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Summer days at the lake filled with tradition

As I sit down to write this column, we’re getting ready for our annual Fourth-of-July trip "up North." The suitcases are packed. The cooler is awaiting ice. The kids are saying, "Can we leave yet?"

We’re celebrating, as we always do, at my grandma’s cabin — with my parents and my sisters and my nieces and my nephews and my mother-in-law and anyone else that we think to invite along the way. It’s a "the-more-the-merrier" kind of occasion. And it’s jolly and it’s fun and I look forward to it all year.

That said … I can’t help feel, even just a little, that it would be nice not to get in the car and make the six-hour drive this year. That it would be nice not to fight the holiday traffic. That, maybe, just once, it would be nice to keep the celebration on the down low and local.

When I was a kid, my family’s Fourth-of-July tradition was to gather with my mom’s side of the family at my great-grandma’s cabin on Pine Lake. We’d come racing in the backdoor that morning, barefooted and carrying bags full of towels and sunscreen and clean undies. We'd throw our stuff in the first of two small bedrooms — standing against the lockless door as we changed into our suits — then sneak through the closet (that doubled as a secret passageway) into the second bedroom. In the living room with the old rotary phone and the seafoam-colored curtains and the sand-sprinkled couch, we'd collect warm greetings from great aunts and second cousins, and then it was out the front door to the lake.

3.7 minutes from start to finish.


Pine Lake was (and likely still is) this fantastic, shallow lake with a rippled sand bottom. We’d run out to it on a squishy lawn (it always seemed to be a year during which there had been a lot of rain). And then we'd leap into the water, where we'd stay most of the day. We'd venture out so far — 100 feet, maybe — to the drop off. Or we'd stay close to shore, working for hours at catching crayfish or coal-black minnows in plastic buckets. Every couple years someone would get a leech stuck to his or her leg and send us all screaming out of the water, fearing for our very lives.

Someone would make brisket. Someone would bring Jell-O. The pickle dish was available to our sticky fingers all day. Uncle Benny sat on the porch offering slices of the watermelon that was always his to bring. Later, between lunch and leftovers, we’d get a grown-up to walk us down to the pavilion where there were pool tables and bar stools and thick Hershey bars for sale for 50 cents apiece.

When the sky finally darkened — what felt like days after we’d arrived — we’d pull our lawn chairs out near the lake. And we’d huddle in our now-dry swimsuits under thin blankets to keep the mosquitoes away. And my mom’s cousins, Scott and Gary, would light the fireworks that they’d driven to North Dakota to buy. And we’d repay them by being genuinely amazed at the light show happening (right there!) in our very own yard.

And then, even later, my mom would drive us back home. Exhausted from the water and the sun and the excitement and the chatter, we'd lay our heads against the car windows, watching the moon travel with us until we fell asleep.

I haven’t been back in years. The cabin is gone now — my mom’s cousin has put a modular home in its place. I hear it’s lovely, and I’m certain it is. But I like to imagine that my great-grandma’s cabin is still there — the old box television still in the living room, the screen porch still stocked with picnic fare, that distinctive cabin smell still defining summer for me. I like to imagine the traditions of my past are there, waiting for my return.

And that, I suppose, is what I hope our annual Fourth-of-July drive gives my children: Tradition. Family. Sun and water and laughter. It may be a different cabin. A slightly different cast of characters. But I hope it brings, the same love, security and happiness that I remember so fondly myself.

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