During my recent visit home to Central New York, “home” wasn’t actually the first place I stopped.
You see, my niece and nephew were staying with Grandma and Grampa while their parents moved to Boston, and my folks thought it would be a shame for little Izzy to spend her birthday with no one around but her old grandparents, her boring uncle and her stinky brother.
Instead, they picked me up at the the train station in Syracuse and bundled us off to my grandparents’ cottage on Keuka Lake, where there would be many aunts, uncles, cousins, and even a Great-Grandma.
In one sense, it was a detour on the road, but in another, it was as much of a homecoming as the one I’d originally had planned.
Growing up, I spent about half of every summer in this cottage:
This was the view from my front porch:
Several times a summer, we would drive down from Camden, passing such landmarks as The Big Smokestack and The Belly Road. We’d arrive on a Friday evening, a big Pudgie’s sheet pizza would be on the kitchen table, and my aunts and uncles would all be up from Corning. Sometimes we’d go home after only a few days (calendars? Days of the week? What strange words you use.). Others, we would stay a whole week or more.
I say “we”, but my father generally couldn’t stay during the working week. When I was very young, he was supporting the family on a young teacher’s salary, so he had to pick up extra dough during the summer by painting houses. When I was a little older, he was a Principal at several area schools at once, so he had very little actual time off. Sometimes my mother would go home with him and leave us with my grandparents, sometimes she would stay.
The weekends might have made the cottage a seething hive of relatives, but the weeks were very quiet. Everyone with a job had to go home.
I learned how to swim at that lake. I can’t remember exactly when; I was too young. All I have are vague memories of being encouraged to jump off the dock into someone’s arms (I needed more encouraging than you might think, but not because I was afraid…a deep* glacial lake like Keuka never really does get warm). I learned how to water ski. I read The Hobbit for the first time while lying in a hammock on that lower deck.
One summer, my brother and I received “explorer’s kits” for Christmas, complete with canteens, cheap binoculars and the like. My father and a few uncles took us over to wander in the woods on the bluff point. That may have been the first and last time those kits were put to their intended use.
A few summers later, my brother and I took it into our heads to swim across to the Bluff Point. Distances are deceiving over water. Swimming a mile is much different than walking one.
Not all the memories are good: there was the night that I coughed so hard and so violently that my mother took me out into the car to sleep. Not long after, we visited a doctor and discovered my rather serious allergies to dust, pollen, mold and mildew, all of which could be found in good quantity at the cottage (the latter two in the basement only, but that was enough).
Late in the summer, the weather would turn cold and rainy, so we would all gather in the living room, around the fireplace, and try not to be too disappointed that the summer was ending with a whimper.
As my age neared double digits, I was annoyed by the ever-increasing number of younger cousins…and distressed by the older ones who didn’t come any more. Then, as I entered the land of double digits myself, it happened to me. I started to mow lawns around Camden to earn extra money, and I couldn’t just spend a week at the Lake. My sisters also had activities that tied them more and more inextricably to Camden, NY over the summer, and my brother outstripped all of us. Instead of driving to the Lake, we rode our bikes out to the swimming hole on Blakesley Road.
By the time I was a junior in High School and working at Sylvan Beach Amusement Park, my parents had purchased the camp on Panther Lake that would later be rebuilt into their retirement home. Instead of riding along the Belly Road in the back of a station wagon, I was piloting an ancient Ford LTD through the night-black woods around Bernhard’s Bay, NY. We went to Keuka (no longer the only Lake) only maybe once or twice a summer after that.
(During one of those visits, after my sophomore year at college, my brother performed the famous Diving Save which is still spoken of to this day. Picture this: several of us are just hanging out down on the beach. We hear a splash; my brother dives on his belly at the end of the dock, plunges his hand into the chilly Memorial Day water, pulls out a dripping two-year-old cousin, and…everything goes back to normal. If you can’t turn off the panic after an emergency is over, you have no business being around little kids. That cousin is now a huge man and in his own freshman year of college.)
After I graduated college, I seldom went back at all. I’ve been back maybe five times in the last fourteen years.
One thing you need to know about me, as you follow me into this series of posts about my past, is that I have a peculiar flaw: people, places and things are forever fixed in my mind as they were when I was last seeing them regularly. My brother is forever a hell-raising teenager, except when I actually see him with his wife and kids (it doesn’t help that he still likes his booze and half-mad stunts as much as he did back then, when he can find the time for them). My younger sister is forever fourteen, even though she’s an emergency-room doctor who’s getting married next month.
With that in mind, when I went to the lake with my nephew and niece, when I went swimming and walked along the lake road, I was returning to a time that I wasn’t much older than them.
It was just that, mysteriously, everyone had gone gray around me.
* When I say deep, I mean deep. If you didn’t visit the Wikipedia link, the average depth of the lake is 101 feet. I remember my uncle Barney taking myself, several cousins, and an ex out on a boat ride. It was a hot day, so we stopped for a swim. She asked how deep it was where we were swimming, and when Barney answered “75 Feet”, she became nervous. Don’t know why. She could’ve drowned in five.