“Dinner in a half an hour!” I shout across the deck to my cousin’s deck next door.

“Sue, happy hour begins at 6, not dinner,” Nancy hollers back.  “Dinner is at 7.”

How easy it is to forget the tide table that we follow at the lake. After 11 months away in the real world, I have forgotten to take it easy, slow it down, relax and refresh.  “OK, I’ll shut it down.  Be over in a minute,”  I respond.  Nancy lives in northern Michigan, and has access to her cottage year round.  She adapts more quickly to the slower pace than I do.

For generations, family, cousins, second cousins-once-removed, and friends have gathered at one deck or another along our “compound” of four houses on Torch Lake, Michigan.  We jockey for the lake facing chairs, so that we can enjoy lake views of the tricolored waters while we nosh on whitefish pâté, and other lake specialties while we sip boxed wine with ice.  Truth be told, the non-lake-facing spots are just as lovely, because you catch the reflection of the lake on the big windows of the cottages, and can take in the woods of white pine, ash, and birch surrounding them.

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Nancy has a fantastic garden, so we look forward to her daily fresh veggie contribution to the event.  Her snap peas are delicate and sweet, adding a crunch and tasty compliment to any humus offering.  Bob, her husband, is a cherry farmer, so when he comes and brings some to share, it is a very special treat.  Everyone contributes to the food, but it is the conversation that drives this tradition.

Our second cousins-once-removed, the Mertz family,  have lived here year round for longer than any of us.  They are our touchstones for local news and color commentary.  We share stories about the old days, when we were all young, and turn to them for verification.  The problem with this is that all the Mertzs are incredibly creative people, so there is an ongoing argument as to what is factual, and what is a “Mertz Myth.”  Truth is, none of us really care, as the stories are vibrant, engaging, and perfect for this setting.

Did Grampa Mertz actually shoot a water moccasin with a revolver from the shore, while all of the kids were in the water?  We may never know.  Mertz, a retired Detroit Police Officer, is long gone, but the story persists leaving its mark on happy hour year after year.

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spc-preschool-round-table-chair-package 2Mom and I entered the room, a concrete bunker with boxes on the tables, supplies scattered around, and one cleared off round table with chairs that were perfect for people my size.  “Hello!  Thank you for coming.  Sorry about the mess,”  teacher said crossing the room to greet us.  She was a solid woman with golden hair that was gradually fading into a whitish grey around her temples and her face.  She held out her hand to my mother.  My eyes swept the room and saw chalkboards and cubbies, but no children.  It was prior to the beginning of school, and she was probably busy setting up her class.  I don’t recall any brightly colored bulletin boards or book bins that are a staple of early education.  I had attended preschool, but not in America.

We moved to Cincinnati from Rome in the fall of 1967.  I would turn five toward the end of November.  I don’t recall the details of most of the transition from Rome to the U.S., but I do have a few vivid memories.  This meeting is one.  It’s interesting that this memory reflects only a few of the physical details, but focuses more on the feeling or the tone of the moment. My mother had meet with the Principal of Concord Elementary School to set up an enrollment interview because, despite having moved into the attendance area, my birthday was close to the age cut off.  At that time, she was told that I would need to meet with the Kindergarten teacher to see if I was mature enough to attend that school year.  During the meeting, Mom told the principal that we had been living abroad, and if the interview involved any questions about American television or pop culture, I wouldn’t be able to answer them.  Those words still haunt her, as she feels that they influenced the school’s decision.

The day of the interview, we had walked through a hole in our backyard fence and across the baseball fields and playground to our meeting.  The fields were manicured and the sun shone brightly, but there was tension in my mother’s hand as it clutched mine.  I had no idea what was about to happen, but I was getting more and more nervous as we approached the school.  

