North Pond Memories by Geri Rogers Hussman

It lives within me as a source of joy. Memories are leaving me, so I must get these images down on paper before my vision of the pond dries up. I once read that, statistically, it is a body of water three and a half miles long and half a mile wide. It must be bigger than that! I always thought God created it. In the Beginning. The ghosts of little Indian girls accompanied me as I ran leaping over tree roots and stubbing little brown toes. They followed, forever, the same paths by the edge of the pond that I ran. I have learned that it was not Gods creation, but mans. There was a dam at the end to hold the water between the hills until the mills below had need of its power. I always knew of the existence of the dams, but still believed that it was God's pond. I know not why this small body of water has always awakened in me such vibrant feelings. As an adult, I can equate my love of the lake with missing a lover. The dirt road that leads to the pond kept all but the worthy at bay. A car, attempting to pass the test, bumped cautiously along in a vain effort to avoid the boulders left by retreating glaciers. The road was barely passable by horse-drawn cart, much less an automobile. All along its dusty way, woods hid any sight of the pond, until, at a sudden turning, sparkling blue waters leapt into view behind a curtain of shimmering leaves. This first sight of the water always caused a tingling sensation in the pit of my stomach and filled me with awe. Ancient religions revealed their secrets after a similar trying passage. Only those who successfully experienced a holy initiation were allowed to know the mystical objects of the goddess. This revelation of the shimmering water was my initiation. I must dredge my mind as they once dredged the pond after a drowning. I, too, may find a body or so. My first memories of the pond are buried so deeply that others stories must serve. I'd been born at the end of January, and my introduction to North Pond occurred some six months later. There are a few photographs; one shows a very plain baby and a little girl with cropped dark hair. They sit in the aft seat of a rowboat and the pond poses behind them. My love affair with the water and adoration of my sister began that early. My two older sisters, my brother, and I loved the pond. My brother described his feelings in one of his letters from army training camp, "Since coming down here to Texas I have come to regard the lake as the beauty spot of the world." He would never see his beauty spot again. Mary, the little girl with the cropped hair grown to young womanhood, tried to extend her last summer at the lake. We usually left right after Labor Day, but Mary did not want to leave. She realized that it would be her last summer in our magical world. The leaves turned to gold around us and the air took on more than a chill. Still she begged to put off the day of departure. She knew that she was in a losing battle for her life, and that, once we left, she would never return to our lake. Until I passed babyhood, my two sisters treated me as their live toy. Their delusion must have been a great help to my mother who was 42 when I was born. She called me "her little godsend" and referred to me as her "gift from God". In 1931, God probably could have thought of a more practical gift, like money, but there I was. Shortly before I was conceived, my mother was badly injured in an automobile accident. The trauma brought on rheumatoid arthritis; its crippling results became worse as the years passed. When I attained the ripe old age of six months, the time came to replace breast-feeding with a bottle. The idea did not appeal to me and my objections were loud and lusty. As the arthritis tortured my mothers joints, her body was wracked with pain, and my cries added to her agony. To solve the problem, the two little mothers trundled me off in a rowboat and lugged me to the little island offshore. There they presented bottles as substitutes for the warmth of a mothers breast. This nightly jaunt kept my distress from making my mothers worse. The bottles must have served eventually, but only after many nights of a baby's cries bouncing off the hills. Sights and sounds from those dear days of summer weave about me now as I leave this little record. The sounds of the lake echo in my minds ear as our echoing voices once flew back to us from Peckocorn Hill. Metal oar locks sound rhythmically as oars dig into the water. Depending upon the skill of the oarsman, the paddle would either splash noisily or enter the water with the grace of an Olympic diver breaking silently through the watery barrier. Dainty drops fall from the ends of the oars before they dip again into the water to move the craft on its way. When a boat reaches shore, it is no longer in its element, and it becomes a noisy thing. The oars are pulled into the boat; passengers bang about the seats; the hull scrapes along the