This week’s Sunday Story comes to us from Emily Meg Weinstein. You can read more of her stories at her website Super Lefty.
“The country” is what we always called the house my grandparents built about an hour from New York, on a man-made lake named Lake Celeste. It looked like the country in books. My grandmother has never called it “the country.” She calls it, grandly, “Celeste.”
Lake Celeste is not really the country. In the forty years since the house was built it’s become more like an outlying suburb, a kind of Country Lite. It’s not high enough in the mountains or far enough from the city for the air to taste like gaseous candy, and it’s well within earshot of some major highways. You can hear the romantic whistling of Metro-North trains on the Hudson line, along with plenty of other civilized noise. But there are trees, and there is a lake–Lake Celeste.
The lake’s ecology suffers for its hubris. Aquatic weeds grow up from the bottom and a powdery algae forms on top. Still, the water in between the weeds and the algae is clear and cool. “Like velvet,” my grandmother is fond of saying. “Like velvet.”
At the edges of the lake, lily pads grow to enormous proportions. It’s possible that their size is not entirely natural. The Indian Point nuclear power plant is just a few miles away, lending the country an ominous touch. If Indian Point were to blow, Celeste would be in the kill zone.
West Point is also nearby. Some days you can hear the heavy artillery firing as the cadets earn their commissions and prepare to depart for foreign countries where they will orchestrate the barely-controlled chaos of state-sanctioned murder.
Lake Celeste, however, is an enclave apart from these grim realities. It’s a respite, an idyll, a safe cluster. It’s a former bungalow colony, a place where in the summer aging Jewish women stand in the shallows wearing bathing suits with skirts, a place where you drag squealing, rusty devices across the clay tennis court between sets. It is a place cluttered with forgotten objects, and they are weighty with memory.
There is a plastic salad bowl filled with maracas. There are lamps that would command several hundred apiece in the used furniture stores of Williamsburg, kitsch the hipsters would lap like Pabst. There is a framed certificate thanking my grandfather for his decades of accounting service to the Lake Celeste Community Association. There is an oversized painted spoon with a tiny mariachi band inside made of wire and cloth. There are drawers of partly melted candles and incomplete sets of poker chips and power adapters for nations long since immolated in civil conflict. There are rusted fans and dead flashlights. There is a closet filled exclusively with raincoats, another of tennis attire circa 1981. There are twelve boxes of aluminum foil.
The phones here are rotary. When I pick one up I realize it’s been years since I’ve heard a dial tone. I try to place a call and a voice reports that phone service has been disconnected except for 911. All outgoing calls are emergent.
Among the thick tomes about history, Freud and the Jews (including but not limited to one book called The Jews), flanked by moldering second-best-selling paperbacks of decades past, there is the copy of The Joy of Sex I read wide-eyed one day I stayed in from some family activity, claiming to have a cold. Illustrated in the seventies, it put in my head a permanent association between sex and unshaven armpits, sex and brown leather boots. It is this copy of The Joy of Sex that I hold responsible for the conflation of the two governing desires in my life, the basic human desire to have sex and the basic stoner desire to time-travel to the seventies.
There is an ancient phone list of all the houses here, updated over three decades in pencil. There is a newer yellow piece of paper with the words BRENDA CALLED written across the top, followed by the words SHIRLEY GOODMAN (I CALLED). Underneath, it reads:
She has lost 6″ in height
Jason is at Bard
Peter decided he did not want to go to school anymore–he is recovering from his lapse.
Edwin + Mark are OK.
She is to get back to me about the situation with the burial plot
Margaret Marin has Alzheimer’s she is in an assisted living facility
*names have been changed to protect the lapsed
Deciphering the ancient scrawl I recognize as my grandfather’s handwriting I realize that this neatly accounted catalog of disasters represents the last transmission from the rotary phone. It’s a tale of shrinking, lapsing, losing one’s mind. My grandparents say people are losing their minds the way younger people might remark that someone can’t hold their liquor. It’s accepted, but it’s not admired.
One of the kids I tutor asked adorably if I could teach her enough math to enable her to build a time machine. She was in fifth grade and still curious and cute. At my tutoring jobs I observe what the hormones that send us to The Joy of Sex do to humans. They turn us into monsters. Ten-year-olds are sweet and inquisitive. Teenagers are dark and insane. There is no math to explain it, nor to build functioning time machines. But, as I told her the next week, if you want to travel through time just make sure one place, one house, stays unchanged your whole life. It turns out you don’t need math to build a time machine, only time itself.
