Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Cabin in the Woods: Its All Relative

In the 1970s, when I was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst we had a young faculty member who grew up in Budapest, took a non-tenure track position at Harvard, then a tenure track position at U Mass. He joked about faculty members who had a cabin in the woods. "This is the woods! Why do you need a cabin somewhere else?"

Six years earning a doctorate at University of Missouri, Columbia plus three years at U Mass formed a large state university template that shaped but did not control my life.

Teaching at Franklin College in Indiana, I lived about 15 minutes from Bloomington. No classes on Wednesdays meant a day at the Indiana University library (free to anybody with an Indiana drivers licensee), lunch with a senior faculty member who shared my research interests, and evening free concerts of the University School of Music.

When working in the mental health system during the 80s in Toledo, I enrolled as an MBA student in the evening program at the University of Michigan. (In-state tuition but same standards as the day program). Ann Arbor was just a 45 minute drive away. 

Two decades here in Lake County, "an island off the coast of Cleveland," have given me the benefit of many academic resources (Case Western, John Carroll, diocesan pastoral center -seminary).  Courses at the local community college (e.g. photography) gave access to all the books and electronic resources of the Ohio Colleges and Universities. Summer courses at Notre Dame and University of Michigan plus annual presentations at professional conferences when I was still working rounded out the large state university template.

One can easily develop and maintain notions of what the good life is.

My Parent's Cabin in the Woods   

Well it certainly looks like a cabin in the woods, but the story is more complicated:

It began as a cabin in a field, a farmers field subdivided into lots.
These were fifty foot wide: many bought two, three or four.
Most people never built cabins; most lots grew into forest.
Were some speculating? Too bad, decades later the sewage came in
with a cheap price for a tie-in at construction, but a steep price to connect later.
That gave existing cabins an economic advantage over vacant land.
Some people built cabins as retirement homes;
they became permanent residents; they anchored each block.
Most people built seasonal homes.  But did that make sense?
Many came only on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day.
Some vacation, filled with mowing grass and cabin maintenance!

Why did my parents build a cabin in a field?

Mom and dad spent a lot of late spring, summer, and early fall at the cabin.
My father was a steel worker. Steel mills run 24 hours, seven days a week.
They made and repaired most of their own equipment; that's what dad did.
He had day shifts and he got long weekends off:
Friday and Saturday of week #1 followed by Sunday and Monday of week #2;
then Wednesday and Thursday off on week #3.
During the summer Dad spread his four weeks of vacation over Week #3s.
Five days work, four days cabin, five days work, then a week of cabin equals
ten days of work but eleven days of cabin for 12 weeks of the summer.
Plus long weekends in the spring and fall depending upon the weather
But it got even  better: 13 weeks of vacation every five years
for those in the upper fifth in seniority, and because you advanced in seniority.
dad actually got it every four years, 3 or 4 times before he retired.

The cabin gave my parents a substantial alternative summer lifestyle.
where they wanted it, next to Pymatuning Lake

Above is the road from our cabin down to the Lake

Mom and dad were fishing partners!
(And cabin building, house remodeling and gardening partners!)
A doctor advised my dad to go fishing as a stress reliever.
For the first ten years dad baited my mothers fishhook.
But mom eventually became better at catching fish.
Dad did not like to eat fish; mom did not like to clean them.
They gave their fish away! Usually to nearby fishermen.
A lot of fish stories likely resulted!

The Lake is two miles wide and fourteen miles long.
The two mile causeway had parking spaces for fishing.
There were several marinas and many boat launching areas.
There were also many beach docking spaces.
These can be reserved for the fishing season

The boat launch at the end of the road from our cabin

In the distance on the far left is the causeway from PA to Ohio
On the shore beyond the boat launch is a pontoon boat.
Pontoons were great for family fishing.
It is docked there for the season
And why did we need a boat launch?

Because my mother had won a boat!
Mom bought a ticket from the Lion's club
representative who knocked at our door,
one of the few times she ever gambled.
Dad is standing in the water behind the boat near the launch area.
The lake is very shallow near shore.
You can walk out about a hundred feet before you are up to your head.
Very safe for swimming and boat launching, but raise your motor when you come in. 
There is a ten horse power limit on boat motors.
The boat was wooden; the Lions club may have built it from a kit.
It needed a lot of annual maintenance.

