Ruthie was seven going on eight the first time she remembers going up to Wisconsin to her dad's cousin's cabin for vacation. The cabin is actually one of several on one of the many small lakes scattered throughout northern Wisconsin. The cousin and his family own a bait shop, which is attached to the front of their house, and rent out the cabins to vacationing fishermen during the short, humid summers. When Ruthie and her family: her dad and mom, her two younger brothers, Parker and Nate, and their dog, Feathers visit, they stay in one of the cabins. The cabins are older, wooden plank structures with sparse interior decor: thin mattresses on plywood bunks, a kitchen table and chairs from the 50's, a faded print of a bull elk calling for his mate in the deep Wisconsin woods hanging above the cinder-choked cement-block fireplace. But the family is mostly there just to sleep at night or take a nap during the day, after lunch. Ruthie's family adopts this ritual during summer vacations, taking a siesta after lunch to escape the midday heat and too much small talk with seldom seen relatives. During the rest of the day, they troop through the bait shop to get to the house and Ruthie holds her breath against the stench, looking straight ahead toward the door to the house so as to avoid at all costs the chance that she might see a worm. She is deathly afraid of worms and snakes, a fear that lasts well into her adulthood. After a good soaking rain when the worms come up to the surface and lay out on the sidewalks she has to travel on her way to elementary school, Ruthie walks on tiptoe, fast, jumping far over every squiggly creepy-crawly in her path. Squeamish is not a strong enough word for it; her whole body tingles and her legs quiver beneath her - she is afraid they will fail to hold her up and she will fall, sprawling among the puddles and wriggling worms. When they enter the living room of the cousin's house, she releases her breath and all is well again until they have to go outdoors or back to the cabin again.
Ruthie's dad's cousin is his first cousin, the son of one of his mother's sisters, white-haired and portly Aunt Faye, who lives nearby in a nicer house on the lakefront with her husband, balding and portly Uncle Vern. The cousin's name is Ernie, which Ruthie associates with "Sesame Street" - before they arrived she imagined him with a wide grin on a football shaped face and yellow rubber ducky in hand. Instead he turned out to have more of a duck-shaped face and he was tossing around an orange nerf football in the front yard with his oldest daughter when they drove up. He is tall, taller than Ruthie's dad, and broad shouldered. Ernie's very petite wife's name is Karla. She is nice and knows how to talk to kids on their own level, not condescending, but not treating them like little adults either. She has dark hair cut into a short bob. Ruthie's mom's hair is not quite shoulder-length, but longer than Karla's, and permed into a dishwater blonde afro. Ruthie's mom is a little taller too. She takes a lot of photographs and is teaching Ruthie to draw still lifes. Because of her mom, Ruthie knows how to use big words like "perspective", "chic" and "antimacassar".
Since Ernie is Ruthie's dad's first cousin, that makes Ernie and Karla and their daughters Ruthie's second cousins. There are four daughters, all younger than Ruthie. But the oldest is only one year younger, which makes them almost the same. Her name is Becca, not Rebecca, which Ruthie could understand, but just Becca. She has dark hair like her own mom, as do all the younger girls, and deep penetrating brown eyes. Ruthie's eyes are light blue and sensitive to the sunlight, so that when she goes outside the brightness makes her sneeze. She and Becca are put in charge of Parker, Nate and the next oldest daughter nicknamed CeCe; Ruthie much prefers her real name, Cecelia - it makes her think of the song "Cecelia, you're breaking my heart, you're shaking my confidence daily...." which she likes to sing when no one is around. The other girls are too young to play unsupervised by their mother, one is really only a baby, but Ruthie likes babies and would prefer to play dress-up with the little ones more than she wants to play outside by the water's edge with Becca, CeCe and her little brothers. Parker and Nate are still young, but not babies anymore and it is harder to keep track of them and keep them in line like she used to be able to do. Sometimes they can be good playmates though.
