The Mary Kays: Part Four – Bears, Musky and Moose, Oh My!

Just joining us?  Don’t miss The Mary Kays: Part One – The Land of the Midnight Sun

By Mary Duggan

Mary Duggan

Mary Kay entered my world in the Fall of eighth grade, when she pulled her VW bug into our driveway seeking boys to plant bulbs at her brand new complex of condos. My mother assigned my brothers to this one-time task; while I quickly became a regular fixture in the Carlson household. By the summer after eighth grade I had become so helpful to Mary Kay that she approached my mother with a plan for me to join in on the Carlson extended family vacation in the North Woods of Wisconsin. For those two weeks in late August I was to be essentially an au pair, assisting with anything and everything required for a fun family get-together at their cabin in the Chequamegon National Forest just outside Hayward, Wisconsin. More precisely in a custom-designed A-frame cabin perched on a steep hillside overlooking Moose Lake, a 1700 acre water confluence of the Chippewa, Moose and Little Moose Rivers. Yep, Musky country.

It had to have been a sacrifice for my mom to have me gone for 2 weeks. It might even have been physically painful as I was after all her “right arm.”  For me, I was simultaneously excited and scared about being away from my family – for the first time ever. But I had spent so much time with Mary Kay and her kids that I decided to go for it. After all, it was only 2 weeks and I would have the rest of the summer with my family and best friends. Mary Kay explained to my mom that her bad back did not permit her to go sailing unassisted any longer. In exchange for helping her to get the sailboat into the water each afternoon, she would teach me how to sail.

We were to be a large group as her closest friend, also a Mary Kay, and her three children would be joining us; so she would really appreciate having another set of hands with child care. Then, both husbands and Mary Kay’s parents would join us for the middle weekend. And she had even thought up a creative way to reimburse me for my efforts. While she couldn’t possibly pay for each hour worked she would make me a deal. Come along in the summer and help out with the kids and the chores and I could return with them over Christmas break for a week of skiing at the famed Telemark Alpine ski resort – all expenses paid and no baby-sitting. Mom and I said yes. I would arrive for my freshman year at the Academy of Our Lady an experienced sailor with a ski adventure just around the corner.

blog moose deer

As I sat on the front deck of their glamorous cabin, I would stare at the water’s edge, watching the deer enjoying the salt licks placed in the yard.

My grand adventure began of course with homesickness – and it hit hard. At the very last moment Mary Kay explained to me that she really needed me to make the long car ride with her friend – the other Mary Kay. Something about her having a bigger car and three kids and a tendency to fall asleep at the wheel on long car rides. I was to help with her kids and keep her awake – which did not sound like the most pleasant car ride of all time. But it was.

I arrived at the second Mary Kay’s suburban home, a complete stranger, the evening before our departure. As soon as my mom pulled away from the curb I felt nauseous with homesickness and fear. Mary Kay took me on a quick tour of their suburban home and introduced me to her kids and then invited me to sit at the kitchen table while she finished making dinner. Everywhere I looked it was a sprawl of summer cabin paraphernalia, clothes, swim toys, snacks, books and the like. Her home lacked the Euro sophistication of Mary Kay’s; but it was welcoming and she did the simplest and most effective job of setting me at ease that I have ever experienced. I have used it myself any number of times when I have found myself hosting freaked out young people far away from home and scared to death. Tell me everything, she said. And start at the top. Mary Kay tells me you come from the most wonderful and enormous family. Names please and ages and leave out nothing. I chatted incessantly about home while she plied me with questions and my homesickness melted away. That and the constant interruptions by her kids placed me well within my comfort zone. I would have no trouble at all making the long road trip with this new friend. Weeks later when I got home and was trying to explain the second Mary Kay to my friends and family I said simply imagine a young Lucille Ball married to Dick Van Dyke. They were fun like that. Rubber faced and physically funny, Mary Kay was always whistling or singing It’s A Long Way to Tipperary.

blog wisc postcards

Each day I walked the densely wooded road to the Rural Route mail box to post daily postcards to my friends and family. Oh how facebook would have made all that so different. Terrified of the bears I would sing at the top of my lungs the entire time. I knew my singing voice would even be off-putting for wildlife. I loved the smell of the woods, the sounds of the woods and the deep aloneness. And my friends loved my cheesy tourist post cards from Louie and Opal’s bar.

I remember how hard I worked and how incredibly magical and fun it all was. On a daily basis it was meals for five kids, two Moms and myself. On the middle weekend we were joined by two husbands, Mary Kay’s parents, and one of her nieces. That meant three meals a day on the table for 13. Just like home. Breakfast was a quickie of juice and cold cereal with milk and an even quicker clean-up. The lake was calling. Late morning I would climb the steep steps to the house before the others and put lunch on the table. Everyone was starved. The lunch meals were simple cold cut sandwiches, chips and salads and again a quick clean-up. Then it was to bed for afternoon naps, but not for me. For me it was time to get the sail boat a considerable distance down the hill and into the water for Mary Kay’s afternoon sail while the second Mary Kay kept an eye on the napping kids – translation: she napped too. It was time for my sailing lessons to begin.

blog sunfish

Blue and yellow, of course. Dick’s pride in his Swedish heritage expressed itself whenever and wherever it could. Designed the year before my birth, 1952, the Sunfish remains a much-loved classic.

