The Lake House (PG-13)
The echoing of the telephone awoke me from a sound sleep, scaring me awake. I rolled over in the dark and glanced at the bed side table clock which read 3:27 a.m. before fumbling for the receiver and picking up the phone.
The voice was muffled and the sounds of a static-laced communications radio could be heard in the background.
"Yes." My heart was pumping with increasing acceleration.
"Mr. Craven, this is Captain Mike Martin with the Sun Rise Lake Fire Department. I'm afraid I have some bad news."
I sat up straight in the bed. "What is it?"
"Sir, your family's lake house is ablaze."
It was the most surreal phone call of my life. "How bad?" I managed to say although I wasn't sure what difference that would make.
"Pretty bad," The Captain replied. "The road wasn't plowed and by the time we got down here the blowing winter wind had pretty much engulfed the house. I'm sorry."
"I'll be there as soon as I can," I heard myself reply in a daze before hanging up the phone.
"What it is?"
Connie had turned on the other bed side lamp and was sitting up, peering at me with worry and concern.
"The lake house just burned down," I informed her as I stumbled out of bed.
"Oh my God!" Connie cried, her hands going to her mouth.
"You'd better start calling people," I advised as I threw on some clothes.
"You're going up there?" She asked with surprise.
"I gotta see what's left," I said, numbed and suddenly on disaster control autopilot.
"It's the middle of the night," Connie reminded me.
"I don't care," I replied.
"Do you want me to go?"
"No, I need to do this on my own," I said, dressed now.
Connie left the bed and followed me out of the bedroom and down the stairs to the first floor where I dug my coat out of the front hall closet.
"Don't drive like a mad man trying to get up there," Connie warned, giving me a much needed hug.
"I won't," I replied, kissing her goodbye.
"You have your cell?"
It was only about twenty degrees outside as I made my way to my car in the driveway. I couldn't remember the last time I drove to the lake house in the dead of winter. We used to go ice fishing up there sometimes when I was a kid but it made for a long day since the lake house wasn't winterized and there was no heat. Now I was driving to the ruins that used to be the lake house.
My brother Lew and I had closed up the lake house in late October and I realized that was going to be the last time I would see the hundred and eleven year old family summer house in tact. The doors had been closed and locked. The windows were shut and the shades were drawn. The water and electricity was turned off. The refrigerator and cupboards were cleared of perishable foods. The porch furniture had been stacked inside the house. The rowboat, canoe and sailboat had been stored inside the boat house next to the motorboat. The raft had been dragged ashore. The end of the dock had been carried up to the barn.
The house was now in hibernation, looking sad and lonely as Lew and I climbed into the car to head off for the winter not to return until April at the earliest. Did I give the house once last appreciative review as I walked through it for the last time even thought I hadn't realized it would be last time at the time? Did I give the countless family photographs one last glance, appreciating the smiling and laughing images suspended in time, place, and moment? Did I smell in the familiar scents and odors that were the same as I remembered when I was six? Did I pay attention to the generations of familiar furniture that occupied all eighteen rooms (and three baths) of the house? I couldn't be sure.
Now I was driving to see the ashes of the house my great grandfather Arthur Shaw had built in 1901 on the shore of Sun Rise Lake in Blue County, Massachusetts.
Sun Rise Lake is 750 acres in size and sixty feet deep with some of the cleanest water in New England. The village of Sun Rise Lake is located at the lake's outlet. The lake became a popular recreational destination in the late 19th century with a public beach, golf course, boat ramp, and endless private cottages, inns, and hotels (although only one inn survives today). Many of the older and smaller cottages have disappeared in recent years, replaced by year round modern homes and condos but there are still endless hiking trails and plenty to do at the lake, including swimming kayaking, canoeing, boating, sailing, fishing and biking.
The small village features quaint shops, a diner, an arcade and an ice cream store. The lake is also close to other Blue County towns for trips to Hillsboro to take in a Serguci League amateur baseball game at Beano Field, or to do some shopping in Greenville, or to take in an out door movie in Mt. Griffin.
My great grandfather's family made it big in the textile industry of the mid 19th century in Eastern Massachusetts but Arthur was a well educated man who attended Harvard before becoming an educator himself and he ended up as the Headmaster of the Sun Rise Lake School for Boys, a high school prep academy founded by a railroad baron in the 1880s with the goal of providing the best possible education for privileged students which included his five sons. The school quickly became one of the most elite New England private schools of its time.
The school was Christian in nature but it was theologically liberal and its spiritual life was an important part of the school for many generations. The campus was kept relatively small because the board of trustees believed that students best benefitted educationally and socially in a more close-knit community. The modern campus features about twenty buildings and dormitories on a hill overlooking the far end of the lake.
Although my great grandfather was given a residence on the campus, he had his own summer home built down the road, a three story 18 room Victorian with a barn and a boat house. We always said the house (originally known at The Shaw House but later dubbed The Lake House by our family) had 'two fronts' because both sides of the house – the one facing the lake to the east and the one facing the wooded driveway to the main shore road on the west – featured wrap around porches. There was also a screened in porch on the south side of the house.
The first floor had a large living room as you entered through the drive way front side of the house with a wrap around stairwell to the second floor. There was a study to the right and beyond the living room was a dining room with a pantry separating the dining room from the kitchen which also had a bathroom and a smaller back staircase to the upper floors.
The second floor had a large master bedroom overlooking the lake, a smaller second bedroom on the same side of the house along with a bathroom, and three smaller bedrooms on the other side of the main hall.
The third floor consisted of nine relatively small (almost dormitory size) bedrooms and another bathroom. It was thought that the Headmaster might invite students to spend the summer with him and his family which is why he had so many bedrooms built on the third floor.
My great grandfather loved Sun Rise Lake. One of the family's most treasured possessions is a diary my then ten year old grandmother wrote in 1901, the year the lake house was built. She had been staying in Boston with her mother during the school year and came to Sun Rise Lake that summer, staying at the Clearwater Hotel which opened in 1896 and was considered the grand resort of Blue County.
We travelled down a bumpy road without a building in sight. I wonder to myself how I ever let Father talk me into coming here. The insects flew right in the window of the carriage from the moment we got off the train in Greenville.
I am stuck on a lake in the middle of the woods with the bears for a whole summer. I'm going to go mad! I will have to sit through long drawn out dinners while my parents make small talk with parents of students from New York and Washington DC. I should have jumped out of the carriage and made a run for it. I wish I could have stayed in Boston with my friends. However, my father said it would be fun to stay at Sun Rise Lake while the house was built.
We have a lovely view of the lake through a cluster of birch trees from our hotel window. It is a wonderful sight. Maybe this won't be so bad. The lake is beautiful. As afternoon grew into evening, the lake began to reflect magnificent shades of red, pink and orange. I decided as we walked to the main hotel for dinner that this was going to be one of my favorite times of the day.
JULY 2, 1901- Today, I went exploring. Mother and I went down to the dock. She wanted to see the new steamboat; we were delighted.
JULY 3, 1901 –Today we had a tour around the lake. As I stepped on the boat, the scent of fresh wood filled my nose. This was a brand new boat. We were two of about sixty people on the Sunwood. We rode past an island in the magnificent boat.
The Clearwater is on the west shore of the lake. The lakeshore is beautiful and very rural, dotted with sporadic cottages and moderate sized houses. As the boat pulled back to the dock, I noticed the magnificent gardens making the lawn, from the hotel to the lake, a variety of summer colors. The lawn was decorated with lilies, daisies, lupine and Queen Ann's lace.
As we walked up the lawn towards the hotel, Mother and I ran into Father on the lawn. Father and Mother decided to relax on a hammock in the shade of a giant pine tree. I wanted to find something interesting to do. As I walked away from the lake I came across the croquet grounds and found myself in the middle of a game of croquet!
JULY 9, 1901- I discovered the tennis courts today and decided to take tennis lessons. I met a few girls my age and we plan to go swimming, exploring, playing croquet and of course playing tennis.
