What Mattered to Hannah

 

Hannah wanted to get away so she booked a week at a cottage on a lake, the deepest natural lake in Wisconsin. Hannah boarded her parrolet Henry and headed north. The drive up from Chicago was just a few hours. Off the main highways she followed a lattice of county roads with names like “A” and “T” past fields of corn and cows. God, country, family and, lost love was on the AM radio. Hannah lived alone and drove to the cottage alone.

Hannah’s vacation hours had so accumulated at work that if she didn’t take them before the end of the year, she would lose them. But leaving work to vacation was hard for Hannah. The only relationship she had was with her work. It was a relationship which made increasing demands on her while offering yearly increases in pay. As the years passed and promotions were awarded her work responsibilities ratcheted up. To keep the relationship going and to do what she wanted to do – producing and giving – Hannah did what she had to do.

Using up the accumulated vacation hours was not Hannah’s only reason for getting away from work and home and going to the cottage. Getting away from being lonely in one spot was what mattered. Getting away from work to matter somewhere else mattered. Especially as she turned sixty-seven and the downtime they called “retirement” loomed in front of her. Could she matter without work? Hannah loved to work, to make things happen, to produce what mattered to others. Being an engineer was a career that produced things that worked and things that mattered. Could she live just as an observer?

When Hannah told her two younger sisters about her trip to the cottage, the youngest sister, Anna, gave Hannah a book. Anna described it as a book about hunter-gather societies, the noble savage, Gaia, “rootedness” and a dark green religion of “compassion”. The middle sister, Savannah, gave Hannah a novel about the Rapture. Hannah, put both books in the trunk of her car where they banged around as she drove. Hannah brought Chekov along for the week.

When Hannah called her ninety-year old mom and told her about the trip, her mother said “Good for you” and “Make sure to behave yourself.” When Hannah told her mom about her concerns about the food available at the cottage, for she had drastically changed her way of eating, her mom said “Take what you can get.”

The first day at the cottage was a day of unloading the car, putting things away and finding out that “We have WiFi” meant we can provide no internet signal you can use. The cable TV offered local news and weather forecasts and “This channel should be with you shortly”. The program never arrived. So, the cottage meant the basics like the flip phone Hannah carried.

That evening Hannah drove into town and went into the first restaurant she came to. There were cars on the street in front of the place so she felt it might be worth a try. It wasn’t a supper club. It was a bar and restaurant with the look and smell of the fifties and something past its prime. The redolence of time past and the objects on the wall made Hannah feel like she had gotten away from the present. On the walls surrounding the well-used wooden tables and chairs were fishing maps of the lake, a framed type-written menu from 1955, and black and white photos of townsfolk in parades and holding large fish. The bar area had the same but was updated with a “It’s a Great Day to Be a Packers Fan” plaque hung over the bar. Hannah was in north heartland.

There were three tables near where they sat Hannah. Two grey-haired women of large size sat at each of two tables. It was Saturday night and the special, rib-eye steak, was set before each of them. One of the women at the far table started up and then asked the passing waitress to move the butter closer. “I don’t want to have to walk.” She buttered her roll with the now available butter and then sat eating it looking blankly out at the street. The woman next to her ate looking at the wall behind Hannah.

At the third table, the one closest to Hannah, an old man and his wife sat with a younger fiftyish man. The younger was doing all the talking. The older couple was doing all the eating. Hannah noted that the older two pushed the pinkish red color meat to the side of their plates. She continued to note that the younger man finished his dinner and took his credit card out to pay the bill. The older man took some cash out of his pocket beneath the table and said nothing. The dinner bill was paid with the card.

Hannah ordered some perch. The waitress supplied the fish and the sides and promptly brought the bill when Hannah had finished. The bill lifted her loneliness. “I matter” she thought.

Back at the cottage Hannah observed the couple in the next cottage return from town. The man got out of his 4X4 pickup truck and walked through the screened porch door. His dejected look seemed to Hannah to be saying “The fish weren’t biting that night”. The short bean pole of a woman had followed him to the door but the screen door had already closed behind the man. The man was already at the cottage door. The woman reopened the porch door and went in.

The next morning Hannah was siting on the dock when she heard some clomping behind her. The man from the cottage was heading to his boat with some fishing gear. He saw Hannah and said “Good morning. How are you?” Fine, thanks” Hannah responded. “Another day of fishing?” Yes ma’am.” “Good Luck!” “Thanks.”

