Years ago, time seemed to move more slowly. People took time to “smell the flowers.” Families sat down together at dinner and went for Sunday drives with no particular place to go. Pressure was in tires, not in lives. These times, remembered, seem to drift into my thoughts gently like autumn leaves.
Growing up, we were a close-knit family, not just Mom and Dad and the kids, but aunts, uncles, and cousins. We celebrated holidays together, had picnics in the summer and card games on the weekends. While the adults played cards, always at Aunt Hazel and Uncle Art’s, we children were entertained by their new black and white television.
It was not surprising, then, when I was fourteen, my mom and dad decided to become partners with my Aunt Hazel and Uncle Art in purchasing a piece of property on a lake called Dixie. Conveniently, the property was close enough to our home to visit on weekends. It was on a hill above the deep green water and gave us an unobstructed view of two thickly-treed little islands and an inlet across the lake where white-flowered lily pads lay undisturbed. Our imaginations soared as we tried to imagine what types of people and buildings belonged to those islands.
Uncle Art had left home at the age of fourteen and headed for the Mississippi River where he did odd jobs, working in a livery stable and a funeral parlor, as well as learning the rudiments of brick work. Self-educated, he drew up plans and agreed to build a small cottage on the lake.
Uncle Art, Dad, Clayton who was a long-time friend, and Uncle Wes, along with a variety of other relatives pitched in to help build our two bedroom cinder block cottage. Even the younger children helped by toting the cinder blocks from their pile to the work site. Each weekend, the building grew higher and higher above our heads, until with great excitement, we watched the roof go up and the inside partitions begin to form the shape of our weekend home. It certainly was not elegant, but the living room had a fireplace and a large window facing the lake. Best of all, across the front of the cottage was a large screened porch which looked down to the dark green water below. Eventually, steps were built into the hillside formed by two by fours, to aid in the trek down to the water. Before the steps, on rainy days, the descent was sometimes quicker than one had expected.
Swimming was a favorite activity of the whole family, and my little brother, Danny, would put on his water wings and trod through the mucky bottom into the water. Then, paddling his little arms along the shoreline, he would make sure that everyone was watching him. Sinking ankle-deep into the dark, oozy bottom did not appeal to most of the family, and so a raft was built and floated forty feet into the lake. There even the smallest child learned to swim with Uncle Art’s help. He would tie a rope around the waist of each child desiring to swim, and they would paddle around and around, until he would secretly release the rope and they, with great confidence, would continue to swim. By the time the truth was learned, the child was a swimmer.
A small dock was built, also, and there the family, young and old, baited hooks on long bamboo poles with various sized worms in varing degrees of liveliness. Then casting lines into the water, they brought in blue gill, perch, bullheads, and, even on occasional, bass.
When a rowboat became part of our family’s fun, bamboo poles were left behind for rod and reels. Early in the morning, Daddy and Uncle Art would untie the ropes and quietly paddle out into the lake to catch the morning’s breakfast. Often, we would wake to the smell of fish frying in the kitchen.
The rowboat, also, allowed the luxury of circling the little islands and viewing first-hand the mysterious cottages which weathered there. But, best of all, in the evening when the moon was full, we would row softly out onto the still lake, guided by the shimmer of moonlight glinting across the silent blackness. It was quiet there and private. The dip of the oar rippled the water and the sound too, was a ripple on the ear, a tender, lovely sound. If we spoke, it was in a whisper. We would look back to the hill and see the light from the cottage, making little spots on the water like luminaries guiding us home.
Often, the family gathered out on the screened porch, and Uncle Art would recite some long-remembered poem, or Aunt Hazel would talk about the stars or God and, eventually, they all reminisced about the old days. Most often, though, because the family was gifted with good singing voices, they sang, and as we sat in the boat, we could hear across the water, in sweet harmonies, words to old songs, “Smile awhile, you kiss me sad adieu, when the clouds roll by I’ll come to you.” The songs would draw us back and, hurriedly, we would climb the hill, and, breathlessly, join in the singing. My sister, Jan, and I would do our rendition of Tell Me Why, and everyone would join in again with Harvest Moon or, perhaps, On Moonlight Bay. People who would see us on the shore or on the raft in front of our cottage would say, “You must be from the singing cottage. It sounds wonderful across the water, like angels.”
When I remember this, I cannot help but feel saddened and a great sense of loss. Daddy, our lyric tenor and neither the cottage nor the singing was ever quite the same. We sold the cottage soon after that, and, since then, Aunt Hazel, Uncle Art and Uncle Wes have died, also. Many of the old friends whose voices joined ours in singing the old songs, now, are gone.
Last year , Mom and I happened upon Dixie Lake, returning from a day of antiquing. I could not resist turning in to the dirt road, and I found myself pulling down the lane and parking in the Island Parking near our old cottage. As we stood at the water’s edge, we looked up the hill and could see the cinder block building we had called our weekend home, not too different after thirty years. The martin birdhouse on the roof is now missing and the pink paint had kindly been changed to beige, but it was still our cottage from where we now welcome so many fond memories. Mom and I looked at each other, each knowing the others thoughts. It was almost as if we could hear the voices still echoing on the water, so distant, yet clear…”So wait and pray each night for me; ’til we meet again.”
Nothing was said; we walked back up to the parking lot and pulled away. A short distance and we were on the expressway, built since the cottage was sold; it cuts an hour off our trip.
Everything is fast now, traffic, news, cooking, music, everything except those gentle memories and those sweet angel voices.
©1994 Gail Gaymer Martin