This is one of those times. Ruthie and the others are wearing flip-flops, hers are pink, of course. She and Becca, whose flip-flops are blue, are wading in the ripple-surf at the very edge of the lake with Feathers nipping playfully at their heels, splashing a bit, but careful not to go in past their mid-calves as their mothers warned them. Parker has a tiny plastic shovel and bucket, purple and blue with a white handle that he is filling with wet sand. He and Nate carefully turn the filled bucket upside down and pat the bottom before lifting it slowly skyward, leaving a perfectly molded upside-down bucket shape to use as a castle base. CeCe joins in, drawing tiny window holes around the sides of the castle with her pudgy index finger and inserting tiny broken sticks on top to act as flag poles. Ruthie notices some pretty stones sparkling in the sun because they are wet from the surf. Becca helps her collect some and they carry handfuls back to the castle-builders and help them decorate the tower and the bridge over the mote. Feathers finds a stick and settles contentedly in a shady spot near the back of the house to chew it into little pieces.
Ruthie wishes they had tiny plastic people and animals to set around the castle so they could play make-believe. Instead they have to use sticks to represent the prince and princess who live in the castle and who are afraid of the alligator that lives in the mote and how they have to cross the bridge over the mote every day to tend to their sheep out in the meadows beyond the castle walls and how they come up with a plan to trick the alligator into sleeping at the exact moment every day that they need to cross the bridge and so they live happily ever after, tending their sheep and living in the castle. Ruthie guides her cousins and siblings in the story until Parker becomes bored with the "girl-game" and kicks at the castle until he causes it to collapse.
Nate, who was still enamored with their creation, protests loudly and pounces on Parker, so that they are rolling over and over in the sand, fighting without getting hurt. CeCe's bottom lip quivers, so Becca, as big sister, comforts her. Ruthie is used to her brother's fights and calls out a few warnings for them to "stop or else", until Parker, as the slightly older, slightly bigger brother, gains the upper hand and pins Nate to the sand. He is about to grind Nate's head further into the grit, when Ruthie steps in and pulls Parker off of him. She holds out a hand to Nate and pulls him up and brushes the sand off the back of his t-shirt and from his fine straight hair. He is not quite crying. Ruthie and Becca lead the younger children back into the house, by way of the back door.
They enter the kitchen where Ruthie's mom is sitting at the counter lazily sketching in her sketchbook and Becca's mom is making peanut butter sandwiches. Ruthie doesn't really like peanut butter, but she will eat it to be polite. Parker and Nate adore peanut butter, but they also swallow spaghetti whole, which Ruthie thinks is "uncouth". Ruthie climbs onto the stool nearest her mother and peers over her shoulder at her drawing; it is a doodle really, a page filled with abstract curlicues and women's lips and eyes with long curling eyelashes. Ruthie loves to watch her mother draw.
Cousin Karla tells the children to go wash up for lunch and happens to glance over at the boys. She notices they are pretty much coated in sand. She points them out to Ruthie's mom, who sighs and gets up to take Parker and Nate back to their cabin to change.
"I ought to just spray you down with the hose," she mutters. This makes Becca giggle, which she suppresses quickly with one hand over her mouth, because she thinks she might get sprayed down too if she is caught laughing at an adult.
Ruthie's dad and Ernie and Uncle Vern had gone out trout fishing in the motor boat earlier in the morning. Karla would listen for the bell on the front door of the bait shop in case someone came in and she had to go serve them. Now Ruthie could hear the bell tinkle and the low rumbling voices of the men inside the bait shop as they returned from their trip; she could hear her father laughing. This kind of vacation might be a little strange, or perhaps strained is a better word, for Ruthie and her mom, but her dad acted as if he was right at home. This was like the summer vacations of his childhood, when he would come up with his own mom and dad and brother and sister and visit Aunt Faye and Uncle Vern and Ernie. This was way before Ernie bought the bait shop and cabins and married Karla and built the rest of the house onto the back of the bait shop and had Becca and CeCe and the other little girls. Ruthie could imagine her father as a young boy because she had seen pictures of him, old black and white photographs that showed the familiar features of her father's face, open and smiling, but his usually copious sandy colored hair sheered into a spiky crew cut, and of course he didn't have his mustache yet. He held up a series of fish, long and small, in these photographs; sometimes Ruthie's grandfather was in the picture, sometimes Ernie or Uncle Vern. The women were not in these pictures, although there were several of Ruthie's grandmother and Aunt Faye standing rosy-cheeked over the catch of the day that was splayed out on the smoking grill.
