Donald Morrison: Once more to the lake

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BECKET >> On soft summer evenings, my father-in-law would sit at the end of his dock and stare into the boat-churned waters of Otis Reservoir for what seemed like hours. I always wondered what he was thinking as the sky turned pink and the sun-gilded frenzy of the surface grew still. Now I think I know.

He had bought a lakefront cabin after his wife died, and it quickly became a magnet for his vast extended family, including my new wife and me. We'd drive up from the city on Fridays, a tedious ordeal of traffic and promise, arriving long after dark to find a nice meal waiting for us.

We'd spend lazy days swimming and reading, thrilling nights picnicking in earshot of great musicians. My father-in-law taught me to water ski behind his roaring Evinrude, never once showing impatience at my pitiful, prairie-bred ineptness. Nor did he frown when we began bringing up friends to join the family hordes, all cuddled contentedly in his tidy, unheated bedrooms. He would have breakfast waiting in the morning.

After a few years of abusing his generosity, we bought a shack of our own on a nearby lake. So we had a "second home" before even owning a first. Word got around, and before long we too were running a bed-and-breakfast for friends, relatives and friends of friends and relatives.

Like my father-in-law, we never really minded, especially when the bedrooms began to fill with our own kids. My father-in-law visited us regularly, usually with a tag-sale treasure he thought we needed or a tub of plants for our garden — feathering our lakeside nest as he had his own.

Of course, any house in the Berkshires or the Taconics or the Catskills would have produced the same result, but there's something about a lake that draws a crowd and quickens a pulse. Edith Wharton wrote about that lake effect often, notably in her 1917 novel "Summer," as did Thoreau, Hemingway, Bellow, Doctorow and just about every other great American author.

My favorite piece of fresh-water writing is E.B. White's "Once More to the Lake," a 1941 Harper's magazine essay-memoir that I use in my writing courses. White spent boyhood summers with his family at Belgrade Lakes, Maine. In the essay, he revisits the place with his young son.

White finds changes — the road has been paved, noisy outboard motors have replaced thrumming inboards — but otherwise he sees his son splash joyfully through the same vigorous, bonhomie-building routines of his lakeside summer youth. I won't spoil the essay's scrotum-tightening last line (I'm being literal here; read it online). Let's just say I've been thinking about White's conclusion lately.

The next generation

Our kids have moved afar, but they keep coming, once more, to the lake — this time with our grandkids (and, amusingly, far more equipment than we required as parents). The grandchildren bring their friends, their friends' friends and, occasionally, their friends' parents' friends.

We again find ourselves laying in chicken breasts and apple juice by the truckload, and we added an extra refrigerator in the garage to supplement the extra one in the basement. We have nearly as many kayaks as Berkshire Outfitters, more lifejackets than the Titanic. Our deck railing drips perpetually with wet bathing suits.

One recent evening I noticed one of my sons staring wistfully at the lake for what seemed like an eternity. I didn't have to ask what he was thinking. After a lively day of refilling guests' glasses and baiting young anglers' hooks, I too like to spend a few quiet moments contemplating the waters.

I watch the sun light up the pines on the opposite shore (we face east, and must enjoy those glorious Berkshire sunsets indirectly). I see our neighbors, a pair of great blue herons, swoop low and level across the sun-striped surface for their evening grocery run. (Do they have guests this weekend?) As the days grow shorter, I marvel anew at the big white birch, its mirrored reflection sharpening as the water stills. And I think of death.

My father-in-law watched his last sunset a decade ago. I have many more ahead of me, but some distant day that number will run out. I know the lake will still be here, as it has been for eons, drawing new generations to its cleansing, family-knitting waters. And the first house my wife and I ever owned will remain beside it, full of kids and laughter and memories.

Donald Morrison, a former editor at Time magazine, is an author and lecturer who lives in Paris, Miami and Becket.


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