I had been here before, a long time ago.
Skinny arms and legs, bathing suit sprouting flowers, I had approached the water cautiously, dragging my inner tube behind me. This was no citified inner tube, made specially for floating casually in backyard pools and waterpark lazy rivers. This was a sturdy rubber inner tube taken from the inside of a tractor tire. And this was no citified lake with pristine beaches, clear water, and well-tended lifeguard stations. This was a private “beach” with very little sand and an abundance of sticks and acorns to poke at your feet. A small (according to my Michigan-born-and-raised Great Lakes standards, nothing that you could see across really qualified as a “lake”) lake with lily pads that sprouted around the edges and dark corners of water that hid the hideous blood-sucking creatures known as leeches. My child eyes looked at this lake with distrust because of those leeches.
But we had fun, my family and I. None of us very good swimmers, we spent most of our time paddling around in the inner tubes. We never went out over our heads unless my Dad, looking funny in his cut-off shorts (my Dad NEVER wore shorts except on these occasions), dragged us out into deeper water. We may have been clinging for dear life to our inner tubes, but we enjoyed the feeling of danger nonetheless. We came here to this lake on hot summer days to cool off. But, as many childhood things do, that had ended as the years passed by.
I found myself heading back to the lake a few weeks ago, drawn by a desire to find something new to entertain my young cousin (far away from electronic gadgets) and a curiosity to see what the old place looked like now.
I explained to my cousin on the drive there that we were going to a place that I had gone to when I was his age – a place that had been in my dad’s familly for many years. A place where my great-grandmother had swam long before she was a great-grandmother.
The entrance to the lake can be found off the side of a one-lane dirt road. A homemade gate of welded metal marks the spot with its sagging stomach. The gate swings open to a two-track that cuts purposely through a forest. Roots from the trees protrude through the two track, jostling the car – a reminder that the forest is ready to take over whenever we humans decided to turn our backs.
The woods end at a small clearing, just big enough for its purpose – two tiny houses bordering the lake with space for swimming in between. The water was much the same as I remembered, glistening in the sun, lapping at the shore. Lily pads afloat, plants forcing their way through the shallows, and the dark hideaways for the leeches around the edges.
But the greatest changes were to be seen on the land. There was the house where I used to change out of my wet clothes. Shaded by two trees joined at the hip, it was built as a marriage between a camper and a tiny two room lake house, joined at the hip themselves by a shared roof and a connecting door. I had stepped through the door of this white building trimmed with green as a child. My nose crinkled with the smell of old camper, and the outdated furniture spoke of years before my own. The only item of real interest in this building was the Raggedy Andy propped up in the corner. As for the rest of it, I felt uncomfortable and cautious, as if I was visiting a world not my own. A world that belonged to Great-Grandparents who had once been young but had since grown frail.
Today my cousin and I decided to take a look at this house – to try our keys at the padlocks on the doors and see what there was to find. The padlock to the lake house portion of the house did not appear to have a mate amongst my handful of keys. But the padlock to the camper portion did. We yanked open the reluctant door and stepped inside. A wave of decay and disuse greeted us. Furniture was stacked upon furniture and marks on the ceiling signaled roof problems. We pushed our way through the dark, dank camper to the door that connected to the house, but it stuck fast. Unsure if there was something blocking the door on the other side, I let it be. We could only stand on the the screened-in porch and peer in the windows to see the other side of this two-pronged house. One corner of the screen had been torn from its moorings and flapped in the wind as we turned our attention to the contents of the porch. Here, among some toys, I found a water pistol. I turned to my cousin with a grin.
“I’m going to see if this works. And if it works, I’m going to shoot you.” Another water pistol found, we chased each other around, laughing as our poorly working pistols only managed to get each of us slightly damp. The picnic tables watched us, sprouting moss all the while. The boats lined up along the shore listened with their faces stuck in the dirt. The voices of my old self and the old selves of previous generations of my family whispered in the breeze, telling stories of a time when the paint wasn’t chipped, when the screen wasn’t ripped, when the camper wasn’t decayed, when the shore was clean of plants to leave more room for paddling feet. I couldn’t hear them, but I could feel them.
Their whispers took on an extra note of longing when, water pistols squeezed of all their fun, land explored, and feet dipped, we eventually headed back to the car. The car doors slammed and we meandered slowly back up the two track, passing trees carved with initials that have lost their meaning and leaving behind torn screens and broken windows.
There is a certain quiet sadness in places like these…
When the waves begin to lap away the memories. When the roots begin to loosen. When the ties begin to fray.
Note: I borrowed my title from an excellent essay by E.B. White, where he explores a very similar theme: revisiting a childhood haunt with his son. E.B. White’s essays are a true pleasure to read, and I highly recommend them. I read a whole book of them – wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it – but his ability to capture country scenes and find the beauty and the humor in life captured me completely.