The trees grew, the cabin expanded, and the boat was upgraded

The cabin was an not an escape from living  next to a steel mill.

Our steel mill was the last one upstream on the Monongahela River.
We were upstream from the mill; dad walked to work. 
Steel mills were built next to rivers because coal was shipped to them
either by barge or by railroads that ran on both sides of the river banks.
Steel, especially steel pipes, were shipped by barge.
 Pipes falling onto barges echoing up and down the river valley
are a beautiful sound, especially late on a hot summer night.
Our steel mill made pipes and sheets from existing slabs of steel
which were shipped upriver from steel mills with blast furnaces
Our town is only two blocks wide and about five blocks long.
It is between the railroad tracks and the river.

Our house near the steel mill

Like the cabin land, our town was originally farmland.
A bigger nicer house to the left of this picture was the farm house.
Ours was a double house; the residence of two farmhand families.
There was a large porch across the front with two doors.
When we bought it we rented out the one side to our cousins.
When they moved we took over the house and remodeled it.
Mom and dad lavished all their talents on the house and grounds.
We had the Best Home and Garden!

Our house was on the river!

The river was polluted when we came.
Raw sewage ran from some houses that were right on the bank.
which is only a few miles down stream
gives a good idea of the width of the river,
the hills and railroad tracks close by on either side,
the curves of the river,
the towns and industries which intertwine,
and even one of the locks of the river toward the top
Directly across from our property a steep hill arose
Half way up were the railroad tracks that ran on that side
mostly concealed by trees.
The river got cleaned up when the lock in the above link
was redone to be an adjustable dam for flood control.

The field between the back of our garage and the river.

Our bank is about 22 feet above the river level.
(The river occasionally would flood this part of our back yard
The yard rises further to a second backyard between our house and garage) 
This backyard with its regular morning dews was a great worm farm.
Dad collected them and kept them in containers in a old refrigerator

When the new dam raised the water level,
everyone created boat docks, boat piers, and fishing piers.
Fish returned to the river, and pleasure boating increased.
So on the Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day
my parents stayed home to fish and watch all the boats
going up from Pittsburgh to West Virginia then returning.

At the same time cabin life was becoming better and better
life next to the steel mill and the river was becoming great too

A closer view from the river bank at our house.

The Cabin and My Life

I never liked fishing and had nothing to do with building the cabin!

Like my parents,  I marched to my own drummer.

My paternal grandparents were tenant dairy farmers.
From early childhood I loved the farm.

When mom and dad went fishing, I stayed at the farm.
It was fun to get up at the crack of dawn.
As the cows came into the barn for their morning milking,
I would spread chop (a mixture of grain and molasses)
in front of their stalls (it quieted them for the milking).
The milking was automated with a machine that did most of the milking,
but grandma finished each cow by hand.
Dad knew how to milk because all milking was once by hand.
They wouldn't let me learn;
one swift kick from a cow can do a lot of damage.
I got to feed the cats their milk!
We had a couple of pure black ones which were my favorites

They had lots of chickens for meat and eggs.
My grandparents did not appreciate me chasing them;
herding the cows from the field into the barn was OK.

The FIRST GRANDSON on the Farmhouse Steps

With three uncles and three aunts I was the center of attention!
There was a lot to do on the farm so I didn't really need attention.
There was both a larger stream and a smaller one.
They contained minnows which Dad and I collected for fishing.
The streams were shallow so I created dams, and locks;
pieces of wood were my boats and barges.
Grandma often took me along to help gather mushrooms.
One of my unmarried aunts liked to take me wildflower picking.
Before mechanical bailing all the men of the family,
dad,  uncles, and husbands of aunts,
use pitchforks to load hay into the hay wagon.
I was their water boy bringing fresh water from the spring house.
Dad would lift me onto the top of the hay
for the ride back to the barn
There was a reed organ in the large farmhouse
which had foot bellows and various stops.
I liked making noise with it.
There were swings for the grandchildren.

