If I held out a peanut and sat motionless long enough, a chipmunk would gather its courage and start toward me. Run three steps. Stop. Eyeball me. Run three more steps. Eventually he’d make his way to my outstretched hand and pull the shell from my fingers. He’d shove the nut into his elastic cheek, his round, beady eyes watching me, untrusting, then scurry off.
Grandma encouraged us in our endeavors to win over the local horde of chipmunks who lived among the forest of oaks, birches and pines. Her shopping list always included a bag of unsalted peanuts in the shell.
Grandma and the cottage. In my world, neither could exist without the other.
My grandparents built a refuge in northern Wisconsin: varnished log walls, a fieldstone fireplace, and a chandelier crafted from an old oxen yoke. Antique snowshoes hung over the bay window, and a driftwood branch suspended a copper light fixture over the maple table and benches my grandfather built.
We kids slept in the loft. Rain pattered against the roof or the occasional acorn dropped and rolled down the shingles. Felt pennants covered the ceiling’s log braces, mementos from family trips taken during our parents’ youth.
Bacon sizzled and frying eggs crackled in the old Sunbeam electric frying pan perched atop the stove, a thick covering of paper toweling beneath its black, plastic legs. Grandma, Mom or Aunt Carol stood over the pan, wielding tongs or a spatula.
Outside, a single fishing boat whined by, like the sound of the mosquito that had followed me to bed the previous night. The vessel’s bow sliced through still waters, sending a series of ripples across the satin surface.
Julie and I hauled green and orange plastic placemats out to the pine picnic table in the screened porch. We coordinated them with Fiestaware bowls, cups and plates in fire orange, butter yellow and wedgewood blue. We folded napkins and tucked them beneath the forks.
We would run down to the lake for a quick stop before we ate. After stringing up the hammock and setting out the seat cushions, we’d sit on the cool flagstone lip of the seawall and search for treasures the morning sun illuminated in the shallows. Crayfish explored the sandy bottom and schools of minnows darted through the waves that lapped against the wall. Andy and Fred tried to catch fish by plopping worm-covered hooks in front of perch hiding in the shadows under the pier.
After breakfast, we’d walk the old, cracking pavement road that wound through the woods, past a variety of modest summer cabins. The lane disintegrated to dirt and sand at a “no trespassing” sign that Grandma always ignored. Eventually the route reconnected to a public road that circled back to the cottage. Leaves rustled overhead, allowing bits of sunlight to sneak through the forest canopy to dance along our path.
Grandma taught us white pines bear five-needle clusters and red pines have two. She showed us “snapper” bushes loaded with plump pods that we rolled between our fingers until they burst open with summer’s energy. We’d snack on the bounty from blackberry bushes growing wild along our route.
Lake Kawaguesaga never warmed. We’d tough out the initial frigid shock and then splash around until we turned blue. We’d sprawl out on lawn chairs until warm enough to jump in again. Usually one of the basset hounds ended up in the water with us, his rinse after the requisite bath to banish the odors from another roll in dug-up fish guts.
A day couldn’t pass without a boat ride. In our youthful exuberance, we crowded in the open bow. Our wet hair slapped against our faces and wind roared past our ears until Dad slowed for the no-wake zones around the bridges.
Sometimes we rode the boat to Minocqua, docked at Bosacki’s and roamed the town’s main street. Back then, we loitered in two stores: candy and toys.
Dan’s Gay 90’s fudge shop offered the ordinary and the exotic in candies and ice cream flavors. We loved the cinnamon jaw breakers, whereas Grandma preferred black licorice and lemon drops. The fudge making process fascinated me—from its copper kettles to the long metal bars that kept the cooling fudge from running off the marble counters.
Money burning holes in our pockets, we’d bypass the front half of the dime store and roam the back aisles where shelves stacked to the ceiling displayed every toy imaginable. Usually I spent my time and dollars on accessories for my stable of Barbie dolls.
On occasion Julie and I joined the guys on fishing expeditions, but usually we stayed at the cottage. We’d watch our fathers and brothers load the fishing boat with tackle boxes and rods, cartons of worms, a minnow bucket and an anchor. We’d wave goodbye and soak up the sun, enjoying lakeside time with Grandpa and Grandma.
Serenity settled over the lake at nightfall, along with darkness so solid I couldn’t see my own hand on a moonless night. Loon calls echoed over the water, reminding me of a melancholy I would not understand until much older. We filled the evenings with games of Liverpool Rummy and popping corn in the fireplace.
Life. Laughter. Love.
Grandma sold the cottage a few years before she died. The new owners “remodeled” our beloved retreat and replaced its charm with utility, reminding me of slapping a paint-by-numbers picture over a Monet canvas.
We no longer drive by. The sight hurts too much.
The cottage and Grandma are melded into our DNA. We carry with us memories so vivid and extraordinary that we ache from their beauty. In the rare times we’re all together, the stories surface, like bubbles in water. They pour forth and the laughter reminds us once again of the joys we shared as a family.
Perfect moments in our imperfect lives.