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A Thanksgiving stumble in the woods

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Updated: May 9, 2012 10:01AM



Something did not feel right.

At 4:30 a.m. on the day before Thanksgiving, my wife Marianne and I and our three children loaded the station wagon in the dark. It was cold and quiet and windless, the air damp and flat.

We were headed to a forest cabin in Wisconsin. Mike was 12, Jackie 10, and Janet 6, and I wanted to give them the “over the river and through the woods” experience, so they might know the majesty of nature in winter.

But majesty metamorphosed into fury at first light, in a blizzard fierce enough that snow drifts hid the highway’s road markers.

It took five hours to reach Madison from our home in Evergreen Park, and we stopped at McDonald’s for rest. My coffee spilled because my hands were shaking. But the kids were all smiles with their Happy Meals; the snow and the tension, an adventure!

Thankfully, the skies cleared sufficiently and we made it to Bluegill Lake near Hayward, and I opened the cabin while Marianne and the kids unpacked. I switched on the furnace and got a fire roaring in the woodstove.

When I flipped on the circuit breaker for the water pump: nothing. I flipped it off and on again and thought I heard something. Sure enough, water was running onto the floor in the kitchen, streaming through the walls. Ice had swollen inside a water pipe, breaking it open somewhere behind the knotty pine paneling.

Marianne re-bundled the kids for a twilight hike through the forest to the closest eatery. Two dining-out escapades in one day had them squealing in delight, while also getting them away from the mess in the kitchen long enough for me to remove two planks and temporarily patch the pipe with a length of rubber hose and a clamp (something I’d once seen Grandpa Joe do). In a couple of hours, the faucets were working, and I dug into the burger and potato salad they brought back in a doggy bag.

I worried what Marianne thought. She had been reluctant to embark on a winter vacation, and already we had two near disasters. But she was reading a story book to Janet, a motherly smile on her face.

Thanksgiving morning, we gave the kids blaze orange stocking caps for protection from deer hunters and tramped through snow to chop down a tree to take home for Christmas. We sang “Over the River” as all three children, like tiny pall bearers, carried the little fir tree to the car.

But up on the road, a Department of Conservation vehicle was idling. An officer got out and asked to see our tree permit. I explained about yesterday, how the burst pipe prevented a trip to town to purchase the $5 sticker for harvesting a tree in the national forest.

The officer seemed understanding, and he bade me to start the car so the kids could warm up. Then he wrote out a citation and loaded the “evidence” into the DNR truck bed.

All these mishaps altered our plans for preparing a feast in the cabin, so we drove to the Evergreen Inn for Thanksgiving dinner.

Another occasion for dining out made the kids forget all the excitement of my “arrest.” Janet, in fact, proclaimed her relief that we’d be getting a store bought tree, since the confiscated one was “so skinny.”

Again I worried what Marianne felt: the hardships, the restaurant bills and the citation were adding up. But she appeared buoyant, at least for now, helping Janet load her plate at the buffet table.

We stayed an extra day, though not because the trip was so amazing: More snow Friday morning, and the rear wheel drive wagon could not make it up the gravel drive to the main road.

The kids were ebullient, using the time to sled and to cavort with Betsy, the brown and white spaniel belonging to a our neighbor down the road. Marianne read a mystery while I opted for “exercise,” doing what I could to dig out the car.

Saturday morning, the wagon was still stuck. But Betsy’s owner, Mike Livermore, showed up in his snowmobile and sledded up and down the driveway, eventually sculpting tracks that the wagon could traverse.

Finally, on Saturday night, safe back at home, the kids in bed. I admitted to Marianne that she had been right, that I hadn’t given her much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

She gave me a puzzled look and said that nobody should ever fret about bad luck. What’s most important is what we can control — our connections with one another. And that she was fortunate and thankful for family and closeness.

That was 25 years ago.

When I ask the kids, now grown, what they remember about that trip, they mention driving through the dark in their p.j.’s, romping with Betsy in the snow, and storytelling by the fire.

Oh, and getting pinched for chopping down the tree — they remember that, too, though I’d just as soon they forget it.

David McGrath is professor emeritus, College of DuPage, and author of The Territory, a story collection.



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