The Lake House

It's been about 40 years since my parents bought the Lake House.

My maternal grandparents had retired to a double-wide on land attached to the Hiawatha Beach Resort, owned and operated by members of my grandfather's family, just north of Walker, Minnesota, on Leech Lake. My mother wanted to be near them, so when my parents went looking for retirement property of their own, they found the Lake House.

The Lake House came fully equipped with a history already tied neatly into ours. The people who sold it to my parents turned out to be two doctors, husband and wife, who had practiced medicine in Humboldt, Iowa, just a few miles up the road from Badger, where we lived while Dad was in the army and I was a very little girl. They were our doctors; they took out my tonsils in their Humboldt office. The boat parked at the dock below the Lake House was called the Paradox.

The Lake House sat at the top of a hill overlooking Lake Benedict, a suburb lake of Leech Lake, with a few vacation and hunting properties and a tiny post office/grocery store/gas station at the intersection of the ring road with the county highway. Someone had once made a resort of it and built three little cabins on the property. My youngest brother lived in one of them for a few years before he married. There was a little beach, a paddle boat, an ice fishing shack and an old trapper's cabin slowly sinking into the ground. In summer, it was the perfect place for grandchildren. But my favorite memories are of the winters.

Everyone always came for Christmas.

My grandparents had moved their double-wide over to the Lake House property when my parents moved in for good. I think my mother and grandmother must have spent the entire month of December baking Christmas. There were cookies - spritz and honey nut balls and gingerbread and krumkake. There were big pans of lefse - moist sweet layers of pancake dough spread with butter and sugar. There were pinwheels - the leftovers from pie dough, rolled out, spread with butter and sugar and cinnamon, then rolled up and sliced into tiny piecrust yummies that only had to bake for a few minutes before they crunched and melted in your mouth. Fruit pies of all descriptions - and of course a big main Christmas meal with some kind of real food but frankly, I mostly remember the baking.

If my sister were sitting at my elbow, she would remember so much else - because it was my sister who stayed in the kitchen. I, as had been my wont since childhood, escaped to the woods whenever I could. There were snowshoes and skiis stacked in the garage, and my brothers and I would strap on whatever we could find - I generally chose the snowshoes - and take off cross-country, following a barely discernible trail from beaver pond to beaver pond. There really are at least ten thousand lakes in Minnesota, most of them the size of swimming pools. We liked to stamp out letters in the snow that we imagined could be read by passing planes. On one of these tiny palimpsests, a boyfriend and I stamped out the words G-R-A-T-E-F-U-L D-E-A-D.

Sometimes we would drive over to Leech Lake, to visit the cousins at Hiawatha Beach, and traipse out over the ice to say hi to Uncle Stan and his cronies hunched over small propane fires in the ice fishing huts keeping a careful eye on the fishing line that trailed over the edge of the neat black hole cut through the ice at their feet. I remember hiking across a small bay of abandoned ice holes at sunset one evening, where the ice cores of fishing holes lay scattered here and there, picking up the light of the westering sun and scattering it in rainbows across the snow.

One year there was no snow. Bitter cold, but no snow. My brothers and I left the house one moonless night, intending to walk all the way across Lake Benedict. The night was thick and black under the trees by the house, and the lake looked so dark from a distance that we could almost imagine there was no ice. But out from under the trees, the sky was thick with stars, and out on the lake, the stars were reflected in the ice, so that we seemed to be walking between the worlds.

We didn't make it across - somewhere out in the middle of all that glory, the ice began to sound like something out of star wars. From deep below us, there were sharp cracking sounds, like rifle shots. There followed a deep sigh, a moan, as if something far beneath our feet was shifting, turning over in its sleep. Then the whistle started, a high-pitched keening that came from one end of the lake and passed directly under our feet, disappearing into the blackness at the other end.

Without saying a word, we turned, the five of us, and made for our home shore where, far above us on the hill, the lights of the Christmas tree twinkled in the Lake House window.