That night in order to dispel the indoors with the outdoors Hannah slept with the bedroom windows open to let the lake breeze in. The cottage, with pine wood paneling throughout and fusty furniture and bedding, had a dank feel and a musty smell. It was as if the inside of the cottage had been inverted to the outside and then inverted in again for Hannah’s arrival.

Dealing with the windows was no easy task for Hannah. The wooden windows in her bedroom resisted change. One window would not go up and the other would not stay up. Hannah would have the same bout trying to sleep in a new bed: one position on the mattress did not give and another gave too much.

The next morning technology greeted her: “Your brew is complete! Enjoy!” The Keurig Hannah brought with her offered the comforts of home. “Home is where the good coffee is” would be a good country lyric, Hannah thought. After a cup of coffee and some reading Hannah went to the local diner for breakfast.

There, old men sat around a table talking about their trucks and politics and baseball. A beaming grandma led her grandchild to a table. A weary baby-carrying mom followed. Does one miss the weariness born of attachment? At that moment Hannah did.

It seemed that most of the patrons of the diner were older early risers like Hannah. The crossword puzzle in the daily Sentinel was already filled out by the time she arrived at 7 am, Hannah observed.

The atmosphere of the diner and its food were comforting to Hannah. Unlike the Keurig, the waitresses brought her breakfast, more coffee, and the check with “Here you go my dear” and “More coffee sweetie?” and “Have a great day hun.”

The atmosphere of the diner lifted her loneliness but the diner’s food began laying her low. The third cup of coffee, the well-buttered toast and the oil-coagulated hash browns – the settling food made her uneasy. The heaviness in her stomach and her sinking mood reminded her of the deep well of grief and sorrow she carried inside. The sediment of losses, screwups and broken relationships had settled deep inside her after sixty-seven years of life. But if she sat at a breakfast table with friends she’d wouldn’t be talking about her subterranean sorrows. She’d be talking about the weather, her kids, her job, and asking “what’s new with you?”

The shop owners along the small town’s main street were very happy to see Hannah come in. “Take what you can get” Hannah remembered. She bought a top and a flouncy blue and white summer dress that she knew she would never wear. Owning the feminine charm of the dress gave her the feeling that she mattered as a woman.

In the evenings, after dinner in town, Hannah sat on the cottage’s screened-in porch. There, she smoked little Brazilian cigars, read Chekov and when it was too dark to read, she listened to the night. It seemed to Hannah that the incessant chirring of grasshoppers and ratcheting of crickets was like millions of prayers being offered for those who would soon fall asleep to the murmur of their unspoken supplications.

It was on one of these nights that Hannah had a dream. Or, was it a vision? A Winnebago Indian princess named Lily Thunder Boss stood on the porch. She spoke to Hannah: “Trace the fingers of God and you will see the hand of God. You have come this far, keep tracing.” Hannah immediately woke up. It was 2 AM and the grasshoppers, crickets …

On the third morning Hannah walked down to the docks at the end of the row of cottages. The sun had just come up over the silhouetted shoreline behind her. It began to flash gold in the eyes of the houses along the far shoreline. The lake, not flush yet with direct sunlight and now beneath Hannah’s bare feet, was like a dappled green and grey quilt that stirred as if the lake was about to wake beneath it. In the company of moored pontoons and motor boats and of ducks bobbing for food and loons beginning their conversations Hannah sensed something familiar.

That afternoon she went to the Crossroads Grocery. She bought the fixings for a salad and some Chardonnay. The automated voice of the grocery’s self-serve checkout scanner said “Thank you for shopping with us”. Hannah remembered “Take what you can get.”

On Thursday morning Hannah took a canoe out onto the lake, the deepest lake in Wisconsin. She paddled to the center of the lake where she could see the full extent of its water. The day before she had driven to the south end of the lake but couldn’t come near it. There were private roads with houses nestled along the shoreline. These were now at a great distance from the canoe. The houses and boats appeared as white flecks against a jagged dark green background. The lake, reflecting the cirrus clouds and the baby blue sky as with an ancient uneven mirror, gently swayed her canoe. Hannah sat thinking about her future over the deepest part of the lake. Above her, the wide-open sky. Below her, the bounded water. She sat at the boundary of rapture and watery earth surrounded by voices nowhere near.

