There is a place where the loons glide smoothly across the lake, diving and surfacing with barely a ripple. Here my mind slows to the gentle lapping of lake water against a canoe. The wind sighing as it passes through pine needles soothes my soul.
There is no schedule here. Sometimes, we awake in darkness to the cackle of the loons or the eerie hoot of the great horned owl. The flute-like call of the plain brown thrasher announces the sun filtering through the trees. We swim, paddle, eat when we are hungry, sleep when we are tired. We know it is a luxury to be here, despite the simple wood frame, the outhouse, the lack of electronics.
This year is destined to be different. This cabin in the woods of New Hampshire, set too close to the lake shore by today’s regulations, has been passed to the next generation: the third set of siblings to take care of this one-acre, rock-ledged, pine-covered property. New ownership brought the decision, after much debate, to update and expand the cabin—in part, so that our ever-increasing extended family can gather at this much-loved spot.
Now, theoretically, we can all gather for at least a day to share the beauty and serenity of this place. The cabin has doubled in size and sleeping capacity and we selfishly hope to spare ourselves time away from the lake to visit family around New England, encouraging them to join us here. But this is a new idea. We all want our solo time and also want to enjoy each other here. So this year, as we all try to get used to the new cabin and its possibilities for the family, we have found that some schedules will overlap. In the end, our family will only have a week on our own. My husband’s aunt and uncle—a couple we have only seen a handful of times in our 20-year-marriage—will join us for a week.
They are so very different from us: retired with two grown children who are leading trouble-filled lives. The lake spot is a special place to them, especially the uncle. So special, in fact, that he challenged every effort to protect and improve the property over the years, whether it was removing trees too close to the cabin that could snap in winter and crash into the roof, or the extensive changes that are now in place. But, first, we have this precious week, just us.
We arrive with our children, our luggage, our groceries, and, this year, our hearts heavy with questions about what the future holds. We, as a nation, are at war. The presidential campaign was thick with pokes and stabs. Corporations are abandoning their employees in the interest of financial gain. Churches are struggling with misuse of authority, and the spiritual worth of people who live differently from “the norm.” I hope to use my time here to consider my greatest possible hope for the world: reconciliation. My stack of books and magazines will immerse me in this notion of reconciliation. Is it total forgiveness? Is it a matter of concessions from all the different groups in conflict? Are spiritual leaders our only teachers? Is common ground found anywhere in the world? Away from the constant barrage of stories about unrest and violence, here in my place of peace, I seek the broader hope and understanding of reconciliation.
In those first few days, our senses are heightened to see how many loon chicks are here, to hear the coyotes call at night, to smell the lilies resting on the water. Our attention is oriented by daily checks for deer across the lake, and the delight of seeing a moose. The water seems high. We will check the outlet for signs of the beaver at work. With a low crop of blueberries we seek out the year-rounders for an update on the weather of the past few months. Word spreads over morning cups of coffee and sunset fishing lines that there have been bear, not just one, but a few, as many as three. Our senses are electrified with the possibilities the natural world holds for us this year.
Yet I close a book each night feeling a little less hopeful about the powers of reconciliation in our world. My reading from religious traditions puts forth that reconciliation is divinely given. Individuals and councils of religious people have interpreted the Bible, the Koran, the teachings of Buddha, and offered their notions of reconciliation and how to achieve it. I drift towards sleep to the cackling of the loon, after glancing at the title of some articles for tomorrow’s reading: A Manifesto for Racial Reconciliation; Eight Principles of Reconciliation Taught in the Bible; Australia’s Document for Reconciliation. Quickly, magically, the soft tapping of rain on the new roof relaxes me into a retreat from thoughts of our unsettled world.
It is 12:30 a.m. The old rusting spring on the back door screeches into my dreams. Heavy footsteps match beat-for-beat my heart pounding against my breastbone.
My husband, half asleep, goes downstairs. I follow a few steps behind him. There, days early and unexpected, is the uncle standing in the small original cabin room with baby-blue hard-shelled suitcases, his wife and teen-aged granddaughter staring wide-eyed into the space.
“I’m exhausted,” his wife offers timidly, staring at the beds on the sleeping porch. These beds currently cradle my daughter and my niece.
I look back and forth at the uncle and the aunt. I am not exhausted. I am awake, angry. My fingers and toes tingle with the shock of being startled out of a deep sleep. I consciously squeeze my lips together and step gently, softly onto the sleeping porch.
I awaken my children and guide them, followed by the doe-eyed granddaughter, up the stairs to the bunkroom, hoping not to awaken my son who sleeps on a bottom bunk. I return downstairs, remove warm sheets and search for fresh ones. When I return to the porch with clean sheets, the uncle and aunt have laid out their sleeping bags on top of the bare mattresses.
I climb the stairs and look in on the children, already returned to a sound sleep. I lay back in my bed, begging the gentle breezes to return and work their way through the pine trees and settle me for the rest of the night. My husband’s soft snore encourages me to return to sleep. As I calm down I resolve to ask my husband about this man, his uncle. I hope there is some explanation for his uncle’s behavior that will help calm my fury.
The raven’s call explodes in the early dawn, followed by those same heavy boots and the screeching door spring that woke me just a few hours earlier. Boots pound powerfully outside along the cabin to the road and on to the woods. The raven had been calling for a few days. Did I misunderstand his warning?
I took the raven’s call to be an announcement of an animal or bird’s death, perhaps by the bears that have been sighted this summer. Bears in the woods, walking the trails we’d blazed – probably where bear and others walked long before us. Bears on the road, three across, fearless. Bears at kitchen windows, knocking down birdfeeders
I didn’t recognize the raven’s warning about the lumbering white-haired creature that walks out our back door and into the woods.
I hear the heavy footsteps returning from a walk. Now his cumbersome steps sound beside the cabin and out onto the dock, sending its sound across the water. As he drains last night’s rainwater from the old aluminum canoe it bangs against the dock and slaps the water, echoing around the lake.
I get out of bed and go to the lake window to watch. I see him alone in the stern of the canoe, two strokes on his left, two strokes on his right, as he zigzags toward the lake outlet. His back is bare.
When we go to the lake’s outlet, we wear long-sleeved shirts to protect us from the mosquitoes and deer flies. This year, yellow jackets and white-faced bees have been plentiful and aggressive as well. He slides into the pickerelweed, the pond lilies – two strokes left, two strokes right. No slap of a biting bug or brushing away of a bee.
I consider how little I know about this man. He just drove from five states away. I assume he followed the speed limit. I know he worked until his retirement a few years ago. Did he arrive at work on time? Did he do a good job? Did he have to work with anyone else?
The loons cackle as he glides past them. As they call a little louder I hear his deep chuckle across the water, as if he understands them, gets their crazy language.
The canoe bangs against the dock and the uncle, chortling at the loons just off the dock, their ruby red eyes gleaming in the morning sun, climbs out, scratches his chest and starts toward the cabin. I waver between the desire to read him the riot act and the desire to just let last night’s disruption go away.
As abruptly as they arrived in the middle of the night, the uncle, aunt and granddaughter prepare to leave for the day.
“We can have breakfast together,” I call down the stairs.
“Only one baby loon this year,” the uncle states as I arrive in the kitchen.
Does that mean they are staying for breakfast? “Yes. Won’t you have toast and eggs with us?”
“Some dog at the landing with no tags. It’s black. Is it the neighbors’?”
“I’m not sure.”
The aunt joins in, “Oh we couldn’t possibly eat your food. We’ll go out.”
I resist the urge to scream, “You could easily startle us awake with your arrival but you couldn’t possibly eat our food?” Instead I say, “It’s not a problem at all.”
The uncle announces, “Have to go see the falls. Ever see the falls over past Bristol?” Then he walks out the back door, his wife and granddaughter following.
I decide to walk. My neighbor exclaims as I greet him that he saw a young bear on the road. Pointing down the hill, he says he stopped, as did the bear and they stared at each other, neither one moving. Finally, the bear walked away, into the woods. My neighbor’s eyes glow with some mixture of excitement and fear.
I walk down the hill, hoping to get a glimpse of the summer’s bears, wondering if the lack of blueberries this year is, in part, due to the increased bear population. A big black lab bounds out of the woods, startling me. At first I think it is a bear. He wags his tail, pink tongue hanging out. He doesn’t have a collar. Relieved, yet disappointed, I scratch his head and throw a stick for him. He bounds after it until a small group of ducks floats along the lake’s edge into his view. Then he chases the ducks and is off into the woods again. What would he do if he encountered a bear?
