Family Legends

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

I’ve had a number of memorable aunts in my lifetime, but only one was a badass who rode a motorbike: Aunt Cindy, who was married to my Uncle Richie for many years when I was a kid.

I’d see Aunt Cindy every summer when my parents would put my sister and I on a plane to Connecticut, where we’d spend the entire summer living with my grandparents. We’d spend part of the time at their house in Newington and the rest at their small cabin on the shores of Bashan Lake in East Haddam. My grandfather had started camping at Bashan Lake with my grandmother and their three kids in the 1940’s, stopping by the mansion of the landowner Mr. Smith to pay him a few cents a night to put up a tent. Gradually my grandfather worked up the courage to ask Smith if he could pay him a monthly sum in exchange for the right to set up a permanent cabin. When my grandfather got the go ahead, he built a tiny cabin up at his house in Newington and brought it down in sections to the lake, where it still stands today.

I liked Newington, but my sister and I would eagerly await the moment when we’d see my grandmother starting to pack a cooler full of food and my grandfather gathering his fishing gear. Even their dog Sam would howl in anticipation as he saw my grandfather heading down to load the station wagon. On weekends we’d usually be joined by my Uncle Richie, who lived next door to my grandparents with his wife Cindy. Richie, my mom’s brother, had become a paraplegic in his early twenties after doctors mishandled the removal of a tumor that had grown on one of his vertebrae.

Richie was a renowned fisherman on Bashan Lake. My grandfather had fitted their boat with a special chair for Richie, and we’d lower the vessel in and out of the water with a winch and chain. I’d accompany my uncle on most of his fishing expeditions, and we’d almost always return with a string of bass or trout.

Fishing became the tie that bound me to my uncle; with Aunt Cindy, the strands were numerous and ever expanding. Her curiosity and joy for life naturally aligned her with children. While other adults in my past might appear muted and gray in my memory, Cindy jumps out in vivid technicolor. She drove a baby-blue Chevy with a CB radio on which she was always talking to truckers. She rode a motorcycle whose color matched her car. She loved “fluffernutters,” spreading peanut butter and marshmallow fluff onto toasted bread and letting the two layers melt and commingle before biting in. She had red hair and a smoker’s laugh and a flowery bathing suit that looked out-of-place on her stocky body. She called my grandparents “Ma” and “Pop” with a sincerity that transcended “in-law.” She played the guitar and sang beautifully; she once told me that old posters from her hometown in Pennsylvania advertising shows with her band in it used to say “with a voice like Joan Baez” next to her name. Some nights Ernie Olson a few cabins down would host bonfires, and Aunt Cindy would bring us and her guitar and spend hours leading the group of revelers in song while we tried to stay invisible in the background, incredulous that we were getting to stay up so late.

As a kid, I knew nothing about her relationship with Uncle Richie, other than that they seemed like best friends. And so I was surprised at age 13 when my mother told me that Cindy had left Richie and that they were getting a divorce. I never saw her again.

But last week, Annie, Rio, and I were up at the cabin (a yearly summer ritual), and I saw my cousin Billy, now in his forties. We started swapping Aunt Cindy stories — he told me that she showed him how to properly smoke a cigarette; that she’d patiently tried to teach him how to play guitar. He also reminded me that she served a pivotal role in keeping the cottage in the family back in the early 80s. What  happened was that Mr. Smith and his wife had died and passed the land on to their children, who considered selling the entire lakeside property to a developer. Cindy initiated a series of meetings with neighbors who over the years had set up leases with the Smiths and built cottages that now lined the lake. Cindy researched home-owners associations and finally cobbled together a group of residents who pooled their money and convinced the Smith children to sell the land to the association instead of to the developer. Thirty years later, the Wildwood corporation still stands, and the cottages thrive.

“I wonder where Cindy is now,” Bill mused. “Imagine if we could find her and invite her down here — how much she’d love to come back to the lake, and to see how we turned out.”

As I sat there looking out at the lake, I wondered if Cindy could even imagine that my cousin and I would be standing here all these years later, at that place she once fought for, getting all misty-eyed over her. If not, I wish I could tell her so, because sometimes the best way to remember who we are is to hear who we’ve been to other people; an experience that one person might have forgotten may loom as transformative in the life of another. One night Cindy woke me up at two in the morning and with a whisper and a flashlight led me down to the fishing boat. “We’re gonna get some bullheads,” she told me, and my eyes widened at the thought of catching this scary-looking cousin of the catfish who fed nocturnally along the bottom of the lake. As she rowed us out under the light of the moon, I felt raw and awake to the once hidden night.

Shortcuts

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

When I was little I spent the summers at my grandparents’ house in Connecticut. Every other week we’d drive from their home near Hartford to the tiny fishing cottage my grandfather built in the 1940s on the edge of Bashan Lake.

One of the best parts about “going down the lake” was that my second cousins lived three cottages down. We’d spend all day building forts, hiding in the woods, and swimming, moving between their cottage and ours like they were swappable goods.

Up the dirt road from their cottage was a place we called “the Professor’s House.” It was nicer than the others, with a perfectly trimmed yard bordered by a straight line of cinder blocks to separate it from the dusty path. We often played near there, and it would have been easier to cut across this lawn than to walk around it. But we never, ever took this shortcut. My cousin Billy had told us about the day he took one step over the cinder-block wall; the elderly professor had come running out of his house shaking his fist and screaming for Billy to get off his lawn. I had recently read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the idea of a Boo Radley-type figure, rarely seen, chasing me down, was enough to keep me off that property every summer I was there.

After my son Rio was born five years ago, we started returning to the lake. Despite the passing of thirty years, the Professor’s house was still pin-neat, and the yard looked the same. I began telling Rio the story about my cousin and the Professor.

(I tell Rio two original stories every night after I tuck him in. It keeps my improvisation skills sharp, and it has become such a valued resource to Rio that taking away stories as a punishment is the one loss sure to make him cry.

It’s exhausting “being on” for a final performance after hours with the kid, but if I try to fake it, Rio always knows. In fact, just tonight I tried to skimp on one of my stories by telling him about the Bermuda Triangle; after I finished, he sat up in bed and declared, “That wasn’t a story! You just described the place! There wasn’t any ‘once up a time’ or anything that happened!” Soon thereafter, there was a laser beam coming from the depths of Atlantis that sliced an overhead spaceship in half.)

But back to the Professor. To keep things fresh, I started adjusting the story: sometimes my cousin would trip over the wall and barely escape the Professor’s grasp. Other times, the main actors were Rio and his cousin Milo, and they would run full speed to our cabin with the Professor hot on their trail. In the final rendition, the Professor finally finds Rio and Milo under a picnic table and ends up only wanting to offer them a cookie, after all.

Last summer, Rio and I saw someone down at the Professor’s house and walked down to chat. The man standing there was the Professor’s godson, and he offered me a beer as Rio ran down to play with the man’s teenage son on the dock. I told the man about our childhood lore, and he laughed, saying that the Professor was in fact very particular about his lawn. He called the Professor a “good man” but really didn’t say much more than that. I left a little disappointed that there was no dramatic end to the story; I’d hoped for some intrigue, some mystery, something about the Professor that was as monumental as the myth. But instead he was just a math professor from New York who liked to garden and come up to the lake on weekends. But in my story, he will always loom large; who knows, tonight he might come up with the math equation needed to transform flashlights into light sabers.