The Kettle: A Reflection

The following excerpt from “Fresh Water — Women Writing on the Great Lakes,” a collection of true stories by 52 authors (2006, Michigan State University Press), is condensed and printed by permission of author and publisher. Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark

Driving over the Mackinac Bridge and west back to the lake retreat her grandparents once owned, she rehearsed what she would say to anyone who caught her: “This little cabin has been in my family for half a century…”

The Kettle: A Reflection - FlowersTHE BREW PUB WAS DARK AND CHEERFUL, the air redolent of fresh beer. Next to my husband and me, a huge aquarium full of freshwater fish glowed brown-green.

“So, I’m really going to do it. I’m going to go up there and get that kettle.” I was cheering myself on.

Dave sipped his pint and nodded, “And whatever else you want.”

We’d driven to Kalamazoo’s warehouse district through gray January countryside from our new house in Saugatuck. Outside, cold winter rain melted the snow cover to slush. And I thought about the little cabins in the woods 500 miles away near the frozen Lake Superior shore. It was my 36th birthday, and I was conspiring to smash a window or jimmy the door at somebody else’s summer place.

Fifty years ago, on land owned by his father-in-law on Lake Independence in Big Bay, Michigan, my grandfather converted the cinder-block garage of an old hunting camp into a three-room cabin where he, my grandmother, my mother and her five sisters spent summers. The rest of the year, they lived in Marquette, just an hour’s drive along the coast.

It wasn’t until I entered the front door’s screened porch and encountered my grandfather’s work gloves, the curves of his fingers preserved in the worn gray canvas, that I was almost knocked to my knees by grief.

Once upon a time, arrivals went like this:

I’d jump from the book-cluttered nest I made in the back seat, not quite out of reach of my noisy brothers, who tumbled out the back, board games and comic books sliding out with them. The trees would close over my head, as I raced up the short slope to the Lake Independence bluff top. My sneakered feet would kick up moss and acorns, then thunk down the wooden staircase and out to the end of the dock.

There, I’d gulp the lake air and scan the distant shores — the scatter of cabins looked like toys — for signs of change that came so gradually they were nearly invisible.

The Kettle: A Reflection - WindowI CAN BE A BOLD PERSON, ESPECIALLY IN CONVERSATION, but when time for risky action is at hand, I hold back. I sat in the front seat, listening to the wind. Had decades really passed since I’d taken my Barbies on wilderness expeditions in those woods? Since I’d rushed out to the outhouse and back during nights so black everything beyond the glow of the cabin’s windows disappeared?

I pushed the car door open and fresh north-woods air, warmed by the southern wind, rushed in. It took me several trips to pile all my supplies — flashlight, screwdrivers, mallet, wrench, crowbar, tote bags, stepladder and hand drill — under the ferns behind the little cottage. I approached the kitchen door first: Locked.

Hunched in the blasting wind, I pressed my forehead against the window and drew deep breaths. The kettle, large as an old-fashioned milk bucket and bearing the same sort of wire and wood handle, was exactly where I’d expected it to be, on the old white stove, left back burner.

I pictured my mother, asking carefully, as she and her sisters helped their mother clean up the cabin one last time, “May I take the kettle? I’ve brought one to replace it.” My grandmother wouldn’t hear of it. The cabin was listed as for sale with all furnishings except a few valuable antiques. The kettle would stay with the cabin. I noticed that the sideboard which I coveted, and which would in fact end up in my dining room, had already been moved, probably to my grandparents’ basement in Marquette.

My eyes wandered over to the old iron hand pump with its faded red paint, silenced at the edge of the white ceramic sink. I could see my grandmother at 50 — dark-haired, tiny and powerful — vigorously pumping: one, two, three heaves to fill the kettle for dishes and washing up before bed.

Under my feet lay the worn rag rug I’d watched her shake a hundred times. She’d pause and call to me as I raced from the lake to the outhouse, “You’d better go before you find you already went.”

It wasn’t until I entered the front door’s screened porch and encountered my grandfather’s work gloves, the curves of his fingers preserved in the worn gray canvas, that I was almost knocked to my knees by grief.

The Kettle: A Reflection - LadderTHE FRONT DOOR WAS LOCKED. My grandfather’s weathered wooden ladder, propped on its side along the outside of the cottage, reminded me that the loft window had never been lockable. I propped the ladder against the wall and climbed, giddy with triumph. It wouldn’t budge. Someone had screwed a thin piece of wood between the lock and the sash, perhaps my grandfather, suspecting exactly the sort of stunt I was trying to pull now.

All the windows were locked tightly. I peered into each. Coasters crocheted long ago by church ladies awaited the hot coffees and cold beers of strangers. Our old rotary phone would ring for new ears. Our fireplace tools would poke other people’s fires. And our kettle, of course, would warm gallon after gallon of water for somebody else’s cleanups.

Around back, I rooted through my supplies, tossing around break-in ideas. The first-floor windows seemed the best bet. I chose one above the narrow bed with the painted iron foot and headboards that I’d slept in once I’d grown too old to share the loft with my brothers. I examined the window lock — such a simple gizmo, really. All I had to do was figure out how to rotate it out of its catch. I decided to drill a biggish hole through the sash and insert a curved hanger.

I watched with mild horror as a little stream of paint chips and wood dust dropped onto the bed.

I pictured my grandparents, not an hour away, whom I hadn’t seen in half a year. I missed them terribly, and now that I’d damaged the window, I wouldn’t be able to stop and visit.

Dusk was falling. I was hungry and cold. I thought of my parents, my brothers. I thought of Dave. They all felt much too far away.

The Kettle: A Reflection - GlovesI wandered the yard, cutting a roll of beautiful white birch bark from a tree on the bluff. For a while, I sat at the base of the old wooden staircase to the water, letting the cold waves soak my shoes. Lake Independence was whipped into a white-capped frenzy.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want the kettle, or the gloves, or the fireplace tools; it was that I wanted everything and everyone back the way they were, back the way they could not be again. I knew as I sat there, in a way that I could not know from 500 miles away, that the cottages were lost — that anything I took would be diminished by the act of separating it from this place.

To assure myself I’d left nothing that would incriminate me — and to put off leaving just a little while longer — I walked the grounds one last time. Even in the golden twilight, the place looked much more worn out than I’d ever have described it from memory. I blew a parting kiss and slipped back through the woods to the car.

I turned off at the beach, stopping in the turnaround at the edge of Lake Superior to dig a clump of forget-me-nots I’d promised Dave from the forest beyond it. The plant bloomed for the season in our sandy yard, then self-seeded for a few more. This year, we found no forget-me-nots in our yard at all.

But the roll of birch paper — no longer bright white, yet still beautiful — rests on my desktop, a reminder that I am a child of the north woods.

Alison Swan, author of two poetry books, teaches at Western Michigan University.

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