As a child in my mother's family, we would all get the opportunity to attend "Lake Camp." My aunt, Spooky, and her husband bought a lake house on Lake Martin when we were all quite young. Before boys, before we shaved our legs, and before we understood the power of a kid's memory.
We would drive to Atlanta and spend the night in their large, three story, gray stucco house before rising early the next morning and pile into the wood-paneled van with the sliding door and merrily drive across the state line into a new time zone. Not just Central Standard, but Lake Standard. This is the house that had a dormitory in the basement, complete with bunk beds on the walls and futon mattresses. We would spend the days jumping off the dock into the freezing water, thankful that they dropped 100 pounds of gravel in the swimming area at the beginning of each summer so our feet would not be in mud. The cousins would pile in the ski boat or on the jet skis and head over to "The Rocks" where everyone from ages 6 to 26 would park their boat and climb up the rocks to find flight for a quick few seconds before hitting the water and rising to do it all over again.
These Alabama summer days stretched out before us and every summer, we would get excited to spend the hottest months with our cousins at "Lake Camp," with my aunt at the wheel of the van, the wheel of the pontoon boat, or the wheel of the kitchen. Stepping over toys, instructing the girls on how to cook the perfect cookie, or the boys about the fundamental level of enjoyment of Bob Marley, she seemed to have ever-more patience, ever-more love, and ever-more life. This was in the early days of a dial-up modem and her office overlooked the lake. While we swam, she would work. My uncle would join us on the weekends, taking his turn in the office and giving her respite from the work week.
As we got to high school, the challenge of leaving our friends for the summer became too great and the distance too far for too short of a trip and "Lake Camp" became a thing of the past. They would eventually sell this beautiful home before moving up to Blue Ridge and buying a new, albeit smaller, lake house for the rest of their days. They sold their ski boat, but trailered the old pontoon boat- new when they purchased it 23 years ago- and trucked it down the interstate, across the state line, and up the mountain to their new home.
And then the oldest cousin had children of her own and none of us could remember why Lake Camp ever ended. What a foolish reason to stop coming together because of those friends whose names we cannot even remember now. Jenn packed up her two daughters and a different aunt packed up my youngest cousin (10 years my junior) and Lake Camp was resurrected for the next generation.
Spooky married off her children and she now has grandchildren. She also has great-nephews and great-nieces and we can never remember to put the "great" or the "grand" in front of them. How can we possibly be the 'adult' generation? How can my aunts be the generation of the 'ultras' now? How can we be getting so old so fast?
Every summer, "grands" would pile in the car with their mom or dad and head up the mountain for a much condensed version of our grand memories. All of the spouses are curious as to why we pile in the car and head to see our aunt and uncle five hours away. The Rocks are still in Alabama, but the family is in Georgia.
Last week was my first Lake Camp on this side of the maturity bell curve. While shorter than a summer, it was an amazing two days to see my daughter run up and down the same pontoon boat, swim without a bathing suit, and paddle in the same kayak as I did. My cousin held my youngest while I regaled my oldest with tall stories about skiing and swimming across the lake late at night. My cousins became legends in her eyes, and probably in my eyes, too. Those stories always get better with age.
On the way up the mountain, we stopped in Atlanta and LMC met a living legend, my grandfather's sister, my daughter's namesake, my great Aunt Bennie. Bennie has outlived all of her siblings. In the past few weeks, she has left us many times, only to return to her children who are watching and waiting. Aunt Bennie tells them that she has seen their father, she has seen her sister- Helen, and she has seen the babies she lost on the other side of the Pearly Gates. Brady and Helen are ready to welcome her, but she is not ready to go as of yet. None of us are ready to let her go. I fed Baby Bennie a bottle while Aunt Bennie simply could not take her eyes off of the littlest in my arms. Working with great might, Aunt Bennie slowly found a way to get her hand out from under her blanket and softly patted the bed.
She would say sweet nothings like, "Such a big girl," and "Such a sweet dress."
I asked her if I could put Baby Bennie on the bed and she emphatically nodded her head. Baby Bennie sat and kicked her rail thin arms and pinched her papyrus skin, making me jump each time, telling her not to do such things.
As if the 8 month old could understand me.
Aunt Bennie shushed me and said, "She's fine. Let her be."
I let her be and started to internally cringe instead.
Aunt Bennie wrapped her sinewy hands around Baby Bennie's waist and held her tight, as a mother would do- making sure for her to not fall. Baby Bennie grabbed Aunt Bennie's old finger and for an instant, their was a flicker of light in those old eyes as the smile stretched across her face.
After about an hour, Aunt Bennie was starting to get tired and we needed to head up the mountain. Lake Camp waits for no one. I kissed her good-bye, she squeezed Baby Bennie's hands and held her gaze for a second longer. She makes me wonder what secrets she will carry with her. I stroked her pale hands and thought about how the map of blue veins remind me so much of her sister, my great Aunt Helen, and my grandfather. These women-- they are iconic in my heart and were never thought of as anything other than my aunts-- surely not a great aunt, people don't know their great aunts at the level we knew and loved ours.
Up the mountain, it was time for LMC to head up to her great-aunt's house and be introduced to Lake Camp.
Spooky trusted LMC to help cook dinner- because a four year old should totally handle raw chicken. Wide-eyed, she watched my aunt and did exactly as instructed. If I had been the one giving instructions instead of taking pictures, she surely would have created a salmonella disaster and we would have the hospital bill to prove the story as fact.
LMC played on the deck, asked one hundred and thirty five questions and got one hundred and thirty five answers from both my aunt and my uncle. Their patience for these children is immeasurable. It was a trip that she might quickly forget or only vaguely remember, but it is one that will go down in the books for me.
The Polaroid Camera has long since hit the trash, but the pictures on the bulletin board of our memory remain.