The other day, as I was cleaning out a long-neglected messy drawer, I came across a poem I wrote when I was in the 7th grade. Despite the fact that it was crammed in amongst old receipts (just in case someone wanted to return that Christmas present!), stray photographs and other flotsam and jetsam of my hidden life, it was neatly folded and relatively uncrumpled. I have too many of these kinds of drawers - full of possessions which are important to me on one level or the other. Things I can’t seem to get rid of like my mother’s old address book which, when I page through it, brings back all those vanished people from my childhood. Or my father’s old stethoscope. Even though its rubber tubing is stretched and cracked with age it still smells faintly of his office; a smell that transports me back to memories of him suturing up my beloved stuffed dog when it got ripped or listening to my doll’s heartbeat while assuring me that she would recover just fine. At that age I really believed he could fix anything. He couldn’t of course, and I would eventually realize that he, too, had feet of clay; but not then, not yet.
You’ll also find my children’s baby teeth, my mother’s nursing school pin, my grandmother’s hankie, my father’s Masonic apron. When my mother died and we went through her closets and drawers, it was a bit like working your way backwards through history. She had simply kept adding things over the 40 years they had lived in the house. In the front, you in the present, by the time you dug your way to the very back you might very well be in the 1880’s, sifting through pictures of family and the old farmstead. There were drawers full of those plastic ties for bread bags, balls of string and thousands of pencil stubs. My mother, born in 1910, was a child of the depression and she could never, ever throw out anything that might be remotely useful. I understand,now, that surrounding herself with drawersful of things was her unconsicious way of keeping herself protected and safe. Her mother died when she was only ten and she spent the rest of her adolescence bouncing from one sibling's house to another. In those days, they had large farm families and that's now my mother, a Nebraska farm girl, wound up graduating in the Tamalpias High Class of 1928 after living four different places in the interim. Looking at my own time capsule drawers, it appears that I may have inherited that packrat trait. If I don’t get a handle on myself, I’m going to punish my own kids the way my mom did when she died: with two 20 yard dumpsters, multiple trips to the thrift shop and rental trucks from U Haul to lug away the goods.
I smoothed out the creased poem and wondered at my tidy penmanship, eerily similar to the way I still write today. I had not always had such good handwriting. I’m a teacher and today I’m often complimented on the classic Palmer Method handwriting that appears on my whiteboard. They don’t know that it’s all due to Miss Kurle, my 5th grade teacher, who kept me in every damn recess recopying papers until she was satisfied. I think I was in the 6th grade when she was finally satisfied and I got to go out and play with the rest of the kids. You can’t get away with Miss Kurle’s approach to ensuring fine handwriting in today’s educational climate, take it from me!
The poem itself is pretty much sentimental tripe. As a teacher, I recognize the typical kind of writing prompt. We still use similar ones today. The subject of the poem, however, is a place, a cabin in the woods that is almost sacred to me. A place that has been a haven for me from my earliest memory of it to today. A place where there was escape and peace and where, except for a few memorable crises, like the time she flew into a rage at everyone and took just me on a terrifying road trip, my mother’s mental illness seemed to abate and soften, making her less likely to injure any of the three of us children. My father kept a series of notebooks that we found after his death. By that time, I had realized that as much as I adored my father, he had not kept me safe and protected me from my mother's wrath. I had seen his feet of clay and it would take me years to forgive him for being so weak and nearly as frightened of her as we were. In those journals he remarked that my mother was calmer and the hellish demons which drove her to hurt us, seemed to subside somewhat when we were at the cabin. So the cabin is where I longed to be. Where I wanted to live for the rest of my life. Where I was relatively safe and I could be free to roam the forest all day and get as dirty as I wanted without fearing I would get a beating. And even if I did get one, the dirt would cover the bruises.
The cabin in question belonged (and still does today) to my mother’s side of the family. It was purchased in 1926 from an artist who had built it in order to heal in the solitude of its location after the death of his wife. My uncle bought it in 1928 for the use of our family. It is simple, having only one main living space, a sleeping loft, small kitchen and, nowadays, a bathroom. When I was growing up we used an outhouse named Little Egypt and cooked on Pansy, the wood burning cookstove that now serves as an end table in my cousin’s house. The outside of the cabin has always been painted a gray greenish blue and the dutch doors have always been coral. The roof is green tin and when there are mountain thunderstorms the rain and hail make a joyful noise upon it. My father gathered the smooth round river stones to build the front steps and the fireplace hearth. He was a farmer at heart and could build just about anything. When one set of curtains wear out, we look for fabric as similar to the old ones as possible. All of us in the family feel a deep need to preserve it as it is; as it always has been. In a world where things change at an alarming rate, it is healing to the soul to have a place where time stands still. It sits on a ridge, at the top of Highway 50, overlooking the entire Lake Tahoe Basin. The million dollar view is courtesy of the Forest Service in the form of a 99 year lease. Opening and closing it each year is a ritual that requires putting up or taking down sturdy posts to keep it from caving in under the tremendous load of snow it receives. We heat with a fire only (except for a couple of very noisy ancient electric heaters used in the winter only) and heat our water via coils located in the back of the fireplace.
