Posted on September 17th, 2012
Listening to my mom play guitar at our family’s cottage as our numerous guests sang along, I was only half enjoying myself. The other half was looking forward to a time when I could think back wistfully on my mom playing guitar at our family’s cottage as our guests sang along. I felt so removed from my daily existence that I even, for a time, narrated my life to myself, embellishing it with melodrama–“He turns the doorknob slo-o-owly”–as though it were a dime-store thriller, and I some hapless hero. I was ten years old.
Every summer, the families of my mom’s Bible Study cohort, or her folk music ensemble, would visit our family’s cottage for a weekend. Each family was responsible for cooking one meal for the entire group. Red Coleman coolers descended onto our red linoleum dining-room floor. One invariably held hot dogs, one sloppy joes. Another was probably refrigerating the makings of shredded chicken sandwiches.
Surrounded by this red-and-white wagon train was our pale yellow table, painted by my grandmother, who had also applied the Pennsylvania Dutch decals along its perimeter. The table’s chairs, bent metal beasts, matched the table, and had orange vinyl upholstery to protect them from soggy bathing suits. The main dish would be set in the middle, with side dishes and snacks all around: Macaroni and cheese, three-bean salad, Ruffles with French onion dip, pasta salad, pickled eggs, or deviled. Then there were the desserts: variations on brownies, chocolate chip cookies with more butter than flour, a Jell-o salad or two, flattened buckeyes.
We kids served ourselves first, plopping a little bit of each homemade dish onto our segmented plastic plates. We each had a plastic cup we’d written our names on. If we didn’t fill this with Fresca, or Sprite, or Vernor’s ginger ale, we could also choose a kid-sized Sunny Delight or a barrel-shaped , foil-sealed Lil’ Chug that always left a sharpness in the back of my throat. Soon enough—our plates emptied, our drinks cached, and our bellies several cookies overstuffed—we’d head back outside, to explore the woods or splash around in the lake.
As evening came, we’d gather for singing: the children, the adults, and Cocoa, the shih-tzu with a pink bow in her gray coif. My mom would tune the twelve-string guitar before playing for us in front of the bay window. The oaks behind her gathered into dusk.
We’d sing songs she’d learned decades before as a counselor at a Lutheran camp. We’d sing hymns and folk tunes everyone knew by heart, and whatever new song anyone wanted to teach us. The slower songs spoke to me, and are still part of the spiritual-musical jungle gym I climb around in. But even I, half removed from every happening in those days, and inherently inclined towards the maudlin, enjoyed the silly songs as much as the touching ones. Among my favorites were The Kingston Trio’s MTA; an up-tempo eschatological tune called The Wedding Banquet; and above all, John Denver’s Grandma’s Feather Bed. We’d all join in the chorus, trying gleefully to say each syllable as fast as it came: “It was made from the feathers of forty-leven geese, took a whole bolt of cloth for the tick.”
My mom would sing the verses herself, as the rest of us snacked on stove-popped popcorn and s’mores. The story this song told wasn’t one I looked forward to remembering wistfully some day down the line. It was a story whose sense of togetherness I related to wholeheartedly, no part of me holding back or narrating about it. What’s more, it was told with a mischief I could never quite muster, and which I therefore admired. When I sing the song now—“it’s nine feet high, six feet wide, soft as a downy chick”—I see Grandma’s Feather Bed still standing where I’ve always imagined it: in the porch above the carport at a cottage outside Brooklyn, Michigan, on the shores of Timber Lake.