A Week with the “Big Kids”

Kayaking on Big Sand

My oldest two kids are 1 year, 2 months, and 28 days apart in age and there is a five year difference between my youngest two. I think we started calling Jeff and Katie “the big kids” on the day Christian was born.

When the big kids were deciding on which college to attend we “wisely” advised them to choose a school that was within driving distance and not more than one plane ride away from Omaha. A seemingly brilliant approach to minimize travel expenses and ensure that we’d get to see them more than once a year.

Shortly after Jeff’s second semester of college in St. Louis I accepted a position with a company in Bristol, PA and began a 7 month commute between the Midwest and the East Coast. We physically moved our belongings to our new home the weekend after helping Katie move into her dorm room in Chicago.

They both successfully completed their degrees and landed jobs in their respective cities right out of school and so for the past six years we’ve lived more than double the distance apart from each other than I had anticipated. Circumstances over the past four years have left Christian and me with a lot of together time and unfortunately time and resources to spend individual time with Jeff and Katie haven’t been available.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the special opportunity to spend a week at my favorite place on earth with the “big kids.” Christian just started a new job and had to stay home so he could go to training. It was strange not having all three kids with me, and we definitely missed Chris, but it was also fun to have some time alone with Jeff and Katie.

Getting to Northern Minnesota is no small feat. I flew from Philly to Chicago and spent the afternoon writing in the cutest coffee shop ever while I waited for Katie to get home from work.

Cup and spoon coffee shop sign

Thankfully she conquered the spaghetti squash without a trip to the emergency room and we feasted on a delicious lasagna dish for dinner.

Katie cutting a spaghetti squash

Jeff arrived from St. Louis around 10 pm and we spent some time chatting and fine-tuning logistics for the 12 hour drive the following day.

I didn’t sleep a wink that night, most likely because of the three large glasses of tea I consumed late in the afternoon. I was super happy to learn that we could put Katie on the rental car as an extra driver so I could curl up in the back seat and snooze.

The lake was gorgeous and perfect for water-skiing. Jeff and Katie had their swimsuits on and were in the lake before their duffle bags were unpacked.

Big Sand lake First night sunset

They each got in a high speed tour around the lake just before the sky turned dark and ominous.

dark cloudy sky over the lake

The first few days were windy and a little on the cool side, so we entertained ourselves with trips to the local farmers market stands, the local candy store, and a variety of shops.

vegetable Market

We read books, took naps, and ended the day with a round of cards.

playing cards in the cabin

The rest of the week flew by filled with kayaking excursions and pontoon rides.

090 Kayaking on Big Sand

Beth, Jeff, and Katie on a pontoon

The pontoon is my favorite place to take pictures from. I could spend hours touring the lake at a leisurely pace while watching the clouds change in shape and color.

sunset picture from a pontoon ride

My brother and his family arrived mid-week and we finished out our vacation with lots of beach time and even a late-night girls only swim under the stars.

fun in the sun

One of our all time favorite activities is to attend the performance at the Woodtick, a small theater in Akeley, MN. It’s a musical variety show with local musicians and it’s a hoot!  There’s lots of campy humor and hand-clapping music.

The music ranges from Irish Ballads to silly songs to modern day hits and some good “ole timey” tunes as well.

Northern Minnesota is the land of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Across the street from the theater is the largest statue of Paul in the area, maybe even in the world. 😉

It’s a family tradition to take pictures in front of the statue before the performance. This year a nearby stranger offered to take the picture of the group. It’s not often that they turn out all that well, but I think this one did!

010 the whole family in paul bunyans lap
The week flew by far too quickly and before we knew it, the big kids and I were facing our 12 hour drive back to Chicago. I opted not to drive and instead spent the majority of the trip finishing an ink drawing I’ve been working on. (talk about role reversal. 🙂 )

Forest drawn in Ink

Now it’s back to reality and fall is just around the corner.