I retrace my steps and go beyond the cabin until I reach the far end of the lake, opposite the outlet. I look back over the water, the scattered islands and the mountains in the distance, which are invisible from our cabin due to the hills that surround the lake. Cabins are hard to see along the shore at this angle. The moose is grazing in the marshy area that cannot be seen from our cabin. The residents of the dark red cabin at this end of the lake have a completely different perspective than we do. The road runs closer to their home. The marsh and its mosquitoes are much closer and denser. But they see the moose every day, the deer too. The loons’ nest is visible from their location. These people live here year round and see it all. Does our presence bother them? Make them smile? Or just confirm that summer is here? I wonder if they love this place any less than those of us who just have a few weeks here? Or could they possibly love it more? Are they the residents who preferred allowing gas engines on boats instead of protecting the loons on the lake? As their car pulls into the driveway, and they honk a greeting to me, I read their license plate: Live free or die. Is there room for reconciliation in that? My reading has highlighted the fact that reconciliation has no clear starting point or ending point. It is ongoing, no matter where it is being sought.
I recall that they are on a first name basis with the uncle. I will need to reintroduce myself.
“Hello,” they call out. “Must be summer!”
“Yes. Looks as if you survived the winter”
“Yuh. How’s the new place? Big enough?”
“We’re testing it this week. Got my family and the crew from Ohio. We’ll see how it holds up.”
“So the family from the great state of Ohio is here. Thought I saw their car. You still out there in Tucson or something?”
“Tulsa. Tulsa, Oklahoma. Yes. I’m Bill’s wife, Beth.”
“That’s right. Beth, Tulsa. Talk about flatlanders, huh?”
We laugh together and they offer some local news about the year-round residents and commentary about higher taxes, what with all the new building going on. I turn to walk back and am struck by how, in the smallest possible ways, people are reconciling themselves to changes all the time, whether they agree or not. I wonder if reconciliation as passive acceptance is the best we can do.
The next morning, again before dawn, the boots pound against the wood floor. I cover my head with a pillow. Childishly, I decide that tonight, when he falls asleep early, I will keep him awake. I will try to change this man’s early morning habits to fit mine.
In the end, I don’t. Around the fire and a jigsaw puzzle after dinner, I, too, am tired and find myself dozing because, of course, I too have been up since before dawn.
I overhear their granddaughter talking about her “crazy parents” in the bunkroom. They are divorced and incapable of consistently caring for her. She loves coming to the lake with her grandparents where her meals are cooked for her, on time. Her grandmother is teaching her crocheting. Her grandfather knows all these beautiful places and the local farmer always welcomes them like family when they stop to buy eggs. “Meeting you guys has made this year even better,” she tells the collection of children as they try to figure out how they are all related to each other.
My thoughts shift to one time when I walked with this uncle along the ledges and meadows that rise up across the road behind the cabin. He knows wildflowers and trees to my birds and bird songs. We awkwardly exchanged our particulars as we walked.
He’s been coming here since he was a youngster, for 55 or even 60 years. Does that give him special privileges since it’s only been 22 or 23 years for me?
Recently my husband and I have invested thousands into this property, because we wanted to make it a special home for our children and our extended family. How can the uncle care so deeply, so passionately, about this place and yet do so little to be sure it will survive not only winter’s cold but also summer’s use? Did he not have the money? Was he never asked? Does he only need a shell of a place to rest before he heads out onto the lake or into the woods?
He knows things, some important things, about this part of the world. He spent time with the local man who lived off of what he hunted and fished and grew. That old woodsman knew this land’s secrets. The uncle spent time with him walking the woods and hills. This uncle also remembers summers when there weren’t any loons, years when the spring, where we walk with empty milk jugs for water, ran dry. I suspect he knows the natural history of this area better than anyone, even the year-rounders who race up and down the hill in their daily lives. Still, as the boots and screeching doors wake me yet another dawn, I rise determined to at least make him hear me out.
I meet him in my pajamas in the kitchen. He is making coffee, bare chest damp, empty of bug bites, having just completed his daily paddle around the lake.
“Morning,” I say.
“Saw the otters at the outlet.”
Otters? My anger flips to desire in an instant, like a light switch. I want to see the otters, badly, more than the bear.
