My parents bought a vacation house in the Poconos back in the early nineties. Actually, my mother was the one who bought the house. She went out with realtors and scoured the area to find a little cabin backed by a rushing stream, with an empty lot on one side and a preserve behind it. An idyllic, private setting with a lake club and a pool club nearby.
No one else in the family was interested. My brother, twin sister and I were young adults by then and were starting to take our own vacations. Plus, our idea of a vacation didn’t involve lakes with water snakes and silty, muddy bottoms. We were Jersey Shore kids.
For a few weeks almost every summer of our youth, our parents rented houses on Long Beach Island, where we’d race around in the surf after slathering ourselves in baby oil. When we were old enough to drive, we would rise with our friends before dawn on weekends to beat traffic and drive down to the beach, where we’d sleep wrapped in blankets until the sun burned off the marine layer and we could bake ourselves in between swimming among the jellyfish and gorging on sausage and peppers and zeppoli from the nearby Boardwalk.
My mother hated the shore. Unlike the rest of our dark-skinned family, Mom had porcelain white skin that burned within minutes. Once, while sitting outside reading, she got a third degree burn from the sun reflecting off her glasses onto her arm.
She also hated the sand we tracked into the rental houses, the constant cooking and cleaning and laundry she did while the rest of us vacationed. For her, being down the shore was just like being at home, except all there was for her to do besides housework was hide under a beach umbrella to avoid sun poisoning.
So once we kids were grown and mostly out of school and there was money to buy a vacation place, my mother was determined it would be somewhere she wanted to go, somewhere cooler, in the mountains, where she could enjoy being outside without worry of third degree burns. Somewhere that reminded her of her own childhood vacation home on Erskine Lake, a rustic, camp-like place where she rowed and swam and dreamed of all the things she would do with her life.
When she decided on the Poconos house, she ignored everyone’s grumblings. Who wanted to go to a lake with no waves? How boring could you get? And the name she gave the house: “Memories of Me.” She hung a big sign emblazoned with it at the end of the driveway. It drove my brother, my sister, and me nuts. How self-involved, we groaned. How melodramatic. How Mom.
“It’ll be a great place to bring the grandkids, eventually,” she told us, though marriage and children were far from our minds. “No one’s going to use it,” my father grumbled.
He was right about that at first, at least when it came to us kids. My brother was busy finishing college, my sister was studying sculpture and photography in Italy and then moved to Los Angeles to become part of the movie industry. I was busy with law school and then also moved to LA to practice law. We barely visited the lake house, which was small and cramped, albeit with a killer backyard view. The stream, which varied in width and strength depending on the snow and rain, offered a constant, soothing burble, and there was a wooden bridge that led to a little island. The swollen winter waters washed away the bridge so many times that my parents eventually replaced it with sturdy stepping stones that reemerged each summer.
Still. That house. Its name. We rolled our eyes the few times we pulled into the driveway. We even teased Mom about it. “Really? You couldn’t think of something more house-y?” “It’s my house to name,” she’d remind us. And it was. She bought it because it reminded her of her childhood. She bought it to remind her of what she once thought she’d be, the person she still hoped to become: a painter, an artist, a writer. And she was the one who loved the house, who used it. She went with friends and relatives, occasionally with my dad, who grumbled there wasn’t enough to do. My aunt and my cousins joined her many weekends to explore the zoos and parks in the area. They’d swim at the pool and lake, play in the backyard and cook and relax. They enjoyed the house.
Just as my mother predicted, we kids got married, had kids of our own and started going to the lake house too. My father even admitted he enjoyed the peace and quiet. They bought the lot next door, knocked down the old house, built one twice the size so that all three of us kids and our families could stay there together with my mom and dad. For years, at least once a summer, we all showed up and crammed into the house–a huge “cabin” that felt small and cozy with us all there.
Our stays weren’t always idyllic. The grandkids bickered, or we argued with our spouses on rainy days when our kids were crawling the walls. And my parents could only manage to be in the same place for so long without fighting. But they tried mightily to keep things civil for their grandchildren.
Ultimately, though, we were all happy there. We enjoyed each other’s company in a way that was more difficult to do elsewhere. We let go of petty worries and grudges. We ate homemade ice cream at the local stand and took the kids kayaking and swimming and bowling, to zoos and reptile houses and arcades.
We even stopped making fun of the house’s name. At least, not as much fun. Every now and then, we kids and our spouses would stand in the circular driveway while the grandkids rode bikes and threw balls, and we’d gaze at the sign which proudly announced: “Memories of Me.” We’d roll our eyes and groan. Mom. Oh, Mom. But we stopped teasing her about it. We were building memories of our own at this place, just as she had built memories of her childhood summers. We were starting to understand the worth of building memories about ourselves and our families.
This year my mother would have been seventy-three. I still hate the name of the lake house, and yet I find myself thinking it’s more apt than ever before. We’ve spent a lot of time there since she died over two years ago. I love it there just as much as the grandkids do, which shocks me. I never thought I’d stop yearning for the shore.
But Mom made the lake house a home. She made sure it was comfortable for everyone. It’s big enough for the six grandkids to play in one room with the door shut so that the adults can gather in peace in the chef’s kitchen that’s the heart of the open living space. There are several ample eating areas with huge tables where we sit and drink and tell stories. And so many of our stories since she died have centered on her. We’ve realized that no matter how much turmoil she whipped up in her lifetime–and believe me, my mother was the queen of melodrama–she was the driving force behind our family. She knew about every grudge between us, every fight, every hurt feeling, and she worked hard to smooth things over so that we stayed a family no matter what. This woman whose own feelings were so easily hurt, who lashed out so often because she felt lesser than–less loved, less desired, less recognized by any of us–even so, she kept us together. She knew that the most important thing was for us to be there for each other, to keep loving each other. To keep our kids close to each other so that their relationships will be paramount as they get older.
If she were alive this year for her seventy-third birthday, my gift to her would have been to say this: Mom, you were right about the lake house, even about its name. It reminds us of what you taught us, about who we are and who we should be to each other. It reminds us of you.
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