I’d crossed the lake to my grandparents’ cottage in autumn just once before. I was six then, and standing on the last remaining section of dock marveling at odd creatures washed ashore.
“Those are mudpuppies,” my dad said, walking past me carrying a toolbox.
I wondered if he was making it up.
Ours was the white cottage overlooking the lake, its green trim had shamrock cut-outs my grandmother called gingerbread.
Our cottage had no name. Two doors down was the Davis’ cottage, “To-Da-Mar,” named for the three children of the owners: Tom, Dan and Mary, who grew up with my dad. Next to us was “Twin Oaks,” so called for the oaks like sentinels in front of the shaker shingle abode. Our place, for which my grandparents paid $250 in 1936, had as its only moniker carved into a block in the ground, “Kunkle,” the original owner’s version of a cornerstone.
Fifty, I thought. It’s been fifty years since that last time I was here in the fall, since the first and only time I ever saw a mudpuppy. I maneuvered the aluminum boat nearer the dock, sliding the edge close enough to reach out and take hold. My family called this boat “the little boat,” for no reason I knew of, other than it was smaller than our 1960s orange pontoon boat with the canopy striped white and orange like taffy.
Our dock was the last in the water. What was left of the old-time islanders I’d known all the summers of my life had shut up their cottages sometime after Labor Day. Many, like my grandparents, were gone now. Even Mrs. Firlik who, ninety-three when last I saw her, still walked her daily lap around the island, intent as a pilgrim.
My uncle called the cottage his now, and no one could be there without his permission and him being there, too. At sixty he had never married, had never left home, and had become the fat kid who plays tuba in the school band, grown-up. It afforded him opportunity to feel important, the son born twenty years after his older brothers, making rules about what had belonged to all of us for over seven decades.
I cut the motor and sat in the last rocking moments of waves, watching Queen Anne’s lace and tiger lilies sway among the end-of-year grasses. They would grow no taller. Winter was coming.
Sometimes it’s hard to know where to begin. I started in the kitchen with cardboard boxes, two plastic coolers, and a box of black garbage bags. The glasses in the cupboard, each a Flintstones jelly jar once, bore a 1963 copyright. Standing on the yellow chair-stepstool, I could reach the cupboard above the sink. I tossed down a box of my grandmother’s Red Rose tea-bags, a can of baking powder, a box of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. Salt. Cinnamon. In the corner of the cupboard hid a half bottle of Seagram’s. Grandpa’s secret stash. I always thought I was the only one who knew he kept it there, having walked in one afternoon while he was taking a swig from the bottle. He winked at me, still drinking. Years after he died I revealed his secret, only to reminisce about how cute-naughty he was on the sly. My mother waved her hand in the air as if brushing away gnats. “Everybody knew about that,” she said matter-of-factly, then instantly serious, “except your grandmother.”
Upstairs, I sat on the wrought-iron bed with squeaky springs to clear off the kidney-shaped vanity table with floral fabric thumb-tacked around its perimeter. I picked up a jar of Vaseline easily forty years old and still as Vaseline as Vaseline is. My grandparents were only twenty when the Great Depression of 1929 hit. Nothing was taken for granted, nothing discarded. Proof of this remained in the National Geographic magazines from 1968 and 1969 strewn around downstairs. I tossed a bottle of Avon Skin So Soft into a garbage bag. It had been there so long, seeing it was one more tradition of being at the cottage. I never knew of anyone in the family ever using it. I wondered how it even got there. My grandmother’s beauty regimen consisted of Oil of Olay and a swipe of pink lipstick for trips into town. A flat, plastic bottle of Coppertone suntan lotion met the bottom of the bag.
“You have any extra boxes up there?” my uncle called up the stairs.
“Yeah. I’ll toss a couple down — just a minute,” I answered, rising from the edge of the bed to get them.
In the linen cupboards were stacks of sheets and pillowcases, as mismatched as the teacups and saucers in the kitchen. I pulled a beach towel from the top shelf: three cartoon leopards, one red, one yellow, one orange. It had been my towel when I was at the cottage. I rolled it up and put it aside. It would go home with me.
The desk drawer in the sitting room revealed boxes of George Washington sparklers. My cousins and I were the last children to play here. The youngest of the four had turned fifty-one last April. A paperback Audubon bird book. A deck of cards held together with a rubber band. A wood cribbage board. A keychain with keys to no-one-would-know what. A 16 magazine with Sonny and Cher, the Monkees and the Beatles on the cover. I had a crush on Davy Jones in his Monkees years, unfailingly coming up from the lake, my hair stringy-wet, to fix a fluffernutter sandwich, drink Vernors, and watch the Monkees on the black-and-white television every afternoon at four o’clock, a wad of tin foil scrunched onto the bunny-ears antenna. The television was gone now, my uncle’s computer in its place. A stack of credit cards beside it. Some bearing my grandmother’s name in raised letters.
“Because I read once that women have a hard time getting credit,” my uncle explained once. “So I signed up for credit cards with her so she could have credit.” By then she was eighty-nine and had dementia. Grandpa had paid cash at a dealership for their last car, purchased new.
Dusk had settled over the lake. I carried the last bag down the steps and onto the pontoon boat. My uncle had loaded the little boat. The neighbors would manage the last section of dock. I looked up at the bank where my uncle was talking with them. I watched as he handed over the keys to our cottage. Ray, a Detroit factory worker, turned and handed them to his daughter who moved her two-year-old from her hip into her husband’s hands. I stepped off the pontoon deck, onto the dock that had led to the happiest summers of my life. I sat on the fourth step. The oak tree high above me was dropping its leaves. It seemed it, too, was shedding tears. Another season was over.
Julie Bonner Williams is an award-winning poet and professor at Grand Valley State University.