by Mara Jebsen
The photograph on the right was taken when I was six, on a boat speeding through Lake Ontario, in Henderson Harbor, New York. It was in the village of Henderson, a good six hours north of New York City, that an ancestor of mine (one more interested in fishing than fashion) built five houses in the early 1900’s; one for each of his children.
Four of the houses are on the water, and one looms on the hill across the road. A lakefront house right in the middle got sold before I was born, and the poor souls that live there now built a high fence around it to keep my family from swarming across their property. We no longer miss that house, but we do still call it by its old name.
Everything about the remaining four is somewhat irregular—they are all in different styles, of different sizes, and each is attached to a different-sized patch of property. The one that belongs to my branch has the least land, and is the biggest and most decrepit. It is best suited to being filled by at least two nuclear families. Probably its best asset is a cobwebby porch built directly over the water.
The lake itself is sea-weedy, green. Zebra mussels cut your feet. The labour of living by it —dragging the boat in, wresting bins of garbage up the stone hill in a wheelbarrow, washing a hundred plates three times a day—is more intense than you expected when you were child. There is always someone watering and pressing the clay court, or hanging up endless clumps of wet bathing suits and towels on lines. There is a mass production of tomato and chicken sandwiches, and by the time the last child has had their lunch, the first child is thinking of his dinner. In one area are bunches of children engaged in archery, over there are some more playing chess. Several grownups are off somewhere, sailing. All activities are tinged with competition, and a little danger. The tennis is downright ferocious.
Everywhere there is evidence of grandeur and decay.
My great-aunt, or great-cousin or something had her 90th birthday this summer, which brought all the branches flying lake-ward in droves. What one discovers in “my” house this summer is that the sofa has completely disintegrated; a pile of dead moths high as your ankle lines the perimeter of all windows. The children are bunched on cots on the porches; no one seemed to remember to shut the doors, so we lost the battle with the gnats and mosquitoes. The end of our dock—the most disgraceful one on the lake—has cracked off and slumps down into the water. Perhaps in sympathy, the sofa slumps at the same angle. When you come into the kitchen, which is plastered with notes to remind you that the appliances are whimsical, or don’t work at all–you find a spate of lake-wet relatives in towels nearly falling through the rattan seats of their chairs, speaking words you haven’t heard since last summer—like “mast”, “boom”, “main-line,” and “skipper.” The pot of coffee is always on. Then someone has to be taken to the hospital for stitches.
One topic that crops up periodically in the kitchen, is the old days. There used to be a pool in the property across the way; there used to be butterflies, which the children caught in nets and pinned to boards. They used to go to the farm and come back with a pile of kittens that someone had intended to drown. There used to be fish-gutting in the basement, which the women mostly did, and intense fishing trips across the lake, conducted uniquely by the men.
The oldest generation remembers this with mixed fondness, but not wistfulness. They share responsibility with my mother’s generation for the endless logistical minutia of managing the place. My generation is still young—I’m a over a decade older than the cousin closest to me in age, and many of the kids are perplexed about why they go on vacation in a house so far away, and so much less comfortable than the one they left. Nobody really fishes any more. The little ones say idly: “whichever of us strikes it rich should fix this place.”
It would be beautiful if it were fixed. But an interesting thing about lake life is the ethos of discomfort that is its essential spirit. Even in my great-grandmother’s day, when there had been money, there had also been spiders, and rotting fish washing up on the rocks, and the water was ice-cold, and the weather indifferent. They came because it was habit, because there is something about water that empties the mind, and they came to see each other; to mark their heights on a doorframe, to compete over trifles, and to remember who they were: a rather unmusical people interested in politics, Protestantism, poetry and psychology. But for a month or four, on the lake, they lost even that identity, and became interested in nature, and the strenuous use of the body. My great-aunt Eleanor, in her ‘90’s, still swam every day, and skinny-dipping is generally encouraged.
A sailboat has always struck me (and about a thousand other writers) as a pleasant analogy for a human life, or a human body moving through space. It is a heavy thing; that, with movement, feels light. It’s got its own tiller—the will—and feels, at times, very powerful. Though ultimately, the wind is in charge.
This is the type of thing you know intuitively once you’ve sunk into the place, once you’ve submitted to the various demands it makes.
Politically, of course, the entire idea of inheritance is a tricky one. I don’t usually tell my friends about the harbor until I’ve known them a while. “What to do with this decayed grandeur” isn’t a problem that elicits much sympathy. Many, if not most of my friends are proud descendents of dispossessed peoples. Few Americans would argue that it is entirely wrong to give your children advantages. But it gets more complicated when the provider is someone very far back. My people didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but their boat wasn’t very far behind.
However I may feel about that, I have to admit that nearly three dozen summers without a television, spent instead watching violet and strawberry-colored sunsets reflect over the lake, counting shooting stars in August, and eating sweet corn—whether I had front teeth or not—have had their way with me.
I keep watching all the little ones. Even though they spend what the elders think is a disgraceful amount of time affixed to their iPads, it seems to me that they aren’t entirely immune to the lure of the lake. These days, everything is in flux, and it is emotional and ethical exercise to consider what will happen when my cousins grow up, and each has to decide his or her level of loyalty to the ramshackle estate. What to do about the fact that such an old-fashioned, faraway place is difficult to rent, or maintain, or meet the taxes on? What to do about the fact that there are a lot of us? We will each inherit only a splinter.
Personally, I know where I stand, and what character I play in this drama. As the eldest, I have a long-standing emotional investment. So mine is the unfashionable work of preservation. In my defense, I got displaced a lot as a kid, and the lake always stayed gratifyingly still. It may be wrong to think that any of it belongs to me, but I certainly belong to it.