'Read With Me' Author Finds Inspiration In Family -- And Aging

Aug 21, 2017

On her "Medicare Birthday," author Marnie O. Mamminga celebrated by swimming to an island in Big Spider Lake near Hayward, Wis.

No easy feat for a 65-year-old.

The lake, where Mamminga spent nearly all of her birthdays, is home to Wake Robin, a cabin her grandfather built in 1929. The vacation home, made of tamarack logs, is the setting of Mamminga's first book Return to Wake Robin: One Cabin in the Heyday of North Woods Resorts.

The big birthday swim is part of Mamminga's new book, On a Clear Night: Essays from the Heartland -- our Read With Me selection for August.

"The lake is beautiful -- it's about 750 acres -- and there are islands sprinkled around it," Mamminga told WNIJ. The lake, Wake Robin, and a newer vacation cabin are deeply connected to her family's history and identity.

"There's this huge link to the past but also the beauty of the present," she said. "And, at 65, you start thinking about the future, and that is a turning point."

The retired teacher prepared for this turning point by signing up for Medicare and Social Security and getting a new drivers license. What was missing, she thought, was a grand gesture.

"I woke up early that morning and my husband said, 'Welcome to the Senior Citizens Club,'" the author said. "And I looked out on the lake, and it was sparkling, and I thought 'I've gotta do something that will make this memorable.'"

No stylish wet suit, goggles, flippers, or swim cap for this old Northwoods girl. Instead I threw on a well-worn swimsuit, clipped my gray-streaked hair to the top of my head, stepped off the shore, and waded into the water. Its cool silkiness greeted me like a strong embrace. "Refreshing!" as my family likes to say.

"I'm not a long-distance swimmer," Mamminga said. "I'm a good swimmer, and my husband rode beside me in an old fishing boat."

Here came Candy Island on my left, a final destination I had first considered. I had never swum there, but that goal seemed too easy. On this special day, I needed a goal I was not sure I could achieve; otherwise, where was the challenge?

"I felt good -- the wind and the water were like big buoyancy to me, so I kept going," she said. "I turned right and headed to my home star which is Wake Robin at the end of the lake."

It took me one hour and twenty minutes to swim the mile and a half across the big water of the lake, but I did it. As I hauled my wobbly legs up the ladder of Wake Robin's dock, rather than feeling exhausted, I experienced another surprise: the liberating gift of renewal and energy. My fear of growing older moved on with the waves.

Mamminga said she hoped her five granddaughters would find inspiration in this adventure. "But I also learned in the process that fear of aging -- that sense of 'Now what?' -- that doesn't matter. Life is still out there in front of you and go grab it with gusto," she said.

The passage of time is a theme in Mamminga's essays. In "Marching Away," the author stands with her three young sons along a street watching a high-school homecoming parade. Then we skip ahead a dozen years to the mother focusing a video camera on each son -- drum major, trumpeter and trombonist -- as he marches in the parade.

"Trying to capture it on film was nearly impossible," she laughed before getting a lump in her throat as she described her boys "literally marching away out of my life." It was the only year they marched together, because her oldest was a senior.

"At the time when you're raising small children, you think we're going to be here forever; and then suddenly it's over, it's done," she said. "I think for many people, that sense of time passing -- whether it's family or friends moving on, moving away -- is powerful." Mamminga reads this essay in the video below.

Mamminga digs further into family history in "Birdsong," which begins with the author listening to the hoots of owls on a January night. At first it's one owl, but a few weeks later another joins in from another tree:

Sometimes they carry on for hours, hooting into the deepening night in a lovers' duet. And sometimes they sing just as the early morning light climbs up from the east in a sleepy ascent, as though they're nature's designated alarm clock.

On occasion, they hoot only briefly and then are silent. On those nights, emptiness hangs heavy in the air.

Mamminga learned they were Great Horned Owls after consulting her grandmother's copy of Birds of North America, and we quickly understand that Clara Borden Oatman is the real star of this essay. Oatman made notes in her bird guide from 1910 until shortly before her death in 1962.

"They're just beautiful; they're very concise," Mamminga says. "She might just write, 'First robin of spring, rosy breast, landed on forsythia bush,' and then she'll put the day and time. And sometimes she would write the melody in actual music notes."

Clara Borden Oatman's notes in "Birds of North America."
Credit Marnie O. Mamminga

Among her bird notes, Oatman included family news, such as when her sister died: "Stella passed away, 6:15." and "Beautiful Nancy Borden Oatman (her first granddaughter) born May 25th, 6:45 a.m."

"She writes of the dust storms of the 1930s that have blown into the Chicagoland area," said Mamminga. "So it's a fascinating look at life in the Midwest from the perspective of a birdwatcher, someone who is very aware of her surroundings."

Even as I've been writing this essay, I have observed at my backyard feeder the scarlet plume of a cardinal, the black and white stripes of a downy woodpecker, gray mourning doves, and the happy darting of chickadees and juncos ... And tonight I will listen closely once again for the owl music to begin, not just for the gift of its ethereal beauty, but as a reminder of what all the birds bring back to us in spring: a song of life, a song of hope.

Mamminga describes the book as one of her greatest treasures. She keeps it in a bookcase in her home in Batavia, Ill.

The funniest essay in this collection is "Driving Lessons," which features the author first as a student, learning from her father, then as the instructor to one of her boys. You can hear Mamminga read an excerpt from that, and get her take on the Midwestern voice in literature, by clicking the audio link below.

Marnie O. Mamminga's articles have appeared in the The Chicago Tribune, Daily Herald, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. She has presented at several writers' workshops including the Wisconsin Writers' Institute. On a Clear Night is published by the Wisconsin Historical Society press.

Next month, our "Read With Me" series returns to fiction with the noir thriller A Fine Line, by Dan Burns.

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