I love Lake Superior. This summer, we explored some of the Wisconsin side – in particular, the lakeshore around the Apostle Islands. The highlight of that trip for my family was a night kayak tour of the lakeshore. The sea caves at night were magical. But my kids were most delighted by getting to see – and even touch – an old shipwreck from 1901, the Fedora.
Evidently, Lake Superior has perfect conditions for preservation. The lake is too cold for the micro-bacteria that usually destroy boats, there’s no salt, and there are no zebra mussels to feed on the wood hull. So old shipwrecks are preserved.
When we got home, I surveyed our garage, which looked a little like a container of shipwrecks itself. We have a lot of storage in the garage – hooks and cabinets and drawers and floor space. But it was full. Past full. Loaded up with ancient sand toys, bikes, camping gear, gardening tools and seeds and potting soils. Skis and ice skates and golf clubs and roller blades. An endless variety and ubiquity of old screws and bolts and hex wrenches. Where did they all come from? Where were they all supposed to go?
I’ve decluttered the whole inside of our house, top to bottom. The garage was the last thing I had to do, and I had put it off – officially because it was too cold, and then too hot. But mostly because I just had no idea of what to do with all the stuff. I didn’t know what to preserve, or how much. What did I want to save?
As it turned out… not that much. Only the sports gear that fits our family members perfectly now, only the tools that fit into the tool boxes, only the gardening tools that fit into their appointed spaces. I couldn’t bring myself to declutter any hex wrenches, but they are on notice. There were carloads of donations, and other carloads of trash.
Whenever I go to the lake – the big lake – I am reminded of how much I love space. I love the expanse of the lake – the miles and miles of water, the miles of rocky shoreline, the sense of connection to waterways across the vast continent, the sense of connection across vast geological time. There are layers upon layers of visible rocks that tell stories of magma and ice and volcanoes and continental rifts. There are basalt rocks and agates to find on the shoreline. There are shipwrecks. There’s presence. And history. But there isn’t … clutter. What the lake keeps is perfect.
What would I want to keep from this precious summer of ours?
Not the bikes they outgrew, or the clothes. Not the hex wrenches! Probably not any of the “stuff” at all.
Yesterday we all picked bags full of basil, and I spent the afternoon prepping it for freezing so that my family can have “fresh” pesto all year. I had a counter-wide assembly line of salad spinner, food processor, olive oil, and freezing containers. We’ve frozen bags of berries that we picked at our local farms, and we’re on to beans next. We want to keep the tastes of summer as long as we can.
The whole house smelled like basil, as it often does in summer. And I thought about the smells I would preserve if I could – the smells that cloak my children from June to August – basil and chives and tomato and outdoor swimming pool. Pine needles and birch trees from the north woods. The smell of playing outdoors and making s’mores in the fire pit. Lilacs and roses. Cut grass. The way our dog smells when she comes inside. The smell of the rich earth of our yard. All the scents of a small town childhood in Minnesota.
I can’t put a box in the attic labeled “scents: summer 2022” to take out from time to time, or an album on my bookcase. I would if I could. We have albums of photographs, and I love them – they remind me of things that happened, or how my children looked. Old videos remind me of how our children interacted with the world. I’m grateful for those.
But the other day I tried a new kombucha – Guava Goddess. I wasn’t reminded of Brazil – for one moment, I was actually transported to the courtyard of my old high school. I was there. I couldn’t stop breathing in the smell of that bottle. Catching an old scent transports me differently than seeing an old photograph.
And so I wonder. It’s true that I can’t make an album that would bring my children back to this summer. But somehow that album must be in their bodies, present and preserved, just like the guava is in mine. Small treasures in the vast lakes of their own lives. Layers that make up the bedrock of who they are and how they have lived. That is what I have kept in my own life, and that is what they will keep, too.
And I hope so much that when they smell basil in a grocery store – or breathe in the air of the north woods, or taste burnt marshmallow at a fire pit – that they remember the magic, and the joy.