Grandma and Grandpa built a small cottage in the American Legion camp on the north shore of Higgins Lake in the 1960s. The land, reserved for military veterans, sprouted rows of closely-planted cottages for weekend getaways, with shared access to sandy beaches and the clearest of waters. Most cabins were tiny, many were not winterized, and some were questionably maintained. My grandparents’ cottage was immaculate and insulated, with glistening knotty-pine walls inside and lush gardens outside, no small feat in the cold, sandy soil of northern Michigan’s transitional forests. The veterans on their narrow dirt roads helped each other build, raising houses slowly as they could pay for the materials. My grandparents retired in 1977 and moved Up North for good, one of the few permanent residents of the Legion camp.
The yearly wall calendar hung on a simple nail on the wall between the kitchen and the single bathroom, with its colorful pictures and neat, dense printing in daily squares. At the beginning of the year, Grandma faithfully and accurately transcribed all the entries of the previous year in tiny letters, leaving space for any new entries in the coming year. Sure, family birthdays and anniversaries made the list, but Grandma’s calendar was more than a plan or a reminder. It was a family history, a local climatology, and a phenology, recording everything from Grandpa’s past surgeries and procedures to ice-out dates on Higgins Lake to big weather events to first robins and blooms.
Grandma devoted hours in the summer to her flower and vegetable gardens, coaxing a rainbow of blooms from annual and perennial plants—tulips and daffodils, marigolds, pansies, begonias, roses, hostas, and many more I still can’t name. Her narrow strip of vegetable plants on the south side of the cottage exploded with tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, and peas. A farm girl and child of the Great Depression, she religiously canned and preserved her bounty, filling deep shelves with sauces and pickles and preserves.
First tulip blooms of each year made the calendar.
An array of bird feeders dotted the patch of grass on the north side of the house. Through the window behind the head of the kitchen table, which was always Grandpa’s seat even when he wasn’t there, we could press our noses to the glass to watch hummingbirds, yellow finches, robins, orioles, blue jays, cardinals, black-capped chickadees, and dozens of other bird species. Oil-slicked chains, ropes, and tin hats stood in vain to keep the squirrels out of the feeder, but Grandma kept a slingshot and a little pile of pebbles to chase the most stubborn squirrels away. The giant bags of seeds of different varieties occupied a corner of the attached, heated garage, so soothing to little hands to pour through our fingers.
First robins, orioles, and hummingbirds of spring made the calendar.
As Grandpa’s health faltered and failed under the ravages of diabetes, Grandma claimed the role of maintenance and upkeep. It was Grandma who mowed the tenacious patch of lawn, shoveled and blew the narrow driveway and path, fixed shingles and faucets. She volunteered for beach clean-up every spring, raking pine needles and leaves out of the sand and installing the wooden dock. She was always the boater of the family, and she kept the 16-foot Starcraft clean, polished, and covered tightly on its hoist between fishing trips. She picked up branches after storms and did all of the shopping, cooking, and cleaning.
Grandpa’s amputations made the calendar, first his toes and then his leg. His death in 1999 did, too. Grandma was a tough woman, more apt to deliver a pointed lesson than a tender hug and kiss. It was Grandma who taught me how to play poker for money, who nipped my whining in the bud when I had a losing hand. A seat at the adults’ poker table was a rite of passage in our family, as was a nip of Southern Comfort when the occasion called for it—deaths, celebrations, late holiday nights together. She loved us with food, sharing her bounty by cooking for us and inviting us into the kitchen to learn her Hungarian recipes by getting our hands into them.
When her house burned down, she could have stood on the narrow dirt road and sobbed. Instead, she delivered punchy, practical lines: “Welp, I guess I better make some phone calls.” “I wish I would have grabbed my purse.” The fire took every picture she had, every bit of clothing that wasn’t on her body, every written recipe that she’d memorized long ago, and the calendar that year—the record of years past, reduced to ashes.
I mourned the old pictures, the games and toys (even though I was well into adulthood), and the decks of cards worn in familiar corners. The loss of the calendar, though, broke me. Our family history, gone. As a climatologist and meteorologist, I understood the value of those decades of environmental observations. My science brain yearned for the ice-out history and storm database. It had crossed my mind to make a copy of that calendar someday, and as happens too often, someday never came. Decades of data lost in the ashes and unrecoverable. It existed nowhere else, and it can never be replicated.
First and last ice on Higgins Lake every year, big snowstorms, severe thunderstorms, unusual heat, and the coldest cold snaps all made the calendar.
Grandma had her house rebuilt, a slightly bigger version of the same house, right down to the north-facing window over the kitchen table and a new, starkly empty calendar on the wall between the bathroom and the kitchen. It was empty still when she died, other than birthdays and anniversaries.