Archive for August, 2019

Assembly Required

For well over a decade the wood paneled walls had absorbed the cigarette smoke generated by my grandfather and my uncle.  So much so that it made my eyes burn.  It wasn’t so bad when the windows were open. 

If the widows were open it also meant the curtains were open.  Under these conditions my grandmother’s dog, an irritating Chihuahua named Bingo, would sit atop her wing-backed chair, look out the window,  and bark at whatever happened to move.  Occasionally it was a boat, but mostly it was the long sinewy branches of the willow tree that grew at the shore.  Bingo barked until he was hoarse – and then kept at it still. 

There was almost always a breeze because of the size of the lake.  My grandfather built the house in the early 1960’s on a plot of land on the windward side of the lake – the land being cheaper.  It also also meant that the debris from the lake washed up here and that there was always erosion at the shoreline.  Year after year those who lived on this side of the lake brought in large boulders in an effort to stave it off.  

The rectangular house with a single gabled roof was painted pink.  It sat in stark contrast to the blue water and green grass. No one knew why they’d chosen to paint the house pink.  No one ever asked.  The house had two bedrooms, one bathroom, and a laundry room that would have been a third bedroom had the house had a basement. 

On the back of the lot, nearest the road was the garage, also painted pink.  It housed my grandmother’s 1967 Buick Electra.  Robin egg blue. Four doors.   Also inside was my grandfather’s work bench and behind it, a stash of booze.  The work bench was merely a front.  

Connecting the garage and the house was a straight narrow concrete sidewalk.  On one side, my grandmother’s vegetable garden.  On the other side, access to the septic system and the oil tank.  The house was heated with oil which was delivered by truck before winter set in.  

On the south side of the house was a small lean-to that contained the pump to the well.  The water from the laundry room spigot smelled foul because it was plumbed directly from the well.  The water from the other spigots tasted like detergent because these spigots were plumbed through the water softener. 

My father and his father bickered constantly when we visited.  My grandfather was an alcoholic and the lifetime of drinking turned him into a bitter old man who either mumbled or scowled depending on the occasion.  My dad barked at him for both.   My grandmother pretended not to notice. 

She, on the other hand, was a society woman in this small town.  She’d drive her Buick to play cards with the other women and also attended a monthly birthday club.  Her family, immigrants from Germany, became wealthy by retaining the mineral rights to their land in North Dakota. Oil companies built rigs on their land and paid a monthly royalty.  

My uncle lived in this house as well.  He was born crippled.  Legs or spine, I don’t know which.  The rumor was that my grandfather pushed my grandmother down a flight of stairs while she was pregnant, and thus the birth defect.  At the time, physically disabled people were not fully integrated into society, so my uncle had never worked, save for a volunteer job at a library.  He had no money.  No life.  No friends. He spent most of his time in his bedroom smoking cigarettes and reading books.  His bedroom contained a wall of books and a wooden writing desk.   

Getting to my grandparents house was an hour and a half drive west on highway 12 from Minneapolis.  At the time, the ninety minute drive seemed like forever.  Highway 12 was dotted with small towns which meant the speed limit was reduced every ten miles or so.  We’d pack the car with our fishing gear and jugs of city water – sometimes a cooler because we purchased meat from a butcher in a neighboring town, and head west, never without some kind of drama before leaving.  My mother’s complaining about having to spend time out there.  My sister’s complaints about not having enough space in the back seat.  Despite this, I enjoyed looking out the windows at the passing countryside which was mostly filled with corn fields.  

My favorite part of the drive was waiting to pass the abodonded one-room school house that was slowly folding into itself from sixty years of neglect.  The structure called out to me – wishing to share its memory of school children signing and playing on the land surrounding it. Once I convinced my dad to stop the car so I could get out and walk around it.  I wanted to be on that land for a moment myself even if it was just one time.

Upon arrival there were usually more laments as we walked from the gravel driveway to the house.  None of us wanted to be cooped up inside with the cigarette smoke and the arguments that would always ensue.  No one wanted to listen to Bingo bark all day.  No one wanted to listen to my uncle talk about nothing.  Not even me.

Inside this little pink house the disfunction of three generations were in play.  Outside however, the vastness of the lake, the cornfields, and the untrafficked dirt roads offered an environment where my mind was freed from every troubled thought and every anxious moment.  And because of this these weekends are my most cherished childhood memories. 

We usually arrived around lunch time and after eating the whatever my grandmother had prepared – it always included cucumbers because she grew them in the garden, I’d head out along the dirt road out back and wander alongside the cornfields, past a few other houses that lined this portion of the lake. 

Most of the houses were simple summer cottages.  Two doors down Sylvia and her family had a trailer house.  The Bowens – next to them had place with a large screen porch and wicker furniture that had floral print cushions.  Further up the hill was a cottage where a boy named Tommy, also my age, visited with his grandparents during the summer. 

The saying is that corn fields should be knee high by the fourth of July and once they were, the stalks grew quickly.  It’s also said that its possible to hear corn growing and this is true.  In the right conditions – the stillness of summer’s heat and on a windless day, one can hear the crackle of cornstalks as they reach further upward.  The impression one gets is that there is someone, a spirit perhaps, quietly following along not far in the distance.

