I mentioned in a previous post from my recent vacation that I saw one of my cousins for the first time in years, and initially thought that his becoming a father had mellowed his angry energy. As it turns out, he’s not actually interested in assuming the responsibility of being a father and is instead “allowing” his wife to do all the work of raising their two young sons, ages 3 years and 5 months. The wife is overwhelmed and cries daily. My sweet generous mom offered to babysit the kids one day a week while she’s living nearby, so the wife can go have some time to herself or with friends.
It’s so sad how self-centered he has turned out, because he was always such a caring, responsible kid when we were growing up. He is the oldest of the cousins; two years older than his brother and me.
I listened to an episode of This American Life recently on the subject of summer camp, and the differences between “camp kids” and “non-camp kids.” Kids who go to camp seem to have a shared understanding of this amazing experience, and it can be the most important thing in your young life. They look forward all year to summer. Its a very emotional response, a feeling of belonging to something special that other people don’t understand.
I felt that way too when I was young, only it wasn’t about camp; it was about going to Washington State each summer to see my grandma and hang out with my cousins John, Reed, and Lissy for a few weeks. I cannot even find the words to express how much these summers meant to me, how much I looked forward to them. I belonged to a special group of kids who got to stay with my amazing Grandma in her house in the forest above the beach, far away from civilization. It was magic.
Grandma died from ovarian cancer in 1984, when I was 11. That was the end of summers in Washington. My mom and her brother and sister had to sell Grandma’s house, I think because they didn’t think they could afford to keep it, something about taxes (one of the biggest regrets in her life, she now says). I was fast approaching the age where I might not have wanted to spend summers away from my friends, hanging out with my little brothers, so I’m glad in a way that my memories remain as magical as they do, untainted by the bad attitudes of adolescence.
Grandma lived on Johnson’s point, a little peninsula of land north of Olympia. Her house was a little one-bedroom A-frame with a finished attic, painted red, on 5 acres of wooded land. It sat about 20 feet back from the edge of a bank that, in my memory, was hundreds of feet high, but was probably in reality more like 30 feet above the beach. She had a small deck out the front door that overlooked the water, and a carport and shed in back. Behind the house was a small garden, and beyond that, the 5 acres of wild ferny fir-filled forest.
The living room had a large picture window overlooking the deck, a wood burning stove, and an open kitchen area. Upstairs was a large open room, and the peaked roof made the whole thing a big triangle. A large wardrobe separated the room into two halves (it was so large that the house was built around it; there’s no way to get it out!) and a bed was on the side nearest to the beach. My parents slept there. Us kids slept on Japanese futon mattresses in the little angled spaces under the eaves.
The stairs were located near the back door, with a door at both the bottom and the top. We loved to take one of the futon mattresses, position it at the top of the stairs, and take a flying leap, stomach first, sliding down the stairway and tumbling out into the hallway at the bottom. Or, knocking head-first against the door at the bottom of the stairs if we had it closed, which was more fun than it sounds now.
At the top of the stairway, when you turned right there was a small bathroom (toilet and sink only), and when you turned left, you met up with the door to The Attic Space.
The Attic Space
I absolutely adored this little attic space. Through the door, down a tiny hallway, around the corner, and then BAM! Books galore. Boxes of old clothing, magazines, and newspapers. It smelled like a library. It was here that I discovered Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Japanese story books, and dozens of back issues of Reader’s Digest. I would pick a book, lie on a braided rug on the dusty wooden floor, and read for hours until the daylight coming through the small window faded away. I never thought of Tom Sawyer as a book that we were forced to read for school; it was a fantastic story that I discovered in Grandma’s house.
The Madrona Tree
To get to the beach, you had to carefully pick your way down a series of mossy wooden steps laid on narrow tracks cut horizontally into the bank, surrounded by tangly trees and blackberry vines. A few yards away, the stairs met up with another set from next-door neighbor Fran’s house, and from there proceeded practically straight down, ladder-fashion, until they reached the beach.
(apologies for the poor quality of the photo; it was taken in 1996 on my very first digital camera, an Apple QuickTake 200, with 640×480 @ 72dpi resolution!)
Each neighbor owned a little parcel of the beach, but it was a really friendly community and everyone knew everyone else. Nobody minded other peoples’ kids and grandkids playing on their section of beach. Near the Vavers’ property to the west, a madrona tree grew practically horizontally out of the bank at beach level. We loved to climb in, up, and through this tree. Madrona trees have very smooth bright orange flesh and thin green bark that easily peels off. And we LOVED to peel. We also carved all our names into the big branch of this tree one year, and for years and years afterwards we could still see the impressions.
One of our favorite things to do was have a “weenie roast” on the beach. Hot dogs, potato chips, sodas, sitting on a blanket under the trees, trying to avoid the sand fleas. I never did like hot dogs, no matter how hard I tried, and would often just eat cheese and mustard in a bun without the hot dog messing things up. Sometimes for dessert we’d roast marshmallows and make s’mores. I wasn’t much into the marshmallows and would rather just eat melted chocolate on a graham cracker!
