Red Feather

By Madelon Wise

Roz was laughing so hard, I expected her to snort. I mumbled a little chuckle, trying to be a good sport, but my stomach was churning, and a sad soreness settled in my chest. I could see what was funny about the old black-and-white photo that I showed my friends in the spirit of sharing my story. The photo was quintessentially ’50s, with baggy jeans and choppy haircuts. Also—and this was the part that had Roz in stitches—the whole family was lined up with their backs to the camera.

It was almost more than I could bear to have my friend ridiculing this precious photo. “My brother Mike is not in the photo because he took the picture. He wanted to capture us all at the fireplace,” I attempted to explain. I saw this supposedly hilarious photo as a beloved child’s-eye view of a rare moment of family harmony. Lighting the fireplace at the cabin and watching the fire was a holy family ritual. Further, this picture is one of only six photos I have from my childhood. But Roz didn’t know that, and I wasn’t going to tell her because then I would have to explain where the rest of the family photos went.

The photo showed us gathered in front of a red stone fireplace, the heart of the rustic mountain cabin high up a hill overlooking Red Feather Lake in northern Colorado’s front range. My brother Dave, blonde hair shorn in a buzz cut, was dressed in a white t-shirt and the native Coloradan’s ubiquitous pair of Levis. His torso was erect while he kneeled, seemingly considering the vertically placed hunk of wood leaning against the fireplace. His slightly splayed feet protruded from the big rolled-up cuffs of his jeans. Mom was sitting next to him, her small waist accented by the capped-sleeve cotton shirt tucked into her pedal pushers. The back of her head showed her dark, coarse hair, cut almost as short as a man’s, Mom’s silent rebellion to 1950s mores. At the time of the photo, her sudden death was only four years away.

Next in the lineup was a seated me about 5 years old. My hair was carefully styled, curly, blonde, and growing down my back, which was circled protectively by my father’s arm, graceful fingers extended. Dad’s side view was the only face visible, as he was turned to look at the fireplace. He looked uncharacteristically engaged, his face soft with presence. Still handsome with his curly, dark hair, his slim body was posed with one knee on the oval braided rug and the other knee bent as if he might push off and start running away in his tennis shoes.

“We were always on our best behavior at the cabin,” mused photographer Mike, many decades later. Most likely over a glass or three of wine at my house, Mike and I would spend hours reminiscing and seeking a clue to the mysteries of our childhood. “Nobody ever got drunk. Nobody ever threw anything. Nobody screamed or yelled. It was always good at the cabin.”

A small, one-room log structure with bunk beds built strategically behind and adjacent to the fireplace, the cabin was a place of simple meals and hanging out around a Formica table on aluminum-and-vinyl chairs. Plain broad plank pine floors blended with knotty pine paneled walls. Cold running water from the sink, the cabin’s only amenity, had to be heated for dishwashing. Dad and the boys hauled wood for the fireplace, the only source of heat. With its tiny gas range and equally small antique refrigerator against one wall, the cabin featured French doors that opened out onto boulders where tame chipmunks would scurry and chip. The screenless doors remained open most summer days, allowing sweet, insect-free mountain air to move through the cabin.

Surrounded by twisted, gnarly pine trees, my older brothers and I would spend hours climbing rocks or walking around the lake. I fearlessly climbed huge boulders, enraptured by the scent of pine and woodsmoke, the whisper of wind blowing through pines, and intense, dry sunshine. I had my favorite places to roam, but I could always find my way back to the cabin. We could borrow the neighbors’ rowboat and paddle out onto the deep, cold lake, but I never had an affinity for boats. I felt safest and most at ease climbing those boulders or burrowing under the covers with a book in my favorite top bunk. It was always good at the cabin.

In all the therapy, groups, workshops, intensives, camps, and other expensive enterprises aimed at making me feel better about myself and my upbringing, the leader would inevitably lead us in some kind of meditation that would include “going to our safe place.”

The cabin. The cabin is always my safe place.

© 2018 Madelon Wise

Madelon Wise, a transplant from the Driftless Area, is a gardening grandma riddled with radical biophilia. Writer, editor, permaculturalist, dog mom, musician, and storyteller.


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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