My sister-in-law’s family owns a campground in Wisconsin that we’ve been returning to frequently for nearly 18 years now. The entire surrounding area owns a huge chunk of real estate in our hearts, because of so many shared memories and funny stories.
Grandma Harriet lived in a modest house right on the shores of the lake, and we always had full permission to walk down from the campground and use the beachfront that came along with the house. I only knew “Grandma Harriet” as a tall, lively, red-haired, former music teacher, who had been married three times (the first two husbands had died) and who would sometimes bring her accordion up to the campground and lead the sing-a-longs they used to have there on weekends. We always got a kick out of how incredibly spunky she was…she used to get up and dance along with the song, and her current husband (who obviously adored her) was, as far we saw, almost totally silent when they were in public and just sat watching her smiling. And then one year we heard that her husband had died, and not long afterward Grandma Harriet went too. The family kept the house and often one of the adult children were living there, so we just kept using the beach and telling stories of Grandma Harriet to our kids.
And then came my accident. At age 52, I was naturally struggling with depression and feeling that my life was over. I had recently come to grips with the realization that I would most likely never teach high school chorus again, or play piano at all well or so easily again. I had most of my identity and self worth wrapped up in that. I was determined not to be whiney or negative. I wanted to be someone people wanted to be around, but it was just so HARD! I kept praying about it and reading only positive things and trying to think only positive thoughts, but I was starting to lose the battle.
And then we were invited to visit the lake and stay in the house for a week with our daughter and her husband. We hadn’t dreamed of having a vacation with our financial circumstances, and with my problems, but this seemed perfect! We quickly said “yes” and agreed on a week.
It was the most magical week ever. Ever. The bedroom we slept in had a giant picture window that opened right on the lake, and we went to sleep every night to the sound of loons, and woke up every morning to sunshine sparkling on the lake. It must have rained sometime, but it didn’t seem like it ever mattered. And then there were Grandma Harriet’s scrapbooks.
Beside the fireplace in the living room were built-in shelves holding a number of photo albums and scrapbooks. One lazy afternoon, early in the week of our vacation, we were lying around in the living room talking about what might be in those old books. My husband started pulling them out and looking through them. Quite a few of them had been compiled by Harriet, and told the story of her life. In a paraphrase of her words, ” by the time your children and grandchildren become old enough to be interested in your life, you’re not around to tell them stories.” These books were her way of leaving a story behind so that by the time her descendants were interested enough to want to know more, the whole story would be here for them.
Turns out she was quite a girl with quite a story. The last line in every one of the books, save one, was “This has been the best year of my life!”
When she and her first husband had been married over 30 years and had 2 adult children, he was fixing a gravel truck right in front of their house when it fell on him and crushed him. She saw the whole thing happen. That was the only year she left that line out of the book. She wrote that she took to her bed several weeks with grief, and then one morning she heard her son and daughter in the kitchen discussing who would drive her down to Florida (she and her husband had spent winters in Florida for years). She lay there thinking “I’m not a baby! I can drive myself!” and hopped out of bed and ran into the kitchen and explained that to her children. They eventually agreed to let her try it, and so started a whole new chapter in her life. We started seeing many more references to a group down in Florida named the “Sojourners” that was made up of snowbirds, who would have weekly meetings, socials, dinners, eat at restaurants, card games, and in every newspaper clipping and picture about the group there would be Harriet smiling somewhere. Husband #2 she had met through this group. He had been a widower, whose wife had been dead several years. That marriage was a happy one and lasted quite a few years before his death. More years went by, and then she reconnected with Clark. He and his wife had been friends of Harriet’s and her husband years before, and the two men had hunted together. They had lost touch through the years, but reconnected through the Sojourners Group and fell in love. This was the husband we saw, the quiet man that just sat watching her, quietly adoring. And again, after several years, he died first. They were all good marriages. Because her first marriage had been so fortunate, she wasn’t at all afraid to run wholeheartedly toward the next opportunity with no hesitation, no worries about “this time it might not…”. And so it always worked out. Who could resist being loved by such a woman?
Harriet had a daughter with polio, she had seen her husband of over 35 years die in front of her eyes: she had had the courage to remarry, and that had been a strong marriage, but he had died too. She had still had the heart to risk another time and that had been another win, but he too had predeceased her: yet at the end of her book she wrote these words which I’ll never forget: “Life has treated me kindly.” What a gift to another woman who feared that her life was over. Harriet started over and over and over, and at the end wrote those words. I’m certain that it was a God-thing that placed us in Harriet’s house with those scrapbooks and led us to them.
Our last morning, I woke up very early and walked out in the dim early light of morning. “Harriet?” I whispered. “Are you here? If you are, I want to thank you so much. I think you saved my life.” But there was no answer, no sense of her presence. Not that I expected there to be. Harriet had moved on to better things. She wasn’t the type to stick around when things were over.