“Sat in the canoe and watched them for, oh, maybe 10 minutes. Then they ran off. Don’t know if they saw me or if they ran off because they do that, run off.” He chuckles to himself.
He has been to the neighbors at the “top of the lake.” They grow blueberries and their crop is in, protected from the wildlife by a simple electric fence. He moves a basket brimming with berries toward me. He lets out a quiet rumble, “I was thinking about pancakes.”
I start pulling the other ingredients for pancakes.
As the uncle and I mix the flour and eggs and prepare the pan he describes the rainstorms and thunder and lightning they drove through to get to the lake. Is he challenging me on whose journey was harder? Or is he trying to show he knows their midnight arrival upset us? They won’t return the same way, he says, describing the places they’ll stop.
We rush to come to this place, driving 1600 miles in three days. Going home we always take a full week, slowly, leaving the cabin, lake, town, New Hampshire, New England. Has the uncle just said the same thing to me?
The loons sound their morning call and the smell of pancakes and coffee causes the others to stir.
“I’m hoping to see a bear,” he offers.
I pause. “Me too.”
“Seen the moose.”
Is it a question or statement? I just say, “Yes.”
After a few minutes, he says, “Lake’s high this year.”
Again, I wait.
“Too much rain for the wild blueberries to grow.”
He sets the table for everyone, mumbling to himself about needing a few more chairs. In just a few moments, the table is full; all of us eating breakfast together.
I look around the table. There are soft-backed porch chairs, straight-backed dining room chairs, a low, cushioned chair, even a step stool. It works, this odd assortment of seats. Other than the requests for butter or syrup there is little talk as we eat. I look at the uncle who gives his full attention to his breakfast. Has he forgotten what he witnessed this morning? Does he think no one would care to know? Or is it lost in his mind that seems to skip and hop and jump from one thing to another, from blueberries to waterfalls to thunder and lightning?
“Uncle, tell the kids what you saw this morning.”
He looks up, mouth full, and chuckles again. He swallows and says, “Saw the otters.”
The kids all call out, “Otters? Awww, we’ve never seen the otters.” Then there’s teasing and curiosity about whether he really did see otters, or if they’re a lake legend. The kids question the uncle, making plans to gather the other kids on the lake and track the otters.
I sit back in my chair, full of fresh blueberry pancakes and content that my children have been pulled even deeper into this place of enormous peace, beauty and surprises. I want them to spend unscheduled moments during the rest of the year, imagining how they will sneak up on the otters the next summer, or how they will patch and repair the old sailboat one more time. I want them to love this place the way my husband and I do. The way the uncle does too.
I realize this is our first breakfast together. I have never read the uncle the riot act, as I so desperately wanted to just a few short days ago. I reflect on the books piled alongside my bed upstairs. They have been hard to read and have provided few answers. Yet one line keeps repeating itself in the back of my head: “The greatest wounds in history have been institutional, but the path to reconciliation begins with individuals.”
Amidst the scraping of chairs to get more coffee, more pancakes, and talk of the day’s activities, I pick up the binoculars and look toward where the uncle saw the otters. Nothing.
I scan the shoreline slowly. Something moves.
“Hey! Something’s out there.”
Some grab binoculars from the porch shelf and others cup their hands around their eyes staring into the distance.
“I hope it’s the bears. Or just one of them.”
“That’d be so cool.”
“Maybe it’s the otters!”
I hear the uncle’s chuckle. “Gotta get up early, really early, to see the otters.”
“Think maybe tomorrow we can? Get up early and look for otters?”
“I know I’ll be up,” he says as clomps out the porch door and down the steps. “You wanna get up early too, we can try.” His heavy footsteps pound the pine needles as he heads off into the woods.
I turn to watch him wander away, wondering what discoveries he’ll offer upon his return. None of them will be an apology, that I’m sure. But I realize if I can accept his odd personality, I also receive his gifts. Could be that is the reconciliation I’ve been seeking.
Beth Dyer Clary told her first stories at the dinner table where she and her five siblings were challenged to keep the conversation interesting and entertaining. Since childhood, Beth has written for every job, except when she scooped ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins and made mayonnaise and sandwiches at a deli. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in 2013. After two decades in Oklahoma, Beth has returned to her roots in Massachusetts where she writes in a house built around a locust tree in the company of her husband, Bill, and their two dogs and cat.