Our family gathers in a circle under velvety darkness, the starry canopy above, the lake lapping at the shoreline and the campfire brightly burning in the center. Sitting just so, all distractions are minimized, togetherness maximized. Such sublime moments grace us with a foretaste of glory divine.
The lighthouse, trout farm, boat rides, jet skis, the lake swims, nature hikes and campfires were Michigan rites of summer brought to us by Evelyn, my sister and her college sweetheart Paul, whom she married. After the young couple moved from Indiana up near Detroit where Paul was raised, we discovered the marriage came with a lake cottage in northern Michigan. This cottage earned Paul our immediate forgiveness for taking Evelyn so far away from us.
Evelyn is one of my older sisters whom I affectionately consider one of three mothers who raised us along with my sister Mary and our actual mother. A decade or so older than the younger half of the family, Evelyn did her part to keep us in line, getting us ready for church, and reading stories from "The Bobbsey Twins" and a C.S. Lewis collection. Her occasional sisterly pinch under the table warned us, "You better watch it. Do not try Dad's patience further and ruin family dinner."
Evelyn, always a generous heart, convinced our busy missionary-pastor-professor father to take the rare week off work and bring the whole family up north to the cottage. My two older brothers Richard and Bill were holding down jobs in the cornfields and local tree nursery. The younger half of our family consisted of me, the twins James and Joanne and the youngest sister Rebecca. We were too young to have real jobs, and instead were assigned tedious chores of folding laundry, digging weeds and sweeping floors. The tallest order being to stay alive while mom and dad work at the church headquarters.
We managed to stay alive those summers despite our favorite pastimes of running amok, hunting down pop bottles to return for coins needed to swim at the local pool with its crumbling cement, collecting wandering pets we would temporarily claim as our own and scouting out the underground trails of forbidden storm sewers.
I longed for adventure somewhere, anywhere lest I be inventing stories for the perennial first school essay, "How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” My lack of true adventure had previously led to writing grandiose stories and defending their total fabrication against my classmates raising hands to tattle, "Nuh-uh, she never did do any of that. She did not go to Paris or ride any elephant at the zoo." Essay points earned for imagination took a hit from those taken off for blatant dishonesty. I needed my own adventures to recount.
The lake cottage at the end of a long drive up to Michigan awaits. It is our great escape and cache full of enough natural wonders to write action filled essays of true adventure for weeks on end once back at school.
Settling in at the cottage with the first swim, first boat ride and first campfire, the next day brings a trek to the sparkling white and red lighthouse at Sturgeon Point on Lake Huron. Racing up the spiral staircase to the very top, the wall of windows greets us with great imaginings that we are keepers of the light as lighthouse captains of yore. Racing back down the staircase, running freely through the feathery beach grass to wade at the Point, we fill buckets with the most beautifully smooth stones ever seen. These are nothing like the grey sharp gravel we pick from our knees when we wreck a bicycle in the back alley behind our Indiana home. And this is one of those rare times when no one reprimands, "Don't touch. Put that back." We are millionaires with our buckets full of smoothly patterned stones.
In a nearby sleepy lake town, we investigate the shops and bookstores, our favorite, Ye Old Ice Cream Shoppe, selling Mackinac Island fudge and rocky road, we order "Mack-i-nack" fudge ice cream, mispronouncing Mackinac with an "ack" sound at the end instead of "aw,” much to the delight of the server eager to correct such a touristy error. "It's pronounced Mackinawwww. Mackinaw Island, Mackinaw fudge."
We visit a local trout farm where fishing is rather like shooting fish in a barrel which delights us wiggly youngsters not having grown into the patience of real fishing, sitting quietly in a boat, relaxing on a pier or standing in a stream casting for evasive rainbow trout. It's all victory giggles catching trout with the drop of a line, whether we remember to bait the hook or not. The trout leap out of the water at the line before it breaks the surface. The odds are forever in our favor at the trout farm.
Fresh juicy cherries from a roadside stand are an ideal snack for hikes through the woods. We climb a small rise and spot a family of young raccoons, peeping at us from a high vantage point in a tall tree demonstrating how kids of all species do not value sleep. Butterflies dance in the wildflowers, eagles soar in the sky, and time around the campfire warms us each night.