Lake Celeste achieved a brief moment of unparalleled hipness when a celebrity bought a house there. Several years ago at Passover, my grandfather gestured at the Times magazine, which had Moby on the cover that week.
“Hey, that’s Moby,” said my grandfather. “I know him.”
“You know Moby?” I asked incredulously. “How?”
“He had a house up at Celeste.”
“Moby had a house up at Celeste? That Moby? The musician?”
“Well, he’s not a musician the way I understand it,” my grandfather said. “He makes music with computers. He told me all about it.”
“Moby told you all about it.”
“Yeah. He’s a very nice guy. Though we had a terrible time getting him and his friends to stop jumping off the dock.”
Moby eventually sold his house at Lake Celeste. Perhaps he realized he had bought into a bungalow colony of aging Jews within the kill zone of nuclear power plant, and he said, “Hey! I’m a multimillionaire! I can buy any country house I want!”
We would go up there weekends when I was little. “Kids,” my parents would say, “We’re going to the country.” My mom would make me lists on tiny pieces of paper so I could pack my own clothes. Before I could read she’d use pictograms. She’d write, “3” and then draw a picture of underpants. Sometimes she’d cross out the “3” and write “4.” “It’s never a bad idea to have an extra pair of underpants,” she would say.
The road was narrow. My dad would beep the horn going around blind curves. He didn’t want to, but my mom would make him.
“Hunk, Carl, hunk!” she’d say. For some reason her faint but discernible New York accent causes her say “hunk” instead of “honk.”
“I’m hunking, Annie, I’m hunking!” my dad would say. My parents’ identical accents continue to make the flawed and dying argument for marrying within your cultural group.
The final turn led onto a dirt road. I was obsessed with the line between the paved road and the dirt road. It occurred just after Ron’s Kwik Stop. I would hold my breath as we approached Ron’s Kwik Stop, listening for the sound of asphalt changing into dirt. I was also a big fan of the Queens-Manhattan sign in the Midtown Tunnel. I always liked crossing lines.
When we got to the country my dad would sing, “We’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here.” He is tone deaf and so the inflection in the song was imparted by escalating volume. When we got in the car to go home on Sunday he’d sing, “We’re going ho-ome, we’re going ho-ome!” I’d always fall asleep and wake up as Shea Stadium came into view. My dad always announced the appearance of Shea Stadium by reading that year’s team motto aloud. “Catch the rising stars!” he’d shout, or “The magic is back!” Sometimes the Met game would be on the radio, other times Springsteen. Life was simple in the mid-eighties. We hated Reagan, we loved the Mets, and one of the many hit singles from Born in the USA was on the radio all the time.
When we’d get back from the country our apartment in Queens would smell weird from being closed up for a few days. I was obsessed with smelling the smell of the apartment trapped inside itself. When we got back I would rush inside and try to get a good smelling in before the closed-up smell disappeared out the open door. While I was inside sniffing out the smell of a place without people I’d hear my parents yelling, “Who is going to help unload the car? Who is going to schlep? I don’t see anyone schlepping! Come help! Come schlep!”
The country house consists of a living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and a screened-in porch on one level, and then a separate bedroom downstairs accessible by an outside stairway. That room is called, “The room downstairs.” It was where my parents and I would stay when I was very little, before my brother was born. My parents were actually married in the room downstairs, because it rained on the day of their wedding, and they could not be married outside by the lake like they planned. They wanted to get a tent but my grandfather said, “Trust to luck.”
My grandmother would come and get me from the room downstairs early in the morning and make me Cream of Wheat. She would wear an orange terrycloth bathrobe. My grandfather would sleep late. He’d come shuffling out of the bedroom in his slippers and blue terrycloth bathrobe, sans hearing aid and teeth.
“Sammy,” my grandmother would snap, “Put your teeth in for God’s sake.” It was the first command of the day. Many others would follow.
After a while my parents would emerge from the room downstairs. They were always in a really good mood. It only recently occurred to me how they might have been using their private time in the room downstairs.
After breakfast, it would be time to “go around the lake.” Though the house has lakefront property, the other side of lake has a communal sandy beach, and the weeds and muck have been cleared to make a sandy bottom. There is also the tennis court where a person can “hit a few balls.” My grandparents were tennis fiends and always hoped to instill a similar love of tennis in the next generation. My mom wasn’t too into it and my grandmother seemed annoyed about this. “Your mother really has a very nice forehand,” my grandmother would sometimes say to me, as if this were a sad secret.
