a horned owl sitting in a tree outside our kitchen window, and would later find partridge feathers at the base of the tree. On moonlit nights in spring, we heard wolves howling somewhere deep in the forest.
After a couple of years of solitude, workers came to continue the road. A man brought a big workhorse named Pearl to drag out logs cut from the newly felled trees, and I still recall how the steam rose from the horse and the heavy pail of water we kids hauled out for her to drink.
It turned out that Pearl’s owner was the father of my soon-to-be best friend, Doug Chamberlain. Chamberlain’s sawmill was on the other side of the bush behind our house and soon we had worn a path through the trees to get there. In the middle of that bush was a gully surrounded by hemlock trees, and sometimes during spring thaw a pond would form in the gully which would freeze solid when the weather turned cold again. My sister Karen, my brother Doug, my friends Doug and Ed White would clear the ice and skate on it and pass around a puck.
Down the newly extended road from our house, there was an open field that had once belonged to a farmer named Palmer. Palmer’s Field was on a hill, which must have made it a tricky place for poor Mr. Palmer to plough but it sure made a great place to toboggan. One particularly magic night, my friend Ed, my sister and brother, and my sister’s friend Pauline Barnes and I bundled up in long johns, wool toques, scarves and big winter boots and walked down the ploughed road pulling wooden toboggans. At Palmer’s Field we left the road and waded through the knee-deep snow, crunching and cracking, breaking the thick icy surface with every step. It was hard going, but the light of the full moon, reflecting off the gleaming snow, made the night nearly as bright as day. We heard voices and saw Doug Chamberlain and his brother Bob waiting at the top of the hill, an oil lamp burning brightly at their side.
Then the fun began! We jumped onto the toboggans, two or three together, and off we went down the hill – slow at first but once we had picked up even a little speed, the toboggan stayed on top of the ice and then – oh my! – how we flew! It was scary and exciting, especially when we had to leap from the flying sleds to keep from smashing into the juniper bushes at the bottom.
1960’s Skidoo (Picture from Wikimedia Commons)
A couple of years later, my father purchased a little yellow Skidoo and a sled that hooked to the back of it and he would take the entire family for rides – one person behind him and two or three in the sled. One Christmas Eve we headed out down the snowy road, up over a high snow bank like a roller coaster, across Palmer’s Field, through Chamberlain’s yard, down their long road, off onto a logging trail, through the forest and up a high ridge. We built a fire up there and toasted sandwiches and drank hot chocolate and tea from thermoses and looked down on the moonlit panorama of forest all around us, wondering if we might spot Santa and his sleigh flying by in that big starry sky.
And there was hockey, always hockey. We played street hockey on the road in front of our house – with two little metal goalie nets from Canadian Tire (where else?). We would smash and bash and body check each other into snow banks, and sometimes a kid who was catching his breath or who had a hurt leg would stand up on the snow bank and shout out the play-by-play.
“Frank Mahovolich to Dave Keon! Now back to Tim Horton! Horton passes to George Armstrong! He shoots! He scores!”
Sometimes it would rain and freeze and the road would be sheathed in shiny ice, and we would strap on our skates and try to play hockey even though the tire ruts would make it very hard to pass the puck straight. And some years, my dad would tamp down snow in our backyard and get out the garden hose and some old pine planks and make us our very own rink! That was the best, especially when he hooked up floodlights so we could play at night.
L to R: Frank Mahovolich, Dave Keon, Tim Horton, George Armstrong (Pictures from Wikimedia Commons)
Even when the temperature dipped way down we insisted on playing. Some nights it was so cold there was a ring around the moon. At those times, our mother would cover our faces with our scarves and tell us to take it easy but who could take it easy in the heat of the game? Scarves would drop and the sweat would freeze on our eyebrows and eyelashes and we would come in coughing from the cold to our worried mother.
The years passed. I grew up and married Isabel, a beautiful woman from Barcelona, a sunny Mediterranean city that never sees snow at all. I was busy with studying and working and fixing up our first house and got away from hockey, though Leafs games were always on the TV on Saturday nights. We had two beautiful children, Daniel and then Helena. We signed Daniel up for hockey when he was seven – yeah, I know, kind of late, sorry Daniel! – and suddenly pucks and sticks were back in my life. I even joined an adult league myself.
About that time, I started to write. I submitted an early story Hunting With His Dad to the Toronto Star Short Story contest and it was selected a Judge’s Choice and appeared in the paper. I was hooked!
1988 Toronto Star Short Story Writing Contest (Picture from Paul Harbridge)
One winter weekend we were all up in Gravenhurst and my father, who is a big storyteller, told us how he and his friends used to skate and play hockey on a beaver pond near his childhood home.
That got the wheels turning.
I thought of the beaver pond behind Brunton’s farm on the Jones Road outside Gravenhurst where our scout troop used to camp in the summer.
Of the pond in the bush where we used to skate.
Of the magical moonlit night we tobogganed.
I thought of that snowy Christmas Eve, toasting sandwiches over a fire high on a hill looking down over the moonlit forest.
Of the backyard rinks and the street hockey and passing pucks on Gull Lake in town.
It all came together as When the Moon Comes.
I wrote it and read it at bedtime to Daniel and Helena. But nothing else happened with it at the time.
That was 1992.
Ten years passed. One day my cousin Donna Longhurst, the daughter of my father’s oldest sister Evelyn, emailed me about a family tree she was putting together. We began corresponding and she mentioned Muskoka Magazine was holding a short story contest and suggested I enter. So I sent in When the Moon Comes.
I didn’t hear anything from the magazine for a long time. Finally, I sent an email asking who had won the contest and received the simple reply, “You did!” I was thrilled.
I got a lot of compliments from people in Gravenhurst when it was published in Muskoka Magazine that August but then I forgot about it.
But my son Daniel didn’t. Daniel is a quiet person but a deep thinker and I guess I just didn’t realize how much he liked the story. In 2006, he entered the Film and Television Production program at Humber College and for one of his projects turned When the Moon Comes into a screenplay for an animated film. The film wasn’t chosen to be produced, but the fact that he had remembered the story was very cool! Then I forgot about it again.
In 2014, the NHL was promoting its Winter Classic and outdoor hockey games, and Commissioner Gary Bettman was talking a lot about pond hockey. Daniel got the wild and crazy and brilliant idea that my hockey story might tie in with all that.
2014 NHL Winter Classic Shootout: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium (Picture from Wikimedia Commons)
Without telling me, Daniel sent When the Moon Comes to a gentleman at the NHL office in Toronto who in turn suggested he a contact a woman in marketing at the NHL office in New York City. She and Daniel talked by phone and she loved the story but explained that they the NHL didn’t involve itself in projects that didn’t contain NHL logos. However, Daniel followed up soon after the call by email, and she very kindly suggested that Daniel contact Jordan Fenn who was at Penguin Random House Canada at the time.
Well, it turns out that Jordan had spent his childhood summers in Muskoka, liked the story and passed it along to children’s book publisher Tundra Books. As luck would have it, Amy Tomkins of the Transatlantic Literary Agency had recently agreed to be my agent for another book, Beaver Pond. Amy stepped right in and negotiated the sale and the terms of the contract.
Editor Samantha Swenson took on the book, and Sam brilliantly and fortuitously paired me with the inimitable Matt James as the illustrator. I must say that NO ONE could have done a better job than Matt. One of my favourite children’s books is Madeleine and Matt’s artwork in its mastery and freedom reminds me of Ludwig Bemelmans’ classic work. Only better.
25 Years Worth of People to Thank
When the Moon Comes Cover (Picture from Matt James Illustration on Facebook)
I want to thank everybody who helped bring this book to life: Dad, Mom, Karen, Doug H., Doug C., Ed, Bob, Pauline, Donna, Isabel, Helena, Stephanie, Rickey, Jennifer, Jordan, Amy, Sam and Matt. Thanks to Muskoka Magazine, Humber College, the NHL in Toronto and New York, and Tundra Books.
And most of all, thank you to my dear son Daniel for inspiring and remembering and pitching When the Moon Comes. (And designing this fabulous website along with his wife, Stephanie.)
For now the toboggan is flying on top of the ice! Let’s see what the future will bring!