Christmas at Long Lake / Excerpt / The Lake

[Read Extras Christmas at Long Lake] [Rick Skwiot on writing Christmas at Long Lake]

I come through the back door to the aroma of onions and bacon frying.  As I remove my coat I hear my father’s voice.

“Maybe something closer will turn up.”

“It’s a good opportunity, Ed.”

“I’m not sure it’s right.  Besides, it won’t go away.”

“But it’s been two months now.”

“I know how long it’s been.”

When my father sees me standing in the kitchen doorway, a wide smile comes to his dark, lank face.  His voice, deep and resonant, calls out:

“There’s my little soldier.  Come over here.”

I point toward the window as I approach.  “R-r-rabbit,” I stutter, as I do when excited.

“Where’s the r-r-rabbit?” says my father, wrapping me in his arms and pressing coarse black whiskers into my cheek.

The smell of my father—man scent and tobacco—comes to me.  My mother and the other women I know smell like roses or lilac, but the men—my father and his friends who come from the city to hunt and fish—each has a distinct animal smell that I could distinguish blindfolded.  I answer:

“The trap in the garden.  Can we get him?”

“After breakfast.  Then we’ll get him and skin him,” he says, running his fingers up my ribs.  He calls to my mother, “What do you say, Veta?  Hasenpfeffer tonight?”

She does not turn to respond but speaks looking out the window to the gray fields.  “Wash your hands,” she says, which brings my brother running into the room.

I dig into my meal.  The salty bacon comes from the farmer with the bad-smelling sty at the crossroads, the orange-yolked eggs from the Suttons’ dark hen-house, where the fearsome spurred cock roams the yard and, screeching, chases me.  The potatoes and onions come from our own garden, the bread from dough my mother has kneaded and baked, the plum jelly from the tree by the lake.

My father asks us what we learned in school the previous day.  Eddie tells about his fourth-grade Christmas program, which I had witnessed, where he played the old toy-maker who falls asleep and whose dolls and toy soldiers come to life, singing, dancing, and reciting poems.  When it’s my turn I shrug.

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean ‘nothing’?  Didn’t you pay attention?”

“Yes sir.”

“Well, what did you do?”

“Reading and addition and drawing Christmas trees.  But I knew that already.”

My father leans back raising black eyebrows.  “If they can’t teach you anything there, maybe you’re ready for college.”  He turns to my mother.  “What do you think, Veta?  Should we send him away to college next year?”

The thought of being taken from my home, my lake, and my family leaves me speechless.  I study my father’s face to see whether he is earnest.

“Don’t tease him, Ed.  No, Son, we won’t send you away.”

My father goes on:  “Well, maybe you’re not ready for college.  But you must have learned something there by now.”

I think, trying to remember what might have been new to me.  Then I strike upon it:  “Atom bomb drill.”

My father shakes his head.  “Is that where you put your head between your legs and kiss your…”

“Ed!”

“No, we go away from the windows and sit under our desks and put our arms over our heads like this.”

“That’s good.  That’s real good.  I’m glad to see my boys are getting an education.”

My father drains off his coffee and says:  “Who’s ready for rabbit?”

I slide off my chair to run for my coat and cap.  My father turns to my brother and tousles his blond hair.

“Don’t you want to help?”

Eddie winces behind eyeglasses, shakes his head, and moves off to the front room to play with the electric train under the Christmas tree, a train that my father—who never had a train as a boy—bought him for his first Christmas nine years earlier.

My father and I pace together across the frozen garden, his hand resting on my shoulder.  At the cabbage patch we sit on our haunches side by side.  He hooks the hinged door of the rabbit trap and sets it on end to study the animal inside.

“He’s a big one,” he says.

He carries the trap to the garage and retrieves from his workbench red rubber gloves, an iron bar, and a hunting knife in a leather sheath.  Then back outside to the gate in the picket fence and down wooden stairs to the boat dock, me following.  On the shore near the dock stands a sturdy but crude homemade table stained with blood and littered with fish scales.  He sets the trap on the table, pulls on the rubber gloves, and releases the hook on the door.

I fix my eyes on my father’s hand as it reaches in and pulls out the rabbit by the scruff of its neck.

“Want to pet him?”

I pull off my mitten, nodding.  I reach up to where the rabbit sits on the bench and stroke its back, feeling its flesh quiver beneath the warm fur.

