Archives for category: Family

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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.”

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“And we are nearly ready to go.  The sisters have assumed their positions around the pot, each with cup in hand.  We have Oreo Cookie cup, New Orleans Jazz Fest cup, and rounding it out, there is 70s Flower Child mug.  It looks like a great day for coffee, don’t you think, Skip?”

“I do think so, Bob.  The participants are gathered around the Mr. Coffee, and all eyes are on the pot.  And these eyes are not pretty, Bob.  We have Oreo Cookie cup with the blood shot, red, swollen eyes of way too much fun last night.  Next to her, we have Jazz Fest, and these eyes are flying at half mast this morning.  Not sure how competitive this one is going to be able to be at this hour.  Flower Child looks like the perkiest of the bunch.  She seems rested and relaxed.  Those two other cups are going to have a run for their money with Flower Child in the mix.”

“Well, Skip, looks can be deceiving.  I never underestimate a tired, hungover woman when coffee is involved.  I remember once… Wait!  It looks like… Yes, the drip has stopped.  The drip has stopped, and we are off to the races!”

“Flower Child reaches out toward the pot as the last sputter of drip empties into its 12 cup receptacle.  It’s Flower Child at the start, but wait!  Here comes Oreo Cookie with a shockingly quick box out!  Flower Child crashes loudly against the cabinets.  Jazz Fest seems dazed by all of the ruckus and leans against the counter to gather herself. Flower Child attempts to recapture her position, but it is too late.  Oreo Cookie has swept in and grabbed that first cup of liquid sanity. It looks like Oreo Cookie is our winner, Bob.”

“Hold on, Skip.  There seems to be a commotion coming from the kitchen.  Oreo Cookie has taken that first, delicious sip.  Her face is screwed up in horror. What could possibly be happening down there?  It appears that Oreo Cookie is yelling something.  Let’s see if we can make it out.”

“All right.  Which one of you A**holes made decaf?!”

“Come on!  It’s right up here, past the clay bank,” Tommy shouted over his shoulder as the rest of us scampered behind on the trail.

“Gramma said that her name is Emily,” said Betz.

“I don’t see why we have to go down there.  What if she’s weird.   Then we have to pretend to be friends with a weird girl all summer,” Laura grumbled pulling up the rear.

“I’ll bet she’s nice.  Gramma says she’s our age.  We might really like her,” I chimed in.

“Nice try.  I doubt it.  I’ll bet she’s super weird and she’ll mess everything up.”

“Lighten up, Laura,” Betz said as we entered the clearing past the clay bank. “There’s the house.  Fancy, huh?”

We all looked in wonder at the A-framed structure rising up before us.  It was a far cry from our little cottage and certainly different from the sleeping cabin that Grampa ‘Kay built in 1940. That’s where we kids slept all summer.

“They have carpet!” Betz marveled gesturing toward the remnants left alongside the house.

“Shag,” whispered Tommy. We were accustomed to linoleum flooring.  Practical because of the beach sand and pine needles that hitchhiked on our bare feet to invade the floor of the cottage. Gramma waged a constant battle against the assault.

“OK, let’s get this over with,” Laura said walking up to the side door.  The front of the house was one giant window facing the lake, so the side door seemed like the right place to knock.  And knock, she did, with the rest of us crowding behind her.

A surly teen opened the door.  “Ya?” she said one hand on her hip.

“Can Emily come out and play?” Betz asked.

“There’s no Emily here,” replied the girl, and she abruptly turned and closed the door.  We stood in astonished silence on the porch.  Maybe Gramma was wrong.  Maybe there was no girl our age in the A-frame.

“Well, that’s just great,” Laura said sarcastically.  “Now what?”
“Back to the cottage for lunch, I guess.” I said heading back down the trail.  The others turned to follow me.

“Hey!” We all turned in unison toward the voice.  “I’m Amy.  Where you guys just at my house looking for me?”

Little did we know, that this moment would change our summers at the lake forever.

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When I was a kid, summer nights at Torch Lake were punctuated by thousands of fireflies. They would parade out of the darkness, exclamation points of soft, warm light marching toward the flickering glow of the campfire. Like sisters, cousins, parents, and grandparents, they seemed to swarm around the perimeter of the fire to share a connection, a story, or a laugh. Perhaps they were drawn to the warmth of the fire, or by the strength of the bonds that developed around that worn out brick circle fire pit.