course sand at the lakes edge, as it is beached, protesting, upon the shore. Boats were both means and end. Just being in a boat held enchantment for me. A boat carried us diagonally across the lake to the bubbling spring where we scooped our buckets of drinking water. The spring was a refrigerator for those lucky ones who lived near it. Soft drinks and milk bottles sat cooling in the little cold stream that trickled from the spring into the lake. I was frequently elected to fetch the spring water. My mother feared boats, and for many years after I had become expert at rowing and swimming, she insisted that I row along the shore for this trip. I still recall the exhilarating experience of rowing, by myself, across the deep water to the spring. Occasionally we would travel by boat to the Sand Bar at the far north end of the lake where my sisters hoped there would be young men to admire them, and I built sand castles. My father watched through binoculars as his daughters and their boat made their way up the lake. He could probably chart our progress home by the sound. Our young voices blended to add other vibrations to the lake as we harmonized on our happy way home from the Sand Bar. "Row, Row, Row your boat gently down the stream" we would chorus and laugh accusingly if one of us missed our entrance into the roundelay. And life, then, was but a dream. Boats transported the lakes fishermen onto their sporting grounds. My fishing was done with a string and a hook bated with a fat worm, but I admired the real fishermen who stood straight and balanced in their boats working their light rods. The reels made a clicking sound as the heavy lure flew away from the rod and plopped into the water to tempt a big-mouthed bass or the long, slender pike. The real artists in the sport of fishing are the fly fishermen. I never tired of watching as the light line whipped through the air and the tiny fly landed on the water. My fishing was not graceful,artful, or efficient, but I did have the advantage of being able to peer down into the clear water to watch the fish examine and reject my offering. Sounds: The splash of a fish, as it leaped into the air and flopped back into the water, broke the deep silence of the twilight. I assumed that it leaped for plain joy, but food was probably its motivation. The deep jug-a-RUMM of the big bullfrogs filled a summers night, as they flirted in their swamp cantina. The frogs and I were playmates, and so their concerts were treasured. Noontime awakened the cicadas to sing in the trees and evening brought the soft call of the whip-poor-wills. Many of the lake sounds were noisy. Thunder, with its violence magnified by the water, boomed loudly; its heightened impact terrified us. The thunderclaps drove us to seek useless shelter under beds. My father locked up the cabin each night by dropping a wooden barrier into place. Its heavy thud was the sound of security. White-haired John Anderson's old Chevy was our noisiest neighborhood sound-maker. The shiny, gray roadster clunked over the planks of his bridge, and then John would blear the horn to announce that he waited impatiently to transport us into town. The Chevy made mechanical noise, but the Victoria made mechanical music. I remember setting the needle carefully into the groove of the black disk to play one of my mothers old records. I particularly loved a raunchy little tune that went: "Stick around me young fellah. Mosquitoes they bite and the 're awful tonight, and you smell just like citronella". Care was needed when dealing with the Victoria. If the needle slipped across the line of infinitesimally small grooves, you would leave a "tick, tick" that would repeat throughout the record. Sometimes the needle would become stuck in one groove and repeat and repeat the same refrain. The arm that held the needle had to be removed at the end of the song, because it would continue to go round with a scratchy "zipppp, zipppp" sound that wore out the needle. Life had its complexities. Special sounds enlivened weekends and holidays, as speedboats raced up and down the deep corridor west of the island. We always welcomed the ones that led water skiers in their wake. They provided a free show. Heavier, more sedate motorboats generated big waves that surged against the rocky bank moving sand and pebbles as they washed ashore. As I played in the shallow water, these "monster" waves provided a welcome diversion, especially for those lucky enough to "ride" them in a rubber tire tube. We sometimes entertained guests, usually my mothers relatives. Our entertainment consisted of a bonfire next to the shore where hot dogs sizzled and marshmallows melted. The marshmallows either turned into a tempting brown treat, or, in less expert hands, into bits of charcoal. I preferred melting the too-sweet marshmallows to eating them. These visits always ended with a chorus of lovely Irish voices ringing out into the darkness from the protection of the ring