Later, she ate lunch at one of the nearby golf clubs which had a WiFi connection. She checked her emails; there was nothing pressing, mostly ads. She ate watching the golfers, men in shorts with caps and sweaters, as they gathered their foursomes. She overhears them kid each other as they wait for beer and sandwiches to take with them on the course. And though the well-manicured course was everywhere verdant and serene, the game, played between tees and holes and beers, seemed to Hannah, to be disquieting for some of the red-faced golfers who came in for water after their round. Hannah thought they must have spent most of their time playing outside the lines.

That night, after a day of hiking and eating a late supper at the diner, Hannah went to bed and dreamed: She was the lake, the deepest natural lake in Wisconsin. All around her were bass, trout, perch, walleye, white bass, trout, northern pike, muskies, catfish, crappie, sunfish and, schools of Walleyes and Large and Smallmouth Bass. They passed her with open mouths. She saw her four children swimming by her, each in different directions. They didn’t notice her. She was the lake. Her sisters swam by. They were talking as they passed each other. Air bubbles, not words, were coming out of their mouths. Deeper in her, her ninety-year old mother floated. She kept saying “I’m hanging in there” and asking me “What’s new with you?”. In the deepest part of her, the dark green part of her, was her dead father and a son who died in a car accident. They lay in repose. Hannah couldn’t say anything to any of them. She was the casket that held them.

At her surface were boats. Their arched outline appeared like dark mysterious icons. Above that was the sky. The sun cast shadows across her of transparent clouds and opaque birds coasting on thermals above. And then, at the surface, appeared an eel. It seemed friendly as it swam near the surface but then took on an impish smile and dove deeper. The creature then slithered and circled inside of her. It wanted to press her down to the bottom of herself. It was then that waking dream broke off. It was then Hannah understood its name to be TRAUMA.

The next morning, technology: “Your brew is complete! Enjoy!” As Hannah drank her coffee, she read and planned her last full day at the lake cottage. She would take the canoe out in the morning for her daily matins, then go for a walk and find lunch, then she would take a nap on the porch. In the evening she would go to a “Friday Night Fish Fry” which was the special on every restaurant’s menu that night. But she started off on the wrong foot.

At dawn Hannah pulled the canoe to shoreline and pushed it three-quarters of the way into the lake. She gathered a life-jacket and a paddle from the fish-cleaning shack and placed them into the canoe. With one hand on the aft of the canoe she placed her right foot in. The canoe rocked to the right and began to lurch forward into the water semi-sideways. Hannah quickly put her left foot in and began balancing the canoe with her hands and feet on each side of it. So far so good. She had done this before.

She was now hunched behind the seat so she moved her right foot forward past the seat while holding onto the canoe’s frame. Her legs were spread apart, one on each side of the bench – one leg forward and one leg behind. At this point nothing felt stable. The canoe began to rock back and forth with every shift of Hannah’s weight. With her hands on each side of the canoe frame she slid them forward hoping to steady the canoe and place her left leg over the bench. In that moment Hannah realized that the stiff lurching of a sixty-seven-year-old was exaggerated by the canoe. And then it happened. Hannah toppled over to her left and fell into the green wet murk. The canoe, on its side next to Hannah, lay beside her as if to comfort her after its practical joke.

Standing up in three feet of water and reeds, soaked, dripping and covered with algae and green mud, Hannah thought she looked like The Creature from the Deepest Natural Lake in Wisconsin. The words of an old song came to her as she walked to the shore: “Oh the old grey mare She ain’t what she used to be”. If her mother could have seen see her, she would have said “It happens to the best of us” and “You kids will be the death of me yet.” Like as with her mother, the days of her independence were becoming fewer. She would need a steadying hand going forward. Being mattered would matter more than ever.

Hannah returned to the cottage. Her flip-flops squished loudly as she walked past the other cottages. She hung her soggy underclothes on a clothes line. Her water-logged jeans and black sweater were laid on a picnic bench to dry in the sun. The pockets of her jeans were filled with algae and grit. Algae clung to the sweater as if it was a net. Her morning rituals on the lake now included baptism.

After seven days and nights at the cottage on a lake, the deepest natural lake in Wisconsin, Hannah returned home. At the door to her apartment Hannah found a package from Amazon. It was something she ordered a week ago. It was a book, a friend, and what mattered to Hannah.

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

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