February 18, 2021 | Narrative
a recollection of people, places, and things
The house sits above the lake, so that the water glitters through the thin grove of trees. Up there, everything spills out towards the shore, as if the floors, walls, the entire house is tilted slightly downward. I find my gaze drawn out, my feet carrying me down three short sets of stairs to the rocky edge of the water. That natural magnetism pervades my memory, blending the house and the lake together as two inseparable parts of a larger image: what I think of when someone says “Michigan,” a place synonymous with family in my subconscious.
I’m always unsure what to call the house, wary of both the polished pretension of “lake house” and the overly rough connotation of “cabin.” My family calls it “the Moose House”—capitalization merited through decades of humid summers and bitter winters spent there. At some point, I suppose moose may have inhabited the wooded coasts of Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula where my family vacations, but the particular moose that inspired this name died far away in Alaska before I was born. Its taxidermied head presides over the activities of the house from the wall in silent, solid majesty. In my memory, my growth is measured by my ability to touch the enormous nose: first requiring my father to lift me, or a chair, but getting closer, closer, until I could stand flat on my own two feet, reach up, and feel the scratchiness of whiskers and the coarse fur.
My grandpa killed the moose on a hunting trip, had it mounted and sent to Michigan. My sisters and I christened the house the Moose House, completing a strange generational collaboration, the only significant link I can recall between myself and my grandpa. My memories of him are conflicting, flavored with affection yet composed mainly of snapshots of discomfort. Like this mid-century relic of a house, blemishes stick out far easier in my memory: the itchiness of sandy sheets, a wracking cough lasting several long minutes, dead mice appearing every year in the basement closet, unfamiliar hugs bent awkwardly over a wheelchair, the musty smell of age.
It takes digging, sorting through the mess of recollection, to unearth a more complete understanding of him. Often I wish I could reach into memories I have long since lost, to a time before my grandpa’s declining health presented such an insurmountable barrier to our relationship. It’s always been easier to look around the Moose House, at the clutter contained within wood-paneled walls, and notice the details. The souvenirs of countless trips to Asia, Europe, and South America line the bookcases, spilling into boxes and cabinets, hinting at his wanderlust. Antique duck decoys decorate a shelf above the kitchen, carved out of coarse wood and painted in monochrome. (He was a collector of varied and innumerable trifles.) Flies, the sort crafted out of string, wood, or plastic to mimic bait, are hooked into the ledge above the counter. The moose, of course, is joined by fellow taxidermy: a fox, a salmon, several birds. Here, the indoors is a catalog of time he spent outside. Crouched in the basement is a jukebox filled with records, each track painstakingly labelled: The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Simon & Garfunkel, Village People. A picture of Jesus, arms uplifted, in a frame adorned with a yellow lure and the words “Great Catch,” belying some distant sense of humor. Even though my grandpa died when I was in fifth grade, this house holds so much of him. He and my grandma lived in other houses, but none I’ve visited ever felt so familiar. In my comfortable days spent around the Moose House, drifting through rooms, exploring the detritus collected by an extended family over decades, I can make out an image of him.
The renovations were planned for a year and a half, but they still snuck up on me: two second-story bedrooms grew from the squat ranch façade, beige carpet and hardwood replaced worn dark green carpeting, the living space transformed from outdated coziness into cavernous modernity. And all the clutter picked through, sorted, packed away. I wasn’t even there for most of it, too busy with school to make the eight-hour car trip north. One moment, the house existed as it still does in my memories, then I blinked, and everything became bare and unfamiliar. The moose was relocated to the entryway, no longer the steady guardian above us as we lounge on the old couch by the fire. Standing in the kitchen, I can only catch glimpses: the points of an antler, the shine of a glassy eye, the smooth texture of fur.
Part of me knows it’s for the best, and I’m certainly grateful—the promise of a larger space, the safety of a building brought up to code, the convenience of contemporary fixtures and better organization. Despite all this, there’s an ache of mourning, of genuine grief, for what used to be. I don’t quite want to move on, so I’ve found myself getting drawn back further and further, hanging on to offhand comments as we unpack—“those paintings, your grandfather brought back after Vietnam”—as though it might resolve something. I ask my dad for stories, clarifications, replaying those I already know as though I’ll find something new between oft-repeated phrases. I’m trying to turn the page in a book, and yet I’m stuck on something that happened several chapters ago.
This house isn’t my grandpa. I know that. I mourned him almost a decade ago as a confused, awkward eleven-year-old. The waxy face inside the casket in the funeral home in Grand Rapids, the person smiling out of photographs placed amid lilies—I missed my chance to truly know him, if I ever really had one. But still it feels like I’ve let another chance slip through my fingers. Perhaps I’m grieving the house to compensate for a loss I didn’t fully feel in the moment. It’s hard to appreciate life as you experience it; maybe that explains the pessimistic lens of my memory. I never sat back and let the sunlight and dust settle over me, never just took it all in without fixating on imperfections. My grandpa and the Moose House were always a bittersweet collage of memories, with a heightened focus on the bitterness. Now that some pieces are gone, probably forever, I wonder if I can ever recover some of the sweet that was lost on a palate too immature to appreciate the complexity of people and places. And yet.
The house still spills out to the lake, the renovations unable to correct that essential cosmic tilt. My feet still find their way down, over soft ground strewn with pine needles and dry leaves, to the strip of sand before the edge of the water. My grandpa brought in this sand, but the water level has risen so that the beach-like effect has all but disappeared, while the natural rocks of the shore prevail. At this time of year, the dock is gone, put away in preparation for the sharp bite of winter. When I stand there with the house behind me, looking out at the water that shivers in the gusty November air, my nostalgic sadness drains away. Maybe, when I look at that lake with its frame of trees and the smudge of the far shore, I’m looking at a more unwieldy part of my grandpa’s collection—an image that can’t be relegated to boxes or replaced with newer things. Maybe this view that my grandpa knew and I know now, of a lake that has known us both, draws us closer.