June 1989. This was the summer I discovered the cabin. I remember a long day's ride in Dad's brown Volkswagen Camper with the windows rolled down, 139 miles of two-lane highway. Cement became asphalt, then gravel, and finally we turned onto rutted logging road. Aunt Joyce and uncle Mel rode with us.
Dad downshifted and cut the engine. We were in the midst of Nicolet National Forest, over a million and a half acres of woodland in northern Wisconsin. The forest wrapped around us like a thick wool blanket. I remember hearing the wind in the trees and looking up at the towering pines. (All trees appear huge when you're six years old.)
Deeper in the woods, where the road edged a tamarack bog, I spotted the cabin. I remember it appearing smaller than I'd imagined in stories, the facade shingled in muted browns and greens reminiscent of rusty nails and unpolished greenstone. I loved it.
The cabin is the centerpiece to forty acres of woodland that my late Grandpa McIlree purchased for forty dollars in 1941. He and a friend built the structure in his backyard, and then trucked it over 250 miles from southeast Wisconsin. I remember my aunt, uncle, and dad walking toward it without speaking. McIlrees talk so much that moments of silence can get lost amid the broadcast. These moments, however, often say more than the words surrounding them.
This time the quiet was whispering, Listen. This is a holy place.
I stepped through the door and for the first time became aware of Grandpa's presence. An empty gunrack made from deer legs was hanging on a wall, its two hooves pointing at the ceiling. The walls were insulated with flattened cardboard boxes. The place smelled of kerosene and cracked leather and musty mattresses.
I sat on Grandpa's bottom-bunk and climbed up and down the cobwebbed ladder to the loft. I studied rows of small glass bottles in a cupboard covered with dust. The cast iron kitchen pump squealed when I worked it, but no water came forth. Birds chirped outside the window.
And then I understood that to Grandpa, the cabin was a touch of sacred in a tough world. Hunting was always beside the point. Fishing was always beside the point. A place to commune with nature and interact with family and friends, free from life's distractions, was the raison d'etre of the cabin. It was where we could reflect on God's vast greatness in the company of one another.
Grandpa and the family spent summer, autumn, and winter weekends here. Some of Dad's happiest childhood experiences happened here. Aunt Joyce and uncle Mel honeymooned here. And now I too was introduced to the family tabernacle.
For McIlrees, the cabin has come to represent an ideal of life, especially because our family is no stranger to dark rooms within the American experience. We've pressed our hands over several generations against the walls of mental illness, substance abuse, divorce, a suicide. We often forget to act lovingly toward one another, and we avoid talking about hurt feelings.
Memories of the cabin, at times, have provided doorways out of those shadows. McIlrees may not want to articulate how disappointed we feel about a hurtful situation, but we can easily reminisce about the long journey to this holy place, about walking the boggy woods and flushing deer.
And sometimes, after reflecting on our forty acres, we can begin to be honest about our inner struggles and our struggles with each other.
Yet these memories have limited mileage. The family has splintered into sharp, wounded pieces in the roughly forty years since Grandpa's death. We rarely see or talk with one another. Some of us haven't visited the cabin in years, and the youngest generation has never even seen it.
Vandals have since smashed the cabin's windows and stolen everything from it. Gone is the gunrack made from deer legs. Gone are the small glass bottles in the cupboard covered with dust. Gone is the cast iron kitchen pump. The place appears abandoned and forgotten.
The cabin was where family could be experienced as well as remembered. Otherwise, without a space for honest and regular interaction with one another, challenging family experiences just become freighted with more and more baggage. Eventually any family memory becomes too bothersome to recollect. And if that habit becomes the new status quo, I wonder if both the relevancy of our family and the purpose of our forty acres will fade into the past.
The spirit of the place, of our family's sacred connection to nature and to one another, will disappear.
So I return once more to the cabin, because only from within my circle of family can I glimpse my authentic self. Their flaws mirror my flaws. Their talents mirror my talents. This time I walk our forty acres not to reminisce or blame or redeem, but to simply be aware of our shared heritage before any part of it can become unrecognizable. At the cabin I can begin to be honest about my role in those relationships, and by doing so, begin to be honest with God.