Sunsets on Big Sand

perfect reflection of clouds at sunset on Big Sand Lake, MN

I’m always sad to see summer come to an end.  Summer always has been and always will be my favorite season.  I love the heat, the sun, and especially the long days.  Although the one thing that’s nice about the sun rising later is so do the dogs.

Looking at the upcoming forecast and highs in the upper 60’s and lows in the 40’s was a reminder that I’m going have to trade in my flip flops and ankle bracelet for shoes that cover my toes and eventually socks.

It seemed like a good day to post some of my favorite pictures from this summer.  I don’t think there is anything as beautiful as a sunset on  Big Sand Lake, MN.

My parents have a cabin on the bay, their beach is called Iowa Beach even though the lake is in Minnesota.  I think that’s because at one time most of the cabins on the lake were owned by families from Iowa.  The gate between their cabin and the lake always fascinates me.  I think it makes a great frame for a sunset.

sunset on big sand lake through the garden walk gate

On the first night we were there, the sunset reflected off of the pontoon like an invitation for an evening cruise, which of course is one of my favorite things to do at the lake.

pontoon at sunset on Big Sand Lake, MN

One of the things that amazes me about the lake is the variety of cloud formations.  No two days are alike and its always a treat, my favorite is when they turn vibrant colors like pink and orange.

pink clouds at sunset on Big Sand Lake, MN

Every once in a while a picture just happens and the unbelievable reflection of the clouds in the calm surface of the water was a once in a lifetime moment.

perfect reflection of clouds at sunset on Big Sand Lake, MN

My favorite dinner cruises are when we take chicken dinners and wine on the pontoon and tour the lake while we eat.  Hmm…I don’t have any pictures of that; I must have been too hungry to think of capturing the moment – next year.

The pontoon not only doubles as a dinner cruise ship, its often also a fishing boat.

fishing at sunset on Big Sand Lake, MN

Sometimes my kids don’t mind when I take pictures of other people.  They’ve never said it, but I think there are two unwritten rules.  Only take pictures of people if there is absolutely no chance of being caught and make sure it’s a picture worth taking.  I think the image of a canoe slipping through the water at dusk follows both rules.

A Canoe at sunset on Big Sand Lake, MN

Oftentimes we stay out on the lake until the sun has almost set and we can see the lights on the other boats and pontoons as they quietly return to the bay.

Pontoon coming to shore from a sunset cruise on Big Sand Lake, MN

My dad caught the shutter bug this summer and took over for me after I left.  I think my favorite picture and sentiment is the one he sent from his phone in an email.

He said – “the lake without beth”

I said – are you trying to make me cry?

He said – yes

stormy sky

He knew it would make me both cry and smile to know he captured a moment that said “it’s not the same here without you and we miss you.”

Farewell to summer and greetings to fall.  I’m lucky because sunsets on the towpath are beautiful as well.

sunset on the towpath

Right Turn Ahead…Recalculating…

After checking the itinerary no less than 700 times before heading to the airport, my youngest son and I were finally airborne and on our way to Minnesota for a long-awaited vacation at the lake. 

The day had gone without a single hitch, we missed rush hour traffic and there were no accidents on I95, the shuttle bus was ready and waiting at long-term parking, we flew through security, the flight was on time, and my suitcase only weighed 48.5 lbs.

We landed safely in Minneapolis and made the trek from the far end of the airport to the tram, up three flights of escalators, and walked to the furthest corner on rental car row. 

Thanks to the unparalleled efficiency behind the desk, there were only 2 customers and 45 minutes between me and a wrestling match with the side view mirror of the Ford Fusion.  The bags were in the trunk, the mirrors were properly adjusted, on our way at last, we headed to the open road.

Only the road wasn’t so open. 

I hadn’t taken into account that we’d be leaving the city during rush hour traffic on a Friday afternoon when the residents of Minneapolis pack up their cars and head to ‘the lake.’  I felt like I was back on the East coast in bumper to bumper traffic headed to ‘the shore.’