The Sunfish sail boat was then and remains to this day a sweet and classic American design phenomenon. It weighed 129 pounds with a hull 13 feet and 10 inches long. I was used to plenty of hard work but I developed entirely new muscles that summer carrying the sailboat, getting it into the water. But, I learned the basics of sailing. Mary Kay was a great teacher and she regaled me with hysterical stories of adventures and hi-jinks aboard sail boats throughout her youth. I picked up the basics quickly and she was quite impressed with my natural athleticism. But by the time we got the boat back on shore and were greeted by five rested and refreshed kids anxious for an afternoon of fun I was bushed. Mary Kay was a good sport about me taking a quick lie down while the mommies supervised afternoon swim time. But, I never napped for long. I would bang out my daily postcard to friends and then head to the lake.

Early evening meant it was time for dinner prep and cocktails and Mary Kay made sure I knew from the start how to make up a perfect batch of gin and tonics for the Mary Kays to sip as dinner approached. Meals were great big gorgeous events of pastas and salads and garlic bread or hot dogs and hamburgers and chips. Perfect cabin food. I was so comfortable with big family meal preparation that Mary Kay soon followed my lead in the kitchen and snuck in a few extra pages of reading while I brought the meal to table. After most evening meals I used an enormous mop to clean all the floors of the cabin and it was a real challenge at the end of a long and physical day. But on other nights there were special outings like dinner at Louis and Opal’s bar followed by a late night swing through the dump to watch the bears come out and eat garbage. We would wait quietly for the intense smell of the bears approaching and then roll up the windows and watch. It was magical and smelly and just dangerous enough. At the end of each day, getting the kids to bed was a snap. The entire upstairs of the cabin was a gigantic lofted area filled with twin beds. The kids were all exhausted and no matter their age they all surrendered quickly to sleep.

That left evenings for the Mary Kays to regale me with more stories of their college years shenanigans. Popcorn, more drinks for the grown ups, a bit of clean up, and everyone collapsed and started all over again early the next day. We settled quickly into a fun rhythm of meals together, water play, and hours spent hanging out on the raft shampooing and then diving into the icy cold musky-dense waters to rinse. I was never without fear of the musky in the water below me because of all the tall tales I had been told about them coming up beneath unsuspecting swimmers and biting huge holes in their stomachs. Being afraid in the wild is a great source of fun for city kids.

blog moose postcard

I still love corny tourist post cards.

When the husbands and Mary Kay’s folks joined us for a long weekend the tone changed quite a bit. The land the cabin was built on was owned by Mary Kay’s parents. The deal was that Dick, the architect, would design and build a wonderful home in the woods and then all members of the family would take turns relaxing there, with the grandparents enjoying all of their grandchildren at the lake. I remember making a very special dinner when they were all there – my famous homemade spaghetti sauce. Mary Kay’s mother came up from the lake and began to peek inside the pots I had fired up with my special spaghetti sauce, pasta, and corn on the cob. On the counter was an enormous and complex salad and loaves of butter drenched garlic bread. I heard her step out into the living room where Mary Kay was relaxing with the summer’s best selling novel, HOTEL by Arthur Hailey, and saying “Mary Kay, tell me this child did not put that whole meal together by herself! To which Mary Kay smiled and said, “Yep, every last bite. I told you, she’s a marvel!” “A 14-year old marvel!” her thunderstruck mother replied. I watched with pride as everyone devoured dinner.

There were no sailing lessons on the weekend as Dick would take the sailboat out in the afternoons. I would stand on the pier aghast at all the mistakes I could see him making. He could barely figure out how to return to the shoreline. He’s doing it all wrong, I would say to Mary Kay, from my jaded perspective of five days of lessons. He’s going to bang into the pier. Shouldn’t we shout to him and tell him what to do? “Oh dear no“, she said, “that would not work at all. When you grow up, Mary, I am sure your mother will explain to you all about the male ego. You must learn to handle it or your life will be miserable.” I’m sure your mother will explain to you was an often-used phrase by Mary Kay who was careful to not overstep her role with me. I’m sure your mom will teach you how to pluck your eyebrows, shave your legs, snag a Catholic spouse – the list went on and on as she taught me life skills both mundane and significant. Of course, time would prove her wrong. Mom taught me none of those things. Fortunately Mary Kay had.

I was happy to go home at the end of the two weeks. And I was looking forward to my reward of skiing over the Christmas holidays. That and the start of freshman year at the Academy of Our Lady where I arrived just a few weeks later, a tanned and experienced au pair ready to take on high school.

Read on for the conclusion: Part five of the Mary Kays – Fallen Heroes.

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About the author: Mary Duggan is Co-Founder and President of the Duggan Sisters

The Duggan Sisters cracked the code and created a natural deodorant that actually works: lifestinks. And that was just the beginning. We hope you will spend a few minutes exploring to experience their spirited approach to wellness through their natural products and healing stories.

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