Monday, August 8, 2011

Up the Lake: Grandma's Stories

Insanity: The First Generation
A Shot in the Arm

The way across the lake was rarely as peaceful or straight as it looked.
From as far back in my childhood as I can remember, and many years past that, the same thing would happen whenever we would all be sitting around the cabin, Up the Lake, doing nothing. (A common occurrence on rainy days due to the lack of electricity, running water, and pavement.) Grandma would say, "Why don't we all play a game?" Then as we played, she would tell us a bunch of stories, mostly of the Up the Lake variety. My family and friends knew the place our entire lives, as our Grandparents found it when they were dating. Any of my bizarre adventures up there pale in comparison to some of the tales from the "old days,” when cars were not available to everyone, thus removing the ability to escape the craziness and isolation, even for short periods of time.

Modern Up the Lakers often brought friends to their cabins who had never been there, but it was almost only for just an afternoon, as anyone above junior high owned their own sport utility vehicle. But when my Mom was a kid, many of her cousins’ first experience of the untamed wilderness was for a full weekend at the minimum. As her entire family consists of Italians from the Bronx (a loud, emotional, and temperamental bunch in general) inexperience often led to comedy and chaos. Two cousins, Nicky and Claudia were visiting one weekend. As the experienced forest dweller, Mom was going to take them fishing in the morning. Claudia's description of the event was,

"She woke us up sometime before five A.M., wrapped me in flannel, and then said we had to dig for worms.”

When describing this she always uses a tone of voice indicating that digging them up would be only marginally more pleasurable than eating them. Eventually the three intrepid adventurers set forth on their excursion. (Well, one intrepid adventurer, and two city kids who probably should have stuck to playing stoop ball around Morris Ave.). At some point one of them hooked something. As with all really good Up the Lake fishing stories, the memory of the actual person who caught it has been completely lost in the ensuing chaos. Regardless of whoever’s pole it was, my mother reeled in an eel.

Eels are always drawn to boats which contain:
A) Inexperienced fishing people.
B) People afraid of snakes.
C) People who panic easily.

With Nicky and Claudia in the boat, Mr. Eel hit the jackpot. Following all proper fishing rules, Mom handed the pole to Nicky, told him to keep it away from the equipment, and was about to remove the animal from the hook. Following all proper panicked city kid in the woods rules, Nicky held the pole as close to the other poles in the boat as possible. At this point the eel, thrashing around like a hyperkinetic sea serpent with appendicitis, managed to wrap itself and the line around every piece of fishing gear within thirty-two miles. My mother yelled at him to pay attention causing Nicky to spin around with an intelligent, "huh?" and slap Claudia dead across the face with the eel. Suddenly becoming in touch with her heritage, Claudia displayed the emotional restraint that all NY Italians are famous for...and totally freaked out. Disregarding the one rule of small boat usage that everyone knows, (with the possible exception of George Washington) she stood up. Then she continued to panic wildly, demanding to be taken to shore, preferably somewhere in the vicinity of Yankee Stadium. Following the example of most Up the Lake boat stories; there was much screaming and several near capsizes before sanity returned. Finally, they made it to shore. Despite her thrilling naval adventures, this was one of the last times Claudia made an appearance Up the Lake, or anywhere with more active sea life than Fulton's Fish Market.