Although we had two smart phones and an iPad all equipped with navigation systems we opted to add a sense of adventure to our trip and use the directions provided by my dad along with the map the rental car attendant gave us.

We were already off to a much later start than I had hoped.  The plan was to be on the road by three p.m. and sitting down to a feast with the rest of the family by seven; however it became clear that in spite of my navigator’s best efforts, there was no shortcut to escape the heavy traffic and KFC was going to have to do for dinner.

My 15-year-old mimicked the voice of a GPS as he guided me from one turn to the next. His instructions far exceeded the limited navigation capabilities of the TomTom, as he notified me that people were flashing their lights because I needed to turn my headlights on.  Who knew they still made cars where you have to turn the headlights on yourself?

We had thirty miles to go; darkness, rain, and road signs that seemed to conflict with the directions confused both the navigator and the driver. We stopped to gather our bearings.

“Recalculating…Mom, back up so we can see what that sign said.”

“I’m not backing up on the highway,” I replied.

“You totally have time, there’s no one coming,” he insisted.

With a sideways glance I said, “I don’t recall that as an instruction from my GPS.”

“You totally could have made it,” he exclaimed once more.

We made a pact to ignore the road signs, stick to the directions, and not back up on the highway no matter how confused we got. White knuckled, I drove along the winding unlit roads to the sound of rain pounding on the roof, the hypnotic rhythm of the wiper blades against the windshield, and the deep smooth voice of my son who finally said…

 “Right turn ahead…you have reached your destination.”

Fifty and Fantastic!

Today is my birthday!  I arrived at the cabin last night and was delighted by the brightly colored balloons tied to the mailbox and on the chair reserved for the ‘birthday girl.’  My niece  bounced up and down and pointed at the happy birthday banner taped on the wall.

Her excitement was contagious.

“Auntie Beth, look,” she exclaimed.

“Are the decorations for me?” I asked.

Her brown eyes glittered; she broke into a grin and replied, “Of course they are silly.”

Tonight I’m sure there will be a cake with candles, although I hope there aren’t fifty of them, and if there are, I hope the local fire department is on standby ‘just in case’ the house goes up in flames.

Writing has become a very important part of my life, and it seems appropriate to share one of my earlier pieces as a way of expressing my happiness.  The assignment was to blindly select an item out of the ‘junk’ drawer that resides in everyone’s house.


Birthday Candles

Birthday candles, a symbol of happiness and dreams. 

They’ve been around since the ancient Greeks, who were said to place candles on the cake they offered to Artemis, the goddess of the moon.  Some believe that the custom of lighting birthday candles was born from the belief that the gods lived in the skies and the tiny flames sent signals and prayers to the gods and therefore their prayers were more likely to be answered.

Each birthday there is one more candle on the cake, one more flame flickering, teasing, reminding us that one more year has passed. No matter how old we get, and although it’s hard to admit, there’s something that makes you feel special when you see those candles burning.

When I first picked up the box of birthday candles, I instantly thought of my kids.  Memories of their cheeks puffed out as they desperately tried to blow all the candles out at once. There’s nothing quite as daunting as blowing all the candles out in front of your relatives, especially if those relatives have perfect pitch when they sing happy birthday. Seriously, who sings happy birthday well?

My mind drifted from memory to memory. From chocolate cake on baby faces, to the grin of a teenager being served pancakes brightly lit with the ever familiar birthday candle. I recalled the obligatory pictures as they each grinned and held up their cake for the camera, snapshots of their childhood freezing time for just an instant.

There’s nothing quite like a birthday wish, closing your eyes, taking a deep breath and in one mighty exhale, we hope that we’ve blown out all the candles.  And if we have, our wish will come true.  At the very least we won’t end up with any unwanted boyfriends or girlfriends.

As a child, I remember spending weeks thinking about what would be the perfect birthday wish, something that was sure to come true.  Hoping that my parents would read my mind and I would find that very special present waiting for me.  Of course I didn’t dare reveal what I dreamt of. Everyone knows if you do it most certainly won’t come true.

