Summer Solstice


Three weeks with a horde of noisy cousins seemed like forever. Then, in a heartbeat, eternity became very real.

Summer Solstice

“What a place for a reunion!” I tell myself the moment I see the cabin. When my grandparents retired they sold a perfectly normal house and bought this place in the woods near a very cold lake. They said it had room for everyone, so we should all come here for a reunion.

The cabin had been a simple A-frame at one time, but the previous owners kept making additions as if they were afterthoughts. Additions were attached to additions. I can’t believe my grandparents bought it. Even more unbelievable is the fact I’m in a car with my family, and we’re driving up to it, and we’ll be living here for the next three weeks.

As the car stops, I hear the noise, a kind of roar full of shrieks and bangs. My cousins. They come rushing out, leaping at us with their arms wide open, smothering us with hugs before they go running down the hill toward the lake.

Let me explain the family connections here. My grandparents have six children. The oldest is my dad. Now he’s moved into the cabin along with my mom and the two biggest suitcases. That leaves me (I’m 15), my brothers (13-year-old twins), and my little sister (who’s 10), standing with our bags in the dust. We’re staring at The Cabin when Sarah and Marleen come to help us. Sarah is my dad’s brother’s wife, the mother of six kids. Aunt Marleen is Dad’s youngest sister and is due to have a baby next month—her first.

Sarah and Marleen help us carry in our stuff. Once inside we see Grandpa and two of Dad’s brothers playing a computer game. As I approach the stairs I hear the wall of sound coming again and count as 18 cousins—all kids—rush past me and up the stairs. My grandmother stands in the kitchen doorway, hardly noticing the mob.

I am directed to the loft, which is much coveted by all but reserved for me since I’m the oldest grandchild. But I’m not convinced that’s where I want to be spending my nights. So I go to the basement to see if there are any spare rooms. That’s where I find four mattresses spread on the floor, with little girls’ clothes everywhere. Perpetual slumber-party-city. I’m doomed.

“Marti! Wanna see a caterpillar?” It’s my six-year-old cousin, Erin.

“Nah,” I say, turning back to the stairs. “I’ve seen lots of them, thank you.”

I discover a room loaded with books that’s kind of between floors. I’m looking at the books and thinking maybe I could move in when I hear a thundering sound above me. I look up to see the room is just under the staircase. That would be like living under a freeway overpass. Anyway, the room is soon overflowing with boys and their sleeping bags.

“Aunt Rebecca (that’s my mom) told us to use this room. She’s gonna use the one we were in. Isn’t this neat?” My cousin looks around at my brothers and his other male counterparts. They seem to be in agreement; they are staking out their individual territories.

So I head upstairs to find all the rooms there are taken by at least two people, some by four or five. Will I ever have a quiet moment for the next three weeks?

I go downstairs to explain my dilemma to my grandma, but she’s nowhere to be found. Grandpa tells me she went on a walk with Deenie, my little sister.

“Anything I can do for you?” I ask Grandpa, who is playing a computer game.

“Well …”

Grandpa pushes the pause button on the computer and turns around to look at me as he takes my hand. I think he knows I need to talk.

“Too bad we can’t do that with life,” I say, pointing to the button he’s just pushed.

“Unfortunately, life can’t be paused,” he says. “That’s why we have pause buttons on computers instead.” He squeezes my hand. “Now what’s troubling you?”

“I’m supposed to sleep in the loft, and I don’t really want to stay there because it’s all open and everything and everyone will see me and I’ll see everyone else and it’ll be all noisy and everything and …” My voice begins to sound like Minnie Mouse’s.

“Well, the only problem is there are lots of cousins who want that loft.” As if to emphasize the point, we hear a bang and then we hear several cousins running into the back bathroom.

“Are you willing to take whatever room is vacated? Even if there are other cousins there?”

Not exactly, I think. I want a room to myself. But just about anything would be better than the loft.

“Okay,” I declare.

“Then it’s set. Just wait and see.”

That night at dinner, my grandfather announces there will be a contest for the loft. A spontaneous cheer erupts, and I spill my spaghetti on my jeans.

“After dinner,” Grandpa announces, “we’ll all go down to the lake and skip rocks. Whoever is the best rock skipper will get the loft.” This declaration is followed by more cheers.

The rock skipping winner ends up being Tamara, Aunt Sarah’s 12-year-old. I’m amazed the boys didn’t out-skip her, but I think they’re too excited about being all together in the library room. I don’t skip any rocks. I just watch. When the contest ends, we all end up eating gooey cake that adds yet another interesting color to my jeans. And then I’m moved in with my six-year-old cousin, Erin.

I have doubts about abandoning the loft. Erin is constantly asking me questions. “Marti, what time does the sky turn blue? Why is your hair brown? Do fish sleep?” When Erin isn’t asking me questions, she’s staring at me. And when she’s not asking and not staring, she’s telling long involved stories about her day—tales of hiking, catching crayfish, and finding a dead bird. The next day is more of the same.

