Singing Kettles

Ten years ago, I wrote an essay about Featherville, Idaho.  In the essay, I mused whether Featherville, an old mining town small enough to be omitted from most maps, teetered on the verge of death like Rocky Bar, the nearby ghost of a gold-mining hotspot, or whether it would thrive like its eastern neighbors, Ketchum and Sun Valley. 
As it turned out, Featherville thrives.  Its population has proliferated in direct relation to the shrinkage of its wild spaces.   There is money again in its economy; there are fewer foxes, elk, wolves, mountain lions, and bears.  The cabin that my grandfather built in 1969 consumed a small portion of this same wild space whose loss renders me a bit tetchy; it is among the long list of Things For Which I Was Not Responsible But Still Feel Guilty About. But I can’t imagine the cabin not being there. Featherville is in my blood. 
Charlie Baker, grandfather to many of my Idaho friends, opened the area’s real estate in the late sixties with properties known as Baker’s Acres.  My grandfather, who worked as a physician at the Gooding Hospital in Gooding, Idaho, met Mr. Baker through shared friends.  Grandpa visited Featherville at Baker’s urging and was immediately enthralled with the area. He quickly purchased the cabin’s current plot at the edge of the wild from Baker.  My grandfather and Mr. Baker were close allies in the development of Featherville, as were grandpa’s descendants and Mr. Baker’s: the McCoys, the Browers, and the Lancasters.  
Grandpa built the log cabin with his second wife, Edith, at the outermost boundary of Featherville, on a plot of land that adjoins the National Forest Service.  There is a Forest Service turn-around point for vehicles just beyond the dividing line, and many campers have tried – some successfully, some unsuccessfully – to make the space an unofficial camping spot.  When I am at the cabin, I become almost pathologically vigilant about preserving the sanctity and serenity of the cabin, staring coldly towards the drivers of vehicles that stop at the pullout in front of the house. 
I feel proprietary of Featherville and of the cabin.  Featherville has been my family’s special place for over forty years.  I have seen the town’s general store move from one side of the road to the opposite side, then back and over again, and have seen several incarnations of it open and close. The problem with seeing all the changing hands of businesses as they begin and consequently end is that I know and remember all of the owners and all their spaces, but the new owners and spaces don’t remember me, because I am only at liberty to visit Featherville occasionally.  To them, I’m not an insider; I am an outsider.  The dichotomy is discomforting, compounded by the gradual loss of the older generations of families with whom my family shares a long history.  What right do I have to bulldog the open space in front of the cabin when I’m only visiting for a week?  And yet, feelings bubble to the surface: Get out of here!  Don’t you know you can’t camp there?  Do I want to see your face when I go out for my run first thing tomorrow morning?  I can’t seem to correct my attitude, though I know it is unfriendly, uncharitable, and ultimately beyond both my control and my right.
The cabin is a fixture in the Moris family – a place for retreat and meditation, for reunions and large communal meals.  Its history is important to me.  Edith frequently preached from the small wooden pulpit of the town’s Little Church in the Wildwood; every Sunday, I sat on one of its chilly wooden pews and admired the colorful decals of stained glass affixed to its windows.  I learned to fish down in the river with my aunt Pat.  As children, my siblings and I played countless games of Scrabble with the grown-ups at the large dining table, late into the night with moths and mosquitoes illuminated against the darkness through screened in windows.  Grandpa had an uncanny talent for scoring triple word points and deftly dispatching all of his letters at once with words that we dared not challenge.  (We would have been wrong.)  So many photos have been taken on the front porch – small children becoming, in each advancing shot and in various stages of dress and preference, the next generation of adults, bringing with them their small children. The porch is, incidentally, the perfect place to drink kettle-boiled coffee while looking for chipmunks, foxes, and deer in the crisp morning air as the sun rises over tall pine trees.
Sharing the traditions of the cabin with my children helps to settle my inner grizzly.  We sit on the planked steps of the front porch: our shoulders awash in sunlight, watermelon juice dribbling down chins and arms.  We scout for chipmunks.  We stand on an overhang above the river, which rushes fast, full, and freezing cold in green pools below us; we toss rocks into the deepest parts, hoping to scatter a bright red prism of kokanee salmon.  We read together.  At dinnertime, we gather at the big table and eat simple food: spaghetti with oniony tomato sauce; thickly sliced white bread with salty butter; chicken breasts marinated in balsalmic vinegar, oil, garlic, and fresh rosemary; whole cobs of sweet summer corn.  My daughter serenades us throughout meals with “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love Again” (she is four and only knows the chorus, but she sings it with gusto). My son invents new jokes – primarily variations on the theme of ‘banana, banana, orange.’  We all vie to sit closest to the window so that we can watch the river as it rushes below.  The sound of water is a salve.