JULY 18, 1901- My favorite thing is dancing in the pavilion. There have only been a few social hops since I've been here but I've had fun dancing with a couple of boys who worked at the hotel along with the girls I met. They taught us the exact time to walk through the dining room in the morning so that we would have a chance to sample the fresh baked bread or the homemade pastries.
JULY 27, 1901- I think my parents are having a good time. The masquerade parties, clam bakes, and picnics keep them busy. Father also goes down to watch the new house being built. Father met a local man by the name of Horace Collins. He lives a few miles away in a town named Hillsboro where he is a manufacturer. He and my Father like to fish off the end of the dock together.
AUGUST 12, 1901- As I reflect upon the summer I've spent at the lake, I realize it is not nearly as bad as I had feared. I've enjoyed spending time at the lake. I've learned to appreciate the lake. I know I will be lucky to enjoy the beauty and enchantment of Sun Rise Lake every summer from now on now that we will have a summer house here.
AUGUST 14, 1901 – Father took me to "the point" where the Shaw Summer House is being built. Right now it is just a shell of a home but the builders are working hard. They have set up tents and a shack and they are living here during the week while they build the house. Father says they go home to the Springfield area on the weekends.
AUGUST 17, 1901. Father took me to the campus of the Sun Rise Lake School For Boys. He is the Headmaster there and that is why he lives here. Father does not think a school for boys is the proper place for a girl like me which is why Mother and I reside in Boston. Father comes home when he can but I miss him during the school year. I have been telling him that I want to live at Sun Rise Lake all year round.
AUGUST 22, 1901. Mother and I only have a few days left before we must return to Boston. Father says the house should be ready by the end of September but it will be too cold to stay there because there is no heat in it.
AUGUST 28, 1901. Today we said goodbye to the Clearwater Hotel and Sun Rise Lake. I am sad to say farewell but I know I will love coming back and staying at the Shaw House next summer. This is a nice place to spend the summer.
The Shaw House was ready by the next summer. My great grandmother Helen returned with my grandmother and the family moved into the brand new eighteen room summer home on the point. At the end of the summer, Helen and daughter Linda moved into the Headmaster's house on the campus of Sun Rise Lake School for Boys so the family could be together full time and the family lived in the Shaw House during the summer.
My grandmother met my grandfather Harold Craven while both were attending Green College in Greenville. Although it was unusual for women to be college students during that time (circa 1910), my great grandfather insisted that my grandmother obtain a higher education.
My grandfather Harold was originally from Wethersfield Connecticut and after he married my grandmother in 1915, they returned to his hometown although my grandmother would come back to summer at the lake each year.
My grandfather opened a grocery store with his brother a few years later and pretty soon they began to build their business and their reputation. By 1930, business had increased 20 fold and the store had tripled in size. There were ten people working for the brothers, including their two sisters. From the early years, Cravens was a family operation.
My father (Robert) was born in 1922 and two more children followed – my Uncle Bill in 1925 and my Aunt Sarah in 1927. My great grandfather retired as Headmaster of Sun Rise Lake School for boys in 1915 and he continued to summer at the lake until his death in 1927. His wife Helen died four years later.
My grandmother was an only child so she and her husband Harold took over The Lake House (as it was then known as) and continued to summer there. My Grandfather was busy with the family grocery business but my grandmother would bring the three children to the lake every summer and invite family and friends to spend time with them too. My Grandfather would come on most weekends.
In 1937, the Craven Brothers opened a second and larger Craven Market in a former bowling alley. Business was going well and my grandfather and his brother kept abreast of changes in the food industry. Frozen foods and new techniques in food packaging were revolutionizing food storage. Customers were looking for more variety, self-service and the convenience of one-stop grocery shopping.
In 1952 the Craven brothers took a radical step and opened a 10,000 square foot store which was nearly twice as large as most grocery stores at the time. By then, my father and Uncle were both back from the War and had joined the family business which had taken off as the era of the modern supermarket came into vogue. The family sold its two smaller original stores and they began to establish larger supermarkets in other communities surrounding Wethersfield.
My father married my mother (Betsy) in 1945 and my brother Lew was born in 1952. My sister came along in 1955 followed by me in 1957 and my sister Brenda in 1960. Like the previous generation, my mother brought us to The Lake House at Sun Rise Lake for the summers, as did Uncle Bill's wife Mary with her kids. My grandmother was always at The Lake House in the summer and both my grandfather and father came when they could as did the other Cravens who were welcomed at The Lake House as were the in laws. Having the nine bedrooms on the third floor sure did help!
In 1960, the year my sister was born, The Cravens opened a 31,000 square foot store which was the largest supermarket in northern Connecticut at the time. It included a beer and wine department. Customers enjoyed the personalized service and the great values that the family provided.
Another store opened in 1963 followed by a fourth store two years later. In 1966, the Cravens opened a supermarket in a new shopping center and a sixth store followed a few years later. By the 1970s when I was old enough to start working in the family business (although I was still able to summer at the Lake House), Cravens had ten supermarkets in nine towns. By then, Lew became the second generation of Craven family involved in the business guided by our grandfather's principles of value, quality, service and commitment to the communities they served.
My grandfather retired from the business in the mid 1960s and he joined my grandmother at the lake until his passing in 1972. Grandma – the only child of Arthur and Helen Shaw – died two years later, ending the original link to The (Shaw) Lake House.
By then, I had joined the family grocery business full time and my father was getting ready to retire although Uncle Bill was in no hurry to step down. Still, with ten stores operating there was plenty of work for all of us to manage. Dad and Bill oversaw the large operations while Lew, Annie, and I split up the stores, each of managing three. When Dad finally retired, Lew promoted up and when Bill finally left due to health reasons, I took over his job.
Connie and I married in 1982 and we had two kids - Terri and Tony. We continued the summers at the lake, of course, with Connie bringing the kids along with the in-laws and cousins. Lew and I would spend time there when we could.
Mom and Dad moved to Florida in the late 1990s but Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary and Aunt Sarah from that generation continued to summer at the lake with Mom and Dad returning for six weeks or so each summer.
I thought about all of them as I drove through the wintery night toward Sun Rise Lake to check on the corpse that was The Lake House. My cell phone had buzzed a dozen times but I didn't have the emotional strength to pick it up and talk to my relatives about the tragedy. Thank God my grandparents were dead and wouldn't have to endure the trauma of such a loss. Gone was over 110 years of family history in a moment of disaster.
My memories of The Lake House are too many to count. I was forever happy to spend time at the summer house. I didn't mind leaving my friends for the summer (although sometimes I would bring one or two with me and others would arrive with their parents for a few days). The Lake House was always full of people – my cousins, my aunts and uncles, family friends and other guests that came and went over the summer months.
The anticipation of seeing The Lake House for the first time each summer was a big deal. We would travel up the Interstate from Wethersfield, usually on the day school let out. Sometimes my father would be with us, other times it was just my mother. Sometimes my grandparents or Uncle Bill were already at the lake, other times we were the first to arrive. On those occasions, my parents would check out the house and make sure that no leaks had sprung during the winter thaw or spring showers. Various and sundry chores were assigned to my sisters, brother and me. We would whip through these tasks as quickly as possible so we could enjoy the lake. Annie and Brenda would get the jump on their summer tans while Lew and I went in search of tadpoles and frogs. Toes would be put in the lake and before long; dares and double dares were thrown about before one or all of us plunged shrieking into the still cool early summer water.
In the coming days, all along the shores of Sun Rise Lake, empty summer
houses would fill up, at least for the weekends. Windows will be thrown open to
air out stuffy cottages. Stray squirrels and mice will be chased out of attics
and cupboards. (One year, Brenda discovered a bunch of seeds and nuts in her
bed!) The water would be turned back on and windows washed. Floors and decks were swept clean. Beaches and yards were raked free of winter's debris. Barbeque grills were dragged out and put to work. Lawn chairs were pulled out of storage, dusted off and set out in time to sit and enjoy a glass of wine and watch the sun set.
Sometimes all of that was already taken care of before we arrived. We would find the raft back in the water, the dock extended out from the shore, the row boat, canoe and sail boat in the water, and the boathouse where the motor boat was moored would be open as was the big red barn that was full of fun and adventure, not to mention supplies and generations of collected junk.
