Cabins

A cabin is not the same as a house.  “It is not a shelter” but often a place of “delicious peril” and “a jumping off place” for a child.  A cabin on a lake is a place to be alone with oneself and from that will come strength to deal with “the more serious winter perils later on.”   Diane Johnson makes these observations in her new book “Flyover Lives: A Memoir”.  Diane Johnson has numerous books published as well as having written the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”  She grew up near Moline, Illinois; part of the vast in between of the United States called flyover country.  It’s not far from where I grew up and I share some of her memories of going to a cabin for the summer time.  For as she reminded me, the Illinois summers are mercilessly hot and humid and escaping north was an old tradition.  But there are as many dissimilarities too.

Her family has been in America for more than two hundred years and her stories of them are not of timber barons or inventors.  They are quite ordinary lives of farmers, teachers, country doctors and a lot of housewives, but she writes with such detail and feeling that their lives are as intriguing as any biographies of presidents or generals. And they bring back memories. And sometimes that is a good thing.

One of her relatives, a great uncle, built a cabin on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near the Mackinaw Straits    She spent summers there in  the 1930s and 1940s.  And she writes of the difference between a cabin and a house.

I felt for this house the special love that almost everyone, I’ve since discovered, feels for a summer house—a love quite different from the feelings you have for the house you grow up in.  Perhaps a summer house is where,  forced into your own company, you discover that you are yourself, and maybe that’s something that can’t happen in an ordinary life, when you belong to your parents and school. The organized city child is deprived of these hours of messing around alone, though they must be the crucial ones in which we discover things, develop a point of view, learn to rely on ourselves as reliable observers, establish in our own minds that we are we.

Not sure of this theory of city and country differences, but the idea of a regulated life versus a free one is something I understand.  And Johnson is not talking about the summer homes in the Hamptons or Newport Beach or the “cottages” of the auto barons from Detroit and the meat packing barons from Chicago who summered in Harbor Springs, Michigan just a little south of where her cabin was.  No this was a simple place they built themselves and for years it had no indoor plumbing.  Johnson’s father was a school principal and so could spend the summers in the family cabin that they shared with uncles, aunts, and cousins.  Its furniture was not “real furniture” like the mahogany table at home.  It was made of “birch logs and bark.”   An aunt made a chandelier out of coffee cans that she painted bronze.  It was all to make this summer place very different from the “real” house in town “scene of schoolwork, regulation, orderly life.”

But for many people, there is no mahogany table at home.  We didn’t even have one.  And how delicious to even choose to live the simple life rather than it be one of necessity.  But this is not an essay on inequality.  It’s about growing up and what’s great about a time when you didn’t have many rules and your time was your own.

She describes stepping on June Bugs in the dark of night on the way to the outhouse.  I can remember that crunching sound myself at the various cottages my school administrator father rented with his brothers and sisters up in Minnesota.   He could never spend more than a week or two away from the school, so our time in cabins was short compared to Johnson who got to spend several months away from the “real” house”.  Later when I was in college and had a summer job in Michigan, my father decided to rent a cabin on a lake for a whole month so that I could be close to my family.  But I knew many schoolmates whose families picked up and moved to “the lake” (Lake Michigan) for the summer with the father commuting back and forth from work 40 minutes away and the kids running loose among the sand dunes and pine woods.  Some friends had grand homes, but most had plain and simple places where one could drag in all manner of critters and deposit heaps of sand every where you plopped down.  While the kids would play the mothers would have coffee together and not have to clean the way they did at their “real houses”.  Eventually my father would buy a cabin in Holland and he, my mother, and youngest sister would have a taste of this very good life of kicking back for the summer.

But when I was young the money was short and my father’s time away from work was short ;  so my time in cabins was limited to a couple weeks.  But oh how wonderful they were.  Even coming out of the lake covered in leeches was better than being at home.  My Uncle Jim would laugh a hearty laugh and get out his lighter and burn them off us.  Later when my Uncle Tom’s computer company took off, he would buy a yellow boat and teach us to ski.  But before that, the men would spend the day fishing while the women just sat around and yakked.  Like Johnson, my cousins and I would roam the woods looking for bugs to scare each other with or frogs to capture and then let go.

