Going to my Grandfather’s cottage on the lake holds fond memories for me. It was a long drive north with stops to see the bears who were caged next to gas stations in an attempt to bring in the tourist crowd.It was back in the 60’s before PITA and other such organizations existed and as a result bears who had lost their mothers became entertainment for bored little kids traveling the backroads in old station wagons. Kids like me.
I still remember the blue Rambler pulling up to the cabin. The smell of the leaves and the fresh clean air. And mushrooms “Don’t touch those!!!! They may be poisonous!!!” poking their heads out from under rocks and growing alongside north facing tree trunks. I can still remember the loons calling out a greeting from the lake below while squirrels flew like acrobats from tree top to tree top. And I recall the sun filtering through the leaves making them light up like the colors found in a stained glass window. No doubt about it there was beauty and tranquility no matter which way you turned. All of it was amazing in the eyes of a six-year-old kid.
After being released from the confines of the car the first thing I would see in the cabin was the old refrigerator that stood guard in the service porch. It smelled musty and was in desperate need of air. My mother would clean up inside while my father would go after the spiders whose webs were proportional to the amount of months that had gone by since the last visit. Of course, there was no television, so my sister and I would go outside to chase leaves, find critters, and do the things six year olds do while in the woods. It was a time of discovery and a place where life slowed down to a crawl.
Memories fill my mind of this special time in my life. I remember the day my father laid his head down on the pillow to go to sleep and inside was a mouse nest filled with babies. I remember a green frosted cake. I remember Chippy the Chipmunk who would scurry over to take peanuts out of my hand as I sat barely breathing on the porch. This is the place I first learned how to swim in waters so cool it took your breath away. This is the place I learned that the sandy bottom of the lake felt silky like the fuzz on the ear of a puppy. This is the place I learned how to dive and this place was where I first got the sense of my own self. I loved this cottage in the woods.
Unfortunately, my grandfather died when I was six and the cottage was sold soon after. He had been the outdoorsman not my grandmother. The trees held little meaning for her as did the hunting. It was the water that captured her attention. Yes, the water was her thing and every day started in the same manner for her. She would arise early in the morning, make a cup of bitter black coffee, and head down to the lake. I can still picture the daily the ritual of my grandmother trying to pull a too tight rubber bathing cap down over her head while snapping off the cheap rubber flowers that lined the outside in her hast to be the first one to produce a ripple on the sheen of the sleepy and slowing awakening lake. Yet, my dreams about this place are short and often disappear in confusion … gone the way of bathing caps… which are now regarded as relics and left to rot in a box on a museum shelf somewhere.
Anyway, with these recollections comes a distortion of the truth which often occurs in a young girls mind. For instance I remember a yellow cottage…it was red. I remember it being HUGE. It was tiny. And I know all of this because for years I had told B about this special place, the place of my youth. But what really stood out in my mind about the cabin were the million steps that it took to get from the cabin down to the lake. Yes, you could have hooked me up to a lie detector and I would have passed…there were a million steps top to bottom.That was the one thing in life that I was absolutely certain of.
Then one year we were visiting my grandmother. By then she was living in a nursing home and she had lost her only daughter, my mother. So B and I asked her how to get to the cottage. We both wanted to see this place that built so many happy memories for me.
“You’ll never find it,” she said. “I guess I will just have to go up there and show it to you myself!”
So my 84-year-old grandmother plunked herself into the front seat of the car and we took off. The roads were better than they once were and we made it there in record time. But by there I mean the lake not the cottage because as we stood in front of three of them which lined the lake she didn’t know which one it was and neither did I.
“Well, we’ll just have to go find the one-armed man who built the place for us. He’ll know. Never saw a man who could hammer faster and better than him,” my grandmother muttered.
And so we set out for his place. We were unsure where he was located or even if he would still be alive but as luck would have it there was an ancient one-armed man standing next to a bright red mail box alongside the road and my grandmother charmed the information right out of him. So back we went over slick rutted roads…this time to the right cottage sitting in the right place.
It was wintertime and it was bitterly cold, yet, we trampled the snow and the decaying leaves around the cabin trying to peek through the blinds which lined the windows. I was trying to see inside just enough to grab tight to the memories that were floating around somewhere in my head. And then it came to me. I could gather those memories by way of the steps down to the lake…all one million of them.
So I raced around to the back of the cabin looking for a very long stairway leading down the hill to the lake. The one with the millions treads. The one that it used to take half-a-day to climb from top to bottom when I was a little kid. Yet, it was not to be found. Instead, I saw an old rickety set of stairs, hidden in the trees, twisted with age, descending down the hill towards the water. So I began to count the stairs…it didn’t take long. For there were only 14.
I have to confess that am not sure when 14 stairs became one million in my mind. Perhaps it was as my chubby three year old legs had to take so many steps between the steps leading up the hill. Or maybe it was when the horseflies were out and you couldn’t get up the hill fast enough. All I know is that there were once one million stairs and you cannot convince the six-year-old in me otherwise. Never. Ever.
Not surprisingly, I have found that when you venture back to the past you find it is never how you left it. For better or for worse it will have changed. Yet, our memories often remain the same, stuck in a place we want to remember rather than in one that actually existed. And I’m okay with that because childhood memories should be some of the best memories of our lives. They should be the memories that were created in a simple time that was free from expectations and fear. They should be the recollections made when hope was still alive and when our imaginations ran free. A time when conquering the world was doable and when our kryptonite could be found in a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie. For childhood memories are precious, even though imprecise, and they are what motivates us to create a world the way we would like to see it rather than the way that it is. And even though one million steps may seem insurmountable when you are six, one day you come to realize that a million steps isn’t as daunting as you once thought all thanks to the memories created during a simpler time in our lives.