Summer at Moon Palace

by Bethany Ball

Most people associate North Michigan with snow, ice and long difficult winters.  But for me, the area is associated with Moon Palace, the summer cottage of my parents' best friends, where we spent nearly every weekend of my childhood. We passed the four-hour Friday-night drive listening to music – show tunes, folk songs, and NPR– until I’d finally drop off to sleep.

To me, coming from the city, it was as remote as the moon itself. First and foremost there were no other children—most parents waiting until real summer when the pool opens—and I am an only child. I spent my days reading Frank Baum's Oz series, which I was obsessed with, or listening to Neil Diamond tapes on my Walkman. This tiny tape deck with black headphones was, to me, probably the greatest invention ever.

When the weather was warm, I would prowl around the dense virgin forests that surrounded the cottage;  I knew every inch of them. I dragged a large section of nailed-together two-by-fours  together into a thicket of bushes and ferns. This was my house. If it rained, I would hide under the overturned canoe that was dragged up from Moon Lake. Once underneath the canoe, I imagined I could live there, though the ground was icy, and I'd have to wear my winter snowmobile boots ( great big ugly boots that I wouldn't be caught dead in if I were in the city but which kept my feet warm and dry in the forest).  I caught frogs and named  them: Fred, Franny, Frank, and Fran. Even though it was summer, ice formed in the night and early morning, before the sun had time to melt it. I walked along the ice’s edge, my feet breaking through to the shallow water below, the snowmobile boots surprisingly effective at keeping my feet dry.

As the spring progressed, I’d take the canoe out and, with a single paddle, maneuver my small craft along the water’s edge. There was a tiny stream that led to a warm shallow pond filled with brilliant green algae like jewels on the surface of the water, and the long legged water bugs that swim their breaststroke back and forth. It was early spring so the tadpoles filled the water with their inky fetal pre-frogness. I would catch them in a jar filled with dirty water, watch them, then spill them back to their home, their friends and brothers and sisters. I felt great pangs of envy at the effusiveness of nature, where no one is alone and everyone can find someone who speaks their language.

In a burst of hopefulness I’d abandon the canoe and write messages on the sand: “Looking for someone to play with, another girl or even a boy. Find me at Moon Palace.”

The grownups, a crowd of ten or twelve, spent their days smoking cigarettes, or flirting with the edge of drunkenness. They were entirely different from the grownups I know back home, the parents of my friends. Most of them were childless, or their children were long grown. They read their novels and listen to the radio. Dave, who owned Moon Palace, had forbidden the outside world. There was no television or telephone and the only heat radiated from the wood-burning stove, which burned into early June.

I tried to get the adults to do things with me, but they shrugged me off. In the evenings, Dave, tense, nervous, and always annoyed with the grownups, was kind and gentle with me. Sometimes he would take walks with me. We never took flashlights; instead, we would let our eyes adjust to the light that is available. Even on starless nights we found that after a few hundred yards, we were able to see almost perfectly. 

“He doesn't drink anymore,” my mother told me. “He was more fun when he did.”

One afternoon, Dave offered to take me canoeing. “I'll teach you the proper way to paddle,” he told me. It was a warm day, the warmest day since we’d arrived. Dave handed me a short paddle and took a longer one for himself. We walked down the hill to the lake and launched the canoe. It was warm from the sunshine; the water lapped the metal edges of the canoe. “Like this,” Dave said, holding up the paddle. I copied him as best I can. We paddled out to the middle of the lake. I could see Moon Palace high up on the hill, the grownups on the porch watching us. I felt the slight chill in the air as the sun began to set.

“Look,” Dave says. “A turtle!”

I caught sight of the small turtle, and without hesitation, I dived in, clothes and all, swam two yards and caught him. His smooth shell was hard in my triumphant hands. Dave was proud of me and told this story for years.  

Years later, Dave, now a Buddhist, officiates a ceremony we've already made official at city hall. My husband bends down to kiss me as we stand by the side of my parents' pool, Dave pulls a glass from out of his suit pocket and places it on the cement. My husband gives a good stomp and crushes it. My old high school Madrigal choir sings Hallelujah from the Messiah.

“Throw me in the pool,” Dave whispers to me. I see the sweat on his brow. It is a hot July day and he is wearing a suit. “Come on, throw me in the pool.”

But I can't. It's too formal, too serious, this wedding of mine. And though I can't throw him in the pool, I know he forgives me. After all, twenty years ago, I caught the turtle.


Bethany Ball lives in Nyack, New York with her husband, two children, puppy and pregnant siamese cat. 

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