Then my father takes the iron bar in his right glove and taps the creature’s neck at the base of the skull.  It falls limp on the table.  He unsheathes the hunting knife and makes incisions around the neck and up the stomach.  With the red rubber gloves he reaches inside to pull out blue and purple guts, organs, veins.  I hear the sound of rubber squishing in blood, and a raw fecal stench comes to me.

Holding the animal by the head, my father skins the rabbit bare, cuts off its feet and head, and then carries the rabbit and the offal to the lakeshore.  He kneels and, using the iron bar, cracks a hole in the ice.  He washes the carcass in lake water and lays it stretched on the ice.

I stand transfixed over the red flesh of the animal, staring at its lean haunches and recalling the sharp taste of marinated rabbit and vinegary sauce spooned over mashed potatoes.

My father pushes the innards and the rest into the opening, washes the rubber gloves there, and removes them.

“Want to skate?”

At the sound of my father’s voice I look up from the blood-red rabbit.

“Can you pull me?”

“Okay.  Take these things to the garage and put them where they belong.  Then get your sled.  But stay at the shore till I’m back.”

We move together up the wooden stairs to the picket fence.  As my father disappears inside the house with the rabbit, I carry the rubber gloves, iron bar, and hunting knife into the garage.  I return them to their proper places and retrieve a sled of worn brown wood and black steel hanging from a nail on the west wall of the garage, my father’s boyhood sled but now my own.  Careful not to let its runners scratch the black Plymouth, I carry it out into the daylight and down the stairs to the lake.

The lake looks more like a river than a lake—and once was.  It sits on the American Bottom, the wide Mississippi flood plain.  And although the Mississippi now lies twelve miles distant, some claim this once was a channel of that great river, perhaps thousands of years ago.  But the river changed course and left behind this dead river called Long Lake, which runs from Mitchell five miles southeast to Pontoon Beach and Horseshoe Lake, and is only a hundred yards wide on average.  The same Indians who built the giant Monks’ Mound a few miles south also built mounds along Long Lake.

The first Europeans to come to Long Lake were French trappers, who found forests of walnut, elm, hickory, oak, and cottonwood; great prairies; and ample wild game—deer, rabbit, turkey, bear.  But the first permanent white settler on Long Lake was James Gillham, who came upon the area while searching for his wife and children, who in 1790 were abducted by Indians from his Kentucky farm.  After five years he found them at a Kickapoo village on Salt Creek, near present-day Springfield, Illinois.  After ransoming them he eventually settled his family on Long Lake, whose grassy prairies, fertile black earth, abundant timber, and pure water had impressed him.  I love it too.  It seems abundant to me as well.

My father has not yet returned from the house so, lying belly-down on the sled, I push myself along the ice near the shore, pressing my wool mittens against the leaf-ridden ice and lunging forward.  I move away from the dock, eyes trained on the ice passing beneath me, sliding out from the shore to where the ice lies smooth, and the going gets better.  Then a black image flashes past.  I drag my boots to stop, roll off onto the ice, and scurry back on all fours to it.

There, a half-foot below the surface in clear, rigid water, lies a black cat with white boots—the Suttons’ missing cat Boots, her last breath now bubbles captured in ice.  I lie on my stomach gazing at the creature trapped within the hard lake, imagining its creeping unawares over thin ice, falling through to the frigid water, and struggling vainly to free itself.  I lie on the ice as if frozen, staring, puffs of white breath hovering over me in still air.

I hear a footfall and turn to see my father coming down the wooden stairs to the lake with ice skates tied over his shoulder.  I retreat toward the shore where I was ordered to remain.  Walking ahead of my sled, pulling it by a clothesline tied to its frame, I approach my father, who sits on the boat dock lacing up his skates.

He wears a wool cap, burgundy letter jacket, and gray wool socks with a red band at the top, into which he tucks his charcoal-gray trousers.  A cigarette hangs from the corner of his mouth, the good-smelling smoke wafting to me.  He lifts the cap from his head, smoothes back his straight, black, widow’s-peaked hair, and places a hand on my shoulder.  Without a word he tosses his cigarette aside hissing on the ice, rises, and glides off across the lake, skates clanking against the ice then cutting an arc on it when he turns.

I watch his trim figure moving over the lake as if pulled along by an invisible hand, like a leaf blown across the sun-lit ice.  Now he returns, racing toward the dock, coming faster and faster.  My heart quickens.  I’m afraid he won’t be able to stop in time and will crash into the wooden pier.  But at the last instant he turns his skates to the side and shushes to a stop, sending a spray of shaved ice into my face.