Favorite hiking trails were rediscovered. Games of golf were played down the road at the Sun Rise Lake Golf Course. Tennis matches were played on the court my grandfather had built in the 1930s. I became a pretty good golfer and a fair tennis player. Lew was five years older than me so I had to get good fast to keep pace with him but playing with Annie was more fun!
When we were at The Lake House we never wanted to grow up because we knew that meant we wouldn't be able to spend entire summers there anymore. When we hit a certain age, our summer jobs came first and we would join our grandfather and fathers in the rat race when the others enjoyed the lake all summer long. I missed those who couldn't stay and I envied those who did including myself and I held out until my father made me work the summers for Craven Supermarkets (I was much older by then, almost eighteen thanks to my mother's intervention that kept me at the lake as long as possible).
But even when I had to work weekdays in the summer, I was in the car (usually with Dad) heading north on Friday evening to the lake eager for the black fly bites and sunburn. Even if it was only for two days, I enjoyed the delightful days of summer with fond memories of family and swims in the inviting lake. It was surprising how I could fit a week's worth of swimming, biking, boating, hiking, golfing, and tennis all in a two day whirlwind of fun.
It occurred to me how ironic the blaze at the lake house was as I drove through the night. My kids represented the fifth generation of Shaw/Cravens to occupy the lake house but the interest in the summer getaway was beginning to wane. After my grandparents died, my father and Uncle Bill put the Lake House into a trust and split ownership into eleven shares with my parents, Uncle Bill/Aunt Mary, and Aunt Sarah, followed by me and my three siblings, and Bill and Mary's four kids. My sister Brenda sold her share to Uncle Bill in the 1990s when she needed money without telling anybody which caused some angst within the family.
Now, with my parents in Florida and not involved with The Lake House as much as they used to be (or should have been), Uncle Bill in declining health, and Aunt Sarah in a nursing home, the pressures of maintaining The Lake House fell to my generation and the financial challenges were beginning to weigh on us, especially after the economy tanked in 2008.
The property taxes continued to rise and the costs to maintain the property were also becoming problematic. The roof needed fixing, the boat house had issues, and the original plumbing was starting to cause problems. There had been talk in the 1960s between my father and Uncle Bill about winterizing the house so it could be lived in year round but that never happened and now the cost to accomplish that feat was prohibitive. It would be cheaper to raze the house and build a new one and nobody was interested in doing that.
My brother Lew's marriage fell apart and he been taken to the bank in alimony and child care costs so he wasn't in a position to pour a lot of money into The Lake House. Brenda was out of the picture and my sister Annie's husband Roger had been disabled in a car accident so they were on a limited income even though Annie worked for Craven Supermarkets.
Most of the furniture in The Lake House was used and old and some of it could use replacing. The mattresses were lumpy and the three bathrooms still had the original fixtures in them. The refrigerator and stove were from the 1960s. Lew's kids never came to the lake after the divorce and Annie's kids moved away and weren't around much either.
There had been talk of renting the place out for a month or so but the idea of letting strangers use our house was hard to accept. Lew and I talked about selling the place once Uncle Bill died but I wasn't sure if I could muster the courage and strength to actually do it.
Sell The Lake House? Could we settle on a price? How much was Paradise worth? Could I accept someone else jumping off our dock into the water? A new family sitting around the kitchen picnic table for a community meal while the rain fell in sheets across the lake? A stranger's daughter catching the first fish of the summer, begging someone else, between squeals of panic and laughter, to set the fish free? It made me sad to think of these possibilities. The lake was full of my memories - our lake, our dinners, our rainstorms, our family.
My parents had made their peace. Even though my father had spent all or part of every summer since 1922 (not including the war years) at The Lake House and my mother since 1945, they seemed willing to let it go or at least trust us kids to make the right decision. They had already moved on in their senior years and if selling The Lake House provided a financial cushion for the rest of us they were okay with that.
And now a wintery night fire had made such a tough decision irrelevant because The Lake House was gone. I had to pull the car to the side of the road and throw up as that realization hit me.
Aunt Sarah made her last appearance at the lake the previous summer. She was a chain-smoking single woman who had been in love with the lake all of her life. Now near death from lung cancer, Aunt Sarah insisted on one last summer on the lake, a nurse and her oxygen tank in tow to watch the kids swim and climb and dig. She left the lake on Labor Day content that she had said goodbye the right way.
Maybe we wouldn't tell her the place had burned down.
I remembered the measuring ruler drawn on the wall in the corner of The Lake House kitchen where we measured each other, tracking how much we'd grown every year upon our arrival at the lake proving to ourselves that we spent the last nine months growing, getting older, better, and wiser. At some point, we stopped growing and the lines didn't budge and we didn't know whether we should laugh or cry.
What was most amazing was that my grandmother, father, aunt, uncle, my siblings and my children and their children were all represented there on that wall, our names etched into the wall like graffiti of memory. But those names were all ashes now.
Another tradition started by my grandmother when she first wrote that diary in 1901 was to keep a yearly journal of each summer at The Lake House. There were shelves of journals on the bookcases from the years of events and adventures. Guests, visitors, and summer inhabitants were expected to sign in when they arrived and jot down their various activities as the days, weeks and months went by. Inside jokes, daily accomplishments and moments of fancy were transcribed on those pages – Grandpa boiled a lobster! Annie is getting married! Tigger (that's me) finished fourth in a five-person sailboat race! Brenda hates camp! Lew had his first Beer! Terri insists she saw a Shark! The journals (there had to be 25 of them at last count) made for great reading on rainy days and quiet nights but now they were all ash.
First-time visitors at The Lake House (usually boyfriends and girlfriends coming for the first time) spent an hour walking around the place like it was an art gallery, taking in everything that had been hung, tacked and nailed up over the years, wondering how German War flags, movie posters, obscure Latin phrases and summer camp portraits tied together to tell the story of our family had made it to the house.
A short path led from the house to the dock, a simple structure that jutted out just enough to provide a runway for a hearty leap into the water. Sometimes, at moments of calm, the surface was a perfect mirror image of the blue and white sky above until it was shattered by a cannonball plunge.
The dock had hosted athletes and actors, scholars and dropouts, friends and future spouses. The dock was where my mom saved my dad from drowning (He had knocked himself out trying to do a double flip off the end of the dock!) and where everyone has gone skinny dipping at least once in broad daylight (and plenty more often under the cover of night!). There was nothing more daring than leaping into the lake wearing nothing but a freeing grin. The dock was where we saw ducks, bald eagles, crabs, fish, and spiders that defied description.
I asked Connie to marry me on the dock, the dock where I was alive in the moment and not tugged into yesterday or pushed into tomorrow. I'm sure it had survived the fire, protected by frozen ice of winter.
The summer when Lew's marriage fell apart, Lew asked everybody staying at The Lake House that summer to jot down a memory that his kids could take with them in the event they didn't return. Here's some of them:
"I liked going blueberry picking with my cousins, Mom and my Aunt Annie. After we picked lots of berries, we went home and my mom made a pie for us to eat with vanilla ice cream."
"My favorite part was hiking to the village store with my cousins because it was the first time I was allowed to go with them."
"This year I had a lot of fun waterskiing and I took it to a new level. With my brother driving and my cousin spotting, I skied in back of our 50-year-old blue motorboat. I had a ton of fun this year. It has been the best year yet."
"This year I discovered my new favorite recreational sport, 'tip boarding.' Uncle Tigger helped me get the old windsurfing board down from the barn rafters. Then my cousins and my sister and I pushed it into the lake and clambered aboard. Everyone stepped up onto the board and started leaning back and forth until we all tumbled off. This process was repeated for most of the afternoon. It was so much fun that I can't wait to do it again next summer."
"I love waking up to the smells of Aunt Mary cooking breakfast in the morning."
"We had a contest this summer to see which one of us could go the longest without taking a shower (lake swimming didn't count). I went three weeks and four days!"
"I ate 27 marshmallows at one sitting during a cookout one night. I threw up later."
"All of us try in our own ways to make the lake the special place and time that our grandparents and parents made it for us."