In a moment of insanity that struck just after my son was born, I thought I could forsake Featherville and the cabin.  Grandpa bequeathed his children and grandchildren equal stakes in the cabin, and we are all, more or less, collectively responsible for its maintenance and taxes.  My family – and fellow shareholders – urged me to wait a while before I relinquished my share. Thank God that they did. 
The cabin has no television.  The record player plays limited LPs crisply (my favorites are Swan Lake and The Sound of Music); it also receives limited radio transmission, but only during sunlight hours.  The phone receives incoming calls but dials out only locally. There is no such thing as Internet or cell phone reception.  Furnished as it is with items from the early 70s – lots of loud oranges and avocado greens – the cabin is a place where we cook, read, and talk.  We scale the steep bank just beside the cabin and go to the river to fish or play in sand for our entertainment. We hike frequently and are, as a family four generations strong, characterized by an irrepressible enthusiasm for spotting wildlife.
The first thing we do upon arrival at the cabin – after the obligatory opening of curtains and turning on the water heater – is set a pot of water on the stove to make ‘hummingbird juice,’ a sweet concoction of four parts water brought to a boil into which one part sugar is dissolved.  Several drops of red food dye are stirred in.  Once the mixture cools, we transfer it to a hummingbird feeder and place it at the corner of the porch, hanging about eight feet up so that we can watch it throughout the day whether we are indoors or out.  The hummingbirds are reticent at first, hesitant to be near us, but they quickly overcome any concerns.  I delight in watching Lilliputian feet pressed against downy soft abdomens as they whiz around the feeder, taking small sips and chasing one another away.  I have a particular soft spot for the copper-colored Rufous with the Napoleon complex.
On a recent visit, I observed two long-eared, black-tailed squirrels engage in an extended “conversation” regarding the triangulation of the coordinates for the stack of peanuts I stealthily placed on the porch in order to attract these very same creatures.  I vacated my seat on the porch for 15 minutes and every single peanut (there were about 30 in the stack) had disappeared.  My brother used to attract the smaller, striped chipmunks in this manner, eventually coaxing them to eat the peanuts directly from his open palm. 
The garden, a small allotment of land adjacent to the cabin, once grew strawberries and wildflowers.  I think it was Edith who nurtured that garden in the woods; she spent a lot of time by herself at the cabin and her love for the place was evident in her care of it.  Now the garden area is overgrown and thick with fallen dried pine needles, but I remember peering under the white strawberry blossoms and dainty green leaves to find those small red berries growing in their shade.  I think of Edith as I watch my daughter kneel in the dirt on the garden path, gathering sticks and rocks for one of her many archaeological ‘collections.’ 
Though grandpa remarried after Edith’s death in 1982, Edith is, technically, my grandmother, and I have gathered from family recollections that she was instrumental in bringing my mother and I from Africa into the United States when I was a year old.  She constitutes my first real memory, except that I am not sure whether it is a memory or a dream, because I was very young and, according to my mother’s journals, she died quickly after.  I can still see Edith entering my childhood bedroom at night with the lights off – her body a slight outline against the light from the hall, her bare scalp swathed in a polyester turban – sitting down on my faded Holly Hobby blanket and stroking my hair.  Hair stroking was the only consistent means to put my son, who was colicky for his first six months, back to sleep as I tip-toed out the door each morning to work.  I can’t seem to resist stroking my daughter’s hair, though the act probably soothes me more than it soothes her. 

Maybe the element of comfort is what binds me to the cabin, the familiarity of these ghosts of remembrance.  Maybe it is the repetition, the little, compelling indulgences of tradition.  As an adult, I understand why Edith so often surrendered herself to the cabin’s silent allure.  Grandpa chopped and stacked the firewood in the back of the house for her; Edith used the wood to keep the cabin warm during her extended stays, when snow packed itself halfway up the roof and everything was quiet and still except for a hot kettle singing on the stove.  She sometimes returned to Grandpa weeks later, bringing with her the tranquility of solitude, the joy of reunion, and the certitude of her return to the place she loved so well.


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