This morning as I opened my eyes and looked out the window, my sleepy gaze was filled with the abstract shapes and 50 shades of green pine branches and needles.
Our bedroom here in the cabin in the woods, near the lake, is a converted screened porch, all glass, and nestled among the trees. It’s like being in a see-through tent outdoors.
Light is kissing the edges of the branches as the sun streams down upon them, and the red pine needles who have left home fill the floor of the woods, making a soft, squishy, silent carpet for bears, red foxes, and chubby little woodchucks.
Standing guard over the woods is the mammoth trunk of a 60-foot pine, well over 600 years old, riddled with history, its branches reaching out so far they cover the house like the arms of a loving great-grandmother protecting her family.
I’m hearing the high-pitched tweets of hatchlings in their nests in sunrise alarm, training.
A comforting sip of my coffee soothes my soul; its warmth fills my inner self.
My cup, a sap green, somewhat 1960s-modern style, is my favorite, and has been used on every summer morning here in this house since 1987. As odd as it sounds, it’s one of the things that brings me comfort in this Adirondack home in the words. We get attached to objects that bring us comfort, like this cup, like this house, like these woods and this lake, rich with history, like no others on earth.
Each year about this time, when we see signs that our time here will soon be winding down, I begin to experience a tinge of sadness, because this is the only place we consider our generational family home.
It’s the place the kids have played every summer of their lives. It’s filled with memories of grandpa’s prayers at family dinners, the kids taking their first boat rides, rope swings over the lake, the laughter around the table of family members who are no longer with us, the christening of a new family-heirloom boat by my 92-year-old grandmother, first times fishing and catching frogs for my now-grown niece and nephew, building forts in the woods, playing Monopoly on rainy days, and canoe trips across the lake. The kids are 15 now, but it seems just yesterday we were bathing all three in the giant wrought-iron footed bathtub that has served families in this house for well over 100 years.
This place has been the inspiration for countless paintings and photographs, with its color-filled sunsets, historic sailboat races, the grumbling old engines of the wooden boats, lapping water sounds on canoe trips, and the crunch of twigs under our feet on walks through the woods.
I know I talk about this place a lot, and it may be tiring for you, but this place has been my muse for three decades. Hemingway had Havana; for me, it’s the Adirondacks. Dreams of coming here get me through stressful years, knowing that when June comes, we can return to this place that not only grounds us, it slows us down, pulling us together in ways that don’t occur the rest of the year. It gives the kids deep memories of months of time with their grandfather and other family members, and it even draws them, and us, closer together. As I look back on when my father discovered this special place, almost 30 years ago, I realize it slowed us all down, brought all closer, and in some ways saved our family.
I’ll admit a bit of envy of the families on this lake who have somehow managed to hold on to their family homes for 120 years or more in spite of out-of-control taxes and the massive expenses that can come with the brutal winters.There is comfort walking into those drafty old cabins and seeing portraits on the walls, knowing that these are the faces of women and men who spent their vibrant youth, and their entire lives, in this tradition-filled place, from birth to death, like several generations before them.
Their parlors are filled with fading photos of happy moments at these lake places, where families who sometimes don’t see one another all year gather, just like Thanksgiving but for whole summers together. There is something soothing to the soul knowing that relatives from the past, many of whom you never met, experienced the summers of their lives here, and it could go on for another hundred years or more. These are truly homes shared by the generations; those who built them gave their families a great gift and are honored for it — 120, 140 years later, or more. It is a rare gift indeed.
But homes don’t always remain in a family forever. I was sad when my dad moved us out of the little brown ranch house of our childhood on Indiana Avenue in Fort Wayne to his dream house, and sad when I grew up and left that house. I was sad when my grandparents sold the homes where we’d played on their stairs and explored secret treasures in their basements. And I’ll be sad when this place is no longer in our family.
Though change is good, so is tradition. Tradition somehow sews us together with our ancestors and provides us with comfort. It cements family memories. You see, there is value in that 30-year-old coffee cup, and there is comfort in the creaky old stairs and the garage door that sticks, and the sound of the creaky screen door that was slamming shut for a hundred years before us.
When I walk into this time-honored cabin at the start of every summer, it’s like Christmas Day, rediscovering things I hadn’t thought about all year. I look around at the things we’ve collected over the decades … the paint-by-numbers hanging on the wall of our living room, the old lamp we picked up when antiquing, the cluttered bookcase filled with books — including coloring books the kids used as toddlers — the sagging red-and-black-checked couches my wife re-covered when the kids were little because we were stuck here for nap time, the fireplace we installed to warm us during the winter when the world was going to come to an end in Y2K, the old “out of commission” leaky wooden canoe I traded a painting for, then refinished and hung from the ceiling of our living room, the old violin hanging on the wall, dozens of early paintings done by me and other family members. The kids still find their old toys in the closet and play with them like they once did, even though they are teenagers now.
It’s good to have a place to come home to.
Though life isn’t about stuff, it’s about memories, sometimes stuff is the reminder of a memory and special times together, which is why traditions are so important. It’s why I keep all the paintings I’ve painted on location, and why I hang them here to remind me of special moments painting alongside my kids and friends, and the special memories surrounding this place I call home.
I feel blessed that I was born into a family that saw the need to create traditions, and I consider it my responsibility to find ways to bring traditions to my kids and maybe, someday, generations in the future.
Some are fortunate enough to be beneficiaries of the vision of their great-great-great-grandparents, and they are taught to keep these traditions alive for their own great-great-great-grandchildren. Even though they may struggle to do so, they see how important it is. And I consider that one of the most admirable things anyone can do for their family.
Traditions can always be created. Memory-making can be happenstance, but most memories are created, and cherished, because someone worked to make them happen.
I encourage you this beautiful Sunday morning to seek out memories and traditions, and look for ways to cement them. It’s one of the great gifts you can give your family.