The crumpling of paper and the striking of a match stir me awake. It’s cold on my cot at the top of the pull-down attic stairs. But that’s soon to change. My face is tucked in way under a musty but cozy army surplus blanket but any minute now the smoky, earthy scent of wood catching fire will find its way to my ten year old nose.
The sun’s not awake yet on this summer upstate New York morning, so it can’t be much later than 5:00 AM, but I decide to get up anyway. As I take my first step down the creaky stairs, I see Grandpa turn his head away from the wood burning stove. He looks up at me with a kind smile and puts his finger to his lips in a silent but sweet way of telling me not to disturb the rest of the sleeping family.
At the bottom of the stairs, I turn to the right so as not to awaken Grandma who is in one of the two single beds behind a curtain wall on the left. Grandma and Grandpa don’t sleep in the same bed like my parents do. I tip toe past the bookshelves, the ones filled with Agatha Christie whodunits, letting my eyes adjust to the growing glow in the stove across the room. I pass the dining room table to kneel quietly by grandpa. He hands me the poker stick and helps me turn the log.
My childhood summers usually included a trip to my grandparents’ camp on Stoner Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. Grandpa built the place when my mother was a teenager so while it was certainly filled to the rafters with decades of memories, there was still room to add more. To that end, my parents would cram the station wagon with enough stuff to keep 4 children entertained for the 12 hour drive and off we’d go. Sometimes we’d take the Turnpike through Ohio and Pennsylvania, other times we’d cross the border and go through Canada with at least one argument about whether we should take the bridge or the tunnel. I think I always voted for going through the tunnel – heck you could go over a bridge any old time. Plus, if we went the Canada route, it might include a stop at Niagara Falls. Regardless of the path dad chose, it always included no less than 17 games of I spy.
No matter how tired I was after the long trip, I always perked up as we turned down the dirt road leading to the camp. The road was a dense and tangled combination of life and death. Deep hunter green pines reaching up for the sun past dead and decaying stumps and leaves. Like a puppy, I’d beg to roll down my window so that I could soak in the dank smell of it all including the monster-sized bracket fungi that would later become canvasses for our artwork. With sticks as our pens, we’d draw on the fungus, watching it turn from light to dark with each etched mark, just like mom did when she was a kid.
Sunny days included the obvious outdoor activities of fishing, swimming, and boating. Rainy days at the camp were actually just as fun. We’d take turns playing cribbage with Grandpa while Grandma worked her crossword puzzles and drank Sanka. Sometimes we’d play card games like Authors or Spoons. I loved looking through all of the paperback books but almost always ended up wanting to know what mystery Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple were solving. There was also a Victrola in the attic. We’d gently set the 78 onto the green felt of the turn table, place the rusty needle down on the record and crank the handle. We knew all the words to You Remind me of my Mother and Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.
And when the rain really came down hard, we’d go out on the screened porch that faced the lake and extended the width of the camp structure. There we could smell the rain and listen as the downpour pounded the shingles, and filled the row boat. Something else for us kids to argue about, who would get to use the bilge pump hand tool and who would have to use a boring old bucket to empty the water from the boat.
I was so sad when my grandparent’s realized they’d have to sell the camp. They were getting older and couldn’t maintain the place through the heavy snow winters let alone the drive from their home in Delmar even on a sunny summer day. Their three children were too far away (Michigan, Utah and California) and the distance would have presented the same difficulties in keeping up the place. I still miss it and wish it were in the family, but I also know that I found lifelong memories there. Even now, when I smell the rain, I’m reminded of those special summers at the lake.