In Minnesota, the lakes dot the northern woods like footprints after game-play. And in June, the sun sits high and hot in a bright blue sky, then gives way to still, humid evenings, mosquitoes, and a starry sky brighter than you could imagine. It was the summer before I would leave for college. Ponto Lake was still and warm. My brother, Cory, and I had gone up to the cabin to spend the night with Grammy and Papa, and to celebrate my birthday the next day. We took the old grade to get there which took us on a rough and rugged, rumbled dirt road through a canopy of birch, spruce and jack pine. That five-mile stretch was yellow and green and lush with leaves, sparkling wet with dew, a shining shade shelter as in a fine fairy tale.
The Gustafsons still ran their farm just where the road curved east to line the north shore of the lake. They sold corn twelve ears for a dollar, and would give you sixteen. Sometimes Gram would send us kids to fetch corn for the evening meal, and maybe some new potatoes… sometimes a watermelon. Other times she would say, “Walk with me, Teres.” Papa had carved us walking sticks and kept them outside next to the hot water heater, just left of the kitchen door. When I was young, I used to take a walking stick, too. Older, I just walked with her.
We searched for agates in the packed dirt of the road, and often found them, too. We would stick them in our mouths and suck the dust off to see the precious shine and pattern of the stones. We’d pick up jasper, shale and chert, and often pop a rock off the tongue with a “I don’t know what it is, but it’s pretty.”
I wish I would have got up more often to fish with Papa. Though I’m sure he often preferred to be alone. I missed some goodness there. That special lake, deep with love. Lolling with years and years and years. He would leave before the sun, the glad smell of coffee filling the cabin, the gurgle of the percolator part of my waking dreams. He’d catch walleye, sunnies, and bass. “Them’s good eatin’” we would say.
Papa planned to get up early to fish for my birthday dinner the next day. Everyone was in bed early. Cory was sleeping on the couch and my best buddy was coming to spend the night after she got off work. She was waitressing, so she’d be arriving quite late, almost midnight it turned out.
The nights were so still and quiet on Ponto Lake. We could hear her truck when she was still five minutes out. I got up and whispered to Cory, “that’s probably Cristin.” We both went out to greet her with flashlights as she came up the drive to the cabin. There’s a sort of hysterical humor in trying to be quiet when you’re excited.
She loaded us up with her bags and followed us through the screen door holding a big box. When we got inside, she whispered “Happy birthday! This is for your party tomorrow.”
She had brought a huge ice cream cake from the DQ in Pine River. They close at 11, so she drove like a bat out of hell to get there before they closed. I was touched. One of my favorite things in the world at that time was the ice cream cake from the DQ. This was before all the flavors and candy-bars and extreme-sport cookies and colors. It was just soft serve ice cream and cake. And it was huge! I was able to show my giddy gratitude without waking my grandparents. We went to put the cake away. The refrigerator at the cabin was the old fashioned kind with a locking latch, and internal freezer box. What that means is… you don’t really freeze anything, but a tray of ice and a quart of ice cream (two if the frost hasn’t invaded the inside like a bush). The three of us, high on the excitement of mere arrival, gathered ‘round the freezer.
The same mute blank expression fell like lead over our faces at the realization that we wouldn’t be storing this ice cream cake. Each of us silent in our split second computation of the puzzle… the possible cutting, splitting, stacking, stuffing. Then the simultaneous revelation – No matter how you slice it, NO WAY will this cake fit it this freezer. At that, we choked on our laughter, snorting through side-splitting silence. Gram woke, and in her sleepy haze, thought someone was sobbing. She emerged from her bedroom in a panic, “Good Lord, what’s wrong? What’s wrong?” Through our laughter, we nodded toward the cake to explain. She took one look at that huge “Happy Birthday, Teresa” and without hesitation, said, “Well, we better get your Papa up. Get out some plates and forks.”
Papa came out of his bedroom tying his robe. His grumpy middle-of-the-night demeanor changed when he saw the huge sweet treat on the counter.
The five of us sat down at the big pine table. And we all ate giggling into that dark night until no cake nor ice cream was left.