The farm was our own private hunting grounds.
When I was young I was my father's dog.
I would walk out in front  and up him from him.
The phesants and rabbits would run down hill for my dad to shoot them.
I think I was twelve when I learned to shoot.
Dad went deer hunting elsewhere with his brother in law;
they did not encourage me to do that.

My grandfather introduced me to drinking.
He liked blackberry wine so he would give me a little taste of that.
He would also put a little bit of whiskey in my hot tea.
Every fall I get out the Southern Comfort for my tea.
Every Christmas I buy some blackberry wine.
Grandma made great bread among other things.
I liked it warm with melted butter and sugar
We always brought some back with us after a visit to the farm.

Farm life was very difficult except for the grandchildren

All of us grandchildren thought grandpa was wonderful.
Only after I was an adult and he was dead,
did I learn what an authoritarian he was.
Drove all his children to leave home as early as possible.
Dad made his distance by becoming a coal miner after eighth grade.
Grandpa was often upset and angry
but he spoke in Polish which I did not understand.
I had little idea he might be taking his frustrations out on grandma.
She did nothing to indicate he was.
All my aunts and uncles agree she had a very difficult life.

When they sold the livestock and equipment from the farm
they had enough money
to buy a two bedroom house near one of my aunts.
Grandpa died of black lung disease from an early period
when he worked in the mines.
Would be interesting to know his perspective on running a farm
and raising seven children.
Maybe he thought authoritarian ways were necessary.

When John Paul II arrived in Nicaragua
he berated a kneeling priest because he was part of the government.
"He is a Polish grandpa!" I exclaimed as I viewed  the TV.
Grandma outlived grandpa by more than a decade.
She went to Mass daily in that time.
At her funeral, the priest began his homily with
"Today I am sure Anna walks with her beloved Mary
the golden streets of heaven."
Instant sainthood! Local canonization!
The early history of Catholicism;.
not the modern Vatican bureaucracy.

Academia sends me to the Cabin

Thomas Merton fled modernity for the paradise of a bucolic monastic life.
He discovered himself in the midst of industrial era religious life.
The same thing happened to me when I went off to the Jesuits.
Ignatius was great; the Exercises were great.
I even liked the idea of a company of knights loyal to Christ.
Unfortunately the Jesuits had become a regimented modern army.
Novitiate was boot camp; the Novice Master was a drill sergeant.
The long course stretching ahead
looked like the army, always training for the last war  

Graduate school introduced me to industrial academic life.
First  year was another initiation ritual worse than novitiate.
I announced I was heading for a small college after my master's degree.
The sixties were an age of academic as well as political upheaval.
Changes were being made; professors convinced me to stay.
I became a glorified technician, running subject after subject;
producing publication after publication.
I was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship
with a senior researcher who had one of the longest running grants
in the history of the National Institute of Mental Health.
Postdoctoral was followed by the search for a tenure track position,
which would have been followed by the struggle for tenure.
I begin to seek ways out of the academic treadmill.

The Bicycle Boy

The cabin gave me an alternative lifestyle to academia.
It started with long summer walks when I was an undergraduate.
I got a bicycle and became know as the bicycle boy.
At least ten miles a day on our side of the lake;
often went across the causeway for another thirty.

Summers during graduate school were spent at the cabin.
This continued through my postdoctoral
In fact I got my first teaching job at the cabin.
The American Psychological Association
held its annual convention near to Labor Day, in Chicago that year,
I had given up my apartment in Amherst,
put everything into storage,
and headed for the cabin for the summer.
At the Chicago interview, the young assistant chair
at Ball State liked my research credentials;
the older chair
who represented the half of the faculty who were not researchers 
liked my attitude about summer.
When he introduced me to the Dean
he boasted about grabbing me off the beach
and putting me to work. 

My first care was a brand new Maverick, kept it for ten years.
Acquiring a car in late graduate school
did not stop the biking in the morning
it just meant more beaches in the afternoon

Applied Research in Toledo, Ohio

I entered the post-industrial service economy
with a job in planning, research and evaluation
at the largest community mental health center
in Toledo, Ohio (only three hours from the cabin).