From the cornfields came the trill of the red winged blackbird.  Highly territorial and thus not associated with a flock, the sound is not that of a symphony but instead that of spatial marker.  An external radar of sorts that offers an audio boundary to the acreage.  The proximity of the cornfields to the lake and the ability to perch atop the stalks were the perfect environment for the male to call for a mate. 

If I walked north along this same dirt road I’d connect to gravel road that led to the public boat launch on a stub of parkland that was maintained by the county.  

Sumac grew alongside the gravel road in the shallow marshland of the lake and I was warned every time to avoid it lest I arrive back with a burning rash.  In my mind it stood as a menacing barrier.  I would walk past it, pretending to ignore it but watching it from the corner of my eye as though it were a prison fence. Powered by nature rather than electricity but having the same results if contact was made. 

 The distance traveled between the dirt road to the south and the gravel road to the north, perhaps a mile at best was a world onto itself for me.  Sometimes I covered the distance numerous times a day when I used the bicycle that was kept in the little pink garage.  It had a rusty chain and a torn seat but it provided me with greater mobility.   Tommy had a bike at his grandparents place too, and sometimes we’d ride to the park together.  I had a bicycle at home in the city too and rode it constantly around the block throughout the summer.   But here, without the grid of the city block it felt like total freedom.  

My dad kept a fishing boat at my grandparents house and we’d sometimes go out on the lake for an afternoon, my mom and sister never along.  It was just he and I.  We’d load up the boat with our fishing gear but seldom if ever come home with something large enough to eat.  For the most part, fishing wasn’t about fishing.  It was about getting away.  Being untethered from land and from the disfunction inside of the little pink house.  

Later as I got older I had my own raft that I’d inflate during each visit using a vacuum cleaner set on reverse.  The lake was shallow enough on this side that there was never really a drowning threat despite my mother’s fears.  My dad said that if I were to tip over I should just “stand up and you’ll be fine”.  

The raft provided more freedom than even the bicycle because now I too was untethered from the land. I’d row out past the reeds then around the shore, essentially tracing a path in the water that was the same as the gravel road that led to the park.  I’d stop rowing and just float, resting back against the bow of the raft, legs out, arms behind my head, listening to the silence and hearing only the gentle lap of the water against the reeds.    Sometimes I would take off my shorts and lay naked in the sunlight.  The thrill of being naked outside if even just for a few minutes.

Other times I would row south just beyond the reach of the docks of the other houses on the lake.  Inevitably Sylvia’s children would be playing on the dock or in the water and I’d muse with them while passing by.  The route along the shoreline in my raft was also not more than a mile but it was a distance where I was indeed the captain of my own ship.

If we had made plans to stay the weekend we’d drive up in my father’s truck which had a camper shell on it and inside it was built out to sleep four.  My sister and I had the bunk and would sleep perpendicular to the bed of the truck.  My mom and dad would sleep parallel for the added length, their legs under the bunk.  My mom sewed curtains for the windows though why curtains were needed was a bit of a mystery.  We were in bed after dark and awake with the sunrise anyway. 

On these weekends when we emerged from the camper in the morning the grass was thick with dew.  Our shoes wet by the time we reached the door to the house.  Inside my grandmother was already cooking breakfast – eggs from a local farm, sausages, and pancakes.   I was reluctant to eat the eggs because the shells were brown and I’d only ever seen white egg shells.   My uncle was sitting at the table smoking, and my grandfather, in his trousers with suspenders over his t-shirt, out walking along the shore inspecting something or another.   The day would evolve into every other day here and soon I’d be out, on my own, captivated by the unencumberedness of my own thoughts.  

I always thought this house would be mine someday.  And although it was on shitty land and would have to have been gutted to get rid the nicotine build up, I wanted to have it.   My grandfather died first.  Then my grandmother.  The house remained with my uncle until he died, at which point the State put a lean against it for the social security payments they had made to support my uncle.  At least this is what my dad told me.  I honestly didn’t think that social security payments came with debt.   The idea of living on a lake had been with me as long as I can remember. 

It’s now 2019, fifty years after my first memory of summers on Lake Washington.  I live in high-rise in Chicago.  My building is 500 feet from Lake Michigan and from my living room window I look out over the treetops to the lake.   There are no curtains to block the view.

My daily routine keeps me on the gridded streets that are my neighborhood – everything within within few blocks.  I have a bicycle here and when I embark upon a ride I leave the grid behind and take to the lakefront path and cycle south for miles.  

The first time I did this here I heard the trill of the red winged black bird.  Having all but forgotten this sound I was immediately transported back to the dirt road behind my grandparents house.  It was splendid to hear this again.  With every ride along the lake I rejoice in this sound. 

If I’m out for a ride early in the morning the grassy land near the lake is thick with morning dew.    If I were to walk in it my shoes would be soaked in minutes.  If I bike far enough south an acquaintance of mine who rents kayaks by the hour will let me take one out for awhile.  I offer to pay but he won’t accept the money.  It’s as if he knows. 

Because of the size of Lake Michigan the wind always blows.  I live on the windward side of the lake.  At the beginning of every summer there are a few days when the conditions are just right that the wind brings the smell of the lake in through my open windows – usually around sunrise and sometimes after sunset.  

I rush to the windows and open them further, bending over to get my face against the screen to inhale as much of it as I can so and indulge further in what I have subconsciously assembled for myself.   The idea of living on a lake has been with me for as long as I can remember.

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