Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - October 29, 2021

Visits changed our lives

While holidays and vacations frequently include trips to unfamiliar places, reconnecting with family is also a common theme. For husband Art and me, some of those latter visits changed our lives.

Almost 30 years ago, I decided to surprise Art and the family with a couple of summer weeks at a Wisconsin lake. This was prompted by hearing him talk about how he had enjoyed his childhood summers at various cottages owned by relatives. Earlier visits to his cousin Claudia’s and her hubby Karl's place near Three Lakes, Wisconsin convinced me that would be a good area to investigate.

Claudia's mother Lela - Art's aunt - had teaching colleagues who owned a place on Whitefish Lake and Lela had spent summers with them. After Claudia's birth, she too enjoyed the lake life and so it was natural when Claudia and Karl married to want their own place. In 1987, they bought land on Whitefish - land that contained two small cabins suitable for short visits. Their retirement home followed in 1993 - the year of my family surprise. We enjoyed it that summer so much we decided to buy a cottage nearby so we and our daughters Mariya and Katie could experience summer lake life every year, much as Claudia and Karl had.

Art's mother Donna always joined us and, of course, those summers included spending time with Claudia and Karl. We often gathered for meals at the Oneida Inn, the White Stag, the Sunset Grill or other nearby restaurants.

At least once each summer, the girls and I would go with Karl on boat rides through the Chain of Lakes. On those trips, Karl shared his knowledge of the history and natural beauty of the area. Once we passed through the small channel connecting an adjacent lake, he'd roar across the open expanses of the lake to give us the thrill of spray on our faces. He pointed out the wild rice in the shallow waters and mentioned how the Native Americans had the first shot at harvesting it. He drew our attention to eagle nests, herons and loons. One year when German "kids" Nadja and Tim were with us, Karl took Tim tubing. He also let them and our two girls try their hand at the wheel, which on one occasion resulted in a sheared prop pin. Karl took it in an "it happens" manner, as we rowed back to the pier.

Claudia and I explored nearby towns for shopping and what she called "ladies lunches," sampling local cuisine such as sandwiches with chopped chicken, cranberries and nuts. One summer, we also made raspberry jam from the wild berries Art, the girls and I had picked.

Their lakeside home had family photos on narrow ledges lining a hallway. Family heirlooms, including dishes, photo albums, and Claudia’s childhood doll house, occupied special places of honor. But the warmth brought about by easy conversation and lots of laughing was the most important.

One humorous event was "celebrating" Donna's 75th high school reunion. She had often wondered aloud how many of her classmates were still alive. Art would always answer, "You’re it! So wherever you are, you ARE the class reunion!"

We mentioned this to Claudia, who sprang into action. She ordered a cake with blue and orange frosting - the colors of the Appleton High Terrors. When we arrived, Donna was perplexed why there was a cake. But when she realized it was for her 75th class reunion, she laughed and we all had a great time!

Another incident occurred when Katie was about 6. Karl and Claudia had a large Newfoundland dog named Belle. Katie had a loose front tooth and when she went to pet Belle, the dog lifted her head, knocking Katie's tooth out! A successful search ensued, prompted by Katie not wanting to miss a payout by the tooth fairy.

On yet another occasion, Art, looking for a drink, went to the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of Kool-Aid from a pitcher. He was surprised how sweet it was ... then realized it wasn't Kool-Aid. He had just taken a swig of the hummingbird-feeder liquid!

We, along with Art's brother Tommy, also visited at Christmastime. Karl would fix turkey or ham or Claudia would serve a hearty soup. After, we enjoyed Claudia's dainty cookies, which she, Karl and their kids beautifully decorated with piped icing, sprinkles and dragées. One year, Karl made us tiny birch-bark birdhouses and stars from the plentiful strips of birch peelings available in the nearby forest floor. They are among my favorite Christmas ornaments.

Squirrels, chipmunks and deer made regular appearances around their home and black bears occasionally visited too. Both Karl and Claudia loved birds. The coffee table had several guidebooks at the ready to help identify different species. The feeders in their back yard were well-visited by hummingbirds in the summer and woodpeckers and chickadees in the winter - something that always fascinated me. The year Art gave me my first digital camera for Christmas, I took so many pictures of birds while we were visiting that Tommy said I was "like a kid in a candy store!"

Karl and Claudia always included our kids. When they were young, that meant playing Checkers with them or doing tricks with Dominoes or buying Beanie Babies at a local store. When the girls were older, Karl and Claudia wanted to know what they were studying and what their interests were.

Highway 32, lined with evergreens, birches and maples as it curves along the edges of Spirit, Laurel, Big Stone, Deer and Virgin lakes, was our connector to their home on Whitefish. But now it belongs to someone else. Karl died in January 2017 and Claudia, who turned 90 in May, recently moved to Minnesota to be closer to daughter Amy.

Family visits are an opportunity to share what has been happening in our lives. But now and then, they can be more. Some can change lives and those visits to Whitefish Lake certainly changed ours.

Top-left: cooks Gloria, left, and Claudia are proud of their jam production; bottom-left: the eagerly-anticipated Christmas cookies; top-middle (l-r): (back) Karl, Donna, Art, (front) Katie, Claudia, Mariya; bottom-middle: the home in the fading light of a fall day; top-right: Gloria and Claudia meet a "stranger" during a "ladies lunch;" middle-right: Karl taking (l-r) Mariya, Nadja and Katie on a boat ride; bottom-right: the cabin.

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