Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Rattail Lake, 1975

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It was a summer marked by complex relationships, steamy weather, trips to lakes near our Midwest college town. Ned, my first husband, was completing a Masters in Sculpture. I was knee-deep in mothering kids (one twenty-six months and one seven months) and chores. And writing even a few lines a day at the table in the dark (the overhead light cast a dim yellowish tinge), linoleum-floored dining room. Infant Joshua and toddler Naomi made a world near my feet. Naomi scribbled with every crayon on butcher block paper, played with puzzles, built block towers. Josh chortled, worked on crawling and blew bubbles with milky spit. It was a messy nest of humans. I tried to keep it intact while Ned came and went.

My best friend Betty Jo and her spouse, John, also had a baby boy. We swapped breastfeeding info from the Le Leche League that I seldom used–my milk ran fast. We commiserated, congratulated each other on mothering naturally, hippie college-educated parenting. And I struggled with no longer being a student, restless and dreamy while doting on my children. I stood in the doorway, one on my hip and the other stuck to my ankle and looked up and down the street, at the green arching trees. How they shook and shimmied in the June wind, a duet of mysterious movement. The greenness was big enough to blind or thrill me with delight. We walked to the park with stroller bumping along,

I felt too often alone, but I was not alone. Most of our good friends lived on Pine Street or a couple blocks over in ramshackle two-story houses that students claimed with their communal lifestyles, Or as young families like us. It was good fortune to rent the green house on the corner. It had tall windows and decent sized rooms; worn, creaking floors and stairs; a grassy lot for a hibachi cook-out or to string the line for wet clothing and endless cloth diapers. The children reveled in the comfort and safety of lush grass. But it was July and getting too hot, and I wanted to get away. Get out awhile. I persevered through thunderstorms and mosquitoes and flowers bursting open and wilting. Then August came to a close and there were intimations of fall, the air crisper, the leaves drier. I was about ready to rethink nursing, a bit tired of milk saturating all, breasts almost too heavy for my slim length to carry. His big hunger which fattened him up, powered his engine to rev up more.

That sonn-upon-us winter was long. It carved an ice cave for my creative urges and I took shelter as I could. I wrote, danced with the babies, played my cello, dreamed of spring and another summer. I thought of lakes I adored as a youth, and my longing held scents of wildflowers and damp stones. I met with women friends to discuss feminist literature and plot how we could be the solution to inequities. I wrote poetry and taught the children songs, made art with them and romped, built igloos with packed snow, and melted tender flakes on our tongues.

The saving invitation didn’t come until the start of next summer, before we moved, close to when Ned got his Masters. Betty Jo invited us to meet up at Rattail Lake and was eagerly accepted. It was her parents’ property, a childhood haunt she shared at times. The children stayed with grandparents that 2-day week-end, a gift that surprised. Betty Jo’s and John’s son Jarrod was going along. I carefully packed bottles frozen with the last of breast milk, favorite toys, books and summer togs. As if it was a long trip. I looked back at them as we drove away, at their large blue eyes.

It was a private lake. Despite the name–I disliked rodents a great deal–it was a haven. A handful of family cabins nestled deep into woods surrounding the water. All were isolated. It was a closed community of fishermen and fisherwomen, of hunters, of solitary souls, of hardy people. And it felt like I had stepped into a foreign land.

Although I’d spent parts of countless summers at northern Michigan lakes, it was much different. Often crowded and more noisy than not: speed boats and water skiers (my self included), kids shouting as they let loose on the shores or dove from floating docks, dogs barking. Or plenty of organized activities, lots of fine arts. I loved all that. But this was another experience. Full of pine-tinged shadow that fell across bumpy dirt roads that meandered into nowhere to be seen. Chains across private drives, silence broken only by birdsong, the sounds of someone chopping wood, an occasional gunshot in the distance. It was a land where no one ruled but those who came claimed their piece. All others, beware–or, at least, step carefully.

It made me tremble inwardly as daylight thinned then vanished in jeweled hues beyond treetops. The foreignness sank in deeper; soon, it thrilled me. Ned was at home there; he had grown up in the country on open land and woodlands close by. I had grown up in artsy or church summer camps–and a town set apart by well cultivated charms. Betty Jo and John were at ease as they had hunted and fished often, knew the acreage. Jarrod ran around half-naked; his parents seemed unconcerned about voluminous insects or his peeing on leaf piles (no potty training that week-end) or his bringing wild berries squashed in chubby palms. It all spooked and beckoned, then soothed me. It was the nature I admired and needed, and wilder than many places I had been. We tramped through trees, watched for fish as John tried and failed, sat on the dock and kicked our feet in green-blue water, stirring up the murk. The first evening was spent cooking over a fire, singing along with John’s guitar, growing drowsy under dome of night as embers glowed.

