Minnesota: Land of 10,000 Relatives

That’s my 86-year-old mother on the back of a four-wheeler with my cousin Ginny. We saw lots of Minnesota in these types of off-road vehicles.

There are lakes, too, of course, that’s Minnesota’s true license plate tag line: the land of 10,000 lakes. And beside each of these lakes a family member from my mom’s side likely has a cabin. 

I told my mother I would be her travel companion this September so she could again visit her watery and forested homeland and see all the nieces, nephews, grands, greats, and great-greats. She’ll be 87 this year and all the trouble made these days through TSA, along with the degeneration of the state of air travel that has become more like taking the bus now, is a bit too much for this octogenarian. 

Back in the day, my mom was a stewardess on Continental airlines. From behind her federally mandated COVID mask, she told the Southwest Airlines flight crew this bit of her personal history as we stepped aboard in Denver.

“Her uniform now hangs in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.,” I explained to reiterate that they had something of a legend on board.

When we disembarked that plane the captain spotted my mom on the way out. 

“How did we do?” he asked. 

She gave him and the rest of the flight crew a thumbs up.

We took an Uber to where the rental car was. Mom stood in the parking lot and asked Jesus to help us. I fumbled around on a newer app I hadn’t used before and wondered why there were so many black Hondas in Minneapolis. But soon enough, we were off, cruising north toward my mom’s hometown of Deerwood, pop. 553.

Mom’s getting strapped into her life jacket for our boat trip across Sunset Lake.

Country roads through thick forests of maples, elms, and pine gave way to large lakes with reedy shores. Green hayfields undulated into the distances and eventually led us past my two cousins’ houses and my aunt’s house to a cabin my Uncle Hub and his family built a couple decades before he died. 

The first morning at this cabin on Sunset Lake I sat behind a giant wooden desk writing in the loft overlooking the water. Bright morning sun lit up sparkles across the blue of the water. And having re-read Huckleberry Finn this summer I was a bit intrigued with the island in the middle of the lake. 

About lunchtime I convinced my mom to get into the metal rowboat that lay overturned on the shore at the cabin and adventure out to the island in the middle of the lake for a picnic. It didn’t take much convincing as she is likely the source of some of my adventurous spirit. Getting in and out of the boat was a little tricky for her, but once she was settled, I waded shin-deep into the muddy shore of the lake and tugged at that aluminum craft until we were waterborne.

I couldn’t figure out the oarlocks, so I ended up Sacagawea-style at the bow, kneeling and paddling like I was canoeing through lands yet uncharted with Lewis and Clark.

Mom wanted to take a selfie of us on the island.

Actually, the island is quite familiar. My mom said they used to take her mom there for Sunday outings. We stepped ashore and sat in the tall grass on a beach towel while we ate sandwiches and photographed the views. I found some old songs on Apple music on my phone and that seemed like pure magic to my mom. 

Mother’s prayers were going up nonstop on the way back, especially when we were trying to get her back out of the boat. Finally, I hoisted her up under the arms and she was back on dry land and happier than Magellan to find shore again.

Meanwhile, my lake-water-soaked shoes spent several days drying on the deck and several days convincing me that something had died in my suitcase.

We visited with my Aunt Frannie, and her kids, and their kids, and some of their kids’ kids. We also saw kids and grandkids from my other aunt’s brood. They all drove us around their acreages and farms in ATVs. We went up and down dirt paths through woods, beside rivers where swans swam, through fields of cows and deer, and to other cabins, farms with honey, chickens and ducks, and wood piles that would impress Paul Bunyan. We ate meals together with family I’d never met or hadn’t seen in decades. 

My mom cleans the sunfish and bass she caught in the lake.

My mom caught fish in the lake, and we watched deer parade across the grass and through the forest. As we drove the winding blacktop from one relative’s house to another, we watched carefully as each late-summer day made more and more green leaves turn yellow, orange and bright russet. 

My cousin said she and her family started this cabin as a homeschooling project when her kids were in high school. It’s glampy and adorable.

Two nights we were booked at my Cousin Ginny’s more rustic cabin. We reminisced around a campfire eating s’mores and listening to my mother tell tales of the long, long ago. But the romance of clamping wore off the first night with my mom, for whom outhouses at midnight, loft beds, and carrying in your own water are memories from a poor childhood on a farm, rather than a way of living in her 80s. So, she spent the second night in my cousin’s house. 

I spent a glorious few hours in the cabin alone. Surrounded by trees, the sound of wind in the leaves and birds chirping, I wrote and wrote. Late at night, lying in bed, I listened as coyotes came to dance and sing in the forest.

A dream space for writing.

This introverted moment seemed to surprise some of my relatives, maybe because they are so often surrounded by kinfolk. So, I thought about it a lot. In some ways I always feel alone—even surrounded by so many family members welcoming us into their lives for a few moments, asking my mother about the history of her clan, offering us chicken dinners. We are all part of others this way, but also, separate selves. Maybe, since I’m not from Minnesota, I’m less like a maple tree, dripping syrup into a bucket to boil down and share. Maybe, being from Colorado, I’m more like an aspen, singularly standing beside all the other aspens, yet deep down also linked together with the same roots that bind us all.

The moon over Sunset Lake.