Over the years, the numbers have dwindled…both of family and fireflies. The campfire seems to have let their spirits go, embers adrift on a breeze toward the water. Some losses you kind of expect, like Grandma and Grandpa. Grandparents die; even grade school kids know and accept this. But others come as a surprise. None of us were prepared for Marty’s death. He was one of us. There is comfort in the fact that he died at the lake, but he died in the winter…alone. No fireflies to gather around him and guide his spirit out over the water. Just Marty and his bottle. I suppose we should have seen it coming. ZAP! One soft, warm light extinguished.

When we were young, we chased the fireflies around the outside of the brick circle fire pit where our elders gathered, sharing whiskey sours, stories, and laughter. We were filthy and sweaty, but we didn’t care, and the fireflies didn’t seem to mind much either. We would capture them briefly in our small, grubby hands and giggle as they tickled our palms. We never put them in a jar because Tommy, Marty’s younger brother, thought it was cruel, and everyone loved Tommy too much to hurt his feelings. Occasionally the dance with our luminous partners was interrupted when a roar of laughter cut in from the brick circle. Someone had shared a good story. I suspected it was my father, Bob. He learned at Grandpa ‘Kay’s knee that the truth should never get in the way of a good story. We have all come to believe that.

These little family traditions endure the passing of fireflies. They endure because they are beyond flesh and bone. They live in the sand, and the flames, and the water. They live in the fabric of Torch Lake. They live in the threads from which the fabric of our lives are woven. It’s these little family customs that wrap around you, a superhero’s cape, protection from the world.

Over time, some of the voices around the fire pit have been quieted, or replaced. Grandma and Grandpa ‘Kay passed years ago, but their humor and good nature live on in us, and in our children. The number of chairs by the fire is finite, so one must be vacated for others to join. The perimeter, where the children and fireflies romp is infinite, bound only by the woods and the water.

Whiskey sours gave way to boxed wine when my cousins and I moved from the perimeter of the circle to premium fire pit seating years ago. We sat there this summer, laughing and sharing our lives in the days before the celebration of our parents’ birthdays. Aunt Liz, and my mom, Rita, would be 80 this year, and Bob, 85. It was truly a wonderful excuse for a party. We gathered, the cousins and my sisters, around the fire and planned a celebration of lives well lived. Rita, Bob and Liz weren’t at the lake yet, so a few of our children snuck into the circle and tried on their chairs for size. They stayed for a while, but were drawn back to the perimeter by calls from down the lake that promised to be more entertaining than an evening with the old folks. We watched them leave, their flashlights reminiscent of the glow that once punctuated the night when fireflies were abundant.

Auntie Liz arrived at last. She took her place by the fire that night and we laughed, and shared, and bonded. We spoke of our year and of the year ahead. We spoke of the past and of the future. We made plans and shared dreams. I found comfort in the filling of the chairs. Only two remained empty.

A few days later, Mom called to tell us Dad was in the hospital. They wouldn’t be making the party. They wouldn’t be making the trip out at all this year. That night, after everyone else had wandered off to bed, I found myself staring off into the darkness around the fire in search of fireflies, but there were none. In the distance, I heard the children splashing in the lake, and perhaps the hoot of an owl, but I saw no fireflies. When my focus returned to the fire pit, the empty chairs stared back as if to challenge me. I closed my eyes against the image and tried to imagine this fire without my parents, I tried to imagine this lake without my parents, and I tried to imagine my life without my parents. My eyes closed tight, spilled tears like a slow and steady rain, soaking my cheeks and the front of my shirt. I bowed my head and said a prayer of thanks. Thanks for my family, my life, and this place.

When I opened my eyes, I saw, in the distance the faint glow of flashlights and the far away sounds of joyful noise. The kids were headed back from down the lake, their flashlights bouncing through the dark like glow-in-the-dark rubber balls bouncing randomly off one tree and to the next. I took a moment to collect myself and headed toward the cottage. Facing the house, away from the fire, I saw two fireflies dancing by the porch light. I made my way toward the light and the fireflies, but as I did, I gazed over my shoulder to see our kids laughing, and sharing, and bonding… seated happily in the chairs by the worn out brick circle fire pit.

There is a degree of entitlement embraced by the elderly that is dumped upon those around them. By elderly, I don’t necessarily mean old; I just mean older than you. It appears to be the plight of the baby of the family to be dismissed entirely by the older members of the family.

I was recently complaining about this to a friend as we swam around the lake with her 90 year old mother. By swim, I really mean walk around IN the water and complain. For a change of pace, we float and complain.

“It’s infuriating,” I said. “I’m fifty years old and I offer to make salmon for dinner. My mom chimes in, ‘Frank always cooks the fish!’ Well, if Frank always cooks the fish, far be it from me to offer to cook some damn fish. Jesus!”

