The capacity for joy can be learned, I’ve seen, through dedicated and deliberate effort. I, however, was trained up in it the easy way. It was inculcated by immersion from birth in an atmosphere of kindhearted comfort seasoned with large healthy doses of shameless tomfoolery. It was a pervasive and soul-deep thing as well as an attitudinal election year ’round, but in my clan, was also enhanced by something akin to Happiness Boot Camp, in summertime especially. Because Grandpa had a cabin.
Gramps was a carpenter, a fisherman, and an old-fashioned Norwegian immigrant with great love for simplicity and the outdoors; of course he would build a cabin. Despite a part of him that was a devoted hermit, he had at the same time surprising powers for subjugating that tendency. This started, no doubt, with his surviving those greenhorn immigrant days out east with a great boost of prankish help from his good-naturedly nutty roommates–and from there it escalated to marriage, six kids, and a flurry of grandkids following that, and culminated in this would-be hermitage of his in the woods being co-opted at intervals by invading gangs of laughing, larking relatives.
By the time of the family cabin follies, Gramps and Granny and their tribe had long since moved out to the west coast, settling north of Seattle, an area having comforting commonalities with Grandpa’s home turf in southern Norway. It lent itself neatly to cabin crafting. Gramps built his modest A-frame in the fir, cedar and alder-rich woods along the Skykomish River, establishing in the act a one-building family compound tailor-made for training up growing grandkids in the arts of relaxed rusticity and genuine jollity. Grandpa had a cabin, and there we all got lively lessons in love.
Sometimes the love was more focused on its patience component than a bunch of wriggly kids might accept readily. After all, being in western Washington, time spent at the cabin could easily be bathed in torrents of gloomy rain that held the thrills of outdoor play in abeyance for unpredictable stretches of time. Then all of the adults penned in with us had to teach us various diversions for passing the time of our indoor captivity. The worst test of patience was with the “facilities,” for although the cabin had electricity and running water from early on, those were dedicated first of all to the kitchen, so for some years we all had to use the outhouse when in need. I, for one, dreaded even the traipse through the slug-infested wet grass and the dewy clamminess of a deeply shaded summer morning there, let alone the dark emanations of the dank two-holer.
But inside the cabin, all was snugness and warmth. The wiring gave us both light and baseboard heat, and the beautiful old iron wood stove amplified both with a crackling belly when well fed. We, in turn, were well fed and began our sous chef training under Granny and the moms and aunts, learning to pitch in with anything from goulash to fish head soup or more ordinary summer picnic classics. When the dads and uncles were on duty they taught us the outdoor chef’s arts of grilling burgers and dogs or, when Gramps had led any fishing expeditions, cooking up a handsome meal of cutthroat or salmon on the barbecue. If the rain tried to intervene, why then the grill got pulled under the porch roof overhang or into the carport/boat shed, and the stewing and brewing continued merrily in the kitchen while non-conscripts evaded cooking duties by reading, playing board and card games, drawing, and piling up toys with the youngest cousins, up where the toy stash was kept in the sleeping loft’s side attic. Sometimes it was entertainment enough just to joke around and be silly with the rest of the cousins up there where it was set up like a low bunkhouse, single beds lined up under the peak of the A-frame and covered with old cowboy-decorated sleeping bags and scratchy army blankets. When things got a little too rowdy, the downstairs grownups could always shout us over to the loft railing and give a little warning to back down the decibels a little.
Now, this is only a little of the indoor fun to be had when we weren’t all tucked in for the night and listening to Gramps’s magnificent snores shaking the cabin from foundation to peak. Probably the best of all were those rare nights when he Got In A Mood and entertained the youthful crew with a glimpse of a grandpa they otherwise never knew existed. In everyday life, you see, while he was generally very kind and patient and willing to teach us how to bait a fishhook or mend the roof shingles or row his little rowboat, he also had a little bit of what all children see as inscrutably proper grown-upness and so wasn’t as likely as our parents or even Granny to crawl under the furniture and make ridiculous faces and do other really overtly silly things. Except when he got that rare itch.
Only a few times do I remember Gramps clowning outrageously, so when he did we all took notice and it was a wild party indeed. He might grab a comb from one of the kids and tease his tonsure straight up into a perfect circus performer’s hairdo, laughing like a loon, and then out would come a secret stash of old tin toys that did mechanical tricks. Or a harmonica, a simple squeezebox-style accordion, a fiddle–none of which any of us shrimps had the remotest idea he could even identify, let alone play–and then he’d play a lively folk tune or two. Meanwhile, of course, after all of us kids had pulled our jaws off the floor, we got in on the loopy laughter, sang along with tunes we didn’t know, made Gramps’s and anyone else’s hair into wilder and bigger cartoon hairstyles, and whipped ourselves into hysteria until I’m sure that the nearest neighbors in their fishing cabins were cowering under their beds, certain they were under a Cold War attack.
Those were probably the only nights at Grandpa’s cabin that we didn’t all lie awake ’til all hours whispering and giggling or trying to synchronize sleep between his bellowing snores, because he completely wore us out with laughing. There were many participants, and Granny and all of her children made plenty of contributions to the entertainment, not all that much more genteel than those nights–but after all, it was his place, and at that place some strange and wonderful things occurred that could only have happened there.
I haven’t even begun to tell you of the beauty of that spot and its true out-of-doors pleasures, the way that the air around there always smelled of blackberries since the vines grew more wildly and fiercely than Sleeping Beauty‘s formidable brambly defenses and there were always wet blackberry leaves fluttering all around us, then the sweetness of the lavender-white blossoms, and then the fat, juicy berries bursting with their purple inky wine. I haven’t let you in on the secrets of the surrounding tree-thick roads, the empty lot that Grandpa finally bought and filled with a grand vegetable patch, the abandoned neighboring cabin we cousins “remodeled” in the woods. Or the glorious river, cold as icicles in midsummer, rocky, glittering, and full of secret delights. All of those things and more were part of our learning how to have a joy-filled life, and all because our Grandpa had a cabin.