Every April, it was a family tradition to get a cabin for a week on Lake Champlain, as a kind of bonding experience. The able-bodied men would fish, and they would make a big hullabaloo of it, turning just about everything into a masculinity contest. They’d compete to be the first to get to the lake, well before the crack of dawn, the first beers cracked just before noon. The women, children, and older men would stay inside, the men mostly sleeping and smoking, children playing card games for coins, and the women comparing family recipes and family ailments in front of a wood-burning stove.
On this particular trip, I had just turned twelve, and the men gave me the honor of tagging along with them on their fishing expeditions. Without a dad to emulate, I stumbled through the excursion like a fish who learned too late that bait has a catch. I carried my bulky Polaroid camera with me, a birthday gift from my grandmother, who saw the potential I had as an artist. Just two summers prior I had drawn an immense portrait of her out of the burnt charcoal from a campfire, starting with her dark kindly eyes.
This year, there was far less time for ambling, or even toast, as I was whisked out of bed at 5 in the morning by an eager uncle Dave, the one with yellow whiskers in his nostrils. I strung my camera around my neck and peered into my mom’s room as I left. Part of me had hoped the squeaking floorboards would wake her, and she’d protest, but I knew from how her flannel arm hung from the side of the bed that it was hopeless.
It was on this trip that I learned that, save for the bitter ramblings about who had the biggest, best, or most fish, the competition was largely a rouse. The goal was to appease or impress, I wasn’t sure which, the women of the household. The reality was that the men mostly did, well, nothing. True, they made it to the lake at an ungodly hour, but after a good forty-five minutes they’d head for the parking lot where they’d spend the bulk of their time. There, they’d blast music from their parked cars, discuss the engines of said vehicles, and spit on the ground – a lot. As I shot this photo, something about my childhood died, and it died anti-climactically. As I left in the morning, empty stomach churning, I feared being put to serious tests, that somehow I’d make a fool of myself on the lake. The night before I had nightmares about catching my own boot, and worse, catch nothing. As we trekked back to the cabin from the parking lot, the men were largely silent, save for the shuffling of their dirt-caked boots. If this was a rite of passage, I barely knew it. I returned home to my cousins playing checkers, my mom and aunt topping a pie with a lattice crust, and my grandfather asleep underneath a Time magazine. I grabbed a flashlight and went out back to search for a nub of charcoal.
Story by Cordelia Eddy