I found the creativity in management and doing applied research
that was missing in the academic treadmill.
Senior staff members had comp time
which mean that any time over forty hours a week
became vacation time.
So now I had long weekends at the cabin
and weeks of vacation in the summer.
Sufficient vacation that I also took some theology courses
at Notre Dame University

I bought a house in Toledo;
Dad had retired by this time; mom and dad spent the time
from Thanksgiving until New Years with me.
They came again before Holy Week and spent about a month
until the fish began to bite at Pymatuning.

The 20 Plus Room Mansion

Mom liked to remind us that the two homes and cabin together
meant we had a mansion with more than twenty rooms.
(The two upstairs rooms in the house by the river
were my apartment, containing my undergraduate library).

Mom's Entry Room in the Mansion

When I purchased the home in Toledo,
my parents contributed to the down payment.
Mom made it clear that it gave her exclusive decorating
rights to the then bare entry hall of the house.


Since Pymatuning does not have speed boats and water skiers
it is great for sailboats.
Mine was a an MFG Whistler.
At only 11 foot is a very stable, even slow boat for a family,
but it is great for individual sailing.
My parents had as little interest in sailing as I had in fishing.
I loved the sense of being one with boat
feeling the wind from small ripples to great gusts.

Small sailboats can be safely stored on a boat trailer.
I kept the sails, rudder and centerboard at home.
There is very little you can do without them.
They are all unique to the particular sailboat
so it would be difficult to find replacements.

Below is our family's favorite picture of my mother
Tiny our dog was near death; mom wanted a picture.
Caring for everyone in the both families,
both hers and dad's, had been central to her life. 
My mother was disappointed when I decided to move from Toledo
to Lake County to be nearer them and the cabin.
She liked Toledo and envisioned living in one of the apartments
near my house after she outlived my dad.
That was not to be.
She died a few years after I moved to Lake County.

She had suspected dad had lost his interest in fishing
He always said yes when she asked,
but rarely took the initiative.
In the spring after her death,
Dad came up to my house, and went over to open up the cabin.
He went down to the causeway to fish for the last time.
That was also the last time he stayed overnight at the cabin.

It was her house, he felt she had build it more than him.
She had created an alternative life style that liberated him from the factory
and then me from academia. It also gave me much family
to support the first decade in the service economy. 

Dad would continue to come to my house for another decade.
He would go over to the cabin to inspect it and putter around.
I suggested he sell it; no he wasn't ready.
I suggested he give it to me so I would take care of it.
No, he wasn't ready.

It is the end of the day at Pymatuning.
It is the end of the fishing season; all the boats are safely stored.
Everything is crystal clear, and still.
The coolness of November signals the year will soon end.
Everything points toward the west and the future.

The agrarian life of my grandparents is a distant memory
like dad's story of how he ate fresh tomatoes,
between large slices of grandma's bread,
and drank cold spring water
during breaks from farm work when he was a kid.
Farming lingers with the thirty quarts of tomato juice from my garden
arranged on shelves ready for winter.

Mom passed beyond the sunset more than two decades ago
Dad shared the golden decade of my professional life
He often came to my house beside the greater lake.

Dad passed more that a decade ago
The first decade of my retirement was just as great
as that first decade of his retirement that the three of us had shared.
I would spend holidays with his widowed sister in Pennsylvania
I also kept phone contact with mom's sister in Florida.
My retirement accompanied my aunts as they aged into their nineties.

The agrarian age of my grandparents
gave good memories to us grandchildren.

The industrial age of my parents was great
providing security, an alternative lifestyle
with a 20 room mansion,
including a cabin in the woods.

The service economy was excellent for me
providing a great professional life,
a house beside a bigger lake
and all the things and more that I did not find in academia.

I now keep watch beside the great lake of my life.
My expiration date is about a decade away.
That also seems to the expiration date of the service economy.
The local super K-mart closed last year.
Sears, and Macy's days at the regional mall are numbered.


For a decade after dad's death I would check on the cabin a couple of times a year
Each time I would fear it being trashed by people or animals.
Always I opened the door and stepped back into the past.
The cabin kept well; the neighbors cut the lawn.

