by Diane E. Robertson
THE CABIN is a memoir about Diane's grandparents.
In 2013, she entered it in Doorways Memoir contest.
It was one of the winners.
As the world prepared to step into the 20th century, my grandfather and grandmother’s families left their homes in Basel, Switzerland and voyaged to America. Upon arrival, they settled in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The area was largely undeveloped and became home to many Swiss.
Several years later, Alfred and Electa, who would become my grandparents, met in the local one-room schoolhouse. Seven year old Alfred was thoughtful and good-looking, six year old Electa companionable and sweet-natured. They quickly became friends.
As they grew older and became better acquainted under the watchful eyes of their relatives, they fell in love. The young couple married when they were still teenagers. They moved to Pittsfield, 30 miles away, where Alfred found a job at the General Electric Company. He became skilled as a toolmaker and would stay there all his working life. My mother, Marion Electa, was Gram and Gramp’s first child. They went on to have two more girls and two boys.
It couldn’t have been easy for Gram to look after five young children. Perhaps it was also difficult to live so far from her parents and siblings. One thing was certain – Pittsfield proved to be hot and humid from July to early September. Gram suggested to her husband that they search out a suitable summer retreat near their families. Gramp agreed. They began looking for property and discovered 40 acres of available woodland on the dirt road where their relatives lived. The acreage was speckled with white birch, oak and fir trees. It also held apple and cherry trees, as well as blueberry bushes and flowering plants. The young couple agreed it was ideal and purchased it.
Now the fun began. They acquired a big tent that would sleep all seven of them. When the weather became warm enough, they packed up the children on an early Friday evening and drove to the country. With the help of their families, they put up the tent and slept in it that night.
The next morning after a hearty breakfast, Gramp took out the blueprint he had sketched and showed it to his kin. After some discussion, he and the men began to chop trees at the spot where a log cabin would ultimately sit. Much progress was made that weekend. Then early on Monday morning, Gramp climbed into his Model-T and made the long journey back to Pittsfield, where he worked hard all week, then drove back to the country on Friday afternoon. This ritual continued all summer and into early fall.
While Gramp was in Pittsfield, Gram and the children stayed in the country and sought out the lush greenery that grew wild on the property. All week, they transplanted black-eyed susans, puffy white snowballs, fragrant lilac, tiny pink roses, peppermint and other herbs and flowers to a spot near their envisioned driveway. They also planted young blueberry saplings in the adjoining field. When Gramp returned on Fridays, his family had much to show him.
Early each Saturday morning, Gramp and the men began their day’s work. After pine needles were cleared from the forest floor, they laid a foundation for the cabin. When the downed trees became seasoned, logs were cemented atop each other.
Slowly, Gram and Gramp’s dream took shape and the cabin became a reality. When finally completed, they furnished it with two double beds in the back half, a sitting and dining area in the front and a cast iron wood-burning stove for heat. An outhouse was raised some distance behind the building.
The men also cleared a field for what would become Electa’s vegetable garden. There she grew tomatoes, lettuce, green beans, cucumbers and squash; and the children became her helpers. As summers came and went, all five developed a love for cultivating both vegetables and flowers that would continue throughout their lives.
A stream meandered throughout the acreage and a tributary flowed behind the cabin. Milk and foodstuffs were “refrigerated” in the super-cold water. Adjacent to the cabin, both a separate kitchen and shed were constructed. A wood-burning stove was brought into the kitchen and food was cooked there. Outside, between the kitchen and the cabin, a long picnic table was set up for family meals.
The men also fashioned logs into several wooden bridges over the stream which zigzagged down to the property entrance. There, Gramp poked a sturdy branch into the ground and hung a cup so anyone who came by could enjoy a cold drink.
Lastly, Gramp and the men dug a large swimming hole. Every spring, Gramp undammed the brook to fill the pool. The water felt icy until late July, yet the hardy Swiss looked forward to braving the cold. After Labor Day, Gramp drained the water back into the brook and dammed it up again.
Since that auspicious beginning all those years ago, every generation of our family has enjoyed holidays and vacations at the cabin. The summer picnics that my folks and I shared with our extended family are forever etched in my memory. Moms brought salads and desserts, and Dads grilled hot dogs and hamburgers over an open fire. After a great feast, we cousins fought over who would win first claim to the hammock.
Meanwhile, our Moms and Dads enjoyed coffee or fresh mint tea. When we kids became restless, we jumped into the pool or picked blueberries in the nearby field. Before dark, our entire group often ambled down the road to visit our neighbors and their horses.
Today the cabin remains as it was from its inception, as does the kitchen and outhouse. The pool is still maintained using Gramp’s original method. How he accomplished its filling and draining still feels magical to me! Many of the initial flowers, trees and blueberry bushes still grace the property. However, a new cup rests on a stick near the dirt road so folks may forever enjoy a delicious cold drink from the brook. And all the bridges remain in place, although they have been strengthened or rebuilt.
There is only one remarkable change to the property. In 1996, my uncle and cousins built Little House. It, too, is a one-room cabin, but is more contemporary with electricity, running water and an ecological toilet. It fascinates me to realize the two cabins, which sit side-by-side, were constructed by three generations over a period of 70 years.
Our family is blessed to enjoy such a rich heritage, created by the love of two people who shared a dream.
JOIE DE VIVRE is a memoir about Diane's Dad.
In 2011 she entered it in Doorways Memoir-writing contest.
It was one of the winners.
JOIE DE VIVRE
(The Joy of Living)
Diane E. Robertson
"Who’s that old guy riding your bike?”