of fire. On the Fourth of July, the Flannagans, my fathers relatives who owned the island, always arrived with many guests and lots of fireworks. I would earn a dime transporting them and their party supplies across the water. Our view of their noisy display was probably better than their own. We never shot off skyrockets; we saluted Independence with swirling sparklers. The older children longed for the noise and flash of real firecrackers. I was happy to trace lines in the night with the metal sticks that hissed and spat, while chips of brilliance leaped from my hand into the blackness. I have described many sounds, but the lake was really a quiet place because we had no electricity. Electricity, with its noisy motors and harsh lights, came right after we had sold the cottage. One of the things I remember with quiet fondness was the beautiful glass shade that hooded our kerosene lamp. The big lamp hung over a table and washed us with its gentle light. Another gift of electrical power that we did not have was an electric refrigerator. In its place we had an icebox under which sat a large pan that caught the water from the melting ice. It was not a chore to forget, but we forgot it on a regular basis. The icebox provided another treat: The Iceman. During the summer months, he maneuvered his truck over the rocky road to sell ice to the cottage dwellers at .25 or .50 a block. With the skill of a diamond cutter, he scored and cut his blocks of ice. Perhaps not a "diamond cutter", as the Iceman did leave chips from his cuts, something a diamond cutter probably avoids. The kids scrambled around the back of the truck to glean ice chips and compete for the biggest piece. The Iceman, meanwhile, gripped the big block with his wide-spreading tongs, swung it lightly onto the rubber cape that protected his back, and lugged it to the waiting box. Our one other commercial visitor was the bakery truck. It did not arrive with the regularity of the ice truck, nor did he leave "chips", but we were always ready to buy the sweet things he had to sell. At each days end, we gathered on the screened porch to watch the sunset, as families today gather to watch a favorite television program. We sat in quiet wonder as the colors danced before our eyes, then watched them fade into twilight. Conversation and stories begun at sunset lingered on into darkness until sleep called. The dark of a summers night set the stage for the glory of stars. On many nights, the sky's velvety curtain became the backdrop for meteor showers when we counted falling stars and made our wishes. A sight that rivaled the sunset and a quiet sky was the dramatic approach of a storm. Dark clouds gathered and, with disciplined precision, the line of rain marched toward us across the water from the far north end the lake. In advance of a storm front, the water lay still or covered with white-capped waves awaiting the dramatic onslaught of raindrops or hailstones. The cottage gave comfort enough within the storms. Even the drip, drip of water leaking into strategically placed buckets held the comfortable sound of a problem solved for the moment. Wildlife was small and non-threatening. The mice built nests in dresser drawers during our winter absence, and their hairless young greeted us in the early summer. Skunks were sometimes a problem. The odor of skunk would assail our noses when the smelly beasts abandoned a woodsy nest for one beneath our cottage. The near-by odor made flashlight-led trips down the path to the outhouse a stressful experience. As I mentioned, the frogs and I were playmates. They did not fair too well in the game, as I always caught them. I found one of the white-bellied little fellows floating dead upon the surface of the water. I had seen Snow White that year, and so the thought came to me to entomb the frog beneath the curved glass of a broken bottle. I became natures undertaker, burying dead birds as well as entombing frogs to await the kiss of a magic prince. I stalked butterflies with the cunning of a woodland nymph. Toward the end of summer when the water level exposed the road that once led to the island, crawfish became easy prey as they hid beneath the rocks of the shallows. Bits of bread tossed upon the water would entice the shiners, small bright fish that inhabited the shallow water. In their greed, they would swim in close enough for inspection. Insects that skated over the water kept me entertained. One variety wore a dark, hard shell on its round little body and another skimmed the surface on long, spindly legs. An occasional water snake slithered across the surface of the water, and once in a while a muskrat made his way across the rocks in front of the porch. The woods were not exotic. My favorite tree was the graceful birch that lived by the swamp. My father taught me that the Indians used to eat the bark of its tender twigs, so being his "Little Indian", I ate my fill. During the summer, I would be plagued with