I thought of the children more often than expected–how they would be mad about the wildness, too, I imagined. But the elixir of freedoms made me warm, and anticipatory of more.

The next day was hiking (Jarrod in baby backpack, as we all carried our youngest ones into nature), eating simply at a splintery picnic table, walking barefoot on the beach, lying on holey blankets in sunshine, talking, laughing, sharing a drink or a joint. Our friends offered familiar fondness and thought provoking conversation. Out in the rowboat, Ned smiled easily, arms and chest flexed with muscle as he rowed, attitude confident. Calm. I liked looking at him; he knew that I did. My turn with the oars unleashed surges of energy. The wooden boat carried us over the light chop of water’s surface and into a dazzling sphere of sunshine. I felt our good fortune, wanted to seal it inside me: we were young but not too young, strong of mind, will and body, and brimming with life. And I couldn’t wait to sit at my typewriter when I got home–to keep it all close.

But nothing prepared me for the gift of the night.

I pressed my nose against the screen door. The moon rose, and as it showed its fullness it gave off a luminosity I had seldom witnessed, the dense blackness of night a-shimmer even at blurred edges. Waves slapped at the shore in an uncommonly fine rhythm; my ears awakened to its ethereal symphony. Inside the cabin was thick with food fragrances and woodsy heat and voices. Everyone was finishing fresh apple pie Betty Jo made because that’s what she did, earth mother doing it all. She was putting Jarrod to bed; he wasn’t having it. Ned and I wandered outside but John held back.

We didn’t speak, just sauntered down to water’s edge, stood with bare feet submerged in the lake. Admired the sky with starry maps of the universe, his arm around me. It had been some time since his arm had come to rest around my waist so tenderly. He was a man of action, of iron will, of few words, a lack of sentimentality. He cared within silences and touch.

Then, with nothing other than a look crossing the dark, we began to peel off jeans shorts and t-shirts and all the rest. Flung them on the shore. I had not ever skinny-dipped; he had, as if it was nothing. It was not nothing to me. It was moon madness and I surrendered, mesmerized. The water was a wash of cool silk as we jumped in and submerged, swam out further, laughing. I dove deeply many times, propelled myself up to the surface, Ned following, finally tagging my foot with his grip. The soft bottom of the lake cushioned my feet and made me think of fantastical creatures. We rose together. His face, I thought, was truly wonderful, at times heroic, his wiry body divine. His eyes were clear and in them was that old flame of love; it flashed under moon’s illumination.

How could I not have married and had children with him? We lived like that: we swam side by side into deeper water, separated, then came back to one another. We forgot at times what we had; that night, we knew without doubt. We recalled who we were apart and to one another. Together.

John called out, then Betty Jo; soon they, too, were all pale flesh and splashing, laughing and hooting. And so four of us were swimming unencumbered, happily foolish, unmoored by power of a summer-owned night, and so it was meant to be. Yet we were mindful of respect for one another within the hour’s freeness. We were beautiful creatures in that lake and knew it, bodies and spirits loosed of demands, constraints of necessity. A brief plunge into what was left of our youth, perhaps. But almighty moon let its rays lay upon us as stars sparked and winked. It divined something more for us. The air was a whisper and the wind near-unbearably sweet. It was critical magic. A rescue from our times, the outside world with its wars and hatreds and pain wrapped in the earnest guise of protests and riots. Our children were clasped to our hearts as we carried on with each day–but sometimes we had to have arms for one another, too. Room to think and be, anew.

A part of our ambitious lives had been rent and we swam through it into appreciation. Into a joy sorely missed. To have friends such as those was to cross a sturdy bridge from one side of living to another–from hardships to promises of greater plenty, from separateness to continuity of love, from faltering young adulthood to a richer personhood for us each. We wanted to succeed out there, but we needed to know wholeness. To become human beings worth our words, worth the sacrifices.

It was a night I began to reclaim some of my own self. So, too, Ned and our friends. We could go on after that, stronger and better. We visited the cabin on Rattail Lake in autumn’s splendor and winter’s snowy paradise. But it was one short weekend that remains one of my clarion bells after forty-six years, ringing with an upwelling of hope, fresh delights. Lake enchantment.

5 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Rattail Lake, 1975

  1. Lovely story, Cynthia! In the retelling, it feels like you have recaptured your buoyant spirit that has to have felt so utterly raw and depleted in these past difficult weeks. Certain memories can be such incredible touchstones, – thank you so for sharing your magical evening with your friends.

    1. Many thanks, Susan, and I appreciate your care The urge to write is returning, and with it, the impulse towards happiness despite the sorrows. memoir is a good challenge, as one gets to relive some personally interesting experiences–and share them with readers. Glad you stopped by!

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