February 18, 2019

Family Cabin

I just started reading Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir and only a few pages in, I know I'm gonna love it. Karr wrote The Liar's Club which I used to own but never actually got around to reading, and now wish I had. It's definitely going back on the list "to-read."

In The Art of Memoir, she says "a good writer can conjure a landscape and its peoples to live inside you, and the best writers make you feel they've disclosed their soft underbellies. Seeing someone naked thrills us a little."

Last weekend my family gathered for what I jokingly dubbed "family cabin." When I offhandedly mentioned to a pal that I would be out of town for the weekend at "family cabin," he said "family cabin? Sounds like it could be the title of a horror movie."

When I was young, my mom's extended family began an annual tradition of going away for the weekend in January or February. We'd all pile into our cars and travel, convoy style, to a cabin in the woods.

We didn't always go to the same location or to the same cabin, but there were certain recurring themes woven through these trips.

The cabin would be big, but not quite big enough for everybody to have their own room or even a bed. And the cabins rarely had a bathroom with walls you couldn't hear through.

If the cabin had a fireplace, my grandpa would always light a fire. No matter how unseasonably warm it might have been outside. And without meaning to, there would always be a moment where he'd have flue issues, and accidentally smoke us all out. When it happened this weekend, I felt a sense of "all is right with the world."

Another theme of "family cabin" has always been food. Way too much food. Industrial cases of frozen sausage patties for breakfast. Bags and bags of potato chips. Multiple Crock-Pot slow cookers filled with numerous varieties of melted cheese-based dips. We pretty much eat ourselves silly, which is fine with me.

This past weekend, my grandpa (who I promise I'm not trying to pick on) said he wasn't even hungry by the time dinner rolled around, but was still going to force down a plate of steak, baked potato and salad. Afterward, he had to take a teaspoon of yellow mustard for his indigestion (this totally works if you need a good home remedy).

Something else that has been a theme of "family cabin" falls into a category I'll call crafts/games/activities. In various years, we've painted tablecloths, turned wooden spoons into angels, ice skated, made gingerbread houses, decorated cookies (I know, that one finds its home in the food category too), and even pulled all the sheets and blankets off the beds for costumes so we could re-enact the Nativity pageant (which we filmed, naturally).

We've stayed in log cabins, cinder block bunkers, stone houses, and cottages on the lake.

"Family cabin" has seen its share of spouses, partners, boyfriends and girlfriends. From year to year, we've had unexpected guests, random extras and friends who are like family.

And we've seen some of the littlest ones of the group grow up and have little ones of their own.

This year, we even saw a naked man! Well, I didn't see him....but some of us did. Apparently the cabin that backed up to ours had a well-placed (or you could say poorly-placed) window in the bathroom, and no curtains. This is actually what inspired me to write about "family cabin."

I was reading Mary Karr's words about being a good writer and how it means disclosing private things, secret things we don't want to share. When I read her line about how "seeing someone naked thrills us a little," I knew I had to put this out there. It's not really the nudity that thrills, but more the idea of seeing or learning something that is usually kept private. Good writers tell their stories, even the ones that are tough to share or don't look all that great.

I want to be a good writer. Except I am often afraid to write about certain things or tell certain stories. I worry about how things will be received or how it will make other people feel. In fact, this fear holds me back quite a bit. So that's what led me to read Karr's book for a bit of inspiration, and boy did I get some.

I'm going to work on this. Pinky promise.

To some people, the idea of spending an entire weekend crammed into a cabin with your extended family might sound like a horror movie. And I'm sure there were some years that I went with a less-than-great attitude, maybe a bit out of obligation, with all my teen and 20-something angst. It wasn't anything personal against my family....just my own feelings about life and myself that I was trying to work through.

But "Family Cabin 2019" was a true gift. In fact, this was the first year in several years that we carried out this tradition. A few years back, we just couldn't make it work. This was a fluke, but then we didn't go the next year and eventually we just got out of the habit. I hope this is a tradition we will pick back up and continue.

On the last morning, in the midst of trying to eat up the leftovers and get 24ish people packed up to check out on time, my grandma looked at me and said the following:

"I hope you will make sure that this tradition continues even after we're gone"--gesturing to my grandpa--"It would mean a lot to me if you all kept doing this."  

On the drive home, I was already looking at VRBO, trying to find a place for next year that could accommodate us all, including our dogs. Then today, I got a message from my cousin with a link to a cabin she had found. Looks like the tradition will continue, Me-me. But I hope you're going to be here for many more of them.

And to the man who some of my family saw naked, I apologize. They were thrilled at your expense.