By Kimberly Habicht
We were in the backyard, surrounded by every variety and incarnation of wood (trees, bushes, logs, sticks, twigs, kindling) that could possibly exist. Some pieces half-decomposed, some dry- perfect for making a fire. Some too large and heavy for me to lift.
And there I was: Sisyphus doomed to eternally roll the rock up the hill, just to watch it fall back down. Instead of a rock, though, I was picking up every stick, in a yard that seemed to regenerate sticks in some supernatural prank on me.
But, my grandmother demanded that the sticks be cleared out of the front yard, so my cousins and I toiled on, our tiny child-lungs sighing in protest, until not a twig could be found.
And then we were free to tirelessly run around the lakehouse, from the dock to the playground. Shrieking and playing kick-the-can or capture the flag, like we were part of the wildlife. We were free to scream boundlessly; we were in the middle of nowhere.
My grandparents bought the lakehouse when I was 15 months old. It was a grand wooden A-frame situated on a lake in western Maryland, three hours from D.C. It was enveloped by trees and hydrangea bushes and pockets of brilliant flowers. My grandmother was one of those gardeners whose craft should fall in the same category as magician.
In the earlier years of my memories, my grandpa could be seen from his bedroom window gazing down on us in the front yard from the second story, like we were his subjects. He had been sick with diabetes for as long as I had known him. It was an ordeal to even transport him the two hours west from Frederick, where we lived. When he did make it out, he usually rested in his room.
Often, I would fantasize about becoming stuck, stranded, at the lakehouse for some extravagant reason. My favorite was the apocalypse daydream: a bomb hit my home, my family rushed into the thick of Western Maryland. I’d start a garden. I could read through all the Encyclopedia Britannica. I’d watch the only movie (Matilda) we had on VHS without abandon.
With no cable, no phone and no news, the property was scenery for a Twilight Zone episode. It was at once haunted and terrifying- especially to me as a skittish child- and heavenly and charming. I soaked in the dreamlike quality of the air, absent of the noise of traffic or engines or city. Only sounds as perfect as the ones that come out of a white noise machine.
Work ethic was passed down through my family like a gene. While my grandmother tended to her lilies of the valley, magnolias and hydrangeas, I would sweep the deck clean of pine needles. My mother would be doing some elaborate electrical or mechanical work. My younger brother, Andrew, would have probably been tasked with some sort of job that included machinery – a saw, a leaf-blower, a lawnmower. He’d resist, and groan on about what he’d rather be doing back home, but I saw the smile on his face when he got to use the exciting, dangerous equipment.
I’d help my grandmother wrap her bushes in autumn with mesh netting so that the herds of deer didn’t eat the leaves. I would watch the tenderness on her face as she methodically wrapped each bush. She called her plants her babies, and regarded them with delicate, matronly care. When I water my own measly, usually dying, plants, I think of her. From time to time, I notice the tenderness that she radiated coming off of me.
I was in high school the first time I was allowed to take friends up to the lakehouse alone. The finagling it took to talk my grandmother into letting us go up was mazelike and deceptive. She had never let a grandchild bring their friends up un-chaperoned, and it was perfectly clear that the purpose of our trip wasn’t to tend to her garden. So many truths, half-truths, and full-out lies were strung together aimlessly that I actually jotted out what I was telling her in a notebook, so I didn’t forget and misspeak. I told her that my friend had his boating license; in actuality, he had driven his uncle’s boat once. I thoughtfully omitted the fact that a few of my friends were twenty-one. Thinking back on it, I feel sick with dishonesty. But the labyrinth of deceptions worked, and on some Friday in June, my friends packed my thrashed Subaru Forester full of backpacks, towels, hamburgers and thirties of beer, and we cruised the country roads west.
As soon as I opened the door to the lakehouse, and let the ten or so scraggled teenagers stomp through the living room, I felt wildly off-put.
To them, this place held no magic. None of them saw the lazy-boy recliner as grandpa’s chair, where he would sit in his flannel jackets and watch TV. I can barely remember his face now- I have to be reminded through pictures of what he looked like- but I do remember his presence in that chair, constant.
They didn’t notice the precious decorations- the model boats, the dolls from Costa Rica, the antique guns- that I had admired and studied when I was younger. They walked in and popped the top on a Pabst Blue Ribbon and started looking for the grill. And I couldn’t blame them.
I looked around trying to see what they saw. The tightly spaced kitchen with an outdated oven and stove. The fridge with expired milk and jars of dangerously-aged condiments. The small figurines of Swede girls and cheerful blushed-cheek cows, all painted in red and blue and green. I, for the first time, saw them as yard-sale kitsch.
Detached, I watched my friends move tables and chairs to set up a beer pong game. As a child, the furniture seemed permanently set in the foundation. Now, I watched Emma easily orchestrate the movement of the furniture with swift directions. Move that lamp to the bedroom, push that stool over here.
Outside, Adam, ever the hooligan, shot-gunned a beer and tossed the can. It landed precariously on top of my grandmother’s flowers. I winced as I remembered the hours that spring that my grandmother had spent laboring over her cherished plants. I looked up to see Adam’s penetrating smile, with joy spilling off of his face.
And I watched Karolina filling the cooler with beer, now that the fridge had reached capacity. I saw my mom packing apple juice and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch at the dock. Karolina crammed the cheap, vile-tasting beer into the battered cooler with nonchalance.
I shook the reverie away. With people making their way through my house like germs, I had to tend to the present.
I knew I couldn’t transfer my feelings of guilt and remorse onto my friends. Work ethic, morality and duty were, and are, an integral part of my being, like a bone. But my family also taught me the importance of fun. And, I had already opened the doors to my sacred church and let the sinners in; I couldn’t allow them to leave without showing them the light.
So I showed everyone Uno’s on the lake, the Lakeside Creamery and the diner where Andrew and I would get heaping glasses of chocolate milkshakes served alongside breakfast. I took them on the boat, where we fried our skin like eggs and listened to the radio.
We went on a walk after dark. This had been the place where I first experienced the blanketing glow of a huge, white full moon. The kind of glow that makes a moment inherently intimate. The sky held a solid stillness that looked fake, like it was a painting.
Even now, though I had been drinking beer all day, I still remember the look of everyone’s faces in the moonlight. I feel seventeen-year-old me, soaking in the moments that I had with these people before I left for college. We had shared years and years of our lives together, and now I was choosing to leave them. The least I could do was share this hidden piece of myself, this sacred ground, and have them revel in it with me.
The amount of times my friends have said, “Remember that time at the lakehouse…” since then constantly warms my heart.
Sacred things weren’t meant to be kept secret. Religion, universal truths. They’re all better when shared. I had to share the lakehouse, even if it meant betraying my own perfect image of it.
Now, I remember the innocence of my youth and the debauchery of my coming-of-age side by side, in a place that will remain sacred and solid in my memories.