The old pear tree still loomed. When I was 5 years old and walking alone to the privy in the dark, its limbs morphed into tentacles, poised to grab me and carry me off to a place from which I could never return. Dashing through the grass and weeds, I rattled off the Lord’s Prayer over and over until I reached the outhouse.
Now 40, as I stood tossing out mold-covered leftovers from Grandma’s fridge — tuna, half a bran muffin, leftover pears plucked from that tree — I peered out the window over the kitchen sink and noticed its craggy branches. In the nearly 40 years since I used to run from it in the night, it’s stood thick and craggy, bearing fruit and flower, and shuddering through silent winters with barren limbs. Looking at pieces of pear wearing white toupees, I hoped Grandma hadn’t eaten moldy food. She didn’t know the difference anymore. My uncle was supposed to be taking care of her; he lived with her, after all, never having married or left home at 50. But much of the time, his desperate pursuit of any woman, anywhere, overshadowed his sense of duty to the woman who put him through college and kept him in sports cars through his youth.
“Allen? Is that you?” my grandmother’s sparrow voice sang from her bedroom.
“It’s me, Grandma, Julie.”
“Julie? I didn’t know you were here.”
“I got here about an hour ago. You were napping.”
I walked from the kitchen to the doorway of her bedroom. She was lying on a chenille bedspread, running her fingers through her ashy hair.
“Did Allen stay?”
“No, he went back to the mainland. He said he’ll come back tonight sometime.”
“Oh, all right. I guess I’d better get up. Have you eaten?”
“I ate on my way here. Do you want me to make you something? A sandwich? Tea?”
“I’m all right for now.”
She looked smaller than she had two years ago. Grad school, working full time, and living on the other side of the state seemed to present obstacles each time I tried to schedule a to visit the island.
“I was thinking about going for a swim. Do you want to put your suit on and go down to the lake, Gram?”
“Well, maybe,” she offered, lifting herself from the bed. Her gray eyes were shrouded in fog.
I waited for her to don her navy swimsuit, mended for decades.
We sat side by side on a white stretch of dock, rocking our feet in the cool water. A bluegill swam by, and the rainbow sail of a catamaran slid along the horizon. I placed my hand on my grandmother’s.
“I love you, Grandma.”
She smiled. “Well, I love you, too.”
We watched waves from a passing skier rock against the shore. She pushed from the edge of the dock, and stood in the water. I smiled at her gusto and followed her in.
I watched her, knee deep in the lake where she taught her children to swim, where she swung her grandchildren over August waves. Where she stood now, motionless, lost. She doesn’t know what to do. Her bare limbs looked chilled. She turned for a moment and looked at me. I could offer no answers.
I placed my hand on the back of her bathing suit.
“Grandma? Do you want to go back up now?”
She nodded the way a sad child nods. I wished I could carry her up the stairs.
In the cottage, she got dressed. I took her wet swimsuit out back to hang so it could dry. The clothesline was gone, so I hung the straps of her suit on the branches of a tree. The pear tree.
“No,” I said aloud. “You can’t have her.” And I clung to my grandmother’s wet bathing suit, fallen fruit beneath my feet.
Julie Bonner Williams, a native Michigander, is a writer, poet, and adjunct professor of English at Grand Valley State University. She loves being on and near the water. Her grandparents owned a simple cottage on Case’s Island in Lake Fenton, not far from where they lived. “It was the heart and soul of our family most of our lives,” Williams says. “I was at the cottage the summer after I was first born. My grandmother and I were extremely close, and I always wanted to be at the cottage. There was nowhere else in the world like Case’s Island, and our family — which had been there since the 1930s — was one of many that had been there that long. Generations of families grew up together on the island. These types of cottages connect us Michigan folks.”
About Case’s Island: Case’s Island is in all-sports Lake Fenton, in southern Genesee County. Access to the 13-acre island is by boat (or snowmobile) only. Many of the cottages have changed little since they were built in the early 20th century.