Where I See You
For the past twenty-two years, a sizable group of us have rented cottages in a beach community on the shore of Lake Erie. Each year, when we leave our cottage, we reserve it for the next summer. Well, I write the dates for the next summer on a paper plate and leave it on the kitchen table of our cottage as we depart, with a deposit check. Except in planning for this year I wrote the wrong week on the plate, and we found ourselves without a cottage for the upcoming summer vacation. I know: first-world-problems. Not being there was not an option, and in the full-on search for lodging I discovered what we’ve known all along: a big part of our heartbeat is in Huron, Ohio.
Way back, when my cousins and I started our families, we knew we wanted this next generation to be friends, like we were. At Christmas, our kids hung back, shy, not knowing each other since distance and geography meant they only saw each other once a year. They needed more time together (and so did we adults), so we decided to vacation together — our parents, us, our kids, in a multi-generation week of just easy hanging out. The first few years were at Atwood State Park, which was fabulous in its own right, but we outgrew the cabins when our group started to climb in number. Someone knew someone with a cottage on Lake Erie, and that person knew someone else, and pretty soon we were renting five, then eight, then even ten cottages in the compound.
Here’s the thing about Huron: that connection has grown deep. I don’t live where I grew up — none of us siblings do. With both parents gone, I would never expect to see them in my daily life. But at Huron, I feel like my mom could come around the corner. She could be on the porch, snapping beans or shucking corn fresh from a roadside stand. She could come down the beach toting her chair and her book. She could be out kayaking. She could be building sandcastles with grandchildren, or jumping over waves with them. She could be on the deck at her sister’s cottage. And mostly, she could be on the bench overlooking the water. That bench makes me double-take. My dad was not a big beachgoer, but he is everywhere in Huron, too. He’d be at the Huron library. Or the bandshell, or a Mudhens game. The summer I was there with a brand new baby, my dad took my boys, up early still in their pajamas, to the Huron Fire Department, and then to the bakery for fresh doughnuts, letting me sleep. At every turn there, there are stories with my parents.
It’s not just that, we have our own stories, too. It’s where every one of my kids learned to ride a bike. It’s where my daughter learned to walk, where all my kids learned to drive (don’t drive the van up the pile of ball-bearings in the shipyard though: noted). It’s where my son taught his cousin to drive stick-shift. It’s where my daughter was baptized — which, btw, is not for the faint of heart. If you want to get any other sacrament in the Catholic church you have to produce your baptismal record which means contacting this tiny beachside church and explaining we were like drive-by recipients of that particular blessing. But we did it, because it meant my grandmother, aged 90, could be there. At the park at the beach, we’ve had birthdays and baby showers and wedding showers. At the boat basin, we had a 40th Anniversary party for my parents, and after dinner, clad in summer finery but running on the wharf, my son’s glasses fell into the marina — so we joke (now) that somewhere in Lake Erie, there is now a fish with terrific vision.
It’s where we learned to paddleboard, all the way to the lighthouse. It’s where we take an annual daytrip to Cedar Point to ride roller coasters and where I eat an entire elephant ear by myself, because I can. And yes, Cedar Point is where, as soon as they were tall enough, we excitedly put our boys in the front seat of the rickety wooden Blue Streak roller coaster for an unforgettable ride, and were so surprised that, as they exited the ride, they upbraided us for putting them in danger, scolding us loudly and angrily about did we even know what we were doing being parents, much to the delight of the people waiting in line. Huron is the family talent show, emceed for years by my mom, and then my sister Kath. It’s a rousing rendition of the Bumblebee Tuna theme song by my son and my cousin’s boys, as their talent show entry. It’s where my oldest asked his brother to be his best man, on the beach at dusk as they pulled the paddleboards into the seagrass for the night.
It’s where my sister and I brought our new babies, only weeks old, my last and her first, and spent our early mornings entertaining them in tummy-time on the cottage floor before anyone else was up. It’s where, exhausted and fried from weeks of radiation treatment following grueling chemotherapy, I finally slept not fitfully but restfully, and woke up from one afternoon nap to see my mom watching me sleep, tears on her cheeks. It’s where my cousin Laura’s kids, just back from a family trip to Australia, compared the Huron shore to the ocean in Sydney, but her son Thomas, noting the flecks of dirt and seaweed, claimed this was not saltwater but rather was pepper-water. It’s Tom taking my daughter fishing at twilight, and her catching her first walleye. It’s where, when a power failure extended from New York to Michigan, we walked up to Dairy Queen where they were handing out ice-cream cakes and spoons: eat it all before it melted.
When my son and his then-girlfriend (now his wife) did a whirlwind tour in Europe one summer, and then had one week stateside before departing to Guatemala for a service trip, they arranged to spend that week at Huron. A few years later, that son couldn’t make it to Huron for the full week, but his girlfriend (now his wife) could — and that’s how I knew she was in the family for good: she came along without him. It’s where, three weeks after my dad died, we all rendezvoused to continue this best tradition: a week together at the beach, and where my mom looked around and realized she had become the matriarch of her husband’s family. The next year, when my mom died, my cousin Brendan (who is really my second cousin) said he had to explain to his workplace that his dad’s cousin’s wife had died, and he needed family time off, because she was the matriarch, she was Aunt Peg.
It’s Catawba peaches on the beach, Erie’s muddy bottom, it’s skipping stones, seeing a line of umbrellas dot the shore and knowing you know everyone under them, it’s sunrises and sunsets, volleyball at dusk, family baseball games complete with play-by-play and color commentary. It’s my son setting up his smoker at the park by the beach for ribs and Cuban sandwiches. It’s Toft’s ice cream on their patio just before they close at 11pm. If it rains, it’s a rainbow across the compound. It’s bonfires, badminton, sleepovers on screen porches, jigsaw puzzles with the Tribe on t.v., potluck dinners, tandem bikes, sandy feet, full hearts.
So we could not not go, despite my wrong date on my paper plate reservation. And so I sent a handwritten note to friends of my parents locally there, reaching out for help. And through them, rented the cottage that is in fact the very first one we stayed in when we first started going to Huron. In the place where at every turn I think my mom could be there, I’d be remiss not to to acknowledge that we are back where we started because of what she built: friendships, traditions, a family that extends past what the roots on the family tree define. Thanks, Mom — I will see you there. Wherever we are, we are united. In Huron, we are renewed.