What We Leave
I used to wonder
I knew he didn’t
What I think is
things you like
you’ll be back.
Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall, from Your Own Best Secret Place
Even our first conversation upon arriving here is a part of our well rehearsed routine.
Did you remember to pack a flashlight?
We laugh. And ultimately, this time and every time before, ever since I began bringing Jonathan here years ago, before we were married, before the three children now asleep in the backseat behind us came along, we remember that we don’t actually need that forgotten flashlight. I can get us there without it.
I have walked this path so often that in the dark, dark night of a Northern Maine summer I can do it using only my muscle memory. We make the trip arriving in the wee hours of the night, much to the consternation of our children who take some time to get used to the wildness and darkness of this place each summer. And each time we come, having been gone for months, walking this path provides a ritual for shedding the outside world, and for opening ourselves to what is waiting for us at the bottom of the hill.
I descend the winding hazardous root laden path and enter a swirl of memories and stories. These mix with a glimmer of awareness that comes from seeing the place with fresh eyes. I am entering a place of the past, a place of quiet, and a place to be together and to reflect. Therefore, despite the difficulty of the five hour car ride with young children, packing all the provisions that we are going to need while here, and navigating this well trodden but tricky path– we return. We return as though to versions of our old selves that we left here over the winter. Each spot in the woods, each item in this place, each nook in the camp building is a place that I played and talked and thought and found solace for hours and for years. Memories of time here with my grandparents are layered onto those of time here with my parents and brother, and now onto those of time here with Jonathan and our children. The dance between present and past forms a constant narrative in my mind.
Having descended the path, we enter the dark camp that my grandparents built in the 1940’s, the familiar sound of the screen door slamming behind us. The sound of a good screen door slamming is something my mother says is among the most important parts of a camp. Jonathan fumbles around in the dark for the fuses we must remove from the electrical panel each time we leave, pushes them in with a snap and then a buzz as the electricity comes on. I plug in the refrigerator, and tuck the kids into their beds.
Last thing before we head upstairs, I place five pairs of brightly colored water shoes in the closet next to my grandmother’s canvas hiking boots, pushing aside her hot pink silk pajamas from Jordan Marsh as well as my grandfather’s monochromatic “camp outfit” and store away what I have brought with us. The contrast between our modern lives and that of the original occupants is jolting at first, like the brightly colored rubber beside the faded canvas. My grandparents both passed away years ago. But they built this camp, and their presence, their things, and their hopes for this place are still here with us. Exhausted, Jonathan and I crawl into our own bed, beneath the heavy damp quilts, and fall asleep.
In the morning, the kids get up before us, and I hear the door slam again as they run outside after scrounging around in the closet for their shoes, eager to see what has changed in the woods over the past winter. I jolt awake at the sound of the door. But I know where they are going. As I can with the path, I can also make the run into the woods with the children entirely in my mind. I see, from my warm bed, what they see, and I roll over to get a few more minutes of comfort from the warm familiar weight of the quilts.
Winter here is bitterly cold and the snowfall buries the camp in roof high drifts. This place spends its winters alone, and we spend our winters away, hoping for the trees to fall away from the buildings, for the snow not to get too heavy for the roof, for the mice to nest in the old linens and not the new, for this place to survive another winter. Following the heavy deep winter snow comes a dramatic spring thaw and a powerful thrust of energy and strength as the ice goes out on the lake. As the snow melts, the frozen lake water rises up above the beach and into the woods and under the outbuildings and camp. The forest here is largely cedar, especially down along the water, and the trees’ exposed root systems and the rocky beach’s visible upheaval show evidence of the shifting ice and turbulent rising water. We wait for the lake to recede out of the woods, out from under the camp and back to the beach, before we return to what remains of what we, and those we share the space with, have left behind.
When we arrive each year, the woods are different. Beloved objects and materials have been damaged or carried away. Trees have fallen. Things inside the camp have been destroyed. And we, the returning, are different as well. We are all a year older, we have added a new baby, one of us has a different job, we have had changes, struggles, and events while away. We try to settle in, shedding the pace, the overly ambitious plans, allowing the days spent here together to be enough.
Not far into the woods is a place that all the children who have played here are drawn to and I know that this is where our children are headed this morning. It is close enough to the camp that you can be seen but far enough away to feel a bit secluded and independent. Made up of a tangle of bent cedar trunks and exposed roots and branches, there are naturally formed raised platform areas connected to each other by diagonal trunks. These trunks serve as ramps and you can climb them to reach the other platforms and nest there, tucking away your secret items. As children, my brother and I built a fort here and played, and were joined by cousins when they were visiting.
Several years ago I showed the area to our children and told them how their uncle and I had used it. Our children immediately began playing there, too, adding their own treasures and structures, guided by their own interests and experiences, secreting these items away amongst what my brother and I had left behind years ago, and what my parents and grandparents, also collectors, had saved as well: driftwood, bottles, insect exoskeletons, flotsam, glass and other artifacts. And countless lake rocks, too, striped for wishing, flat for skipping, or marked with fossils for studying. Each item has some quality that caused someone to be drawn to it, to reach out to it, to hold it in their hands, to like how it felt or looked, and to decide to keep it rather than drop it back. And then to place it just so.