Fourth of July
Fireworks were legal where Grandma lived, and so every year around the first of July, Uncle John would take all of us kids to a fireworks stand in town, where we’d blow our hard-earned allowances on black cats, jumping jacks, snakes, tanks, roman candles, sparklers, and such. Uncle John would go to a nearby Indian Reservation and pick up the “grownup” fireworks — bottle rockets, M80s. We were never allowed to touch those, only to watch.
So on July Fourth, we’d have a weenie roast on the beach, and when it got dark we’d set off all our fireworks. One of our favorite things to do was to enclose a lit Jumping Jack inside an empty clam shell and toss it into the water. We also had our own little family “urban legend’: Supposedly when Uncle John was a boy, he shot off a roman candle but instead of digging it down into the sand like he was supposed to, he held it in his hand while it was shooting off. He dropped it and realized in a sudden panic that he couldn’t see, so he ran screaming back to Grandma that he was blind! Until, of course, she told him to open his eyes.
About halfway between Grandma’s house and the road, down her long gravel driveway through the forest, was a most magnificent treehouse. It had been built some time in the 1950s, I think, and I’m really not sure who built it, actually. But it was completely falling apart, totally dangerous, and quite off-limits to us kids. So of course we spent as much time as we could in it without getting caught. It seemed so far up in the tree, up a little rotting ladder of planks nailed to the trunk, but most likely it was only 10 or 15 feet off the ground. Inside was a little kid-sized sofa, a real glass window, and some plates and silverware on a little table. I think it was even carpeted. Everything was dusty and covered in moss and lichens, but we absolutely loved it. A pulley on a metal cable ran from the trunk near the treehouse door down to the base of another tree a few yards away. None of us were ever quite brave enough to haul the pulley up to the top and use it as a zip line, but we all sure thought about it a lot.
Auntie Fran and Uncle Stu lived next door to Grandma, in their own wonderful house overlooking the beach, complete with an acre or two of apple orchards. They were not blood related, but might as well be, we were all so close. I think we spent as much time at Fran’s house as we did at Grandma’s, especially when her grandson Jesse, who was about my age, was in town.
Fran also had a pool! Why would we want to swim in a pool when there was a perfectly good beach just yards away? Well, when the water in the Sound is around 50 degrees, it’s hard to swim in it for long without going numb! Fran’s pool was large and rectangular, and surrounded by large glass panels on north and south, the house on the east, and the poolhouse on the west. The poolhouse had a little room with a pullout sofa for guests and a bathroom with a shower and a closet that had pool toys and extra swimsuits in it.
TRON and Dilly Bars
When we weren’t in her pool, we might be watching a movie on her VCR. Not many people had VCRs in the early 1980s. I first saw one of my all-time favorite movies, TRON, in Fran’s living room. Sometimes she would take a few of us kids into town in the back of her little blue Toyota pickup (these were the days before it was unsafe to do so!), and we’d stop at the electronics store to pick up a movie (these were the days before Blockbuster, when you rented movies out of a little room at the back of appliance stores that sold VCRs). Sometimes we would stop off at Dairy Queen for some Dilly Bars, which Fran always kept stocked in her freezer for us.
Jesse was one of my best friends, and during the school year we would write each other letters in a secret cipher code that we invented. Jesse and his little brother Jeff had a gasoline-powered go-kart! Under adult semi-supervision, we were even allowed to drive it. We had great fun tearing up and down the long gravel driveway out to the road, and back again. Once my cousin Lissy, when she was probably only six years old, panicked and forgot where the brake was and almost ran full-speed into Grandma’s house. The semi-supervision increased to full-on overprotectiveness after that.
Once, Jesse and I got ahold of an old hammock somewhere. We cleared out a little space in the forest behind Grandma’s garden, tied it between two fir trees, and decided that we would make a little money by charging for hammock rides. (Who we planned to charge, I have no idea!) We needed something announcing our new business, so I got some magic markers and a sheet of paper and made a sign to tack up to a tree in front of our shop. Being practical, we realized that we probably needed to put a weight limit on the hammock, so we did what any reasonable 9 year olds would do: we asked my mom how much she weighed. We were just thinking, well, adults are adults and they probably all weigh the same, so we’ll just ask the closest one. My mom, on the other hand, was probably thinking, “These kids think I’m the biggest person around!” She decided to have some fun with it and told us “I weigh 379 and 3/4 pounds!” Having no concept of scale, or even any idea how much WE weighed ourselves, we took her at her word and wrote, “Weight Limit: 379 and 3/4 pounds!”
I guess I don’t have a really good closing to this whole story, other than to say that these few memories are only the first ones that popped to mind. I have so many others. These were some of the most amazing and wonderful times in my childhood.