A Lake of Memory Revisited

Cold rain mists the windshield of the old station wagon as I drive north on Route 8 toward the Berkshires. The wiper blades swish off linden and magnolia leaves that have dropped onto it from the trees in our yard. A carmine maple leaf, patent-leather slick, adheres just beyond their sweep.

I'm adhering, too, performing the annual feat of closing our summer cottage. This year, again, I'm alone, because the rest of the family have defected to their urban work, saved once more from dealing with well pumps, inedible food, and house-hunting mice.

When I suggest to my husband and married sons that our families' limited vacation time and distant homes might mean we should sell the cottage, I hear a unanimous protest.

The station wagon and I have made this trip a hundred times in the last 15 years, and we take the curving road in wide swings, through the panorama of Colebrook Reservoir, up the urban blocks of Otis, and toward a sign announcing Becket.

Suddenly, out of the past, I seem to hear my childish voice asking, ``Mommy, are we in Nisswa now?''

My parents and big brother and I had been driving for many hours in our 1939 Ford - ``going to the lake'' - and had just seen a sign that my father told me said ``Minnesota.'' I was 5, and I couldn't figure out why, if we were in Minnesota, we were not also in Nisswa, since Nisswa is in Minnesota, too.

Until recently, I couldn't figure out why Becket was not what it should be, either.

The wagon and I traverse another stretch of winding highway, then turn down the gravel road to our cottage. The rain has stopped; I roll down the window to feel the crisp air, degrees colder than in the city. Two summer cottages are already shuttered. I continue on the road to the lake, and park at the back of our house. Or is it the front, as half the family always argues?

Crisp leaves mound in the corners of the deck; bugs swing in spider-web hammocks. The key turns smoothly in the strong lock of the front door.

Inside, it is warm and dim and, thankfully, clean-smelling and dry. When I draw open the drapes covering the picture window, the lake appears to be unfolding as if on a movie screen. Red, gold, and green shimmer in the water, reflections of the autumnal hill on the far side. From the first day I saw this Becket ``pond,'' it reminded me of Nisswa. It is my lake of memory revisited.

In the solitude, I think of another day when I was a five-year-old at Nisswa. ``I'm going down to the lake, Mommy,'' I said.

I walked along the sandy path, carrying my small perforated bucket. Behind me on the porch, my mother rocked and talked with her aunts. Sitting on the warm boards of the dock, I trolled my bucket in the foaming shallows and hoped for minnows. The day before, I had caught my first sunfish, with a bamboo pole. After I showed it to everybody and had my picture taken with it, my mother dipped it into cornmeal and fried it for me to eat all by myself.

The story persists that I drank half the lake the summer they taught me to swim. For the record, there is a snapshot of me thrashing my legs in the water, held afloat by Aunt Gertie in a one-piece black bathing costume and rubber cap.

That was also the year Uncle Charlie took me out alone in the rowboat and showed me how to paddle quietly, dipping my oars straight down into the water and smoothly pulling them back and up without splashing.

Now at Becket, I look long and hard at the kaleidoscope of colors through the window, taking mental photos for winter retrieval. Finally, I strip the beds, empty the refrigerator, and get ready to pack up the wagon. It's actually easy work, since there's a portable vacuum cleaner and plenty of hot water.

Half a century ago at Nisswa, there was neither electricity nor running water. Aunt Gertie showed me how to prime the water pump in the kitchen in the morning so we could fill the iron teakettle. There was never any colder water in the world, or any sweeter. We put the kettle on the wood-burning stove, which was always glowing, ready to receive the blueberry pies and pork roasts the aunties prepared.

We ate dinner at midday on the screened back porch, from a big harvest table covered with oilcloth. The aunties filled and refilled the blue-and-white plates to the refrain of ``Have some more. There's plenty. Let's finish it up.'' After dessert, I waited to see Uncle Charlie stretch the cream into his coffee, raising the pitcher high above his cup and lowering it just as the liquid reached the brim. I sat with my back to the icebox and could hear the big cake of ice dripping into the pan beneath.

The Minnesota evenings cooled quickly, and there were extra sweaters for all of us inside a window box in the living room. There, scratchy ancient woolens smelled as old as the Persian throw rugs on the floor.

As darkness came, the kerosene lamps were lighted. I learned how to trim the wicks and was allowed to replace the fragile Welsbach mantles. Uncle Charlie poked at the fragrant pine logs, and I lay on the floor, wrapped in an antique sweater, watching the flames and listening to the adults talking.

I had my favorites among the smoothly rounded stones that formed the fireplace. My great uncles had carried them from the lake when my mother was little, soon after they bought the land from a Minnesota tribe.

I'm about finished with my closing-up chores at Becket. I go down to the sunroom that opens directly onto the lawn, a hundred feet from the lapping water. I check the downstairs bedroom and bath, then click off the circuit breakers.

On the drive home, I reflect that summer is abruptly over. But my heart knew that long ago.

My brother came to visit recently, and we regaled each other with our childhood memories of Nisswa. It was then I realized what was missing for me at Becket: Uncle Charlie and Aunt Gertie. Our parents and the '39 Ford. The generations of my family with their collected memories. The cottage at Nisswa, long since sold to strangers.

Becket has never given me back the summers I longed for. It has given me only life-as-usual, but in a different place, with more nature and less technology. The reality I haven't accepted is that I'm no longer a child in summertime.

I was too young to know if the great aunts and uncles were truly contented at Nisswa. Had they found J. M. Barrie's ``golden ladder'' that led them back to childhood? Is that how they worked such magic on two generations of nieces and nephews? And did they ever know what a gift they gave us? I doubt we knew ourselves until years later.

An hour and a half later, I am home and have parked the wagon under the shedding trees. The cottage is now as clean and impersonal as a motel room.

Yet, with sudden insight, I accept a new reality: Becket is the essence of childhood summer for our sons. Fifteen summers on Center Pond, many more than I had at Nisswa, are what they will think about as they plan futures that will include summers at Becket for their families. They will not have to look for something to take its place, as I have done.

I unpack one last item from the cottage. It is a little blue plate, somewhat stained, and very old. ``What would you like to take back with you from Nisswa, Susie?'' I hear Aunt Gertie asking me from half a century ago.

``The lake,'' I whisper.

``I can't give you the lake,'' she says, hugging me. ``But I'll let you choose a blue plate to remind you of it.''

I stand the plate up on a rack in my modern kitchen. I can almost see the blueberry pie on it.

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