My stepgrandmother Lee smelled just like an old lady should; mothballs, lilac and dusty collectibles. When she was alive we used to visit her on the lake in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. My real great aunt (on my grandmother's side), Iola, lived next door. My grandfather met Lee visiting Iola after my grandmother passed away. Lee and Iola had known one another for 35 years.
I don't remember my grandfather much, only that once, he tried to wash my tangled blankie that I drug around. I dreaded the washing machine. He died when I was a mere five years old. I do remember visiting the lake. My grandfather was a carpenter and had taken the one room home Lee lived in and expanded it into a five bedroom dwelling with two fireplaces. The crawlspaces were a wonder and the lake was pure delight.
We would cram into our old VW bug and putt the two hours to the lake. Chugging through gravel roads Putt Putt Putt until we saw the yellow "No Outlet" sign. There we would pull in and grind up a steep slope where Aunt Iola and Grandma Lee lived. It smelled like shade and an old bus with flat tires parked under a tree.
Growing up in Chicago in a family of meager means, I barely knew the significance of "Getting away". The lake was serene, quiet, peaceful. At the time I just craved floating on inner tubes and fishing for bluegills.
My dad used to crack open a beer and chide Lee's poodle away while I immediately ran outside under the canopy of Maple and birch. There was a stone planted stairway down to the dock and I would bound down with reckless abandon until I stood on the edge of the planked structure protruding into the abyss. I would stand there staring into the green water then, laying on my stomach and letting my finger tips kiss the lapping waves. Not twelve feet away was Iola's dock, complete with buoys and a pile of fishing rods waited.
Lee wasn't a nasty woman but she had lived in that home her whole life and wasn't accustomed to children. She ate salmon loaf and only left the comforts of the original one bedroom dwelling to garden on the brick-a-brack patio. At Iola's, my second cousins would visit and play, I was naturally drawn to their antics. I would watch in awe as they dipped their lines into the water and pull fish after fish out of the water. I would sneak through the trees among the bulbous hosta and fern and watch their moves, listening to laughter. I was yearning.
We were up for a week and our visits to aunt Iola's were fun and adventurous. I was able to eat there and her crippled Italian hunch back was a comforting sight to me. Obey her rules and you were golden. When the week progressed to Wednesday and the wait of attention waned, I was alone with my cousin Steve and my bibliophile sister. Steve and I would adventure and we took the trek to the deer farm down the road almost every day. Steve was eight and a year younger than I, so I led and conjured our eventful days. We were young.
As the days waned, as they often do, we played blackjack with pennies on Iola's dining room table. The breeze wafted through the screened windows over looking the lake and we wee gamblers tried to oust the other.
Chimed Iola from her baked mozzarella
"There's nothing to do"
She passed through the doorway holding a broken piece of french bread
and handed it to me with her tan, scarred fingers.
"Take this down to the dock and put pieces into the water."
We took the bread and hopped down the path to the lake. The two of us sat on the edge of the dock and dropped bits of bread into the green mossy water. Moments later, we saw the slim outline of fish and moments after that, a fish frenzy ensued jockeying for the bits of bread.
Steve picked up a stray fishing rod and wet a bit of bread before threading it on the hook. Immediately upon dipping it into the water, he pulled the line out attached to a three inch blugill. He turned to me and smiled, showing how to hold the gills closed with your palm while removing the hook. He pulled three out before he had to rip the hook from the guts a of a fish that had swallowed the bait, turning it inside out.
We ran to get a bucket and another rod..
We had dawdled away the afternoon, angling for the sunfish dumping them into the steel bucket of water. They bounced around, some floating on their sides. We were proud.
"Hey, let's go get some worms"
So we went digging with a small trowel to unearth the worms which we placed in a small Styrofoam cup. Our abundant bounty brought us toward dusk. We had missed dinner and as the paisley sphere of light began to rest on the horizon, our worm bounty took hold. Steve's rod bent like a bubble.
"Holy crap, I gotta bass…"
He said, gripping the rod tightly. yanking on it.
He reeled in the faint line producing a two pound catfish. We were so excited, looking at the flopping black mass on the planked pine deck. It was slimy and shiny in the reflections of the wake that shimmered through the twilight space between the boards.
"Don't touch it" warned Steve, "Their whiskers sting."
He stepped on the head of the fish and yanked on the line, ripping it through the thick lips of the fish. We met eyes as it flopped off the deck.