The Things We Cannot Keep – Chapter 2

The cabin was originally built in 1908 by my paternal great-grandfather. It had been improved and expanded several times over the years, and at one point it had been the only cabin on Baker Lake. My great-grandfather had owned all of the land surrounding the lake, but he sold some of the land to fund other business ventures including the bank at which my grandfather and father had worked. My grandfather finished selling all of the remaining acreage save for the vast plot around the cabin on the west end of the enormous lake. The size of the family plot ensured that we’d never see another inhabitant around us, but most of the forest land that bordered our land had been donated to the National Forest Service decades ago by the estate of a wealthy landowner who had passed before he had had the chance to do much development. Some smaller landowners built a couple of cabins on the other side of the lake next to the winding, tar-and-gravel road that circumscribed the lake, but that was it. Our cabin was the perfect place to escape the world. Anything and nothing could happen and no one would ever know.

Electrical lines had been extended to the cabin in the early 1970s before I was born and before our father started bringing us here for our annual summer trips. Dad had probably done more to expand and improve the cabin than his father or grandfather had ever done. He added the second floor loft and another bedroom on the main floor. He had expanded the kitchen and made the living room much bigger with a grand fire place to match. He had also torn down the old porch and made it into a wrap-around structure that extended all the way out and over the lake for several feet. He had kept the rustic feel of the cabin while giving it a touch of the modern luxuries of the time.

As a kid, I loved the sound of the gravel popping beneath our tires when we turned off the road and snaked our way up the driveway toward the cabin. To this day, that sound reminds me of long summer days jumping off the dock into the cool lake water, as cliche a childhood memory as one could have. The cabin smelled old like a musty coat stored in an attic for years. The smell assaulted my nose on the first day at the cabin every year, but then, it faded as if the lake water we tracked from the dock to the kitchen and living room washed it away.

The sturdy cabin had survived decades in the withering environs of the Pacific Northwest. Snow piled up in the winter beating down its cedar shake roof. A constant light rain seeped into every crack and crevice of its walls during most of the year except for the glorious few months of the year when the sun warmed and dried its wooden walls. Even an occasional earthquake had rattled its foundation, but it withstood all of this, and every summer, when Dad yanked the wheel of the old Ford Bronco into that last bend of the driveway, I gleefully looked up at the expressive face of the cabin with the anticipation usually reserved for Christmas morning. The large windows above the porch gleamed at me, and the uneven porch roof line almost seemed like a smile. I used to think the cabin looked like a walrus smiling down at me from the last crook in the driveway. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the summer. I think Hank felt the same way because we’d both dart out of the car and rush to the cabin despite our parents’ pleas to help unload the car.

When we stayed here, we truly felt like a family even if that wasn’t the reality of our lives outside of Baker Lake. Mom and Dad acted like the ideal couple they portrayed back home in Portland, a mirage that belied the tension and mistrust that I never realized was there until much later. Hank, being older, had a much better sense of it, and given his impetuous nature, he often played them against one another.

Once, when I was eight or nine years old before Hank went totally off the rails, I remember being in the bedroom I shared with Hank, unable to sleep. I could hear Hank snoring, but all else was quiet. The windows were open because the unusually hot summer had overstayed its welcome, but a cool breeze rolled in off the lake buffeting the curtain sheers like some sort of Halloween ghost. The breeze felt good, especially since my bed stood right in its path, but my attention focused on the end of the dock where my parents sat next to each other in two of the Adirondack chairs. I could see their dark forms and hear the slight murmurs of their idle chat. I couldn’t clearly hear what they were saying, only one or two words traversed the space between us, but their voices were calm and steady. I watched as my dad leaned in and kissed my mom as the curtain shear batted the window. They held that kiss for the longest time. When he pulled away, my mom scooted closer to him and put her head on his shoulder. As much as I remember, they didn’t say another word in the swoon of the ambient light reflecting off the lake. I fell asleep with that comforting image of them in my head.

After Dad died, Mom did her best to keep the cabin up. She had mostly just updated the furnishings and appliances and decorated in a way that was clearly her style as far as I could tell. I hadn’t been to the cabin since Dad was alive, but Robbie had continued coming up here with Mom for many years afterward even while he was going to college on the East Coast. I couldn’t bear to come here without Dad, so I stayed away.

