When I was small, my family vacationed together. Not ‘family’ as in my parents and me. Family as in my entire family. My grandparents, my parents, my aunts and uncles, their children. All of us, packed into three cabins at the edge of Seneca Lake for a week. I was small, I think I was four years old when those three cabins were leveled to make room for condos, when we stopped going together and started vacationing in our own mini-units. I was only four, but I can remember the smell of each of those houses, the shapeless lolling of one muggy day to the next, the slope of our lakefront lawn.
I distinctly remember our caravan on the highway. Pick ups, jeeps, mini vans, packed with fluorescent colored plasticry, floatation devices shoved in the cracks and spaces of a truck bed, sleeping bags whipped up into the air like boat sails, the wary look of passers-by on the highway, stepping on it to get out of the path of potential flying debris. I remember my mother’s voice crackling over the walkie-talkie, at least six of them tuned into the same station, the frequencies stretching between the vehicles – no one had cell phones back then. I remember eating at a diner on the way, the glare of the patrons as they hurried to finish their lunches and get away from our noisy clan. I remember my uncles laughing extra loud to expedite their departure.
There was a floating dock anchored far out in the water. We built a train of rafting women and children, of big toe to finger to big toe again, paddling out to a wooden floating island, where we would lay together and soak in summertime. There was food. A lot of food and sunshine. I collected worn ‘sea’ glass on the rocky shore, gems of smoothed over greens and blues, beer-bottled trash rolled around on the bottom of the lake long enough to turn to treasure for my three year old fingers to find.
There are parts I recall with clarity: smacking my head on the coffee table in the big cabin, the high pitched rush of my aunt’s words debating the need for stitches with my mother. I remember looking up at my father’s face through a foot of water, waiting for him to pluck me out to safety after having jumped from the dock to his arms when he wasn’t looking. I remember being chased and snapped at by an angry mother goose in the parking lot down the road from the ice cream and gift shop when my cousins were ‘watching’ me. I remember the row of saw-shaped teeth on the water monster that was pulled from the depths by the fish commission, and the smell of its rotting scales. I remember falling asleep in my mother’s arms on the screen porch, pinching her cool earlobe between my fingers.
Then there are the things I think I remember, that have been repeated and recounted so many times throughout my life that I swear I was old enough, awake enough, present enough to have witnessed. My favorite of these practiced memories was the night of ghost stories on the lawn. My Uncle John, our family’s consummate trickster, had dressed in all black, walked down the shoreline and snuck into the water, where he waded beneath the docks and waves for yards and yards, creeping toward where they sat. At the perfect point in a particular ghost story, my uncle charged out of the water, scaring the shit out of everyone, drunk and sober alike. I think he even scared himself a little. Surely my two year old self was sound asleep upstairs in the wooden framed bedroom, but I swear I remember the pitch of his yowl as he lunged from the dark water.
And last weekend, some twenty odd years later, the same family packed up and set off to another lake house. A larger, more opulent lake house, with chandeliers and anti-gravity chairs, a place with a bathroom per bedroom, where leather couches replaced the old, scratchy burlap cushions. This time, my car was packed to the brim with floaties and snack food, forgotten sunscreen and baby monitors, and we sent text messages to communicate addresses and GPS coordinates instead of the old CBs. This time, my two year old was soundly asleep upstairs in our air conditioned bedroom while my husband and I sat lakeside with my family after dark on the patio.
Regardless of the inevitable changes within our clan, with the addition of new children and toddlers and the growing of the on-the-way babies, despite the advanced technologies and luxurious conditions of modern day, one thing stayed the same. The combination of a lake, a long weekend, and my obnoxious family together equals a hell of a lot of fun, no matter how many years have gone by. The only difference was my awareness of the speed of time, of how a vacation for me as a child was an endless stay, and a vacation as an adult is a speck of precious coveted space spent together, gone too fast.