"The Lake House has held a big place in my heart since I became part of the family. The ties that bind are very strong here and at this stage of my life I take great pride and pleasure in joining our family for this rich and memorable time."
"I realized the other day that the back porch screen door still slams like it did in 1964!"
"I finally beat my brother at tennis."
"I loved seeing all the kids throwing themselves off the end of the dock. Who would guess that a simple dock could make for so much fun? ... The sweetest moments are when I see how much everyone loves this place – both kids and adults – in the water sports, funny dinner conversations, lazy afternoons reading and even the frantic work projects."
"It is impossible to say just one thing as a favorite part of being here. The shades of color that come from years upon years layered with lake adventures make my time here special. And as always, when the day comes to depart, I find it very hard to leave."
"This was my first time here. I can't believe so many people can live under one roof at one time and not kill each other. It was a blast."
There had been several close calls at The Lake House over the years. One summer, lightning struck, blowing out the electricity and causing a big burn mark on the roof. We installed several lightning rods after that. There have been memorable summer storms (including hurricanes) and deadly winter blizzards over the years. And one year (I think it was 1972) it rained for half the summer with record-breaking amounts of rain. I was fifteen that year and it was the one time I thought I knew how Noah felt.
When my father and Uncle Bill didn't make it up from their weekday jobs at their regular time on Friday night, I knew my mother and Aunt Mary were concerned because they were always punctual.
Lying awake in bed that night, I head my father and Uncle finally come home and explain to my mom and Aunt that they had to take a long detour because of the rain and that's when I realized that we had more than just a rainstorm on our hands.
It had become boring being cooped up in the house for days on end from the rain. I loved the freedom of being outdoors but the rain went on for several days and I was worried we would get flooded out if it continued much long.
There was a small dam at one end of Sun Rise Lake and we wondered if it was going to break. The next day I went with my father to run some errands and there was plenty of flooding, both from the rain that had nowhere to go and from the lake that had risen dramatically in some of the low lying areas. Several beach front yards were underwater and there were a few places along shore road that had also been overrun with water. It was the first time I felt scared at Sun Rise Lake.
When the rain finally relented, I was excited to see blue sky and the peek of the sun. Finally we could get out of The Lake House before we killed each other! We kept pestering the adults for permission to go out but my mother held her ground until things dried out. To add to our cabin-fever boredom, the town declared the lake unsafe for swimming and it seemed like forever until we could finally go into the water.
But none of us ever imagined that our lake house would burn down.
It always comforted me that my grandmother started out at The Lake House as a ten year old child (watching it being built). She was sixty-six years old when I was born and ninety-three when she died in 1984 so she was always an older woman to me but she never lost her child-like fascination, pride, appreciation and love for The Lake House and that helped all of us develop our own sense of identification to the place. She told us stories of that first summer when the family summer home was being built and of all the years that followed. We never got tired of listening to them.
Grandma and Grandpa occupied the master bedroom until their deaths and the other adults occupied the other four bedrooms on the second floor. The children were delegated to the third floor along with those unfortunate adults when the second floor was full. My sister Brenda often slept on the screened in porch as an adult rather than being stuck with the younger generation on the third floor.
It was a rite of passage to be able to move down to the second floor when a room became available. Once my grandparents were gone, my parents took over the master bedroom and Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary got the second large room. Sarah was always in the smaller room to the right on the top of the stairs (across from the bathroom) and the other two rooms were assigned to other adult guests.
The adults rarely stepped foot onto the third floor unless they were forced to sleep up there and that meant that the third floor was usually kids territory with free reign (within reason). With nine rooms and no less than two dozen beds (beds, cots, bunk meds, roll aways, etc.) the third floor was a dormitory for generations of kids who came to the lake.
For the most part, we were reasonably well behaved (although we got away with a lot more then we got caught doing!) and as long as nobody was in bodily danger or had to go to the Emergency Room, we kids were generally left to fend for ourselves. There was always something going on to keep us busy and occupied, whether it was fishing, hiking, boating, golfing, tennis, or the various games we made up.
Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary and four kids and each of them were around the age of my family. Marilyn was almost Lew's age, Mike was almost Annie's age, Judy was almost my age and Jimmy was almost Brenda's age so the eight of us hung out a lot in various degrees and variations. There were also other cousins, friends, and visitors thrown into the mix at various times so there were always kids in the house.
We weren't always on our own. When we were younger, we were happy to hang out with the adults, dependant upon them to take us out in the speed boat or on some day activity away from the lake. When we became moody teenagers, we avoided our parents and the adults at all costs although we enjoyed the dinner table conversations and watching some of the drama playing out between the various factions. And we were happy to play them in golf or tennis because we were waiting for the day when we were good enough to beat them.
And then when we became adults ourselves, we were grateful for the company of our elders, appreciative of their sage advice and wisdom especially as our own kids relived our own adventures and experiences, replacing us in the pecking order of The Lake House. My sister Annie and her husband Roger had taken over the master bedroom as the previous generation rarely came to The Lake House in the past few years. Connie and I had had the second room, Lew was across the hall, Marilyn and her husband and Judy and her husband had the other second floor rooms and everybody else was on the third floor carrying on with the same mischief that we once instigated when we were their age.
There were countless stories over the years of adventures, successes mishaps, conflicts, dares, troubles and incidents that became legends and lore in the history of The Lake House. The first time somebody learned to water ski. The first time somebody won a fishing competition. The first trophy brought home from the Sun Rise Lake Golf Course. The first girlfriend or boyfriend brought as a guest to The Lake House. The time Brenda forgot to moor the row boat and it was found the next morning a half mile down the lake front. The time Lew crashed the speed boat into the side of the boat house. The time we piled twelve kids into the canoe (and promptly sank it!). The time we blew a hole in the wall of the barn lighting off fire crackers. The time Annie smashed a window with a rock. The time Mike got drunk and was found passed out naked in the front lawn the next morning.
There were also endless gags, jokes, and traditions, especially on the third floor. We traumatized Jimmy by turning off the bathroom light every time he went in to pee at night. We put frogs in the toilet and spiders in the sink. We got sixteen year old Marilyn to run naked from the bathroom when we tossed a lizard over the shower curtain. We managed to break off the door knob to the bathroom door and Lew had to climb in through the window (crawling across the window ledge from the bedroom window next door) to get the door open again.
In the Craven family, to tease, insult and prank was to love with a lifetime of cherished memories no matter how obnoxious and hilariously embarrassing memories they might be. I remember the time Annie threw a water balloon at me and I chased her down Shore Road screaming like a lunatic until I eventually caught her and nearly murdered her. There was the time my cousin Judy pulled my bathing trunks down while standing in the ice cream line. Or the time the cousins had a serious fight over who had the most pubic hair!
Being a part of my big crazy family was to argue often, to laugh hysterically, and to always be reminded of what made The Lake House unique and why being together was so special. To be a Craven was to be imperfect in a perfect way and we were usually in it together and when things went wrong we would confess our sins to an adult out of guilt and hope for forgiveness. Grandma never held things against us but Grandpa could get annoyed easily and he was known to bark at us if we got too loud or rambunctious.
The Cravens generally accepted each other as we were. We were family and we were accepting and understanding of our traits, faults, behaviors, attitudes, traditions, and nuisances. Sure we got on each others nerves sometimes but in the end we supported, valued and loved each other. We knew each others secrets, hopes, and dreams.
The big test at The Lake House was when others came to stay whether they were friends of family, guests of the adults, and most notably a new boyfriend or girlfriend, all of whom were introduced to the crazy Craven family that seemed to have no end in numbers.
Could the newcomer survive the teasing? Not go crazy from the gags, practical jokes and other adventures? Get along with all the cousins, Aunts and Uncles? Newcomers were required to reach a certain level of acceptance from the clan which often depended on their ability to adapt to the Craven ways. Were they a good sport on the tennis court? Could they swim? Were they willing to try water skiing, sailing, or a round of golf? Would they morally object to a skinny dip? Could they hold their own around the dinner table and survive the madness of the third floor?
