You enter through the screen door closest to the road. (Is this the backdoor? Front door? It’s an ongoing debate.) The door is original to the structure and shuts with a satisfying snap. Framed in green painted wood, its screen dates from another era in which I can only assume the small mesh screens we now take for granted were not available. Rather, the door is covered in an ineffectual thin metal grate over which, at some point, my grandfather stapled “regular” screen to help keep the bugs out. The whole camp is like this: time on display through layers of accumulated DIY fixes.
A yellowed index card thumbtacked just inside the front/back door reads: “Don’t let the cat out, no matter what she tells you.” This will confuse you as you weren’t aware there was a cat. There isn’t. The sign dates from another era, but no one has thought to take it down. No one will. Joint ownership of this property results in a collage effect. Everyone feels free to add a little something; no one believes it is within their right to edit.
The use of the word “camp” to describe a summer home is a funny bit of regional dialect that fails to translate from the East Coast to the Midwest. Throughout my childhood setting out for my grandparents’ cabin—camp—in the Adirondack mountains necessitated a great deal of explaining. No, my grandparents didn’t run a youth camp. No, we weren’t going camping. How to communicate what we were up to?
To this day, the question holds. How to explain what I am up to when my own family makes the annual trek each August? How to explain that we have forsaken the nearby bucolic hills of Wisconsin and the neighboring dunes of the Michigan shore for a fourteen-hour car ride to some place no one has ever heard of? (Maybe it was sensitivity borne of having to over-explain the camp thing, but no one in my Chicago childhood ever seemed to have heard of the Adirondacks either.) Over time I have figured out how to distill the trip down to some translatable features: “We have a pontoon boat for water skiing…the boys just live in the lake…” but I feel like I am doing the camp a disservice. Water recreation is completely beside the point. We aren’t going boating. We are going home.
The camp is the only place I know that still has a phone with a spiral cord. To use this phone you have to stay put in my grandmother’s rocking chair and hold a conversation, as my mother would say, “right there in front of God and everybody.” Here you remain for the duration of the call, absentmindedly threading your finger through the coils of the cord, rocking, listening, and contemplating the view.
Upstairs, on the closet doorframe in a tiny bedroom with steep eaves, my children’s heights are notated in pencil, accompanied by identifying initials and the corresponding year. We forget a lot of summers, but we remember often enough to make some record, and to amaze my husband and me at how small they used to be. Already my tall teenagers are unable to stand fully upright in parts of this room.
The camp is the place my uncle came out of the closet, and my parents spent their honeymoon (not the same week). It is where I learned to swim and feel the slippery, juicy body of a worm as I doubled it over a fishing hook. It is where my boys stood stock still so as not to startle a spotted fawn in the lane, and squealed in squirming delight when they caught their first hoppy toad. It is the smell of campfire and pine, and the taste of gin and tonics. It has been home to the biggest fights in my family, the most abiding joys. Rifts and reunions that happened there before I was born left indelible marks on my life. In my time I have laughed and cried and slept better within its walls than anywhere else in my life.
The bottom of the dry sink downstairs (a cabinet of sorts…more language requiring explanation) contains: my grandparents’ wedding album, some mosquito netting, spare light bulbs that do not work in any indoor or outdoor lamp we can find, spare vacuum bags for a vacuum that no longer resides there, and my father’s ashes in a granite box. Every summer I intend to clean out and empty the contents of the dry sink, but that would mean knowing fully and finally what has been saved, and what has been lost. I prefer the dry sink remain a place of infinite hope and possibility.
Not everyone ends up in the dry sink. Two years ago, on a rainy September Saturday, we gathered to scatter my grandparents’ ashes. Each of us took a portion out into the drizzle, and watched—with some horror—as the scattered ashes fell and clung to the wet leaves in the forest surrounding the yard. I had been thinking they would just sort of blow away in the wind, but they stayed and coated the shiny wet leaves in a gray film.
For all its awkward sadness, the gesture was completely right. A few summers ago, as my own family survived a brush with cancer, I realized that, while at the camp, it is possible to peaceably coexist with my mortality. In the mountains, a single human life is constantly contextualized, thrown into sharp relief by the ancient boulders and myriad stars. Here, a life is neither too small nor too big a matter. Back in Chicago small things take on life or death importance. But at the camp, this preoccupation and anxiety feels ridiculous and far too binary. In the mountains there is not life or death, but something far more cyclical and grand. Something both of and beyond us. When we came back the next summer not a trace of ash could be found.
Read about another Sacred Space.
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