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On Persistence of Memory (newsletter)

The old lakeside cottage with wraparound porch and new addition on left

This month I’ve turned to memoir to recount vacationing both now and then. Will save literary news for next month. But click the Perfidy Press Bookstore ad at the end if you’re interested in acquiring copies of my wares, most notably Her Own Devices: A novel or two.

It’s hard to refuse an invitation to spend a night at a beloved lake cottage from a woman I’ve known and loved for fifty years. Don’t let me give you the wrong idea. We’re just friends but also confidants; she’s helped me navigate two marriages, and I’ve seen her through one long one that widowed her five years ago.

A lot of people have cottages and cabins at some rustic lake, which tends to be known simply as “The Lake.” This one is in southern New Hampshire’s Monadnock Region, and has been our go-to chill-out destination since Nixon was president.

My hostess, whom I’ll call Anita, is a few years my senior, with aches and pains that signal some of the frailties I might expect to endure, hopefully as she does, with grace and humor. Her Nordic beauty has been enhanced by wrinkles that showcase her spirited character. Anita sailed to America from Sweden as a young woman to seek her fortune, but meeting her prince charming on board changed her plans. Soon they married and then came a baby girl.

We were introduced by a mutual friend who’d known Anita since Eisenhower, an impish forty-year old confirmed bachelor named Larry*, who remained close to both of us until his passing almost 20 years ago. Larry’s extended family owned a cottage on this pristine lake that we both frequented, as Larry was very sociable. And it was to that cottage, now in the hands of Larry’s nieces and nephews, that Anita invited me last weekend. Anita had brought with her a couple of her girlfriends and her daughter, whom I’ve known since she was in middle school and I in grad school. I knew her late husband even better, and looked up to him — a sage, laid-back physics professor — as a Socratic mentor. I treasure those fifty years of friendship and fondness.

The house dates from 1910 or earlier, when vacationing families trundled trunks to their cottages via wagon from a nearby rail junction. Larry’s grandfather, a lawyer from Concord MA, built or bought it, and four generations of his descendants have taken their leisure there. It perches on the eastern shore of the mile-long lake, fronted by a porch from which you could dive if the lake weren’t so shallow and rocky. The photo up top shows the cottage viewed from dock’s end. The one below shows Anita and her daughter in the cottage’s recently remodeled kitchen. It’s thrice the size of the grubby old one, and Anita complains she can’t find anything in its vastness.

I’ve visited there and at Anita’s own cottage (since sold) up the road since the 1970s. The lake is nestled a couple of miles north of Mount Monadnock, which rises majestically over the foot of the lake, where visiting mariners launch their powerboats to joy-ride, water ski, or sometimes just fish. Many lake residents have motorboats tied up along the shore, but even more canoes, kayaks and sailboats. As seen from the porch, the lake’s western shore is a densely-wooded slope dotted by a couple of houses. It’s a grand view to which the setting sun adds special effects, like it did the other day:

The sun showed up after a rainstorm, dipping below the clouds, igniting the sky and fluorescing the waters

In the 1970s and 80s, I spent a lot of weekends crashing at the cottage, or in the nearby boathouse that Larry had insulated and installed facilities to outfit as his home away from home. We both commuted there from Cambridge then, and rarely was I the only guest. Larry had two brothers and a sister, plus another half of each from his dad’s second marriage. But it was mostly FOL (friends of Larry) who crowded the place on weekends, especially Independence Day, when we would shoot rockets from under the porch (I know, I know, a stupid idea, but we took precautions). Earlier, a parade of decked-out boats had puttered the length of the lake, and every Sunday there would be sailboat races, weather permitting. The Lake Association ran these events, and also stipulated that there be no power craft on the lake before noon on weekends, leaving the mornings to paddlers and fishermen.

Some folks would play tennis. I swam, hiked local trails to pick mushrooms, and explored the opposite shore in a borrowed canoe or kayak, picking blueberries that hung out over the water. And while I could still have done that this weekend, it just isn’t the same. The cottage is still much as it was, but even with four of us there, it felt empty and almost desolate. Larry’s boathouse has been disused since he passed in 2007. Small animals since have turned its interior to a pathetic shambles, and no one in the present generation seems interested in rehabilitating it. Instead, they rent out the cottage for most of the summer to pay for the addition and the property tax.

I cut my visit short in fear of contagion. During my 24 hours there we were all exposed to Covid, confirmed by testing the symptomatic carrier. I tested myself two days later and it came out negative. I’m told no one else has tested positive so far, so that’s good except for the victim, who is feeling sniffly and achy, but not so bad.

My aborted sentimental sojourn brought home that one can revisit the past, but only through a glass darkly. But that will have to do.


*Larry was, to say the least, a rather unique person, who also introduced me and my wife. He collected scads of far-flung friends and loved to throw parties for them. He was even hired by Harvard’s School of Design (where I studied and then worked) to manage social events. You can read about his singular life and times in this collaborative memoir I assembled for his memorial in 2007.

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