The Lake. For weeks, the grown-ups around me talked about ‘going to the Lake’ for the 4th of July. I was growing up in New York City, with hundreds of years of history, with amazing fireworks for the 4th, with the whole world at our fingertips. But sometimes, for the 4th, we’d leave it all behind and go to “the cottage at the lake.”
Aunt Pauline’s lakeside house, “the cottage,” was a rambling, two-story white wooden house with an enormous porch that always offered cool shade, even on the hottest of 4ths. She was my mother’s aunt, my great-aunt, but in our Polish-American family, all older relatives or friends were addressed as Aunt or Uncle, a sign of respect and hierarchy.
So I had four Aunt Helens, four Aunt Wandas, and four Uncle Joes (some bona-fides, some greats-, some not related at all). When the big black phone rang at home and someone shouted, “It’s Aunt Helen,” everyone shouted back, “Aunt Helen who?!”
Penn Lake had fish, and a small dock for a little white rowboat. The whole lake and all the cottages around it were surrounded by a thick, dense, sweet-smelling dark green security blanket of trees. What mysteries lay under that impenetrable canopy that stretched as far as we could see? What creatures lived deep in that forest?
Lake Tahoe, where we sometimes go now for the 4th, at 6,200 feet up in the Sierra Nevada, is also surrounded by trees…but only conifers, or mostly. You can see through them. The ground is bare, pale beige, littered here and there with an occasional red-barked manzanita shrub or stubby gray-green sage. Empty, except for the sharp, prickly needles on the ground ready to stab.
In Pennsylvania, at Penn Lake, all the different types of big-leaf deciduous trees earnestly guarded all their secrets of unbridled life. Under the trees, smaller greenery hid everything. You never saw bare earth. When you did see a patch, here or there, or a trail, it was black, fertile, soft. I could hike barefoot. In California, I have to wear boots and long pants. Nature, here, is fierce, harsh. Unforgiving.
The pot they cooked the corn in, at Aunt Pauline’s, was almost as tall as me. The fire was already burning when we’d get there. Shouts of “Don’t get too close!” echoed throughout the day (there were lots of kids running around).
Grown-ups all sat in webbed or wooden lawn chairs scattered around the endless lawn that sloped gently down to the lake. Most of the conversation was in Polish, since most of the older generation had come from Poland. Their ‘children’ — our parents — spoke with their elders in Polish, but with us, the kids, in English. It was the perfect mix for a little girl who loved to learn languages.
I didn’t learn the term ‘wainscoting’ until I was an adult, but all of Aunt Pauline’s house had it. The line of molding across the top of it was level with my nose. The lower part was thin vertical white slats, and the kids would drive the grown-ups crazy as we dragged our nails along the wall as we walked, “click – click – click.”
“Go outside and play!” was the only remedy they knew for that.
The ‘old people’ in our world seemed to have one main antidote for stress: the glider. Every porch we visited in Pennsylvania had a glider swing. Usually it had puffy cushions that smelled of fresh air and old canvas or some other home-sewn fabric (no plastics or polyester yet), and of grandparents, or great-aunts or uncles. At the Lake, the glider was wooden, with two cushioned bench seats facing each other. Two solutions in one: the soporific, restful motion, and a friend to share it with across from you. The glider at Penn Lake was always in use.
Sometimes, someone brought an accordion. My mother always wound up strapping it on, usually as the sun was dipping down behind the lake. All the grown-ups knew all the old Polish songs. Those from my parents’ generation knew all the songs about coming back from the war, or waiting for those who did. Or not coming back. We kids just ran around playing tag or ball, nibbling an ear of fresh corn or another hot dog or a wedge of watermelon, or just eluding capture by some adult.
What a bucolic picture they made…and yet, everyone there had lost someone to World War II. No one talked about it. Barely five years had elapsed since the whole word was gripped in unimaginable frenzy. No one ever talked about it.
As night fell at the lake, there was always a large, fragrant bosom to curl up on, a lap to sit on as we held our flaming marshmallow or last ear of corn dripping with butter. How we were loved, we post-world-war children! How secure they made our new world!
At least for the 4th of July.