Hey Mom. I’m coming home. My palm is damp as I pick up my cellphone and book a night at the Mineral Lake Lodge in tiny (pop. 193) Mineral, Washington. I take a deep breath and vow not to call back and cancel my reservation, as I’ve previously done twice. This time, I’m going. It’s only a two-hour drive, but it feels like a lifetime. The photos on the website show a picturesque three-story lodge-style building built of whole logs with wide porches and manicured lawns. Each of the eight bedrooms has a theme. I choose the “Americana Room” and wonder if it might be my brother Tommy’s old bedroom. Or my sister Margie’s and mine. I tell myself I don’t believe in ghosts, but still, I wonder if I’ll feel Mom’s vibrant spirit when I walk the wide wood-planked halls. If I call out, will she answer? And if I feel her there, will I have the courage to ask her to let me go? Because every single day for the last fifty-seven years, I have thought about her, or talked about her, or written about her. Poems, memoirs, short stories—always making sure I’m keeping the promise I made at fifteen that she wouldn’t be forgotten.
But now, I’m the only one who remembers her. Margie was too young and everyone else is dead. She’s like that song that loops in my brain, and I can’t make it stop. Or like a burden that has become too heavy to carry. I want this to be the last story I write about her. Will this trip to “The Lodge” let me lay her to rest, once and for all?
Until I was ten years old, our life in a small logging town in the foothills of Mount Rainier seemed pretty much like everyone else’s. My logging-truck-driver dad didn’t make much money. We lived in a tiny two-bedroom-one-bathroom cracker box of a house on the edge of town. We watched Leave It to Beaver, but our family was nothing like the Cleavers. For one thing, Ward Cleaver never came home drunk.
Tom, Margie, and I shared a kind of super-sensory perception, especially on Friday nights. Like feral animals sensing danger, we could tell—by the sound his truck door made when he closed it, how his boots hit the back porch, the way his mouth tightened as if just the sight of us pissed him off—that he’d been drinking. We’d avert our eyes and slip away into our shared bedroom or the backyard, leaving Mom to deal with him. She’d smile, pour him a beer, light another Winston, and let her soft, smooth voice neutralize the charged atmosphere.
On a sunny day in the spring of 1957, Mom told us we were moving. This was nothing new; we’d moved plenty of times. We’d just pack up and move to a different rental house a few blocks over. But no, Mom said, this was different. We were moving to Mineral—a tiny hamlet about 25 miles southeast of our town. More important, we were moving to a house unlike any house we’d ever lived in. This was an eight-bedroom, four-bathroom log home called “The Lodge.” My parents would be caretakers of a house that had its own name—and no one would be living there but our family. We packed up the station wagon and headed out on this new adventure.
As we sped southeast through tunnels of tall evergreens toward Mineral, Mom told us that The Lodge had been a gambling hall, a hunting retreat, and—my favorite—a sanitorium for the “alcoholic, epileptic, and mildly insane.” I looked out the window and smiled. In a way, it sounded like the perfect fit for our somewhat dysfunctional family. From the first day, life at The Lodge seemed almost magical. Some Fridays, Dad still came home buzzed, but the air in the big house was calmer, smoother, lighter. Margie and I explored the rustic ski-lodge style bedrooms. We slept outside on the “balcony” overlooking Mineral Lake. We walked up the twisty little staircase to the unused third floor where we uncovered boxes filled with classic books. On hot nights, we crept down to the lake and swam naked, the water swirling around our bodies with no one to see us but the stars. For four and a half years, The Lodge was absolutely the coolest house we’d ever lived in.
And then in one month, everything changed.
Mom got sick. The flu was going around; everyone had it. But when she didn’t get better, Dad took her to the hospital. She just kept getting worse. One month later, she died…of metastatic lung cancer. She was forty years old. From the outside, it looked as if our day-to-day life continued almost as if nothing bad had happened. I found a cookbook and learned to cook. Margie finished first grade while I stumbled through the last weeks of my freshman year of high school. Tommy escaped to the Navy and Dad still got in the truck every morning and hauled logs. But the center that had held us together was gone. We were moving through each day like zombies, never talking about Mom but never forgetting her for a second. And then one day we moved—out of The Lodge and back into the house we’d lived in before. I’m not even sure we packed. We just left.
I pack and begin my journey back to Mineral and The Lodge.
Two hours later, I stand on the wide porch and gaze out at Mineral Lake, sparkling bright blue at the base of Mount Rainier, so grand it almost doesn’t seem real. In the silence, I can hear the whisper of an iridescent dragonfly as it swoops by. The door opens and the innkeeper, a jolly woman with braids to her waist, welcomes me into the living room, chatting like this is a normal visit because to her, it is. “You’re our only guest tonight! You’re in the Americana Room. Here’s your key.”
She continues talking, and I try to focus, but my eyes skim the room, looking for something familiar. In one corner, there’s a cloth doll in an old buggy. On the wall, there’s a saw from the early days of logging. Early American decorations cover every surface of the room that used to be perfect in its simplicity. It’s different, yes, but it’s still the room where my family sat in front of the stone fireplace and watched TV. Her voice fades and I move to the foot of the broad staircase leading to the rooms upstairs. My hand wraps around the soft wood of the bannister. It feels the same. The steps creak in the same places. I look over the side to the hallway below, the one that led to my parents’ bedroom. Mom, are you there? I whisper. A soft breeze from the open door nudges me upward and I wonder if it’s a sign.
I turn the key and step into Tommy’s old room. He spent hours here, playing his guitar and smoking cigarettes. I sink down onto the soft bed, covered with an American flag quilt. A hopeful God Bless America sampler is on the wall, and I wonder what my anti-war brother would think of the décor in his old room. I breathe in and swear I can smell the faint odor of his cigarettes. Tommy? I whisper. Are you here, you rascal? Nothing. Tommy lived longer than Mom, but in the end, cigarettes killed him too.
I’m restless so I wander toward the room that Margie and I shared. Moonlight streams in from an open window. Mom? I say into the silence. I stop and listen but hear nothing except my own voice echoing softly down the hall.
Our old bedroom is now a small kitchen, but the window is still there—the one I looked out hoping to catch a glimpse of the boy who lived next door. The house is gone, and I find myself wondering what happened to that boy, who smelled of hay and tasted like Doublemint gum.
Later, back in my room, I climb under the American flag quilt and pick up my book, intending to read. Then the sun is shining through the paned window and it’s morning. Did I read? Did I dream? I don’t remember.
I gather my things slowly, reluctant to leave. Listening. Hoping for something I can’t even name.
And just like the first time we left, just like this time, just like Mom, it’s all gone too quickly, and I am left with a longing so deep and sweet that it feels like my heart is breaking. Please? I whisper to the echoes from the past, not even sure what I’m asking of them.
I drive home, barely conscious of the cars zooming past me, the drivers frantic in their rush to be somewhere else.
In the driveway, my husband hugs me. “How was it?”
I shake my head against his chest. He nods. “I’ll pour you a glass of wine. By the way, Margie called.”
I reach for my phone and hear my sister’s reassuring voice, pulling me back into the present.
Susan Frederick grew up in small logging towns in the foothills of Mt. Rainier in Washington State.
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