It was Labor Day and we were getting ready to leave the lake house. My dad was outside in the driveway, which is really just a hill with some tire tracks, looking out at the lake below us, which was all sparkly in the sun. “I always hate to leave,” he said. “Yeah,” I said, pausing because I felt a lump forming in my throat. “Me too.”
I never go up there anymore, to the lake house. I’m “too busy” now, which I know isn’t really true. It’s just that I fear missing something new happening in my own world. And nothing changes at the lake. Or not too much, anyway. My family has owned the land since the 1920s and my great-grandfather and grandfather built the house together after my grandfather returned from World War II. The sailfish that my great-grandfather – allegedly – caught in Florida is still mounted on the wall in the living room. Mass market mystery paperbacks are still stockpiled in one of the first floor bedrooms where my uncle Jim, now dead ten years, used to sleep. The boat house has the same splintery planks on the floor and the same tangled collection of fishing poles that were there when I was a kid. The dock, which has been updated more than once during my lifetime, once again is threatening to fall apart completely.
I used to be up there a lot. When I was younger, when I had to do whatever my family was doing, I spent summer weekends and, sometimes, weeks at a time on Skaneateles. More often than not, those weeks were the last few of August, through Labor Day weekend, after which we’d go home to start school. At the beginning, I would complain about being away from home for so long. By the time we packed our car to leave, I would be fighting back tears as I walked around the lakefront, saying goodbye to practically everything I had touched during my time there. The tree swing, the rusty refrigerator, my uncle’s canoe. I hated to leave the lake as much as I hated to leave home.
One summer, our neighbor who lived there year-round gave me two rabbits to care for while I was there for our extended end-of-summer stay. Clarkie was friends with my mom’s brothers, who all spent more time at the lake than we did. He was six-foot-five, wore cutoff tanktops with cutoff jean shorts that he cinched with a rope belt, and got around the lake on a pontoon boat that he built himself. Clarkie raised rabbits at his house down the road and I was pleased that he’d entrusted me with two of them. One was black and white and the other was brown and I kept them in a cage. I fed them and would let them out to pet them and “get exercise,” which was mostly hopping around the grass near the house. At the end of the summer, I returned them to Clarkie. I’d wanted to keep them, but my parents said no. We had just gotten a dog and it would have been too much for nine-year-old me – not to mention my parents – to take care of a black lab puppy and two rabbits.
Months later, I asked one of my uncles what had happened to the rabbits.
“He probably sold ’em,” he said to me, matter-of-factly.
“Why?” I asked, shuddering to think that a person who wasn’t me was keeping them as pets.
“For rabbit stew!” my uncle said. “They kill them and then they eat them.”
Of course, I thought. This made sense. People who live out in the country would eat rabbits for dinner. But this didn’t make me feel any better. My rabbits were dead.
I thought of the rabbits a few weeks ago, when I was standing in the driveway with my dad, saying that I always hated to leave the lake. I remembered squatting down to open their cage, coaxing them out to enjoy the grass on our hillside. I tried to remember their names, but I couldn’t. At least at first. I pictured the black and white one. I remembered that his name had been Oreo, at least for the three weeks I was taking care of him (or her). But the other one. The brown one. I couldn’t remember its name. I don’t even remember if it was actually brown or if that’s just how I decided to remember it. And that made me sad all over again.