Two Hours north of Minneapolis, I drive. Past malls, past restaurants, past car dealerships. Two hours to get to Isle, on the shores of the great Mille Lacs.
It has been a long time since I was last there, I can’t exactly remember how long. Ten years? A long time.
The cabin has an address, but no one knows it. Directions are provided by my sister-in-law, Amy. Carefully written in her best school teacher scribe they guide me. Left here, right there; all I have to do is to follow her directions, as the roads become ever narrower and more deserted. North to the Northwoods, north to the cabin.
Despite the years, it seems familiar. The cabin, the dock, the smell of the water, the sting of the mosquitoes.
As we are a family of five we are awarded the loft. Up the steep staircase, close to the knotty pine ceiling, space for all under its slanted roofline. Protected from falling by the railing built by my father-in-law Bob, and my brother-in-law Karl. My mother-in-law proudly recounts that she stained every piece of wood for the railings herself. My father-in-law notes that he copied the design from a restaurant in Florida.
The cabin evokes memories, and those memories generate stories. There is something about the cabin that makes it unique.
I sit next to my father-in-law on the front porch of the cabin. The porch with the seaman’s rope that serves as a stylized railing. He sits quietly as he looks off into the distance. His eyes fluttered for a moment, and he starts to speak.
He talks about his grandfather, who came from Sweden. He would visit Mille Lacs with his immigrant cronies to net whitefish when they ran. The activity reminded them of Sweden, a piece of home to ground them in a new and strange country. That was almost 100 years ago.
He talks about the building of the first cabin by his father, the dentist, F.O. Nelson. The cabin that served the family from 1928 to 2001, when it was razed to make room for the new cabin.
My father-in-law believes that he was conceived at the cabin, shortly after it was built. Now 88 years old, he has come to the cabin ever since. He tells me of fishing for Walleye. He talks about his now passed brother Jim. Jim bought a cabin about a half of a block away. That cabin now occupied by Jim’s wife Arlene, her adult children, and their children. Like our cabin, they are building a history in theirs.
My mother-in-law Avis smiles as she remembers the cabin that served as a meeting place for the extended Nelson family. Then owned by Ruby, FO’s wife. They all came: taking turns making meals, talking, playing games, fishing, swimming.
My wife Julie and I go for a walk down towards the point. Memories flood her… Playing board games with her cousins. The big stone fireplace of the old cabin. Grandma Ruby’s arts-and-crafts that decorated the place. The napkin holder made out of a repurposed Joy bottle, Ruby’s oil paintings. She recalls crayfish hunts, waterskiing, old magazines the were re-read 1000 times, the endless hours swimming in the lake. She starts to tear up, “Will this be the last time I come here?”
I flash back to memories of the original cabin. The one where water had to be ported from a community well. The outhouse. The smell of old wood and fresh pine. The “Liberty Beach Resort” where I dug for quarters so I could use their pay-as-you-go shower.
My kids settle into the cabin routine. They have been there many more times than me. They volunteer to help when it is our day for meal preparation. They play in the water. They laugh over Mexican Dominos. They talk to grandma and grandpa.
I ponder, what makes this place so special? Is it the location? Is it the cabin itself? No, it is activities that forms connections with others, and the memories created by those connections.
Today my goals are to build a memory and celebrate the connections in my life.