The men burst into the house proudly displaying their catch, still talking amongst themselves. Ruthie's father tousled her hair as he went by her and she wrinkled her nose against the fishy smell that wafted off of his clothes. She hoped it would not stick to her. Besides the worms, the icky smell was another reason she did not like fishing. The men continued out the back door with fillet knives in order to gut and clean their fish.
Ruthie knew they would have the fish for dinner that night. She wasn't so sure she wanted to eat the fish; she knew how they were caught - with worms. Sometimes her father and brothers fished off the dock and she went out and watched them a couple of times before deciding that she could not stand to be around a jar of earthworms whose fate was to be strung through with a barbed hook and swung into the water to be swallowed by some poor unsuspecting fish who would be yanked mercilessly out of its home, the water, to be beaten over the head or slowly suffocated with a string through its gills, waiting to become some family's evening meal. Even though she hated worms, she almost felt sorry for them. She felt sorry for the fish for sure.
Ruthie shuddered, knowing she would have to eat the fish her father caught in order to be his good girl. She looked at what remained of her peanut butter sandwich and tried not to choke; peanut butter and white bread was lodged in her upper palate and between her teeth and gums, so dry it was impossible to swallow. Now that she had thought about worms the sandwich was so unappetizing that she set it down on her plate and covered it with her paper napkin. She drank all of her glass of milk to wash it down, then quietly slid out of her chair and away from the table. She drifted over to the baby's playpen and handed her a rattle that had fallen out. The baby immediately reached over the edge of the playpen and dropped the rattle onto the floor, then looked at Ruthie expectantly. Ruthie knew this game; they played for several minutes.
Later that afternoon, all the grown-up women and all the children walked up the gravel road to Aunt Faye's garden to pick green beans. There were rows and rows of green beans, the plants were taller than Ruthie's head and the beans were longer than any of her fingers. She was given a paper bag to fill and shown which beans were ready to pick. The leaves were sticky like sap and fuzzy like a caterpillar and Ruthie liked their texture. The beans themselves were slightly fuzzy and sticky too and oozed a bit of watery kind of sap when she broke them from their viney hold. She decided she liked picking green beans and went along her particular row, carefully choosing which beans to pick and which to leave to ripen and grow longer for another day, humming "Cecelia" softly to herself. After a while, she heard her mother, who liked to sing too, join in with the lyrics: "Oh, Cecelia, I'm down on my knees, I'm begging you please to come home..." so Ruthie knew she had been caught humming, but was silently pleased that her mother had joined her. She started to sing the words too and they got silly about it, using extra long beans as microphones and doing little shuffle step dances along the dirt rows. When Parker and Nate started throwing dirt clods at each other, the singing and dancing stopped. Then the baby started crying and Aunt Faye decided they had picked enough green beans for an army, so everyone piled their paper bags into a little red wagon that Ruthie and Becca were given the task of pulling back down the road to the cousins' house.
Ruthie's mom took Parker and Nate back to their cabin for a nap. Ruthie and Becca got to stay up, but spent about a half an hour snapping off the two ends and destringing the green beans, which Karla washed in a sink full of cold water and drained in a colander and set out on paper towels to dry. Aunt Faye had stayed behind and gone to her own home to take a rest, or "take a load off" as she said.
