I’ve just awakened in a small room deep in the north woods of Wisconsin. I’m on a vacation with my husband’s family. We are sleeping in the room he stayed in as a child.
I don’t write about my “other” family very often because I want them to feel safe being related to a writer. My mom and son have given up long ago any thought of restraining my musings.
Being welcomed into this family almost 10 years ago was like a miracle for me. I had such a small fractured family as a child.
The fractures were partly the result of being immigrants, no grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins - they all stayed in England and Wales - and partly the result of personalities and circumstances. The four of us who immigrated to Washington state sometimes had a hard time.
My husband’s family is the stuff of American dreams, a funny, eccentric, loving, creative, stable group that spans four generations.
We often visit them on holidays, but the north woods lodge is special.
My husband’s parents bought it on Big St. Germain Lake long ago. It is one of the old shingled classics, stone fireplace in a great room, tiny cozy bedrooms and really old plumbing.
Conversations are easy and slow, punctuated by children running everywhere. Peter, 10, cooked bacon and eggs today for 12. Madison, 2, played with the toy stuffed cat that used to recline on Cousin Bernice’s bed before she died last year at 87. Betty, my mother-in-law, is playing Scrabble now, her sister Lyda, known as MeeMaw by her six grandchildren, is washing dishes. Janie, the third of the Light sisters who spawned this clan, is an artist. She’s not with us this time because she’s on a cruise with her granddaughter. The rest are playing “war” with cards, croquet, canoeing, swimming, reading, fishing - the usual lake pursuits.
Two of the other daughters-in-law up here are teachers. Jill, who teaches eighth-graders, is working on a lesson plan for a new curriculum, “Character Counts!” Annie teaches kindergarten. I asked them to list the values being taught: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
I start asking each family member, as they go by, what the most important value is that they would pass on or that they were taught: gentleness, politeness, the balance between seriousness and frivolousness, a positive attitude, respect for people and their things, compassion. A few rules: Don’t hurt people. Don’t tell lies. To have a friend you have to be a friend. These values are the air this family breathes.
These values are passed through generations as are the recipes for Betty’s vegetable soup, Lyda’s persimmon pudding and Elsie’s molasses cookies. Pappy Light (the father of Janie, Betty and Lyda) ran his own business; the rest have worked in cement, landscaping, teaching, insurance, farming, sales, machine parts, restaurants and construction.
There have been tragedies. Cousin Pete died in a car accident at 21. Cousin Bill died of a sudden infection at 50, four years ago. There have been many ups and downs, serious illness and disease, lost jobs, failed businesses, but only one divorce out of 11 marriages and no estrangements between family members.
Even the ex-daughter-in-law is welcomed by everyone including the new wife. When Ted and I married, all 37 of his relatives were there cheering us on.
As the day winds down here, everyone is pitching in to make a dinner out of leftovers. The sun is making a path across the lake as it drops, and the mosquitoes are biting, so we’ve moved to the screened porch. Indigo, the black lab, is eating the 2-year-old Madison’s chips, but she doesn’t notice. All is well, at least at this moment, in this family. It is vacation-time in America.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Jennifer James The Spokesman-Review
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