My cousin picks us up at the airport, and we take a long, slow route from Milwaukee to where we are staying. I ask my cousin if he remembers the drive-in we used to go to, and he says it’s still there, so we make a stop along the way, and sit in a car enjoying frozen custard and a root beer float. It is wonderful, but it isn’t what I meant, and I try to remind him of the time we went to the drive-in theater and watched a double feature of Star Wars and The Cat from Outer Space, sitting inside his van, with the rear doors open.
He remembers the van and the theater but not the movies, but remembers another movie we saw, when I was 11, the last summer I spent there. He stopped by the house to give me a break from grandma, but she decided she needed a break from the house, and on his arrival, announced that she was coming along too.
The movie we saw that day was Cheech and Chong’s Up In Smoke. My grandmother sat between the two of us, and each time either of us looked at her, or attempted to look at each other, she whispered an indignant remark about how offensive it was, but when she thought we weren’t looking, we could both see her giggling quietly, too.
We laugh at the memory, as we have every time we’ve see each other, which we haven’t done for ten years. We continue driving toward our hotel, taking local roads, driving along the lake, remembering the time it froze over and we drove out, in a tiny car that was either beige or yellow and which nobody cared much about, an important feature if it turned out the ice wasn’t as solid as we thought. It was, and so we did donuts on the frozen lake, and visited with the ice fishermen, and took photos in front of the car, photos I still have but which don’t resolve the issue of what color the car actually was.
My cousin remembers fishing on the lake in summers, when he was little. He would go with my grandfather, learning fishing and patience. I am mesmerized by the story, a tiny picture I’ve never seen of a past I was not part of. I was too young to go fishing with my grandfather, and even if I had been older, he probably would not have taken me, a girl, with him. I remember the boat, though, leaning up against to side of the garage each winter, providing a shelter against the snow for a family of bunnies that were the subject of much breakfast conversation for my grandfather and me. I remember the fish he caught, too, sitting on the porch step, staring with dead eyes, something to be feared and jumped over until someone finally brought them inside.
We are fairly close to our hotel now, but take one last detour, by the former home of my youngest aunt. It was a tiny house perched between a busy county road and a lake. I lived there for a few weeks, when I was about 18 months old, and my mother left me in the care of her sister while she returned to New York City to find work, to escape working class Wisconsin life. My aunt would recount the story of how a thunderstorm woke me up, and I cried all night, and she could not console me: You wanted your momma so bad, she would tell me. All I could do was hold you while you cried and cried.
That aunt is lost now, consumed by schizophrenia, and the house was lost to unpaid taxes.
My cousin has to point it out to me as we pass by, and I can just barely make out the weeping willow my mother planted so long ago, solid but unrecognizable at the center of the gravel driveway where I once tried, and failed, to learn how to ride a bike.
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