Around the Woodstove: Simple days of summer stoke sweet memories

My old man suspected something. Standing over my bunk on the screened porch, he pointed at my tackle box on the floor and asked what was in it. My lures, hooks, weights and what-not, I told him. I figured my mother put him up to it. As a salesman...

My old man suspected something.

Standing over my bunk on the screened porch, he pointed at my tackle box on the floor and asked what was in it. My lures, hooks, weights and what-not, I told him.

I figured my mother put him up to it. As a salesman consumed with earning the monthly mortgage payment and groceries for a family of 10, my father was not the one I worried about when I locked myself in the garage and emptied all 20 Newport menthols out of the flip-top box and repacked them in a Sucrets tin which I then tucked into the bottom tray of the tackle box.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he lifted and opened the tackle box and fingered through a couple of bobbers and a spool of line -- my heart pounding -- and then snapped shut the box and headed back to the kitchen where my mother was making sandwiches at the counter.

Unlike her husband, who was preoccupied with the electric bill or the latest proclamation of Nikita Khrushchev, my mother seldom missed anything going on with us kids. Somehow she knew if we were sick before we did. And don't even try to lie while looking her straight in the eye. Think of a slimmer Aunt Bea, only with eight Opies to hover over.


I made a mental note to shove the Sucrets tin under my mattress till the next morning.

We had just arrived at the lake cabin for our annual family vacation. Far from being rich, my parents still managed to rent a housekeeping cabin on a different lake in Michigan, Wisconsin or Minnesota for one week each summer. Forty years later, those vacations are archived in my brain like ESPN highlights, evoking recollections of fishing for pike early morning with my brothers, cannonballing off the end of the dock into the fresh, chilly water, and picnicking with the entire family on an island.

The cabins were small, so the oldest boys bunked on the enclosed front porch, separated from the woods and sky by mosquito screening. Evenings were brisk, but we were cozy under quilts, and there's no sleep as deep as under the stars.

Ensconced for the night, I would listen to my mother and father talking in the kitchen on the other side of the wall, every now and then one clanking something on the stove or opening the refrigerator for ice or a bottle of Hamm's beer.

No TV, and certainly no Wi-Fi, but my father always brought along a radio. Daytimes it bubbled beeps and static, but at night it locked onto an AM station hundreds of miles away, broadcasting a baseball game, the slow pace and announcer's voice a sonorous lullaby.

My father and mother stayed up late, conversing in tones too low for me to make out the context through the sealed windows. But even without hearing their words, a young boy can interpret his parents' rhythms: My mother see-sawing in the maple rocker, her voice pitching up and down in earnest description of some event from the day and the rapt silence of my father. Suddenly his deep voice rises in a question, and my mother chuckles softly and replies.

A lull in their conversation when it's just the ballgame on the radio.

Then the rocker stops. Both their footsteps trail to the same spot in the room. A pause, an embrace.


Some of the most important parenting occurs unintended, such as in these imperfectly overheard conversations I recall like favorite old songs, with their lessons of caring, diplomacy and love.

The next morning, Pat and Kenneth and I are wakened by birds singing inches outside the porch screens. Mist lingers on the lake as we shove the heavy wooden rowboat through the sand and weeds and then pile in like bobsledders as it glides into deeper water.

Nothing quite like the adventure of three city boys hunting for fish of unknown size and ferocity, nor nothing as delicious as their conspiratorial solidarity in fooling the old man and lighting up the smuggled cigarettes with Clint Eastwood-cool.

Sure, we got away with one, as boys are wont to do; but we were no rebels. We counted on our parents for the lush summers they gave us from what little they had; for the fallible good cop/bad cop strategy meant to keep us safe and true.

But what made us blissful and fearless children was not so much what they gave to us but what they gave to each other.

David McGrath of Hayward is author of "The Territory." His mother, Gertrude, at 91, is still as alert and as nurturing as Aunt Bea ever was. Contact him at Profmcgrath2004@

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