I’m relaxing on the beach soaking up some rays. Serious stuff. “Marti, come see,” she calls.

My answer is always the same: “Later. I’ll look later.” I then return to my book and/or tan. I’m hoping she’ll give up on me and give me some peace and quiet. Erin is soon joined by Deenie, and they approach me in tandem. “Marti. Row us to the island, pul-eeze! Pretty please?” Maybe I can find a place to hide. But they always manage to find me.

One day everyone is going for a walk around the lake together. I immediately see it as a chance to be alone at last. “Don’t you want to come with us, Marti? Are you sure?” Grandpa practically pleads with me. I say I’m tired and think it would be nice to be alone for a while.

Finally everyone leaves. And it’s great. The peace and quiet is all I had hoped it would be, except that it doesn’t last long enough. When everyone comes back, they’re all licking ice cream cones.

“Marti,” Erin exclaims, “we saw this really big bird that flew right down over us!”

“It was a bald eagle,” Jonathan says. I’ve never seen him look that excited about anything other than football.

“Yeah, it was so awesome,” adds Adam. “It flew right over our heads and then dove to the lake and grabbed a fish—right out of the water!”

“Probably the trout I’ve been hoping to catch all summer,” Grandpa says.

That night, I’m trying to pretend I’m asleep, but Erin starts talking to me anyway. “You missed it, Marti,” she says solemnly.

“Missed what?”

“The eagle.” She looks at me as if I’ve committed a crime.

It’s obvious I’m not going to get to sleep anytime soon, so I go outside on the deck where I find Grandpa looking through his telescope. I know he’ll make me look at some planet, so I go into the kitchen to get my yogurt. One problem. Someone has already eaten it.

“Honey, look,” Grandma says, holding up my jeans that are miraculously clean again.

“Yeah, great,” I say.

“You don’t seem happy about it.”

“Someone ate my yogurt.”

“Oh, we’ll get you some more.”

“And it’s so noisy here. All the kids are running around until late. Why do you let them?”

Grandma sits down and motions for me to do the same. “Honey, it’s summer and you kids all have so many rules all the time. This is a time to relax; to get to know each other. All you cousins don’t see each other that much. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind if we all stayed up playing and enjoying each other’s company.” Grandma stops for a moment, then focuses back on me. “Course, your moms would never allow that, staying up all night.”

Just then, Adam bursts into the kitchen. “Grandpa says come and look. He found Venus!”

Grandma jumps up and follows. I venture back to my room. Erin is already asleep, and I drift off to the most peaceful sleep I’ve had in days. But when I wake up it’s strangely quiet. I look at my watch and see it’s nine o’clock. How could it be this quiet? Erin’s bed is empty. I panic and run down the stairs, putting on my robe as I go. No one’s there.

“Anyone here?” I call out.

“Up here, Marti.” My grandmother calls me by name and I feel a chill. I enter the bedroom to see everyone there. Some have tear-stained eyes. My grandpa is in bed, sleeping peacefully. I think I must be having a strange dream. Then Mom says, “Grandpa died in his sleep.” That’s all she manages to say before she begins to softly cry.

Then my tears come out so fast they take me by surprise. “No!” I hear myself say, and I sink down on the carpet between Deenie and Erin. “I didn’t even look in his telescope.” It’s a strange thing to say, but everyone seems to understand.

For several days everything is like some kind of numb dream.

“He’s here,” Grandma says. “I can feel him nearby, loving all of us.”

“Yeah, he is,” Erin says, “except it will be a long time before I can give him a hug again.”

Four days later, after the funeral is over, we start to laugh and share all our memories. I surprise myself to see how I can cry so hard and laugh so hard in the same day.

Then I walk around the lake by myself. I see the eagle snatching another fish. “That’s my grandpa’s fish!” I yell, and realize my heart is beating rapidly just at the sight of the diving eagle. I look up at the sky. It looks bigger than I’ve ever seen it before, and there are pink clouds on the horizon. I say “Thank you” aloud to my grandfather for all he’s taught me.

And I thank my Heavenly Father, for the pink clouds, the eagle, one cousin named Erin, and the big sky that’s whispering “eternity” to me personally. I speak to my grandfather. “You’re right. Computers have pause buttons because you can’t pause life. I should know. I’ve been trying to pause mine.”

My heart is full of so many things, and they all translate to love. I pick some tiny flowers on my way back up the hill. I see Adam on the front deck examining the telescope.

“Think you could find Venus tonight?” I ask.

“I’m gonna try.”

“Let me know if you do.”

Erin looks at me curiously. I hand her the flowers, and she holds them close to her nose. She seems to be pondering deep thoughts for a long time. Then she raises her head and says, “Grandma said I can make chocolate chip cookies for dessert tonight. You wanna help me?”

“Sure.” She holds my hand in one of her small hands, the flowers in the other, and she escorts me to the kitchen, squealing enthusiastically, “Grandma, look at these beautifullest flowers!”

I don’t even flinch.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh