When we reach a "certain age" and our parents have long left this world, we discover that fewer and fewer people knew them. Part of this may have to do with distance, as we spread out to new communities far from home. But that's not my story. For me, one who "stayed put," the reason fewer people knew them is simply because they, too, have aged and when they move on to another world, another thread of our connection with the past is broken.
I have often written about my friend Fran. I like that I can say my friend Fran, for she is. But she was, as Gypsy readers may remember, my mother's best friend, her lake-buddy from childhood and friend for life.
I call Fran the Lady of the Lake, which has many connections to the Arthurian legend and many adaptations, both in classical and contemporary works. I like Thomas Mallory's description. According to the ever-popular quickie source Wikipedia, Mallory, when looking at various texts for character inspiration, chose the best aspects of all the other Lady of the Lake
characters in literature and legend, making his "Lady," (Nimue in his works), a compassionate, clever, strong willed, and
sympathetic character. Nimue is a different kind of woman, one who does
not shrink behind the male figures in her life. Instead, she is
pragmatic, unflappable, and knowledgeable.
And this is Fran. All this plus fun and filled with joy.
My "Lady of the Lake" knows all the stories. Consider her a walking history text about Otsego Lake and Gaylord, the small up-north town she's been part of during summers all of her life. She knows the lake lore and who's who, who their family was, where they lived, how deep the lake is, when the ice goes out. She knows the name of practically every person who owned a cottage in the area where she and our family spent summers since the 1920s.
She remembers the name of the handyman who took care of the property
when she and mom were kids and recalls when they filled the swamp I
played in as a kid.
Some of my favorite memories are recent ones, walking down to Fran's cottage. If she was outside, she'd greet me warmly and when I left walk out to say goodbye. In-between we would talk.
Her stories help complete my family history, a history long before my time. She remembers my grandmother -- the grandmother I never met -- canning in the summer, which meant that day could not be a play day for my mom or her sisters. "I wished the mothers would all do their canning on the same day," she told me. "Then we'd all have our work day but the rest of the time we could play!"
She recounts stories of how she and mom would sit at the end of the dock, singing their lungs out, Fran a soprano, Mom doing the harmony. Day or night -- it didn't matter.
She remembers when my aunt Gracie, then about four or five, accidentally locked my grandmother in the outhouse. The disappearance caused a major search in the woods of the little resort -- whatever happened to this mother of five children? (Grandma was found hours later, well after dark, with assistance from the family dog.) Then Fran would recall how she and mom would dress for their up-north dates to the movies, usually with one of the "local or the lake boys," and often as a friendly cheerful group. (After all, it wasn't all that easy to get into town in those days! Group activities had their advantages!)
She would throw back her head and laugh as she remembered how my mother used to embarrass her older sister, Iris, when a date called for downstairs. Both girls were upstairs, mom singing operatically. Then she'd stop mid-note and say, "Oh Iris, can't you be quiet!" Iris, of course, was suitably embarrassed.
Fran tells of how she and mom would knit their clothes for college. Then, with the fellows from the lake, walk on the beach and model them, taking photos along the way.
She remembers when the house next to where we live now had tennis courts and Mr. Groehn would leave them up, telling the kids he'd be glad to do so, as long as they didn't hurt things around the property.
Fran could tell me about the day when her mother, my grandmother and another neighbor -- all named "Minnie," women who never swam, got so hot on a summer day that the three of them went and sat in the lake. Together.
I learned about the families who lived in that half-mile strip of cottages, families who have long since departed, and how they formed a community of children who would play all day every summer (except for canning day).
It was always fun at Fran's cottage. When her daughter Linda and I were kids, we were sure to find a canasta game going on as Fran's mother, the ultimate Detroit Tigers fan, was glued to the radio. And of course there was plenty of Barbie doll playing. I remember a drive to Traverse City, where Fran and her family lived off-summer to see another daughter, Mary Ellen, compete in the Michigan Junior Miss pageant. And, I don't know if it was Fran or Mom who came up with the idea of making space helmets for Linda's brother, Eddie, and me. But I remember those helmets. And I won't forget the heat of tin foil covering a cardboard box worn on your head on a warm summer's day!
I also have a vague recollection of Fran and Mom taking Eddie and me to some little train ride somewhere in the north. Neither Fran, Eddie or I could ever remember where it was. But Eddie and I sure didn't look like we were having much fun that day. Oddly enough, I suspect our mothers were having a ball, because they always did!
When I visited Fran at the lake, I would be just as likely to find her outside raking up the leaves or acorns as I would inside, checking out the news on TV. She'd tell me about her book club and bemoan the fact that most of her friends had died. After all, at 98, there aren't a lot left. "Make young friends," she advised me when I questioned her about her guidelines for retirement several years ago. Despite the fact that she had a number of friends from her book club and hospital volunteer work, it wasn't quite the same.
It was Fran who told me how my parents found the cottage we now have, about a half-mile from hers and how my mom asked her for her "approval" before they signed the papers. "Take it!" Fran said. And they did.
Fran. One of the last direct connections to my mom. The one who knew the stories and remembered them. One of the funniest, happiest, most serene, laid back, kind, delightful women I have ever known. A woman of grace, humor, love and joy. The real deal. A lot like mom.
I would always ask Fran to tell me the lake stories during our summer visits. I didn't care if she told the same one over and over because not only were they delightful, I wanted to be sure to remember them.
I hope I do, because I can't ask her to tell me again about singing on the dock or knitting a fall wardrobe. No more piecing together the past. No more selfies. Fran has moved on and my heart is more than a little bit broken. And I suspect not nearly as broken as those of Linda, Eddie, Mary Ellen and their families.
Avalon is the legendary island that the "Lady of the Lake" ruled, a spot to which King Arthur returned to recover from his wounds in battle. My Avalon is Otsego Lake, a place of "recovery" for all the stresses of life with its sparkling blue water, leafy woods and carpets of pine needles on the path. Next summer and for summers to come, I'll take the same walks, pass by Fran's cottage and when the kids are there, stop in. We'll have our stories, too, that we'll share.
But when I leave, I will always see in my mind the Lady of the Lake whose imprint on my life was as big as her heart, as joyful as her laugh and as much a treasure as any I can imagine.
I'd like to think that at this moment, Mom is rushing out from some heavenly spot and throwing her arms around Fran and saying, "What took you so long?! We have so much to catch up on!"
And Fran would throw her head back and laugh and say "Let's find a spot by the water. We've got songs to sing and stories to share!"
Let the stories go on forever. Just like Avalon.
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