Labor...Leaving La Casa Thompson

by Kimberley Thompson, Tastemaker in Residence


As the last of the summer holidays approaches; I have been pondering what to write given my tangled thoughts about this summer (too hot and too short!), the 3 big holidays (traffic nightmares!), and the Minnesotan tradition of heading NORTH every available minute of the summer (are not the southern counties lovely with lakes too?!). But I realize that there is too much material to cover on these topics!
However, I need to write about why the topic of heading north this weekend has been a tearful contemplation this year. A very odd gift the long Labor Day weekend has given me.
I am sensing my melancholia about heading north, traffic and lakes comes from the sad reality that in 10 days, my childhood memories of the little bungalow on Lake Mille Lacs will only be memories. Sharing days and nights of swimming and fishing, biking and grilling, sun bathing and picnics will no longer be an option for my summer days.
Our cabin north of Garrison is being sold.
I knew it was coming. Lives change. Priorities change. Children grow up and move away. Parents and siblings pass away. Age and aging knees makes one eye the 37 steps down (and up! )to the lake with a jaundiced eye. (what was the limit of Tylenol per day, anyway?) Hobbies and interests evolve. Friends want you to come with them to their place.
I get it. But I am having a hard time with letting go of dreams.
La Casa Thompson was, at first, my father's dream. He saw his vision clearly. This self taught man chose a beautiful lot on the northwest corner of Mille Lacs; high above the lake. He could see the eastern shore as a dark blue, beckoning line. Sketches on lined notebook paper functioned as blueprints and would be consulted and then modified as he built the sturdiest little cabin he knew how.
He labored hard to build the bungalow. My mom was "boots on the ground" as he required her assistance to hold, find and run/buy the things he needed to build the snug little cabin he envisioned would come first on the land. They stacked the inside chimney and mantelpiece; sorting and washing all the river rocks by hand. My brother spent hours roofing, sealing and staining. My uncles helped set the rafters on one of the hottest weekends ever.
My Dad did everything as he could afford at the time. Did it have running water? No. Did it have an outhouse? Yes. Did we heat it with an old cast iron stove in the winter? Yes. Was the furniture plush? No; it was water resistant vinyl. Were we thrilled to be up at our bit of heaven? Yes! Were we safe? Heck yes!
It became our family's dream. We planned the next projects by the season and amount of time we could stay "this time." Mid-week thoughts were always of "were we going?," and getting school work and chores done before Friday. Clothes were selected for the plans and the weather. But it never seemed like work. We each had our part in the labor that made our place into a cherished destination for over 25 years. The future was always about spending retirement at the lake with an every expanding family. We all had our part in the vision.
The year Dad died; the cabin seemed tired and lifeless without his boundless joy of being "At The Lake." No new pictures were added to the back side of the door he built. Trips up became infrequent. Mom was lost without Dad's enthusiasm. We gave away his "toys" to new families; hoping they would make memories.
I labored for several years to keep our traditions normal; but the kids were older. They had summer school, Trout Lake Camp and other hobbies; naturally, their parents stayed with them in the cities. Our finding time to go was a labor of keeping the cabin up: lawns, docks, repairs, reroofing, patching wash outs on the driveway, and battling the incessant wood peckers treating the walls like their private bug-dom.
Ten years after Dad was gone it seemed that the cabin became a labor of not wanting to go. Not wanting to be inside the little single room that once seemed so large and held all of us. Not wanting to slog through memories that were grey and dim; laboring to put a false face on the drive up north to clean the ever thickening cobwebs off once pristine ceilings.
Only big sister Pam was constantly investing her time in trips up twice a year. She tried to keep Mom "normal" by visiting favorite little stores and markets. Making Christmas cookies as Mom wrote out her holiday letter and cards. But Mom couldn't process the trip anymore. She had to labor to remember where she was and grew grumpy when she did not return to her familiar home each night. But yet she remembered the stones, the holding of ladders for Dad and the "real coffee" made on the cook stove.
Pam left us last July. Her loss was all the harder once we realized how much the stress of keeping the lake place for the family was doing to her; both mentally and financially. She talked often and firmly about getting back to our family times up north; turning them into priorities that her body could not attain. She clutched at the memories, fearful that the old ones would turn to dust and no shiny news ones would be there to take their places in our hearts. I feel guilty for not trying harder to go to the lake. I feel guilty that I have not kept up her dreams.
The little cabin was built by labor: sweat from my Father's brow, blisters on my brother's hands and dogged determination by my Mom to make certain everything functioned as it should. Dad labored for his earnings, saving them for just such a retreat for his family. He labored to build the frame so it could with stand just about anything and still keep the occupants safe. We all labored up there to pull together and make the red bungalow "Our Place."
The memories came about because of the work. The pictures were taken as we hammered and painted, as we pushed and pulled, and as we laughed and joked. The memories solidified for each of us as we worked making a get-away for us.
The sense of loss and grieving after Dad, and then Pam, passed away was also a labor. Onerous. Dark. Denial. Avoidance. Depression. All bricks that had to be torn out of walls so the remaining family could see the hope of new memories on the other side. Sadly, the little cabin was the casualty...anchoring us in a place we could no longer be family anymore.
FAMILIES TAKE LABOR. Visible and invisible work is constant in a family; a vital necessity like breathing. One cannot coast and be "family." Some of the labor is effortless, buoyed by love, joy and delight. Some requires honest physical work. Often the invisible endeavor takes forethought, sacrifice, balancing, and statesmanship.
May your Labor Day weekend give you time to pause, reflect and commit anew to your labors.

Before the reward there must be labor. You plant before you harvest. You sow in tears before you reap joy. Ralph Ransom