Yesterday, like many other Americans, we loaded up the car and drove to a cabin on a nearby lake for a short vacation. We took so much crap with us from home that, when we return, I will have to remind myself we were not, in fact, robbed. The drive was uneventful until we got within a few miles of the lake when I remembered that I had set a hat on the side and, most likely, forgotten it. I asked my oldest kid if she had seen my hat. “I’ve got it in my bag,” she said in that way only teenagers can - with a mix of both nonchalance and utter exasperation.
“Which one?” I asked.
“The one that makes you look like you just colonized a nation.”
Remarkable. The kid once that placed her $700 cell phone on the ground to tie her shoes and then proceeded to walk away when she finished had managed to be in the moment enough (not to mention thinking selflessly) to bring my hat. I patted myself on the back, chuffed, thinking about my fantastic parenting until my wife—reading the look of my face—told me that she had asked the kid to take the hat. This one event seems to be an apt micro-encapsulation of our lives.
We arrived in the evening to find the cabin perched high on a hill and what seemed liked about 200 steps up to the front door. We carefully dismantled the Tetris block collection of food bags, bottled water and four suitcases (which contained every possible outfit change for summer events and weather). I’ll have you know that the actual portion allotted to me was roughly the size of a postcard in all dimensions—such is my lot as the only male in the family). At some point up the first flight or two of rickety wooden steps, we realized that maybe bringing all this stuff was not a good idea. We persevered and managed to get everything up into the cabin after a two dozen trips up and down the stairs.
At one point, my youngest daughter stopped to tell me that there were not 200 steps but only 50. Then she said, “Like one for each state…”
“Watch out,” I told her and her sister, “Michigan is a little loose.”
So, here we are. We did the prerequisite standing on the deck looking over the lake. We’ve eaten hot dogs and paddled about in kayaks. We caught fish and got sunburned. All that and we haven’t been here for 24 hours yet.
We will probably discover things to do inside when it gets hot tomorrow. The cabin is comfortable and decorated in what I call a mix of “Psychopath Chic” and “Seafroth Vomit”. There are swans and sailboats and all sorts of knick-knacks covering every surface. Actually there are layers upon layers of decorations: an amateur painting of what seems to be a post-apocalyptic plein air scene, life preservers and seaship steering wheels (although these are so small they are apparently taken from squirrel sea vessels), and a collection of Parisian street scenes, wildlife and waterfowl paintings, and one strangely appropriate picture of the Irish Potato Famine. I kid you not.
The odd decor continues in the bathroom where, between the shower and the sink, is a miniature watercooler just in case you get parched crossing the room or you feel the need to gossip with yourself as you dry off or brush your teeth. The shower has a frilly valence that, with the lights out, makes it look like a corpulent 19th century Czech woman.
It’s all too much. But it is an indication of someone’s life, most likely a generation or two of previous owners. It is fascinating looking at other people’s stuff in this instance. I try to make some meaning of it all but it is layered in time. Soon, I get distracted.
My parents are here. The next morning I hear them up early and groggily met up with them on the deck with a shockingly large mug of coffee. They seem genuinely excited to hear my nonsensical stories about work and the kids. We watch osprey, swallows, and even a bald eagle gracefully fill the perfect cloudless summer sky.
We revel in the quiet and listen to the lapping lake water before launching into another story and laughing.
In the evening, we hobble down the steps to clean up life jackets and rafts. There is more stuff to consider before we can eat our dinner when the quiet is broken by the ring of a shotgun. We rush across the street to see a nearby neighbor’s dog entangled in a vicious fight with a very substantial raccoon. The neighbor’s kids are screaming and wailing. The shotgun goes off again and the raccoon is motionless. We don’t wait and watch, instead we rush to the safety of our tacky cabin on the hill. The commotion dies down about the time we reach Utah or New Mexico.
At dinner, I feel bad for the raccoon. And the dog. And the neighbor’s children.
But I also feel safe in our knick-knack palace. Surrounded by the people I love, the conversation reminds me that it isn’t really about the things in our lives or even the places, but instead it is the people.