We thank you, O God, of life and love
For the resurrecting gift of memory
Which endows Your children, fashioned in your image,
To give immortality through love.
Praised be You, O God,
Who enables your children to remember. (Morris Adler)
The two-lane ribbon of road carries us across a beloved landscape, passing through one small town after another. I know these names and their sequence by heart, like a prayer. We reach the last small town and turn onto the gravel road. We pass farm fields and an old church, climb a hill, and at last, at the top, we see diamonds of sunlight sparkling on water.
My breath catches every time I first set eyes on Green Lake.
You’d have reason to wonder why, in a state with over 10,000 lakes, this one is so special. Why would my husband and I drive two hours to go to a lake when there are several just minutes from our house?
The answer is that going to Green Lake is a pilgrimage of memory for me. It’s where the happiest weeks of my childhood took place.
Gazing out across the water, the separation between ‘what is’ and ‘what was’ feels like a soft curtain I can almost see through. On the other side are my long-gone parents. On the other side is the teenage girl I once was. I see my brothers holding up stringers of fish. I hear fragments of long-ago conversations and laughter. The sheer, vivid aliveness of memory enfolds me, envelops me, overtakes me.
My parents could not afford to take us on vacations, and we did not even get to Green Lake for the first time until I was fifteen years old. Determined to make family memories, they saved up the money to do something fun and within reach–renting a cottage at an old-fashioned resort. For $165 a week we got a simple lakeside cabin and a fishing boat. It cost an extra $3.50 a day to rent an outboard motor, which they splurged on for a few days.
The excitement of going to Green Lake began with loading the car within an inch of its life, and then hitting the road. The city gave way to suburbs; the suburbs gave way to small towns. At last, the gravel road, the lake, a week of swimming and fishing and just being together. My dad was a trucker and seldom home for more than a few days at a stretch. Seven whole days together felt like the most extravagant gift of time.
We went to Green Lake for four consecutive summers, a week at a time, before my dad died suddenly of a heart attack in 1976. My mom continued going there for a week each summer. By then, as young adults busy with summer jobs, my brothers and I joined her as much as we could. In time, our spouses became Green Lake regulars, and eventually our young children.
Other destinations beckoned as our families grew. But Green Lake still exerted its pull, a gravitational field that drew us back toward her shores again and again, if only for a day trip.
It was the place we took our mother for a final visit the year before she died. Her decline from cancer was steep; we knew time was running out. We wanted her to see her favorite place one more time. As we drove the familiar road, she buzzed with energy and memory. We arrived to find the lake glittering in sunshine…and a surprise pulled up to the dock. My brother had recently purchased a boat. Not a fishing boat with a motor, but a speedboat, something he’d dreamed of for years and worked hard to afford. Our mom’s last views of Green Lake were from the front seat of her son’s boat, cruising slowly across the water.
Every few years since then we take a day trip to Green Lake. Last weekend was one of those times. The power and intensity of the memories still take my breath away.
When I was young, I appreciated that my parents made such a special time possible. Once I became a parent myself and discovered firsthand what it took to create indelible family memories, my appreciation grew. Now, decades later, I look back in awe of my parents’ determination to create something wonderful for us, despite enormous obstacles.
Today’s young parents are dealing with obstacles galore as they try to create family memories. The pandemic, the resulting financial catastrophe, and the need for social distancing certainly limit the options. Nerves are frayed, and many families are feeling the effects of altogether too much time together.
Nonetheless, parents are creatively making the most of what’s possible. They are taking their kids camping (even if it’s just a tent in the back yard). They are fishing off a dock, going on family bike rides, hiking a trail. They’ve instituted new rituals, such as a family game night. They’re learning a new sport together. These parents understand that the time to make memories is now, despite the obstacles, and they are finding ways to deepen their family bond.
Years from now, when their children look back at the pandemic of 2020, they will surely marvel at how their parents managed to get through it at all. I hope many of these children will also have a memory of something special that took place.
I hope they will be enveloped and enfolded by that memory.
I hope they will feel awe for their parents who, at a wretched time, made magic happen.