For some reason, I thought we would have the summer lake house in Minnesota, forever.
The last time our family was together, was at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona on September 11, 2015 for my father’s funeral. We buried him with my mother and youngest brother. Current communication between me and my two remaining siblings is a consists of a brief email discussion about how much “stuff” needs to be removed from our parent’s Scottsdale house. In January, my sister decided to move her boyfriend into the house, while she reminded in her Las Vegas condo. In March, I accepted my sister’s offer to pick up my things from my former bedroom, before she could give or throw them away to accommodate her boyfriend.
Since were a military family, we were assigned and moved to different parts of the world every two and half years. Before my mother was married in the mid-1950s, she bought a cabin on a lake, without running water in northern Minnesota and we spent each summer visiting her relatives there. Detroit Lakes, known as the “Sunfish Capitol of the World” has a current population of about 8,500 and is located 45 miles east of the Fargo-Moorehead, North Dakota-Minnesota border. It is a regional summer recreation destination, attracting large numbers of tourists, known for fishing, boating, sailing, and swimming. No ethnic group is so identified with a single state as the Swedes are with Minnesota. My mother with her Swedish ancestry fit right in. From before statehood, Swedish immigrants flooded into St. Paul and Minneapolis and by the turn of the twentieth century, over 126,000 Swedes lived in Minnesota. However, life for our relatives proved difficult and tragic. My grandmother died at the age of sixty due to overwork and high blood pressure and my grandfather died when he went back into the house to get his citizenship papers with his dog Ginger, during a fire.
Our summerhouse was the only consistent part of my childhood. We had friendly neighbors, relatives that lived on their farms we spent time and learning out about our relatives, all who immigrated from Sweden. The musty smell of damp wood filled the place, when the oak homemade door with the distinctive small triangular windows was opened using the skeleton key. The shellacked golden wood log walls, brightly patterned Indian orange and blue rugs, antique Scandinavian wood furniture, cloth American flag, snowshoes from Norway, all complimented the focal point; a taxidermy white tailed eight-pronged deer head, named Joe. I knew that summer officially began! “Joe” was purchased with the cabin when my mother bought it, and my uncle told me and my siblings that Joe would run around at night, because the rest of his body was kept in the tall kitchen cabinets that we had no access to. My uncle was a retired colonel in the Marines, we believed him.
Our parents were strict, so we always had chores. We pumped fresh water, vacuumed, cleaned the outhouse, weeded, and cleaned the rocky 50-foot shoreline. We were supposed to stay in our 50’ yard and shoreline, but my parents forgot to restrict us on how far from shore we could go. My sister, brothers, and I figured this out quickly and became very good swimmers. We made “islands” using large used patched tractor tire inner tubes donated by my farming relatives, parts of a wooden floating dock, used beach towels, my Father’s used military camouflaged flight suits, and plastic floats that we found abandoned and floating to shore. We used left over water ski ropes and found red bricks to make our anchor. Then, we could read the eight to ten books that we checked out from the bookmobile, every two weeks. These “floating reading fortresses” looked like shelters created by the set decorators of “Water World”, an unsuccessful “end of the world” movie, and may have concerned our neighbors.
We were considered quite eccentric. Since my father hated phone calls, we had no phone in the summerhouse. The only way we could communicate to others was by mail or with a direct visit. Relatives would stop by, sometimes without warning and bring used magazines, like Lady’s Home Journal, the Sears Catalog, and Reader’s Digest. My Mother was always prepared for these random visits and kept her hair in curlers covered with a red curler hat. She looked like Bozo the clown. It was only when a relative’s pickup or Buick appeared in front of our house did, she would take the curlers out.
My mother did not enjoy cooking. However, she loved the fact that frozen food was timesaving, convenient and easy to cook. Also, she loved the more modern foods like Hamburger or Tuna Helper. Sometimes she would give us either cooked, fried or raw Spam and served with Kool-Aid or Hawaiian Punch. Koogle, a chocolate peanut spread, was served on Wonder bread for lunch about five days a week. We had Swanson TV dinners with Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and small square dessert of chocolate cake or apple or cherry pie. Libbyland Dinners frozen meals with names like Safari Supper, Sea Diver’s Dinner and Pirate’s Picnic with chocolate flavored pudding were our favorites. I really believed all Italian food was created by Chef Boyardee and I never had real Italian food until I was twenty-two years old in NYC.
Our visits to the cabin in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, were the only time we were united as a family; since we four kids each had had two-year age differences and went to different schools. For most of my life, the cabin was the place I considered “home”. Since we lived in Scottsdale, AZ and our mother’s family were mostly in northern Minnesota, each of her siblings also settled in Detroit Lakes for the summer. Each had unique seasonal cabins around on the same lake. For some reason, I always thought our summer house family tradition would continue for the rest of our lives. I didn’t want my family to change by aging, passing away, getting married, moving, or simply continuing with on their lives.
When we visited the cabin when I was in high school, I really wanted to communicate with my Arizona friends, or even talk with a possible hoped-for boyfriend. Having no immediate method of communication for three months was exceptionally difficult to me during those years. After I turned eighteen and left home, my parents kept the cabin up, but no longer visited due to caring for my brother, who was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. My father was disabled in 1971 and my mother cared for him. My father never took his own pain medication, and lay horizontally in bed, investing in his stocks, while my mother served him breakfast, lunch and dinner. My mother became the prime caretaker of my father and brother. My sister and brother were away at boarding school and college. My Mom forgot to take care of herself. She ended up with kidney cancer that later spread to her liver. She didn’t follow up with her doctor, due to her family responsibilities. She died at home in Scottsdale and my brother passed six years later in his sleep.
The summer house remained in cool, restful Minnesota. My sister, my father, and I created a tradition to go to there for two or three weeks a year, and I even brought my large kayak and mountain bike.
I thought our new tradition would continue forever. I never imagined that after my father’s death, my younger sister would choose not put down my name as beneficiary in our father’s will. I had flown back-and- forth from NYC to take care of family emergencies almost every two months for over ten years. She had done everything to please our father up to that point and decided on her own to keep most of his estate for herself. Our father asked my sister and I to co-sign his will at the lawyer’s office because of changes due to the earlier deaths in our family. It was a shock to me that the lawyer allowed me to be excluded from the final will. I did receive a cash settlement, but all of the homes, furniture, art, and cars that had been a part of my happy early memories went to my sister.
When I moved to Arizona six years ago to care for my ailing father, I accepted that my past IS my past, I knew I needed to make my own traditions. The lake summerhouse filled with so many memories became unavailable to me. I am learning to let it go. In the process of going through my “precious treasures” from my parent’s house, I am letting go by donating items to Goodwill, giving things to other people, and recycling. However, when I opened my childhood jewelry box releasing the scent of my mother’s flowery “White Shoulders” perfume, my happy memories whisked me back to those lovely summer days.
Today, I look forward to creating a life for myself in Arizona with new friends, getting involved with Arizona museums and non-profits, and developing new skills like creative writing in an attempt at finding my “true” inner voice, and establishing my new traditions.