Bathing suits would be retrieved from wooden drying racks and stretched around flesh ranging from to young to sagging. Tennis rackets would be unscrewed from their hexagonal presses, new cans of balls opened. I really liked the smell of a new can of tennis balls, but would never be allowed to open one, because the lid had a sharp edge.
Tote bags would be packed with towels and changes of clothes. My mother would remind me to bring my underwear for after I swam. Then my grandmother would remind me to bring my “panties.” I tried to no avail to get her to stop using the word “panties,” which I still can’t hear without cringing.
What is this family obsession with having underwear? I have some insight, because one of my grandmother’s charming habits is repeatedly telling traumatic stories from her childhood. During the Depression, my grandmother’s family was so poor that she and each of her three sisters only had one pair of underwear, or panties, as she would say. The elastic was all worn out and the underwear had to be held up with safety pins. One day in the stairwell at school the pins came undone and the panties fell off. She tried to abandon them on the stairs but all the kids screamed and laughed, “Ruthie lost her panties!”
Many survivors of the Depression have an obsession with abundance and hoarding. In my family this expresses itself through having enough underwear.
After it was confirmed that everyone had enough underwear, we’d go around the lake, where when I was really little I could run around naked. Hands would periodically descend from above and slather me in sun lotion. Hunger would be staved by partially damp rice cakes. Wholesome and well-supervised aquatic fun would be had by all.
We might return to the house around lunchtime. This would invariably be a can of salmon. “Let me make you a can of salmon,” my grandmother would say. “Can I make you a nice can of salmon?” She actually makes a very nice can of salmon, and tuna. So does my mother. So do I.
After all the tennis balls popped from sharp-edged cans had long since deflated in unmowed grass, after their fuzz was matted in seasons of rain and snow, after tennis rackets no longer came in hexagonal presses, after The Joy of Sex was reissued and its more misogynist passages rewritten, after the next generation grew up and stole its own moments in the room downstairs (and maybe in some other parts of the greater Lake Celeste environs, as I suspected when my brother came back from a weekend with his girlfriend complaining of poison ivy in places no human should suffer), after the lake was dredged and the weeds were cut and grew back just as thick, after Shea Stadium was marked for demolition, after my grandparents got so old they finally couldn’t go anymore and the house was put up for sale, I started coming up here to be alone.
On my first such solitary visit, I went around the lake and tried to take out a rowboat. The rowboat was full of rainwater and despite dragging it onto the sand and shoving with all my might, I could not overturn and empty it. It was the same rowboat that has been there all my life, the same one I was permitted to take out, while wearing a moldy lifejacket, after passing the “deep water test,” which consisted of being thrown from the rowboat by Sid Friedman.
Sid was in charge of administering swimming tests to the grandchildren of all the homeowners. To be allowed to progress beyond the shallows of the roped-off crib, you had to prove you could survive a disaster in the middle of the lake, like your canoe overturning or an unexpected ejection from the rowboat. My grandmother always felt that Sid’s tests were incomplete because they did not include the possibility of being stung by a wasp while in the rowboat. She thought you could get stung by a wasp in the rowboat, and then panic, and then knock yourself unconscious with the oar, in which case you would fall into the lake already unconscious and drown, and was Sid Friedman preparing you for this possibility? He was not.
I always wondered if my grandmother’s compulsively expressed anxieties about wasp stings were really thinly veiled and accurate premonitions about the possibility of intermarriage. Despite the stillness of the lake and strength of our swimming, my grandmother harbored a fear of drowning. But was it the wasps or the WASPs she expected to submerge us, never to surface again?
“Emily,” my grandmother would say, even when I was still wearing my inflatable seahorse and splashing in the crib, “the water gives us life, but it can also take it away. It can take it away in an instant. In an instant. So be careful.”
When I was a little older she told me, “The joys…of having a body…and sharing this body…with another body…the joy of two bodies…such a joy. But there are dangers that can change your life in an instant. In an instant. So be careful.”
That’s pretty much my grandmother in a nutshell–a hedonist with a vivid sense of impending disaster. She’s all sex and death, and now so, too is the country house. Everything here is old and musty and smells of mildew, even The Joy of Sex. Only the people on its pages, frozen in eternal ecstasy, haven’t aged at all.
Hi Emily, I don’t know when you wrote this, but I used to stay at Lake Celeste in the early 60’s – maybe 1960-1964. I remember it fondly. Ralph email@example.com