I was 16 the summer I was not at the lake. I was at home, my bag already packed.
“Your grandfather is sick,” my mother explained, taking clothes out of the bag, refolding shirts and laying them back in their drawers, trying to make everything as it was before.
Beneath my shirt, I still wore a bathing suit. I was reluctant to take it off. I wanted to swim at the lake, dive off the wharf that gleamed silvery-grey from years of alternating abuse by rain and sun. I wanted to revisit a childhood mystery.
My grandfather had inspired the mystery summers earlier, when we first began camping at the lake. “It’s bottomless. No one has ever found the bottom,” he said, his blue-eyed gaze meeting mine.
Fabrication or not, I wondered if there was a way you could be swallowed by the lake. Perhaps a diver had come close to touching the bottom, but instead was sucked into the murk and weeds, lost forever.
For a few years I believed in a demon haunting the lake floor. When you’re a child, the only possible explanation for a bottomless lake is a demon, drowning divers.
But the previous summer I’d stopped indulging in the mystery. Every lake has a bottom – a surface to push against, propelling you back to reality.
I took my bathing suit off.
“I just talked to grandfather a few days ago; he sounded fine,” I said, laying my suit in the drawer.
“He’s not feeling up to it, you can go next year.” My mother left the room.
Two things were clear: no lake and, especially, no pancakes. Big, fluffy, raspberry pancakes served at a picnic table. The recipe was a secret, my grandfather said.
Two pancakes were plenty to fill me up, but every summer I ate four, sometimes five, for breakfast. Each slathered in butter, spread with brown sugar, finished with lemon juice. Salty. Sweet. Sour. I never dared recreate them at home, afraid I’d taint the memory.
But it wasn’t just the pancakes. I was happy all day. After breakfast, there was morning snack, followed by lunch. We enjoyed afternoon tea sitting by the campfire. Before dinner, further snacks. Then a large dinner, with more than one dessert option. If I stayed up late, another cup of tea and a midnight snack.
My mother never allowed any of this at home. She didn’t approve of indulgence and would often make comments about “too much of a good thing,” warning this could lead to disaster.
“Is Papa actually sick?” I asked.
“He’s an alcoholic,” my mother said softly. She hated voicing her lifelong shame.
It had been a well-kept secret, one I never would have guessed. What could have launched my grandfather into the bottomless lake of alcohol addiction?
Could it have been depression and stress? But he was retired. Some alcoholics become violent, but I had only ever witnessed compassion as he plated my pancakes.
I’d never seen him have even one drink. He stuck to ice water whenever we dined.
On the other hand, there were reasons to believe what my mother said was true: his divorce, which had resulted in a fragmented childhood for my mother; the time my younger brother found a large bottle of vodka in my grandfather’s freezer; and most of all, his indulgent tendencies, which I’d shared countless times.
We were more alike than I’d ever felt comfortable admitting, though I think my addiction was to recreating memories, not to drowning them.
Both my grandfather and I have experienced the powerful rush of dopamine surging into our brains, stimulating our pleasure centres.
As I understand it, the chemical messenger mounts a two-pronged attack. First, it’s released to the brain after an intense experience, and a reward circuit is created, urging the person to repeat the action that led to the experience. Then, the dopamine tells the brain: “Pay attention to the experience; it will help you survive.”
Alcohol and food both trigger dopamine releases. I ate five pancakes not from hunger, but because my brain urged my mouth to repeat the action after each bite. But unlike my grandfather, I didn’t become addicted.
Research has found that people who have a variety of intense experiences throughout life are less likely to become addicted to any one of them.
Instead of memories, there’s always a new experience. The fewer prominent things one has in life, the more vulnerable one is to addiction.
My hollow leg, which appeared each summer, was an addiction to a memory I wanted to keep alive. Camping with my grandfather was an intense experience, which I wanted to repeat over and over. The food and the lake were merely symbols for the calmness I felt when I was with him.
The mystery of the bottom of the lake is now long forgotten. He’s given me a new mystery to solve – himself. Is he drinking to keep a memory alive, or drowning himself because he believes there’s nothing significant in his life to remember?
My mother does not react to these questions. I dread the answers, fearing my grandfather’s reality is a bit of both. I still haven’t made the pancakes at home. I never will.
Kaitlyn Rosenburg lives in Victoria.