It is my favorite place on earth; the place I go to relax, to celebrate or to cry.
We would spend a good part of each summer at the cabin. My dad would work in Marin during the week and join us on weekends he didn’t have to take call. My brothers and I would be out the door first thing in the morning. Our first order of business was to gather the wood necessary to keep the fire burning all day. The water had to be heated for all the daily tasks like washing dishes and clothes (by hand, of course) and bathing and it took most of the day for the gravity fed water heating system to fill up the tank. Dressed in my brothers’ hand-me-down flannel shirts, I happily wandered the forest filling countless boxes of wood. The size of the wood I was tasked with gathering increased in size as I did, but kindling has always been my favorite. I learned early how to split logs with a hatchet savoring the sweet smell of fresh wood as I cleaved the logs into slats. The woodpile was also a good place to get away from my mother and her anger; it was always best to make yourself as invisible as possible when she was in a mood. To this day if you give me a hatchet and a few logs it’s like meditation to me still. The rhythmic clunk of the hatchet helps me sort out chaotic thoughts into more manageable piles. Sometimes the oldest skills are the most soothing.
As I got older, I indulged in that love affair with horses that many girls have. At the end of the dirt road was a stables and I spent every free minute I could there, arriving early in the morning and lingering until every horse had been fed and the dusk, along with the whining swarms of mosquitoes was settling over the woods. I simply adored the smell of the horses, the dust, the horses’ tails swishing to shoo away the flies – everything about it was heaven. I made a pest of myself and so the stable owner eventually put me to work grooming, saddling, loading up pack mules and finally, guiding trail rides. I developed a love of horses that persists to this day. All I have left now is my saddle. Maybe I’ll have another horse to fill it before I die. I hope so.
Winter trips to the cabin were less frequent, but we managed to get there at least once a year. The road into the house wasn’t cleared after the snow fell, so we would have to snowshoe or ski in. All of our supplies for the week would be strapped on a toboggan and, until I was big enough to ski, I got to ride on the sled as well. The only frightening thing I remember about those winter trips was once when we started our trek too late in the day. My father lost his way and we wandered in the snow for hours until we finally found our house. I was really too young to understand the gravity of the situation, but my brothers still talk about how lucky we were. I remember being cold, but thinking it was one big exciting adventure. Over the years, we have had a few break-ins (aside from bear visitors) by people who were as lost as we were that night. They have always left a nice note and thanked us for the canned food we leave there all year. We didn’t have winterized pipes, so snow would be melted for water and the portable potty bags would have to be collected in the spring, much to everyone’s disgust. Since the snow would completely cover the house like a huge wave, we would dig tunnels and snow caves, smoothing the walls in the inside with water that froze overnight. We created our own snow palaces complete with lighting from the many kerosene lamps we had. It was (and still is) truly a child’s paradise, no matter what season of the year.
It will probably come as no surprise to you that I live at Lake Tahoe today. I live at the other end of the lake, but I’m only 45 minutes away from the cabin and I go there as often as I can or need to. It’s no accident that I wound up here. After college, I worked in San Francisco at a law firm and had a ball. I loved the energy of working in the Financial District, the late nights, putting together that all-important brief followed by dinner at Yamatos and plenty of Sex in the City girlfriend kind of fun. Eventually, however, I realized that I needed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and where I wanted to live that life.
You can guess the rest; how I got to this enchanted place. And, when I need to feel safe, or have a cry, or rejoice with friends, I’m only a short drive away from the best place on earth to do those things: my cabin.
Marsha Wagner, 7-I
October 6, 1963
English and Reading
I remember, I remember the cabin in the wood,
And the beautiful forest in which it stood.
The trees so green, their trunks so brown,
The blue jay squawking and being a clown.
As I walked through the forest, so quiet and still
I heard the thrush’s low, soft trill.
The sound of the pines, whispering above,
This is the place, I most dearly love.
The ladder of my nightmares...