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Marrying into Island Life

We usually close up, leave the island and head south after Columbus Day. This year we left early as our son Rob got married on October 2 in Chicago. Our new daughter-in-law, Allison, has been to the island twice now. Her two short visits have brought back a lot of memories for me about my first years on the island.

I grew up in Central Illinois surrounded by corn and soybean fields. No lakes, no rivers, not even a creek. I don’t think I’d ever been on a boat before I arrived at Fishers Landing August of 1975. So there was a whole new lexicon to learn: starboard, port, fore, aft, line (not a rope), etc. etc. A whole new way of life.

I used to be terrified of snakes. My phobia was so strong that I couldn’t hold the S Encyclopedia because I knew it had pictures of snakes in it. I asked my fiancé if there were snakes on the island and he said yes, but with the dogs around it would be unlikely if I would see any. He was wrong.

My fear of snakes has quelled through the years, though neighbors on Grenell will tell you those first few seasons I summered on the island they would hear the lawn mower whirring on the point, then hear a shriek and know that Lynn had just seen another snake. I’d like to know how a snake would end up between me and the lawnmower every time I mowed the lawn.

A couple years ago I was floating in the cove on an air mattress, chatting with another neighbor. It was a hot day and I was dipping my arms in the water to cool off and came up with a snake draped over my arm. I jumped, shook the snake off my arm, but didn’t scream. I see this as a huge coup. But to the neighbors, I will always be the new kid on the block that shrieks every time I see a snake. That’s part of the life on the island, too. Once something happens, it’s talked about for the next 50 years and remembered forever.

My son-in-law, Don, proposed to my daughter on the island. He had never been to the island, but told her father and me that he wanted to propose to Michelle there because he already understood that this was the most important place in the world to her.

Don’s family had a place on Cape Cod. Had. For whatever reason, the place that had been passed down from generation to generation had been sold. Don still has a picture of it in their dining room in Columbus. He understands about how our cottage on Grenell is not just a vacation home, but a family legacy. After they were married, Don said he had a ship’s wheel from his family’s place on Cape Cod and hoped we could find a place for it here at the island. I was more than happy to accommodate him.

When I first told islanders that Rob was engaged they asked, if our future daughter-in-law liked the island.  Other islanders have said that when their children have married and their spouses haven’t always been enamored with island life, it resulted in strife through the years. Some long for a Starbucks near by. Others miss shopping malls. Others don’t like to have nature so up close and personal. (My son-in-law, Don, doesn’t like snakes either and my new daughter-in-law is terrified of spiders.) Some would prefer a new condo to a 100+ year-old cottage and all the maintenance they require (see Cottage Life isn’t for Sissies, June, 2010.)

We had one visitor to our point who asked casually if we’d ever consider tearing down the two small cottages and building “something nice.” I love telling this story at island gatherings, because I enjoy the shocked look on the faces of fellow islanders and the audible gasp that invariably follows. To an islander, that’s like saying, “Would you consider trading in your grandmother for a younger, better-looking model?”

While I understand the family legacy thing and would never consider tearing down the cottages to build “something nice,” but it took me a while to grasp the depths the family legacy thing runs. Every little thing on the point is imbued with special memories.

The lock on the boathouse door was the lock that Gary’s father used in junior high in the 1930’s. Even the handmade cedar laundry baskets belonged to Gary’s Grandmother Ogden. Ogden is written on the side of the largest laundry basket from when people on the west end of the island used to do the laundry for the Ogdens back in the 1940s. Replacing simple items or deviating from some long standing routine is a major faux pas. I’ve been summering on the point since 1975 and there are times I still feel like an outsider.

Through the years, I’ve heard the term River Rat. The loose definition is someone who has been coming to the islands since they were in diapers. This is a club that I can never belong.

Yet for every true River Rat on the island, there is their counter part…usually someone who started coming to the island either right before or right after they married their River Rat. My father-in-law fit that category, arriving on the island for the first time in 1940. Perhaps we can call them, River Mates.



So welcome, Allison, to the status of River Mate! Welcome to our family legacy.

By Lynn E. McElfresh

Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, often writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life.  We have learned a great deal over the past year from her musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends.   Lynn has been gathering material to keep us supplied for the winter!   This is her first for the season as the McElfresh family have left the river and will soon take up their winter quarters in Dunedin Florida.   To see all of Lynn’s island experiences, search TI Life under Lynn E. McElfresh.

Posted in: Places, People
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Lynda Crothers
Comment by: Lynda Crothers ( )
Left at: 7:59 AM Monday, November 15, 2010
Loved the story, thank you . A Newbie to Wolf Island love the water, ships ,get really excited about the wild life have seen the spiders but no snakes yet. The lawn mower and I have met only toads so far.
The River is a treasure for all that visit and live.
Lori Moose
Comment by: Lori Moose ( )
Left at: 10:23 AM Monday, November 15, 2010
two years ago I was behind our TIP cottage, stepping over my moms hastas to get to the lawn, I was barefoot, looked down and right next to my, un shoed foot was a GINORMOUS Rat Snake all coiled up that was a suprise..she/he stayed for one day and then moved on, we had alot of fun, looking at it, very friendly was about 4 ft long ! Needless to say I check my footing more often these days when I am out back:)
Phil Amsterdam
Comment by: Phil Amsterdam ( )
Left at: 3:43 PM Tuesday, November 16, 2010
I think you are wrong about the River Rat thing. There is no time limit on being a RR, it is a state of mind and you are now a River Rat. And keep the snakes up at your end of the river.