I had hoped that someone in the family would want the cabin.
It now belongs to my next door neighbor.

As a high school student, he lived across the street when I moved here.
He is now a construction foreman, doing very well.
He married early, and has not only a son but a grandson.
He bought the house next door to be near his dad.

The cabin has been completely transformed by their workmanship.
Mom and dad would be pleased.

The cabin in the woods
may have another three generations of life ahead.
May its future be as happy as its past!

Blessed are those who have a cabin in the woods!


  1. Happy Memorial Day weekend to all.

    What are your memories of cabins, lakes, fishing, sailing, etc.?

  2. Thanks Crystal for the tip on how to get this post to its correct day.

  3. The idea for this post originated in a Photoshop class that I was taking shortly after the cabin was sold.

    Originally I was going to make a booklet but getting it to print the right colors was too difficult. I had not gotten around to writing the text. There were a lot of photographs I did not include in this post.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Jack. It sounds like the cabin was your family's happy place. Everybody needs a happy place, even if it's only a place they go in their mind. I'm glad your neighbor bought it; hopefully that family will enjoy it for many years to come.
    My happy place had been my childhood home. My husband remarked lately that nothing seemed to have changed there in 40 years. Works for me. Except lately the reality that quite a lot has changed, and not in a good way, has been trickling into my mind. The place is going to heck in a handbasket. The old cottonwoods and elms that surrounded the buildings are dying. The house needs a lot of work. My brothers and brothers-in-law offered to do it, or hire it done. But Dad was having none of it. He doesn't want to deal with the mess, stress, and inconvenience. He said, in characteristically blunt fashion, "You can fix the place up after I'm dead." I expect eventually that my niece will live there. I hope she does, and I hope she makes it her own. But then it won't be my happy place anymore, except in my memories.
    A lot of people here have travel trailers or campers. Some of my coworkers said they hauled their trailers out to the park and rec areas a week prior to the holiday weekend, to be sure they got a good spot. Their happy place is moveable.
    I have thought it would be fun to have a '50s-vintage trailer and park it by Lake McConaughy, near my hometown. But that probably won't happen. It's too far of a drive to be easily accessible for us.

  5. P.S., Jack, I really like your photos.

    1. Dad did most of the photos. I started taking photos after graduate school. All that was point and click.

      In August 2009 I got a digital camera, and now have thousands of photos. And of course now there is the iPhone, so I no longer have to worry about missing a beautiful sunset.

      Some will show up in future posts. But I am thinking of putting them in another blog, probably without much commentary.

  6. Lake McConaughy sounds nice.

    My happy place would be my grandparents' house, where we spent a lot of time as kids. Sadly it was sold when my grandfather died and now it's been demolished and another house built there. Feels weird to know it doesn't exist anymore.

    1. Part of the importance of the cabin was that mom and dad actually physically built it. It did not exist before. They created it.

      Most of the time the work we do is for other people for which we buy things like a house. The structure becomes much more an extension of yourself when its only the materials that you purchased. Dad of course created and remodeled many things in the course of his work at the steel mill, but they were never his in the way that the cabin was.

      Destruction of things really abolishes all the work (directly and indirectly) that went into them. I think that is why people object so much to church closings. It is all the labor that has gone into building and maintaining them that gets lost forever.

      I found early on that it is not good to try to go back to places in the past that have been changed. We are really spirit as well as body, and the spirit continues to exist even when the physical reality changes.

      Photography, literally to write with light, is a very spiritual endeavor, the creation of icons.

    2. One of the things I like about this blog over the Commonweal blog is that we have the capacity to share photos, videos, and music more directly.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Grrrr.... typos.

      Jack, yes. My grandparents didn't build their house themselves but they did have it built. I can remember being about four when it was being constructed. My grandfather gave me a penny for every loose nail I could find on the ground :)

  7. When you move into an old house and completely transform it, you are prepared for the possibility that it will look completely different or even be replaced in the future.

    I had considered moving back to Pennsylvania and living in the house by the river after Dad's death. I knew I would have made changes so I expect that new owner has made even more changes. And mom was always full of ideas about what the next version of our homes would look like.