In the immortal words of Bill Cosby, "Now I told you that story, so I could tell you this one." My Grandmother let us know about taking the boat to church that same weekend. Mass used to be held at the Friary across the lake, requiring rowing to attend. Now this was fine for most folks, but my Grandmother would get seasick if you talked about a painting of a dingy in dry dock. Her religion was stronger than her nausea though, and over she went. To show what a loving and trusting woman she was, armed with the full knowledge of what is now on file as "The Eel Event,” she took Nicky and his baby brother in the boat with her. When they were leaving church, in their Sunday best, Grandma tried to get the baby off of the dock. She gave Nicky the infinitely complex command of "Hold the Boat". Now at any reunion of the characters of that weekend’s adventures, long, involved, debates were held as to what Nicky actually did, but the phrase "Hold the Boat" never, ever came up. As Grandma was clutching the baby, the ship and shore decided they had irreconcilable differences and were going to have a trial separation. She had just enough time to toss the baby to Nicky (who could catch him as his hands were obviously unencumbered by the task of "Hold the Boat") and fell into the six-inch water, up to her waist. This is a common Up the Lake phenomenon, as the mud (known as "muck") under the weeds is in no way solid, until it sticks (and stinks) to the part of you that's sunk in it. This meant Grandma had to go swimming, fully clothed, to wash off the residue. At this time the campers were still allowed to wash themselves and their clothes in the lake. Sometime in the less than enlightened Eighties, however, the EPA decided that the additions of soaps and detergents would make the lake dirty. (Your taxes pay these geniuses' salaries, you know.) The lake became much less clear and pure than it was in my youth over time. (Surprise!) Anyway, someone was doing laundry as Grandma was engaged in her well-dressed Esther Williams impression. Grabbing a convenient garment floating by, she held it up and joked, "I lost my bloomers,” not noticing the two guys from across the lake fishing behind her, who almost ended up "guffawing with the fishes" to corrupt a mafia term.

NOTE: In order to get the proper effect of having this story told by my Grandmother, you need one of her right-hook to the arm "love taps" to highlight the punch line. As she was always "a tough broad from da Bronx,” even past her seventies, this is best simulated by being kicked by a bull moose at close range. Although everyone loved Grandma, and her stories, we all knew that sitting next to her was probably a dangerous idea.

Grandma’s good stories weren't always from the far past, one of the better ones happened when I was a kid. She always made her own seltzer, long after it was cheap and easy to find in the supermarkets, using the old vaudeville style squirting seltzer bottles.

The procedure was:

1) Fill bottle with water.
2) Tighten cap.
3) Connect CO2 filled "bullet".
4) Discharge bullet to make water "fizzy" (that's a technical term).
5) Place bullet (which is now 40 degrees below zero) down the shirt of your husband or Grandchild.

I don't really know the significance of step 5, but it must have been vital to proper seltzer manufacture, because she did it every time.

One night, after she had gone to sleep, my Grandfather decided to do a nice thing for her and refill the seltzer bottle. (This is the point in my life when I learned just what a dangerous gamble doing a "nice thing" for a woman can turn out to be.) Something went slightly wrong with the seal (in the same way that something went slightly wrong when the Titanic was introduced to the iceberg). The top of the seltzer bottle rocketed off, missed my Grandfather's head by exactly three seltzer molecules, drenched him with its fizzy propellant as it passed, tore through the screen in the window, and eventually killed a very surprised California sea lion. Grandpa then staggered into the bedroom looking like he just lost an argument with Lake Erie. My Grandmother lovingly inquired, "What the hell happened to you?" and he told her of his near death experience with carbonation. Suddenly we were all awakened to the sound of Grandma yelling,

"TWENTY YEARS!!!! I used that bottle and nothing like that happened!"

Let it be known that the average life span of a domesticated seltzer bottle is about two years, less in the wild.

This fact was lost on my Grandmother who, despite the quiet soggy protests of my Grandfather that he did not intentionally try to blast his head from his shoulders using an old Harpo Marx prop, continued to yell that he must have done something wrong. Sleeping was no longer an option because every time he would say,

"But I didn't do anything."

She would yell,


Following which was a loud thud from my parents’ room. (Dad falling out of bed, laughing.) Even much later when this story came up, Grandma would chuckle, and then softly say, “But in the twenty years I used it, I never had any problems”.

I could fill an entire Funk & Wagnall's with old lake stories and still not get all of them. (Such as the time, Maria,  another visiting cousin needed the lantern set too high because she was afraid of the dark, which caused an unseen cloud of soot to hit my Grandmother’s face when she blew it out and led to her waking up the next day looking like an extremely irritated version of Al Jolson.)

