Cottage Rules by Gloria Nixon-John

 1959 was the year the music died. The Detroit Tigers were in fourth place the summer of ‘59, and Fidel Castro’s bearded face was on the front page of The Detroit Times day after day.  I was thirteen that year, in that limbo between being a child and a full-fledged teen. That summer Aunt Joanne invited me to join them, and their five children, for a vacation on Lime Lake, one of many inland lakes up in the pinky finger of the Michigan mitten.  Aunt Joanne was the only one of my mother’s five sisters who didn’t marry an Italian man. Uncle Wally was a hard-working, religious man, a good provider to his wife and five children, but he was not Italian. No accent. No fedora hat. No stories about the old country. I begged to go, for the chance to be with cool, with his crew cut, Uncle Wally, and stylish, in her white Capri pants, Aunt Joanne.  We were sure to have American food at the cottage, plenty of it, hot dogs and hamburgers, New Era potato chips, Nesbitt’s Orange pop. Jesus, even when my mother made meatloaf it tasted Italian.  I knew that my mother’s cooking was the reason many of my friends happened to show up at dinnertime–for my mother’s Italian anything, but was it wrong to want a change?  It would be cool to live like my friend, Dee Dee Albright, or the Johnson kids, with their unidentifiable ethnicity, for just one week—just a week.  American all the way. Lucky stars and all, Aunt Joanne convinced my mother to allow me to join them by explaining that I could swim in the Lake during the day, and could serve as their babysitter if they went out at night. 

       “Well if you put it that way,” My mother, who was big on volunteering my services said, “I guess if she can be a help to you.” 

      Mom volunteered me to do a lot of things, volunteered me to pin curl Mrs. Koenke’s hair once a month. I stood over Mrs. Koenke at her Formica kitchen table, divided her wiry hair into tiny grey haystacks that I wound around my finger, pushed down into burr like knobs that I anchored to her pale scalp with two, x-marks the spot, bobby pins.  I was also volunteered to read to Grandma English.  Mostly, Grandma English asked me to read The Bible, once in a while I read from The Reader’s Digest, and even when I read from The Reader’s Digest she hummed a sweet Amen when I hesitated between words or stopped, period. 

            The morning Uncle’s two-toned station wagon backed down our driveway, my mother stood on the front porch, her stockings rolled down below the hem of her faded house dress, waving as if I was floating away on an iceberg.  My father was at work that day, and it was just as well. He wanted me home, always wanted me home.  I knew that my mother would pay with his dark mood for the week I was gone, but that was her problem. 

            On the last stretch of the trip Uncle Wally pointed to Sugarloaf Mountain, so named he told us because the mountain was cone shaped like a sugar loaf.  Once a student of horticulture, he also pointed out various trees that he said were particular to the area. Uncle Wally talked over screaming baby Carrie, promising that if the other children were patient for just a few more minutes he would take them fishing for brown trout, and perch, fish that he said were so plentiful they nearly jumped from the Lake into the frying pan. While my Aunt huffed her incredulity, Uncle just went on and on talking about fishing until, as if consoling herself, Aunt Joanne interrupted him, said we would go to town for pizza on the first rainy day. 

    Once in the cottage, and assigned the small pine-paneled bedroom, I stuffed my belongings into the flimsy dresser drawer– all but my bathing suit and beach towel.   I was anxious to wade into the emerald colored water of the lake then bake in the sun long enough to have the requisite tan lines to prove that I had, indeed, gone on a summer vacation, that I had done more than run through the lawn sprinkler or the opened fire hydrant that summer.   

            I wasn’t but two feet out of the door when Aunt Joanne called me back into the cottage to discuss what she said were important rules for the week at the Lake.  The first was not really a rule, but rather a procedure for removing leeches from my skin. Auntie handed over a miniature Morton saltshaker and instructed me to douse the fleshy knobs with salt until they fell off. “They look like a glob of snot,” she said, “but they aren’t, they suck your blood.”   

The second rule was a warning that she put into my ear like a note into a pocket, “Stay away from the young migrant workers, the young boys hired to pick cherries. They are not for you,” and the sweet powdery scent that wafted in her wake defied the gravity of the request, and just like that, seeing, maybe even talking to those forbidden boys became numero uno on my “cool things to do” list. They were, I supposed, in the orchards by day and, guessing in town by night.

             I didn’t understand my Aunt’s warning.  My grandfather worked a farm. My science teacher Mr. Oulette worked a farm when he wasn’t teaching. Was he a migrant?  He talked about the food, the trees and flowers.  Grandpa was not dangerous, and Mr. Oulette was a little full of himself but he wasn’t dangerous either. How did working in the fields linked to being off-limits, dangerous, not for me?  

        My break came one sun-dappled morning when I found Uncle Wally alone stacking wood for our evening campfire.  I sidled up to him and mentioned, as nonchalantly as possible, that I had an interest in cherries, since they were, after all an important Michigan crop. Out of the blue or not, I knew Uncle Wally would see my interest as an educational opportunity.  

      “Who picks all of the cherries?” I asked Uncle as if I had raised the question in social studies class.  

      His answer was instructional, “Migrant workers come up from Mexico and other places, mostly places south of us to pick them.”    