Some did, others did not. I remember one of Marilyn's friends calling us inbreed perverts. Others were intimidated by our boisterous ways and over the top clan like behaviors. One had to be politically savvy to keep up with some of the dinner table conversations while others needed an iron stomach to survive some of the family recipes! But those who stuck around became welcomed members of the inner sanctum and they were accepted into the fold. Those who married into the family became one of us and a part of The Lake House legacy.
Several of our friends who came to The Lake House took one look at the place and assumed we were rich. Also, because Craven Supermarkets were popular back home, my family had the reputation of being well off. But I never felt spoiled or privileged growing up – just extreme fortunate and blessed. My grandparents were particularly fugal and there was not a sense of extravagance or well to do around The Lake House. We wore second hand clothes and hand-me-downs. The same boats were used for generations. The tennis court was probably the last big expense the family made to the property and that was in the 1930s.
The cars lined up in the driveway and on the side of the barn were all five to ten years old, usually station wagons in the 1960s and 1970s and mini-vans and SUVs in later years. My grandfather drove a White 1957 Chevy Sedan for as long as I could remember.
Despite the loudness and chaos, there was something peaceful, tranquil, and safe about The Lake House. It is where I got my foundation and learned about family. It is where I laughed, sometimes so hard it hurt. There was something familiar and protecting that came from hanging around those I had known my entire life. None of that changed in my adult life either. My cousins remain close to me and I am the proud Uncle to my nieces and nephews, happy to pass on the lessons I learned from my grandparents, parents, Aunts and Uncles while growing up at The Lake House. Would we ever again gather in one place now that the family summer home was gone?
Modesty was not one of the most celebrated virtues at The Lake House. With a dozen or more kids living on the third floor, some sharing bedrooms and everybody using the same bathroom, purity and bashfulness was not a behavior we embraced. If one of the cousins brought a friend, the newcomer was expected to fit in and join in the fun and chaos.
Those who were unwilling to skinny dip at least once were shunned for a while but anybody who was willing to do a naked run off the dock or raft in broad daylight was an instant hero and immediate legend.
While nudity was easily accepted and the occasional skinny dip a show of courage, none of us were over the top in sexual antics or acting out, despite Marilyn's friend's insulting claim to the contrary. We weren't perverts or inbreed sickos. We were family and friends who were comfortable with each other and our bodies.
I saw just about everybody naked at one point or another and I hardly thought twice about it. The first time I skinny dipped alone with a girl was with my Cousin Judy when we were about twelve. It was raining and getting dark and nobody was around and Judy stripped out of her clothes and took a running jump off the end of the dock. I gladly followed equally bare assed and we laughed at each other.
"Bet I can hold my breath longer then you!" Judy dared.
"Bet you'll drown before me!" I laughed.
She splashed me in the face.
"Hey! No splashing, you jerk!"
Another wave of water hit me in the face so I reached out and grabbed her, pulling her close to keep her from another attack. We both gasped at the sudden and unexpected contact to our lower region and I was shocked when I felt my erection rub up against her.
"Opps," I said with embarrassment. "Sorry about that."
"Its okay," Judy said with understanding and I was relieved and glad that she hadn't freaked out. "Ahh, please just….don't touch me down there."
Then she laughed and splashed me again before swimming away and I swam after her, laughing too.
Eventually, however, as each of us grew and matured, sex did become part of life at the lake, especially when we started to bring girlfriends and boyfriends for extended stays. There was always a little bit of fantasizing and experimentation if we met some new family renting one of the nearby cottages or made new friends down at the public beach.
On summer, when I was fifteen, we made friends with the Eastmans who were renting a cottage down the road from us. Annie hung out with a girl named Emily who seemed to like me which was always good for my ego.
One night Emily and I were out goofing around together. We took a walk and ended up at a secluded part of the lake where there was no houses or people around. Emily took off her clothes, putting them in a pile, and I watched with appreciation as she walked into the lake naked. I did the same and when I caught up to her in the water she smiled at me.
"I take it you've skinny dipped before," she giggled.
"Yeah," I bragged. "It's great."
"Do you find me attractive, Tigger?" she asked as we tread water together.
"From the first time I saw you," I said warmly.
I figured I had nothing to lose at this point so I went for a kiss. To my surprise, Emily grabbed me down there under the water. I grabbed her by her buns and pulled her towards me. She smiled when my member brushed against her. We kissed for a while and then we started petting each other. Then, before I knew what was going on, we started to have sex in the water in a standing position. Emily wrapped her legs around me and she was hugging me above the water. After a while she started to moan and at that point I couldn't hold it any longer. I was completely out of breath when I was done but it struck me as appropriate that I should lose my virginity at (and even in!) Sun Rise Lake.
I pretty much had sex with every girlfriend I brought to the lake after Emily took my innocence. By the time Connie became my one and only, sex at the lake was a yearly tradition and even in our middle age we enjoy making love in the water or in our room late at night with the sounds of the lake lulling us outside our window. Both our children were conceived at the lake and lake sex with Connie is always perfect. We're both are on the same page and it has kept our sex life refreshing and renewed whenever we returned to the lake and The Lake House.
I lusted after Connie's body from the moment we met and that first summer she came to the lake with me. I thought I was going to go nuts as she lay on the dock in a string bikini working on her tan. She always caused me to become sexually excited when we went to the lake.
Connie was the girl for me from the start. She was beautiful, smart, appealing, fun, warm, personable, happy, funny and a joy to be with. Connie fell in love with The Lake House the moment she saw it and she easily adapted to my crazy extended and large family, in-laws, and everybody else on the roster.
Sometimes Connie and I would swim out to the other side of the raft where she would hang on to me and put her arms around my neck and I would hold on to the raft while she wrapped her legs around my waist. Just like Emily that first time, Connie and I would make love like that in the water, sometimes in broad daylight as we were far enough from shore and blocked by the raft to get away with it without getting caught.
Connie had a way of easily sexually arousing me. Sometimes she would jack me off under the water until I would cum. Other times she would move the crotch of her bathing suit to the side exposing herself and I would tug down my trunks and enter her even though we knew people could see us in the water from The Lake House. Even now, in our fifties, we still make love in the lake every summer.
Everybody knew everybody in the village of Sun Rise Lake. Year 'rounders were the most respected, of course, but those with summer homes on the lake were accepted and welcomed each year as if they were a full part of the community. Others came and went, perhaps renting a cottage along the shore for a week before moving on never to be seen again but we tended to make friends with anybody who was in the area.
The Murdocks lived to our left year round and the Quintons had a large summer house on our right for several years before selling to a new family, the Robinsons although the house was always known as The Quinton place. There were a couple of other small cottages on either side that were generally rented out with people coming and going. Whenever we were in the village, my father, grandparents or Uncle would talk to people they knew, always acting as if they had just seen each other the day before even if it had been years. Sometimes if I was on my own or with my cousins and we were in the village, someone might say "Are you a Craven?" and when we answered yes everything was okay.
People knew my parents, aunts, uncles, and even my grandparents long after they were gone. Old timers were even familiar with my great grandfather Arthur Shaw and his wife Helen, the former Headmaster of the Sun Rise Lake School for Boys even though he had been dead for eighty-five years. Some still referred to our Lake House as 'the Shaw place'.
My wife never met my grandfather when she first came to The Lake House at twenty but she knew my grandmother for about five years before Grandma died. I told Connie and my kids all about my Grandfather and how he loved to sing songs. When we all got together as a family when I was a young, it was common for us to sit at our grandfather's feet and listen to him sing songs including his favorite that he would sing to Grandma all the time: Let Me Call You Sweetheart.
Grandpa was the arbiter of table manners and of saying grace before meals. He liked to inhabit the screen porch where he smoked his pipe and read the paper. My Grandmother liked to sit in her bedroom and look out the large window overlooking the lake. It was her special window and she told us that any time she was feeling sad she would sit at that window and put right whatever might be wrong in her head. As a child I always believed it to be a magic window.
My grandmother was the family Matriarch with all the stories of The Lake House. What I remember most about my grandmother besides the stories of the family and the house was how well dressed she was, even in the heat of summer. She had a fancy brush, comb and mirror set on her Dresser and her closet was full of the latest fashions.