Old guy? I came out of my fog and glared at the fresh-mouthed grad student by my side. “He’s not old. He’s my dad!” I returned my attention to my 75-year-young father, and held my breath as he slowly navigated my 10-speed along the bike path’s edge.
As he cut into the onrush, Dad shouted, “Don’t worry, honey. I’ll see you later.” And he was off and riding.
It was 1982. The air was unusually humid on the Santa Barbara campus, yet Dad still wore his tan sports jacket and dress slacks, brown socks and shiny brown street shoes. I hoped that his handsome trousers wouldn’t be grease-stained when he returned. But that was the least of my concerns.
As I watched him pedal across campus toward the beach, I thought about the hill he’d descend—along with the rest of the throng—to get there. The bike would gather speed. The hill was super-steep. Would Dad make it to the bottom in one piece? I’d have to wait and see.
I found a shady spot at the outdoor café and settled in with an iced coffee. It tasted delicious. I took a deep breath as a smile washed over me and lightened my mood. I recognized that I felt protective of Dad. We’d come full-circle.
He was born in Aberdeen, Scotland; the youngest of four. His dad and older brothers opened a large store in Upper Kirkgate, off Crown Street, where they sold and repaired bicycles, gramophones, sewing machines, and baby carriages.
“In nineteen-seventeen, I turned ten,” Dad had once told me. “My folks gave me a Victor three-speed bicycle for my birthday. A luggage carrier was attached to the rear fender, and every day, I’d run lunch up to the shop for Dad and the boys.”
As I watched his face that day, I saw a new sparkle in his eyes. I grasped that he was, momentarily, back in Aberdeen, reliving a special time in his life. I tried to visualize him as a boy of ten scooting around on his bike. I couldn’t do it.
In 1926, Dad and his family boarded a Cunard steamship in Liverpool, England, and sailed to America to start a new life. Dad eventually became a United States citizen and joined the Army, where he began a lifelong career. Several years later, he met Mom in the Berkshires of Massachusetts and they married. In the early 1940s, Dad’s career blossomed, and my brother and sister were born. During that busy period, Dad had no time for reflecting on Aberdeen or bicycling.
I came along in the 1950s. The war was over and America looked forward to a bright future with a thriving economy. For the most part, Mom and Dad bought me whatever I wanted. However, they stood firm on one point—I would inherit my sister’s ancient Schwinn. It was rusty, crusty, painted a dull maroon, and the back fender was bent. I was humiliated. All the other kids had brand new shiny bikes with training wheels. I hated being different.
Yet, the memory that stands far and above my two-wheeler is the person who rushed home from work every night to patiently teach me to ride it. After dinner on those warm summer evenings, we’d head outside to our long driveway. I’d hop on my bike, and Dad would gently rest one hand on my shoulder while gripping the rear edge of the bike seat with the other. Then he’d slowly push me forward as the front wheel wobbled and I hollered, “Dad, don’t let go!”
“Don’t worry, honey. I gotcha.”
My trust in him ran deep. I knew he wouldn’t let me fall. As he pushed faster, my confidence grew a speck, then a thimbleful. One evening, I realized that Dad had let go; I was pedaling on my own. “Dad, look at me!”
“I’m watching, and you never looked better!”
Soon, I was off and riding on my own. I was a short, chubby kid who moved slowly by foot. But when I jumped on my bike, I flew fast and free like the wind. Nobody could catch me.
Years later, I moved to Santa Barbara with my husband. Our community abounded with bike paths, so we bought 10-speeds and learned our way around on two wheels. We pedaled to work each day. I cycled to the grocery store and carried my parcels home in a knapsack. On weekends, we took exhilarating day trips around our glorious environs. We loved our fabulous, yet simplified, lifestyle. It was a great way to stay in shape and unwind from our hectic schedules.
On one of our memorable vacations, we motored north to Napa Valley with our bicycles secured on the back of our car. When we arrived at our destination, a wonderful bed and breakfast inn, we rested well. The next morning, after eating scrumptious cheese and mushroom omelets along with fresh strawberries and strong coffee, we set off on our bikes to tour wine country. What a gorgeous ride! Yet, the weather was feverishly hot and we quickly drained our water bottles. We must’ve been quite a sight as we got off our bikes at each stop, dripping with sweat. There we were, visiting some of the finest wineries in California, yet instead of vino, we requested glasses of icy cold water.
I suddenly returned to the present moment and scanned the nearly deserted café. A glance at my watch told me an hour had passed since Dad cycled away. My iced coffee was now history. Should I call out the campus police to find my father? Probably not. I had heard no sirens as I sat, recalling precious memories.
Suddenly that familiar voice called out, “Honey, I’m back!”
I looked around to see Dad, and relief flooded me. He was in one piece, after all. And he looked deeply tanned. How could that happen in one hour? And why did I only burn? I continued to look further. Besides new coloring, his eyes twinkled and his face glowed with contentment. In fact, his entire being overflowed with a fresh joie de vivre. He must’ve picked it up on his ride. I leapt from my seat and hugged him. “Oh Dad, you’re something else!”
He gave me a bear hug and released me. As I observed him park my bike, something on his trouser legs caught my eye. I centered in and chuckled softly. Both cuffs were black with grease.
Dad turned around and walked toward me. “Why are you watching me? Do I look funny or something?”
I gave him the once-over. Was he an old guy? I shook my head. “No, Dad,” I told him. “You look great. In fact, you never looked better.”