Normally I would have relished a walk with my mom, as they were few and far between. Walks were done with my nanny, Lia.   Lia was hired by my mother when I was three months old.  Although she did many things for us, I believed that she was there just for me.  She was with us until we moved to the states.  She spoke only Italian, and she would proudly tell people that I spoke like a native.  I spoke English too, of course, but with Lia it was all Italian.  She was my world. But Lia was an ocean away.  This was just my mom and I traipsing across the field toward something important.  Something scary.

I don’t recall what I wore, although I assume I was in a dress, and I don’t recall the interview questions, but I do remember feeling unsure and anxious.  As a bilingual child, raised in a household that required fluency in English and Italian, I transitioned seamlessly from one to the other.  I would speak to my neighbors and friends in Italian, and to my family in English.  Sometimes one of them would speak to me in English, and I would answer in Italian. Sadly, that is what happened during our meeting.  The teacher went through her list of questions, which I answered thoughtfully and correctly, according to my mother, but in Italian.  I felt a tinge of pride for having answered the questions, but my pride was misplaced.  I could feel my mother’s frustration rising, as the questions continued in rapid succession.  With each question, I confidently responded.  With each question, my mother became more agitated. Finally, she clenched her teeth and demanded in Italian, “Rispondi alle domande in Inglese, non Italiano!” 

I don’t remember exactly how the teacher let us know that I had failed the interview, so the quote below is a compilation of conversations that I have had with Mom, but I recall my mother’s protest that my answers had been correct, and that I had just been nervous.  But her protestations were unsuccessful, and what the teacher recommended next would have lasting implications on my nearly five year old life.  “It is my professional opinion that in order for your child to participate in American school, she needs to speak English.   To accomplish that goal for the following year, I suggest that you no longer speak Italian at home.  Allowing her to speak Italian at home is confusing for her, and it will hold her back academically.  If she returns next year and speaks only English, she will be admitted to kindergarten,” she said, as she ushered us toward the door.

My mother gripped my hand tightly and we marched deliberately out the door and across the field toward my new home.  Shame filled me like water, starting from the tips of my toes and rising, like the tide, to the top of my head.  Mom was clearly mad, and it was my fault. I had let everyone down.  I had failed at school, prior to even starting.  

 

 

 

My family is a bunch of liars.  I blame my grandfather.  He was fond of saying that we should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.  Many of us took this advice to heart, so not only are our memories painted through our individual perspectives, they are also embellished with our personal creativity.  Trying to ferret out the truth behind my life stories has been further impeded by the passing of my father and my mother’s failing memory.  At nearly 88 years old, she has earned the right to forget a few things. 

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Debating family folklore has been a happy hour tradition on the decks of our Torch Lake cottages for generations.  The story I share here is my best recollection of how the events of my life unfolded, so for the cousins and other family members who care to challenge the verity of this tale, I encourage you to write your own rebuttal, and present it on the deck at happy hour for our consideration.

The road was so dark, that she nearly missed the driveway.  There was no moon and the sky was lightly overcast, giving the woods an eerie shimmer. She drove slowly down the dirt driveway, lowering the windows to listen to the woods.  As the tires crunched a rhythm into the sand and pine needles, Sarah listened to the world outside.  Night creatures rustled the leaves of the trees lining the way.  In the next drive, an owl called out a greeting.  The scent of pine and moist leaves filled her nose and her memory.  This driveway had always led to safety, to love, companionship, to family.  There was always a sense of excitement and adventure when Sarah approached the cottage, but tonight it was different.

She pulled carefully into the sandy drive in front of the back door.  The cottage, dark and too quiet, held back its welcome.  Closing the door lightly behind her, Sarah walked around the side of the house toward the front porch, toward the lake.  The lake finally greeted her, its waves licking the shore in short, repetitive ticks.  She crossed the front yard to the steps of the dock and followed them down to the shore.  She was part of the darkness now, part of the sand and pine and water.

Sarah sat down on the steps and hugged her knees.  Her blonde hair, hastily pulled into a messy ponytail, had no moonlight to reflect it’s golden hues.  She shivered slightly in her light sweater and shorts as she looked out onto the dark of the lake. Eventually, she would have to unpack the car. Eventually, she would have to go into the house and get things started. Eventually…she thought, as she sat in quiet contemplation on a wooden step, on a dark, Northern Michigan night, staring out over the water that had born witness to her entire life. What came before and what would come after were buried in the depths of the cold, clear water.

The cool, off shore breeze carried with it the faces and voices of long ago. Sarah sat for a moment and let those memories fill the quiet around her.

 

 

 

 

 

The dark water slapped at the shore.  Claire tried to find comfort in the rhythm, but still she felt discordant and unsettled.  The moonless night, suffocating and oppressive, added to her anxiety.   She knew that she could no longer find comfort at the lake.  No longer would the water wash away her worries and her sins.  This dock, where she had happily sunned herself like a sea lion for most of her life, now felt dirty and humiliating.  How had she let it come to this?  She was glad for the darkness, as it hid her tears and her shame.

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The cottage had been built in 1958, by Northwest Specialties of Elk Rapids, but they didn’t add running water until the year before Sarah’s first summer there ten years later, when she was six.  Prior to that, everyone bathed, did dishes, and washed clothes in the lake.  Drinking water was collected from the nearby spring, and it was clear and cold and magical.  Running water was a cause for celebration, because that meant a toilet.  No more traipsing into the woods to use the Bear Trap, which was what they had named the outhouse years before.  These details were not part of Sarah’s memories, but part of the collective memory of the lake.

The lake holds these collective memories still today, and it will continue to gather each tale, hold and keep it until someone digs it up from around the fire pit to be scrutinized and shared by the circle.  They are the nuggets of lore that have been contributed to over time by those who have come and gone over the many years.  Each contribution painted in the perspective of the contributor.  Each colored in the circumstance, familial filter, and lens of those who shared their stories around the fire pit. It is this collective memory that muddies the water between truth and myth.   

“I truly believe that some of these stories have been repeated so many times, that we have just come to believe they are true,” Nancy reached for a chip from the assortment of happy hour delights that covered the table on the porch.

“Lake Legends,” Laura quickly and alliteratively coined the phrase that accurately described the phenomenon.  “I think they’re all bullshit.  Like the one where Grampa Mertz pulled out a gun and shot a water snake while we were all swimming.  No way!  I think I would’ve remembered a gun at the lake.  Especially if someone had fired it in front of me.”

“Grampa was Detroit PD before he retired, and slept with a pistol under his pillow up until he died.  It drove my dad nuts.  Dad was worried that us kids would get into it.  We were forbidden to touch it, but we would sneak into his room and look at it every once in a while.  So there absolutely was a gun up here,” Margy confirmed. “Text Tom and Betz, they’ll tell you.”

Sarah leaned back in her chair at the table and held her Oberon, in its Torch Lake koozy, to her chest.  Ever since the late 1930s when her grandfather and his cousin (Margy’s grandfather) first bought land on Torch Lake, family had gathered on one porch or another to share food, drinks, and mostly stories.  Most of them were, in some way, true.  Some had, like a rumor on the playground, transformed into legend. At this point, many of the participants in the stories were long dead, and only the tales remained.

Laura typed a message into her cell phone to Betz.  She would know.  Sarah reached for hers and typed one out to Tommy.  In the back of her mind Sarah recalled that day, swimming out in the lake with Tommy, Betsy, and Laura.  They had done that every day of every summer for as long as they could remember, so that wasn’t news, but Sarah also vaguely remembered a snake in the water and running away from it.  “I kind of remember this,” Sarah said quietly.

“It’s bullshit.  Never happened,” Laura looked down at her phone to check for a return message.

Betz finally responded to Laura’s text.  “Yes, there was a snake, and yes, Gramps shot it.  We were all there.  How can you not remember this?”

“Ask her if the snake was on the shore or in the water when Mertz shot it,” Sarah suggested.  “I think it was on the shore.”

