After World War II ended Pepere (my grandfather) built a camp out of scrounged materials on the banks of Rangeley Lake in Maine. My mother grew up spending all her summers there. As kids we also went there in the summer during the years we lived on the East Coast. Many of the events in our family history took place in that cabin.
There was the infamous argument between Pepere and his son (my Uncle Johnny) regarding the relative merits of drinking water from metal versus glass tumblers. This seemed rather a moot point to me, as the water in question came from the lake and so had an undeniable trace of fish poo in it, which offended my eight year old sensibilities. As a child I lay in bed and listened to all of this easily, as the interior doors were made of beads and cloth curtains. These were less than optimal sound proofing materials, and in addition to unlimited eavesdropping, allowed Pepere’s snoring to reverberate unimpeded throughout the cabin. I had no doubt that Pepere’s snoring was legendary (and quite possibly audible) all around the lake.
There was great excitement at the camp on the day indoor plumbing was installed. Pepere had been very proud of the two-seater outhouse he had built, but those of us in later generations were utterly unimpressed. We wanted a toilet we could use at night without going outside. Going outside in the dark meant we were only a few feet from the woods, where we were certain thousands of bears and moose had nothing better to do than lay in wait to charge little children and make them wet their pants (already a threatening prospect just from the trek downstairs and across the grass). A few years later we even had hot water, ending the tradition of taking a bar of Ivory and washing up in the lake while wearing our bathing suits. During those baths we protested mightily. The rocks under our feet forced us to mince around in the frigid water like frozen flamingos, and even in August bathing left us shivering and blue. Worst of all, we were frightened that a minnow might swim by and touch our leg, as every kid knows that fish slime is the ultimate solvent, designed expressly to dissolve children into quivering puddles of soapy terror. Of course with the logic of childhood we never thought the lake was too cold to swim in – swimming was fun, and therefore exempt from the physics of hypothermia.
The adults fished while sitting on folding lawn chairs with frayed and faded plastic webbing at the end of the dock. Fishing was always said to be best just at sunrise and sunset when the mosquitoes were out. This seemed to lead to the mosquitoes being fed by the fishermen, the fish being fed by the mosquitoes, and the fishermen being fed by food from the grocery store to me, but then I did not appreciate fresh fish as a kid.
There were trips to the dump to watch the bears on Saturday night – we really knew how to party! There were cribbage tournaments that went on until well into the wee hours. There were “moose runs” – generally just a run to the local spring to fill up the water jugs using back roads and a narrative that may or may not have been spiced with local “color” for the benefit of visiting relatives. Visitors thought moose were a treat. The locals saw them as a nuisance and in mating season they regaled us with tales of how a blind moose may mistake our Volkswagen bus for a female in heat, to all of our peril. I still am not sure if they were serious - some of my relatives were decidedly odd.
Up to camp was where Uncle Johnny took a photo where the reflection on the lake was so perfect that we could not tell what part of the picture was the real lake and which was the reflection. The camp was home to a downright gruesome ceramic statue of a larger-than-life sized bloody Sacred Heart, liberally embellished with bulging veins, that our grandmother (Memere) kept on the dresser at the top of the stairs. Pepere had originally equipped the cabin with an enormous cast iron wood-burning stove. The old stove had long since died by the time we arrived and a modern (well, at least not from the Victorian era) electric model was installed where Memere could overcook her canned peas. For family feasts she fried neon red hot dogs with unidentifiable gray goo inside, and serve them on fried white bread buns. With mayonnaise. We had never heard of cholesterol (good or bad), but even as kids we thought the bright red hot dogs seemed like something from another planet.
The old cast iron stove stayed in place, as immovable as a spinsters’ heart. There was no way to move something that weighed as much as a small planet. Besides it still had all the original features, down to the triangular clothes irons that were heated up by leaving them on the hot stove. Ironing has long since become a quaint old-fashioned practice found primarily in ancient 50’s sitcom reruns in most households, but even as a child I was mystified why anyone would iron clothes up to camp. I loved the old irons though, and Pepere's old wooden snowshoes and all the mysterious antique tools he kept in the shed.
My sister and I shared a twin bed in a small room upstairs. I usually slept on the wall side, with my nose pressed up against the wood that always smelled slightly damp. We slept to the music of the wind through the birch leaves, and the loons on the lake sang their blues every night, and it was a perfect lullaby.
Then in the 90’s fire took the camp away. It was rebuilt but was never entirely the same, and eventually it slipped away from the family. But the history remains. And as we return with our children to New England we hope that some part of the grandeur of the Eastern forests will find their way into the lives of us as older adults and our children, and they too will have stories of the forests and the lakes and the people of New England to carry with them forever.