Skinny beds and smoked salmon

Before we got married, Tim and I made a very short list of our non-negotiables. Important and personal issues on which no compromise would be considered. We had to agree on them or we knew it would never work.

For example, if Ana married and settled in California and started a family, there is no way I could stay in Illinois. No way. Long-distance grandparenting was out of the question. I would move. And, even though all of his family lived here, Tim said, “Agreed.”

Tim’s non-negotiable was The Cabin. The one Uncle Ray and Dad built together – high up on a foundation of stilts and boulders with a beautiful view of Lake Vermillion. Even though I’d never even been there, I said, “Agreed.”

Crowded into five tiny rooms, with Tim’s mom and dad (and usually his brother Phil and Lisa and their family), we spent at least a full week each year, starting the August we were engaged. We were assigned to the skinny custom-made bunks in the middle bedroom. There might have been two feet between them. It had one very small window, very near the ceiling – great for rainy nights and security, but lousy on a 94-degree-bloody-hot day when we wore humidity like a wet, hooded cloak and there was not even the hint of a breeze.

But we loved the cabin. It was non-negotiable for Tim at first and then for both of us.

Until the summer that matters most.

Things seemed pretty normal. We were packing up the cabin, which was much more than stuffing suitcases with dirty laundry, throwing snacks in a bag, and filling the tank with gas. Those old cabins require a higher level of TLC – turning off the gas and water, emptying drains, and boarding up the windows against the harsh northern Minnesota winters. Empty the fridge and prop it open, check the cabinets, don’t forget to unplug the television. We started slow on Friday at noon and kept chipping away at it until we loaded the cars and vans and headed out late Saturday.

Like always, during those minutes just before the boards were lashed to the windows, we chatted casually about what needs to be done “next year.”

But as she let herself get lost in the beautiful view of the lake one more time, my sweet, dear mother-in-law quietly murmured, “I don’t think there will be a next year for me.”

The weight of the room increased two-fold and we all froze, right where we stood.

Mom was on oxygen all the time now, limited to the use of less than half of her lungs. Climbing stairs, carrying anything, walking any distance, or even sitting for any length of time without a table to lean on were all challenges. We all saw it. We saw it getting worse. We knew, but we didn’t know.

So we caravanned home. Mom road with us most of the way, struggling to breathe in enough to breathe out. Three days later, she died quietly in her sleep. In Highland. In her own bed. In her own way.

The Cabin wasn’t the same without her, sitting in that dining room chair, lost in thought as she gazed out the wide picture window, delighted by her wild and crazy – and LOUD – granddaughters, pestering Dad to do something, bit-by-bit destroying the yearly smoked salmon and cracker tray, and planning dinner and an endless shopping list.

It just wasn’t the same. And that year, The Cabin became negotiable. For a few years, we went if we could but not if something else came along. And now, not at all.

Despite the name, non-negotiables will change. The ebb and flow of life leads us down unforeseen and unexpected roads and, in the end, we will compromise with those we love about almost anything.

But I do believe that, had it not been for the loss of Marcia Wolfe, The Cabin would still be a summer non-negotiable for Tim and me.

I’m pretty sure he would agree.

I’m joining my fellow bloggers over at Finish the Sentence Friday. For information about joining, hop over to Finding Ninee.

This is a short thought, prompted this week by “Summer”.


  1. What a powerful story and you’re right – non-negotiables sometimes become negotiable. It’s funny how much a place and the feel of a place changes when somebody is no longer there. 😦
    Also, if my son moves across the country, I’m moving too! Thanks for linking up. I’m a little behind in reading, but appreciate you joining!


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