Grandma was a super cook and we would hear her whistling when she was in the kitchen preparing a meal. I always wondered how she could prepare enough for a small army.
After Gram died, the manifestations of her absence couldn't be overemphasized. We had lost our calm center because above all else our Grandmother had been the arbiter of family disputes. She kept the family peace and she was able to mend fences whenever there was disagreements, falling outs, or all out war.
My Grandfather was a distinguished man but he could be what my grandmother called "sharp tongued". He liked his whiskey at times and he would have his "little men" (shot glasses!) lined up on the kitchen counter. I never saw him drunk but we learned to tow the line and did everything his way and stayed out of his way when he was mad.
It was really Aunt Sylva who stole the show and was the star of the lake as far as us kids were concerned growing up and my kids agreed with that sentiment in Aunt Sylvia's later years. While my father and Uncle were busy keeping the Craven supermarket chain growing and succeeding, their kid sister Sylvia had gone off to college, majoring in Drama. Following graduation, she was off to New York to try to become a professional actress and she found some success on Broadway and in traveling shows. She eventually made it to Hollywood where she enjoyed moderate success mostly as a character actress and whenever she returned to The Lake House in the summer she would entertain the family with her stories of celebrity and Hollywood. One time she even showed up with a television actor most of the family recognized and his photograph still hangs on the wall by the stairs! The house was also full of photos of Aunt Sylvia in the various stages of her career.
Aunt Sylvia's stage name was Crystal Burnheart and my grandmother used to call her "Crystal Heartburn" as a joke but Sylvia was quite theatrical and we loved hearing her stories of New York and Hollywood. She helped us put on our own little 'Craven shows' in the barn on warm summer nights, directing our efforts and giving us acting tips to help our performances.
When I was about twelve, Aunt Sylvia stared at a local theatre production at the Blue County Fairgrounds and we all went to several of the shows. She did a great job and I was amazed to watch her transpose herself into an entirely different character, singing and dancing across the stage with stunning talent and professionalism. It was Aunt Sylvia who gave me the acting bug and I performed in several high school productions as well as a couple of Blue County Theatre productions my last few summers at the lake as a teenager.
Aunt Sylvia was definitely movie star beautiful and she had the most fashionable clothes but she never married or had kids.
"Just plenty of love affairs," she said in later years.
I think she liked coming back to the Lake because all of her nieces and nephews were around for her to entertain and be with.
"You guys are my kids," she would say frequently.
Now that she was old and alone in a nursing home I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. She'd probably say that The Lake House was her greatest lover and it would probably kill her to know it was gone.
How do you mourn the loss of a place you've know all your life? If I had known I wouldn't see The Lake House again when Lew and I last left it in the fall, I would have made a proper goodbye.
Summers at The Lake House stretch back in my mind as far as my memories can go. Some of it is hazy – fishing for minnows off the dock; painting the floor of the barn, the smell of wet bathing suits on the back line, barbecues on the beach, and cans of soda kept chilled in the cold spring that ran down the side of the property and into the lake, but all of them were precious and real.
What did Captain Mike Martin and the other fire fighters think when they watched The Lake House burn? Did they see five generations of memories go up in smoke? Did they see the ghosts of beloved family dogs whose spirits still paddled about the lake? Did they notice my grandfather's image sitting on the side screen porch or that of my grandmother seated in her special window? How I would miss those little things that filled The Lake House for generations like invisible cobwebs of memory covering every wall, still alive in my mind untouched by death or fire, frozen and unmoving in the crystalline past.
I was in Blue County now. It was still dark, about 4:45 in the morning as I took the Greenville exit off the interstate and passed through the town, crossing the Blue County Bridge into Hillsboro before heading north toward Sun Rise Lake although for the first time in my life I was in no hurry to arrive.
"Some of my very first childhood memories are of the lake," my daughter Terri told me the last time she was at the lake with us.
She's twenty eight now, married and working in Providence Rhode Island but she tries to get up to the lake for a few days when she can, sometimes with her husband but often alone.
She tells stories about her grandfather (my father) much the same way I told her stories about my grandfather and her memories of The Lake House growing up are much the same as mine. She spent the summers with her cousins – Lew and Annie's kids - just as I did with Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary's children.
"Anybody who grew up at The Lake House can relate to how special they felt being a part of the legacy," Terri told me last summer. "It touches my heart every time I come here. It brings back all the memories."
I wanted to cry thinking of her words as I drove toward the remains of The Lake House.
The Lake House had over a hundred years of collected artifacts and memorabilia in it. No matter how many times we had been through the rooms we were always finding something new to explore or go through. It pained me to think all of it was now gone. Long forgotten photographs of people who had been dead for years, unidentifiable and unknown to us. Eyeglasses from the 1930s. Old 78 Records. Coins. Letters. Newspapers. Magazines. Silverware. Telegrams. Old radios. Clothes. Jewelry. Knick-knacks. Tools. My grandparents' marriage license. The original blue prints to the house. Postcards. Old booze bottles and milk bottles and beer cans from companies long gone. Grandma's recipe card file box. Paintings. Calendars from every era. Novelty ashtrays. Kitchenware. Toys.
Everything we found or looked at again (we never got tired of it) were miniature history lessons in themselves. There was a certain feeling of melancholy whenever we thought about the past and all that The Lake House had gone through and held over the years. Objects have lives. They are witness to things. Everything within the walls of The Lake House was our heritage and our history.
It was good to know that our memories were not blotted out by the inexorable march of time and progress. The Lake House had maintained its intimate character and its peace and beauty through the years and across the generations.
Our family came together at The Lake House. No matter what had taken place during the year when we arrived at the lake for the summer we were harmonious. Much of the tension and bickering usually present in family gatherings was often missing at The Lake House.
Of course, it wasn't perfect. Our family had its fare share of trials, tribulations, traumas and tragedies over the years. There was a rumor that my grandfather had an affair in the 1920s with a family friend and although nobody ever talked about it, it was something that bothered me for years. I have a faded memory of some middle aged woman coming to the lake when I was maybe six or seven. None of us knew who she was but I overheard Aunt Sylvia say "So, that's your other daughter" to my grandfather.
I had snuck in to use the bathroom off the kitchen and they didn't know I was in there as they passed through the kitchen. I could tell that Aunt Sylvia was very upset and hurt and that Grandpa was embarrassed and mostly unresponsive.
My mother's sister (my Aunt Kim) died from cancer when she was forty. I remember her and her family coming to the lake for a few years when I was a kid. She was younger than my mother and very beautiful. But the last summer she was noticeable thin and pale and she didn't do much except lay around on the dock or sit on the screen porch. She was courageous in her illness and upbeat in her attitude but I was at a young and vulnerable age and her sickness freaked me out. I was afraid of her and I didn't know what to say to her.
Aunt Kim died over the winter and her husband Uncle Paul came to the lake the next summer with my cousins Patty and Ronnie but there was a feeling of emptiness and absence without Kim there. My mother was nice to her brother in law but she seemed distant and mournful all that summer. Uncle Paul remarried and I never saw my cousins after that.
Our family was relatively liberal, progressive and open in its politics. My great grandfather Arthur Shaw set the tone as an educator of a liberal school and my grandmother carried on that tradition. She was involved in various causes over the years and some of the books at The Lake House were pretty radical for the times.
Aunt Sylvia, of course, was a Hollywood type, outspoken in her attitudes and while my father kept his politics to himself for the most part, I do remember him debating my Uncle Bill over the years on various political subjects. Uncle Bill was the lone conservative in the family (at least that I remember), a John Wayne gun-ho type who was pro-Vietnam War in the 1960s, a Republican enthusiast who was not shy to take on the establishment or his family when it came to the "hippy generation" as he put it. He refused to blame Nixon for the war's escalation and he was at odds with my parents who feared Lew might be drafted. At it turned out, Lew's number as never called but Bill's son Mike joined the Air Force. Uncle Bill said it was to serve his country as required but we knew Mike had volunteered for the Air Force before he was drafted by the Army.