nosebleeds; I now know that one of the ingredients in birch bark is a blood thinner. I wonder if the Indians knew that. Another bush boasted leaves that formed bubbles when rubbed in your wet hands. Stiff sedges decorated the shallows with their spiky green points and made hiding places for fish fry. As teens, my sisters favorite plant was found in the water lily patch that grew around the islands at the southern end of the lake. A planned trip to pick water lilies motivated them to rise before sunup. They would dress quickly and leap into the rowboat, then each took an oar for the long pull to the lily beds. ft was always an exciting race with the sun. Once the sun hit, the flowers hid their yellow centers with their white, magnificent petals, then closed into tight green bulbs to descend again beneath the surface of the water. If they beat the sun, the girls harvested their flowers and rowed home, victorious, in time for breakfast. As with many of their adventures, they tried to leave me behind. It did not take long for me to become more of a pest than a joy. I had to keep my eyes and ears open or I would have missed many an outing. One of these was the trip to the blueberry patch. Preparations for a morning of blueberry picking involved gathering appropriate containers and finding big hats. The blueberry fields were high on the bill across the lake and far above the spring, so the trip to our destination involved a long row and a long, hot, dusty walk. We seemed to walk forever through an area that was ruled by horseflies. Their bites were painful and their habit of buzzing around your head could drive you mad. The only defensive weapons we had were light, leafy branches that we kept in motion to ward them off. I dared not complain, as I had insisted that I was big enough to go. Blueberry picking demanded patience. The small, dusty berries hung in ones and twos, and if you found a cluster of three or four, you would announce your luck to the other gatherers. The best and biggest berries always seemed to be beyond my reach, high in the branches of the tall wild plants. The berries were so tasty that the temptation to eat them instead of putting them in your pail was sometimes overpowering. It was frequently too much for me. My contribution to the pie ingredients, therefore, was not noteworthy. Although there were hardly any toys, boredom was not a problem. I was the proud owner of a rope swing for a few years before my fathers death. We also owned a checkerboard and a deck of cards. My mother had learned to tell fortunes, and the girls never tired of hearing what lay in store for them. For some reason, she would never read my future. There came a time, though, when she refused to read the cards anymore for anyone. The future must have looked too grim. Our access to a boat disappeared when my father was no longer there to prepare it for summer floatation. We became boat-beggars and water-beggars, too, with the spring, then, a long walk away. Our neighbors were generous with their well water and I became proficient at the pump. Our lives were filled with small adventures and an occasional big one. Our neighbors once had visitors who arrived in a pontoon airplane that they landed on the lake where the water lilies hid. My sisters and brother rowed down to see the plane up close, but I had to stay behind. It held all the mystery of a space ship, I imagine, as they circled it in their rowboat. Another big adventure that I missed in my ninth year was the trip to town to the carnival. One night, my two sisters had dates; all that day, excitement filled the air. They tried to keep the secret that they were to attend the carnival, but I was not. It was a secret with good reason because, when I discovered it, I pitched the mother-of-all-tantrums. That night, it was not just missing the carnival, it was missing my father. My walled-up grief spilled out in senseless rage. The summer before, he had accompanied me on my first visit to this traveling amusement park. To my eight-year-old eyes, it was The Great White Way and the Eiffel Tower in all their shining splendor. In proud independence, I rode the merry-go-round and waved to him from my prancing horse at each revolution. We both rose in the swinging seats of the huge, brightly-lit Ferris wheel. Even the stop at the top did not frighten me because my much-loved, protective daddy sat beside me. As we strolled together hand in hand through the lights and excitement of the booths, he made many attempts to win me a prize at the games of chance, but without success. My prize would be the precious memory of our night at the carnival. The rest of that year was no sideshow. Our father would die the following winter on the first of February --- one day after I turned nine and one day before my brother turned seventeen. The day of my tantrum, the girls left me to my sadness and my mothers comfort. Your day will come she assured me. And it did.
Geri Rogers Hussman