Then the men came inside. They had long since finished cleaning the fish for dinner and had stored them in the cooler with plenty of ice and had been sitting outside in the shade of the spindly trees near the back of the house, whittling and joking and passing the time. Ernie had decided they should take his new four-wheeling jeep out for a spin and asked the girls if they wanted to go with. Ruthie didn't know exactly what he was asking, but she was tired of snapping green beans at both ends and having the strings stick to her fingers when she tried to shake them off. Besides, she loved to do special things alone with her dad, and that excited her enough to spring out of her chair and jump into his arms for a bear hug. That made Becca do the same thing to show she loved her daddy too, and so both girls got piggyback rides outside and around the path to the garage where the jeep was kept.
The jeep was the kind without doors or a top. It had a tiny back seat and a roll bar to hang onto, which was up high enough so that Ruthie and Becca had to stand in order to hold on. It was a bumpy ride and fun for the time they were driving down the gravel road. Then Ernie, who was the driver, turned the wheel sharply left and took them road into a wooded area off the side of the road. Ruthie had to hold on for dear life as they rolled over tall brush and sapling trees, bending them over and snapping them in half. She watched the back of her father's head as it bounced up and down wildly in the front passenger seat even though he was bracing himself hard against the dash and the side panel. Becca was shrieking beside her (in fear or delight, Ruthie couldn't tell) and Uncle Vern was holding his little granddaughter by a back belt loop in her shorts. Ruthie wished someone was holding onto her too. Her teeth were smacked together with a large jolt of the vehicle as it plowed over the wooded terrain. She watched in silent horror as a group of startled deer flinched and ran ahead of them, one a young spotted fawn barely steady on its feet. The deer veered to one side and disappeared into the brush. Ernie made a U-turn and a slender birch branch whipped against Ruthie's arm, stinging sharply and bringing tears to her eyes. She was too startled to cry out.
After his initial shock wore off, Ruthie's dad shouted above the din, "I think that's enough, Ernie!"
"Had enough?" Ernie laughed. Ruthie couldn't believe he was actually having fun.
Ruthie's mom couldn't believe that Ruthie's dad had allowed her to go on the jeep ride. She kept repeating: "I can't believe you put our daughter in that vehicle." "That vehicle" sounded like a bad word.
Ruthie's dad was apologetic and hangdog. "I didn't know he was going to drive into the woods!" he kept whispering, emphatically but low, hoping that Ernie wouldn't hear.
"I think maybe we need a little family time," Ruthie's mom said. It sounded like a suggestion, but was in actuality a demand. She gathered up her children and her husband and they all went back to the cabin for a little while.
Ruthie and her brothers changed into their swimsuits and floaties and went out to the water's edge with Feathers to play. Their parents sat in lawn chairs and watched them. After a while Ruthie's stomach stopped quaking inside, though she ran her fingertips over the side of her arm now and then to feel the raised red skin where the birch branch had left a welt. She knew her mother was mad about that. But she could tell that her anger was going away now, because she had brought out her camera and was taking pictures of the children as they played. At first, the pictures were candid because they did not know they were being photographed. But after they noticed, Parker and Nate and Ruthie joined together in silly poses with tongues that stuck out and fingers that curved like claws. Their mother was smart though; she would take a few of these pictures and then only pretend to take them until the children grew tired of posing and went back to candid play. Then she could take the kind of pictures she wanted to again.
Before they joined the cousins and Aunt Faye and Uncle Vern for dinner that night, the family decided to take a little trip into town to do a bit of light walking and sight-seeing. There was not much in the small tourist town but a tiny museum, closed at 3 p.m. that day, a stop-and-shop grocery, gas station, and souvenir shop. They walked the wooden plank boardwalk outside the shops and the boys begged for ice cream. Ruthie knew better; they would never get ice cream before dinner, but there was the chance they might be surprised with a car ride after they had changed into their pajamas, as sometimes happened at home, and were put into the back of the car and driven out for ice cream before bedtime. But they did go inside the souvenir shop and were told that they could pick something out to take home to remind them of this trip.
