The family retreat is where memories are made and kept.

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I was heartbroken when my mom passed away last spring. As I worked to process my loss, my muddled mind swirled with questions. “How will I move forward? When will this pain subside?” And with cabin season approaching: “Can I handle being at the cabin without Mom there?” It was hard to imagine because Mom was a part of every activity our family engaged in: boating, baking, biking; swimming, singing, swinging; grilling, gaming, gardening; picnics, parties, pillow fights; football, fishing, freeze tag.

As summer drew near, I dreaded the inevitable anguish that was bound to pierce me like a sniper the moment I stepped onto the cabin property. So when our car rolled down that gravel lane, I took a deep breath.

I pushed open the door, spotted the powder blue Crocs Mom always wore down to the lake, and instantly burst into tears.

CBN-NT0414_03“So this is how it’s gonna be?” I thought. “Clearly, I shouldn’t have come.”

The following evening, I stumbled upon a tube of Mom’s lip balm in the boat. Again, tears sprung to my eyes as the agony of emptiness consumed my soul. Instinctively, I clenched the faded tube in the palm of my trembling hand. Then I sighed, closed my tired eyes, and relaxed into the glow of the late-day sun as it warmed my tear-stained cheeks. I inhaled slowly, getting lost in the rhythmic cadence of the gentle waves lapping the shoreline.

Swish-swoosh. Swish-swoosh.

I was transported back to my teen years, when I would sunbathe beside Mom on our pair of silver air mattresses. As gulls cawed overhead, Mom and I giggled and gossiped, all the while bobbing like corks in our little cove of paradise.

My lips curled into a smile as one particular sunbathing memory resurfaced. It was a cloud-covered day, and I suggested to Mom that we take our Sea Ray boat across the lake in search of sunlight. It seemed like a brilliant plan, until the skies opened up and dumped sheets of rain on us as we raced back to the dock through tumultuous waves, heavy hail, and intense lightning.

Despite such unforgettable cabin adventures, it’s the everyday memories that bring my heart to life. For instance, I can still hear Mom call out after a meal, “I’ll wash. You kids dry.” I can still see her dealing cards for games of pinochle, euchre and Michigan rummy. I can still smell the wafting goodness of Mom’s gooey, fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies, which she whipped up on dreary days to make the rain less depressing and the cabin more inviting.

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I unclenched the lip balm and slid it into my pocket as an image flashed across my mind of Mom and Dad sitting on the wooden swing beside the lake. Mom rested her head on Dad’s shoulder, and, together, they stared out onto the sparkling water. They had so many conversations on that swing, and though I wasn’t a part of those conversations, I could guess what was said. I’ll bet they discussed how lucky they were, not only to have found this cabin but – more importantly – to have found each other.

Throughout my cabin stay last summer, countless memories bombarded me, which was at once painful and comforting. Still, one thing was evident: My mom was still at the cabin. Just as she always has been. Just as she always will be.

Christy Heitger-Ewing thinks that if everyone could experience life at a cabin, the world would be a happier place.