We had two cabins on a small lake in Northern Idaho.
Located between Lake Coeur de Alene, and the Pend Oreille, our little acre overlooked tiny Cocolalla, with large windows where we could watch the waves lap up on the beach. The original structure we astutely named the Little Cabin, later followed by the larger Big Cabin. This bigger cottage had been built with all the amenities of home; running water–hot and cold, a tub and toilet, a full kitchen, and electric heat.
Those early weekends in the Little Cabin hold many good memories. All of us crammed into that tiny wood box, the unfinished walls festooned with a lifetime of greeting cards, a big enameled wood stove, and a porcelain basin for washing dishes. Grandpa got his hands on a tall steel milk can and commandeered it for enough drinking water to get us through the weekend. As for entertainment, Grandma had an old radio that blasted the most impressive static, interspersed with Roy Orbison or Andy Williams fading in and out.
Once the Big Cabin was completed and my grandparents moved in, the smaller cabin was demoted to storage. It also housed a set of bunk beds, a fold-down couch, and one double bed; useful for my brothers who were just getting bigger. Now, in addition to greeting cards, the cabin stored every variety of water equipment. Fishing poles, life jackets, oars, and an outboard motor clamped to a metal barrel, with stacks of beach towels the size of blankets.
As I recall, a constant grit of sand coated the linoleum floor.
The property was my grandparents retirement dream, but a dream they happily shared with the rest of us. I knew, even then, that I was always welcome, always.
My grandpa was an early riser, a product of a lifetime as a mailman. He didn’t want to tiptoe around a little kid sleeping on his sofa at five in the morning. At bedtime my grandmother and I made our way to the Little Cabin in the dark by flashlight. Under the covers of the double bed, I would chafe my feet deep under the sheets to warm my toes. As we grew settled and peaceful she would begin to reminisce, talking to me for hours in that darkness. I learned of her life in those moments, warm in that cozy bed, listening to her voice, breathing the scent of the evergreen forest.
She told me of my biological grandfather, her first husband, who had left her bereft and penniless after my mother had been born. Despite the Depression, he liked to gamble away their money. My Grandma had to leave him and she struggled to find work as few jobs existed. Forced to farm out her daughter, my mother, in various homes, her the guilt still haunted her. 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 a wound that could never heal.
As the night grew deep, crickets and bullfrogs began to chorus. Flanked next to her, and pressed against some greeting cards, I prayed I wouldn’t spoil the magic by having to go potty. She kept, beneath the bed, a Chase and Sanborn coffee can that I hated to use. It felt cold and left rings on my little bottom. Still, considering options, the can was more appealing than a journey to the outhouse. Using that creepy outhouse in the daytime was bad enough, but at night unthinkable.
Finally poking her lightly, I would tell her. And she never hesitated. Showing no impatience at all, Grandma seemed to make my problem her own, reaching for the flashlight and finding that rusty 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 and we can hear it on very quiet nights. I relax in my cozy bed in the darkness and listen to the crickets and bullfrogs, while breathing in a scent of pine. A sense of complete security, of love, of acceptance returns, synonymous with the love of my grandmother. She was home for me, and though gone these many years, my mountain cabin still echoes with her voice.
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.