Ruthie thought that she didn't particularly care about remembering the trip. Becca was nice and all, but they didn't have much in common after all was said and done - she didn’t know how to tell a story for make-believe and she claimed she didn't like to read, which was Ruthie's greatest joy. And all the yucky parts, like the worms and fish guts and jeep ride, Ruthie would just as soon forget. But she trailed down the aisles of the souvenir shop and eyed the dusty figurines of wolves howling at the moon and fish dangling from fishing pole lines; at the personalized bicycle license plates - she looked, but couldn't find one that said Ruthie or even Ruth; and at the wide array of Indian paraphernalia with bands of red paint and feathers: rubber drums, plastic headdresses, leather moccasins and fake bone necklaces.
Finally, she found a doll, a brown vinyl Indian girl doll, dressed in fringed and beaded suede, tiny moccasins on her feet, a headband and yellow feather around her silky black braided hair. Ruthie thought that she could love this doll. It was not perfect, but neither was the place she came from. Even though the shop was full of Indian mementos, Ruthie could see that there were no Indians living in this town. It celebrated the people who had lived here long ago, as Ruthie had read, at peace with nature, taking what they needed to live and using everything they took. She wondered where they had gone and why the place they used to live was now taken over by people like her cousin Ernie and his off-roading jeep. She knew she should like him because he was a relative, but secretly she was glad they did not visit up here that often.
She took the doll up to the counter and her mother nodded her head in assent - yes, she approved of Ruthie’s choice. Parker and Nate ran up with two of the little rubber drums with plastic mallets, decorated with beads and feathers too. And their mother sighed, but nodded her assent to them as well - these noisy objects that would annoy her to the point where she would hide them from her sons to get a little peace and quiet, but yes, they could have these drums, at least for now.
Ruthie remembers two full days in all at the cousins', but knows it must have been more like three or four days long. She doesn't know if it was cut short from the original plan; she remembers sleeping at least one night in the cabin with her Indian doll and her mother asking what she was going to name her, but Ruthie didn't know yet, she was still figuring it out. Then she remembers saying good-bye and having to give hugs all around, and Becca promising she would write her a letter, which she never did, and getting into the car with a sense of relief that they were finally going home. It was a long, long drive and they had to stop for both lunch and supper; lunch at a truck stop, but supper from McDonald's - they got to have chocolate shakes. Ruthie tried to read comic books, but felt a little carsick, so she held her Indian doll and leaned her head on her pillow propped against the left rear passenger door and watched the scenery go by. She liked the way there were so many trees in Wisconsin, and rocky outcroppings, and then vast expanses of farmland, plowed in circular patterns, like the mazes she traced in her puzzle book, and overgrown with corn and beans and grasses being cut for hay. And she liked the meadows dotted with cows, lazily munching the grass beneath them, milk-swollen udders swinging in time to their loping steps. She especially liked the black and white ones; she knew they were called Holsteins. Each one had a pattern different from the others.
By the time it was growing dark she could tell they were getting closer to home, because there was more traffic and the farmland had turned into housing developments, strip malls and industrial parks. There was no pretense of Indians living here, although Ruthie knew they must have once. Some of the towns still had Indian sounding names and she heard that even "Chicago" meant something like "skunk cabbage" or "swamp land" or "skunk swamp". The next thing she remembers she was being shaken gently awake, too big a girl to be carried inside like her sleeping brothers. She stumbled up the slender sidewalk, clutching her pillow and doll, and found herself miraculously in her very own bed with its familiar smells and comforting softness, just slightly cold and stale from her having been away for so long. She sighed into the sheets and whispered, "Welcome home, Running Fawn", before closing her eyes and going to sleep.
©Kimberly Kublank2005 Focus Fine Arts & Ironworks Publishing®
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