It is the end of summer, a strange thing to say since some of us feel there never was a summer this year. Just a long wet spring. And now we are about to celebrate Labor Day and school has already started. Because we have a number of lakes in this town, we have a population of summer people, those who have come here for generations, whose permanent address might be somewhere else but whose heart and memory extends back beyond many of us whose residence here is full time. And so, whether it was a good summer or not, they have been here, shivering in their cottages, and at this time, they pack up and return to their faraway homes. Their end-of-summer rituals include not only pulling in the boats and the docks, stashing the linens and the blankets but emptying the refrigerator which usually gives rise to what are known around here as refrigerator parties, parties which include the consumption of whatever is left in the refrigerator and pantry. Being a full-time resident but friend to many a summer person, I often attend these parties and then sometimes come home with a basket of half-used jam, bottles of ketchup and half loaves of bread.
Last Tuesday evening, I was invited to one such gathering. Barbara and Ross grew up in Keene and Barbara’s family has had, for generations, the camp on the lake, a simple affair just a few steps from the clear water which then extends out to a distant shore, behind which, on clear nights, the sun sets into a golden sky. Barbara and Ross have lived in Utah for many years, raised their family there but, working in the academic world, every year they return here for the summer. They drive three days to get here, sometimes pulling over at rest stops and sleeping in their van. They may live in Utah but their thrifty New England hearts beat on. And so they arrive and resume their lives here for the months of June, July and August, most of the days spent outside, in the lake, on the boat, on the tennis court or picking berries by the water’s edge. They have the brown, weathered skin of park rangers. Rainy days are spent on the screen porch. It seems they go inside only to cook and to sleep. The furnishings in their camp are probably untouched from generations before them. Last Tuesday, to everyone’s surprise, it was time to clean out the refrigerator. They were leaving at dawn on Wednesday, hoping to be back in Utah by Friday or Saturday. They invited me and the next door neighbors, who would soon be doing the same thing, to help empty the pantry.
Barbara mixed the remaining olives in the jar with the last of the cream cheese to make a spread for the last sleeve of Ritz crackers. There were some pretzels and a few chips and salsa from the bottom of the jar. We started with these offerings and drinks, sitting in the porch rockers, facing the lake which was placid and silvery with the light of the end of the day. A few speed boats towed skiers or tubers out in the distant middle of the lake but their 6 p.m. curfew came soon enough and kayaks and canoes took over, the peaceful sounds of their paddles pushing through the soft water and murmured conversations drifting across as loons bobbed in their wakes and occasionally called, the eerie prehistoric cry we never tire of hearing. I realized, sitting there, I had spent very few days on the lake this year. I remember only one day when it was hot enough for me to even think about going swimming. On that day, I was grateful that I had a lake to jump into.
Barbara set the table with napkins from a package her mother had purchased. I believe her mother has been gone for ten years. We gathered around the table as she served up spaghetti and sauce, meatballs and string beans. The table was loaded with the remains of the cupboard: a cheerful bowl of orange Jello with canned peaches imprisoned in the mold, a bowl of Cole Slaw, gherkins, hot baking powder biscuits. As the sun disappeared, we helped ourselves to this patchwork of a meal and then went for seconds, did our best to make it gone but it was all more than we could eat. There was half a blueberry pie for dessert. And the last of two tubs of ice cream — chocolate fudge and Spumoni. We ate these in separate dishes. We talked about the problems the lake is facing, land that has always been wild might soon be tamed, a sad reality we have all dreaded and tried to prevent for many years. Who knows what it will be like next year, and in the years to come. We are all used to change. It comes every minute, everywhere we look. Except on this lake, where so much remains the same. This, above all else, might be what we all treasure about it. Like the rising and the setting of the sun, I count on Barbara and Ross’s return next summer. One of these days, that package of napkins her mother bought might be gone.
By then it was dark and we could hear the quiet burbling of an outboard putter past the cottage, its red running light the only thing visible on the dark expanse of water. And the loons cried, a mournful sound. We pulled sweatshirts on as the cold descended. Barbara and Ross sketched out their trip for us, a visit with friends in Indiana would break up their long journey. The thought of driving across the country felt exciting. They do it every year, once to get here and again to get home. I felt envious. I felt the sadness that accompanies all endings. And then it was time to say goodbye until next year. We hugged and Barbara and Ross stood in the dark driveway, waving me off. In the next few weeks, if we happen to have some hot weather, I will go there to swim and pick what blueberries might remain on their bushes. The dock will be gone and the boats stashed for the winter. The lake is beautiful in the fall and I often take my kayak out there as the colors change around the edge. But it’s never quite the same once everyone leaves. Soon enough, the snow will come and block off access to the cottage and the ice will trap the lake in its bereft silence. And the long wait will begin again.