chinese lantern

We are in a rented house on a lake for the week. Once a year, the extended family gathers in late August, and we shape our days by the needs of the very youngest and the very oldest among us. We take turns preparing the evening meal for the group. There are sixteen of us this year and whatever house we are in, we arrange it so that we can all sit around one long table. Before we begin, a simple song for grace. We hold hands around the table and sing.

On the first morning, I drive. I fall in love with place names on the signs that I drive past. I say them aloud so that I will not forget:

Long Point. Eagle Point. Pebble Beach. 

Cottonwood.

Despite the waterfront, despite the pink sky at dusk, despite whatever romance the names of places might conjure, there is a sense here of decline. Water quality is inconsistent. Viruses have killed off many species of fish. Many houses along the lake are shabby, run down. 

There is a canoe and in the late morning, we ease it out onto the lake. There is a beach a few miles down. The lake is a long, narrow ribbon. Beneath the surface, unfamiliar grasses undulate, their tendrils reaching toward us. 

We paddle for hours. The beach is closed, but the earth is warm and I stretch out on it while my son collects pebbles. In the middle of this grassy field, orange blossoms rise from the stump of an ancient tree. The variegated foliage is waxy and broad-leafed. We look toward the lake and all of it - the abandoned beach, the squat white shacks that flank us, the green stalks erupting in orange - there is a dreamlike quality to it, to the way the lake blurs into the trees, which in turn blur into the sky. 

I have been closer, in certain ways, to my husband’s parents than I was to my own and to watch them as they age, particularly in these last few years, has been unsettling and sad in ways that I had not anticipated. 

After dinner, they don’t stay long. One among us drives them back to the facility in which they live in separate rooms across a carpeted hallway. They struggle with their walkers on the back porch and to the waiting car. 

At the table, they are so quiet. They hardly speak at all. 

It is easy to drive past this house we are in. On my return, I miss it twice, once in each direction. I pass a man on his knees in his garden. Massed beds of coneflower in bloom. Russian sage. Sedum. It is so carefully tended. It stands out among the unkempt front yards and trailer hitches. 

Crickets at night and birds. We build a fire and sit around it. The night is so cool. It has rained so the wood is damp; it sends up sparks. There are lights out on the lake. Signal beacons. 

We tell each other stories. We watch as in the glow of the fire, strips of bark are burned away from their branches; they twist and crackle. The fire is tended. 

We lower our voices. We are on a hill, the crest of it, and on the road below, cars speed by. Sometimes, there is music. Occasionally, I will recognize a song as it swells and then recedes, but more often, I will not. 

– 

Just beyond the firepit, there is a hammock slung between trees. We sit there in the dark in silence. In the distance, the sound of fireworks. Then, a single Chinese lantern aglow, floating up in the night sky.