And yes, like Johnson, it was a time to read and read and read.  You would find a comfy spot away from the mosquitos and the babies.  There you would read the Hardy Boys, Treasure Island, Little Women, or the House at Pooh Corner, a particular favorite of mine.  We would play the card game “Authors” and I read many of their books.  I can still picture the Louisa May Alcott card with her in a dress with the white-collar (the only woman, I think), Mark Twain with his mane of white, and Robert Louis Stevenson in his dark coat and cravat and his long long mustache looking quite sexy although I don’t think I knew to call it that at the time.    There was “Old Maid” and “Animal Rummy” and the board games “Parcheesi” and “Candy Land”.  Because we were church going Dutch Calvinists there were also Bible card games.

Grandma would take us on a hike each day.  She would lead us single file and as we marched she sang out with her Dutch accent, “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s off to veerk ve go…” and we would all chime in “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Hi Ho!”  I think Grandma made up some lines like “We will work some and then have fun, Hi Ho, Hi Ho,” or something like that.   Yes, off  to collect and identify leaves of various trees.  Lots of maple leaves, white oak, tamarack, birch, and white pine.  We collected and identified rocks too-(My cousin Jenny says they were agates).  We learned how to make a hobo stove out of a coffee can.  French toast on a hobo stove is still the best kind.

And yes, even church was better in the summer.  We would go the lake services at some camp that looked nothing like the churches back at home with their polished pews and stained glass windows.  These lake chapels were usually in a tent or in a large empty building where we would set up folding chairs before the service.  If there was an organ it would be a simple Wurlitzer.  But sometimes a piano would all we would have to sing songs like  “Bringing in the Sheaves.”

Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,

Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;

Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,

We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves;
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Johnson had much more of a summer house experience than I ever did, but the little that I had is quite dear to me.  But it seems it is for different reasons.  I lived in the country and my father’s school bordered on a forest preserve.  I had quite a lot of alone time; almost too much.  I yearned to be with other kids and would have loved to spend part of my summers in the neighborhoods of Chicago on the front stoops of the row houses and bungalows of Roseland and Evergreen Park or swim at the city pool in Blue Island.  What fantasies these working class neighborhood names aspired to!
So being bundled into the station wagon for the two-day trip to Minnesota to spend time with uncles, aunts, and cousins were some of the happiest times of my life.  For me it was the best of both worlds, lots of company and the “delicious  perils” of poison oak, leeches, skunks, and maybe even bears.  The simple cabins at Green Lake were spartan.  There were chores and long waits for the shower or toilet.  But it wasn’t anything like home and school.  It was luxuriously free.  And you could tell that the adults were feeling some sense of freedom too.  Freedom to just be.
I’m reading another memoir right now; a very different one.  It’s Gary Shteyngart’s “Little Failure” about growing up as a Russian Jew in Queens and Long Island.  His family escapes in summer are to cheap hotels in the Poconos or Cape Cod.  He dreams of a cottage on a lake or on the ocean, but all he gets is a motel with a pool if he’s lucky.    It doesn’t sound like he ever got much alone time like Diane Johnson did except in his room.  So maybe she’s right that it is harder for city kids to find time to be completely alone like a child at the edge of a woods or a farm child walking through rows and rows of corn.  But many of them do develop a point of view like Gary Shteyngart.  But he grew up in the age of television and his point of view comes from looking down on his classmates  from the alien planet he invents from which he came.  So there are more ways than one to find yourself.  But it would be nice if everybody including adults had more time to be idle; more time to just waste by reading and lounging in the sun with one eye partially open in case of bears.
P.S. Found a vacation rental south of where Diane Johnson’s family cabin was in Traverse City, Michigan.  Looks a lot like the places we rented in the 1950s.

One response to “Cabins

  1. I got some more info from one of my cousins. The cabin on Green Lake had a two hole outhouse so we didn’t have to go alone in the dark of night. There was a pump in the kitchen sink. She “remembers little things like the very tall daybed in a room facing the lake, where we like to bounce up and down. The old books that smelled of mold; boys’ books of space and rockets. The uneven linoleum floors, and the big stainless steel tub that Mom and Aunt Helen bathed us in before we started back to the city on Saturday night.
    Dad stored that yellow boat in a garage in Princeton, I think, near Grandma and Grandpa’s house there. Thoughts of how he and Uncle Jim water-skied on a large circle of wood instead of skis make me smile. Thanks for sharing this!”
    These aren’t really “little things” at all when you think of it. Good to have both boys and girls books. And since one uncle was a rocket scientist and another a pioneer in computers, it makes sense that even the girls might have inherited or been interested in some “boys’” interests. Notice how she actual remembers the smells too. How cool is that! I think she should think about writing. I forgot smells! Sounds like rewrite time. Or another story.

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