“She says,  ‘In the water.’”

Sarah’s phone vibrated and she looked at Tom’s response.  “Sigh, are we still debating this story?  Look, it went like this.  We were all out swimming in front of the cottages.  I was on the water bike when a snake slithered off the shore and was heading straight toward me.  People started screaming about a snake in the water.   I abandoned the bike in front of the cottage and swam in, trying to avoid the snake.  The snake, perhaps in response to the screaming, turned back toward our bank.  Gramps had heard the commotion and had gotten his .22, so when the snake reached the bank, Gramps shot its head off.

I remember Grampa Kay yelling at me for ditching the water bike in the lake.  I suspect that he was secretly rooting for the snake. The water bike was right out front, and I was about to be attacked by a snake.  What did he expect?!  I also recall Gramps dragging the snake’s body around to the back of the cottage.”

“I really think I remember this,” Sarah shook her head and absently took another pull on her beer.  Collective memories are weird, she thought.

“It’s all bullshit,” Laura stated.  “Just another Lake Legend.”

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“I truly believe that some of these stories have been repeated so many times, that we have just come to believe they are true,” Nancy pointed out, reaching for another chip.

“Lake Legends,” Laura quickly and alliteratively coined the phrase that accurately described the phenomenon.  “I think they’re all bullshit.  Like the one where Grampa Mertz pulled out a gun and shot a water snake while we were all swimming.  No way!  I think I would’ve remembered a gun at the lake.  Especially if someone fired it in front of me.”

“Grampa was Detroit PD before he retired.  He slept with a pistol under his pillow up until he died.  It drove my dad nuts.  Dad was worried that us kids would get into it.  We were forbidden to touch it, but we would sneak into his room and look at it every once in a while.  So there absolutely was a gun up here,” Margy confirmed. “Text Tom and Betz, they’ll tell you.” 

Sarah leaned back in her chair at the table and let her Oberon settle to her chest.  Ever since the late 1930s when her grandfather and his cousin (Margy’s grandfather) first bought land on Torch Lake, family had gathered on one porch or another to share food, drinks, and mostly stories.  Most of them were, in some way, true.  Some had, like a game of telephone, transformed into legend. At this point, many of the participants in the stories were long dead.  Only the tales remained.

Laura typed a message into her cell phone to Betz.  She would know.  Sarah reached for hers and typed one out to Tommy.  In the back of her mind, Sarah recalled swimming out in the lake with Tommy, Betsy, and Laura.  They had done that every day of every summer for as long as they could remember, so that wasn’t news, but Sarah also vaguely remembered a snake in the water and running away from it.  “I kind of remember this,” Sarah said quietly.

“It’s bullshit.  Never happened,” Laura looked down at her phone to check for a return message.

Betz finally responded to Laura’s text.  “Yes, there was a snake, and yes, Gramps shot it.  We were all there.  How can you not remember this?”

“Ask her if the snake was on the shore or in the water when Mertz shot it,” Sarah suggested.  “I think it was on the shore.”

“She says in the water.”

Sarah’s phone vibrated and she looked at Tom’s response.  “Sigh, are we still debating this story?  Look, it went like this.  We were all out swimming in front of the cottages.  I was on the water bike when a snake slithered off the shore and was heading straight toward me.  People started screaming about a snake in the water.   I abandoned the bike in front of the cottage and swam in.  The snake, perhaps in response to the screaming, turned back toward our bank.  Gramps had heard the commotion and had gotten his .22, so when the snake reached the bank, Gramps shot its head off. 

I remember Grampa Kay yelling at me for ditching the water bike.  I suspect that Grampa Kay was rooting for the snake. The water bike was right out front, and I was about to be attacked by a snake.  What did he expect?!  I also recall Gramps dragging the body out back.”

“I really think I remember this,” Sarah shook her head and absently took another pull on her beer.  Collective memories are weird, she thought.

“It’s all bullshit,” Laura stated.  “Just another Lake Legend.”