I was chatting with Mom tonight who told me her sister’s four daughters surprised her yesterday and all visited at the same time to take her to lunch. Mom cried for days in anticipation of this visit feeling happy, sad, grateful and reminiscent. As I expected it would be one of the best days of Mom’s entire year. The visit would be precious and tender because the tears, laughter and stories would remind her of her sister. As Mom shared her visit there was a particular story that beat in my heart all evening.
It was a hot July summer in 1978. Our family cars loaded including the trunks, car top carriers and each seat was filled. The 3.5 hour journey from Kenosha sometimes took the entire day. The destination extraordinaire was Shawano Lake, Wisconsin. We would wait in anticipation all year for the Saturday check in at the lake-side cabin resort.
The water was so clear you could see a quarter in the sand. The sunshine would highlight the characteristic glass-like wake. Peaceful, fresh and full of life, the lake was our paradise. It is a 6215 square acre body of water. Surrounded by Blonduel, Cecil, Weston, Slab City, connected to the Wolf River, the lake was Shangri-la to my cousins and I. We experienced the lake as if it was the Virgin Islands.
In order to understand the scene you have to know Italian Families. First they are big. They live big, eat big, laugh big, and love big. Typical events always included, Grandma’s, Grandpa’s, Aunts, Uncles and lots and lots of cousins. It was all good, but I have to tell you my cousins were the best part of growing up. Impossible to count, I have dozens, dozens and dozens of cousins. All amazing and all with mischievous stories of the fun we shared together.
My cousins Mary, Linda and I were teenagers the summer of 1978. Year after year we had this fascination with what was on the other side of the lake. We would wonder and joke about what was on the island, a hermit? a monster? a creepy old fisherman who never left? At night we would watch the lights across the lake disappear into the starry summer sky. What was over there Mary would say? Linda said, I have no idea, but I think we should get in the row-boat tomorrow after breakfast and row over to the other side of the lake. I was belly laughing and of course up for the challenge.
So in our orange smelly canvas life jacks, fishing poles, worms, box of cigarettes and matches, we set off for the journey across the lake. You might be wondering how many miles 6215 square acres actually is to cross Shawano Lake. Well, no cell phones, no bottles of water, no google map, no lunch, no sunscreen and no toilette paper, neither did we comprehend the distance.
We left the resort at 9 am and started rowing and rowing and rowing. Yes it was true, if you passed us you might have heard song. Oddly enough the song you heard was not row, row, row your boat but Tina Turner’s Proud Mary. No cellphone meant no clock or sense of time. At first the sun was at our back, then overhead and next glaring in our eyes. We watched our campsite get smaller and smaller while the island got bigger and bigger.
“I think we are way more than half way across,” Linda said. Mary spouted back, “Linda I have bleeding blisters we should have brought gloves at least!”
I proclaimed, “Hey guys I think its getting dark.”
The darkness of our surroundings went unnoticed and was masked by all the laughter, silly shenanigans and free-spirite of our journey.
“Hey Mary, I think John might be right!” It is getting dark, when did that happen?”,
Mary laughed and shook her head in silence.
“I think we now are half way across, how long have we been rowing? I asked.
Mary said, “I think we left at 9 am right?”
“Wholly shit Mary! we are dead, it must be close to 7 pm if it is this dark!” Linda broadcasted across the lake.
As I turned to my right, I could see Dad and Uncle Joe standing in a motor boat of our neighbors. Uncle Joe was reaching his hand out to toss a tow rope over to us. Mary grabbed the rope, as we cruised back being towed behind the motor boat, laughing, joking, smiling declaring an almost victory.
I realized something as I remembered this story tonight. The details, the fun and the laughter are some of the best memories of growing up. It never would have been as rich or enjoyable without my cousins. Today’s story is reflective of one story about 2 of my dozens and dozens and dozens of cousins. Every one of my of cousins, has a memory I shared that is integrated into my recollection of growing up in my Italian Family.
Cousins, I am grateful that we shared our lives together. As age, priorities and miles have drifted us apart, I will always hold close our memories.
The summer of 1978 is when we almost traveled 9 miles (6125 square acres) across Shawano Lake.