But I have to include a childhood favorite...

The cabin on the same "lot" as ours belonged to my Grandfather’s brother, Uncle Ackie, and his family. (Up the Lake rule #287: the residents of two cabins can be said to be truly and unquestionably related to each other if they share an outhouse.) Uncle Ackie took the standard NY Italian temperament to its logical extreme, and he increased the size and colorfulness of many of my family members’ vocabulary in his life. The favorite pastime of these two Frissora brothers was arguing. This was due to a combination of Ackie's temper, and my Grandfather’s knowledge of Ackie's temper. One year, aware that Uncle Ackie was deathly afraid of bugs (that could be about six future posts); Grandpa caught a bee and mailed it to him. I learned a great deal of Italian from Uncle Ackie, most of which would earn me a quick swat from Grandma.

Uncle Ackie had three sons, which my Grandmother was close to, and would watch occasionally. Each generation of kids Up the Lake has a group of guys who are Officially in Charge of Fishing and Low Level Vandalism. My cousins were well in contention for that spot in their day (all of whom eventually became doting Grandfathers). One day their Aunt Ray (Grandma) asked them to help her bring a mattress up to the dump. Now although the word "road" is used by those of us who stay up there, most visitors ask, "Why are you driving through the woods?" on their first visit. This is understandable as the best sections of the road actually have a lawn growing in the middle of them. The road up to the dump, however, was far less traveled and much worse. No area larger than one square foot was flat; it had more twists than a Frankie and Annette movie; and the whole thing sloped at a horrifying angle. The reason Evel Knievel tried to jump the Grand Canyon, was that it was the backup safety stunt to driving down that road.
The "road" AFTER excessive improvements.

In full knowledge of these conditions, my Grandmother and her nephews headed up the hill with the mattress on a little "cart" they had. The “cart” consisted of three pieces of wood in an “I” shape, a long string, four baby carriage wheels, much faith and prayer, and a lot of huge nails. That's the key ingredient to any Frissora construction...big nails. When we took the old cabin down, we found a piece of wood less than twelve inches long with over six thousand nails in it, some of them large enough to lay railroad ties.

After they pulled the mattress up this "sloped section of forest that just happened to not have any large trees in it" (translation: road), Grandma decided it would be too tiring to walk back so she told them to all get on the "cart" to ride down. All Uncle Ackie and Grandpa heard were the kids screaming and my Grandmother yelling "Pick up your feet!!!” It was too late to do anything, however, as the cart had broken through the sound barrier half way down the hill. Therefore, the two older Frissora brothers heard them only after they whizzed by at a fun but highly unsafe velocity. This caused Grandpa to laugh and Uncle Ackie to swear violently; an eloquent description of their reaction to just about everything. The vehicle came to a stop somewhere outside Topeka, Kansas. After returning, the kids tried to recreate the fun on some smaller hills but, my Grandmother would tell us (still upset four decades later), Uncle Ackie smashed their ride up and threw it in the woods. The baby carriage wheels were still visible under some leaves until my mid-teens.

I really miss hearing all of her stories, but there's no way I'll ever forget any of them.

Up the Lake Index


Anonymous said...

This is my favorite yet...loved reading every word!
The sure could tell stories!!!!

Thanks for sharing...and oh how I remember the love tap on the arm!

(Still trying to figure out the anonymous/name/url thing...Kind of like signing off like this:)

Jeff McGinley said...

Whatever way you want, as long as you enjoy reading. Figured you'd like this one, as you've got some close relatives in there. Thanx again.

Anonymous said...

Laughed out loud five times. My wife is wondering what the hell is up. Keep up the good work Jeff.

I would have signed in to post this comment but this is the error message I received:
Your current account ( does not have access to view this page.


Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx much, Bruce. I'll have to look into that , weird.