29 August 2016

The End of the World

Into the water


Britain ends somewhere in the Scottish highlands, not far from the cottage in Kinlochbervie where we spent the week. The end of the island on northwest side is Cape Wrath, which is the real end, and we waited to take a ferry there on Tuesday until I realised that we needed to take a bus on the other side and it would cost more than I thought, something like sixty pounds altogether. So we instead went back to the beach in Durness, the rain just starting to fall again.

If you know anything about the Scottish Highlands, you know it is famous for small biting insects called midges and for the rain. Both of these things can be particularly bad in August, but in May, when I made the plans for the trip and booked the cottage, I didn't think about that. Instead it was a kind of attempt to recapture my own childhood, taking the car north to Ely, Minnesota, to Wolf Lake where my grandmother had a cabin, or rather a mobile home parked on a berm looking out at the water. I wrote and wrote and wrote about memories of Wolf Lake and Ely when I was in college, about ghosts of dead relatives and the people that disappeared in the woods. 

When I wrote in college, I didn't think much of my parents,  but they are there in the writing as I look back at it now. I wrote:
The house my mother grew up in has been painted. A deck has been added to the front stoop, the sidewalk where my uncles pressed handprints, torn out. Now, as I stand in the snow ten years after I was last inside of the house, I need to look away to remember everything. I look away to remember how the cement stoop, painted red, peeled in July heat or how, when I was six, I woke up from a nap one afternoon to hear my brother and father coming back from fishing. The things that make up memory, like this place (the cabin my grandmother had at Wolf Lake, the paddle-boat, the dock), decayed, fell over, turned upside down, were left behind in the snow. The space between them is closer now and I talk outloud about how they used to be as though, if I stop talking, I will forget.
Kinlochbervie may be in the north, but it has little in common with Ely — there are only four hundred people in Kinlochbervie and a Spar and petrol pump attached to a Post Office. It is quiet in a way that there is rarely ever in the south. You stand and you can hear nothing manufactured, no planes or cars or hums of machinery. On the first day, we trudged an hour and half through the heather and rocks to Sandwood Bay which you can't reach by car. The girls and Yoko pressed on while I worried the whole way about one of them collapsing and being caught out in the middle of nowhere with nothing. I was worrying too much, wasn't I. We crested the hill and there it was, a mile of pristine beach and only the people who had persevered through the heat to see it. The girls ran the last half mile, pulling clothes off before they finally fell into the water.

My parents are minor players in my childhood memories of the lake — this makes sense now as I watched the girls run in and out of the water and on the sand. Where is dad anyway, where has he wandered off to — it's a thought that sits just beyond consciousness. He's hiding maybe.

The midges came out like a cloud when we left Sandwood Bay at five. The girls pressed on, Naomi especially, and I thought about my worrying on the way out: here, this is what I was worried about. I pulled a blanket over my head and we all kept going until Mia was sobbing, a mile away from the car. I put her on my back, underneath the blanket and she went limp like she had passed out. I carried her a while and then had her walk 100 steps while I rested. Up and down, up and down, until we were back to the car and laughing and joking about it all. What was there to worry about.

We used to fish in Minnesota, and we would sit out in the paddle boat on the water, casting again and again. I don't remember catching fish. I remember there was a suana that we would sit in naked. I remember that when I was 14, one summer my sister and I went to see Grandma alone and she let me drive the minivan up and down the access road to the cabin. I was growing and filled with an awkward kinetic energy, but that is all I remember, just the energy.

On the ride home in the car, the girls fell asleep at different times: we drove back in silence, out of the south of Scotland and towards Carlisle. Why isn't there ever anything to say. I thought and I thought, remembering some trace of my father, but then not sure if I had the memory or was projecting him into a place I knew he would have been. There, a fleeting thought of us, eating lunch on the rocks, as we took canoes into the Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Canada. There he is, sitting and smiling. I'm sure I can remember it.
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