Before we get there we stop at a gas station in Medford. The heat is so intense it hits you like a brick to the chest—dry, smoky air pressing in so hard you lose your breath. The outskirts of Medford in the dead of summer aren’t that inspiring anyway, all flat, arid landscape paved over and dotted with chain superstores, but the heat adds to the oppressiveness that permeates the whole scene. We’re understandably eager then to get to the lake. If the drive over didn’t get us there, the blistering heat of the gas station certainly convinced us it was time to be there.
We pull up around 7, the forest and lava fields on the way up gently saying hello, hello and when we get to the turnoff (we all know the cabin number, but we don’t have to see it to know—the line of cars gives it away), we turn down without hesitation. The deck is full, all our people gathered around the fire. Faces turn up to see us come down the road, Rachelle maneuvering the sable as best she can through the pitted dirt, and we wave from the window. This is a time-honored ritual, coming down the dirt road to the cheers and I don’t know if you’re going to make its! of family below, your reward a leg stretch and a hug from Grandma. I wasn’t here last year but it’s as if no time has passed—there’s the one concrete step down to the porch, the woodpecker door knocker announcing arrivals, a light wind moving through the pine, the familiar woosh-lap of the lake on the shower. We get hustled through the cabin, all wood and bird nests, to the deck and another round of hellos start—not just to the trees and lava fields, but to our family and the sights and the sounds I know we each hold dear. Here is the pipe that shoots out run-off water, here is the special delivery pulley system, here is the picnic table, here are the Adirondack chairs and the side table Hayden made one year. Here is the outhouse, whirring quietly, the outside sink, the sound of the screen door slamming. Here is the low wall of layered stone where Queen Chippie (that’s Grandma—all hail) lays out leftovers and seeds for the little critters, the snap and crack of the fire pit, the bang of the wood out to the dock against the rocks. We creep into the duck inn, doubled over anymore to protect our heads, the one window veiled in a thin white muslin curtain, framing the last of the light fading on the opposite shore. The posters are aged, corners peeling now, but the tale of the Ice Cream factory is still legible, at least for another year.
Sometimes I wonder why I write, what it is that drives the urge to put words on paper. I think for everyone it’s something different, but here’s part of it for me—writing is a way of capturing our present so I can make sense of it, process, and remember, when it goes away. This litany of what I see and hear, and how it makes me feel, this is my mark, so you’ll see me, and so I can tell you what I understand to be true.
But places like the lake are memory come alive, where every turn welcomes you back into the past of who you were each time you encounter things you’ve always known. Even coming down the dirt road I was gripped by a fleeting ghost of panic, the remnants of a childhood fear of skidding down and out of control into the cabin—22 year-old habits are hard to break, apparently. The Duck Inn and the boathouse, the curving staircase into the sleeping loft upstairs, the dock and the kayaks, the fire pit down by the water, they’re all participants in this same grand tradition that our family is a part of too, so familiar now that all these spots and activities have become a talisman of sorts, a touchstone of our relationships to each other. And in each is a story, a do you remember when and what about the time, going back all the way to when we were tiny. We all have them—mine was when I stood on the board connecting the land to the dock and said to Jasper, my grandparents’ old dog, Oh for shit’s sake, Jaspie! because he was in my way. I was maybe four? Even little Ben has his lake baby story—he stood outside the screen door and threatened Sam, saying, I’m going to put pitch on you! That’s a pretty good threat for a three year old.
For all the time we’ve already spent there though, for all the stories that have already happened, there are ever more memories to be made. The narrative evolves, changes shape, moves forward. Sam and I went canoeing down the shore and at the bay, towards the far end of the lake, we stopped for a minute and drifted, chatting idly about her new boyfriend and the smoke and the heat. There, I say, after awhile, pointing out a cormorant. We’d seen one earlier by the dock, and everyone brought up the book Ping—even my Grandpa, who remembered reading it to his girls. They’re funny birds, floating along with their heads cocked up and to the right, looking permanently curious. This one in front of us keeps diving under the water, and we entertain ourselves by doing voices for him, guessing where he’ll pop up. When we turn to head back up towards our cabin, we see the cormorant again—this time with a silvery fish clamped tightly in his beak. My heart goes out to the fish as he curves his body into a flipping U, first this way and then that, aware of how afraid he must be, how desperate for escape. Naturally Sam and I are both exclaiming loudly, OH MY GOD LOOK AT THAT CORMORANT, loud enough to get the neighboring dock’s attention. Without further ado, the cormorant puts an end to the show by tossing his head back and swallowing the fish whole, his throat stretching out a good six inches sideways so we’re able to watch it slide down. This spurs more exclaiming, until we decide we have to get the heck out of here and back to the safety of our own part of the lake.
You see though how this will become a part of the lake’s canon, another story set against the tableau of all that glittering water, the wide expanses of blue—sky and lake—broken up only by the forest on each shore. Here, my family, is participating every year in a narrative that twists and turns through time and continuously grows, so that each trip there is another chapter in a saga that I hope never reaches an end. This is the year of hot and smoky and the cormorant, the year before was the year it was cold and rainy and I missed it, and every year seems to be the year we read a lot of magazines and drink a lot of wine. Every year too is the lake—blue and green, lake smell in the air, something on the barbecue, and everyone gathered around.