Clear days end with the family gathering around the fire and it's a marvel from start to finish. A suggestion of flame from the match catches a scrap of paper, the flames grow and ignite the smaller sticks until the larger logs burst into flames and a fire is born. Chocolate squares and graham crackers await while roasting sticks are loaded with marshmallows. After a few sticky s'mores, story time begins with retelling all the events of the day. What we saw, where we went. Who wiped out the worst while learning to water ski. Who still needs to lean just so to perfect the slalom. Who has rug burns from the inner tube rides.
The fire crackles. It draws us in and mesmerizes, the lake laps at the shoreline. We stretch out in the boat to stare up at the night sky like Abraham of old watching the shooting stars too numerous to count. Then return to the fire for more stories, a song, more laughter--our voices ring out across the lake. In the exuberance of youth, we don't want the day to end. We don't want the fire to go out. It will never be the same as right now. Everyone is so happy. Here we are together in perfect harmony.
Someone put another log on the fire. Just one more, please? The log is gently placed and sparks fly. The bark quickly catches fire and steam escapes with a gentle hiss. The seasoned log provides another precious hour of campfire time together. One more song, one more story until we stumble indoors to enjoy peaceful slumber at the end of a perfect day in the cottage by the lake.
As seasons pass the cottage is still in the family. We have grown and our own young ones have become well-seasoned in the rites of summer at the lake cottage in Michigan. Another generation revels in local haunts by day and delights in the nightly campfires.
Ev and Paul have been caring for the lake cottage for a long time. They have continually made improvements and extended generous hospitality and eventually grow weary with the money pit the cottage seems to have become. They consider relocating to a different perhaps newer lake house on the trendier west side of the state.
On the other side of this process they realize their roots for the cottage go very deep. They are attached to the quaint quiet of the cottage. This is their repaired seawall, improved dock, their family stories which have sweetened over the years. Evelyn, an experienced birder, has an expanding list of birds from visits to Tuttle Marsh: American bittern, cormorant, eagle, loon, osprey, sandhill crane, swans to name a few.
Paul shares memories of coming up to the land by the lake when he was seven, with his father, Frank, and older brother, Ron, before the cottage existed. The brothers occupy themselves while Frank builds the cottage with his own hands and singular ingenuity. Paul chuckles as he remembers the story of how he and Ron fill their time on one of these trips. They find Frank's giant magical measuring tape. It pulls out of its case and snaps back. The young boys man the tape skillfully. Pulling and unwinding with glee; running and wrapping it from tree to tree hither and yon counting off the numbers on the yellow tape 15, 20, 25 . . . how high does it go? At sixty-feet of unwound measuring tape decorating round and round the trees, their father checks on them, sizes up the destruction and calls out in dismay as the unwound tape is bent and stretched beyond measure. An exasperated Frank loads Ron and Paul back into the car. He drives home feeling defeated, unable to measure anything and wondering how the cottage will ever be built at this rate. However, Frank does not give up. He determinedly builds, and builds and builds the cottage so well that it eventually becomes a special destination sheltering family and friends and creating summer memories for generations.
After a while the cottage is up for sale again. No buyers appear. We all continue to enjoy time there. Paul alternates between listing the cottage and taking it off the market. He fixes whatever needs fixing season after season. Then suddenly this summer, a buyer appears who wants to buy the cottage. Right now. The immediacy of the sale is eminent. Paul and Ev process the details and empty the cottage of all but its beds and patio furniture for the new owner. They are grateful for the buyer, but obviously forever attached to the place. We all are.
They find new homes for some items and call trucks from donation places for the remainder. The jet skis get loaded onto the trailer and driven off by a new owner. The boat gets sold. Days at the cottage are coming to an end.
We long for one last night around the crackling fire. We remember treks to the light house, the trout farm, swimming in the lake and hiking through the woods and the campfires at the end of the day. What bliss.
The campfire gives us something to join when the day is over before we are. Come join us around the fire, friends and family. The story telling begins. Reflections of the day and days long past. Remember when you finally stood up on those skis? Remember when you wiped out in those reeds?
The simple mesmerizing beauty of the fire always draws us. Smoke gets in our eyes as our voices and laughter ring out across the lake. We don't want the day to end. We don't want the fire to go out. We are watching and waiting, looking above, filled with his goodness lost in his love.