A couple of years ago during the springtime flooding, someone’s front door steps floated to shore and then were carried up to the fort area where they remained and now serve as the main entrance to the raised area. I wonder to myself in my warm bed whether the steps are still there, or wrapped around a tree further up in the woods, or if they are simply gone, moved on to another family’s camp farther up the lake.
There are open areas on the ground near the cedar trunks, outlined by fallen logs, that create perfect enclosures for imagined water creatures. Large rocks in the ground there, covered by moss, have become our childrens’ resident crocodiles and we all celebrated when their eggs hatched last summer. Our children have added innumerable twisted and curved sticks which look remarkably like other beloved animals. Two rocks, one small and one larger, are put together to form ducks or loons. Some of these will have outlasted the winter; some will have disappeared.
Larger stones, pushed into a neat row by the ice in winter, mark the line between beach and woods. These stones catch and trap things for us to find that would otherwise wash back out into the lake. This barrier was the source of the scraps of rope that are now leashes for walking the crocodiles. As our visit here progresses, these large stones will become covered in Julia’s natural artwork and supplies. Collections of pebbles which create the entire color palette when scratched on the larger rocks, and sticks that smudge, and mosses that erase were tucked in the large rocks’ crevices when we left last Fall. And I know she will quickly begin her collection of these materials again this morning, likely without much disappointment when she finds them gone. The lake will have wiped her drawing surfaces clean, and the rocks will be ready for her to begin again.
Amongst it all, there are the heavy things, the survivors that linger. I can detail them, the ones that tend to remain from year to year. There is the rock that my brother found on the beach when we were kids. He convinced me that the white traces of what is likely cement on one of the rock’s sides was actually bread. But that he had magically petrified this bread, placing a slice of real bread under it just before we went into dinner and then, to my complete amazement, turning the rock to show me the now hardened bread affixed to the underside an hour later. It must be the powers of the lake water, he explained. Our children love this story of my gullibility and of their only uncle’s trickery. And therefore they love this mythic stone.
There is also the old rusty bucket, the bottom gone, currently used for storing crusts for the fish, ingeniously dug a bit into the ground so the earth can serve as its new base. Years ago, my cousin and I found this bucket, likely a bucket my grandfather had used for some other purpose, an ash bucket perhaps, deep in the tangled woods. It inspired a performance in the woods, to which all family members were invited. We sang so many verses of There’s a Hole in the Bucket that some less patient family members may have wandered away, whispering excuses: have to go make dinner, check on the fish trap, tend the fire… This celebrated, serenaded bucket then passed some time here as a flower pot until eventually Julia — wearing my rainbow-soled flip flops from the 70’s, and skilled at running in such footwear on the rooty path — grabbed it by the handle as she noticed it sitting neglected and unused and brought it back into the woods.
This grove is the children’s space, as it was mine many years ago. Like them, I accepted the impermanence of it in a way that only a child can. Despite their disappointment that things go missing, they accept this and move quickly back to the gathering, for the gathering is the work of the place, knowing that new finds, new memories, new stories, will now fill the places of the previously treasured. It is us, the adults, that try to grasp what is fleeting, try to hold on to the wispy and nebulous. Try to maintain and keep the lake from carrying and wearing and rotting. From taking too much from us, too fast.
Over the next few days, I will watch our children settle into the same activities that I did here as a child, many times with the exact same materials. Just as I was as a child, they will be rewarded on a boat ride with a moose lifting his antlers out of the water to glance casually at us as we round the bend in the river. We will be hit with a wall of rain as it moves across the lake toward us while we are swimming, feeling our bodies touched by two very different waters, pelting rain and the gently rippling lake. We will re-learn how to scramble about on the rocky uneven terrain of the beach and how to swim wearing heavy waterlogged old sneakers, often the sneakers of my childhood, that will protect our feet from the sharp rocks all along the bottom. I will follow my muscle memory, and learn to accept what is still here, what is now, and wrap my hands around that.
During this visit, this time here, our time here, we will adjust. We will fit ourselves in around the books on the shelves and the unkempt wildness of the woods. These old things, treasured but not treasures, and this place, of raw, weathered, unkempt and quiet beauty. They allow us time and space to try to make meaning from what we gather there. Things that are from our past and things that are new. Trying to make a story, a life, out of them all coming together, for this moment, knowing that in another instant it all could change, it all must change. But the weighty and the rooted, they will stay the same. We will settle in, together.
Each Fall, we leave this place knowing the things we collect here will be held for us, held in the sifted, porous, uncertain way this place holds them, until we return. Or until someone else returns and fits their feet into our shoes and onto our paths, wraps their hands around our collected stones and bottles, and tries to figure out our story.
I put on my bathing suit, taking it down from the nail where it has hung all winter. I smile at the paneling beneath the nail, buckled and stained from the generations of wet bathing suits that have hung against it before mine. I reach into the closet, past my grandmother’s impossibly small hiking boots and pull out my too-worn-for-anywhere-else but perfect-for-swimming-here shoes, and head down to the beach. For this year’s first swim.