Personal Memoir From My Mom #1

(Not too long ago, my mother, age 88, signed up to take a memoir class at her retirement community. I think she liked the idea of getting some of her memories written down so family members could enjoy them. That said, she’s been hesitant to share them so I’ve been working on her. After she shared this first one with me, I suggested it would be great for it to be more readily available and asked if I could post it here. I think it’s a great piece of writing and really comes to additional life with the photos added. If you want to encourage her, offer some positive feedback in the comments section. –Andy)

Days at the Cottage

by Carib Smallman

My paternal grandparents, Gommy and Poppy, owned a cottage on Barlow Lake in Michigan. Their home was about 25 miles away in Grand Rapids where my father finished high school before attending the University of Michigan.

Fishing from the dock.

Every summer of my first decade was spent with them; partly in town, but mostly at the lake. The cottage was built long before I was born. Poppy parked the car at the top of the stairs leading to the cottage. The outhouse is the first thing encountered as you walk down toward the cottage. My parents and I were living in a house in Washington D.C. Using an outhouse was a new experience. Poppy had built a very low seat just my size.

Farther down the hill sat the cottage. The door opened into a small kitchen including a kerosene stove. Water was obtained by pumping it into a large sink. If you needed hot water it was heated on the stove. The kitchen merged into a dining area where a large table sat with benches on either side. The large area beyond the table was the living area with the two bedrooms walled off on one side. The walls of the bedrooms were very thin; not at all like our house. A chamber pot hid under the bed in each room. There were no lights in the outhouse.

That’s the outhouse in the upper left of this photo.

Windows made up the entire front of the room facing the lake. A wind-up phonograph built into a wooden cabinet sat between the windows and bedroom wall. I had permission to play ‘my’ records. I learned how to wind up the phonograph. Poppy pasted pictures on my records before I could read, making each easy to identify. I was very proud that I could accomplish this myself.

A tall tree towered over the corner of the cottage. Since the cottage was built into the hillside, looking out the front window we were seeing half way up the tree trunk. Poppy had fastened a small birdhouse facing the windows. Each year a wren family settled into it. I usually arrived about the time the eggs hatched so Gommy and I watched carefully as the mama and papa birds came and went with food for their babies. One of the most exciting days each summer was when the babies were pushed out of the nest. Most often there were 3 babies. I would run after them as the parents encouraged them to fly. I loved watching them.

On the dock with the cottage in the background.
A half basement with a storage area had been built under the front half of the cottage. Poppy had rigged up a way to bring water from the lake so we could shower. It was cold but it was better than trying to bathe in the lake!

In front of the cottage Poppy had built two docks reaching into the lake. Under the longer dock he spread gravel several feet to the side and all the way to the end. That made it easy to walk into the lake to swim. There was a short ladder at the end of the dock where the water was deeper to make it easier to enter the water.

The second dock was for the fishing boat. There was a ‘wire box’ beside the dock where fish that had been caught were held alive until they could be cleaned. It was very mucky below that dock. We often saw what we called ‘mudpuppies’ wiggling around down there. I hoped they would stay there and not be around where I was swimming. Fortunately they preferred the muck.

Between two trees on a flat area near the docks Poppy had attached a swing for me. Nearby he had installed a double-seated swing for grown-ups.

When I was 8, Poppy bought me a boat. It was a duck-hunting boat with kapok all around the outside so it could not tip over. The oars were just my size. The boat must have been 6 to 8 feet long and 4 to 5 feet wide. The main seat, with the oarlocks, was in the middle. There was a short seat in the front where one small person could sit. I was allowed to row as far as the next two cottages as long and Gommy and Poppy could see me. I liked to row there where there was a batch of water lilies that I could pick. When my Mommy and Daddy were at the cottage, Daddy had a motor he put on my boat. He would take me for a ride. What fun – a really fast ride and with my Daddy!

Putting the oar in the oar lock in preparation for a water lily expedition.

A YMCA camp was located at the far end of the lake. We often watched the boys out in long canoes practicing their unison rowing. When we visited Uncle Allen and Aunt Irene Burkholder we could hear the boys singing across the lake.

Uncle Allen and Aunt Irene (good friends of my grandparents, not related)) also had a cottage on the lake. Theirs was a BIG cottage with a bunkhouse. The bunkhouse was located over the garage, a separate building from the cottage. Three bunk beds sat around the edge of the room, one on each wall. A regular bathroom was on the other wall. In the middle of this large room was a ping pong table. Occasionally I stayed overnight and that is where I slept, usually with one of the Burkholder daughters and her kids. The adults slept in the cottage.

Aunt Irene had a wonderful garden with many gladioli; my favorite flower! She often picked some for us to take back to our cottage. The adults were always busy, talking and cooking, but they made time to play with me; often card games, especially ‘Touring’, a travel game. (I still have it.) Occasionally I would swim off of their dock but the water was much deeper there. It scared me a bit.

Poppy would take me walking through the woodsy places where there were no cottages. He taught me about the trees and we saw many ‘critters’. The owls fascinated me. If we spied one I would walk around and around the tree. It looked like the owl was screwing its head off watching me. I never could catch it turning its head back around. Poppy said our eyes can’t see that fast.