“It’s the same over here,” my best friend Amy said nodding her head toward her cottage. “I don’t even bother to cook anymore. If I do, someone is always there telling me how they would do it. I don’t care how they would do it! It’s fucking chicken!”

I laughed and started to recall the seemingly endless string of times that I had been somehow dismissed by either my older sisters or my parents. Just this week alone, it occurred to me that they must not have bothered to learn my name as a child, because I was called Kathy, I was called Carrie, and for God’s sake, I was even called Frank!

I can’t remember the last time that I was able to sit on our lake house porch in the seat facing straight out onto the lake. Most meals I spend with my back to the lake, looking at it through the reflection in the porch windows. Granted, if none of the older siblings or parents are around, I can sit wherever I damn well please, but… with age appears to come entitlement and off I am sent to eat with the servants, all with their backs to the lake. Obviously these are first world problems, but it doesn’t make them any less annoying.

I spent three days working with a contractor to put together a series of bids for work to be done t the cottage. I met with the guy daily and asked him to put together quotes for three different projects. Meanwhile, my older sister was sailing, or boating, or drinking on the dock. When it was time to explain the quotes to my mother, Big Sis jumped right in and Mom shushed ME when I tried to correct something that BS was explaining incorrectly.

“It’s always like that,” Amy agreed. “Got a serious question? Better ask Big Sis.”

“You girls are silly,” Amy’s mom piped in. “Don’t you know that’s just the way it goes? Nobody listened to me in my family, either. I’m the baby too!” And there you have it.

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Sixty-three years. Sixty –three years of, “Yes, Dear,” and “No, Dear,” and “I’m sorry,” and “I love you.” Sixty-three years of travel, and adventure, and family. Sixty-three years of couplehood, of shared friends, of individual pursuits. Sixty-three years of learning the steps that make up the dance of a successful marriage.

To witness first hand how that dance evolves over time is truly a blessing. Yesterday, I traveled cross-country with my parents to help them get to their summer home on Torch Lake, in Michigan. They no longer travel alone, despite 50+ years of traveling around the world, to places near and far. My sister had made all of the arrangements, which were quite involved, in advance. Wheelchair service had to be set up, in advance, and all paperwork and reservations were printed and tucked carefully into my bag by that sister.

Mom and Dad were ready to go when we arrived to pick them up. Both had lanyards around their necks with their community IDs and their driver’s licenses tucked neatly inside clear plastic badge holders. Their luggage weighed more than they did. Combined. And Dad’s wheelchair, for use at the lake house, was meticulously wrapped for optimum protection in yards and yards of bubble wrap that popped startlingly whenever it was moved.

All of the planets were clearly aligned in our favor, as we were able to secure curbside check in for those poor bags, stuffed so far beyond their capacity, that they were held together with huge, thick straps advertising Diablo Travel or some such agency.

Passing through security was a bit of an adventure, as both Mom and Dad were scrutinized by the TSA. Rita, with her knee replacement, must have set off all kinds of alarms, as she was patted down from top to bottom. All the while, she was explaining that she had had a knee replacement and that that was probably the problem. The TSA agent asked, “Are you wearing a knee brace, Ma’am?”

“No. I had a knee replacement, so the metal must have triggered your machine.”

“Are you sure that you aren’t wearing a knee brace or compression socks? Anything like that?”

“No, I had a knee replacement.”

“OK, Ma’am, I’m going to have to lift up your pant leg. OK?”

“Well, you won’t be able to see it, it was a knee replacement.”

The increasingly frazzled TSA agent squatted down in front of Mom and began lifting her pant leg. “This, Ma’am. What is this?

“Oh! That! That’s my money belt. Isn’t it neat? I got it from AAA.”

“That’s fine, Ma’am,” the TSA agent said, as she shuffled Mom off to the side.

Why didn’t you just tell her about the money belt, Mom?” I asked when she finally was able to join me.

“Well, she didn’t ask me about that!” she replied incredulously.

Eventually, we reached our gate and were able to board the plane. We travelled first class (thank you, Kathy for making the arrangements) and they settled in, side by side. I sat across the aisle. Watching them, I could see a reflection of who they used to be, bold adventurers, off to Malawi or Zimbabwe, Geneva, or Rome. Despite the headache of early departure, of wheelchair deliveries, of TSA hassles, they were on board and in their element, seated together, dozing, and tenderly holding hands, perhaps waltzing in their dreams.