Eventually, Robbie stopped coming to the cabin too, and Mom made the trek on her own. She spent a lot of time up here before her health turned on her and she could no longer handle the drive. As far as I know, it had been four or five years since anyone had stepped foot in the cabin. The dust that covered everything told the same story.

Neither Hank nor Robbie had wanted the upstairs bedroom, so Hank took the one we had stayed in as kids and Robbie took his old bedroom. I was stuck in the bedroom that Mom and Dad had always taken when we stayed here. It felt weird being in that bedroom. I’d been in it plenty of times as a kid, but now as an adult, it felt like I was trespassing somehow.

Downstairs had grown quiet once Hank shut the door to his bedroom. He’d been loud and obnoxious after several beers, slurring his words and stumbling about as we had walked inside from the dock. I had said goodnight, but Hank just mumbled something incomprehensible and slammed the door. Robbie cut his eyes at me before he waved a wordless goodnight and clicked the door shut behind him after he flipped off the living room light. The tiny lamp in the loft failed to shine much light into the velvety darkness below. I stood there for a moment leaning on the loft railing looking at the blackened space my brothers had occupied. The ghosts of Hank and me trampled through the living room with muddy feet much to our mom’s protest. Robbie was so much younger than us that I hardly remembered him being here when we were kids.

After listening to Hank prattle on for much of the evening, I welcomed the silence. The long day and the tension had worn on me, and I felt tired, but when I turned out the lamp and lay back on the bed, my mind raced circles around me. The full moon brightened the room and gave the shadows a soft edge. I turned away from the windows, the sheers no match for the moon. I considered closing the curtains, but I wanted to wake up to the sunrise like I had on so many summer mornings as a kid. I turned over a few times before I sat up and stared into yawning space of the loft. I could hear the refrigerator humming below, but no other sound greeted my ears.

Finally, I got out of bed and walked over toward one of the big windows. I parted the sheer and glared out onto the dock below. The three Adirondack chairs sat near the water’s edge, dark shadows in the bright moonlight. They were empty of course, but for a moment, I thought I saw Mom and Dad sitting down there, fingers intertwined leaning into each other as they watched the ripples of the lake bat the moonlight. I blinked a few times and they were gone, but something heavy weighed on my chest.

I wondered what they would make of the three of us here at the cabin again. The last time we were all here at the same time, Robbie was still a little boy. Hank had only begun to cause trouble, and I still idolized my older brother in spite of the cracks that had formed in our relationship.

The memories rushed back to me again. Mom and Dad were young again. Robbie was an ambling toddler whom we had to keep away from the edge of the dock. Hank stood tall and lanky with the awkwardness of a teenager, and I was the fawning younger brother who wanted to do everything his older brother did. That time seemed simpler and happier despite the complications that were brewing, but maybe I just felt that way because that’s the way everyone views their youth. Things always seem simpler and easier when you’re young because adulthood is ugly and messy and burdened with the weight of experience.

A young Hank chased me to the edge of the dock below. I jumped in the air and hugged my legs to my chest before I cannonballed into the water. He slid to a stop at the edge of the dock laughing along with me as he teased me from up high. I swam further away from the dock taunting him between my huge gulps of air. Mom sensed we were getting out of hand and gave us a warning. Hank ignored her. He always did. He jumped into the water after me, and I swam frantically to the other side of the dock. I heaved myself up onto the dock and ran away just as Hank tried to grab my ankle from the water below. My laughter almost toppled me, but I made it to Dad’s side under the porch awning before Hank could pounce. Hank stopped a few feet from us and glared at me.

“Henry, will you tell them to stop horsing around before one of them gets hurt?” my Mom pleaded from the chair next to Dad’s.

Dad lifted his head up and looked at us from behind his mirrored sunglasses. I couldn’t tell, but he had been napping in the shade of the porch. “Ellen, boys will be boys. Let ‘em have fun.” His voice was groggy but firm. My mom sighed her displeasure and shot Hank and me a stern look. I made a beeline for the edge of the dock again and dove into the water. This time Hank came in right after me, but the game of pursuit abruptly ended when we saw a duck on the edge of the lake and decided to pursue it. Those summers were like that, joyous and meandering and seemingly never-ending.

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