When we grow up as kids, we come into this world not knowing much, and the routines our parents put in front of us become our own laws of physics. How would we know any better? One of those routines, or rather people, was Grandpa tom. Tom lived a couple miles from us on White Bear Lake as a bachelor in a 50s mid mod house. He didn’t style it mid mod, but the architects were clearly inspired by the era. The split staircase that lacked handrails and weird layer of hallways, ledges, and patios created an exotic feeling that contrasted the suburban home I grew up in. I would later learn that this was the only home Tom lived in after my grandma divorced him.
Pulling up to his house, you couldn’t see the lake. A large berm blocked the view, and you’d have no idea about the serenity on the other side of the hill until you were inside. Large maples anchored the backyard and stood sentry to the lake. In the summer, the maples latticed the backyard in shade. That crisscrossing, inconsistent but sufficient, kept you cool but not cold. A little bit of sun still got through the layers and layers of intersecting branches and leaves. It’s almost like they were playing a slow game of cat’s cradle.
The downside of the berm was the steep descent towards the water. So steep in fact that the previous owners built a retaining wall about twenty feet from the water line to hold the hill. While the architecture inside the home was clearly inspired, the path down towards the water was an afterthought. The path snaked from the back deck towards the dock and was so steep you’d slip if there was even the slightest bit of moisture. We’d often go to the lake to swim, boat around, and sometimes fish. When my siblings and I arrived, we’d dash up the berm, forget its steep slope, and exhaust quickly. We’d walk the rest of the way towards the back of the house and then let our legs fall forward down the steep path towards the lake. It’s miraculous no one rolled an ankle.
My parents, and Tom, took the more sensible route—past the berm, through the garage, the living room, and out the back deck where the maples stood. A tunnel connected the garage to the living room with a single dim light to illuminate the way. Puddles littered the floor, and the light was horribly insufficient in helping you avoid a splash landing. As a child, I struggled avoiding the puddles. My legs were smaller than my parents, so I couldn’t simply stride over and avoid them. Instead, the puddles felt like a game of don’t-touch-the-lava hopscotch.
The older I grew and the more I acclimated to the tunnel, I started to understand the puddles’ patterns. Depending on the season, the temperature, and the weather over the days leading up to my visit to the lake, the puddles changed shape. I learned to navigate where they lived and when they would come out from hiding. There was always one large puddle that never hid. It was about halfway down the tunnel and about a foot in diameter. To avoid it, I pushed myself up along the left wall and slinked forward. Because of cobwebs that collected near the ceiling, I had to coordinate this leftward movement with a duck down. I guess fencing must feel like this. In the nearly twenty years that Tom lived in that house, he never repaired the tunnel. The same single dim light illuminated the tunnel and the same puddles danced around.
When I was old enough, I started mowing Tom’s lawn for $15—sometimes $20 if he was feeling generous and I showed up on time. Fallen branches, sandy soil, and the occasional cluster of bees transformed the perfectly shaded hill and berm into a lawn care nightmare. After hiking with the mower up and down the yard, I’d sit with Tom and recover from the sweltering, humid Minnesota summer. He’d bring out a coca-cola to share and sometimes deli salads from a grocery store across the lake. My mom didn’t buy soda, so I felt like I was getting away with something. Well deserved though—that lawn! Silence would find its way into our time together; but surprisingly, Tom didn’t mind it. He believed staring out at the lake with nothing to do was good for you. This wasn’t spiritual, but the lake came as close to faith as anything for Tom.
Tom’s house stood there—like that—throughout my entire childhood. The Mercedes in the garage bumped a model year but the boat, the dock, the path down, and even the entirety of the interior of the home never changed. Neither did Tom. The divorce rocked him, and I think he resolved to a predictable life—alone. He sold carpet out of his car and played a lot of tennis. Tom’s world became canon-like to me. He’d tell and retell stories about the neighbors dock or his job selling cars for the most successful Chrysler dealership in the upper midwest. These stories, like myth, had a point. Tom wanted to impart wisdom on me to do the things he did well and avoid the mistakes he made. He was proud of the life he built, and sitting there on his back deck, looking at his lake, I could feel it.