My grandmother was a formal woman. I loved her, and I knew she loved me, but when we visited her each summer in her backwoods cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan, we would have an appointed time to visit her for games of cribbage. Even then, we needed to knock before entering her room. In an act of formality which seems ludicrous now, there were nights when she asked us to “dress for dinner.” This meant my brother and father would pack dinner jackets and ties next to their swimming suits and sandals and vacation clothes. In the evening, I would need to wear a “Sunday dress” even though all day long on the beach we’d be cavorting in two piece swimsuits, traipsing about the cabin with sandy, bare feet, and sitting on folding chairs with dripping suits through lunch.
On the occasional hot sunny day, even Grandma Olive would put on a swimsuit and bob around a bit in the lake before retreating back into the cabin where she would put back on her linen dress and string of silver beads.
When I spend time pondering it, the fact that she gifted her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren with this glorious family cabin on our sand Lake Michigan beach seems improbable and incongruous for the kind of woman I remember. She grew up in Minneapolis with moderate wealth, graduated college in a time not many women could do so (Oberlin, 1913) and married a scientist/professor with some renown. But for the first few years after they acquired this land (in the Depression, for a song,) they camped on the property. It took two years before there were solid structures with roofs over their heads to sleep in and cook in. There was a hand pump to bring in water and an outhouse several hundred feet from the house. My father helped them install electricity twenty years after the cabin was built, about ten years after he joined the family.
Grandma has been gone over thirty years. I wish I had asked her why she did it- went along with the acquisition of this place that means so much to all of her progeny- when such a thing would have been so outside her comfort zone. But I didn’t ask, so I conjecture three possibilities:
She was an artist. And this place is full of beauty. So maybe the colors of the water that are always changing, and the light in the quaking leaves of the birch on the land, and the moon rising out of the lake to shine a path were compensation enough for her.
Wildflowers. She loved them, and Door County is full of many kinds of them in the spring. She and a group of her like-minded friends came up for a house party every spring and wandered the county looking for them.
She wrote up their lists which are still hanging on the walls in her old bedroom. I imagine it was hard for her to play hostess in such rustic surroundings, but she did it anyway, year after year- far into her eighties. (They called themselves the Wild Women.)
Marriage. She and my grandfather were a pretty great pair. My grandfather had hay fever allergies, and this was a good place to escape them. He loved the woods, and camping, and the natural world. He built himself a little study just off of the cabin and wrote a significant number of his scientific papers there. So maybe she swallowed up her own preferences and figured it was a good thing watching him be happy.
Whatever the reason, I’m sure glad she did it. And just like I wish I had learned all the names of the wildflowers when she tried to teach them to me, I wish I had thanked her more often for giving us this place to love in Door County.
This pic is circa 1964. Left to right: my sister Jane, Mom and me, my brother Jon, and Grandma Olive in front of her Door County cabin.