Squinting and smiling, I brush the ice from my eyes.

“Hop on and let’s go.”  His voice comes to me higher and lighter than usual.

Lying flat on the sled’s slats, chin touching the cold metal frame, mittens clutching the wooden steering bar, I look up to him and nod.  “Okay.”

Its taut pull-rope in my father’s hand, the sled begins to rumble across the lake.  His skates glint in momentary sun and pound the ice.  Soon the sled is skimming the lake, me hugging it like a lifesaver, my father bent forward, legs straining.

A quarter-mile down the lake we begin a wide turn.  I feel the centrifugal force urging me from the sled and hook my ankles in the runners.  Now the sled is moving sideways, too.  I glance up to my father with a mix of fear and exhilaration as the far lake-bank approaches, trying to see if he recognizes the danger and can keep the sled from plowing into the thick-trunked cottonwoods there.  The bank comes closer and closer, the trees come faster and faster.  Then suddenly the sled lurches forward and skirts the shore as we complete the turn and move on a line back home.

Ice kicked from my father’s skates blows stinging into my face.  The slick shining surface slips by beneath.  The sound of metal on ice comes to me muffled by my earflaps.

“Faster!” I call, “Faster!” and imagine the day I will skate there beside him.

But that day will never come.  This December day with my father and me gliding over the frozen lake in tandem is the last time I remember seeing him move so gracefully.

 #

Unsolicited Reader Comments on Christmas at Long Lake

“I have enjoyed Christmas at Long Lake hugely…It is beautiful and cleanly written, and I admire it not only for its use of language but as well fro the ways in which, within the framework of the narration of events of a couple of days, it works outward to create a larger thematic universe of boyhood, family and America as manifested at a particular time through particular place. As a writer, it meets for me the ultimate test: I wish I could have written it.”

“I hated for it to end; I cried at times as it brought back so many memories of my own childhood…I gave this book to my daughter as a Christmas present, which she too enjoyed. Thank you so much for returning me (for a while) back to a time when life was sweet and uncomplicated.”

“…masterful, deep and moving. We all enjoyed reading it. It has all the components of a classic work of literature.”

”I read it straight through. A very pleasant experience. This is a fine book.”

“I just finished reading your book and must say it brought back a lot of memories of my own childhood. I really enjoyed the warmth and the love you expressed.”

“I really enjoyed it…I was transported back to my childhood…You were really able to recapture the wonder and awe of a child’s experiences and yet also make tangible the joy of life despite (or because of) a lack of material possessions. The melancholy and inevitability of change also came across powerfully.

“A walk down memory lane. Having grown up in the 50’s, I was especially moved. A reminder of how times and family values have changed. Mr. Skwiot, thank you for sharing your life with us. God bless you.”

“How exciting that some teachers are using your book at the high school! What a great lesson, not only in such lovely literature, but in the history of our area as well. Your vivid recall of the many details of your life amazed me while I read the book, but I understand as I read those last pages this morning that because your life took such a dramatic change, you kept those sweet memories close to your heart all of these years. Beautifully written, bittersweet book.”

“I picked up the book last night, read it until bedtime, picked it up first thing this morning and finished it just now. So charming, so magical, earnest, so touching and evocative of some elements of my own childhood.”

“Christmas at Long Lake” is a wonderful book and excellently written. It made me get nostalgic…”

“I am recommending the book to anyone who lives in the Granite City area. It was a well written book and kept my attention the whole way through and that isn’t easily accomplished. I have a very short attention span. Thanks for the memories.”

“I read your book this week and wanted to tell you how touching I found it. Some of your memories certainly resonated with mine growing up on a small farm…But I was most touched by your sadness in leaving that place, and leaving behind the persons your mother and father were on the farm. I wish your lucky rabbit foot and letter to Santa could have spared all of you from the changes that followed…Thank you for sharing this memoir.”

“…[W]hat a wonderful book… Thank you for a walk down memory lane.”

“A quietly beautiful memoir…Despite living in an old fishing shack in the middle of nowhere, Skwiot regards this part of his life as near Eden, as he writes of old-fashioned pleasures in simpler times as well as of the hard work of daily living. This is the story of Skwiot’s last Christmas in the country as he wrestles with possible consequences of his father’s recent job loss, but there are plenty of meanderings back to other seasons and other times that fill out the picture of blue-collar life in the early 1950’s… This book is a little gem that will be a special delight to those who remember simpler times or life in the country, but for others the descriptive prose just might bring up shadowy memories that never were.”

