By Keasha Palmer
Illustrations By Gary W. Odmark
When I married my husband 32 years ago, we moved into a house on a small inland lake with a little beach. I knew we had to get something straight early on when he climbed into bed one night and said, “What the … What’s all this sand doing in here?”
It had come from my feet. “I love sleeping with the sand,” I replied.
It brings back such wonderful memories.
Growing up, I spent every summer of my life at my grandmother’s cottage on Lake Michigan in Grand Haven. In fact, it was my very first home; I was born in July and went there right from St. Mary’s Hospital as a week-old baby.
The cottage gave my three brothers and me idyllic childhoods. After spending the day on the beach, we’d often go back down after dinner for one last swim and stay until our mom rang the old cowbell. I never bothered rinsing off in the outdoor shower, so my bed always had sand in it.
Our cottage, built in 1903 in Highland Park, is called “The Hillside.” My grandfather bought it during the depression, fully furnished, for $750.
There were tons of kids around, including my six cousins who lived nearby. We went back and forth to each other’s places so often we created our own path on the dune where our cottages sat overlooking the Big Lake.
My dad used to take us fishing on the pier, tying the littlest of us to the girders to ensure nobody fell in. We’d catch a bunch of perch with giant bamboo poles and bring them home, where my grandmother would clean them out on the back ledge and fry them up for lunch. My brother Tom and cousin Mike turned their fishing excursions into a business: They’d walk up and down the boardwalk selling their catch to other cottage-dwellers for 15 cents apiece.
Our moms played canasta on the beach every day under big umbrellas, drinking Cokes and gambling for a half a penny a point. Around 2 o’clock they’d hand out dimes to the kids and we’d run to the Bil-Mar, which was then a store, to buy an ice cream cone.
One of the ladies, Annie Oreste, had a whistle and if we went out too far in the water, she’d blow it, and we’d look back at her: One hand meant, “Come closer,” two meant, “Get in here, now!”
“To this day, I turn back into a carefree kid when I’m in any water that knocks my feet out from under me.”
When I was around 12, I’d sneak down the beach out of sight from the moms to be with my Grand Haven friends, who were tomboys like me. We’d swim out until we were even with the lighthouse at end of pier — no life jackets or inner tubes for us. It was an exhilarating feeling, one of freedom and daring. (The first time I saw an ocean I exclaimed, “Hey, it looks just like Lake Michigan!”)
My cousin, Bruce “Doc” Beaton, was one of the first to surf the Great Lakes. I can still see him riding the waves using a little Sailfish boat they had, before he got his first board. We all loved it when the waves were big; to this day, I turn back into a carefree kid when I’m in any water that knocks my feet out from under me.
We’d often wake up to the sound of the foghorn…boooo-doop; booooo-doop-doop. And that always meant rolling over and going back to sleep for a little longer. No point in getting up if it was foggy out.
There were woods to explore behind the cottage, too; Highland Park abuts the Lake Forest Cemetery, and we could meander our way back into it. One day I got lost when we were looking for an old vine we used to swing from. I turned around and nobody was there! My cousin Jim “rescued” me.
He was always a hero to me after that.
We were so lucky to grow up in such a special place. One family I knew lost their cottage when the lake took out a whole row of places down the beach on Stickney Ridge, during the 1960s. They weren’t so lucky.
And our luck ran out, too, after my mom died in 2007. By then, the value of the cottage had jumped to more than half a million dollars, and none of us could afford to keep it.
We finally sold it this year.
But we have our memories. And mine — packed in jelly jars full of sand — are always within reach of the sheets. ≈
Freelance writer Keasha Palmer resides in greater Grand Rapids.