With two pet turtles.
I found many frogs, toads and turtles in our wanderings. Gommy and Poppy allowed me to keep a few toads and a turtle by the front door of the cottage. I built an area surrounded by stones to keep the ‘critters’ in. I would have water and crumbs available for them. If we were leaving I would free them.

Often Poppy would get up really early and go fishing. He caught lots of bluegills and a few bigger fish – a bass occasionally and a rare trout. Then he came back, cleaned them and Gommy fixed them for breakfast. Yummy!

I have wonderful memories of the cottage for my early life until it all came to an abrupt end.

Vacation Guy – Part III (From the Archives)

(This completes the three part remembrance of Vacation Guy from the archives. The original of Part III is from March 11, 2012. In terms of a Vacation Guy update today, 10 years after the posting below, he happily lives with Ella in her Seattle apartment. –Andy)

I’ll finish my Vacation Guy trilogy with today’s post, including a photo I just took of the esteemed stuffed toy, taken nearly 15 years after he entered Ella’s life. As you can tell, he has been fully loved by her, so much so that in true Velveteen Rabbit terms, he is undoubtedly real (and has been for years).

Ella would gently rub his face while falling off to sleep each night, the loving he received there being obvious. Several years ago, my mother sewed on “gloves,” replacing the originals that had been worn through. I remember how nervous Ella was when Vacation Guy went in for glove surgery, and how excited she was when he emerged looking so good.

A similar experience was had each time Vacation Guy went for a bath (the washing machine). That form of bath was a little too hard on him so next he got the Woolite treatment in the sink. Ultimately, though, the concern of hurting him was too great and the baths ceased.

Vacation Guy no longer sleeps with Ella but is kept on her nightstand, right next to her bed.

Today’s Prompt: Describe your favorite toy.

Vacation Guy – Part II (From the Archives)

(Here’s today’s post from the archives about Ella’s most important toy, Vacation Guy. Yesterday, I posted Part I and tomorrow I’ll post Part III. The original of Part II is from March 10, 2012. –Andy)

So I gave Ella this advice when she was little, thinking she might be dumb like I was when I got to be 12 or 13. You see, I had an important soft toy when I was little. In fact, I had several of them. Bunny, Pooh Bear, Kanga, Eeyore and others. And when I got to be a certain age, 12 or 13, when these important toys had all been packed away into a box and put in the garage, I thought I was too big for them. Truth be told, I was kind of embarrassed by them.

I’m sad to say, I gave them away.

So the I gave advice I gave Ella was … “When you think you’ve outgrown Vacation Guy, when you get to the point that you think you really don’t need him anymore, when you go crazy ’cause you’re a teenager … Just give Vacation Guy to me for safe keeping.”

“When you come to your senses, I’ll give him back to you.”

That’s what I told Ella.

Today’s Prompt: What’s something *crazy* you did as a teen?

Vacation Guy – Part I (From the Archives)

(I’m digging into the archival history of the 10+ years of postings I’ve made here and found three consecutive stories about Vacation Guy, Ella’s most important childhood toy. I’m reposting them over the next three days, starting with today. The original is from March 9, 2012. –Andy)

In Ella’s hands here is Vacation Guy, so named because she got him in 1997 while we were on a vacation. The four of us were in Sun River, Oregon and we found a little toy store in town. There on the shelves was the cute, soft, cuddly doll, perfect for 8 month old Ella. It became THE soft toy, the one that stayed with her wherever she went, including to bed in her arms each night. I believe in psychology they call such a thing the “transitional object.”

Over the years, Vacation Guy’s family grew. I found his “female” (pink) compatriot on, of all things, eBay and “won” her for Ella. This doll became Vacation Girl. Then there was Vacation Kid and Vacation Joey. Each of these had their own song, part of Ella’s bedtime ritual.

Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow when I tell about some sound advice I gave to Ella about Vacation Guy.

Today’s Prompt: Share a story about your most important soft toy, pillow or blanket.

Flow With the Course of Nature

As I’ve written before, when I was a little boy I experienced significant night terrors for about two years.

My parents took me to a child psychiatrist who recommended family counseling so we tried that. A behavior modification program was created. Still, the terrors got so bad that I was hospitalized for a week when I was in 4th grade, studied by doctors and nurses to try to determine the root of the problem. One memorable experience in the hospital was when electrodes were attached to my head to study my brainwaves. Nothing significantly wrong was determined and I returned home.

Ultimately, I grew out of the night terrors, but the experience cast a dark shadow on me for years. For instance, I was horribly shamed by it, even into my young adulthood, and never talked about it.

It was my deepest and darkest secret.

But during college I started to make peace with it and even started to appreciate how the experience helped make me who I am. I believe the empathy and compassion I have for children is a direct result of my experience with night terrors, of undergoing counseling as a child, and from the experience of spending that week in the hospital.

These days, I use my childhood experience with night terrors on a nearly daily basis as I mentor children and coach parents. The Haiku I wrote and to which I added one of Fish Astronaut’s drawings above demonstrates that the experience is deeply embedded in me.