Uncle Bill said Watergate was no big deal and he was a Reagan hero-worshipper and a defender of George Bush through those two wars and other missteps, even though his grandson was injured fighting in Iraq. Uncle Bill was outspoken, crass, loud, obnoxious and opinionated and we learned not to argue with him. We tolerated his politics but we couldn't always understand his mindset. When his youngest son came out of the closet, Uncle Bill refused to accept Jimmy's homosexual lifestyle and Jimmy stopped coming to the lake. Uncle Bill showed no remorse.
My Cousin Judy lost a son in a motorcycle accident when he was eighteen. Brad had been an energetic, likeable and fun kid growing up and he was good friends with my son Tony. His death shook the family and Judy went through a few rough years but she said the lake was good therapy for her during her difficult times.
The demise of Lew's marriage was a slow and painful death and because we all worked together in addition to spending summers on the lake I was more than aware of their difficulties and problems. Lisa had cheated on Lew more than once but for some reason my brother would forgive her and take her back. After a few years of the drama and soap opera, we realized that the marriage was mostly a fraud and a fake but we were nice to Lisa whenever she came to the lake with everybody pretending that nothing was wrong. It was almost a relief when she finally left Lew for good but it wasn't the same without Lew's kids coming to the lake anymore.
My kid sister Brenda had always been a high strung, oversensitive, highly dramatic person. She was the baby of our family but when she got to the lake she had to compete with all the cousins and other guests and sometimes she resented not being the center of attention. Aunt Sylvia did a good job trying to harness Brenda's emotions and she always told Brenda that she was her favorite niece but Brenda was basically a spoiled brat and cry baby who went out of her way to garner special favors and treatment.
Brenda had trouble in school and she nearly didn't graduate from high school because of her sporadic attendance record. She had a future paved in gold with the Craven Supermarket business but unlike her other siblings, Brenda was unable to make it. We carried her for as long as we could but every job we gave her she managed to screw up, alienating co-workers, creating problems for the business, and generally embarrassing the family.
Brenda had a kid out of wedlock, the result of a one night stand. "Charlie" spent more time living with Annie than she did with Brenda who continued to struggle with her life, drinking to much, developing a serious drug problem and becoming depressed, suffering from prolonged unemployment and spurts of homelessness. She sold her share in The Lake House but continued to come for the summer, sometimes arriving in March and staying until November even though the house had no heat. When we arrived, we'd find the house a mess with unattended food left in the kitchen along with a week's worth of dirty dishes and other disasters.
After a huge fight with Lew, Brenda stopped coming to the lake and I hadn't seen much of her in recent years. She was bouncing from family member to family member for help and a place to say but nobody had heard from her in several months and we didn't know where she was.
My heart was thumping as I approached the village of Sun Rise Lake and took a right onto shore road, past the golf course and my great grandfather's Sun Rise Lake School for Boys before reaching 'the point' of the Lake. I could see the red flashing of fire truck lights through the naked woods and I feared my heart was going to burst as I turned left onto Point Drive. I passed the ROBINSON sign at the end of the first drive and turned right at the 'Craven' sign another twenty feet along the drive.
The road had been plowed that night to get the fire engines in, the snow tossed back into the woods. It had been years since I had been to The Lake House in the dead of winter and as I came out of the woods into the clearing of the front lawn my view of the house was blocked by several fire engines and other apparatus filling the driveway and front yard.
I stopped the car and climbed out into the cold pre-dawn air, my breath immediately visible in front of my face. I stumbled through the melted snow from the heated fire and stepped out from between the fire engines to see that The Lake House was…gone.
All that remained was the chimney and living room fire place, a few twisted pieces of metal, what looked to be a charcoaled refrigerator, and the hulked mass that had been the wood stove in the kitchen. There was a black crater in a wide circle around the remains of The Lake House's foundation with smoke still rising from the ashes. I saw that the barn was still standing in the distance and I took some solace in knowing that something remained of the past.
I turned to see our neighbor Bud Murdock standing with a group of firefighters on the perimeter of the fire crater. The old man was in his 80s now but he had been living next door for more than fifty years. He knew my grandparents and he watched me grow up at the lake.
"I'm sorry, Tigger," Bud said with a heavy sigh. "An absolute travesty. My heart breaks for all of you."
"Thanks, Bud," I said but I was in a daze.
I turned and saw a fire fighter standing next to me.
"I'm Mike Martin, the Fire Chief. I'm sorry for your loss."
"Any idea what happened?" I asked numbly. "The electricity was turned off."
"We're pretty sure it was arson," Captain Martin replied quickly.
I took a step back. "What?"
"There was the smell of gasoline when we arrived. The fire started on the lake side porch and the wind acted as an accelerant. We saw footsteps in the snow before the heat of the fire melted everything."
I felt dizzy and nauseous.
"Sir, do you have any idea of who could do something like this?" Captain Martin wanted to know. "Was there anybody giving the family problems? Anybody with a beef? Somebody with a grudge?"
"Are you telling me that somebody burned down The Lake House on purpose?" I managed to ask.
"Yes, Sir," Captain Martin replied.
It was a concept I was unable to fathom as I stared blankly at the firefighter but I knew as soon as he said it who had done this.
It was my brother's idea. We'd gotten our hands on an M-80 firecracker and we wanted to detonate it in the barn. I was eleven and Lew was sixteen. We didn't hang out all that much anymore because of the age difference but when we were at the lake it was easy to find stuff to do together. Our mom worried about Lew being a bad influence because he was so much older but she wasn't about to keep us from being brothers.
I remember it was a dare and I had a sense of impending disaster when Lew handed me the M-80 and the book of matches.
"Light it," he said. "I dare you."
I didn't want to be called chicken so I did what he suggested and his eyes went wide when the round bomb was ignited.
"Throw it!" Lew screamed. "Hurry!"
So I did and it bounced against the wall of the barn where it exploded with such force that it literally knocked a plank out the side of the barn. The echo of the cracker rang across the lake and we ran out the back door of the barn and into the wooded area between the properties before the people running out of The Lake House could catch us.
They eventually figured out who the culprits were, of course, and my grandfather was fit to be tied because there had been smoke and he said we could have burned the whole barn down. I got yelled at and Lew got sent to his room for the day and when I grew older and heard the horror stories about kids getting their hands blown off lighting those things off I realized how lucky I was to have escaped without injury or burning the barn down.
The barn was a treasure chest of memories and possessions. Not only was it a great place to hang out and play in with a loft to climb up into and several smaller rooms to hide in (during hide and seek), but it was full of all sorts of neat stuff collected (and abandoned) for years.
An old pick up truck from the 1930s sat in there for years. My father finally had it dragged away after grandpa died but it was a great giant toy for us for many years. There was an old rotted wooden row boat that rested overturned on two saw horses for as long as I could remember, old sails for the sailboat, oars and aged and smelly life jackets, baseball bats, volleyball nets, tennis rackets, cans of paint, several lawn mowers, garden equipment, dock pieces, window frames, a broken television set from the 1950s, buoys, an old bathtub, half of a canoe, a broken kitchen table, an old water heater, and countless boxes of junk dragged out from The Lake House over the years.
At least the barn remained.
Would my last memory of Sun Rise Lake be that of an old chimney sticking out from a pile of ash? Would that be my bittersweet memory blocking out the pure beauty of the lake itself? I didn't want the ruins of The Lake House to be my lasting memory of the wonderful lake. I could still smell the wonderful special scent of the interior of The Lake House, a mixture of house odors and fireplace wood smoke, combined with traces from my grandfather's homemade sausage and pancakes of breakfasts past.
Now my grandchildren would know none of The Lake House's special charms and that depressed the hell out of me as I sat in Bud Murdock's kitchen nursing a cup of coffee. The dawn had finally broken and the sun was slowly rising in the eastern sky out the kitchen window.
The back door opened and Bud entered with Lew and Annie.
"Why the hell didn't you wait for us?" Lew demanded.
"I had to see it," I mumbled.
"Why didn't you answer your cell?" Annie wanted to know, wiping a tear from her eye.
"And say what?" I sighed.
