The summer I was 14, I named my journal, “Summer is an Island.” No one would find that title odd now, as I spend my summers on Grenell Island, in the beautiful St. Lawrence River. But in the summer of 1969, I was living in Central Illinois, in a small house, on a brick street, which was far, far away from any creek, pond or any body of water. Despite my landlocked youth, I dreamt of fairytale islands.
Long before my 14th year—starting when I was around 4-years-old—I dreamt of living in a world of rocks, moss, ferns and the deep shade of pine trees. It was a world so different from the cornfields and flat, treeless prairie that surrounded me. I dreamt of a fairytale life in a quaint cottage in the woods, where I would bake bread, make pies and hang laundry on the line, to be caressed by the wind and kissed by the sun.
I fell in love with my husband in Illinois. We were engaged in December of 1974. I came to Grenell Island, in the summer of 1975, to meet his family and fell in love all over again. The fairytale life of my dreams was on Grenell Island. We were married the next year and made it our goal to retire early, so we could spend our summers on Grenell.
Until that time, we could only visit the island for a week or two every year, traveling all night from the Midwest, to arrive midday on the island, to soak up the sun, breath in pine-scented air and splash about the sparkling blue waters of the St. Lawrence. Ah! Those two precious weeks were our yearly fix of island life, to keep us going through our work-a-day world. Our goal of early retirement was realized in 2002.
Through the years, I’ve marvelled that someone from my husband’s family has spent the summer—every summer—on Grenell Island since 1875. I loved hearing the stories from his mother and grandmother or reading Great-Aunt Olivia’s book, The Story of Grenell.
Looking back over the photos, it seems the six generations of family who have summered here have enjoyed many of the same pastimes: lying in the hammock, reading, fishing, paddling, playing games in front of the fire and visiting with friends. Time stands still here. Every day is wind, sky, water and birdsong. On the surface it seems the same, but the details are spectacular:
- A river so calm you don’t know if you are looking at water or sky
- Dewdrops glistening on a spider web like a string of diamonds
- Goldeneye chicks
- A large bass on the line
- Schools of perch fry flashing beneath the surface of the water.
- White water lilies blooming in the shallows
- Fiddleheads in the spring.
- Unexpected windstorms that causes the water to rise 8 inches, sending us scrambling to retie boats.
- Fog at sunrise that looks like pink cotton candy
Life on the island moves at a different pace. No cars. No…we don’t have golf carts either. I get asked that a lot when I say we don’t have cars. We walk. When I was a little girl, I had a red riding hood cape and loved to put it on every day and visit the older couple next door, bring them cookies or bread or other things I helped bake. At times, I feel like Little Red Riding Hood, carrying a basket of goodies, as we hike through the woods to a friend’s cottage for an evening of food and camaraderie.
We aren’t the only family who has been on the island for over a hundred years. Seven families in all, have been on the island for a century or more. It’s nice to know families across the generations. Nowhere else in my life have I been able to know, not only someone’s parents and grandparents, but also their children and grandchildren. Besides extended family, we often get to know other islanders’ friends, for we all have friends who regularly visit us at the island—childhood friends, work friends, college friends and neighbors from our “other” world.
We all live in “other” worlds---places beyond Grenell. Some as far away as California and Hawaii. We all have other “off-island” lives, but when we return in the spring, it’s as if we’ve never been away. It’s as if this island is our only world.
Next week, we’ll celebrate the first official day of summer. For me it’s like celebrating all the fairytale summers of my dreams. Every time I breathe-in the heady scent of pine or see the sun shine through the green of a fern, or watch an ant crawl across lichen-covered granite, my sense of childhood wonder awakens. Just like in my childhood dream, the grown-up version of me loves to bake bread, make pies and hang laundry on the line. I can’t believe that I’m living in our little happily-ever-after cottage on Grenell Island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. For me, summer is a fairy tale. Summer is an island.
By Lynn E. McElfresh
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. You can see Lynn’s 70+ articles here (Next month we will celebrate number 80… listen for the drum roll and a special tribute) Lynn helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing, walk with nature and this month, discover those little bugs… Now 2015 is here …and we wonder what she has on the horizon!
All Photographs by Lynn McElfresh