Do birthday wishes come true?  I believe they do.   As a child the wish is fulfilled by the room decorated just for them, the brightly wrapped packages arriving with their guests, and the warm glow of the candles on the cake. As we mature, we realize that on that special day, when we celebrate with family and friends, our wishes are fulfilled with love and laughter and the celebration of life.  

The box of candles that stays in the drawer until it’s someone’s special day.  On that day, the yellow box filled with peppermint striped candles is pulled out of the back of the drawer.  There may be balloons and banners, perhaps even confetti or streamers, but candles will always represent the birthday celebration best.

Birthday candles, a symbol of memories and celebration.

thoughts on the ‘lake of a million memories’

When I started my ‘Guide to Writing Descriptive Settings’ class in late May, I was certain that I wouldn’t tackle writing about Big Sand Lake, I was positive it was too big to capture into words.

I didn’t think I could describe how thrilling it is to cut like a diamond through glass on one ski behind a speeding boat, or the beauty of the sunsets on a leisurely pontoon ride.  I had no idea how to explain the way laughter echoes across the water, or the summers of swimmer’s itch, familiar and quirky ‘haunts’, or the memorable bike rides along the Heartland Trail.

Through the course of the 6 weeks of class, I decided it would be fitting for the final assignment. The objective of the assignment was to create a mental map and use sensory descriptions to bring a few places along the way to life through words.

The challenge was that I wanted to capture the essence of a million places and as many memories. I had no idea how I was going to write about something so big and so personal.

With 48 hours left until the classroom closed, I went for a run. I still hadn’t written a word.

As often happens, I had a breakthrough while running along the towpath.  In the heat and solitude of the morning, memories filled my heart, the canal blurred behind tears, and scenes from life on Big Sand rolled through my mind.

In the end, this wasn’t just an assignment; it became an emotive connection of my present, past, and future, and an experience in what it means to ‘write from the heart’.

Big Sand - The Lake of a Million Memories

The Lake of a Million Memories

Memories strike at strange times and in unexpected ways.

I have a relationship with the towpath and the canal. Its constant but ever-changing presence embodies the evolution in my life.  Along the canal, in the quiet of the morning, my heart opens and my thoughts are unfiltered and wandering.

Today my mind roamed through the memories of Big Sand Lake, the vacation spot of my youth and my adulthood.

It’s not a destination; it’s more than hours on the beach or rainy days spent playing Risk indoors. One summer after another, I traveled from the innocence of childhood through the fleeting pain of unrequited teenage love, to the joys of motherhood, and the challenges that face an adult.

Through too many moves and changes to count, I always knew that in the heat of August we would return to the quiet beach on the bay. We’d come back to familiar places and make new discoveries.

Some experiences are the same for my children as they were for me.

Couzzin’s Candy Store is frozen in time; jars of mouth-watering treats line the shelves and paint the tables with a rainbow of color. They’re filled with every candy you can imagine from jaw breakers to dots, including multicolored gummy snakes as long as my son’s arm. Every year we’re tempted by the medley of chocolates and the variety of homemade fudge.  We each leave with white paper bag full hand-picked sweets clutched in our hand.

Memories converged as I pictured my children playing on the beach. I saw myself through them, and recalled hours in the sun and secret moonlit swims. My musings meandered to recent summers and they were ‘on location’, filming the latest escapade of three outdoor adventurists.

“Crikey, mate. I think we’ve stumbled across a nest of turtle eggs.   Be very quiet now, so as not to disturb them,” my son said, in his best Australian accent.

Names and images sped through my mind much faster than I ran:  Moondance Ranch, Woodtick Theatre, the Logging Camp, and the Dorset House, each thought accompanied by a snapshot or a snippet of conversation.

I never lived there, but I grew up on Big Sand.

This summer I return once again, this year to celebrate the 50th year of my life and to welcome the promise of tomorrow.

Minnesota may be the land of 10,000 lakes, but Big Sand is the lake of a million memories.