I grew up in a Greenfield family in the 1950s, and sometimes we were lucky enough to spend a week at Conneaut Lake. We would share a cottage with my uncle’s family, a few other relatives and a friend or two.
It wasn’t a large cottage — the girls slept in one bedroom, the boys in another and the overflow on the porch.
The drive there was long back in the 1950s, and I shared the back seat with my twin brothers. To avoid fighting over window seats, we rotated every so often according to a schedule known only to my mother.
The twins and I nonetheless bickered over every little thing — mainly who occupied, either by a hand or arm or foot, more than his or her share of space. There were continuous cries of “Mom, Karen has her foot on my side!” or “Terry touched my arm!”
When we arrived at the lake, the tension from the ride instantly disappeared. Feelings of freedom were heightened because our parents were distracted by the confusion of so many people under one roof and by each other’s company.
We could smell the water and the slightly bitter scent of dampness and algae in the air, delightfully different from city air. Flowers in the cottage gardens were not mulched or tended, but seemed to thrive on neglect. The cottage itself had a musty aroma, hinting of mildew from rubber tubes, fishing gear and bathing suits drying on the porch, never totally dry.
We were released from the heat of July in Pittsburgh, relentless under a layer of steel mill soot and air that discouraged breathing. A sweet calm breeze cooled the air at the lake beneath a clear blue sky with migrating clouds. Soft lapping sounds from the lake, excited children yelling and the snap of screen doors replaced the busy street noise to which we were accustomed.
We awoke to the songs of birds and the hum of bugs searching for admission through screens. The morning air, not yet heated by the sun, lay heavy on the grass wet with dew. After a last hasty swallow of cereal, we headed down a long flight of steps to the beach, a narrow strip of pebbly sand at lake’s edge. There we braced ourselves for the icy cold water.
I always sunburned badly on my first day. In addition to guaranteeing more freckles for my unbounded collection, it put me in T-shirts and socks at the lake for the rest of vacation to cover the sun blisters on my shoulders and ankles. After we’d had enough swimming, or after the adults got tired of watching us, we came back to the cottage, hosed our grimy feet and stripped off our soggy suits.
My mother applied Noxzema with its coolness and medicinal menthol fragrance to my sunburn and warned everyone not to touch me — especially my brothers, who liked to creep around and pretend to slap me when no one was looking.
Vacation meant we didn’t all have to sit down to dinner together, mainly because there were way too many of us. Food was placed haphazardly on the table. We filled our plates and headed for the porch or an outdoor picnic table.
On cook-out nights we could count on sweet toasted marshmallows, even more enjoyable because we hooked them on twigs and cooked them ourselves. Sometimes they caught fire and had to be slapped against the ground, allowing the sticky insides to trail out. We finally put the whole mess in our mouths, dirt and tree bark included — delicious!
Night glided in and cooled my tender skin. We captured lightning bugs and kept them in mason jars with nail-punctured lids and grass in the bottom. The screened porch became a favorite nighttime place because we knew thousands of mosquitoes hovered outside waiting for us.
Sometimes the guys went night-fishing and the girls had the porch to ourselves. Inside, our mothers talked around the kitchen table, relieved to have one more day of vacation over.
In the perfect still night, voices carried from a distance. The roads were dark except for dim lights from other cottages. Crickets began their rhythmic song; a lonely fog horn sounded. We frightened one another with ghost stories. An occasional storm flashed lightning so bright I could see it through closed eyes.
Finally, exhausted and lulled by the gentle sounds and soothing night, we slept so we could start all over again the next day.
Karen Cain of Laurel, Md., a retired Prince Georges County employee, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The PG Portfolio welcomes “Summer Memories” submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.