The memory that haunts me is more of a composite memory, really. The events all happened when I was so young that my mind has sort of squashed them all together, kind of like a memory meatloaf.
It involves the summers I spent as a child with my aunts at their cottage on Lake Michigan. The Aunts were my father’s four sisters who never married, never lived alone, never made a move without first consulting each other. My father was not on speaking terms with them for most of my formative years, and my sisters and I secretly referred to them as The Amoeba
My aunts had no children of their own, but they were firmly convinced that they were experts at child-rearing. In all matters of discipline, education, nutrition and entertainment, they knew it all. God help anyone who dared disagree with the Amoeba, which also explains a lot about why my mother’s relationship with them wasn’t all that terrific, either.
Aunt Marian, for example, couldn’t see the nutritional difference between sugary cereals and a candy bar, so we routinely ate Snickers bars for breakfast. She believed that dairy products could soothe an upset tummy, which meant that we ate ice cream between bouts of vomiting when we had the flu.
I cringe now that I’m a mother, but oh, man, did I love the food at my aunts’ house!
The Aunts also had some strange beliefs about what was and was not appropriate for children. Actually, they had some strange beliefs about a lot of things. Aunt Verna believed that douching with warm Pepsi could prevent pregnancy, so all pop served to teenage girls in that house was served on ice, thank you very much. She saw that as her way of preventing teenage sex. As teenagers, my sisters and I loved to come home from dates and make a big show of pouring ourselves a big, tall glass of warm Pepsi, just to mess with her mind.
But the memories that haunt me don’t involve dating, douching, or Pepsi.
My aunts were addicted to police scanners. They were four of the nosiest people in the world, and they discovered scanners about the time they realized that their nineteen sets of binoculars and two telescopes just weren’t bringing in enough information. They had a scanner in the living room, a scanner in the kitchen, and Aunt Marian had her own personal scanner in the bedroom.
They memorized the police codes, and they knew precisely when some juicy, gossip-worthy event was taking place anywhere in the county. And if those events took place in the middle of the night, the aunts saw nothing wrong in waking us up and taking us for a ride to the scene in the trusty family station wagon, also known as Wag, the unofficial eighth member of our tribe.
“Up and at ‘em, Girls!” Aunt Marian would crow. “There’s a fire at the old five-and-dime!” or “They’ve found a body down by the marina!” We’d stumble into the clothes she tossed us and wrap up in our matching white windbreakers – yes, we all seven wore matching white windbreakers everywhere we went. On foggy nights, I think we probably traumatized quite a few other spectators when we materialized out of the gloom like some demented Amoeba Squad.
It seems like there were always bodies being hauled out of the lake. That sounds pretty grim, but it never seemed that way to me as a kid. My aunts had made it abundantly clear to us that the water could be dangerous when not regarded with the proper respect and caution. Drownings were a part of summer life at the beach. Boats capsized, teenagers were overcome after diving from the pier, little children wandered away from parents. It was just something that happened, and my aunts believed that exposing us to that ugly truth was an appropriate way of teaching us to respect the water.
In retrospect, I shudder to think of the things we saw. To a certain extent, I can understand my aunts’ fascination with drowning, because two of their brothers were killed in a boating accident in the 1950’s, but I still cannot begin to comprehend the logic of taking three little girls along to stand in a crowd to see a body loaded up and taken away.
The night I remember most vividly, we waited on the pier amid a growing crowd for what seemed like hours. Rumor had it that the body had been found a few miles out and they were having trouble retrieving it. It had been in the water for quite some time, they said, and was so badly decomposed that it was impossible to determine gender at that time. I don’t know what standard procedure is in a situation like that, or whether any of the rumors were true, but the general consensus was that the body was so far gone that it couldn’t even be picked up out of the water; it was said that the Coast Guard had to scoop a body bag around it and drag it behind the boat.
I strongly doubt that’s what really happened. But I stood there with the rest of them, clustered around the North Pier’s old white lighthouse that’s been gone for almost thirty years now. We craned our necks and murmured theories about who it might be, and every once in a while someone would shout when they thought they saw a boat somewhere on the horizon.
I don’t think they ever actually brought a body in that night. Or if they did, I have forgotten the details. I remember giving up and shuffling back home, where we brushed the sand from our bare feet and hung our seven white windbreakers on seven hooks before crawling back into our beds.
We were terribly disappointed, and that’s the part that haunts me. A human being, someone’s son or daughter, died in Lake Michigan, and we were disappointed because we didn’t get to see the body dragged out of the water. A life ended. Somewhere, a heart broke and a soul mourned the loss of a loved one, and I was part of a group of ghouls watching, waiting to see the gory results.
I remember that night every time I drive past a car accident and see the gawkers slowing down, or when I see a house fire on the news with clusters of onlookers waiting to see if anyone died. I feel that same sense of shame, and I force myself to look the other way.
The memory that haunts me is the memory that makes me turn away from watching somebody’s pain, someone else’s loss, because I never want to be part of that crowd again. Not even if I could still fit into the old white windbreaker.