“It’s not often you pick up a memoir these days about a functional family; a family steeped in Christian values and country ways, straight out of Norman Rockwell’s post-war Americana–and yet human and fallible enough in character to hold a reader’s interest…Christmas at Long Lake does exactly that, reflecting on a boyhood Christmas in 1953 when his father loses his job at the Granite City steel mill and the family is forced to move to the still segregated city of St. Louis…The wonder of this quiet, quick-reading memoir is not the action of the story so much as the beauty of the language, and all that Skwiot manages to encapsulate in character, setting, and emotion within just a few days’ time. Growing up in virtual poverty, this six-year-old’s life was rich and downright blessed in many ways. A great read for anyone familiar with the St. Louis region, urban or rural–and a beautiful little book to stuff in any stocking.”

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On Writing Christmas at Long Lake

Rick Skwiot AuthorWhat Rick has to say about writing Christmas at Long Lake: A Childhood Memory

While writing Christmas at Long Lake I re-read José Ortega Y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, which helped me clarify what I was about in my memoir: depicting the last vestige of a folk culture as mass culture attained supremacy.

In my edition (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985, with foreword by Saul Bellow, of all people), the translator, Anthony Kerrigan, writes in the introduction:

“Though the “folk” tend to be sound, the “masses” do not. These two distinct words evoke a robust distinction…Ortega wrote essays probing the ‘aristocratic’ nature (in the sense of preservation mostly) of  the folk and their lore…How often in democracies has not the sound instinct of the folk proven more viable than the elitist machinations of the politicians?”

In Christmas at Long Lake I write of an American family but one still very much European, a first-and-second generation American family yet ruled by folk traditions and values, with old world dignity and self-sufficiency, a benevolent monarchy unto itself.

But looming over it is the neurotic mass culture—in the first TV I see as a boy at a neighbor’s home, in the lurking migration of my father from manual work to paperwork and of my family from bucolic and esthetically rich rural America to denatured and sterile suburbia. I view Christmas at Long Lake as a microcosm of the final days of folk culture in America, documenting the death rattle of family life, independence, and freedom.

* * *

Along with that, I think I was influenced intellectually by my sociological reading, particularly C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1956 or thereabouts, I think).

In it he posits that a fundamental power shift had occurred or was occurring in America, from power being vested locally in the family, the church, the community, and the school, shifting to large institutions: the government, the economy, the mass media, the corp-orations, etc.

I think that one thing that makes Christmas at Long Lake poignant for many readers is that it dramatizes that loss of power for one family, it being uprooted and twisted because of these larger institutions, particularly the post-war economy, and losing its own dominion. I think readers understand that loss of power, because it has happened to most fami-lies at one time or another, in one generation or another, the forced moved from self-sufficiency and control over the ruling aspects of their lives to powerlessness and dependency on larger institutions.

But intellectual considerations aside, what drove me to write this book was a visceral feeling of that loss for my family.

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Critical Praise for Christmas at Long Lake: A Childhood Memory

 

“Rick Skwiot works his own magic…As usual, Skwiot’s writing is sure…And his tale has a gritty, blue-collar cachet…This is good reading.”—Kansas City Star

“Skwiot’s vivid descriptions of the physical and emotional landscape of this environment are poignant, entertaining, and instructional…There is magic in this depiction of a setting and a way of life that can be described only as Edenic.”—Library Journal

“Skwiot’s memories of the grandmothers are rich and poignant, and the descriptive detail shimmers.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A heartwarming, thoughtfully recalled, highly recommended memoir.”—Midwest Book Review

“Rick Skwiot has harvested his rich years of childhood in such a way that we can only enjoy, admire and wish for more.”—Solares Hill

“The memoir’s simple, elegant prose and eye for detail banish most sentimentality from the tale. Skwiot captures the magic of the moment…”—Portfolio Weekly

“…a memoir written with sure craft and true heart, a narrative of Paradise Lost, the story of a time when the details of an ordinary day appear to be magical.”—Michael Pearson, author of Dreaming of Columbus: A Boyhood in the Bronx

“…an elegant evocation not only of a particular time and place but also of the way childhood memories set up a permanent residence in our hearts. This a lovely, elegiac book.”—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

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