Just Like Glass

Even when life changed, the lake never did.

By Amy Wight Chapman / Photo by istockphoto.com/Valeriy Novikov
[I]n 1954, my parents bought a lakefront lot in western Maine for $200, cleared and leveled a building site, and began, with the help of their four kids, ages 4 to 10, to build what we have always called “camp.” It was never meant to be a “cottage” or a “lake house.” It was just “camp,” with exposed rafters and tiny bedrooms and an open loft full of lumpy beds.

My father had grown up in Bethel, a few miles away. He was an avid outdoorsman, a Scout leader, a rockhound, and a hiker, who always knew that his exile to Connecticut and New Jersey was temporary. Like so many young Mainers of the 1930s and ’40s, he had left the state after college to seek his fortune, and exile was the price he paid to profit from his metallurgical engineering degree. As soon as school let out, my mother and the kids were installed at camp for the summer, and my father would join them there on weekends and for his annual vacation. It was understood that when he retired, my parents would spend summers at the lake, and winters in a small, tidy home they would buy or build “on a hill in Bethel.”

Then, in 1958, just as the school year was wrapping up and the kids were itching to get to camp, my father had a heart attack. My mother remembered thinking that when he came home early from work and went straight to bed, it was the first time she had ever known him to be ill. A short time later, he called her upstairs. “When I got there, he just…died,” she told me.

My mother was 38 years old. She had four grief-stricken children, aged 8 to 14, and when the funeral was over, she put them in the station wagon with the family dog and drove from New Jersey to camp in Maine, because that was what they had planned, and she couldn’t think of anything else to do.

I sit here on the deck now and look out at the lake and wonder how on earth she found the strength to come here that summer, to make the beds and open the windows and clean out the mouse droppings, to just keep on getting out of bed in the morning, let alone the strength to feed and nurture four kids, and supervise the completion of the camp over the next few summers. (In later years, if anyone commented about its somewhat quirky construction, she would say, “Well, what do you expect? It was built by teenagers!”)

By mid-summer, my mother began to suspect something, and by summer’s end she knew: She was pregnant. I was born early the following March, and in June, as always, the family came to camp. My mother laid me on my stomach on a blanket in the middle of the big oak dining table, where I could raise my head and look out the window at the lake. It was my first summer at camp.

Connecticut, where the family moved that year from New Jersey, was where we went to school, and where, later, my mother worked as a school librarian. We had friends in Connecticut, and all the usual growing-up things took place there, but we all knew that our real lives happened at camp.

Every June, when we turned off the main road and onto the dirt road to camp, we had to throw open the car door to let our cocker spaniel, Lucky, leap out and run the last mile beside the car. Otherwise, he would pitch an absolute fit, clawing our legs bloody as he tried to jump out the window. If it could have gotten us there a moment sooner, we would all have run along with him.

My mother spent 50 summers at camp, and there was never a summer morning that she didn’t rise early and look out at the lake, to see if it was steaming or choppy or smooth. If there was no wind to stir the surface, she would tell people, “When I got up this morning, the lake was just like glass.” She would hold both hands in front of her, flat, palms down, and say it, always with the same hint of awe: “Just like glass.”