In The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge, and in a related blog post, I’ve written about how the wealthy of the Gilded Age erected “cottages” of up to one hundred rooms to spend part of their vacation time. It’s made me reflect on my summer vacations, which were quite different. My family was not rich, we had only two weeks for a summer vacation, and we did not spend it in the hills. Instead, we spent many summers on the shores of Lake Winnisquam in a cabin with four rooms. And what a glorious time we had!
Lake Winnisquam is the downriver cousin of the more famous Lake Winnipesaukee, the largest of the lakes in central New Hampshire. To get there, we had to pack up the station wagon, cramming the “wayback” with the luggage.
Then we had to drive three hours up U.S. Route 3. It was a different world up there. There was the lake, of course, and swimming and boating and fishing, and croquet on the lawn. There was chocolate milk in a carton, brought daily by the milkman in his truck. Your heaven pales compared to the pleasure of drinking that chocolate milk! On a cold day, there was a fire in the cast iron stove in the middle of the cabin. And during a thunderstorm, it was a lifetime treat to sit out on the screened-in porch and see lightning strike across the lake.
If we needed things, it was a quick trip to the village, such as it was. The Jumpin’ Jack had the best milk shakes and fried clams. I could get comic books at the general store, something I never did at home, and interesting candy bars that came down from Canada.
We might venture farther. There were many wonders in the nearby White Mountains. There were children’s amusement parks such as Story Land and Six Gun City. There was the “ski mobile,” a unique ski lift on Mount Cranmore that was just as good as an amusement park ride. There was Ruggles Mine, which I could never see because I was afraid to step onto the ladder you used to climb down into the pit. To this day, I’ve never gone down into the mine.
And then there was Laconia, the only real city in the area, and the Weirs. Weirs Beach was the port of the good ship Mount Washington, if you wanted a tour of the lake. But we kids had our eyes on the other side of the boulevard. That’s where the arcades were: pinball machines, “driving” game machines, coin-operated machines that would let you grab a prize with the claw, skee ball, and the like. It was all kind of seedy and run-down in those days, but we kids didn’t care. Toss in soda and a hot dog, and it was an afternoon of unique entertainment. There was even a nearby drive-in, which was good for at least one movie night a year.
But I was an introspective kid, a bookworm, and even all the activities at Winnisquam couldn’t keep me from reading and dreaming. There was the little wooden bridge over the stream at the edge of the property, and visible but unknown lands just beyond, places that could hold anything I imagined. One year I was reading Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, and through sheer force of imagination conjured up Merlin on the banks of the stream, strange gods in the woods, adventures just beyond.
I read J. Frank Dobie’s Coronado’s Children, and dreamed of finding buried treasure through following the signs and markers he described. When I was fourteen, we saw The Godfather at the drive-in, and I tried to make sense of rooting for criminals and contemplated the awful possibility of having sex with a bridesmaid.
As we three kids became teenagers, my parents asked us if we were tired of going to Winnisquam, if the place was too boring. It never was. And we kept going for as long as we vacationed together as a family.
We make places our own by spending time in them, by doing things, by having experiences that are forever associated with that particular place. So when Rebecca pines for her beloved Berkshires, I say to her, “I know what you mean, daughter of my mind. For I have a summer place I’ve never quite left, even when I am not there.”