       Uncle Wally was nothing if not a predictable man, “Want to see the orchards, the process?  Gosh, we could even do some picking!” he added, with a conspiratorial wink.  

       Bingo! I was thinking. “Could we?” I gushed, heart flip-flopping beneath my ever so slowly developing breasts. 

       And, that is how I found myself sitting shotgun in my Uncle’s massive two-toned station wagon on our way to an honest-to-God cherry orchard.  Just the two of us, one of us unaware of Aunt Joanne’s rule.  

         Instead of parking in the lot adjacent to the stand advertising crates of cherries ready for purchase, Uncle Wally pulled down a narrow two-track that led beyond the roadside stand.  We stopped at a fork in the road where one sign pointed to the right instructing, Pick Your Own.  Another sign read FarmWorkers Only with an arrow pointing left. We turned right.     

        A large wooden crate held fruit baskets for the taking.  Uncle took two and handed one to me.  I followed him down a path between two rows of wide, squat trees the basket over my arm and thought about Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the yellow brick road, Toto in a basket.  Clusters of cherries hung, shiny as marbles, just inches from the top of Uncle’s head. Lattice-white ladders leaned against, and up into the canopy of several of the trees.  Uncle coaxed me to stand under one of the cherry trees, looked around as if clearing the way for mischief, then shook one of the trees until a shower of cherries fell down on us like hail.  After helping my Uncle pick the fallen cherries up, I feigned thirst so that I might have an excuse to explore.  A kindly, freckle-faced woman, three toddlers on her heels, who must have heard me say I was thirsty, pointed with her elbow and told me that there was a water pump at the end of an adjacent row of trees. 

        “Go ahead, but come right back,” my uncle said, his torso already up in a tree.  

        Off I went in the direction of the water pump before veering off and beyond the sign that warned, No Trespassing.  I went further still, right into the field of workers just beyond the two track.  Several gray-haired men smiled and nodded in my direction.  An old woman holding a baby swaddled like the Christ child, moved into my path, planted her feet like a roadblock, nodded a soft no.  I sashayed around her and approached a bulky man with kind eyes and asked him where I could find a drink of water.  A large crate of cherries in his arms, he stretched his neck, pointed with his head  

       “There,” he said, the subtle roll of the r in the word was like my father’s accent.  

        Somewhere in the distance, I heard someone playing chords on a guitar, and it was easy to imagine my father tucked behind one of the flatbed trucks strumming a waltz. 

       Worried about what Uncle Wally was thinking, and actually thirsty at this point, I quickly made my way toward the red water pump a few yards beyond.  A small girl, her hair pulled tight into two neat braids sat on a child-sized chair, brushing her doll’s hair into a ponytail. It wasn’t too long ago that I played with dolls.  At times I still wanted to, but mother had put them away.    

I heard their laughter before I saw the two boys coming my way. Their cherry stained hands and bib overalls identified them as workers.  Their skin, only slightly darker than my father’s skin, was the color of roasted almonds.  Their faces were beautiful, wide open with their comradery and work.  I watched as the boys approached the water pump, watched one pump the water, his lean muscled and tanned arm tightening, releasing, while the other boy filled his cupped hands with water and drank, his knob of Adam’s apple easing the water down.  Neither boy glanced my way, not even in the peripheral way that boys looked at me on the school playground.   But, I looked at them.  I took a long slow look, a look that quenched my curiosity, and made it more possible for me to stay in the orchard than to leave were I given the choice.   

            We made our way back to the cottage, two baskets on the backseat brimming with the sweet red jewels, a dozen or so of them tumbling onto the floor whenever we turned a corner.  A few of the wayward cherries rolled under the seat and settled near my sandaled feet.  My feet were light brown feet at the end of light brown legs. I took a look at Uncle Wally’s arm resting on the steering wheel.  They were nice arms, giving arms, but even after days in the sun, were still the color of breakfast biscuits. I knew Aunt Joanne would be waiting for us, hair up in a neat chignon, red lips fashioned into a knowing, resigned smirk, and the jig would be up. So that I would have an ally when I had to deal with her ministrations I told my Uncle how much fun I had, how much I had learned about cherries. 

       Later in the week, I heard my aunt whisper to someone on the phone, “a little bit wild,” said I was, “at that age– boy crazy.” But, it wasn’t the orchard boys that I longed for, or felt driven toward, for the rest of my stay at the cottage on Lime Lake. Not really. My aunt was wrong about that. While her warnings were indeed futile, the way that all rules and warnings become when they stand against natural curiosity; what settled over me as I climbed into bed each night while at the cottage on Lime Lake was a loneliness for my parents, for what I was when I was with them, which seemed more closely aligned with those forbidden boys than apart from them.        

BIO: Gloria has published poetry, fiction, essays and pedagogical articles and chapters in small and mainstream presses including Apogee, Clover, Dunes Review, English Journal, Panoply, River Teeth to name a few. Her novel, The Killing Jar, the story of one of the youngest Americans to serve on death row, was published in 2012 and her Memoir, Learning From Lady Chatterley, written in narrative verse, was published in 2015. Gloria lives with her horses, dogs, cats and husband, Mike in Oxford, Michigan where they are also visited by abundant wildlife. 

Photo: Sarah Leamy

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