"It's all gone," Lew moaned, shaking his head in sorrow. "I can't believe it."
"This is the worse day of my life," Annie remarked as she collapsed into a chair. "It's worse than a nightmare. It's surreal and mind boggling."
"I can't believe any of it," I admitted.
Captain Martin entered the kitchen along with a guy who he introduced as Fire Inspector Bill Anders. After we exchanged pleasantries and condolences, the six of us sat around Bud's kitchen table drinking coffee while Martin and Anders asked us questions.
"I understand there were some financial issues with the house the last few years?" Captain Martin asked.
Lew gave the fire captain a disgusted look. "Yes, that's why we torched the place," he said bitterly. "For the insurance money."
"Lew, calm down," Annie said.
"I realize this is hard on everybody but we have to ask the questions," Investigator Alders explained. "There's no doubt this was arson."
"Maybe it some jerk offs from around here," Lew said. "Kids on a dare. Partiers looking for a place to drink."
"There was only one set of footprints," Fire Chief Martin pointed out. "No car tracks. No booze bottles or beer cans."
"My brother and I have been paying the bills and the taxes were up to date," I spoke up.
"There was talk of selling the place?" Alders ask.
"Nothing serious," Lew insisted. "I chatted briefly with Mary Lee Edmond at Lakeside Reality last summer to get a sense of what the housing market was and if she thought the house would move but there was no serious discussion about putting it on the market."
"You talked to a realtor?" Annie asked with surprise. "Why would you do that without telling me?"
"I was just checking on all our options," Lew sighed. "I couldn't do anything without everybody's approval anyway."
"We sold shares to the house after our grandmother died," I explained to the investigator. "There are eleven shares and there has to be a majority agreement in order to do anything to or with the property."
"So, everybody pays their fair and equal share toward the taxes and other expenses?" Investigator Alders asked.
"Well, it used to be that way," Lew remarked. "But the last few years it's been hard collecting from some of the shareholders."
"What do you mean?" Annie asked with surprise. "Who's not paying?"
"Aunt Sylvia is in the nursing home," Lew answered. "Uncle Bill is sick. We cut you some slack after Roger's problems. Cousin Marilyn has been coming up short. Jimmy stopped paying in years ago."
"Do you think any of them would have a reason not to want the house around anymore?" Fire Chief Martin asked.
"No!" Annie said angrily. "They wouldn't do that!"
"Uncle Bill wanted us to sell the place," Lew revealed. "But he would never do something like this."
"Well, is there anybody else in the family who might want the house gone?" Inspector Alders asked.
Lew, Annie and I exchanged looks horror knowing the answer.
"I have an ex," Lew muttered, hoping to avoid the real suspect.
"You paid her off," Annie said quickly. "She'd have no reason to destroy the house."
"Revenge?" Lew wondered. "Vindictiveness?"
Annie shook her head no. "Lisa isn't like that. She'd kick us all out and use the house as her own before she'd burn it down."
"Well, is there anybody else?" the Fire Chief asked.
Again, Lew, Annie and I looked at each other, unwilling or unable to say it aloud.
The fire chief and investigator exchanged looks.
"Is there anything we need to know?" Chief Martin asked calmly, giving all three of us a long stare.
We were silent for a long moment. Investigator Alders looked at Bud Murdock who was sitting on a stool in the far corner of the kitchen.
"Did you say there were four Craven siblings?"
"There's more than that," Lew said quickly. "We have four cousins who also have shares."
"But there's another one of you?" Chief Martin said. "A sister, right?"
The three of us looked down at the table at the same time, knowing that our sister Brenda was quite capable of doing such a despicable thing as burning down The Lake House. Without saying it, all three of us knew she had done it.
"We need your help if we're going to help you," Investigator Alders remarked.
"She's our sister," I said weakly.
"Sounds like she might need help," Chief Martin offered.
"She's always been tough to deal with and demanding," Annie revealed with a heavy sigh. "I suspect that she's bipolar. She's definitely narcissistic and quite probably mentally ill."
"She's 52 years old, single and never married," I added. "She's never had a relationship with a man longer than a couple months."
"She's a screw up," Lew said with disgust. "But she would never do this to us." Lew was holding on to denial even though he already knew she was the one.
"Why do you say she's mentally ill?" Chief Martin asked Annie.
Annie shrugged. "She doesn't seem to be objective about herself or her life. She's needy and incompetent and unable to take care of herself in a normal way."
"Her relationships with men are unusually short," I pointed out. "They become the center of her emotional universe but they inevitably reject her when they realize she's troubled."
"She describes them as wonderful and perfect in the beginning but then they quickly become terrible people who have wronged her," Annie remarked. "She gives them ultimatums and generally they are unresponsive and they dump her. Then she becomes jealous and vindictive."
"Vindictive how?" Investigator Alder asked with interest.
"She's been know to harass and stalk people," Annie admitted. She's gone into some guys' houses to get stuff back without their permission. She's gone into the family business properties after she wasn't working for us anymore because she felt she was entitled or deserving."
"I should have had her arrested then," Lew sighed.
"She doesn't listen to us," I complained. "She's not interested in what other people have to say or what their feelings are. She wants to talk about what she wants to talk about which is mostly herself and she zones out when others are talking about stuff she doesn't care about."
"Our sister doesn't apologize and she is not objective about herself," Annie said. "She doesn't apologize or show regret."
"She's always the victim," I said. "People are doing things to her in her view and so she gets upset and she'll usually act out in some way. Sleep with some guy. Quit whatever job she has. Hit somebody up for money. Freeload. Use people."
"Did she ever make ultimatums about the house?" Investigator Alders asked. "Threaten? Seek revenge?"
I glanced at my two siblings and then down at the table again. Could we really have our sister arrested?
"She can get angry and spiteful when she doesn't get her way," Annie admitted.
"She expects and demands that people act in a certain way or she will cut them out of her life. She has no friends left. She's alienated her family. I practically raised her kid.
It got to the point where we didn't know how to deal with her anymore. That's one of the reasons why my parents moved away. Talking to her became pointless. Any criticism was met with defensiveness. Denial. Excuses. A persecution complex."
"Did she ever specifically talk about the house?" Alders wanted to know.
"I kicked her out a couple of summers ago," Lew revealed. "She was coming up here during the off season and trashing the place. I had to call the cops and have a stay away order placed on her."
Fire Chief Martin took out his notebook and wrote that piece of information down.
"I don't imagine she took that well," Alders remarked.
"Not really," Lew admitted.
"When's the last time any of you saw her?" Investigator Alder asked.
"It's been a while," Annie said.
"What kind of car does she drive?" Alders asked.
"The last I know a '92 Camry," I spoke up.
"Well, maybe we should try to find her and have a chat," Fire Chief Martin suggested.
We didn't say anything as we watched the two officials leave Bud Murdock's house without saying anything else. We sat there in silence for a long time after they left.
Brenda was found in a motel in Greenville ten miles from the lake, drunk and incoherent. A gas can was found in her trunk and she had ash marks on her shoes. She never denied setting the fire and she was charged with first degree arson, destruction of property, and endangering the public. She was found not-competent to stand trial and sent to the state hospital in Worcester for a long term evaluation and treatment.
Lew and I used the insurance money to build a new Lake House, much smaller of course, but a year round house with all the modern luxuries. It was one floor with an open kitchen/living area, two large bedrooms, and a large bathroom. The house had "two fronts" again with porches on both sides and a screen porch but this time on the driveway side. On the other side of the house was a wing with eight small rooms for guests.
The "shares" were down to five now – we bought out my parents, Uncle Bill/Aunt Mary, Aunt Sylvia, and our cousins Marilyn and Jimmy (although all were welcomed as guests). Stakeholders in The Lake House II were Lew, Annie, myself, and Cousins Mike and Judy with The Lake House II available for year round visits.
The old barn and boat house still proudly sound serving as reminders of the past. Annie's artist son Mark drew a large likeness of the original Lake House which hangs in the new house's open living area in tribute and memorial.
The new Lake House is nice but there is something sad about it because it can never replace the original Lake House. The Shaw House.