Every July my extended family gathers for several days at a place we call “The Cabin” on Wolf Mountain, a swath of rolling land overlooking the Rockfish River in in the mountains of Virginia. We’ve been coming here for about 30 years and it’s always the same: no internet, no television--just the family, the cabins, the mountain, the river. This year there are 30-some of us--four generations--and like every other year, we live commune-style, taking turns cooking dinners, passing children among us in a fluid dance of responsibility, gathering in ever-shifting groups at the river during the day, coming together nightly for dinner, then retiring to the deck for the sunset.
The path to the river still smells the same after all these years: warm pine needles and ripe currants. As we make our way along the path, my children are gleeful as they pluck the small, wild berries and pop them in their surprised mouths. I can recall skipping through these woods to the river in the rippling summer heat with sweet, warm currants in my mouth, the brush gently thwacking my skinny legs, then swaying in my wake.
I help my wobbly, eager boys down the steep path--we find spiders in perfect, sunlit webs, curious and untouched lichen, a babbling, joyful creek. The air gets cooler as we slip and stumble from the steamy mountaintop deeper into the woods, until we find ourselves on the quiet, shady riverbank where the feel and sound of silt and stone underfoot is familiar as a lullaby.
At the cabin, if you’re a kid or a parent/grandparent of one, most of your days are spent at the river--the kind of days without watches or any sense of time at all. Hours line up seamlessly as the children splash and hoot in the shallow, gentle water, catching tadpoles with their bare hands, finding box turtles in the brush, amassing rocks in a big metal pail, chasing schools of minnows, digging up clay for sculptures, and watching in awe bugs that skate on the water's surface.
It is here Caleb catches his first fish with his daddy and puts his head under water again and again, each time popping up to exclaim, "It wasn’t bad at all!!" Meanwhile, I roam the shallows collecting heart-shaped rocks and chase Tavish as he toddles into the current. Some of us have built a dam--every year it is rebuilt--and we lounge on sprawling, warm rocks, listening to the song of the current as the kids collect like minnows in the dam’s pool.
This year, something coiled deep unravels for the first time in a long time. A new distance--a blessed, bittersweet distance--grows between my children and me as they build with their cousins an impenetrable child-world, frolicking in the low, clear river all long and lingering afternoon; piling together in a shady, rainbow-colored hammock, the musky smell of warm leaves rising from the earth all around them; roaming in a happy, boisterous flock--seven kids under the age of 9-- dripping popsicles in-hand, their lithe and little bodies flashing like strobe lights in mid-day sun under a canopy of towering trees.
All week-long, my childhood days on this mountain stretch out in my mind, like an intricate, lovingly made quilt taken out of storage and laid out in a sunny room. It doesn’t feel so long ago I was this little, careening through these woods and plunging into this river with my cousins--a group of five, all of us born within two years of one another. Now all of our kids are gathered in this place, and witnessing the continuum does something quite lovely to my heart.
Every morning my grandfather, now in his eighties, gladly stands for hours at a small waffle iron in the kitchen, taking orders. Gdaddy’s waffles have become something of a legend--some teenagers have even been known to pry themselves out of bed before noon for them, and in the weeks before we leave for the cabin, my eldest son speaks in a reverent whisper of these waffles, his eyes wide with expectation. One morning I walk in the kitchen and there GDaddy is, sure as the sun rises every morning. Suddenly I am struck with the realization that even after he is long gone--for the rest of my life surely--every time I walk in that kitchen I will remember him there, our jolly waffle maker.
In the same way, I know I will always think of my grandmother whenever I take a walk in on this mountain, recalling all the walks we have taken, and remembering, in particular, a walk she and I took one fall when I was no more than thirteen up the long and winding driveway where we lingered for what seemed like hours, crouching down every few steps to admire all the different kinds of mushrooms. The longer we looked the more we noticed, and pretty soon we lost count of all the colorful, wondrous varieties growing alongside the driveway. We walked until long after the sun had slipped behind the mountains, squinting in the evening’s blue light to glimpse just one more, just one more.
That’s how it so often is at the cabin: you slow down enough to enter the world, to really, really be here. You slow down enough to listen to the chorus of cicadas; to glimpse the quick, striped lizard; to notice how the breeze sounds coming through the trees, how generously it brushes your body. You begin to take in everyone around you, and pretty soon you are falling in love all over again with their gorgeous and quirky humanness.
You remember what it was to be a child--a free and loved child of these people, this whispering, breathing mountain, this chuckling, winking river. You remember what it was to walk into these woods and lose yourself in the best possible way--to become so lost in a womb of flickering leaves and shadows, you actually became the mountain. You remember what it was to give your lanky child-body fearlessly to the wild rush of a river cloudy and swollen with yesterday’s rain--fearlessly, because your daddy stood at the bottom of the rapids, cheering as you tumbled squealing and laughing into his waiting arms.
You cry one evening in private because gratitude has ballooned too large for your body to hold--gratitude for how your grandparents gave all of you this glorious place. They just gave it to you. And if they ever asked for anything in return, it was only that you love it. And you think that just might be as close to being godly as anyone gets. Later, as the family gathers on the deck at sunset, you hold your son in your lap, drawing your breath slowly, taking in the smell of the river in his silky hair. And when your uncle spots a hawk, you watch with everyone in hushed admiration her weightless, elegant flight across a deepening sky.