We had two cabins on a lake in Northern Idaho–the Big Cabin and the Little Cabin. The Big Cabin had been designed to provide the amenities of home; running water–hot and cold, a tub and toilet, full kitchen, plus electric heat.
The Little Cabin had been constructed earlier as a way station while the adults worked to tame the property. We used a mothball permeated outhouse and hauled in water to that little place. After the Big Cabin was completed and occupied, the smaller cabin housed a set of bunk beds, a fold-down couch, and a double bed. Boating accoutrements such as oars, life jackets, an outboard motor clamped into a metal barrel,and it seemed sand perpetually covered the linoleum floor. The walls inside the Little Cabin were never finished, unlike the varnished knotty pine paneling the Big Cabin. Only countless greeting cards filled the spaces in that little shelter, pinned among the bare 2X4’s.
The property was my grandparents retirement dream, but a dream they happily shared with the rest of us. I knew, even little, that I was always welcome, always. Even after they both had died.
We would sleep together in the Little Cabin, my grandmother and I. My grandpa woke early from a life as a mailman, and he didn’t need a little kid on the couch in his living room at five in the morning. At bedtime grandma and I walked up the path by flashlight to sleep in one of those extra beds. Once under the covers of the double bed, I would rubb my feet deep under the sheets to warm my toes. When we grew settled and peaceful she would begin to reminisce, talking to me for hours in the darkness. I learned of her life in that pine-scented darkness, warm in that cozy bed, secure next to my grandma.
She told me of my biological grandfather, her first husband, who had left her bereft and penniless after my mother had been born. He liked to gamble. Grandma said she had struggled to find work, lodging her daughter, my mother, in various homes, and how that situation worried her and left her guilt-ridden. Clearly it still broke grandma’s heart that she was forced to separate from her little girl for months at a time. I could hear that hurt choking her voice in the still darkness, and I don’t believe she ever found peace from her guilt and pain.
As the night grew deep, crickets and bullfrogs began to serenade us into sleep. Lying next to her, pressed against some greeting cards, I prayed I wouldn’t spoil the peace by having to go potty. She kept, beneath the bed, a round metal coffee can that I hated. It left rings on my little bottom and it hurt! But even more, I resisted a journey to the adjacent outhouse. The only thing worse than using that creepy outhouse in the day, was using it at night.
Finally poking her lightly I would confess my plight. And she never hesitated. Showing no impatience at having to get up, grandma seemed to make my problem her own, reaching for the flashlight and finding that revolting can. She held the light on me so I could aim properly, then back into the warm bed. No recriminations.
She loved me.
I loved her.
Today my husband and I live in the woods. We don’t have a lake, but a river runs near our home and we can hear it on very quiet nights. I now relax in my cozy bed in the dark and listen to the crickets and bullfrogs, with the scent of pine that still permeates the air. The sense of complete security, of love, of acceptance has become synonymous with the love of my grandmother. She was home for me, and my mountain cabin today is home.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.